'Music for Kings' - Counter-World Experience (8/10)
Although 'concept' albums are ridiculously abundant in the progressive metal genre, it takes a lot of skill and determination to make it work. Harder still is to pass a concept entirely instrumentally, without a set of lyrics to guide the listener along. Sure, it may be argued whether or not Counter-World Experience's "Music for Kings" is a concept album, but if song titles are worth anything, this is a showcase of some of history's most famous (and infamous) monarchs. Like a tender steak, many of these lords' stories are rich and bloody. Though this may be an ample breeding ground for death metal, Counter-World Experience play a highly jazz-infused form of metal. Most importantly, they do it really, really well. Bloodlines aside, there's a great deal to appreciate here.
The concept of jazz metal generally has me thinking of Cynic or Exivious. Counter-World Experience reminds me most of the latter, although these guys take their explorations down a more diverse set of avenues. Jazz and progressive metal are the two central ingredients in this mixing pot, but listeners should not be surprised to hear elements of world music and Medieval folk involved in the sound of "Music for Kings". On paper, this sounds like a lot to take in within the course of an album- and it is, but Counter-World Experience organize it in such a way so that it fits. The music is built around Benjamin Schwenen's guitarwork, particularly around his lead playing. His 'soloing' style finds itself at a tasteful crossroads between rapid fusion observations in the image of Pat Metheny, virtuosic rock leads, and neoclassical shredding. Although it would have been nice to hear the other two members of the band get more room to strut their skills, there can be no complaint concerning the tightness of this band.
Counter-World Experience seem to take a more classical approach on "Music for Kings" than they have on the past. The album's "Coronation" prologue introduces the concept with a choral arrangement that could have been plucked from a Medieval fantasy milieu. Although "Trois Filles du Roi", "Beowulf" and "Karl the Great" all obviously draw upon European figures, Counter-World Experience tip the hat to monarchs as far from home as East Asia, with the dark, King Crimsony "Tiger of Qin". With each culture and monarch CWE jump into, the music reflects it accordingly. "Gilgamesh" is backed up with a nearly tribal rhythm, coming off as much more aggressive and looming than its more reserved European counterparts. The highlight "Beowulf" ends the album on a wonderful note, with some beautifully epic guitar melodies to bid listeners farewell.
Although it may be the way the album ends that tempers my view, "Music for Kings" could have used a little more melody. Although there is a great deal of variety on the album, the largest part goes to Schwenen's fusion solos. While incredibly impressive, some listeners may be put off by how frequently the solos come in. Of course, what jazz metal album would be complete without a good bit of guitar exploration? Counter-World Experience have a consistent reputation for solid progressive metal, and "Music for Kings" does not disappoint. This latest record is easily deserving of a listen.