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Travis Green
MMA Special Collaborator · Power, Symph and Prog Metal Teams
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1998 reviews/ratings
DYNAZTY - Renatus Power Metal | review permalink
DRAGONFORCE - Maximum Overload Power Metal
ADRANA - The Ancient Realms Power Metal
EVERGREY - The Inner Circle Progressive Metal
EVERGREY - In Search of Truth Progressive Metal
BLIND GUARDIAN - Imaginations From the Other Side Power Metal
ANCIENT BARDS - Soulless Child Power Metal
ARMORY - Empyrean Realms Power Metal
SABATON - Primo Victoria Power Metal
SABATON - The Art Of War Power Metal
SABATON - Carolus Rex Power Metal
SABATON - Heroes Power Metal
FREEDOM CALL - Beyond Power Metal
FREEDOM CALL - Eternity Power Metal
FREEDOM CALL - Stairway to Fairyland Power Metal
CIVIL WAR - Saint Patrick's Day Power Metal
XANDRIA - Neverworld's End Power Metal
POWER QUEST - Blood Alliance Power Metal
DARK MOOR - Ars Musica Symphonic Metal
DARK MOOR - Ancestral Romance Power Metal

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Metal Genre Nb. Rated Avg. rating
1 Power Metal 791 4.00
2 Progressive Metal 299 3.89
3 Symphonic Metal 205 3.90
4 Traditional heavy metal 139 3.51
5 Thrash Metal 96 3.69
6 Gothic Metal 89 3.90
7 Folk Metal 57 4.27
8 Melodic Death Metal 57 3.84
9 Hard Rock 41 3.98
10 US Power Metal 32 3.75
11 Alternative Metal 27 3.39
12 Non-Metal 25 3.56
13 Metalcore 22 3.55
14 Death Metal 20 3.95
15 Metal Related 16 4.03
16 Industrial Metal 13 4.12
17 Technical Death Metal 10 4.10
18 Groove Metal 8 3.13
19 Speed Metal 6 3.92
20 NWoBHM 5 4.50
21 Melodic Black Metal 5 4.00
22 Death-Doom Metal 5 3.80
23 Deathcore 4 3.38
24 Doom Metal 4 4.13
25 Atmospheric Black Metal 4 3.88
26 Glam Metal 4 3.88
27 Nu Metal 4 3.75
28 Symphonic Black Metal 3 4.50
29 Avant-garde Metal 2 4.25
30 Black Metal 2 2.50
31 Brutal Death Metal 1 4.50
32 Crossover Thrash 1 3.00
33 Sludge Metal 1 4.00

Latest Albums Reviews

MINDMAZE Resolve

Album · 2017 · Progressive Metal
Cover art Buy this album from MMA partners
One of the most promising bands in all of metal right now is American progressive power metal band Mindmaze, led by the brother/sister team of Jeff and Sarah Teets. The band made their debut in 2013 with Mask of Lies, a self-released album that blew me away, as well as being impressive enough that the band was quickly signed by Inner Wound Recordings around a year and a half later, in time for their follow-up release, Back From the Edge, an album that took everything that worked on the debut and changed things up just a bit so it could be a somehow even more impressive sophomore release. With such an impressive start to their career, it seems there’s no limit to their potential, and now with their recently released third full-length album, Resolve, the band has done it once again, kicking into a higher gear than ever before and producing easily their best album to date!

The music of Mindmaze has always consisted of three main elements, those being classic heavy metal riffs and melodies, often along the lines of classic Iron Maiden, energetic power metal riffs and speedy tempos, and complex arrangements that lend a progressive metal feel to their music. The band’s evolution has proven to be quite interesting and unique, in that they haven’t released the same album twice, but they also haven’t completely reinvented their sound on any of their albums either. Instead, it seems with each album they focus more on a different one of their main elements. More specifically, where Mask of Lies seemed to focus more on the heavy metal riffs and melodies, while having touches of power metal and prog, and Back From the Edge pushed the power metal elements to the front while keeping some prog arrangements and using the classic metal elements in bursts, Resolve feels like a full-fledged prog album, but with the energy of a power metal album and at times the feel of classic heavy metal.

In short, this is by far the band’s most ambitious and most complex work to date, featuring some very complicated arrangements on some of the tracks, as well as their best musicianship to date. In fact, some of the instrumental portions on this album are nothing short of stunning, as guitarist, keyboardist and main songwriter Jeff Teets has really gone into overdrive with his solo work, producing solos that are both incredibly impressive on a technical level and yet also very melodic and at times even giving off some emotion, which can be a tough thing to pull off. At the same time, he plays some very heavy, thick sounding riffs, and uses a more down tuned guitar tone than on previous albums, which gives the riffs a very powerful sound, particularly on tracks like “Abandon” and “Twisted Dream”. Obviously, guitars are his main focus, but he does some impressive work on keyboards at times as well, and uses the piano as a driving force behind some of the softer moments on the album, like the power ballad “One Final Moment”. The rest of the band does a great job as well, as bassist Rick Pasqualone is given a ton of space to work with, and even provides some great bass solos, most notably on “Sign of Life”, while new drummer Mark “Truk” Bennet does a great job and fits in nicely with the band. Resolve is the band’s first concept album, and this shows as it’s by far their most cohesive feeling album to date, with the tracks flowing together seamlessly, and there’s some very smooth transitions between tracks, as well as some great interlude tracks. Lastly, the production is again very raw sounding as on Back From the Edge, but this works great as it gives the guitars a very powerful sound, and everything still sounds clear and very well balanced.

As much as this album features some of the best musicianship I’ve heard on a metal album in recent years, vocals remain as important as ever, and once again Sarah Teets has done an amazing job. As on the first two albums, she never sounds showy, but instead, sings with a very natural sounding style that fits the music perfectly, and she does an equally great job on heavier and sections and calmer sections. There’s an increased focus on heavy sections on this album, which means she uses her powerful lower register quite often on verses and sounds as great as ever, while she gets to sing a bit higher on some of the choruses, and there’s also many sections where the lyrics allow her to put in a more emotional performance, and she does all these things equally well.

Perhaps the area where Resolve shines the most is in its songwriting. Mindmaze have shown impressive songwriting skills since their debut, but this time it feels like they’ve really stepped up their game to a new level, with an album that flows perfectly and has the focus of a concept album, while still managing to feature a wide variety of songs, all of which are equally enjoyable and well crafted. I think it says a lot, when brief interludes like “In This Void”, an atmospheric piece is mostly driven by pianos, and “Sanity’s Collapse”, a dark and heavy guitar driven piece, with some excellent solo work in the middle, can stand out just as much as the full-length tracks. The latter in particular is absolutely stunning, and yet it’s not even the best instrumental track on the album. That would be “Reverie”, the four minute opening track that starts off with a nice acoustic section, which is soon recreated on electric guitars, then a little bit later the track speeds up, and from there it turns into a very complex and progressive piece with several tempo changes and some great solo work, with some especially impressive power metal sections in the middle, that have a slightly darker feel to them than similar section on the band’s previous album, and the way track flows seamlessly from moment to moment is truly impressive. Honestly, while it’s only an intro track, it really is one of the best tracks I’ve heard on a metal album all year, and so it immediately sets the bar extremely high for the rest of the album.

After that incredible opening, the first song with vocals is “Fight the Future”, a speedy power metal track which kicks in with some energetic guitar work, before slowing down and getting pretty heavy during the verses, where Sarah makes her first appearance and instantly steals the show. From there, the track picks up the pace again, leading to an excellent chorus, and then, later on, we get some more impressive instrumental sections and some great solo work from Jeff. Next is the previously mentioned “In This Void”, a pretty nice interlude track, and then we get another more prog-driven track in “Drown Me”. This track opens up with a nice keyboard section, which carries over nicely from the previous track, before turning into a fairly heavy mid-paced prog track, with some powerful vocals during the verses and a memorable chorus, and then halfway through we get a nice softer section with some very emotional vocals from Sarah, which leads into a very impressive extended instrumental section that closes the track out. The first single from the album is “Sign of Life”, a track which uses mid-tempo verses with fairly simple guitar work, before speeding up for a very catchy and addictive chorus, but again it’s the instrumental section that really takes the track to next level, as both Rich and Jeff provide some excellent solos. Next, we have “Abandon”, one of the speedier tracks on the album, as well as one of the heaviest. It features some slightly thrashy guitar riffs during the verses, as well as some of the most powerful vocals from Sarah, especially during the chorus, while the solo section is again amazing and has a very classic heavy metal feel to it at one point, which is probably the highlight of the track. Moving into the second half of the album, the amazing interlude track “Sanity’s Collapse” gives way to “One Final Moment”, a piano-led power ballad which starts off very soft, before getting slightly heavier in the second half, and it features some very impressive vocals from Sarah, while the second half as always features an excellent guitar solo, and this is one of the sections in particular where I feel Jeff really managed to pour some emotion into his guitar work, which serves as a great lead-in to the next section, where Sarah gives a very powerful performance. Perhaps the heaviest, most guitar dominant track on the album is “Twisted Dream”, where the intro section very much feels like it comes from a particularly heavy Dream Theater track, and from there the track takes off and turns into a very aggressive sounding mid-paced track, which gives way to one of the most beautiful and melodic choruses on the album. One thing about Mindmaze that’s always been true, they can contrast between very heavy and very melodic sections extremely fluidly, never spending so much time on one or the other that it starts to drag, and this track is a perfect example of that. The instrumental section is, of course, stunning as always, and very heavy.

Starting off the final stretch, “True Reflection” is a fairly calm mid paced track, which has another nice chorus, though once again it’s the instrumental section that really stands out, as this time it starts off feeling like a classic prog instrumental section, before suddenly speeding up and bringing in some power metal elements, which is the kind of thing most prog bands would never do, and yet Mindmaze can pull it off brilliantly. The constant change of tempos on many tracks is a definite highlight, and the second half of this track does that extremely well. The end of the song transitions wonderfully into “Shattered Self”, a brief but very hard hitting speedier track, with some excellent guitar work and vocal sections once again. And of course, because that track is one of the heaviest on the album, it makes since they’d follow it up with “Release”, a vocal driven ballad, which represents the soft end of the album wonderfully. Sarah puts in very emotional and powerful performance, and of course, Jeff provides an excellent solo near the end. Lastly, we have “The Path to Perseverance”, an 11 and a half minute epic, which starts off with a nice guitar solo before speeding up for a wonderful instrumental section, until Sarah comes in the and music slows down for a while. As expected, it’s a very complex and progressive track which covers all the elements of the album wonderfully, with plenty of tempo changes, great riffs, and guitar solos, as well as some nice piano sections, and Sarah delivers some of her best vocals on the entire album. It’s an amazing track which shows off all elements of the album perfectly. And of course, the excellent acoustic piece that opens “Reverie” is used again for the ending, and it closes the album in the best way possible.

In a way, Mindmaze can be tough to review, because it’s like every time they put out a new album I’m blown away and feel like they couldn’t possibly do anything better, then when the next album comes around it ends up somehow proving me wrong. This has happened once again with Resolve, their most complex and progressive album to date, and one which has some absolutely stunning musicianship, to go along with the great power metal elements of their previous album, as well as some awesome vocals as always. Longtime fans of the band should be very happy with the album, and I’d highly recommend to all fans of prog and power metal who want to hear the very best those genres have to offer. This is one release I really don’t see them being able to top, but I can’t wait to hear them give it their best go.

originally written for myglobalmind.com: http://myglobalmind.com/2017/05/07/mindmaze-resolve-review/

AQUILUS Griseus

Album · 2011 · Symphonic Black Metal
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MMA Reviewers Challenge: Album Selected by adg211288

As a power metal fan, atmospheric black metal is one of those genres you'd think should be the total opposite of what I enjoy: Where power metal is often fast, upbeat and happy, atmospheric black metal is often slow, dark and grim, making it tonally the exact opposite. However, while the genre is far from what I'd consider my area of expertise, I have heard a few albums within that style that have impressed me over the years, the most obvious of those being Marrow of the Spirit, by Agalloch. It turns out, I actually very much enjoy music that's built around setting a dark tone and creating a strong atmosphere, which is obviously what this genre does. I also happen to enjoy classical music from time to time, as well as folk music. Now, how does that seemingly random sentence fit in with everything else in this paragraph? Well, let's just say, none of my previous experience could have possibly prepared me for the masterpiece that is Griseus, the debut (and currently only) full length release from Australian one man band Aquilus.

To be honest, I'd have a hard time even describing Griseus as a black metal album. Don't take that the wrong way, or anything: There certainly are some harsh vocals here, and in fact they certainly do have a very dark, blackened tone to them as you'd expect from the genre. And yes, there definitely are some very heavy passages on this release, which again fits in perfectly for black metal. So then, why would I say what I did at the start of this paragraph? Basically, while there are many passages here I could easily consider black metal, I'd say well over half of the album is actually very calm and subdued, actually very relaxing at times, even for this particular type of black metal, though it's certainly still dark and very atmospheric. The use of acoustic guitars to create a thick atmosphere is extremely impressive and definitely one of the album's biggest strengths.

However, the real key to this album is where the classical music reference I made earlier comes in. Yes, there are many symphonic black metal bands that use elements of classical music to make their symphonic elements sound epic, with Dimmu Borgir being an obvious example of that, but where bands like that tend to use it in a very flashy way, Waldorf, the man behind Aquilus, uses classical piano throughout this album in a very nice way, adding even more atmosphere to the music. There are some orchestral elements as well, but even these are used in a very deliberate manner, and feel like a very natural part of the music. There are many sections, though, where the piano takes over and these sections are absolutely stunning and some of the best parts of the album. Perhaps the best example of this is around the midway point of the intro track “Nihil”, where the piano is used in a very creepy way, and gives way to an extended classical section that is simply incredible, and was the first point on my first listen where I was absolutely amazed by what I was hearing.

One last element to the music is the occasional use of folk music. This is done in two ways. Occasionally, the acoustic guitar sections give way to some dark folk melodies, and these are done very well, but there are also brief sections where actual folk elements appear, with the most obvious of these being near the end of “Latent Thistle”, where the often dark music gives way to a very beautiful and upbeat folk section briefly, and it's definitely a memorable moment. So on the whole, while there certainly are strong elements of black metal on this release, I'd say there's a surprising amount of non metal elements, and everything is blended together very impressively, with each track flowing seamlessly from one element to another, and everything fits together perfectly.

Vocals are used rather sparingly throughout, with the album on the whole being focused on largely extended instrumental sections. There are a couple styles of vocals here, though. First up, the black metal growls are very powerful and fit in very well with the heavier sections. Between the sound of the vocals and the rather raw production on these sections, the black metal sections are very powerful and are mostly used in quick but explosive bursts. There are also some clean vocals here, where Waldorf layers his voice in such a way that it often sounds like choral vocals, even though it's all the work of one man. These vocals work well and are mostly used during some of the classical sections. I especially like one point right at the end of “Loss”, where it's a classical section with Waldorf using those choral style vocals in the background, but he also uses his growls in a very theatrical kind of way that almost sounds as if he's trying to use them classically. It's quite the interesting effect and works really well.

It's hard to single out any one track here, as everything is very well done. This is a very long album, nearly reaching 80 minutes and there are 8 tracks, three of which go over 10 minutes, while only one is under 6 minutes, so obviously there's no simple interludes or no real straight-forward songs here. At the same time, I can say not a second is wasted, and I actually have an easy time giving the album consecutive spins, so that has to say something for an album this long, considering it's not even in one of my usual favorite genres. As tough as it is to do a song by song breakdown, I can give a very brief summary and list highlights for each track. First up, “Nihil” is a 14 minute opener which starts off with a nice atmospheric intro, before the black metal elements take over for a while, and we get our first taste of Waldorf's growls. This section lasts a while and the tone of the guitar is wonderful and helps add to the atmosphere of the music. As the track hits its midway point, the incredible classical section I mentioned before comes in and lasts a while, and then the track ends with a nice acoustic folk section. An excellent track overall, which introduces every element of the album in a very effective way.

Next is “Loss”, which starts off with a nice piano section, before the black metal elements again take over for a while. The second half is largely soft and atmospheric, and then that incredibly vocal section I mentioned earlier ends the track in stunning fashion. After that, it makes sense that the next track “Smokefall” would get off to the fastest start of any track up to that point. The intro reminds me a bit of Opeth, both in the guitar tone and how the drums sound, though the track quickly moves into darker territory with its first black metal section. The black metal elements are featured more prominently on this track than on most of the other tracks, as the first half constantly alternates between heavier sections with growls, and atmospheric sections where the acoustic guitars lead the way with some haunting melodies. I mentioned it already, but damn the acoustic guitar playing on this album is incredible! Towards the end the track softens up a bit, which leads us into “In Lands of Ashes”, the softest track on this album. Pianos are very dominant on this track, as it's a near 12 minute mostly instrumental track that alternates nicely between classical piano sections and slightly folk influenced sections where the guitars take over. There are occasional whispers in the second half, but otherwise the track has little in the way of vocals, and it's a very peaceful and relaxing track, while still being atmospheric. You may think a track that long with no heavier sections and few vocals would be boring, but if so, you'd be absolutely wrong, as the composition here is fantastic and the music is absolutely beautiful at times, making it stand out just as much as any of the other tracks here.

In contrast to that track, “Latent Thistle” opens with the most explosive black metal section on the album, with some very heavy riffs, epic growls and a cool guitar solo. It's definitely the heaviest sequence on the album, but again, the guitar work is brilliant, and the once the acoustic guitars kick in for a softer section, things get atmospheric and very beautiful once again. Near the end of the track is the folk section I mentioned earlier appears and is absolutely stunning. Next is “Arboreal Sleep”, another track which effectively alternates between heavy sections where the growls appear, and softer acoustic sections. There's a very nice use of the clean vocals early on as well, which gives way to an extended piano section where classical elements appear once again. The end of the track features some very quiet vocals, which are used nicely and fit in well with the tone of the music at that point. After that is “The Fawn”, which opens up with a beautiful classical piano section, before turning into another fairly dark and heavy track in the middle, where the black metal elements take over for a bit. Lastly, we have 17 minute closing track “Night Bell”, which opens up with a rather soft section where choral style vocals are used and we get a nice guitar solo section, before the music gets heavier and we get the last real black metal section on the album. After that, the track softens up quite a bit and turns into one of the more classical influenced tracks, with some excellent piano sections throughout the second half that end the album on an impressive note. Some of the piano playing here is amazing, managing to both be very dark and very beautiful at the same time.

Overall, Griseus is quite the surprising album, as it manages to combine elements of atmospheric black metal, classical music and folk music in a very effective way, and it's certainly one of the most beautiful and most instrumentally exciting black metal albums I've ever heard. Even though it's a long album and there are many different elements used throughout, everything is done so brilliantly and flows together so fluidly, that it ends up feeling like a shorter album then it really is, and it definitely feels like everything came together perfectly on this one. Absolutely brilliant and a must hear for any fan of black metal, or just anyone who wants to hear some atmospheric music that is equal parts dark and beautiful. I'd say it makes me curious to explore other genres more than I ever have before, but at the same time I can also say I don't expect to find many albums outside of my usual styles I enjoy as much as this one, as it's definitely something special.

VANDROYA Beyond the Human Mind

Album · 2017 · Power Metal
Cover art Buy this album from MMA partners
Out of all metal bands to come out of Brazil, my favorite is progressive power metal band Vandroya, who absolutely blew me with their 2013 debut One, and so even in a month as crowded with big new releases as April 2017 has been, their sophomore release Beyond the Human Mind was one I absolutely had to hear. One was an album where everything just clicked with me immediately and I loved the seamless blend between power and prog elements, as well as the amazing lead vocals, and so I had very high expectations for Beyond the Human Mind. Thankfully, there’s no sophomore slump for this band, as they have delivered another excellent album that very much falls in line with their debut, while also having a slightly rougher, more raw sound that works out quite well.

On One, Vandroya managed to take influences from bands such as Angra and Symphony X, while very much developing their own sound, and this continues on Beyond the Human Mind. If anything, I’d say the two main influences from the debut, while still there at times, are much less noticeable here, and I mostly notice some Helloween in the rawer sound and in the energy of some of the speedier passages. This is definitely a rawer, harder-hitting album in compared to their debut, with the duo guitars very much being the focus of the music, and the production is definitely a bit less polished this time around, but if anything that just makes the music all the more hard-hitting and powerful. At the same time, while the music is definitely aggressive at times, there’s still some great melodies here and the vocal lines are every bit as brilliant as on the debut. Where the debut was a more even mix between power and prog, most tracks on this release tend to lean closer to the former, while occasionally adding in elements of the latter, and so most tracks are fairly fast paced and a bit more straight-forward compared to songs on the debut, although there’s still some more complex instrumental portions, especially on the 10 minute epic title track that closes the album.

As much as I loved the music on One, my favorite element of that album was vocalist Daisa Munhoz, and that remains as true as ever on this album. Her voice is as fierce and powerful as ever, and on the heavier tracks, she provides some very aggressive and energetic vocals that match the intensity of the music, while still being able to rein herself in enough to deliver huge choruses, all while stealing the show every time she sings. On the debut, she also excelled during softer portions, where she was able to soften her voice up and sing a lot more calmly and very beautifully, while also singing with a lot of emotion, and of course, that also remains as true as ever on this release. In short, she has once again given one of the best vocal performances I’ve heard on a metal album in recent years and remains one of my favorite vocalists in all of metal.

Songwriting is another area where the debut was pretty much flawless, and this is again true of Beyond the Human Mind. There’s a nice variety between the tracks, and everything flows very nicely. The album begins with the intro track “Columns of Illusion”, which starts out as your typical epic orchestral intro, before the drums and guitars slowly kick in midway through, and then later on the guitar starts to dominate with some great solos and the music picks up in intensity, serving as a great beginning for the album. After that, opening song “The Path to the Endless Fall” kicks in and is the kind of straight-forward, high-speed assault fans would expect as the opener for a power metal album. The guitars are heavy and sound great right out of the gate, and the track moves at a frantic pace, very much having a classic power metal feel, and the rawness of the guitars can immediately be noticed, before Daisa takes over and delivers excellent vocals throughout the verses, and then completely steals the show during the chorus. The solo section is also very energetic and quite memorable, and all around it’s an excellent opening track.

The next track, “Maya”, has a slightly more modern feel to it, with slightly punchier guitars. It starts off with some fast riffs, before turning into more of a mid-paced prog song with slight power metal leanings. During the opening verse the guitars remain heavy, but as it moves along the keyboards slowly kick in, and we get a more relaxing section before the amazing chorus shows up for the first time, and the track does a nice job of alternating between heavy guitar led sections and calmer keyboard driven sections, all while allowing Daisa to shine throughout. It’s solo section is also really nice and features some great guitar work, as usual. Next is “Time After Time”, the first of a couple tracks where I notice a slight hard rock edge in the guitars, though for the most part it’s a speedy power metal track, where the chorus effectively uses a slow section to build up energy before the music again goes full speed, and it’s a really awesome chorus, easily one of my favorites on the album. The last two speedy tracks are “I’m Alive”,a fairly simple and fast paced track which also has a slight hard rock edge to its riffs, as well as one of the more fun solo sections on the album and a fun chorus, and “You’ll Know My Name”, possibly the fastest, most energetic track on the album, which has some very heavy riffs and catchy vocals during the verses, and keeps the energy going throughout, with a great chorus and another memorable extended instrumental section in the second half. ‘

On the calmer side of things, the album has two ballads “Last Breath” and “If I Forgive Myself”. Usually, I don’t like when power metal albums have two ballads, but these two tracks are both excellent and they’re spread out perfectly so that that they don’t slow down the momentum of the album. Both tracks feature some of the best vocals I’ve heard from Daisa, with some stunning choruses and bridge sections. “Last Breath” is led by acoustic guitars, while “If I Forgive Myself” is a piano ballad, and while I love both tracks a lot, it;s the former that slightly wins out for me, mostly because it has probably the best vocal section on the entire album, followed by a really beautiful guitar solo.

Lastly, the title track is a mostly mid-paced progressive metal track, with some heavy guitars throughout. It almost serves as a power ballad throughout the first half, but then in the middle we get a very long instrumental section where the guitars get heavier and becomes a more complex, prog track with some excellent solos, and this section is definitely one of the highlights of the album, while Daisa sounds as amazing as always on the chorus.

Overall, Beyond the Human Mind feels like a natural evolution from One, leaning a bit more towards a classic power metal sound, while still including some modern prog elements and some excellent instrumental sections. It’s a rawer, more powerful sounding album, and once again it features some incredible songwriting as well as one of my current favorite vocalists in metal. Just as in 2013, Vandroya has delivered one of the best progressive power metal albums of the year, and I highly recommend this release for existing fans of the band, as well as any prog and power metal fans who want something that mixes together both genres nicely, while featuring some incredible vocals.

originally written for myglobalmind.com: http://myglobalmind.com/2017/04/21/vandroya-beyond-human-mind-review/

PYRAMAZE Contingent

Album · 2017 · Progressive Metal
Cover art Buy this album from MMA partners
April 2017 is a very crowded month for new metal releases, with three of my most anticipated releases of the year all coming on the same day, and so it would be easy for something to get lost in the shuffle. On the same day as those three releases, though, we have what is sure to be a highly anticipated release for many other people, which is Contingent, the fifth full-length release from Danish progressive power metal band Pyramaze. Fans were excited two years ago, as after releasing three well-regarded albums in the previous decade, the band was dormant for a while, only to return with a slightly different lineup to release Disciples of the Sun, which ended up being a very well-received comeback album and seemingly triggered the start of a new era for the band. Now, two years later, the band has retained the same lineup and are ready to release their next album Contigent, which very much feels like a natural evolution, though it does take the band into slightly new territory compared to past releases.

In their early days, Pyramaze were a fairly traditional power metal band, though their 2008 release Immortal included some prog elements and stands as their most aggressive album to date. With Disciples of the Sun, the band modernized their sound quite a bit, featuring a mix between harder guitar riffs, more atmospheric keyboards, and some huge vocal melodies. The release still maintained elements of their old power metal sound, but it laid the foundation for the band to switch to more of a melodic prog sound, which is exactly what has happened on Contingent. There’s still the occasional speedy sections, but for the most part this is a very laidback album, more focused on the huge choruses and vocal melodies than anything else, with the instrumental sections mostly being dominated by some effective but rather simple riffs, while keyboards are paired with orchestration to add some flavor and to give the album a slight symphonic feel at times. There are some nice guitar solos at times, though nothing overly flashy or technical. I’d say, on the whole, fans should expect the majority of the album to sound something like “Genetic Process” from the previous album, with only a couple tracks even coming close to speedier territory like “Fearless”, and there’s nothing overly challenging or complex, either. From a production standpoint, everything sounds amazing, as always from Jacob Hansen, who also serves as the band’s bassist and second guitarist currently, and I’d say the performances and overall sound are definitely the biggest strengths of the album. The mix between modern riffs and big vocal melodies is quite addictive, though I’d say this album is a case where the overall idea is better than the execution at times,

Pyramaze have been through quite a few vocalists over the years, with Lance King performing on their first two albums, before being replaced by Matt Barlow on Immortal. Things got complicated from there, as Matt left and was replaced by Urban Breed, but somehow the band never recorded an album with him, and for a while it seemed like they might be done until they finally returned in 2015 with new vocalist Terje Harøy, who I had previous heard with his old band, Teodor Tuff. He has a very strong, clear voice and definitely gives the music a unique feel, with a vocal approach that really gets the most out of the melodies, and I’d say he brings a high level of accessibility to the music, almost sounding radio friendly at times. His vocals are a definite highlight of both this album and Disciples of the Sun.

The one area where I’m not really blown away is the songwriting. I actually have a similar problem with this release as I did with the Seven Kingdoms album I reviewed recently, except on the opposite end when it comes to speed, where I don’t think there are any weak songs here, but I definitely think the album could use some variety, as there simply aren’t enough tracks that change the formula up in a meaningful way. For the most part, the tracks alternate between slow, heavy guitar driven verses and big melodic choruses, with some tracks going a little bit lighter during the verses and emphasizing the keyboards. Either way, though, it’s a very formulaic approach to songwriting, with even speedier tracks like “20 Second Century” and “Symphony of Tears” being pretty similar, except that they have faster-paced choruses than the other tracks, which makes them stand out at least a little bit. I find that can be a problem with melodic prog in general, though, where the overall sound is excellent, but the bands can sometimes struggle to come up with fresh ideas for songs as they don’t want to get overly complicated with their musicianship but also don’t want to push too far into other genres, and so it’s like they deliberately limit themselves in the songwriting department.

I will say, though, the album leaves a strong first impression, as opening track “Land of Information”, while still falling into the same basic melodic prog formula, somehow feels a bit fresher than the rest of the album, like the band dialed up their performances to the next level and everything feels more energetic. Even the verses hit just a bit harder than on the rest of the album, the solo section seems just a bit stronger and more memorable, and the chorus is awesome as always. While the track is still more mid-paced, I would say it moves at a slightly better pace than most of the album overall, with the verses being a bit faster than even “20 Second Century”, though it never gets as fast as that song does during its chorus.

For the most part, the rest of the album feels like it falls into a basic formula, with tracks like “Kingdom of Solace”, “A World Divided”, “Nemesis”, “Obsession”, “and “Under Restraint” being hard to tell apart due to how they all rely on slow, chunky modern riffs and big choruses, while more keyboard driven tracks like “Star Men” and “Heir Apparent” simply lack energy in the verses and don’t give the album the change of pace it needs. Basically, for the most part, I’d say the verses are kinda boring throughout most songs, but the choruses are amazing and save the day, so it’s like, I certainly enjoy listening to the music a lot, and Terje really carries most of the songs, but I can’t help but feel as if the band has the potential to do better things in their current form. One weird thing is how the album has two title tracks, scattered in different parts of the album, but these are both very brief orchestral pieces, that while being very nice, feel more like interludes than anything else, so making them title tracks feels very weird. One track that stands out in a positive way is the ballad “The Tides That Won’t Change”, which features some very nice female vocals from guest Kristen Foss, who I’d even say slightly outshines Terje on that track, though both singers sound very good and it’s definitely my second favorite on the album, behind only “Land of Information”.

I’ve been a bit hard on Contingent, but I will say I think it’s a very solid album overall and on an objective level everything about it is top tier and I really can’t complain. I was simply hoping for the songwriting to be just a bit more varied and more interesting, and I hope on future releases Pyramaze can find a way to bring back some of the speed and variety of previous albums, while still building on the melodic prog sound they have going on, because the overall sound is very good and I think they can do great things with their current lineup, but they need to push just a bit further out of their comfort zone in the songwriting department. Overall, a solid album I can easily recommend to fans of melodic prog, while power metal fans may be a bit disappointed, but there’s still enough good points here for it to be worth a shot for any fans of the band.

originally written for myglobalmind.com: http://myglobalmind.com/2017/04/14/pyramaze-contingent-review/

AYREON The Source

Album · 2017 · Progressive Metal
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All music fans have certain bands or certain musicians, who whenever they announce a new release, they’re instantly excited and immediately consider hearing it as soon as it’s available their top priority. For me, that musician is Arjen Lucassen, and especially his Ayreon project, which first blew me away with the 2004 release The Human Equation, my all time favorite album, and has yet to let me down ever since. I’ll admit, after the rather lengthy break and several side projects Arjen made in between 01011001 and The Theory of Everything, I was actually a bit surprised when he announced the eighth Ayreon album, The Source, less than three years after the release of its predecessor, with the release coming roughly three and a half years after that one, only doing one side project in between. I can’t complain, though, because while I have enjoyed all of Arjen’s other works in the past, I find I prefer him when he’s at his most dynamic and using the widest range of sounds he can, which is exactly what he does with Ayreon. After The Theory of Everything ended up being one of my all time favorite releases, I was excited to see if The Source would be yet another masterpiece, and suffice to say, it is!

As always with Ayreon, I’ll talk a bit about the concept of this release first, before going into the music. I find lately Arjen has fallen into a bit of a pattern, where one release will be focused on the overarching Sci-Fi concept he has going on, while the next album will be more of a side story. For example, The Human Equation was totally it’s own thing, then 01011001 ended up feeling like the end of the main Forever/Planet Y arc, which led me to think all future Ayreon releases would have to either side stories or a whole new story, and indeed The Theory of Everything was another side story, but to my surprise he has actually gone back to the main story this time around, with The Source being a prequel to 01011001.

As always, there’s a lot going on here, but the basic gist of the plot is that a planet called Alpha has been overtaken by machines, with the main beings of the planet, ancestors to humanity, losing control to the point where a group of them (the main characters of the album) make the decision to leave on a spaceship, to seek out life on another planet. This, of course, leads to the beginnings of Planet Y, which longtime Ayreon fans should be very familiar with by now. While the album still has its fun moments, including several references to various prior Ayreon releases, I find the tone to be a bit darker than usual, as many tracks talk about the guilt the characters feel over having to leave the rest of their people behind on a dying planet while they survive somewhere else. It’s a compelling tale as always, and of course there’s some great back and forth exchanges, most notably between Russell Allen’s “The President”, who made a mistake which led to the machines taking control, and Tommy Karevik’s “The Opposition Leader”, who claims to have been against the machines from the start. Though overall, I find the characters don’t conflict with each other as much as on previous releases, probably because there’s a common goal for all of them this time around.

Speaking of which, while previous Ayreon albums have had some impressive casts, this has to be the best one yet! There’s some great returning singers here, such as James Labrie (Dream Theater), Tommy Karevik (Kamelot), Simone Simons (Epica), Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian), Michael Mills (Toehider), Russell Allen (Symphony X) and Floor Jansen (Nightwish), with all of the above having prominent roles and being given a ton of room to work with. Simone Simons, in particular, has a much larger role than she had on 01011001, which is great as I had thought she was underused there, where on this album she gets to showcase her voice a ton more, including some operatic vocals on “Deathcry of a Race”. The real show stealer may be Michael Mills, though, as he plays the machine “TH-1”, which allows him to show off his crazy vocal range in some impressive ways, and he’s often used for some background effects which is also pretty cool. Moving on to newcomers, we have Tommy Rogers (Between the Buried and Me”), which at first glance may not be a choice some folks would expect, but he actually has a very clear, soft singing voice which works great for an Ayreon album and he sounds great here, especially on “The Source Will Flow”. Less shocking choices include Nils K. Rue (Pagan’s Mind), who has a very deep and powerful voice that fits his part well, especially shining during the chorus of “Sea of Machines”, where he really gets to show off his power, Michael Eriksen (Circus Maximus), who has a very emotional delivery that fits his character perfectly, and has his shining moments on the opening track and “Into the Ocean” and Zaher Zorgati (Myrath), who only has a very brief part on “Deathcry of a Race”, though he does a very good job on that part.

Perhaps the most shocking of all, though, has to be Tobias Sammet, and there’s an actually a bit of a story there as in the past some people assumed there was some kind of rivalry between the two because they were both doing rock opera projects, but it turns out they actually enjoyed each other’s music a lot and even did a cover of Alice Cooper’s “Elected” together in 2008, then Arjen contributed some guitar work to the 2013 Avantasia release “The Mystery of Time” and now Tobias has been given a fairly prominent role on this album. I was excited when heard about this as I’ve long been a fan of both men and their projects, so seeing them work together feels very satisfying, and the result is as great as I would have hoped for.

Musically, The Source is a diverse album as fans would expect, though I find in comparison to The Theory of Everything it’s definitely a much more metal oriented album, with a lot of more guitar-driven sections and some of the heavier sections remind me of the Star One album Victims of the Modern Age, with some of the chunky, groovier guitar sections. There’s also some a couple surprisingly speedy tracks, with small traces of power metal on one track in particular. Obviously, though, this is still an Ayreon release, and so fans can still expect tons of synth effects, as well as unusual metal instruments like violin, cello, and various wind instruments, and there are certainly some nice softer sections and some more prog rock moments as always. Where the last Ayreon release was a departure in terms of structure, this one feels more traditional, in that while it can still be divided into four different phases, there’s a much greater focus on individual tracks here, and the songwriting is more fun and catchy, while still giving room for the plot to develop. If anything, I’d say the release feels like a more focused version of 01011001 and is basically what that album would have been if it didn’t take any weird detours, seemingly to fit in as many side roles as possible, but instead focused entirely on the main plot. Basically, it has a slightly smaller cast, but I find everyone has an important role and no one feels underused, aside from the one exception I noticed, and Arjen has stated he’d like to give that person a larger role sometime in the future, which would be great.

Moving onto songwriting, and that’s an area where Arjen has never been anything short of brilliant, with The Source being especially impressive even by his standards. First up, man is “The Day That the World Breaks Down” ever an impressive opener! Like, you could pretty much consider that track its own EP or mini album, it has that much going on! The track opens up with some calm but somber sounding synth effects before James Labrie introduces us to the concept of the album, and from there the violin, cello, and flute all kick in, before the guitars eventually take over we get some pretty killer riffs early on. From there, the track feels like highlight after highlight, with both Tommy’s and Simone Simons getting into a great vocal section early on, then Nils K. Rue appears to steal the show for a bit, and after that we get one of the best parts of the track, where heavy guitars collide head on with a hammond for an incredibly epic sound!

After this, we get a bass-heavy section where Tobias Sammet makes his first appearance and does a great job, then Michael Mills adds in some vocal effects, in his first appearance before he reappears a bit later on and sings the binary code for “trust TH1”, but he uses his own creative vocal melodies, adding in an epic deep voice at the end, and he shows some incredible vocal abilities on just this one section. In between that, Hansi Kürsch shows up for a bit, sounding awesome as always. Early on in the track is a beautiful violin solo, which Arjen later recreates on his guitar, to amazing effect. Moving along, past the epic Michael Mills section, we get a bluesy section, where Russell Allen makes his first appearance, Fans of later Symphony X may be in for a shock, as on this album Russell mostly uses a more soulful, kind of bluesy hard rock approach to his vocals, which is actually refreshing as he sounds more like he did on older albums and does a great job. This section is mixed in with a softer section where Michael Eriksen sings beautifully, and then after that, we get one of the most gorgeous sounding guitar solos I’ve ever heard, performed by Arjen himself, and then finally a return to a heavier section where Floor Jansen appears and knocks it out of the park. She’s another singer who seems to be given more to work with every time she works with Arjen, and on this album, she really gets to showcase her power on some tracks and does an incredible job.

After that track, “Sea of Machines” starts off quietly, before picking up once the chorus kicks in, and it’s a pretty awesome one, then, later on, we get a section that starts off calmly before building up intensity, and turns into one of the better vocal sections, as well as the foundation for a later track. The next big standout track is “Everybody Dies”, where Michael Mills shows his insane range for the first minute, with everything from the usual effects, to epic high notes and some incredibly menacing deep vocals, then both Tommy’s show up and we get to the foundation of the track, which is to say some verses that are seriously catchier than most choruses on some albums, though the actual chorus is also amazing, performed first by Russell, then Hansi and then finally Floor right near the end. An epic, incredibly catchy track that alternates between fun and cheesy with the keyboards, to some pretty heavy riffs. An instant prog classic, for sure. We have a couple slower tracks after that, with “Star of Sirrah” starting off quiet before picking up the intensity after a bit and getting pretty heavy later on, reminding me of a Star One track, then later on it has an impressive guitar solo by Paul Gilbert. Meanwhile, “All That Was” is a calmer track with some slight folk elements. It has some impressive instrumental sections in the second half, while early on Simone Simons is given a chance to show off her always beautiful voice.

We then get into another big standout in “Run! Apocalypse! Run!”, probably the speediest track on the album and one that has some clear power metal elements, though the way the synths are used still give it a prog feel, and it certainly has the same addictive quality as the rest of the album. Tobias provides some great vocals during the chorus, and it’s a really fun track overall. Closing out disc 1, we have “Condemned to Live”, a darker track filled plenty of epic vocal sections, most notably from Tommy Rogers and James Labrie, though Tommy Karevik and Floor Jansen also get some great moments right near the end, and the instrumental part at the end is epic. Disc 2 gets off to a theatrical start, with some epic vocals from Michael Mills out of the gate on “Aquatic Race”, and then the track gets heavier and darker, again bringing Star One to mind. It’s actually a fairly calm track overall, though, and Michael Eriksen and Russell Allen have some great vocals in the middle, then Tommy Rogers takes over later on. Next we have a couple more ballad type tracks, first with “The Dream Dissolves”, where the beginning parts give us a nice duet between Simone Simons and Floor Jansen, as well as nice folk music, then later one we get two great solos, first a nice synth solo from Mark Kelly and a great guitar solo from Marcel Coenen. I already mentioned the two big moments on the next track, so after that, we have “Into the Ocean”, more of a hard rocking track where Michael Eriksen gets some big moments and Hansi Kürsch delivers big time on the chorus. Later in the track, Tobias Sammet and Nils K. Rue both get big moments and the instruments pick up big time, turning into a pretty epic prog track, with some huge vocal melodies. Next is “Bay of Dreams”, another ballad with some great synth sounds and great vocals from Tommy Rogers and James Labrie, before the track eventually gets heavier later on and Nils K, Rue delivers some epic vocals.

Following that, we get to perhaps my favorite sequence of the album, which brings us to the end. First up, “Planet Y is Alive” is another speedier track, which features a great exchange between Russell Allen and Tommy Karevik early on, as well as an epic chorus, though I prefer the later version of it when Floor Jansen takes over. In the middle, we get a calmer section with the last big guitar solo of the album, performed by Guthrie Govan. After that, “The Source Will Flow” is another ballad, starting with great vocals from Tommy Rogers and James Labrie before it picks up a bit of steam later on and Simone Simons gives us some of her best vocals on the album. The last full song on the album is “Journey to Forever”, an upbeat track which alternates between softer parts and a fast paced, epic chorus, starting off performed by Michael Mills, then later on performed by a group of singers. It’s definitely refreshing to hear such an upbeat and happy track on an album that can be very bleak at times, and it’s a very fun track that certainly stands out as a favorite. After that, we get “The Human Compulsion”, which takes a section from “Sea of Machines” and using it as the building block for the kind of section Arjen always loves to include, where all the main singers get one last chance to shine with some epic vocal moments. The song starts off calm before gradually picking up the intensity with each vocal line, and Floor Jansen’s final line is simply stunning. After that brief but awesome track, the album ends with “March of the Machines”, an outro track which uses some heavy synth effects and robot sounding voiceovers, as well as some more binary code in the background, before Michael Mills takes delivers some epic vocals near the end and closes the album with a big reference, sure to excite fans of a certain Ayreon album, and it makes this album’s place in the story all the more obvious.

I’ve said a lot already, so I’ll cut make this conclusion short: The Source is yet another outstanding rock opera that once again proves Arjen Lucassen’s ability to tell a compelling story, while still giving his fans memorable songs and some excellent instrumental work, to go along with a truly impressive cast of singers. It falls on the heavier side of Ayreon, while lining itself up well with past albums in the story, and is certainly up there with some of Arjen’s best work to date. Easily my 2017 album of the year so far, and highly recommended for all Ayreon fans and prog fans in general.

originally written for myglobalmind.com: http://myglobalmind.com/2017/04/11/ayreon-source-review/

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