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metal music reviews (new releases)

SUNLESS Ylem

Album · 2021 · Technical Death Metal
Cover art 4.14 | 3 ratings
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siLLy puPPy
The Willowtip Records label has been killing it in recent years by becoming one of the major players for crazy technical, brutal and progressive death metal world with its biggest successes emerging from Ulcerate, Gorod, Gigan, Slugdge, Mithras and others including today’s band of focus SUNLESS. This Minnesota band has been around since 2014 but only released its debut “Urraca” in 2017. For its second coming, SUNLESS has returned to delivery another dosage of darkened days, jagged surreal soundscapes and dissonant brutal atonal extreme metal bombast in the vein of classic Gorguts.

SUNLESS was seriously smitten with Gorguts worship on album #1 and the newest release YLEM which refers to a form of matter that is hypothesized by proponents of the Big Bang theory which is thought to have existed before the formation of the chemical elements is a huge step out from that unfortunate situation. Gawd, you gotta love tech death metal. Just for the fact you can improve your vocabulary in the English language if for no other reason! Well with such a title and concept it’s no surprise that SUNLESS does indulge in the abstract musical equivalent of the formless YLEM concept however the Big Bang references seem to apply more to the head banging brutal avant-death metal grooves forged in the fiery pits by the power trio of bassist Mitch Schooler, guitarist / vocalist Lucas Scott and the newest drummer in the SUNLESS family Taylor Hamel who replaces longtime member Ben Iburg.

This is a no nonsense type of tech death and unlike other 2021 tech death powerhouse bands such as Ad Nauseam doesn’t fuck around with swirling synth intros or non-metal ambience but rather YLEM erupts into a ferocious fury, cutting to the chase and delivering the tech death goods right from the getgo. Supposedly the second part of a conceptual trilogy (wow, does anybody really care about themes with growled lyrics sounding more like uncontrolled body functions than poetic prose?), YLEM tackles existential quandaries and universal paradoxes. Even if you cannot assign linguistic value to the tortured dungeon growls, the track titles will give you a clue as to the heady, abstract nature of this exhibition in mental and noisemaking gymnastics.

While “Urraca” was indeed a competent album, for my tastes SUNLESS’ first release was a bit too Gorguts by the books. YLEM corrects that problem and while still clearly in the same camp as Gorguts, Ulcerate, Pyrrhon and Ad Nauseam, this time around the sky with no sun, SUNLESS seems to have found its own style of avant-groove that sorta evokes a more sludgy effect of the tech death world. The drums for example are more akin to the simplified punctuated time keepers of bands like Eyehategod for much of the time but make no doubt about it, technical jazzified percussive workouts are littered throughout this cacophonous uproar of eight tracks that swallow 39 minutes of your life force.

Sounding something like a stampede of angry horses, YLEM is a relentless barrage of sound that has more of a focus than “Urraca.” It’s all very subtle in how everything was tightened up but the compositions are more refined, the jagged guitar riffs are more centered which allows more violent upheavals with the added abstractness of progressive sprawling time signature attacks. Rare moments of down time such as on “Altramentous” (another fun word meaning similar to or as black as ink!) when a few slower dissonant guitar riffs are allowed to chill out. This is an ominous ride for sure like a vacation on a quantum horizon where the fabric of time and space are seemingly unstable and ready for complete annihilation. Ah, tech death, you either love it or run to the hills. For a 2021 release, SUNLESS has done an exemplary job of upping its game.

WHITE STONES Dancing into Oblivion

Album · 2021 · Death Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 2 ratings
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UMUR
"Dancing into Oblivion" is the 2nd full-length studio album by Spanish, Barcelona based progressive death metal act White Stones. The album was released through Nuclear Blast in August 2021. It´s the successor to Kuarahy from 2020 and features the same core trio lineup of Martín Méndez (bass, guitars), Jordi Farré (drums), and Eloi Boucherie (vocals). João Sassetti (Nuckin' Futs), who has done live work with White Stones since 2019, guests on the album playing lead guitars (and might I add some really impressive lead work). Méndez is known as the long-standing bassist in Opeth (only Mikael Åkerfeldt has been with the band longer than Méndez), and his involvement in White Stones of course sprinkles a bit of stardust over the project, but White Stones is an act who can hold their own.

While it´s not wrong to label the material on "Dancing into Oblivion" progressive death metal, it´s actually predominantly because of the growling vocals, that such a label applies. The riffs can be heavy and brutal too and the drumming ditto, but the instrumental part of the music mostly takes its cues from other less brutal sources. I´m mainly reminded of 70s progressive rock, hard rock/heavy rock, and at times even jazz/fusion from that era, but put into a dark and heavy contemporary template. White Stones do a great job balancing the death metal brutality with mellow atmospheric moments (almost darkly psychadelic at times) and loads and loads of focus on rhythms, both in the way the riffs are constructed and played and in the way the drum patterns are composed and the drums are played. There´s such a great organic groove present throughout the album and it´s one of the cornerstones of the band´s music. The bass is placed high in the soundscape and the guitar isn´t distorted like you would usually expect on a death metal album. It´s placed lower in the mix and features a more organic tone, which again reminds me of 70s guitar sound productions.

It´s not music which is hard to follow although it´s certainly progressive, so the tracks don´t feature a million riffs, themes, and songwriting ideas (although this is hardly simple vers/chorus structured music). There are plenty of adventurous surprises along the way, but they are all incorporated seamlessly into the songs and the tracks are generally very well composed and quite accessible. The longest track on the album is "Iron Titans" which opens with a long atmospheric instrumental section. Only after 3 minutes does the death metal elements kick in and the song becomes heavier, then comes a fusion section, and the song ends on a more epic note with some effect distorted non-growling vocals. It´s just an example of the musical journey the listener is treated to on some of the tracks. It´s beyond me that Opeth has such a skilled and clever songwriter like Méndez in their ranks but haven´t ever included anything written by him in their music (as far as I´ve been able to research).

"Dancing into Oblivion" features a dark, powerful, and organic sound production, which suits the music perfectly and upon conclusion it´s a high quality sophomore album relase by White Stones, making it abundantly clear that they aren´t just a one album project. Let´s see what happens when Méndez becomes busy with Opeth again post the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, but I hope he´ll make time to record more White Stones albums in the future. There´s so much qualiy here, that it would be a crime to let it go to waste...I want more!!! A 4 - 4.5 star (85%) rating is deserved.

LVCIFYRE The Broken Seal

Album · 2021 · Death Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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Nightfly
Based in the UK, though originally from Poland, Lvcifyre have been plying their trade of blackened death metal since 2007, releasing their debut album The Calling Depths in 2012. Their second album released in 2014, Svn Eater showed great promise and likewise the Sacrament EP released in 2019 showing greater growth. With The Broken Seal however the band have come of age and released their strongest collection to date.

The music on The Broken Seal sounds massive while still being darkly atmospheric. Dissonance rules here. Those who like their death metal on the murky side with brooding atonal riffs should find plenty to get their teeth into. If you were to mix in equal portions Morbid Angel, Sulphur Aeon, Immolation and throw in a bit of Deathspell Omega and Ulcerate for good measure you would probably come up with something like this. The raw but powerful production suits the music perfectly contributing greatly to the success of this album. Easier said than done to present each instrument with clarity whilst still maintaining a sound that sounds like it comes from the depths of hell. The years of experience have paid off, the musicianship is top notch as is the songwriting, each track expertly balancing the elements of atmospherics, dynamics and most importantly great riffs. It’s not easy to pick favourites as each song plays its part and integral to the whole, which is how this album is best appreciated with the slower atmospheric sections laying the ground for the next barrage of compelling riffs.

Lvcifyre are technically a duo rather than a band with T Kaos handling all the instrumentation apart from the drums. He also is responsible for the very effective vocals, mainly a guttural growl and the occasional higher scream. Menthor’s drums are integral to the band’s sound and his contribution should not be underestimated as he follows all the twists and turns easily. His inventive and busy playing ranging from blasts to slower syncopated sections, constantly shifting in line with the busy and restless song structures.

If there's any justice in this world this should be the album to break Lvcifyre to the next level. Whilst there was nothing wrong with their earlier work, here the band have realised the promise shown on those releases and made an album that’s up there with the best death metal 2021 has to offer. As we near the end of the year The Broken Seal will feature highly on my album of the year list for sure.

MASTODON Hushed and Grim

Album · 2021 · Sludge Metal
Cover art 3.42 | 10 ratings
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ssmarcus
It seemed like not so long ago that progressive metal fans were lamenting Mastodon’s pivot away from prog-inspired sludge metal and into a more commercially viable riff-happy direction. While 2018’s Emperor of Sand signaled a minor but welcomed course correction for the group, Mastodon’s latest effort, Hushed and Grim, is nothing short of a triumphant return to form, perhaps in even greater measure that any time before in the band’s legendary career.

I’ll admit that upon learning Hushed and Grim was a double record spanning almost 90 minutes, I assumed it was going to be yet another covid-lockdown-inspired slog; an under cooked serving by another artist bored and unsure of what to do with themselves with all their new-found time. Bucking this trend, Mastodon have managed to utilize the time to commit every ounce of creative and pent-up emotional energy they could muster to crafting what is an album that is every bit as heavy, psychedelic, technical, experimental, and proggy as anything else they have ever done in their career. While it might be tough to justify a 90-minute run time, it is truly remarkable just how every track has at least something about it to admire.

The record’s only real flaw is the muddy mix that tends to drown out the finer textures of the melodies and riffs. This gets particularly upsetting when comparing the mix to the crisp clean gloss of their previous effort. But putting that flaw aside, Hushed & Grim forces even casual Mastodon fans like myself to come to one inescapable conclusion: this band is simply incapable of making a bad album. And whether you fancy the progressive greatness Crack the Skye or the raw but subtly ambitious onslaught of Leviathan, I think you’ll find Hushed & Grim a worthy contribution to the Mastodon discography.

WAX PEOPLE Wax People

EP · 2021 · Avant-garde Metal
Cover art 3.83 | 2 ratings
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siLLy puPPy
Rowdy wickedly wild, unhinged and frenetic brutal math prog rock is what Los Angeles based WAX PEOPLE is all about and now in the year 2021 this newbie band on the block has released its terrifying debut album. Consisting of Michael Mull (bass clarinet), Rajan Davis (guitar), Jacob Richards (drums) and Rusty Kennedy (bass), this adventurous band implements the knotty textures of unadulterated math rock, contorts it all into avant-prog complexities and then adds a heaping of avant-metal heft. The result of this concoction is a fiery fueled frenzy of brutal prog splendor with the energetic delivery of extreme metal.

Five tracks at only 25 minutes but this is the perfect running time for such head spinning vertigo inducing noise prog that is exclusively instrumental but due to the presence of a bass clarinet sounds fairly unique. Sounding somewhat like a caffeinated mix of France’s Jean Louis and The Flying Luttenbachers, WAX PEOPLE doesn’t really know if it wants to be no wave or what i deem as meth rock, the kind of math rock performed on high doses of whatever! The Jean Louis references apply to the complex compositional fortitude whereas the Lutternbachers are a relevant comparison in terms of the herky jerky math rock and tones and timbres.

Living up to the oft used term brutal prog, this one is incessantly proggy with crazy time signature changes that are as unpredictable as Lady Gaga’s attire and always noisy, dissonant, aggressive and energetic. Bass clarinet solos add an even weirder element otherwise drumming is fairly robotic (but not always) but in a good way. Swarms of sound can become monotonous in a no wave way and then again things can change quickly and unexpectedly. This is the kind of avant-prog your parents didn’t tell you about. Some sort of Henry Cow running of the bulls with the amps turned well beyond 11 shindig. The whole experience is like a volcanic eruption where sonic pyroclastic flows engulf sanity with occasional oozing flows of sound. Of course it’s more than enough to melt an entire wax museum!

Obviously this noisy raucous is not for the feint of heart and reserved for the niche of proggers who want everything on steroids. Heavy distortion? Check. Ridiculously helter skelter and filled with prog extremes with every cadence? Oh yeah. Chaotic brain malfunctioning bass clarinet skronk? Freekin A! Interesting compositions that aren’t just random noise? Well, sorta. However you slice it, this is for the hardcores. Let the craving for unrestrained prog gluttony to sink its hooks into your psyche and let er rip. Particularly satisfying is the closing “Scissor” which is like the shredding version of avant-prog meth rock / metal. OMG. Me likey. This is what it would be like if Toby Driver joined The Flying Luttenbachers with Jean Louis joining in.

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ANDRÉ ANDERSEN Black on Black

Album · 2002 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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lukretion
Four years after the release of his debut solo album, Royal Hunt’s mastermind André Andersen returned to the studio to record his sophomore LP, Black on Black, released in 2002 via Frontiers Records. As on the debut LP, Mr Andersen here handles guitars, bass and all keyboards, while the rest of the instruments are played by Kaj Laege (drums), Rene Rieland (guitar solos),and Soma Allpass (cello), with Ian Parry on lead vocals and Kenny Lübcke on backing vocals.

The line-up makes it immediately clear that Black on Black is a rather different beast compared to Andersen’s debut album. That album was recorded with the help of many Royal Hunt musicians and indeed ended up sounding a lot like a standard Royal Hunt release. On Black on Black, backing vocalist Kenny Lübcke is the only guest musician who has also played with Royal Hunt (and had also sung lead vocals on Andersen’s debut album). As a result, there is more distance between Andersen’s new LP and Royal Hunt’s albums. Probably the biggest and most noticeable difference is the voice of Ian Parry, which is quite diverse compared to the smooth voices that feature on many Royal Hunt’s albums. Parry’s voice is grittier and more aggressive, pushing the music into distinctively more metal territories compared to Royal Hunt’s body of work.

Indeed, on Black on Black Andersen brings in distinctive neoclassical metal influences compared to the hard rock / power / prog of his main band. The influences of bands like Rainbow and Yngwie Malmsteen’ Rising Force surface more than once on this LP, also thanks to the Dio-esque vocals of Ian Parry. The classical influences are also inevitably present, with Andersen’s keyboards weaving rich symphonic arrangements, while guitar, bass and drums play a sort of rhythmic counterpoint. But the level of metallic aggression is much higher compared to what Andersen has used us to with Royal Hunt, to the point that the keyboards occasionally slip in a background role, letting fast, neoclassical guitar riffs and Parry’s majestic voice take center stage. The songs are also leaner and more direct, which is reflected in their shorter duration compared to those included in the debut LP. In a way, a fitting description of Black on Black could be to say that this is what Yngwie Malmsteen might have recorded if he had played keyboards instead of guitars. Another fair comparison would be with Royal Hunt’s “The Mission”, which was released one year prior to this, and that also features a slightly heavier sound compared to the usual Royal Hunt sound.

Black on Black is in many respects a superior album compared to Andersen’s debut LP. The music sounds fresher and more exciting, almost to the point that one feels the musicians did have quite a bit of fun recording this. To be clear, nothing is particularly original here, as Rainbow’s shadow looms large on the nine compositions included on this record. But I appreciate Andersen’s attempt to challenge himself by writing and playing something slightly outside his comfort zone.

The album flows away pleasantly and is fairly consistent in the quality of its tracks. A few songs nevertheless stand out. “Coming Home” is a strong opener, epic and anthemic, it makes it immediately clear that it is no rehashed Royal Hunt material that we are being presented with here. The ballad “Desperate Times” is another favorite of mine, with a fantastic performance by Parry, well complemented by Lübcke’s trademark backing vocals. The use of the cello is also very apt here, adding further depth to an already dramatic and emotional piece. The other track that stands out for me is the album closer, “Piece of My Heart”. This is an atypical song, with Andersen playing Hammond and giving the track a slightly bluesy vibe, further accentuated by Parry’s graveling vocals. The rest of the album is also enjoyable. “Life” and “Black of Black” offer an interesting mix between Royal Hunt’s classic sound and the more metallic, Rainbowesque music presented elsewhere on this LP. Only “Tell Me Why”, “Sail Away” and the two instrumentals are perhaps a tad too predictable and run of the mill, but they are still passable (though, the clock watching starts pretty fast on the 6:16 minutes instrumental “Eclipse”).

Overall, Black on Black is a strong sophomore solo album for André Andersen. One of the gripes I had with his debut LP was that it sounded too close to Royal Hunt’s music. Black on Black corrects this, by veering towards a more metallic sound, influenced by Rainbow and the rest of the neoclassical metal tradition. The end result is an appreciable hybrid, which is fun to listen to and hits home with a couple of strong tracks and a generally inspired and well-arranged tracklist.

METALLICA Kill 'em All

Album · 1983 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 3.79 | 187 ratings
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Tupan
The first Metallica album, like most debuts, has the energy and excitement generally found in young musicians. The sound is rougher and cruder than any of their late albums, the songs have an urgency that would be more polished later. We are talking about thrash metal, so these aren’t bad characteristics in this context.

And like most the debuts, their early influences are more obvious here. Kill E’m All is basically a mix of Motorhead, Diamond Head, Budgie, Misfits, even some Iron Maiden… Again, nothing wrong, they manage to package all these influences with a Metallica flavour after all. Songs like Seek and Destroy and Whiplash would become immortal thrash classics, and other less known tracks, like Hit the Lights and Metal Milita are pretty great too! There’s even some experimentalism, with the instrumental (Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth.

And I have a personal story with this album. When I was a kid, I remember seeing a brazilian TV show named Fúria MTV. It was, for a long time, one of my only sources for metal these days, since the radio was crap (still is…) and only few friends shared my musical tastes. Anyways, the opening theme of this show was Metal Militia, the closing track of this album! And only years later I would know it, because in that pre-internet era all we could listen were the songs from the Black Album onwards, which played ad nauseam in the media at the time. So, Kill ‘Em All has a place in my metal heart since I’ve listened to it first time. Recommended!

ANDRÉ ANDERSEN Changing Skin

Album · 1998 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.55 | 3 ratings
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lukretion
In the late 1990s, the Royal Hunt family splintered off into many separate subprojects. Singer DC Cooper released a solo album in 1999 (though at the time he was about to be expelled from the Danish melodic prog metal band). Bass player Steen Mogensen formed Cornerstone and released the band’s debut album in 2000. Royal Hunt’s mastermind André Andersen was actually the first to follow his own muse and prepare a solo record that was released in 1998 under the title “Changing Skin”.

The album’s title is actually quite ironic, because Mr Andersen on this record certainly did not change skin at all relative to his dayjob with Royal Hunt. His solo record sounds exactly like you would expect a Royal Hunt’s album to sound. Now, that may be inevitable given how Andersen is the main songwriter for the Danish band. Yet, I somehow expect musicians who embark in solo projects to stretch out a little bit from their musical comfort zone and try new things. That was the case for both DC Cooper’s solo album and Cornerstone’s debut album, for instance. Changing Skin instead is firmly grounded in the special blend of symphonic metal, hard rock and prog/power metal that Royal Hunt have become known for.

The 6 tracks of the album are built around Andersen’s considerable keyboard skills. The music is majestic and symphonic, with a strong classical flavor in the arrangements. Andersen is also in charge of rhythmic guitar and bass on this album. However, the use of the guitars is not very different from how they are used in Royal Hunt. The riffs serve as counterpoint for the keyboard melodies, playing the role that strings would play in an orchestra. The drums (handled by Kaj Laege and Royal Hunt’s drummers Kenneth Olsen and Allan Sørensen) follow the bass/guitar dynamics and therefore also have a strong classical feel in the way they are employed on the record. The songs stay in a driving mid-tempo range, with occasional accelerations, but the overall atmosphere is majestic and epic. The song structure is not overly complex, despite the tracks’ relatively long duration (the shortest track is just above 6 minutes). There is quite a lot of repetition of verses/choruses and plenty of solos, played by Mr Andersen on his keyboard as well as by guest guitarists Bjarke Hopen, Mac Gaunaa (Narita) and Jacob Kjaer (Royal Hunt). With such a distinguished line-up, the playing is strong throughout.

The main novelty relative to a standard Royal Hunt’s release is that the vocals here are handled by Kenny Lübcke, a singer who has featured as backing vocalist on many Royal Hunt’s albums and that here gets the spotlight shone on him. His voice is smooth and velvety, closer to John West’s than DC Cooper’s, which is partly why Changing Skin sounds somewhere between Fear and The Mission. Lübcke has a distinctive metallic timbre that one can often hear in Royal Hunt’s backing vocals and that here comes to the fore even more. While the vocal performance is generally good, Lübcke lacks somewhat the charisma and expressivity of other Royal Hunt’s singers, so the overall impact on the listener is a little diminished.

While the songwriting is good enough to make this an entertaining album, we are far from the best material Andersen has written over the years. Only the title-track and the symphonic ballad “In My Arms” are really strong tracks that catch one’s attention already from the first listen. The former is a dark piece of music that crawls around through menacing riffs and ominous keyboards and that, instead of exploding in a melodic release, on the chorus gets even darker with Lübcke’s raspy and metallic vocals sounding particularly foreboding. “In My Arms” is a fairly standard Royal Hunt’s ballad, but it has good melodies, a particularly emotive guitar solo, and a nice middle-eight with some interesting vocal arrangements. The other tracks are also decent, but are less impressive.

Overall, Changing Skin is a good album that Royal Hunt’s fans will surely lap up in a heartbeat. Its main limit is that it does not really try anything different from what André Andersen had been doing with Royal Hunt for nearly a decade at that point. Was it necessary to release a solo record so close to his main band, with many of his bandmates as guest musicians? Perhaps not, it might have been more interesting to explore new avenues or at least use a substantially different line-up to liven things up a bit. But being a big Royal Hunt’s sucker, I can’t complain too much really, as Andersen delivers the goods as usual and I cannot not be happy about that.

CORNERSTONE Arrival

Album · 2000 · Hard Rock
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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lukretion
The name Steen Mogensen should tell something to any serious Royal Hunt fan. The bass player has been a cornerstone of the Danish melodic progressive metal masters since their very early days and until he left the band after the Eyewitness album in 2003. A few years before that, he decided to take a break from his day job and paired up with singer extraordinaire Dougie White to play some classy hard rock under the name Cornerstone. Arrival is their first LP and was released in 2000 via Massacre Records.

On Arrival, Mogensen and White received more than a little help from the bassist’s bandmates in Royal Hunt. Jacob Kjaer (guitars), Allan Sørensen (drums) and André Andersen (keyboards) all feature as guest musicians on the album. Kenny Lübcke (a regular backing vocalist for Royal Hunt) and Henrik Brockmann (Royal Hunt’s singer on their first two records) lend backing vocals. And Toni Rahm (Prime Time, but member of Royal Hunt for a short period in 1990) plays a couple of guitar solos. Altogether, this makes for a high-quality line-up that any fan of Royal Hunt would certainly find appealing and interesting. This is indeed what attracted me to this record back in 2000 when I was a fairly hardcore Royal Hunt fan and I immediately jumped on this record as soon as the line-up was announced. I still remember being very impressed by the slick, classy hard rock style of the LP back then. The album also stood the test of time, as I still find it very pleasant and well-done today, more than 20 years after its initial release.

With Mogensen as the sole songwriter, the music is inevitably not too different from the more hard rock / classic metal material that Royal Hunt released over the years and especially early on in their career. The material is highly melodic, with strong choruses and equally melodic and catchy verses. The songs have simple structures and mostly stay in the mid-tempo range, with occasional faster riffs, giving a majestic but also melancholic tone to the whole album. The arrangements are elegant and sophisticated, with a good interplay between bass grooves (which are much more prominent than on Royal Hunt’s releases), smooth guitar riffs, and delicate keyboard and piano motifs. There are also some great melodic solos provided by Jacob Kjaer (such a classy guitar player, and terribly underrated!) and Toni Rahm. The backing vocals have that vaguely AOR quality that one can also find on Royal Hunt’s releases, perfectly complementing the MASSIVE vocal performance by Dougie White. When it comes to his voice, the man’s CV’s speak for itself (Rainbow, Axel Rudi Pell, Yngwie Malmsteen, Michael Schenker, Alcatrazz, and many others) and there is no doubt that he is a superb hard rock / heavy metal singer. His smooth, velvety voice can soothe and caress, but also rip and pierce your ears when he goes full power. The album deserves a listen if nothing else for the singer’s great vocal performance.

With excellent performances all-round, the songwriting is also strong. There are some great tunes on this album, very inspired and with the right dynamics and feel. The opening duo “Arrival” and “Walked on the Water” are nothing short of exhilarating, with huge melodic hooks on the choruses that provide an excellent climax for the tension built in the dark verses. “Jungle” is lighter and more up-tempo, but provides some good melodies and a nice guitar solo too. The album perhaps plods a little bit in the middle, with songs like “Top of the World” and “Gift of Flesh” sounding a tad less inspired and verging on filler. But the bluesy “Grain of Sand” and the epic closer “I’m Alive” set things right again and ensure that the album closes on a high note.

Overall, Arrival is a pretty strong, high-quality and classy hard rock / melodic heavy metal album that will surely please fans of these genres. Anyone following Royal Hunt should also give this LP a spin or two, because there are significant traces of the Danish band on this album too. Cornerstone will continue their career with three more studio albums, also of good quality. But Arrival remains perhaps their most inspired and exciting release.

PENDRAGON Love Over Fear

Album · 2020 · Non-Metal
Cover art 4.80 | 5 ratings
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Warthur
After spending the 1980s with one foot in neo-prog and another foot in poppier material, with all the stylistic shifts that such a stance implies, Pendragon would shift gear in the 1990s and establish what many think of as the "classic" Pendragon sound - a melodic style of neo-prog in which Clive Nolan's synthesiser textures create a dramatic backdrop against which Nick Barrett's emotionally resonant guitar work unfolds.

This is a style that premiered on The World, was perfected on The Window of Life and The Masquerade Overture, and in retrospect you can see Not Of This World as the close of this phase of the band. Believe, whilst it still had significant elements of this style, saw the band incorporating fresher ideas into their toolbox, whilst Pure, Passion, and Men Who Climb Mountains have all sounded very different from their 1990s material.

Now, after a long percolation, the new album comes - Love Over Fear - and I feel like in years to come we'll look at this album as the fruition of the process of musical experimentation and development the band began after Not Of This World. Not because it is the furthest they have gone from their 1990s style - but because it's the closest they have come to a return to it since that album came out.

However, don't be fooled - this is not Pendragon taking a step backwards. Rather, like the spiralling wave (with a heart at its centre, naturally) on the front cover art, this is Pendragon coming full circle whilst still moving forwards all the time. In essence, my feeling is that the intervening albums between Not Of This World and this represent a cathartic process of renewal and development that Pendragon had to accomplish before they tackled this task. The Pendragon of 2001, who'd just done Not Of This World, would not have been able to make this album - not out of any lack of musical ability, but because they needed to exercise other muscles and let other aspects of their style rest a bit to rejuvenate itself before they harvested those fields again.

And even here, there's little departures here and there; the opening track, Everything, sounds like a psych number from the 1960s in its early stages before it shifts gear into more typical Pendragon fare, whilst elsewhere the band feel happy taking moments to step back and go for a more minimalist approach (as on Starfish and the Moon). It really feels like there's nods to all the different shores that Pendragon have washed up on over the years, whilst keeping the heart of the material rooted in their classic style at least in terms of following the "melodic, emotional neo-prog" niche they had carved out for themselves, though they approach that mission statement with a greatly expanded musical palette at their disposal and so execute it with more finesse than ever before.

It took a long while for Pendragon to really find their audience - in particular, we should really thank the Polish prog scene for being such stalwart supporters of the band at a time when other markets didn't want to hear it - and I recall that when I started following prog online in the late 1990s/early 2000s, many looked down on them for following their particular style. They've proven those naysayers wrong over and over again from Pure onwards, but Love Over Fear may well be their grandest artistic statement yet.

PENDRAGON Men Who Climb Mountains

Album · 2014 · Non-Metal
Cover art 3.74 | 6 ratings
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Warthur
Whilst Pendragon's Passion was - true to the title - an emotive and cathartic album, Men Who Climb Mountain finds the band in a somewhat more contemplative mode. It's a great showcase for the gentler side of Nick Barrett's guitar playing in particular; those who have listened carefully to Pendragon over the years already know that Nick is capable of evoking great emotion with his playing, on a par with peers like Marillion's Steve Rothery and inspirations like Camel's Andy Latimer, but he's very much the star player here.

Some editions of the album include a bonus disc of a solo appearance by Nick, playing an acoustic set at a friend's pub as a favour. We've had acoustic releases from Pendragon before - the Acoustically Challenged album, for instance - and it's usually had a rather transformative effect on their music, steeped as it usually is in Clive Nolan's lush keyboards and electric guitar performances from Nick.

Here, however, whilst there's no Men Who Climb Mountains material in the acoustic set itself, you don't really miss it - because translating it to an acoustic format would not necessarily change that much, since an acoustic-sounding guitar style is so prominent on so much of the album anyway. It's an interesting shift towards a gentler style after two albums of harder-rocking, darker material, and proof that the journey of constant development, reinvention, and progress that the band have been on since they said farewell to their well-honed 1990s style on Not Of This World continues.

SWAN CHRISTY One with the Swan

Album · 1998 · Gothic Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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lukretion
Swan Christy are one of prog metal’s best kept secrets. The Greek band never managed to accumulate any real success in the 1990s/2000s when they were most active in the metal scene. This is a true pity because they released three great metal albums in those years (1998’s One with the Swan, 1999’s Today Died Yesterday and 2001’s Black Is the White Color), before turning to experimental/jazz music and eventually changing name to signal their distancing from their early metal days. One remarkable thing about these three albums is how diverse and different from one another they are. The debut album that I review here in detail is a magical combination between opera, classical music, prog metal and gothic metal. The sophomore album is more squarely rooted in prog/power metal, while Black Is the White Color is a strange hotchpotch of electro-goth, alternative metal and prog. That’s covering quite a lot of ground!

The debut LP, One with the Swan, is a concept album telling a story that sounds a lot like a revised version of Faust, re-imagined in a Game of Thrones setting. Musically, the 13 songs of the album are written in the style of prog/power metal, but with added classical instrumentation and operatic vocals (provided by guest soprano singer Natalie Rassoulis, who also sang with SepticFlesh). In line with the concept nature of the album, the music is very theatrical and the album does feel a lot like a small-scale metal opera. The violin and the piano are very prominent instruments, often providing the foundations of the songs. The guitars act as counterpoint, with a raw, low-toned sound that creates a nice contrast with the delicate classical instrumentation. Meanwhile, Kostas Makris’ vocals add yet another layer to Swan Christy’s music. His voice is dark, low and dramatic, and gives a gothic vibe to the songs, reminding me at times of Moonspell, which is why Swan Christy are sometimes classified as a symphonic gothic metal band. Personally, I think the label is somewhat misleading because it is often used to refer to the “beauty and the beast” style that was in vogue in those years. Swan Christy’s music could not be further removed from that trend, though, and sits much more firmly in progressive metal ground.

The album is comprised of 13 songs, but most songs are very short, rarely exceeding the 3 minutes, and the whole record clocks in at only 45 minutes. The songs act as small vignettes, each telling a piece of the concept story. The album may feel slightly fragmented at first, but this does not detract from the listening experience, especially if one listens to it with the spirit of sitting through a rock/metal musical.

The music is fairly original. There are some references to other contemporaneous prog/power metal giants like Savatage and Rough Silk, but these are not overly transparent. The playing is first-class, all musicians are really proficient and this is definitely one of the positive aspects of the album. Kostas’ vocals are perhaps slightly tentative on this release. He will improve on later albums, but here his voice does not come across as completely polished and in control. The most negative aspect of the album, however, is the sound production, which is rather primitive. It is quite obvious that this album was recorded on a low budget: the guitar sound is very raw and unpolished, the instruments are not always well balanced in the mix (the voice is at times barely audible), and the overall sound is muddy and muffled. The ambition, scope and quality of the music on this album would have deserved a much better sound production.

Nevertheless, One with the Swan is an excellent record that should definitely appeal to fans of progressive rock/metal. There are a lot of ideas on this record that push the album at the boundaries of the prog metal that was being played in the mid 1990s. As such, the record has a fairly unique and original feel that elevates it above much of the competition. Of course, being this a debut, there are still many rough edges, not least in the way the music is recorded and produced. But One with the Swan is a minor prog metal gem and I promise you won’t regret giving it a spin.

SWAN CHRISTY Today Died Yesterday

Album · 1999 · Gothic Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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lukretion
Hailing from Greece, Swan Christy are a criminally underrated and unknown prog metal band that in the late 90s / early 00s released a stream of very interesting and diverse records. Today Died Yesterday is their second LP and was released in 1999 with an expanded line-up compared to their 1998’s debut album, One with the Swan. Swan Christy’s masterminds Iraklis Yalantzides (keyboards) and Kostas Makris (vocals) are accompanied here by Grigoris Vasilopoulos (guitars), Dimitris Georgiou (guitars), and Giorgos Kalaintzoglou (drums), as well as by a score of guest musicians that include Nikos Nikoloudias on bass, a trio of classical instrumentalists (violin, violoncello and oboe), a soprano (Rena Strouliou), and vocalists Spiros Antoniou (SepticFlesh), Ferdy Doernberg (Rough Silk) and Sakis Tolis (Rotting Christ).

The rich and diverse line-up is reflected in the music on the LP, which covers a lot of ground between classically-inspired symphonic metal (in the vein of Rage), prog/power metal (Dream Theater, Rough Silk, Savatage), and a touch of gothic/dark metal. The Savatage and Rough Silk influences are particularly prominent on this record, where the piano and violin play a role as important as the guitar in weaving the texture of the songs. Meanwhile, Kostas’ vocals are often theatrical and dramatic, featuring the occasional canon like Jon Oliva’s band often did (after all, what can we expect from a band whose very first demo was titled “Christopher Oliva Lives Forever”?!).

The album flows away very pleasantly across its 8 tracks, all of which are high quality, with a good balance between melodic accessibility and technical complexity. All musicians involved are highly proficient instrumentalists, so the playing is often very technical and classy, with some good solos. The arrangements are also very good, layered and complex without being overburdened. Kostas’ vocals are pleasant too. He has improved a lot compared to the debut, where his performance was somewhat tentative. Kostas has a distinctive timbre, quite dark and smooth. His low tone gives the music a quasi-gothic feel that explains why Swan Christy are sometimes classified under the “symphonic gothic metal” umbrella. Make no mistake, though, this album is quintessential prog metal, pretty much in the same field as the more prominent bands mentioned above (Dream Theater, Rough Silk, Savatage, Rage).

Alas, here probably also lies the main limit of this record. While Swan Christy’s debut album was quite original, exploring new ground at the border between opera, classical music and metal, Today Died Yesterday is much more obvious about its influences and at times the music sounds a tad too close to that of the bands that inspired the Greek combo. The influence of Rough Silk is particularly prominent, especially in the combination between low-tuned rhythmic guitar, piano and vocals that are sometimes melodic and other times rougher (listen to the opening bars of “No More Everything” for the most Mephisto-inspired moment of the record). One can feel that with this album Swan Christy were trying to broaden their audience and appeal to the prog metal crowd, leaving somewhat behind the operatic and gothic influences that had made the debut album so peculiar. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but Today Died Yesterday sounds somewhat less special and unique compared to the band’s previous album, or to the next one.

There are nevertheless plenty of interesting moments on Today Died Yesterday. “Here Comes ... I” surprises with a refrain that sounds almost grunge, while the rest of the song is pure prog metal deluge, including a breath-takingly technical guitar solo. A strange combination that may be jarring at first, but quickly becomes irresistible upon repeated listening. “Night Flower” is instead the song that gets closer to the sound of the debut album, with Rena Strouliou’s operatic vocals and Kostas’ croon beautifully layered over a classical background, for what is perhaps the most inspired and magical moment of the whole record. The classical influences are also evident on “One Foot in the Grave”, a gentle interlude that starts with cello, violin and oboe, giving the music very strong Rage vibes, before a dramatic chorus with polyphonic voices brings to mind some of Savatage’s best moments. The opener title-track “Today Died Yesterday” is another interesting piece, packing some jazz/fusion influences as well as delicate electronic effects. Meanwhile, album closer “The Benefactor” is the obligatory “prog metal epic”, with a duration exceeding 8 minutes and a complex, multi-part structure that includes vocals by guest singers Spiros Antoniou (SepticFlesh), Ferdy Doernberg (Rough Silk) and Sakis Tolis (Rotting Christ). Despite its ambition, however, this song is only partly successful as it lacks a proper climax to resolve all the tension and momentum that is built throughout its 8 minutes.

In summary, there is a lot to chew on in this record, but Swan Christy always manage to strike a good balance between complexity and immediacy so that the album has both instant impact on the listener and strong potential for repeated listens. The album lacks somewhat in originality and fans of bands like Savatage, Rage and Rough Silk will easily recognize the influence these bands had on Swan Christy’s sound. This prevents me to score this album higher, but I nevertheless recommend it heartedly to any prog metal fan, because the playing is sublime and the compositions are pure gold if you are into symphonic prog/power metal.

SWAN CHRISTY Black Is the White Color

Album · 2001 · Gothic Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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lukretion
In the second half of the 1990s, Greek combo Swan Christy released two excellent albums that contained a special blend of prog metal, classical music, opera and gothic metal. Despite inhabiting similar sonic territories, the band’s first two albums already showed clear signs of progression and an ambition not to rest for too long on the same sound and style. Black Is the White Color makes this point even clearer, with a dramatic turn into new and surprising musical influences that range from electro-goth to alternative metal, while at the same time retaining a foot in prog metal territory.

It is a strange combination that, in truth, left me quite perplexed the first time I listened to the album. With repeated listens, however, the new songs started to grow on me, not least because some of them are bloody good! Thus, my judgment of this album grew from a mere “meh” score to a “good” rating, just a tad below the band's first two records. The main reason why I am holding back with my rating is that the diverse influences that Swan Christy incorporate in their music on this album, are often not well amalgamated into a neat, fluid style. Instead, they mostly emerge separately across different songs of the album. The end result is a record that feels a little too fragmented. Most songs, taken on their own, are good and exciting, but as a whole the album does not flow well and feels somewhat disjointed and confused about the direction the band was trying to take their music.

There are essentially three types of songs on this album. First, we have a bunch of tracks that revisit the prog metal style the band had already used on their first two records. “Cast in Tears” and “8?” are textbook prog metal, hinting at bands like Savatage, Rough Silk, Dream Theater and Rage (the latter influence emerges especially clear on the classically arranged “8?”, which is also one of the best tracks here). Then we have a couple of songs that seem to take inspiration from the electro-goth turn of bands like Paradise Lost in the late 1990s. “Seven Is Enough” and “Love It or Hate Me” play with subtle electronic loops, suffused piano arpeggios, and crooning vocals that bring to mind Depeche Mode and the whole metal bandwagon that the English band influenced in the 1990s. The rest of the album is played in a rough alternative metal that brings to mind Metallica. The guitar riffs are aggressive, the drums hit hard, and Kostas Makris’ vocals are gruffy and even shouted at times. Some of the tracks played in this style are quite good (“Because a Motherfucker Said So”, “Fuck Them”), but others feel too monotonous and dull (“Enough of White”, “Salt Penetration”). Meanwhile, “I Am in Hate with an Alien” and “Wish You Were Dead” attempt to find a difficult balance between the alternative metal style, electronica, and trip-hop, resulting in two of the most interesting tracks of the album.

The contrast between the different styles is at times jarring and not all the tracks are equally convincing. Nevertheless, the playing is high-quality throughout, with some excellent guitar riffs/solos, good piano/keyboard arrangements, and catchy vocal melodies. The production is also quite good, a big step forward compared to the tentative and low-fi sound of the band’s previous two records.

Overall, Black Is the White Color is a fascinating album, showing a band that is clearly trying to push boundaries and conjure up a new, original sound. This has been a constant leitmotif throughout Swan Christy’s career (they will soon turn experimental/jazz and abandon completely the rock/metal scene). Perhaps this record tries a bit too hard and as a result it feels a tad overreaching and scattershot. It nevertheless has some great moments and there are at least 5 or 6 tracks here that capture one’s imagination and leave a mark on the listener. Approach with caution, but do not overlook!

PENDRAGON Passion

Album · 2011 · Metal Related
Cover art 4.36 | 8 ratings
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Warthur
Kicking off the opening title track of this album with a sampled drum loop before Nick Barrett's lead guitar kicks in, Pendragon signal to the listener immediately that Passion, as with Pure, is going to be another wild ride into territory outside of that which we'd come to associate with the band, especially on the strength of their output from The World to Not Of This World.

Repeated motifs and lyrical phrases suggest that there's a concept going on here, but largely the album seems to be a moment of therapy for Nick Barrett, a venting of frustrations which you get the impression had been a long time coming. Now, it's the nature of such venting to include things that aren't so reasonable (come on, Nick, don't buy into the tabloid TV idea of a "war on Christmas", you're smarter than that), but maybe this is part of the point: passion, after all, is exuberant and wild and difficult to control and not exactly rational.

In interviews Nick Barrett's been pretty open about how his divorce, which occurred in between The Masquerade Overture and Not Of This World, was something of a major shakeup in his life and prompted him to re-evaluate a lot of things, and in retrospect it's easy to see how the run of albums after Masquerade Overture reflect that. Not Of This World, whilst still in the style the band had been performing since The World, included a melancholic edge to proceedings suggesting that the joyful optimism and innocence that had characterised preceding albums had been shaken; Believe and Pure found the band exploring increasingly dark material, expanding their emotional repertoire in order to give expression to correspondingly dark feelings.

Passion, then, would seem to be the culmination of that process, a cry from the heart that Nick and the band had been developing the musical and lyrical toolkit to unleash on the world, and as a result it feels like one of the most genuine, honest, and raw albums in the neo-prog landscape, expressing an honesty comparable to Fish in his finest moments as a lyricist. You don't have to agree with everything Nick is saying here to find value in that because, again, this is Passion, not Reason: one way or another, this is what's in Nick's heart, and now it's out of his heart and on the record you get the impression that a real weight has been lifted from him. Towards the end of the album things get a bit more gentle - with catharsis attained, a new beginning can be planned, and a touch of that old optimism can come back.

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