Metal Music Reviews from Conor Fynes

BURZUM Filosofem

Album · 1996 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 3.75 | 47 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Filosofem' - Burzum (91/100)

"Do you think Filosofem and Hvis lyset tar oss would be considered masterpieces if they were released this year?" I asked a friend of mine a month or so ago. My experience with Burzum up until that point had been remarkably shallow, and the single-serving listens I'd given some of Vikernes' best-known songs had not done a lot to convince me the music had earned its status without the help of some over-discussed arsons and/or stabbing party that happened in Norway some years ago.

"Yeah I do," he replied; "The music has a timeless quality to it." Another friend noted Filosofem as the perfect embodiment of 'cold' atmosphere. I'm glad I've known folk who could interpret and experience this music outside the bounds of sensationalism; experiencing Filosofem has been a long time coming for me, and it's with self-admitted regret that I've let a monument like this pass me by for so long.

First off; it has been a nagging pet peeve to read review after review of Burzum's music that tries to separate an appreciation of the music with the ideas behind its making, much less the man himself. You see this kind of pussyfooting whenever someone's talking about an unfashionably right-wing group but it's never so pronounced as it is with Burzum. The appeal of mystically-inclined ambient black metal is arguably wider than Varg's politik, but a willingness to explore the music without opening oneself to the ideas behind the work is to miss an essential part of the point. Filosofem wears its intention in the very title; this album is a manifest philosophy, and though the music and lyrics don't touch upon the political specifics of his Odalist pro-racial agenda, that intent seeps through every minute of Filosofem.

Possibly moreso than any black metal album I've heard, Filosofem truly evokes a longing for an ancient past. For music crafted with the most minimalist, simple and repeated ingredients, the atmosphere is richly evocative; it is as if the music was robbed from another time, real or imagined. I do not believe Filosofem would be felt so powerfully, did Varg not feel so powerfully about his vision for a pure(r) Norway. Atmosphere in music is often intangible; it is as hard to replicate as it is to properly write about. In Burzum's case, Varg Vikernes managed to create an incredible (and, indeed, timeless) palette of sound with the seemingly laziest elements at his disposal. Foregoing the use of proper microphones or even a proper amplifier (the guitar tone was brought about using distortion pedals plugged into his brother's stereo) he created a sound that's all too easy to become lost in. Compare that to the tens-of-thousands of hours of mindless bedroom demos that have spawned forth since. Some of them might be decently imagined, but it's not likely any manage to spurn a session of contemplating your own philosophies in life. Filosofem manages to do this, and more.

Though it's easy to confuse his musical priorities with laziness, his tactical use of keyboards in his music enforces the notion of Varg as a brilliant composer. For one of the simplest motifs you'll ever hear in music, the brooding three/four note keyboard overlay on "Dunkelheit (Burzum)" is instantly and greatly memorable. Varg has a penchant for these hook-bearing 'earworms' that you almost never hear in an atmospheric or ambient context. "Jesu død" is just as impactful a track as the first without help of keys at all, with little more than a few repetitive guitar riffs to see it through. How Burzum's best work manages to do so much with so little is virtually indecipherable on an academic, objective level. It is music that can, must, and will be felt by whomever listens to it.

The sense of Filosofem doing intense things to the psyche with so few concrete ideas is best represented in "Rundtgåing av den transcendentale egenhetens støtte", the album's twenty-five minute centrepiece, and apparently still the thing most listeners (outside of the PC whiners) have the toughest time grappling with. As a fan of progressive music long before I came into black metal, I instantly loved how Vikernes' ambient music sounds so close to the Berlin School of electronic music, in the minimalist vein of Klaus Schulze or Tangerine Dream. The first half builds up a single motif; the second half is spent dwindling it down.

Of course, that brief description tells little of the way it affects the spirit while listening to it. "Rundtgåing av den transcendentale egenhetens støtte" feels both like a denouement to the 'metal' side of the album and climax in its own right. As a composer and musician, Vikernes' work on Filosofem is defined by how he economizes the use of ideas, and this 25 minute sprawl stands as a definitive realization of that intent. Bookended by parts one and two of "Decrepitude" (which seems to bridge the gap stylistically between the black metal and full ambient chunks of the album) the album's sequence doesn't place it as an afterthought so much as a full-bodied other part of the music that should be regarded just as intently as the three-or-so songs people are originally coming for. In a sense, Vikernes was already recognizing the close-mindedness of the lion's share of the black metal scene and was already playing against it pre-emptively.

Though the ambient centre of the album does seem to go between five and ten minutes longer than might have been optimal for atmosphere's sake, Filosofem still sounds bold and relevant. Even today, there are so few artists that decide to fuck what all others think or will think of their art. I don't get the impression Varg's artistic choices were done as a way to seem 'cool' so much as the behaviour of some of the Second Wave's other star players... He simply felt something deeply to the point that it defined him as a person, and he possessed the musical talent to bring that psychic energy into the material world with his music. I'll say again; those who wish to avert their fragile eyes away from the essential meaning of what he was trying to say are losing sight of what this music is really about. Without feeling something so specific so strongly, the supposedly 'universal' atmosphere here would not have existed to begin with.

SACRAMENTUM Far Away From the Sun

Album · 1996 · Melodic Black Metal
Cover art 4.09 | 10 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Far Away from the Sun' - Sacramentum (88/100)

More recent times have arguably given melodic black metal a bad rep. Melody, of course, is the most generally accessible side of music, and that accessibility would seem to conflict directly with a genre that would otherwise refute any concessions to the casual listener. Even if the impression of melody as benign musical ingredient has been enforced and reaffirmed by countless black metal bands since, the opposite was best exemplified by Sacramentum. Although they're typically overshadowed by the legend of Dissection, the overwhelming comparison is unfair, outside of the fact that, yes, they were both using melody with an evil intent, and both hailed from Sweden.

Where many Scandinavian black metal bands (Dissection not least of all) owe part of their legendary status to their image and destructive acts, Sacramentum had no such pretence. Whatever respect they've earned from the black metal community in years since is derived purely from their music, more specifically their debut, Far Away from the Sun. Black metal was already becoming a saturated entity in 1996; with more than enough younger acts leaping on the heels of Bathory and Mayhem, Sacramentum weaponized melody in black metal to new heights. The result is an album as cold, eerie and memorable as anything I've heard in the genre's melodic sphere. And yes, I'm including Dissection in that tally.

The weight of my impression with Sacramentum lies in the way they've so effectively merged consonant beauty with an unsettling, aggressive atmosphere. The album's opener and single "Fog's Kiss" exemplifies the things Sacramentum do so well here. Where the accepted convention with an album of this sort would be to pad it with some kind of faux-spooky 'intro' (add blowing wind samples and howling wolves for bonus points), they begin Far Away from the Sun without a second to spare. It kicks off with an instant intensity that's rarely been replicated by acts in their neighbourhood. Nicklas Rudolfsson's drumwork is incredibly precise with his onslaught of blastbeats, but he also knows when to tone the aggression down. Nisse Karlén's vocals rush past with a far greater urgency than you'd expect from such a melody-centered band.

For such a tight combo, the riffs of guitarist Anders Brolycke still ring as the most striking aspect of Far Away from the Sun. Great riffs are hard to come by in virtually any type of metal, and this album is filled with them. Sacramentum revel in the genrebound tremolo-leads and the soaring rhythms, but some of the greatest moments here happen when Brolycke's riffs emphasize beauty over blackened convention. Such is the case 1:55 into "Fog's Kiss", where he diverts off course with a playful lead, or a strikingly gorgeous part three minutes into "Blood Will Be Spilled" where consonant harmonies are exploited in a rare case truly deserving of being called epic.

When it comes to my favourite melodic black metal albums, I may be torn between this and Windir's Arntor. While Arntor sounded like it had been composed from the depths of Romanticism, Sacramentum uses many of the same tricks to create a far eviller sound, more in keeping with the original intent of black metal. Sacramentum employ guitar harmonies that would put Iron Maiden's best work to shame, and the beauty in this music is often immense. Even so, I can listen to Sacramentum, and get no sense that they're offering this beauty to improve my life as a listener, much less give me a warm, consonant hug. If any comparison with Dissection bears fruit, it's in these two bands' common aim to use melody in a rare context, using it to create negative feeling through negativity. Even in black metal, that is a rare thing to behold. There's no rulebook on how to get those feelings across through generally beautiful means. Although melodic black metal favours mediocrity more than most sub-genres, the good stuff tends to be great, and Far Away from the Sun stands tall alongside the very best of them.

WINDIR Arntor

Album · 1998 · Melodic Black Metal
Cover art 4.56 | 14 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Arntor' - Windir (89/100)

In my mind, it is lamentably difficult to dissociate Windir's music from the ill-fated demise of the band's frontman and songwriter, Terje "Valfar" Bakken. That he met his end in a cold of a snowstorm feels drearily appropriate for the music he played in life, and might even seem amusingly ironic, were it not for the fact that friends and family lost a loved one that night, and the black metal scene lost one of its brightest composers. It has been over a decade now since his passing, and people still have his memory in mind when they listen to Windir. His ghost hangs over the music, and begs us to wonder what other masterpieces he might have conjured in the time since fate's deadly trick.

Yet, in spite of the supposed sensationalism that surrounds this and many of the other tragedies in the Norwegian Second Wave, it has never been enough to overshadow the music itself. People might still speculate over the circumstances of Valfar's death, but it's the brilliance Windir exhibited in their vastness of composition and arrangement that keep them sticking around. Arntor was the first Windir album I ever listened to, and it was an all-too rare case of a Second Wave album striking me as a work of genius on my very first listen. The pagan scene is replete with bands that wish to emulate Windir's approach, but none have managed to surpass the formula they perfected on Arntor. The only other artist I can think of that blended traditional black metal with such melody-focused songwriting is Dissection, and given the ever-legendary regard that band earned over the course of two or three albums, it's not bad company for Windir to be in at all.

The strength and significance of melody cannot (read: cannot) be overstated on Arntor. While melodic songwriting tends to get a bad rep in black metal and other 'artistic' genres for being simplistic, cheesy or both, Windir are anything but. The closest thing I could liken their style to outside of bands that influenced them, or were themselves influenced by, would be the Romantic-era classical composers, who gave up some of the pretense of High Classical orchestration to make way for a more sweeping and straightforward beauty. At least four of the seven tracks on Arntor give the staunch impression of classical music performed as black metal. Even (perhaps especially) at the band's most fast-paced and aggressive moments, the guitars are soaring through intensely melodic passages. They are not 'hooks' per se so much as vessels for a conventionally beautiful and sweeping atmosphere, made potentially inaccessible to outsiders of metal fandom only by the merit of the aggressive drumwork and raspy shrieks to be generally expected from the genre. To say that I might bring up Arntor to someone who was looking to first get into black metal shouldn't imply it is simply a gateway to be dismissed once a listener acclimates themselves to more extreme pastures; Arntor is conventionally very beautiful, but it is so at no cost to its depth and longevity.

"Arntor, ein windir" is the song that has engrained itself in my mind the most, if only because it was the 'lightbulb moment' that demonstrated to me how bloody fantastic the rest of the album was bound to be. For Windir, the handling of melody and harmony are one and the same; much like a classical composition, there are often at least a couple of melodies vying for attention, and it is the way they connect and interplay that really matters. Windir occasionally bring clean vocals to bear, but their use of melody in far more in line with the expected Viking formula: deep-pitched, chant-like, and rich in harmony. While Arntor stands out most for its brilliant guitar writing, the more typical elements of pagan metal are executed just as well.

"Kong Hydnes haug", "Svartesmeden og lundamystrollet", and "Saknet" are, in hindsight, just as impressive and beautiful as "Arntor, ein windir", and possibly even bolder when it comes to the overall composition. While the first two are obviously separate tracks, they flow perfectly together, operating from the same tonal origin in such a way that it sounds like one is an inventive variation on the other. While the first three of these tracks are almost uplifting in their soaring melodic appeal, "Saknet" is a much more melancholy piece; without losing any of its conventional beauty, the album's final centrepiece is both predictable in its style, and startling in its refreshing emotional perspective.

There are, of course, three other tracks on Arntor I have glazed over. While they're all solid movements and don't threaten the album's relative 'masterpiece' status, I find it difficult to hold them on the same level of regard as the 'Big Four'-- judging from what I've read on a few other reviews, this tends to be a pretty common criticism. "Byrjing" falls into the done-to-death category of 'synthesizer album intro', the likes of which you've come across a hundred times on other albums of this sort. It's decently atmospheric and more purposefully composed than at least ninety of those mentioned intros, but it does little more than to set the table for the main course. "Kampen" and "Ending", on the other hand, are pretty standard pagan-black metal tunes. "Kampen" in particular is a nice surge of chest-bumping drinking energy in between the two larger epics, but it does sound like Windir were operating on a much less ambitious wavelength with these tracks. Even so; I disagree with the notion that these tracks have no place on Arntor. While they'll never be considered highlights for as long as the album enjoys a listenership, they offer a contrast and reprieve from the jaw-dropping atmosphere. They're solid pagan tunes, but what's more; they stand as a reminder of just how excellent and distinguished the best songs really are in comparison with most of the genre.

Although my personal listening diet often gravitates towards the cosmic end of black metal over its earthly, pagan counterpart, Arntor stands as a masterpiece of its style to my ears, and probably the best album Windir ever put out in their time. The melodic writing is some of the best I have ever heard on a black metal album. Despite his age, Valfar inspired the confidence of a true composer. Whether or not the material is consistent is unimportant when the sum of the parts is so rich and expressive. Everything is in its rightful place. Windir lives on!

FACTORY OF DREAMS Some Kind of Poetic Destruction

Album · 2013 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 4 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Some Kind of Poetic Destruction' - Factory of Dreams (5/10)

Call them symphonic metal, prog, 'space opera' metal or whatever other five dollar term that comes to mind; Factory of Dreams is a band that first impressed me with their unique grasp of style. Although the band was essentially a one-man project of Hugo Flores', Factory of Dreams had a tendency to sound larger-than-life. Even when you stop to consider virtuosity and ambition are virtually pre-requisites to be noticed in progressive metal, these guys still managed to blow me away with how bloody outrageous their sound was. It was akin to hearing an opera staged by Norse gods while speeding through hyperspace... Outlandish descriptions aside, Factory of Dreams caught my ear from the start. Hugo Flores' latest outing with Factory of Dreams- "Some Kind of Poetic Destruction"- is relatively toned down in its orchestrations when compared to its 2011 predecessor, "Melotronical". As ambitious in scope as they were, the last album's hyperactive arrangements could be overwhelming, and scaling back the sonic density could well have been what Factory of Dreams needed to reach brilliance. Unfortunately, Factory of Dreams' fails to live up to the promise of its stylistic evolution; while certainly more song-based, the songwriting itself doesn't any more focused or effective. Especially when compared to my first experience with the band, "Some Kind of Poetic Destruction" sounds like Factory of Dreams in lite or diet form. Downplaying many of the things that made the band such an engaging listen in the first place, Factory of Dreams' latest album feels close to your standard symphonic metal fare; the project's core style and level of musicianship are still here to some extent, but I cannot help but feel disappointed.

"Some Kind of Poetic Destruction" marks Factory of Dreams' venture into the world of concept albums. Their past material has always felt like it was telling a story of some galactic import, but the band is more explicit here about the sort of story they want to tell. From what I can glean from it (and without spoiling anything), "Some Kind of Poetic Destruction" tells of the world's apocalyptic end, through the eyes of a girl named Kyra. With this concept, Factory of Dreams explores the chaos that would arise from a cataclysmic event of this scale, and the metaphysical relationship a human spirit can have with physical matter or sound, IE: music. The concept has potential, and fans of Ayreon's science fiction fare will probably find themselves at home with this story. Some of the ideas are pretty interesting here, but the concept seems to leave much of its potential untapped. It hints at something profound (fingers point to the concept's metaphysical conclusion) but the lyrics don't go much past a surface-level description of the resulting chaos that has been inflicted upon the characters' surroundings. The spoken word dialogue used to advance the story is completely lifeless and might have been best left off entirely. Luckily, the science fiction plot meshes very well with Factory of Dreams' musical approach, which retains the synthesizer-heavy, rhythmical pulse of albums past.

In regards to Flores' composition style, I get the same impression here than I got from "Melotronical". Although he's not too strong from a place of proper songwriting, he's an excellent composer and orchestrator. I don't think there's a single song here that stands out for its hooks or structure, but there are plenty of ideas throughout the album that grab the listener's attention. The songs on "Some Kind of Poetic Destruction" suffer the tendency of biting off more than they can properly chew; the ideas are self-contained and don't seem to relate to the rest of a song. Choruses and verse structures can be picked out, to be sure, but I'm hard pressed to find a song here that sounds like the ideas therein were arranged to really compliment one another. At their best, Factory of Dreams' songs feel like vessels for a string of engaging ideas. By prog standards, that might sound like a listener's dream come true; after all, the attitude of an ambitious composer transposed onto rock music has often had the effect of working against conventional structures. Factory of Dreams' music can be wildly interesting, but "Some Kind of Poetic Destruction" has significantly fewer inspiring passages than I was hoping for from the band. The crazy, over-the-top cosmic madness has been downplayed to a more comfortable level, sure, but what does the album do to really fill the gap? "Melotronical" didn't sound particularly well structured, but I was usually too overpowered as a listener to notice. The atmosphere still recalls the pleasant feel of rushing through the cosmos on the wings of orchestral fury, but it sounds so much more straightforward and restrained. Especially on the heels of "Melotronical", "Some Kind of Poetic Destruction" seems to simply 'exist' in the presence of the listener; the loose songwriting and washy production rarely serve to create compelling, standout-ish passages. The album's atmosphere often echoes or reflects the epic, but never becomes it.

In terms of being more 'straightforward', I should elaborate in saying that this impression is largely due to the greater emphasis placed on vocals this time around. Factory of Dreams have always been big on vocals, but it's usually come in the form of arrangements nearly as dense as the instrumentation. Jessica Lehto's soprano and Hugo Flores' own operatic tenor would often pass the vocal duties between each other, offering far more stimulation than you would normally expect from a vocal performance. Flores has once again enlisted the services of the talented Jess Lehto, but the vocal writing favours melodic lead performances over the dense harmonies and arrangements. She has a beautiful voice with an ethereal tone befitting a soprano, but the downscaled arrangements this time around make the vocals sound like a fairly standard fare for symphonic or gothic metal. The album's arguable standout "Seashore Dreams" features a vocal performance that dares to veer away from the generic (with an ethereal, floating ambiance that reminds me of Cocteau Twins) but it all-too often lacks the added power or identity needed to have really moved me. Instrumentally, Hugo Flores reprises his skill as a guitarist, offering some amazing guitar solos on the album - the Satriani-esque passage at the end of "Hope Garden" comes first to mind. The rhythm guitar parts are less successful; the riffs feel somewhat indistinct and washed down by the album's murky production.

Perhaps I'm too harsh on "Some Kind of Poetic Destruction", perhaps it suffers a more negative light from having the imposing duty of having to follow up one of the most original symphonic metal albums I've heard in recent memory. It's certainly true that I may have been more optimistic about the album if this had been my first experience with Factory of Dreams, but it's difficult to be as lenient when I hear this and know that they are capable of so much more. Going for a more song-oriented product was a logical choice for Factory of Dreams, but it's been a near-fatal decision for the band in this case. In sacrificing some of their far-out density and adventurousness, they have gained nothing in return. Add to that a mediocre conceptual angle, and you have an album that I cannot help but feel disappointed by. If there's any band that could make me love gothic-symphonic-space metal, I know it would be Factory of Dreams. This album looks like a misstep from where I'm coming from, but I remain confident in the band's abilities and potential to release great things again in the future.

FACTORY OF DREAMS Melotronical

Album · 2011 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.08 | 13 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Melotronical' - Factory of Dreams (8/10)

For all of the purported ambition and willingness to innovate to be found within progressive rock and metal, it's all too rare that a band's music will prove to overwhelm or surprise me. Perhaps it's a result of we as listeners having been desensitized to a lot of it; after all, when everything is extreme, ultimately nothing is. Regardless, Factory of Dreams' style of operatic space metal has hit me like a freight train, racing across some vast and cosmic terrain. Even entering a crowded genre as it is, Melotronical still manages to knock me over with one of the most over-the-top, bombastic and balls-out sounds in progressive metal I've ever heard. Moderation and subtlety are indeed alien concepts to Factory of Dreams' third album, and while the unrelenting hyperactivity undoubtedly makes it something of a love-or-hate-it affair, Melotronical has the potential to wow even the most seasoned prog metal veterans.

If I described Melotronical as a 'space metal opera', many reading this could certainly come up with their own ideas about what the band and album might sound like. Although details would vary from listener to listener, some elements would be very common to the listeners; among them, a larger-than-life atmosphere, chugging guitars, epic vocals and one foot in the space electronic genre. Factory of Dreams doesn't circumvent any of these preconceptions surrounding operatic space metal; instead, the music draws in common tropes from this niche genre, and amps them up to a ridiculously high standard of energy and bombast. While space metal regulars like Ayreon and Dol Ammad could each make a strong case in terms of comparison, I'm often reminded of Devin Townsend, and his often-overwhelming eagerness to amp up his music to the 11th degree, creating a wall of sound that can't be broken through and entirely calculated, the listener's attentiveness be damned. Although Melotronical was released in 2011, the album's 'calculated chaos' style of orchestration reminds me of two albums that came out the year after: one being Devin Townsend's loud-and-epic Epicloud, the other being Wintersun's polarizing Time I. With regards to the latter, some readers might recall the debates surrounding Wintersun, whether the overly dense orchestrations and symphonic arrangements verged on the realm of genius, or simply got in the way of the traditional hooks and grooves other listeners were left craving for. Given a comparable distribution, I would not be at all surprised to have seen listeners debating the same thing about Melotronical.

Ultimately, Factory of Dreams may often sound like the music could use a breath of fresh air at times, but I also know that the sound wouldn't have had as much of an initial shock and impact on me had there been a greater degree of restraint. Although the constant drive and chugging rhythms can serve to desensitize the listener to the orchestral intensity sometime before the album has finished, Factory of Dreams have been more than up to the task of balancing out this approach with detail, dynamic and plenty of compelling ideas. Even the album's mellow moments- which often dive into prog electronic territory in the style of pioneers like Tangerine Dream- feel loaded with wall-of-sound textures and cosmic Easter eggs. Surprisingly, almost all of this is the work and performance of one man, Hugo Flores. Although an operatic soprano is lent here by Jessica Lehto, Hugo has been responsible for all of the instrumentation and orchestrations. The fact that Melotronical has been forged from what is essentially a one-man band is all the more impressive. Nothing here sounds like it has suffered from the imbalance of 'solo artist syndrome', and even the drums- often the weakest point in one-man bands- sound wild and exciting in spite of being artificial.

Although the sure highlight of Factory of Dreams' sound on Melotronical is their intensely cosmic ambiance and mind-boggling orchestrations, the vocals are worthy of note on their own. While I imagine it would have been a hard time squeezing proper vocals into music this bombastic and instrumentally busy, the vocals here really work. Although Jessica Lehto's floaty soprano doesn't sound unlike many other female vocalists in the symphonic and gothic metal genre, the vocal arrangements are kept quite busy themselves; harmonies and complex melodies are commonplace here, and there's even room for the occasionally catchy hook. All impressions look towards the guitar as Hugo Flores' flagship instrument, but the guitars are what stand out the least here. Even the programmed drums manage to profit from the music's manic pacing, and while all of the orchestrations seem appropriately mixed together in the final production, the guitars lose their independent bite amidst the chaos. After having finished the album, I don't remember any particular riffs or moments where the guitars shone beyond their traditional role as a rhythm-keeper.

Indeed, Factory of Dreams is a band that has me wondering still where Melotronical would sit in terms of quality when compared to other albums and artists. For one, the atmosphere and scope of the music is menacingly impressive, infectious even; it's impossible to put this album on without being enveloped by it. The sheer energy of Factory of Dreams' cosmic style simply demands the listener's attention without question or distraction. It's as densely composed as a neutron star, and prospective listeners who don't give it the full due are robbing themselves of the potential this album has to impress and even shock. At the same time, I have a difficult time picking out particular highlight tracks from the album, much less distinguish the songs apart. Like a progressive metal summer blockbuster, Melotronical feels absolutely larger-than-life in virtually every way, and while I know the album could have benefitted from some counterbalance in the way of moderation and knowing when to hold back, the way Factory of Dreams have conjured the essence of space metal and amplified it to galactic excesses deserves to be experienced by prog and symphonic metal fans alike.

VANGOUGH Between The Madness

Album · 2013 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 4 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Between the Madness' - Vangough (6/10)

I have followed Vangough since the release of their debut, Manikin Parade in 2009. Even if I may have interpreted them as something of a Pain of Salvation clone from the start, they were one of the best acolytes Pain of Salvation could have hoped for. Where Vangough hadn't erupted with a fresh new sound, they made up for it in part with solid songwriting and incredible musicianship on par with any of their prog metal contemporaries. Between then and the release of Between the Madness, Vangough came out with a decent second album, and a compilation of video game covers that basked in nostalgia like the world was ending. Comparing this latest record to Vangough's past oeuvre, it feels very much a child of 2011's Kingdom of Ruin, where they placed an emphasis on strictly melodic songwriting. Thought I still miss the proggier sound of Manikin Parade and indeed prefer it over the more song-oriented path the band have taken, Between the Madness is a fine addition to the band's catalogue, revisiting much of the same territory they explored on Kingdom of Ruin and improving upon it.

It's not at all common for a progressive metal band to be a threepiece, but Vangough deliver a full-fleshed sound as a trio, to the point where more members might have made it a crowd. Even in a genre like progressive metal, where musical virtuosity and skill with technique are nearly ubiquitous and to be expected, the band still manages to impress me. From Manikin Parade onward, Vangough have had no trouble expressing their apparent skill in their music without resorting to the sort of superfluous noodling that has made the genre slightly infamous to begin with. For all of their skill, Vangough stick to the fundaments of their songwriting. This sense of tasteful restraint has metastasized further on Between the Madness. Compared to Kingdom of Ruin, an album that sadly didn't hold my interest for long, Vangough have refined their tact with songwriting and melody making. "Afterfall" is one of the most skilfully arranged pieces Vangough have ever penned, a surprisingly dark and personal song about loss and a miscarried pregnancy. "Between the Madness" is a gorgeous interlude that also stands out, particularly for a cinematic violin guest performance from Justus Johnston. The album's arguable highlight comes in the form of a rare instrumental however; "Thy Flesh Consumed" is a moody miniature epic reminiscent of Metallica's "Orion", a composition that dares to dwell on motifs and instrumental ideas that other songs on the album may have only had time to touch upon.

Between the Madness enjoys a few tracks where Vangough flirt with brilliance, both on a level of performance and songwriting. The decision to pursue a more melodic and concise form of progressive metal has resulted in a pretty consistent collection of songs, but for the most part, the writing does not feel particularly exciting. Vangough have trimmed the fat from their sound, but in doing so, they have lost some of the distinct, independently interesting moments that made their debut so interesting. At worst, the songwriting is predictable, and doesn't offer much in the way of shock or surprise once you've grown accustomed to the structured formula. I don't think the matured approach to composition is a total loss (and "Afterfall" proves that they can make it work to passionate effect) but Between the Madness never really seems to sweep my imagination away the way I would hope to hear from such a talented cast of musicians. If anything really disappoints me, it's the knowledge and faith that Vangough could be impressing me much more. The few moments where the band really decides to let loose are proof of this; one of the album's brightest moments, "The Abyss", was strangely left as a bonus selection, but develops upon the instrumental potential I first heard on "Thy Flesh Consumed". When Vangough harken back to proggier days, the effect is promising.

Although Vangough's debt to Pain of Salvation is less overt here than before, the influence is still vividly apparent. While Manikin Parade may have taken more after The Perfect Element and Remedy Lane" era Pain of Salvation, Between the Madness often echoes Scarsick, an album that has long split listeners for its roots in nu-metal aesthetics. Vangough thankfully keep the rapping to a relative minimum, but the music's dark, rhythmic direction and its scathing criticism of modern society feel largely drawn from Pain of Salvation. This is especially evident in the case of "Useless" and "Corporatocracy", the former of which features Clay Withrow rapping in a manner incredibly close to Gildenlow's performance on the songs Scarsick and "Spitfall". In the case of "Corporatocracy", the instrumentation draws in an Oriental tinge and twangy guitars that sound a bit too close to Scarsick to be mere coincidence, not to mention the song title itself bears a stunning resemblance to "Idiocracy", a song from, yes, Scarsick. Withrow and company have never tried to hide the major influence Pain of Salvation have had on their sound, and while I still feel that this dedication to another band's legacy isn't doing Vangough any favours, the tribute and influence is sincere and well-intended.

Between the Madness has not seen Vangough emerge from their shell of influences, but their execution and standard of performance remains excellent. In spite of some of my negative criticisms of the band and their work thus far, Clay Withrow is an exceptional vocalist, with a delivery that marries power and emotional sensitivity in perfectly blended matrimony. Even in such a competitive genre like prog metal, Clay still manages to wow me with his vocals. While Daniel Gildenlow seems to be his likely model with regards to singing (and to a lesser extent, James Hetfield), there are times here where I feel like his talents are able to come out and take a life of their own. This sentiment can be applied to the rest of Vangough; the full extent of their potential remains hidden under the shadow of their influences. If Vangough could just break through this shell and find a stronger sense of personal identity to call their own, I have high hopes they could amaze me and knock out the competition. Between the Madness is a solid album by all accounts, but does not amaze me in the way I know they're capable of.

AYREON The Theory of Everything

Album · 2013 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.06 | 37 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'The Theory of Everything' - Ayreon (8/10)

Back in 2008 when Ayreon released “01011001”, I was taken aback by some of the criticism it received. Although there were those that still applauded Arjen Lucassen’s bombast and ambitious scope, many more seemed to discredit the album for what interpreted as an overly familiar approach. Though my opinion doesn’t appear to be shared by many others, I thought (and still think) that “01011001” was a masterpiece, a natural culmination to the composer’s metal opera cycle. Even so, Arjen’s decision to start fresh with a new saga only fuelled my anticipation for “The Theory of Everything”. Arjen’s familiar eclecticism remains, but this latest double-disc opus makes it abundantly clear that we’ve set foot in a new era for Ayreon. Though this artistic rejuvenation is welcome (and some might say necessary), this latest installment in Ayreon’s proud catalogue feels scaled back when compared to the last two masterpieces. Though it doesn’t compare favourably to Arjen’s best work, “The Theory of Everything” is a strong foundation for a new progressive metal saga, and I’m interested in see where he’ll take it next.

Outside of the atrociously disappointing Dream Theater and the latest instant classic from Haken, “The Theory of Everything” sparked my anticipation moreso than any prog record released in the past year. Admittedly upon first sitting down to listen to the album in its entirety, I met Ayreon’s latest opus with disappointment. Not only did it feature the least impressive cast of vocalists since “Actual Fantasy”, it had also exchanged satisfying song structures for an onslaught of bite-sized segments, tied together with some semblance of an epic. Though my biggest gripes with “The Theory of Everything” have remained in part, appreciation grew with the dawning realization that Arjen had taken the risk of making a fresh start. Experienced on its own, “The Theory of Everything” reveals itself as a treasure trove of compelling musical ideas and passages, even if Arjen’s pieced them all together a little awkwardly.

I’ve seen many people liken “The Theory of Everything” structurally to Yes’ infamous (and equally brilliant) “Tales from Topographic Oceans”; a double album that consisted of four twenty-odd minute compositions. Although Arjen has broken this 42-track spectacle into four ‘phases’ (or sides), the tracks often feel like self-contained miniature ideas rather than pieces of an ‘epic’ whole. In bold rock operatic fashion, “The Theory of Everything” moves away from regular song structures in exchange for a more spontaneous theatrical flow. There is some clever use of recurring motifs sprinkled throughout the album, but for the most part, the musical ideas feel structured episodically. Although the ‘phases’ begin and end with important plot points relating to the album’s concept, “The Theory of Everything” can feel pretty incoherent if listened to as a collection of four epics. Although I would have easily preferred more concise and focused compositions in the vein of “01011001” or “Into the Electric Castle”, repeated listens to the album do give the impression that the sheer quality of the ideas individually more than makes up for the perceived lack of conventional structure.

As for these ideas themselves, Arjen has once again outdone himself. Where other aspects of the album may suffer, the segments themselves sound as excellent and as epic as anything in the band’s catalogue. There is a greater instrumental emphasis here than on albums past, and each of the four sides are home to epic segments. Ayreon’s traditional fusion of traditional progressive metal, electronic, folk and classical music really shines here, and though “The Theory of Everything” is almost twice the length of your average album, the eclectic approach to instrumentation and style feels consistently fresh and engaging. When compared to past Ayreon albums, “The Theory of Everything” sounds a little more vintage, more reserved and indeed, less ‘metal’. A few rhythmic eruptions like “Quantum Chaos” still earn the album a metal label, but I get the strong impression here that the second saga of Ayreon will see the project cater even more to its prog-based fans.

Hearing about the new cast of vocalists has always been the most exciting part of a new Ayreon album for me. In the past, Arjen Lucassen has had a fantastic taste in the voices he chooses for the characters, “01011001” had two of my favourite vocalists (Daniel Gildenlow of Pain of Salvation and Hansi Kursch of Blind Guardian) on it, and “The Human Equation” featured contributions from Devin Townsend... bloody Devin Townsend! By contrast, “The Theory of Everything’s” offering of vocalists from Lacuna Coil, Ancient Bards, Asia and Nightwish feels unforgivably weak in comparison. While it’s still puzzling to see such a lack of prog and metal star power working with Ayreon this time around, the vocal performances are very good, if not excellent. Tommy Karevik (the latest singer of Kamelot) is chosen perfectly for the role of the opera’s protagonist, and Grand Magus frontman Janne Christoffersson gives an excellence performance here as well, offering his voice for the role of the ‘Teacher’. Otherwise, the vocals here aren’t quite as dazzling as I thought they’d be, and I think I’ll always bit a little disappointed that “The Theory of Everything” doesn’t feature a more distinguished cast of guests.

Although the vocalists may not have been as dazzling as expected, Arjen makes up for it with an incredible cast of guest instrumentalists from across the prog spectrum. Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess and prog wizard Keith Emerson both stand out for their respective solos on “Progressive Waves”. Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman and classic Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett are also featured. This emphasis on classic prog icons for guest appearances, paired with the more reserved musical style are both redolent of Arjen’s intention on reinventing Ayreon with this album. Although some things have certainly changed, expert musicianship and stellar production standards remain Ayreon’s signature. Although Arjen is prone to use disparate elements like folk and electronica in the same musical phrase, it’s blended together brilliantly, and never feels forced, as often seems to be the case with many genre-bending proggers.

“The Theory of Everything” marks the first time since “Actual Fantasy” (in 1996) where an Ayreon album hasn’t contributed to the overarching Ayreon concept mythology in some way. As “01011001” and the “Timeline” compilation released shortly thereafter made for a satisfying conclusion to Arjen’s sci-fi epic, it’s exciting to see the man moving onto a new saga. This time around, Arjen has chosen to step away from the overt science-fiction and fantasy tropes, instead choosing to build the story around psychologically believable characters and interpersonal drama. This approach has worked wonders for Ayreon in the past; his magnum opus “The Human Equation” made for compelling psychodrama in the purest sense, involving a protagonist interacting with personified manifestations of his emotions. In addition to its fascinating high concept, Arjen imbued the plot and characters with a surprising amount of depth for a rock opera. Although “The Theory of Everything” isn’t as interesting a concept as “The Human Equation”, its story- pertaining to the struggles and moral dilemmas surrounding a mathematical genius- offers plenty of room for Arjen to explore much of the same psychology and relationships. Many tropes on “The Human Equation” are found again here: the neglectful father, the morally tainted protagonist, the concerned romantic interest. Although “The Theory of Everything” doesn’t offer nearly as engaging of a plot, the psychological depth is once again striking. Each character is fuelled with their own distinct opinions and motivations, and no action within the story is without conflicting moral viewpoints for and against it. With that being said, it’s not as compelling of a story as I would have hoped to hear on an Ayreon album. Although the story’s potentially paranormal epilogue leaves me excited for where Arjen might take this saga next, the story seems to plod along at times, defaulting on praise or criticism of its hesitant protagonist. To those detractors that have long condemned Arjen’s often complex sci-fi creations however, “The Theory of Everything’s” more human approach might come as a welcome change of pace.

It’s certainly not a perfect album, and not the masterpiece I was hoping to hear from Ayreon, but “The Theory of Everything” sounds rich and multilayered in spite of its weaknesses. Although a less impressive set of vocalists and convoluted album structure make for glaring issues, there are so many brilliant moments here that deserve to be heard by any self-respecting fan of modern prog. In spite of Arjen Lucassen’s apparent intent to renovate his style, I don’t imagine existing detractors of his work will be converted to the man’s legion of rabid followers. Likewise, if you’ve enjoyed Ayreon in the past, the weaknesses here won’t otherwise impede enjoyment of the experience. Ayreon has delivered a complex, bombastic, no-holds-barred progressive rock epic with “The Theory of Everything”, but then again, we wouldn’t have expected any less of him anyways.

ORANSSI PAZUZU Valonielu

Album · 2013 · Black Metal
Cover art 4.21 | 8 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Valonielu' - Oranssi Pazuzu (7/10)

Oranssi Pazuzu are an example of a band whose unique style automatically places them a head above their peers, even before they reach the songwriting stage. Although all passionately executed black metal is, to some extent, psychedelic in its nature and effect, Oranssi Pazuzu provide a more literal interpretation of psychedelic black metal. Sinister black metal atmosphere and typically snarled vocals are imbued with Krautrockish twang, spacey effects and vintage fuzz. Although it feels like more of Oranssi Pazuzu’s musical ideas tend to be pulled from the psychedelic end of their fusion on this latest album, the black metal nexus of “Valonielu” doesn’t feel the slightest bit watered down. In this case, the mixing of psych and black metal conventions is solute to the point where one does not breathe without the other; Oranssi Pazuzu have created themselves one of the most unique and convincing styles I’ve ever heard from a metal band, and there’s been no band since who has successfully managed to reach the same level of organic perfection with the blending.

Of course, all of that could be said about any Oranssi Pazuzu record. Although their relatively monopolistic hold on this specific sound give them sufficient stopping power to have excused the need for consistent innovation, some change is evident in the band’s approach on “Valonielu”. Especially compared to their 2009 debut, “Valonielu” may be seen to have taken a decidedly more sombre approach to the atmosphere; whereas “Muukalainen Puuhu” felt incredibly self-conscious of its stylistic niche, “Valonielu” draws back on the playfulness of the sound. Although it should still make for a head-scratching experience for newcomers, they’re more tactical regarding the use of ‘space’ effects and overt weirdness here. When compared to the debut and “Kosmonument”, “Valonielu” feels more mature and, indeed, more grounded in its approach. In a broad sense, it feels like Oranssi Pazuzu have reached adulthood with their style, but in doing so, they have lost part of what endeared me so much towards them in the first place.

“Vino Verso“ and “Olen Aukaissut Uuden Silmän” both make for particularly vicious pieces of blackened Krautrock, and “Tyhjä Tempelli” is even redolent of surf rock, but “Valonielu” is, on the whole, far more conservatively paced than Oranssi Pazuzu were at the start. Compared to the burstfire energy and spooky atmosphere of a track like “Korppi” (from the debut), “Valonielu” occasionally feels downright plodding, and never reaches the same relative extremes of its predecessors. Oranssi Pazuzu have by no means lost their spark or vitesse, but large stretches of “Valonielu” have the unfortunate tendency of falling into the background. The ambient “Reikä Maisemassa” feels like an interlude that was unnecessarily dragged out to match a full song length. “Uraanisula” offers a neat groove at the start, but feels overdrawn in the name of drawn-out space rock tradition. Although even longer than “Uraanisula”, “Ympyrä On Viiva Tomussa” fares quite a bit better as a longform composition, building up to the sort of power-filled ruptures that would make most post-rock bands feel and smell the need for a new set of underwear. Even factoring in the relative success of these ideas however, I would still have preferred to hear a more active, caffeinated approach from Oranssi Pazuzu. I know it’s among the dirtiest of words when speaking of black metal, but yes, “Valonielu” isn’t as ‘fun’ as I was expecting it to be.

While I’m not as engaged by the songwriting this time around, Oranssi Pazuzu remain at the top of their class with regards to execution. From a production and performance standpoint, I cannot think of a single thing that would have made Oranssi Pazuzu’s fusion of psychedelic rock and black metal sound more convincing. The production feels warm and vintage in a way far too few albums ever are these days, and the band’s choice of timbre always befits their artistic intention perfectly. Although they’re no slouch when compared to the par, Jun-His’ vocals are undoubtedly the most conventional part of Oranssi Pazuzu, and I’m left wondering if a more distinct vocal style could have made their sound even sharper, or risked hurting the near-perfect balance they’ve crafted in their style. It’s that sense of style and willingness to sound unique that has kept me coming back for more Oranssi with each coming album. Though I’m sure a slower pace has the potential to work wonders for the band’s sound, I’m unfortunately not feeling it on “Valonielu” as much as I thought I would. There is brilliance here as always, but like the rays of a cosmic sun, you shouldn’t expect to feel it all the time.

THE RUINS OF BEVERAST Blood Vaults - The Blazing Gospels of Heinrich Kramer

Album · 2013 · Death-Doom Metal
Cover art 3.98 | 4 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Blood Vaults - The Blazing Gospel of Heinrich Kramer' - The Ruins of Beverast (9/10)

Only in regards to a band of monumental calibre like The Ruins of Beverast could I call its latest album arguably the weakest of the four so far, and simultaneously laud it as one of the year’s strongest musical contenders. The Ruins of Beverast have long been black metal’s best kept secret, and since the gloriously psychotic “Unlock the Shrine”, the one-man act- a longtime creative outlet of former Nagelfar drummer Alexander von Von Meilenwald- he’s been releasing music that’s consistently blown me away for its ambitious scope and atmosphere. Of the three albums The Ruins of Beverast have already released, I have, upon different occasions, thought of each one as potentially being the greatest black metal album ever made. I’ll try to keep background introductions brief, but if you haven’t yet heard “Unlock the Shrine”, “Rain Upon the Impure”, or “Foulest Semen of a Sheltered Elite”, you have yet to hear some of the most impressive and atmospheric metal ever pressed to vinyl. Now completing a transition towards doom metal that began with the last album, “Blood Vaults” is another expectedly excellent achievement, an hour-plus of music that’s as haunting and crushing as anything I’ve heard in the metal sphere this year. Incredibly high expectations aside, The Ruins of Beverast have delivered another masterpiece of atmosphere and intensity, with enough stylistic innovation to distinguish it from past work. This is blackened doom metal of ferocious quality.

The sound of The Ruins of Beverast has evolved beautifully over the course of four albums. Although Von Meilenwald was performing something more along the lines of psychotic black metal in 2004 with “Unlock the Shrine”, each album has reinvented the project as something new. “Rain Upon the Impure” took the black metal to arrogant extremes of atmosphere and composition, verging on a degree of ambition rivalled by Western classical tradition. 2009’s “Foulest Semen of a Sheltered Elite” was another necessary reinvention; now that one summit had been topped, Von Meilenwald began infusing his brand of black metal with doom metal and psychedelia. To summarize, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that The Ruins of Beverast have drifted this far away from black metal conventions; even if TROB retains the same malefic atmosphere in the music, the means to getting there have certainly changed.

The Ruins of Beverast’s familiar blend of choral sampling, chaotic production and cinematic vigour are made anew with a crushing heaviness and funereal pacing. Disregarding the fury and aggression inherent in the music’s execution, Von Meilenwald has taken a relatively reserved approach in writing the music this time around. Especially when compared to the sporadic rapture of “Rain Upon the Impure”, the pacing is kept fairly conservative, offering more vested concentration and fewer surprise turns. Although part of me misses the pleasantly mild shock of hearing something unpredictable, the songwriting enjoys a new maturity through its focus. A stunning example of this can be found in the pristine “Malefica”, a dirge-like piece that meticulously erupts with equal parts dread and melancholy. Latin choirs and pipe organ are used brilliantly as a sonic contrast with the thundering metal instrumentation. Orthodox instrumentation is a painfully common trope in black metal, but it’s rare that it ever functions so well as this.

In addition to “Malefica”, “Daemon”, “A Failed Exorcism”, and the unsettling interlude “Trial” all stand out as highlights of the album, and some of the most memorable pieces Von Meilenwald has ever composed. Unfortunately (and this is a first for my experience with a TROB album) I don’t find myself as consistently amazed by each of the tracks. I’m not immune to the fact that a doomier approach entails with it a slower pace and behests a different kind of listening attitude than that of Beverast albums past, but a few of the ideas on “Blood Vaults” feel less profound and engaging than I’d expect from the band. For instance, “Spires, The Wailing City” and “Monument” are both crafted with excellent ingredients, but feel somewhat overdrawn past their due; the ideas themselves are almost homogeneously superb, but even the strongest structures wither given time. While Von Meilenwald is no stranger to long compositions- “Rain Upon the Impure” had even longer average track times than this- the sometimes plodding pace of the compositions can make some of the musical ideas feel less awe-inspiring than they actually are. I felt that Von Meilenwald struck a sublime balance between black metal and doom with the last album, a middle ground between crushing heaviness and exciting dynamics. “Blood Vaults” only sees The Ruins of Beverast tread deeper into doom territory, and while the devastating atmosphere and progressive scope are still here in full, I don’t find myself quite as blown away by this stylistic shift as I have been with his past work. Then again, comparing a pristine mortal vintage to the ambrosia of the gods has never been a fair deal, has it?

Although “Blood Vaults” represents a markedly more reserved take on composition for Von Meilenwald, his execution sounds heavier than ever. I strain myself to think of another guitar tone that has sounded this heavy and crushing. Even though most one-man acts feel fittingly one-sided in their delivery, “Blood Vaults” feels remarkably well-rounded. The orthodox instrumentation is integrated to a haunting effect, and the drums- Von Meilenwald’s flagship instrument- are as intensely performed as ever. As it is made clear from the opening incantation “Apologia”, Von Meilenwald’s vocals take a hideous life of their own. Laden with echoes and a viciously malevolent tone, his growls are plenty evocative and fit the album’s sinister atmosphere and malefic interpretation of Christian theology. His clean vocals- when used- are deep and ominous, and mirror the Latin choirs nicely. Compared to past albums however, it feels like his vocal delivery offers a little less range however, focusing on the low, echoed growls and dismissing much of his higher shrieks. It’s an understandable transformation however; Von Meilenwald understands the implications of this stylistic shift, and The Ruins of Beverast reflects that.

As difficult as it is for me, I feel the only fair way to approach this album is to do one’s best to dissociate it from TROB albums past. Clearly, it’s much harder said than done, but to compare “Blood Vaults” against its predecessors would reveal this as the least vital of the four. With that in mind, I do not mean or hope to say that The Ruins of Beverast has broken its streak of relative perfection; this is a marvelous work, and I have no doubt that Von Meilenwald will continue to release masterful work in his own time. To put it simply, the album is devastating.

KAYO DOT Hubardo

Album · 2013 · Avant-garde Metal
Cover art 4.62 | 19 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Hubardo' - Kayo Dot (10/10)

Although I've never concealed my love and passion for progressive rock, it's been a genre I've viewed through a jaded lens as of late. After all, let's face it: for every sterling artist making the genuine attempt to push the envelope and get daring with their sound, there are a hundred that prefer to piggyback on the accomplishments of those long past; many of the so-called 'modern' prog bands wouldn't be more anachronistic if they were babbling on about the Cold War and the rise of Disco music. It's a sorry state to be certain, but it makes a band like Kayo Dot feel all the more special and vital. Since Kayo Dot's start with 2003's "Choirs of the Eye", and their earlier incarnation as maudlin of the Well, Toby Driver and co. have been making some of the most interesting and adventurous music coming out of the prog rock and metal spheres. Although I haven't fallen in love with everything they've done- "Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue" never really clicked with me- I hold no reservations in calling Kayo Dot one of the finest experimental acts out there nowadays. Observing the ten year anniversary since the release of their debut, Kayo Dot have unveiled what is undoubtedly their most complex and majestic work to date. I've now spent nearly a month listening to it, and it hasn't lost any of its spark or excitement on me. "Hubardo" may very well be the most refreshing piece of work to yet come out this year. At no other point in 2013 has an album dared to compete with the pantheon of my most beloved albums, but "Hubardo" shows no signs of losing its steam. At the risk of sounding overzealous, those who have felt my same frustrations with recent progressive rock should look no further than Kayo Dot. It's not an easy pill to swallow, but adventurous listeners will find their efforts repaid tenfold. This is avant-garde metal at its finest.

Kayo Dot have locked themselves in a constant state of reinvention. From the start, the band is noted and defined for its dedication to change and progression. "Choirs of the Eye" immediately distanced itself from the idyllic sound of maudlin of the Well with a more sombre and jaded approach. With "Dousing Anemone with Copper Tongue" through to 2010's uncompromisingly bleak "Coyote", Kayo Dot began exploring sonic darkness in other ways, escaping the traditional confines of metal music completely. To the point where Kayo Dot had excised use of the electric guitar completely, Kayo Dot made a very surprising and pleasant leap back to metal with "Gamma Knife", this time sounding even less like classic maudlin of the Well, and more like a jazz-infused Deathspell Omega. Although "Coyote" was no slouch artistically speaking, the return to a fresh metal style has been quite the jumpstart for Kayo Dot; it feels like they have been revitalized in a way not heard since the debut. While "Gamma Knife" may have felt like it was only partially fulfilling Kayo Dot's potential with avant-black metal, "Hubardo" expands on the scope and ambition to a degree never before seen in a project by the band. At an hour and a half long, "Hubardo" immediately sets itself apart; more impressive still is the fact that Kayo Dot have accomplished a work of this length without any sacrifice to the consistency or quality of the music. Flowing seamlessly from jarring black metal to post-rock and trippy jazz fusion, I have difficulty recalling an album that manages to be so diverse, yet feel so tight and well- constructed.

Following a familiar Kayo Dot tradition, "Hubardo" opens up on a fairly mellow and deceptively quiet note. Even though the first four minutes of "The Black Stone" feel fairly loose and scattered, it builds a frightening tension that erupts masterfully in the rupture of the song's latter movement. "The Black Stone" also features the long-unheard growls of Jason Byron, best known for his harsh vocals on the Maudlin records. Clean guitars sputter alongside a frantic drumline and Byron's familiar growl, and though it doesn't start off conventionally heavy by the traditional 'metal' standard, it's dark as all hell and evokes a tension that feels like it's going to burst at any moment. Although "The Black Stone"s misleading overture creates a wonderfully dark emotional palette, it does tend to drag on a little longer than would have been optimal. Luckily, once "Hubardo" trespasses this arguable lowpoint, it soars and continues to hover at a level of relative perfection thereafter. By the end of "The Black Stone", Kayo Dot transcend a modernistic classical atmosphere and dive straight into a terrifying black/death metal chaos, the likes of which remind me of Australian lurkers Portal. "Hubardo" leaves a pretty indelible impression from the start, and even then, "The Black Stone" may be my least favourite track on the album.

While Kayo Dot albums of the past tended to focus on, and flesh out one particular style, "Hubardo" is notable for how diverse and varied it is. As "The Black Stone" should indicate to new listeners, there's quite a sonic range Kayo Dot choose to work with here. Their take on black metal- pregnant with saxophone and electronic interruptions- is arguably the most memorable aspect of the album, but there's just as much of the album that recalls their more mellow leanings. "The First Matter", "The Second Operation" and "And He Built Him A Boat" all capitalize on haunting ethereal beauty. Toby Driver's longstanding mastery of arrangement flourishes on these tracks, particularly on "The Second Operation", which features a stunning blend of violin, horn and synthesizer that nearly moved me to tears the first time I heard it. "And He Built Him A Boat" was the first track I heard from the album, and I was obsessed with it the first time I heard it. Arguably the most conventional and accessible piece on the album, "And He Built Him A Boat" shares a kinship with a lot of 'cinematic' post-rock; I'm thinking bands like Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mono. Although vocals have never been a strong suit of Toby Driver or the bands he's been a part of, Driver's voice is uncharacteristically strong here, and the accompanying choral arrangements are haunting as anything I've heard. "And He Built Him A Boat" ultimately gives way to "Passing the River", a longer piece that starts off echoing Radiohead more than anything, before diving into a hammered dulcimer and sax-infused metal climax. On the other side of the spectrum, Kayo Dot save their biggest surprises for their newly acquired black metal style. "Thief", "Floodgate" and "Zlida Caosgi" are all chaotic and multi- layered, easily rivaling the technical complexity of Gorguts, Deathspell Omega and any other band that have spent their careers building up this sort of calculated madness. "Zlida Coasgi" in particular may be my favourite song on the album, managing to balance heaviness, atmosphere, beauty and catchiness to a degree of perfection I don't think I've ever heard before.

Existing fans of the album may remark that I failed to mention "Vision Adjustment to Another Wavelength" when listing off the heavier tracks. I might explain that choice by saying that it deserves a pedestal of its own entirely. While "Zlida Coasgi" may be the track that I enjoy the most, it's "Vision Adjustment?" that makes up the album's most terrifying, leftfield and experimental moment. Frantic saxophones are mixed in with mind-blowingly weird electronic textures, inhuman screams and indecipherable guitar patterns, creating one of the weirdest things I have ever heard in my entire life. I'm not sure it can even be done proper justice in writing. Just listen to it. Listen to it. I'm pretty sure that song alone earns "Hubardo" its bread.

The album ends on a surprising note; while much of "Hubardo" has been passed between black metal and more ambient post rock, "The Wait of the World" closes the album with a psychedelic and very modern take on jazz fusion. As if Robert Fripp and John McLaughlin joined The Mars Volta and had some sort of lurid acid party, it evokes a feeling of eeriness and unease quite unlike the band's metal output. In case anyone reading this has heard it, it's a similar experience to Steven Wilson's own fusion freakout "Raider II" off 2011's "Grace for Drowning". Quite an unexpected way to close off an album, and an excellent one at that. As is the case with most albums deserving of a masterpiece, "Hubardo" excels just as much with regards to its execution as it does with the compositions themselves. While "Gamma Knife" felt a little low-budget productionwise, it feels like no expense has been spared in fulfilling their music this time around. While many albums this complex generally suffer from a feeling of being too sterile and focused on clarity, "Hubardo" sounds rich and organic, like a classic analog album if it was injected with precision and crystal clarity. With maudlin of the Well and even a lot of Kayo Dot's material, I was never overtly blown away by the demonstration of musicianship, but since they amped up the complexity with "Gamma Knife", Kayo Dot have been terrifying in this regard as well. Very special commendations go to the drummer Keith Abrams, who passes me as being a sort of metal-oriented Bill Bruford with the way he's able to intone every beat and hit with detail and texture. Abrams changes up his drumwork to accommodate whatever given style is happening on "Hubardo" at the time; he sounds well at home as a fusion drummer just as much as a metal drummer. Did I mention "Hubardo" has some of the most impressive blastbeats I've ever heard on record? Yes, there's that as well.

It would have been nice to have heard violinist Mia Matsumiya perform a little more on this album, especially since her showcase towards the beginning of "The Second Operation" is breathtaking. Listeners coming from a more distinctly metal background will note the unconventionally meaty presence of saxophones on the album. Daniel Means and Terran Olson offer a double sax attack, the likes of which I've never heard work so well in a metal context. Especially on "Vision Adjustment to Another Wavelength" and "Floodgate", it's difficult to imagine the music sounding so scary and chaotic, had the saxophones not been there.

It's uncompromising, rich, and for my money, it's an instant classic. I have long considered "Choirs of the Eye" to be one of my favourite albums ever, and a month into experiencing "Hubardo", I have to say that this one trumps their debut by a noticeable margin. Always pushing the envelope forward, it's my hope that this album gives Kayo Dot the exposure and attention they deserve. Even from the length alone, it's not an album that all prospective listeners will have time for, but I don't think I've heard an album this year that has created such an awe in me; only the new Gorguts and The Ruins of Beverast albums have even dared to compete. "Hubardo" is the sort of album that only comes around once in a while, and I won't even try to predict where the band goes next from here. Total mastery.

THEATER OF THE ABSURD The Myth Of Sisyphus

Album · 2013 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.73 | 3 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'The Myth of Sisyphus' - Theater of the Absurd (7/10)

The Sisyphean myth from Greek antiquity has always passed me as something of a quiet tragedy; a man, assigned with carrying a boulder up a hill, is eternally doomed to repeat his task as the rock tumbles down again once he has finished. It’s not a far stretch to apply this principle of repeated disappointment and perpetual struggle to the human experience as a whole. In the artist’s case, their work can feel like a constant uphill struggle, only to feel the recurring pang of disappointment when their art doesn’t turn out the way they had aimed for.

Although I’m a relative newcomer to Theater of the Absurd, I do know that the New York-based prog metal act felt some of that same dissatisfaction with their first, self-titled album. “We wanted something more,” said the band’s guitarist, Mike Neumeister; “The record was immature…just primal. We knew right away that our creative impulses weren’t satisfied.” Although “The Myth of Sisyphus” might imply in its title that this disappointment is doomed to recur, Theater of the Absurd’s second record feels remarkably tight and fleshed out. As the album’s surreal artwork would imply, Theater of the Absurd take a more avant-garde and playful approach to progressive metal than you may be used to, although the vintage legends of progressive tradition hang steady in their sound. There are a couple of things that bug me surrounding the album’s structure and production, but lively musical ideas and an exceptional standard of musicianship makes the album a worthy find for any acolytes of the genre.

Although it’s very rare that I ever find myself writing about the album art itself, I have to bring up the album’s cover. Although I wasn’t too keen on the artwork for the debut album, “The Myth of Sisyphus” is adorned with a chaotic, colourful aquatic mess of a cover, one that continues to reveal more details the longer you look at it. I’m quickly reminded of Qui-Gon Jinn’s foreboding aphorism at the beginning of Star Wars Episode I: “There’s always a bigger fish...” In the case of this cover, there seems to be plenty of bigger fish in the sea, and they’re all clearly hungry as hell. I’ve never been much of an expert on visual art, but I know what I like, and I think Theater of the Absurd commissioned art perfectly suited to the music it represents. Anyways, carrying on.

For a genre that’s intended to represent the most forward-thinking musicians in metal, it’s disappointing that the progressive metal term carries with it so many preconceptions and stereotypes. Although I knew Theater of the Absurd played a more avant-leaning take on prog metal, it was still pleasantly refreshing to hear the band circumvent many of the generic prog metal trends in favour of something more playful and inventive. As opposed to demonstrating their skill through excess and overt technicality, Theater of the Absurd remain focused on composition, leaving plenty of room open for melody and thoughtful dynamic. Although galloping riffs and the sparing use of harsh growls ties the band indelibly to their metal labelling, they more often skirt the grey area bordering upon conventional hard rock intensity. Hard rock and classic prog icons such as Genesis, Rush and King Crimson feel like a greater influence on the band’s sound than Opeth or Dream Theater. True culting metalheads may thirst for something heavier, but Theater of the Absurdity make this mix of old and new their own, and that’s a greater feat to their name than any degree of relative intensity.

True to the band’s name, there’s a very theatrical element at play in Theater of the Absurd’s music. Dramatic piano chords and quasi-operatic vocals chime powerfully overtop their traditional metal elements, giving the music the impression of being a rock opera or stage musical. Even if there isn’t an overtly defined plot or story tying this album together, it would be pretty easy to see Theater of the Absurd’s dynamic sound transposed to the theatre stage. Most of all, Theater of the Absurd give this impression of live drama through the structure of their songs, which feel pretty unconventionally pieced together. Where even most progressive metal bands would tie their songs together through the effective use of repetition and central motifs, “The Myth of Sisyphus” flows as would an emotionally heated dialogue between characters. Although vocal melodies are important to Theater of the Absurd, there aren’t any recurring hooks that leap out, or even motifs that could be defined as the nexus of their respective track. Rather, as was the case in the also-recently released “SwineSong” by recent avant-garde metallers Omb, the songs flow organically, without paying too much heed to holistic structure. In the case of the band’s instrumental work, this comes off as a great success. The fluid structure means that listeners can look forward to being consistently engaged throughout the album. Unfortunately, the structure pays a great expense in terms of memorable songs and vocal melodies. Although I can recall many particularly excellent self-contained ideas throughout “The Myth of Sisyphus”, there aren’t any songs that stand out as being memorable from start to finish. Though the vocal melodies feel well-suited to the theatrical edge of the music, they don’t seem written with melodic hooks in mind. Like a rock opera, the ideas are meant to advance the emotional state at the given time, and while Theater of the Absurd have succeeded in this respect, parts of the musical experience are left feeling empty.

It’s a shame that the vocal melodies don’t stand out, because the vocals themselves surely do. Chandler Mogel has an incredible, quasi-operatic vocal delivery that could not fit the band’s sound more perfectly. With range and depth to spare, Mogel’s vocals are a consistent highlight of the band’s sound. The female voice of Kjersti Kveli and harsh vocals of drummer Patrick Curley add some welcome colour to the performance. Kjersti’s soft voice fits her role smoothly, and while the black metal-derivative snarls feel shoehorned into an otherwise hard rock-based sound, the harsher moments work well to bolster things on the darker side of the emotional spectrum. Instrumentally, Theater of the Absurd have plenty to be proud of here. The band’s core of Curley and Neumeister have talent aplenty to spare, and Tor Morten Kjosnes’ abundant pianowork is gorgeously arranged. Although the album is well-mixed and sounds professionally recorded, “The Myth of Sisyphus” suffers from a fairly dry production that undoubtedly robs the original performances of some of their emotional timbre and dynamic. Especially in the case of Curley’s drumwork, the performance itself sounds great and well-balanced, but the sound itself sounds restrained, as if whatever live ambiance that may have lingered in the original recording was sucked out to make the music sound clearer. Whatever the case, Theater of the Absurd’s production is functional and doesn’t impede the music, but is dull in of itself, and works against some otherwise incredible musicianship.

Theater of the Absurd will hopefully earn some well-deserved fans with this latest release. If the debut couldn’t be considered an artistically satisfying release, this one should make the band proud. Even if it feels like there is work yet to do before Theater of the Absurd reach unrestricted excellence, “The Myth of Sisyphus” is an impressive statement for progressive metal, particularly so for its wizardly instrumentation.

ANGRA Best Reached Horizons

Boxset / Compilation · 2012 · Power Metal
Cover art 3.25 | 2 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Best Reached Horizons' - Angra (5/10)

When a band reaches a certain milestone, it’s traditional for something to be released in celebration. Therion, for example, released a collection of French pop covers for their 25th anniversary. In similar fashion, Angra’s “Best Reached Horizons” commemorates the band’s 20th year as a band. Consisting of two discs representing the band’s career up to this point, the compilation is a strong reflection of Angra’s material as a whole. However, with only a single song (a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”) as material exclusive to this release, “Best Reached Horizons” doesn’t offer much to interest the band’s fans.

When reviewing a compilation, I’m left in a tough position; is it better to review the music showcased, or the release in itself? I’ve been a fan of Angra for some time now, and regard them as one of the most technically impressive and accomplished bands in power metal. However, even if the quality of songs here is generally high, there’s little reason to recommend it over one of the original albums. As a two disc, two hour ordeal, it’s not exactly something that welcomes newcomers to the band. While I can appreciate the use of a ‘best-of’ compilation as an effective summary of a band’s career, for the sake of listening itself, there’s far greater satisfaction to be had in one of their full-lengths; might I suggest “Angel Cry” or “Temple of Shadows”?

Onto the music itself, there’s a fine selection of choice cuts throughout the band’s career. The two discs split material from the two vocalists represented (Andre Matos and his replacement, Edu Falaschi), and while the two are fairly similar in style, it was a cool idea to divide the two so that the band’s chronology might be better navigated. “Carry On”, “Angel’s Cry”, “The Course of Nature” and “Arising Thunder” are all highlights for me. On the low end, their cover of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” seems like a poor choice, largely due to a contrived vocal performance that tries too hard to reflect the original vocalist’s floaty delivery. The only thing here that should spark the interest of existing Angra fans is their cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”. Itself one of my favourite Zep tracks, Angra do a good job of reinvigorating it with their own style.

“Best Reached Horizons” makes for a fine afternoon of high-quality power metal. As a compilation however, the whole thing feels rather unnecessary. I mean, what newcomer is going to go into a band by picking up a two hour compilation, and what fans- sparing the hardcore completionists- are going to buy something consisting almost entirely of music they’ve already heard. It’s possible that I’m missing the point altogether, but as it stands, there are much better places to start with Angra than this.

DEAFHEAVEN Sunbather

Album · 2013 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 3.94 | 12 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Sunbather' - Deafheaven (6/10)

I remember Hunter-Hunt Hendrix (of Liturgy infamy) once defending the new wave of ‘uplifting’ black metal as being in keeping with black metal’s doctrine of controversy and rebellion. Indeed, the pejoratively-titled scene of ‘hipster black metal’ has polarized audiences; some embrace the softer approach as a relatively fresh innovation, and others have lavished the ‘hipster’ bands with the greatest execration and disdain since Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth. Love or hate them, bands like Liturgy and San Francisco’s Deafheaven are causing a stir, and it’s always interesting to see people taking such equally vehement stances for and against a band. While I’ve always been skeptical that a style so historically rooted in darkness could (or should) be translated into feelings of hope and optimism as Deafheaven strive for on Sunbather, I’ve kept myself open to the possibility. Unfortunately, while Deafheaven’s shoegaze-laden approach to black metal clearly intends to revive and invent the genre, I find it difficult to be particularly moved one way or the other by the most polarizing metal record of 2013. Sunbather is not an excellent album, nor is it the horrendous abomination genre-purists claim it to be. Rather, its predictable dynamics and washy atmosphere leave it somewhere in the neighborhood of ‘moderately enjoyable’. In short, Deafheaven’s second album is an only slightly above-average take on blackgaze that doesn’t warrant the extreme opinions from either side.

In addition to the counter-intuitive emotional spin Deafheaven have placed on black metal in Sunbather, the album’s cheerfully minimalistic cover makes it fairly obvious that they mean to rebel against the traditional order. Conceptualized as a reflection of the colours seen on the insides of one’s eyelids when basking in the sun, it’s an apt reflection of Deafheaven’s emotional appeal. Operating in terms of melancholy and hopeful optimism, Sunbather gives an impression closer to that of a post-rock record than any metal I’ve heard this year. The guitars are laden in reverb and distortion, but the songwriting never betrays a sense of malice or anger. Conventionally beautiful harmonies are used in abundance here; particularly on some of the clean sections offered, Deafheaven will overdub guitars to create a dense, yet accessible wall of sound. Although it often feels like Deafheaven choose the most obvious sequence of notes to resolve their motifs, the compositions demonstrate a talent with knowing when to change up the pace. “The Pecan Tree” really excels with its dynamic, switching between soft and heavy sections, each contributing towards a powerful emotional payoff.

Although Sunbather feels rooted in a fairly narrow emotional context of longing and melancholy throughout, Deafheaven have a firm grasp of songwriting dynamic. In spite of that, Sunbather feels constructed out of a mere handful of tricks and ideas, to the point where the formula begins to feel predictable long before the album is over. Deafheaven are remarkably consistent throughout the album, but the everpresent euphony filtered over blastbeats and vocal shrieks feels too narrow a range to stay engaging through the album’s hour length. Especially considering the roots of the genre the band is apparently trying to reinvent, Sunbather offers a nicely blended production, with textural detail aplenty to keep the atmosphere afloat. While the instrumentation is dynamic and powerful (with special merits going to Daniel Tracy for an excellent drum performance!) the vocals are painfully underwhelming. George Clarke’s harsh screams are high pitched and raspy (in keeping with frostbitten traditions) but they’re undermixed, lack resonance and fail to add a relevant emotional dimension to the music. Screams in ‘blackgaze’ music can be used plenty effectively, but Deafheaven’s failure to properly integrate the vocals into their atmosphere is a sullen reminder that the effort to reinvent black metal as an ‘uplifting’ sound feels ultimately contrived and needlessly contrarian.

Most of all, Sunbather is a case where the hype (both good and bad) has left me disappointed. There are moments here where I come close to feeling the awe and admiration others have clearly felt, but the feelings are fleeting at best. I’m pleased that a fairly young band like Deafheaven is getting such an enthusiastic reception, but I’m simply not feeling it at much. Its uplifting, graceful beauty comes at the cost of emotional tension or challenge. The blackgaze style has potential aplenty for an emotionally evocative experience- Alcest’s excellent Écailles de Lune and Lantlos’ .neon come first to mind- but in the case of Sunbather, I wish I could be feeling more from it.

AEON ZEN Self Portrait

EP · 2013 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.73 | 3 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Self Portrait' - Aeon Zen (7/10)

At some point in every artist’s career, they will generally stop t take a look at what they’ve already done, consolidating their position and reflecting upon the path they’ve taken. After releasing one of my favourite progressive metal albums of the year in Enigma, now seems like a perfect time for Aeon Zen to take a moment aside for reflection. From the band’s origins essentially as a personal project of multi-instrumentalist Rich Hinks to its full-fledged current form, Aeon Zen has come a long way. Featuring a new song and three re-worked versions of compositions from their 2009 debut A Mind’s Portrait, the recently released Self Portrait is a fitting demonstrator how far the band has progressed. Although the EP doesn’t excel without its context as a simple indicator of the band’s evolution, Self Portrait is a fine bite-sized chunk of modern progressive metal, and a welcome addendum for anyone who shared my love of their most recent full length.

Although I hesitate to use the term ‘djent’ when describing a band (or at least a band I like), Aeon Zen share some of their sound with the likes of contemporary progressive metal acts; their compatriots in TesseracT come first to mind. Although the instantly identifiable palm-muted tone associated with that dubious word was downplayed on the new album, Self Portrait has a distinctly djenty tone to it. Even though it’s the shortest piece on the EP, the original composition “Psych!” is my favourite song here. Built around an odd time signature, it’s the sort of brimming overture that would have set a perfect atmosphere for a full-length. It’s a very atmospheric take on progressive metal, similar to Devin Townsend or the latest record from TesseracT.

As for the covers here, the most notable difference is the improved musicianship and production. Although Aeon Zen started off on a great note for what was then largely a one-man act, these compositions really benefit from a full band performance. Of the three, “Portrait” is my favourite piece, balancing ambient clean vocals with death growls and rhythmic riffs that recall Cynic. “Rain” is a much softer track; guitars give way to piano here for the most part. While the track benefits greatly from a much improved production, I’m left wanting something more aggressive from the band; the smooth saxophone solo recalls Dream Theater’s “Another Day” and is an unexpected contribution, but doesn’t work as well with the rest of the band’s sound as it was probably intended to. “Demise” has been significantly shortened from its original twelve minute length.

While Aeon Zen has been a good band from the start, their recent material is a firm step up from their origins. While I’m sure it was Aeon Zen’s intention with Self Portrait to emphasize that fact, I would prefer to hear newly written material rather than revised versions of older songs. Enigma remains a favourite of mine, and has made me anxious to hear more from the band. Comparing these older compositions to the recent stuff however, it’s evident to me that Aeon Zen have improved in more than their mere execution. Self Portrait doesn’t hold my interest as much as an EP of fresh material would have, but it’s a worthy addition to the history of one of progressive metal’s most promising contemporary acts.

ANUBIS GATE Sheep

EP · 2013 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.08 | 8 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Sheep' - Anubis Gate (8/10)

For a covers EP, this is about as good as it gets! Anubis Gate are perhaps the most criminally underrated band going in progressive metal today, although existing fans will attest to their greatness. Although the prog-power scene is saturated with bands that lack much in the way of power or relative progginess, Anubis Gate have remained uncompromisingly perfectionistic in their quest to make the tightest music possible, so perfectionistic in fact that their much anticipated upcoming album Horizons was pushed back to 2014 for release. In its stead, Anubis Gate have offered us the EP Sheep as a stop-gap. Showcasing a progressive metal rendition of the so-titled Pink Floyd epic, along with a cover of the Mr. Mister hit “Broken Wings” and a sneak peek of the forthcoming full-length, Sheep should be more than enough to whet the appetites of any prog metal fan. It may be only a covers release, but Anubis Gate imbue it with the same inventiveness and attention to detail that has made them such a standout band in the first place.

Anubis Gate start Sheep off with an original track, “Destined to Remember”. Being something of a sneak peek for an album that’s run behind schedule, the track is good reason to get excited about the forthcoming album. It’s Anubis Gate in top form; melodies, dynamic shifts, atmosphere and cerebral songwriting that picks up where Fates Warning left off at their peak. In true prog metal fashion, “Destined to Remember” condenses ideas that could have been the framework of a twenty minute epic into a concise five minute package. While the first half of the tune unfolds around a memorable chorus, the second half gets more complex, featuring an incredible guitar solo and cinematic atmosphere that has me thinking that Horizons is going to be one of the highlight albums for 2014.

While I haven’t been able to call myself a fan of Pink Floyd in earnest for a few years now, Sheep has continued to wow me every time I heard it. It was a darkly atmospheric album with a biting concept, the band’s cynicism held in full view. To hear “Sheep” reimagined as a metal track works much better than it may have sounded on paper; considering the song came out in 1977, it’s a testament to “Sheep” enduring quality that it can be modernized so well. The classic intro is updated to incorporate Ayreon-esque electronic instrumentation, an instant reminder that this isn’t the original we’re hearing. Once the guitars kick in, it’s clear that Anubis Gate have thrust the song firmly within metal territory. The chugging guitars are remarkably heavy for such a melodic and refined sound. Although I would have thought it clichéd for a band to have covered such a classic and well-known track, Anubis Gate make the song their own. Considering the legendary status Floyd themselves, it’s a major credit to Anubis Gate’s name that they’ve managed to take one of the space rock masters’ greatest moments and managed to make it their own. Excellence.

Their cover of Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” is pretty surprising, considering that Mr. Mister has nothing to do with metal or even prog, save for their drummer Pat Mastelotto’s shared history with King Crimson. Like “Sheep” Anubis Gate are able to update the song and make it their own, although the result is obviously far less impressive. Henrik Fevre absolutely nails the vocals here, putting a heftier punch into his delivery than the original had. The electronic drum patterns during the chorus could have been done without, although I guess it makes sense given the original’s ultra-80’s appeal. All in all, a good cover of a memorable song, although given the excellence of the two tracks preceding it, it’s the certain low point of the EP.

In short, I might not recommend Sheep to newcomers of Anubis Gate, but if any fan of progressive metal is reading this who hasn’t yet heard the band, I’m speaking to you directly right now: check these guys out, because you’re missing one of the genre’s most underrated and excellent acts. It’s a great covers EP in its own right, but what’s more; it sets the stage for a potentially incredible album in the making. I can’t wait to hear Horizons!

INQUISITION Obscure Verses for the Multiverse

Album · 2013 · Black Metal
Cover art 3.74 | 9 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Obscure Verses for the Omniverse' - Inquisition (8/10)

Since they released the first preview for this album, Inquisition have enjoyed a buzz yet unrivaled by any other black metal act this year. Declarations harking “Obscure Verses for the Omniverse” as the ‘black metal album of the year’ are not uncommon, and I’ve even had one friend go as far as to call them the new kings of black metal. Even if I may not jump on board with the same degree of veneration for the band, their potential claim to the throne is not unthinkable; over the span of six albums, Inquisition have conjured a ruthless astral assault in the name of the Dark One. In many ways, “Obscure Verses for the Omniverse” is a logical next-step for the band, continuously sharpening their skills while remaining everclose to their ideological and stylistic nucleus. Forward-thinking without going so far as to alienate the genre’s origins, Inquisition’s latest is a well-crafted work that reaffirms why the band rank among the most renowned in American black metal.

Inquisition strike a fine balance between the left-field, chaotic black metal of bands like Deathspell Omega, and the familiar Norwegian tradition most echoed here from bands like Immortal and Darkthrone. Similarly to the way Watain attempted to put a new spin on the sound of the Second Wave (albeit unsuccessfully), Inquisition have taken the roots of the genre to their logical end. Unlike most of the more experimental acts in black metal, Inquisition place an emphasis on riffs and focused song structures. Although there are quite plenty of tempo changes and moments of respite on “Obscure Verses for the Omniverse”, the songwriting and arrangements are ultimately driven by a ‘less is more’ doctrine, surprising given the band’s sophistication towards the riffs themselves.

Dagon’s guitarwork is, far and beyond, the strongest element of Inquisition’s sound. It’s pretty rare that a guitarist in black metal really impresses me, but Dagon navigates through some surprisingly inventive riffs here. Blended together with a thick tone that vaguely recalls space rock, Dagon seamlessly meshes melodies, gloomy textures, thrashy aggression and solos together, sometimes all within the same riff. For an album with a notably narrow range stylewise, it’s pleasantly surprising that most of the songs here on memorable on their own. “Force of the Floating Tomb” is a particularly strong track, firmly introducing the album’s approach and bringing an atmospheric hook of its own: Raise the chalice... “Joined By Dark Matter Repelled By Dark Energy” is the most sophisticated piece on the album, drawing moments of calculated madness, chilling ambiance and epic hooks under one banner. The album’s arc finds its climax in “Inversion Of Ethereal White Stars”, a track that brings melody front and centre, at no cost to the music’s atmosphere.

Although “Obscure Verses for the Omniverse” enjoys the rare gift of memorable songwriting, the album suffers from a nagging sense of déjà-vu. Although the songs ultimately end up finding a life of their own through the quality of the riffs, it feels like Inquisition are choosing to use only a handful of fundamental ideas in the music. For instance, there are plenty of riffs here that seem to pluck chord progressions from other songs on the album. The abundant fast-slow songwriting dynamic loses its element of surprise pretty quickly, and Dagon’s distinctive vocal snarl, as always, will likely turn some listeners off for their monotony. Granted, the apparent ‘sameness’ of the album has become less of a problem for me the more I listen to it, but it feels like Inquisition could have benefitted from a slightly wider range on “Obscure Verses”.

It’s the sign of a great album when it continues to grow on the listener. “Obscure Verses for the Omniverse” is one such instance. It’s a strong continuation of the path Inquisition were already on. Even if personal tastes would normally have me looking for a more experimental approach in modern black metal, Inquisition have crafted an impressive work here. Fans of black metal old and new would do well to give it a listen.

SKELETONWITCH Serpents Unleashed

Album · 2013 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 3.79 | 4 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Serpents Unleashed' - Skeletonwitch (7/10)

When all is said and done, Skeletonwitch is a live band. Although five albums released over the span of ten years has made the Ohio thrashers out to be fairly prolific in the studio, their fiery brand of blackened thrash sounds practically designed for the live stage. With songwriting and style remaining pretty damned consistent over the years, Skeletonwitch’s mission in the studio has been one of trapping that live energy on record. “Serpents Unleashed”- the band’s fifth album to date- manages to do just that, pairing the blend of catchiness and carnage heard on 2011’s “Forever Abomination” with an organic, pleasantly raw production presently unmatched by the rest of Skeletonwitch’s studio material. In most other regards, “Serpents Unleashed” brings the same thrash and fury we’ve come to expect from the band, and while some fresh innovation to their style would have helped the album stand out, Skeletonwitch show no signs of slowing down.

This past Fall marked the ten year anniversary of Skeletonwitch’s existence as a band. In spite of their growing exposure and success over the span of five albums, they have always remained close to their roots. Stylistically, “Serpents Unleashed” is barely a stone’s throw away from the blackened heavy metal of the 2004 debut. Granted, the musicianship and intensity have increased with time and age, but Skeletonwitch are a great example of a band that knew where they wanted to go from the very start. Existing fans of the band should feel a welcome sense of déjà vu upon first hearing “Serpents Unleashed”. Thrashy riffs steeped in classic rock n’ roll influence drive the album forward, while melodic leads stripped from black metal canon give the songs some individual identity. As it has always been, Chance Garnette provides Skeletonwitch with a fittingly biting voice, whose aggressive snarl carries greater weight than most harsh vocalists you’re bound to hear. Although classic thrash is the meat and bones of Skeletonwitch’s sound, the marked influence from black and melodic death metal is more than enough to set them apart from the average thrash revival cronies. Their musical approach is straightforward and to-the-point, but they have a sound of their own, and most of their contemporaries cannot say the same.

Although the music is little different from Skeletonwitch’s work in the past, “Serpents Unleashed” enjoys a fitting production that eluded the band’s previous efforts. While “Forever Abomination” was very crisp and clear, it suffered a lack of rawness that would have added bite to the music. In large thanks to the efforts of producer Kurt Ballou, “Serpents Unleashed” brings the band ever closer to recreating the live experience in studio, at no cost to the production’s clarity. Due to the unrelenting pace and speed, the album’s relatively short half-hour length works for the music, ensuring that listener’s don’t get a chance to get accustomed to the aggression before the album’s over. With most of the tracks falling below the three minute mark, all of the songs present on “Serpents Unleashed” have been tied together as a near-seamless album-long onslaught. Skeletonwitch leave no fat or unnecessary filler left on these songs, and they amass a pretty impressive momentum by the time the album’s over. Although most of the songs tend to blend together into one half-hour blackened thrash entree, a few tracks do stand out. “From a Cloudless Sky” has an epic black metal pace that conjures surprising amounts of atmosphere within three minutes. “Burned from Bone” and “Unending, Everliving” are both undeniably catchy tunes, each with a melodic guitar hook to make them instantly memorable. “This Evil Embrace” tones down the tempo a bit to recall the sinister melodies of “Dissection”, and provides an effective respite from the thrash. Overall, “Serpents Unleashed” has some great ideas, but the homogeneous sound on the album makes all but the catchiest riffs blend in together.

Diehard supporters of the band may recall the ‘if it ain’t broke...’ idiom, and for the most part, it rings true. “Serpents Unleashed” is more of the same blackened thrash that the band has been putting out for ten years now, and it sounds as tight as ever. Even so, by this point in the band’s career, I’m left wanting something more from them, something to distinguish their current material from that of years past. An excellent production job aside, the album doesn’t stand any bit above the rest of Skeletonwitch’s work. For newcomers to the band, I would still recommend “Breathing the Fire” as a good starting point. For fans and veterans of the Witch, you know what to expect. At the end of the day, “Serpents Unleashed” does not disappoint.

SOLISIA UniverSeasons

Album · 2012 · Symphonic Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 3 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'UniverSeasons' - Solisia (5/10)

Solisia and their second album present a familiar scenario to me. Almost ubiquitously described as a progressive metal act throughout the annals of the web, a band otherwise based in convention seems to have been labelled as such for placing a greater emphasis on technical precision than some of their peers. Going into the band’s second album “UniverSeasons” with an open mind nonetheless, it was disappointing to hear another technically skilled band fall into a common rut, that being the mire of female-fronted ‘symphonic’ metal. Although Dream Theater must have been an influence somewhere along the way, it may be held to question whether Solisia even deserve the progressive metal label. Rather, their indistinct take on symphonic metal features nothing to separate them from the hordes of overpolished female-fronted acts emerging from continental Europe. Solisia may execute their craft with impressive finesse, but their inability to break away from a done-to-death formula leaves scarce opportunity for a listener to be shocked or inspired.

Although Solisia are an inconsistent success at best with regards to their songwriting, “UniverSeasons” boasts some impressive production value and musicianship. Although there’s little room within these five minute power anthems for the musicians to express a distinct identity, there is solid depth to the arrangements. In particular, Wilson Di Geso’s keyboard work gives a welcome cushion for the music, amplifying the band’s sense of bombast with symphonic orchestrations and the occasional synthesizer. New to the band is vocalist Elie Syrelia (their third to date), who- as is often the case with female-fronted metal- takes the spotlight for most of the album. Elie has a powerful voice, but her delivery seems better suited for pop music than metal, and the tactical use of autotune doesn’t help to argue that her voice belongs in a metal band.

“UniverSeasons”s title track opens the album on one of its strongest notes. Although Solisia break the unwritten rule in their (albeit sparing) use of autotune during the chorus, it’s a well penned and delivered piece, although one gets the impression from the very start that Solisia mean to be dark and provocative without taking any of the steps necessary towards accomplishing it. “Symbiosis” is another surprisingly good track that almost seems to live up to Solisia’s proggy promise, recalling the riff-oriented tunes of Threshold. While it’s clear from these two tracks that Solisia have the ability to write compelling songs within the prescribed style, so many of the songs here remain dry, sterile, and undeserving of such otherwise skilled musicianship. Solisia’s desire to appeal to poppier tastes also tends to hold them back; for example, “The Queen’s Crown” starts with a synthesized beat that makes it sound like something ripped from the top R&B charts before falling back upon Solisia’s generic symphonic anthem territory.

For a country with such a rich history in classical music, it’s hardly surprising that Italy’s metal is so often tinged with the symphonic and orchestral tradition. It’s really a shame then that the potential is so often squandered by the all-too-common pop sensibilities of bands like Solisia. “UniverSeasons” demonstrates a remarkable grasp of studio craft and finesse, but Solisia fall short of finding their own identity. Their familiar brand of symphonic metal might find welcome ears in hardcore fans of the genre, but with the style as saturated with soundalikes as it is, Solisia do nothing to stand out.

SCALE THE SUMMIT The Migration

Album · 2013 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.48 | 6 ratings
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'The Migration' - Scale the Summit (7/10)

It’s a sentiment I’ve restated whenever speaking of this band: where technical metal generally intends to appeal to the intellect, Scale the Summit aims straight for the heart and emotional centre of their listeners. It’s this approach that largely separates them from their less distinctive brethren, and over the course of a remarkably consistent career, they have continued to evoke the same rich feelings in me. Although their latest record, “The Migration”, does not expand upon the band’s style beyond what has already been explored on past albums, Scale the Summit’s trademark style remains fresh, engaging, and beautiful in a way most metal isn’t.

Scale the Summit’s sound and style are described perfectly in the band’s name. Not only is there an atmosphere of optimism and triumph, the band’s riffs often depend on climbing and descending patterns. Although they are rarely melodic in the conventional sense, Scale the Summit’s music has an atmosphere that washes over the listener and absolves them of the intellectual challenge generally associated with tech-centric music. This is certainly not to say that the music isn’t intelligent; rather, it is thoughtfully constructed in such a way that the numerous technical solos, riffs and fleeting moments of ambiance are all poised in a single direction, like a river. The jazzy, technical style of Cynic is a readily apparent influence in their sound, and there are even times when the band’s penchant for multi-layered arrangements reminds me of Devin Townsend. Although there are occasional moments of quasi-djenty ‘chugging’, and displays of technical wizardry aplenty, Scale the Summit’s tasteful restraint when it comes to their compositions gives their music a mellow impression in spite of the band’s more conventionally ‘metal’ elements. This approach has been with Scale the Summit since the beginning, and “The Migration” does not reinvent or add anything particularly striking to the formula. Most times, failing to develop one’s sound with each album would leave the music feeling tired, but Scale the Summit seem to have found their proper calling early on and never looked back since.

“The Migration” lays its three proudest eggs all at the start- “Odyssey”, “Atlas Novus” and “The Olive Tree” are the most impressive cuts the album has to offer, and some of the most beautiful pieces Scale the Summit have constructed to date. “Atlas Novus” in particular has an introduction that emphasizes their marriage of technicality and emotion perfectly. Precise and calculated finger-tapping has long been one of the band’s signature tools, and to hear the technique used for such melodic beauty is a very rare listening experience. The rest of the album maintains a relative par with regards to technicality and thoughtful arrangements, but unfortunately by the fourth or fifth track, the pieces begin to blur together. It all seems in keeping with the band’s stylistic decision to make music that washes over the listener, but it would have been great to have heard a few surprises along the way. Then again, this is an issue I’ve had with all of the Scale the Summit albums; their style is beautiful and awe-inspiring, but there’s only ever a handful of tracks with an identity of their own.

Barring its stunning artwork (which might just be my favourite album artwork of the year so far) “The Migration” suffers mostly from the fact that it follows too closely in the footsteps of its predecessors. In style and the emotions felt as a listener, it doesn’t feel any different than the times when “The Collective” or “Carving Desert Canyons” were first fresh in my mind. The lack of track and album identity remains Scale the Summit’s greatest obstacle in the path of creating a true masterpiece. Then again, there isn’t a band in technical metal I can think of that’s making music with the emotional depth and feeling of Scale the Summit. In that respect, “The Migration” doesn’t disappoint.

ALTAR OF PLAGUES Teethed Glory and Injury

Album · 2013 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 3.78 | 8 ratings
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'Teethed Glory And Injury' - Altar of Plagues (9/10)

Earlier today, I received word that the Irish black metal trio Altar of Plagues have decided to part ways. While it's hopeful and certainly conceivable that we'll be hearing work from these musicians under different guises in the future, it seems a very meaningful time for this project to have collapsed. Many bands may cling onto past glories long after the fire has gone out, Altar of Plagues have called it quits at the peak of their success which, from where I'm standing, seems to be the next best thing to dying at 27. Considering the band was little more than a bedroom project six years ago, it's pretty incredible to see what Altar of Plagues have managed to achieve since then; with one of my all-time black metal favourites (2011's "Mammal") counting among their accomplishments. Always playing with one foot in the ring and one foot outside, it's fitting that Altar of Plagues' tentative swansong be such an anomaly. In a genre and 'scene' that unfortunately tends to value tradition over fresh perspective, it's no wonder that "Teethed Glory And Injury" has spurned its own minor controversy in the underground. The fusion of black metal with post rock or industrial music has been done before, but rarely has the blend sounded so seamlessly. Black metal is but one of a number of forces working within the album's framework, and it's sure to spit out any listener looking for a more clearcut musical experience. This sort of atmospheric experimentalism tends to fire blanks most of the time, and that's all the more reason for Altar of Plagues' third album to have impressed me so much. There are so many risks the band have taken with Teethed Glory And Injury", and it's no small victory to have it all come together so powerfully. A gorgeous soundtrack to the end of Altar of Plagues, and the rest of the world.

From the atypical cover alone, it should be clear to almost everyone that Altar of Plagues are beyond the traditional scope of black metal. Of course, to those with the fortune to have heard their work before this, this should not come as any surprise; "White Tomb" was a remarkable, monolithic slab of atmospheric black metal, and the near-perfect "Mammal" took the band's sound closer to the realms of Isis moreso than anything. With "Teethed Glory And Injury", it feels like Altar of Plagues have found a truly unique niche within black metal. Comparisons can still be made with next-wave black metal contemporaries like Wolves in the Throne Room and Fen, and some of the post-metal veterans, but with Altar of Plagues' introduction of drone and noise, their sound has become that much more exact. Perhaps even more notably is the fact that "Teethed Glory..." represents the first time on a full-length where the band has not pursued the longer song structures that defined "White Tomb" and "Mammal". The meticulous repetition so typical of atmospheric black metal is largely removed from Altar of Plagues' musical formula, instead replaced by a much more chaotic, unpredictable ebb-and-flow style of composition.

Rather than fleshing out a few ideas into monstrously looming pieces, Altar of Plagues have condensed musical thoughts aplenty into a relatively tight space. One minute, the album may lull into a deceptively soothing piece of ambience, but its sonic opposite is usually soon to follow. This is not to say that "Teethed Glory And Injury" sounds patchy and aimless, although I would not be surprised if some listeners perceive it that way. Unlike the rest of Altar of Plagues' oeuvre, these tracks cannot function without their context. They lack the self-contained focus to be considered 'songs', and are rather pieces of an overlying puzzle. While some listeners may have anticipated a less challenging experience from the shorter song lengths, "Teethed Glory And Injury" requires a great deal more of the listener's attention than in works past. Suffice to say, there are far more surprises to be had on the album.

Altar of Plagues have seemingly mastered the ability to balance a primitive, noisy production with the meticulous calculation and grace of an auteur. The soundscape is not wildly dense or detailed, but there are more than enough nooks in the band's studio product to properly reward an attentive listener. The composition does not require a virtuosic grade of musicianship, but the atmosphere benefits from the band's healthy knowledge of dynamic. The guitars are sludgier than listeners will have come to expect from black metal, and they pack a greater punch as a result. While vocals have never been a particularly major element of Altar of Plagues' music, "Teethed Glory And Injury" has revealed an emotional depth and range to the band's vocal arsenal that adds an intense sense of passion to the music. A solid mixture of mid-register growls and traditional rasps make up the mainstay of the vocals, but there are moments here (particularly on the album's first emotional highlight "Burnt Year") where the vocals ascend to a near-inhuman howl. Overtop a melodic-yet- aggressive rupture of guitars, the resulting feeling is enormously cathartic. Clean vocals are less common, but are still used wonderfully to help accentuate some of the album's more soothing moments.

"Teethed Glory And Injury" shows a band taking many risks, and having little regard for the preconceived constraints for the genre they're considered part of. From where I'm standing, that's a cause for respect. To hear a band successfully reinvent a style in their own image is quite a sight to behold, and not something I've too often heard in black metal. It's too early to see if Altar of Plagues' third and final album will have the same lasting emotional resonance that "Mammal" had for me, but it's a healthy possibility. Criticisms of the album feeling patchy and lacking structure stand to reason, but it's that freedom from constraint that makes "Teethed Glory And Injury" such a bloody fascinating listen. I will reserve hopes that the band will eventually decide to get back together, but if that doesn't happen, I can't think of a better note for Altar of Plagues to have ended on.

SHINING One One One

Album · 2013 · Avant-garde Metal
Cover art 3.50 | 7 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'One One One' - Shining (6/10)

A couple of months ago, I read an essay written by Shining frontman Jørgen Munkeby, the essence of which argued that the human ear is in constant search for a greater degree of dissonance and extremity, and that popular musical trends are built around this notion. While it's one thing to take dissonance to heart in a relatively 'high culture' environment (like a certain Parisian theatre in 1913), there's a different sort of challenge in trying to marry an inherently challenging device in popular music. Shining's "One One One" is not so groundbreaking in this regard as a work by Stravinsky or Penderecki, but I'm sensing the same sort of adventurous intent here. Atop a tight foundation of dance-able rock energy, Shining add an unfamiliar distortion and atmospheric weirdness that sounds surprisingly unsettling, even to a seasoned progger's ears. "One One One" may not be grim or jazzy enough to warrant the band's self-professed 'blackjazz' label, but the band have crafted an interesting musical experience here somewhere in between the respective and highly dissimilar madnesses of Motorhead, Strapping Young Lad and John Zorn. It's a shame that the band's songwriting isn't as vibrant here as it was on their last two records, because "One One One" has many of the makings of a potentially great album.

"One One One" is a more rock-oriented offering than Shining have done in the past, and has been the case with many bands after they release their quintessential, self-defining masterwork, Shining have scaled their sound back a bit in order to focus on the core of their music. In Shining's case, that 'masterwork' was "Blackjazz", an album that wore its quirky blend of styles on its sleeve in the literal sense. While I don't think their self-invented genre tag fits their sound anymore, Shining's palette of sound remains familiar. Schizoid keyboard leads, electronic interference, and fuzzy guitars remain staples of Shining's style, and Munkeby's vocals retain their often harsh and occasionally melodic flair.

Ultimately, Shining's change of pace is felt most profusely in the album's composition. I have fond memories of first hearing nine minute bouts of progressive mastery on "Blackjazz"; Shining would pull out all of the stops and I would often be left in suspense, wondering what tricks the band had in store right around the bend. While "One One One" sounds like Shining's more ambitious work on a superficial level, there is none of the same catharsis I felt upon hearing the band for the first time. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that Shining has focused entirely on concise songwriting. Were it not for the overzealous distortion and noisy atmosphere, many of these songs could easily be adapted for a commercial format. "I Won't Forget" is a particular favourite of mine, pairing a Motorhead-esque energy and vocal style with experimental jazz breaks and an ample dose of production noise. "My Dying Drive" is another standout piece, taking the album a step away from the chorus-centric catchiness towards darker territories. Sometimes, I get the impression with the band's adherence to such tried-and-true song structures that they're being self-aware with it, as if they're trying to see how much madness they can stir within a typical four minute song. If that's true, "One One One" stands at a half success. Shining have been able to successfully transpose their weird style onto a basic songwriting format, but in doing so, the potential of some of these ideas has been lost. Somewhere towards the halfway point of the album, I start to yearn for a change of pace; an instrumental surprise or jazz break to keep things interesting. Alas, for all of the benefits "One One One" enjoys for its concise writing mechanic, it loses some of its sense of danger and daring as a result.

Shining's style may no longer so aptly reflect their blackjazz vision, but their style remains balanced between two conflicting ideas. Moreso than the combination of metal and jazz, or any other sort of genre fusion, "One One One" feels defined by Shining's ability to two conflicting ideas at once; one comprising the album's concise, catchy songwriting, the other representing its avant-garde weirdness. I've heard that this ability to process conflicting information simultaneously can be indicative of genius. While that may be true, I do not get the impression on "One One One" that the band is playing to the extent of their potential. It was a bold move for the band to try to infuse their avant-garde sensibility with the more commercial end of rock music, but it's underwhelming in comparison to some of the band's past achievements.

VISIONS OF ATLANTIS Ethera

Album · 2013 · Symphonic Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 2 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Ethera' - Visions of Atlantis (5/10)

As has become the case with virtually every sub-genre of metal, there are now stereotypes associated with symphonic metal. Though the term simply means to denote the use of symphonic, or orchestral instruments in their music, it’s difficult to consider the style without thinking of a commercially-viable, goth-infused type of melodic metal, most typically fronted by a pretty white girl in a dress or other gender-specific attire. While symphonic metal could be used to describe bands as far-flung from this stereotype as Septic Flesh and Fleshgod Apocalypse, there is no denying the prevalence of bands that go for the specific, above-mentioned style. Visions of Atlantis are one such band, and though the intriguing album art may have conjured impressions of some epic mythological ordeal, there isn’t much the Austrian act does to make themselves any different from the rest of the female-fronted European horde. “Ethera” is sure to appeal to fans of the Epica and Within Temptation, but for those looking for something a little more distinctive, Visions of Atlantis haven’t made enough of an impression on me to warrant a wholehearted recommendation.

With this latest release being their fifth full-length recording to date, I’m surprised I haven’t heard of Visions of Atlantis before. Browsing through their earlier work however, it’s clear that “Ethera” is a fairly different sound from their early work. Originally, Visions of Atlantis took the operatic sound of Nightwish and fleshed it out with a greater presence of power metal. Their original vocalist- the soprano Nicole Bogner- has since passed away, though she has not been the band for close to a decade. Their 2009 album “Delta” introduced the vocal presence of one Maxi Nil, possibly best known as the touring live singer for Moonspell. Bringing a much more pop and goth-oriented vibe to the band’s sound, Visions of Atlantis have taken a shift to accommodate Maxi’s different vocal style, putting more of a focus on ‘dark’, chugging riffs and a greater focus on melody. In a big way, this change from opera to a poppier vocalist draws parallels with Nightwish. In Nightwish’s case however, they balanced Anette Olson’s voice with a grander scope of musical ambition and epic songwriting, a change that made their music all the more interesting to me. This positive transformation is not shared by Visions of Atlantis sadly. Instead of trying to give Maxi’s voice a counterweight to compliment it, they lean towards a single style collective and ultimately sound colorless. The gothic-symphonic style has been done to death, and Visions of Atlantis aren’t doing enough with it to stand out.

In regards to songwriting, it can be said that Visions of Atlantis kknow how to make the symphonic element work to their advantage. “Ethera” enjoys a clear, detailed arrangement and production sense. Although it’s not always evident upon first listen there always seems to be a symphonic arrangement around to bolster the metal. With that being said, Visions of Atlantis never take the symphonic approach by the proverbial horns; there are no keyboard arrangements here that could stand on their own. As generic and tame as their approach may be, it’s executed with taste and efficiency. Above all, “Ethera” is a vocal-centric album. Although there is the occasional memorable riff, you’re bound to come away from the album specifically remembering the vocals. Maxi and the male vocalist Mario Plank each have a strong voice. Though they- like much of the band’s craft- come across as being middle-of-the-road and generic, they make the familiar ‘beauty and the beast’ dynamic work rather well. Maxi Nil’s voice is in a lower range than Visions of Atlantis’ previous singers; she has a grittier tone to her voice well suited to the band’s sound. The vocal melodies are pleasant enough, but there’s rarely a passage here that stirs my heart or even gets me humming along. Considering the band’s decidedly poppy approach, this is a pretty sure sign that the shift towards being relatively ‘accessible’ hasn’t worked well for them.

There’s always a degree of risk when it comes to a band changing vocalists, let alone their style. In some cases, this has worked very well for the band- Iced Earth have thrived with Stu Block, and Nightwish’s “Dark Passion Play” was the best album I’ve ever heard them make. Visions of Atlantis are a tight, skilled musical unit, but I can’t help but feel disappointed that their style is so typical of symphonic metal. The power metal edge that made their early stuff promising is absent, replaced by a focus on the same radio-friendly stuff the ‘symphonic metal’ term seems to have come to signify. “Ethera” is an album with quality enough to appeal to fans of the style. Visions of Atlantis have the innate talent and skill to make something impressive, but with this latest album, there’s not much feeling they’re stirring in me, save for ambivalence.

OPERATION: MINDCRIME Frequency Unknown

Album · 2013 · Alternative Metal
Cover art 2.43 | 10 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Frequency Unknown' - Tateryche (3/10)

There are few things that unite the metal community so much as a healthy hatred for a shitty album. Metalheads are still blasting Celtic Frost's "Cold Lake" over beers a quarter-century following its release, as similarly has been the case for Metallica's "St. Anger". More recently- and especially since social media took off- these love-to-hate-'em records seem to become social events; there were jokes and memes aplenty about the infamous "Ilud Divinum Insanus" by Morbid Angel, or "Lulu" by (again) Metallica. Although there's no doubt that these blackmarked records indeed deserve the flak and lambast they've received, I've gotten the impression that such overwhelming and ubiquitous vitriol for an album can lead to a herd effect, where listeners will despise a record before it's even released. I've seen "Frequency Unknown" called everything from 'pop rock trash' to 'the worst album ever made', and though this Geoff Tate-dominated offshoot of the original Queensryche is little- deserving of praise, the album is not nearly as atrocious as some of the more adamant naysayers might have us believe. Unless you're dead set on comparing "Frequency Unknown" to the work of the band's heyday, there's little of an overtly offensive nature to be heard here. It's sterile, shallow and completely harmless, and in a way, that's a fate far worse than the atrocity fans prematurely made it out to be; at least then, I may have felt something from this.

Queensryche- or, as I will refer to this project henceforth in the review, Tateryche- has been the subject of some controversy in the recent months. The stories of threats at knifepoint, business squabbles and total artistic meltdown could easily be adapted as a film or critically-acclaimed television series. I could write paragraphs on the drama alone, but the important thing is that two Queensryches have emerged from the ashes, one being the 'real' Queensryche, the other being longtime vocalist Geoff Tate and a revolving door of musicians to play under him. In this sense, it's sort of like what happened with the two Rhapsody of Fires, although they never let the drama get overtop of the music. Although it's yet to be seen what the real Queensryche will do under these new terms, Tateryche has embraced this drama and anger to the point where it has become the music. The album's initials ("F.U") are as subtle as bolded caps-lock, and the lyrics make no effort to veil Tate's bitterness. The album's six-week production cycle seems rushed only to have an album out before the opposition. Ultimately, it's impossible to regard the album without its dubious context, and though it pains me to say as a lifelong Queensryche fan, there would be no reason to check out this album were it not for the circumstances around it.

There is little surprise in "Frequency Unknown"s musical direction. 2011's "Dedicated to Chaos" was a pretty awful result of Tate's desire to take the band down a more commercially viable and rock-oriented direction. Although it may sound hopeful to call "Frequency Unknown" a step up from that dismal low, there's not a great deal separating this from radio rock detritus. Modern rock radio is indeed a good place to reference when thinking of Queensryche in this latest incarnation. Concise riffs, generic guitar solos and an autistic focus on choruses define the approach to songwriting here. The only thing that really distinguishes this from a hit single is the fact that the songs here are nowhere near memorable or catchy enough to be worth the airwaves. Though there are a couple of fortunately notable exceptions to the rule, "Frequency Unknown" sits in that ugly place where the mainstream goes wrong. It's not even catchy in a bad way like Rebecca Black's "Friday" (remember that one?) or "Gangnam Style". It's simply by-the-numbers rock. Although the backing musicians (particularly bassist Rudy Sarzo) are talented, there's either the sense that they were given no artistic license to express themselves, or no time to express themselves effectively. The guitar solos- while functional- sound sloppy, as if they were the first or second cut of an improvised noodling.

Thankfully, a few songs stand out. Although "Cold" is as conventional and by-the-numbers as it gets, it's an enjoyable tune that oddly reminds me somehow of Kamelot, sans their symphonic element. "The Weight of the World" ends the album on a surprisingly progressive element, slowing down the pace and letting a drama and atmosphere, however bland, to build up as the album ends. Without a doubt however, the album's highlight and one truly enjoyable offering is "In the Hands of God", an eerie and exotic track that recalls their underrated album "Promised Land". If you've had the magnanimous fortune to come across a 'special edition' copy of the album, Geoff Tate includes a few re-recorded versions of Queensryche classics. It's really here where you get the impression how objectively inferior Tateryche is, especially when compared to the 1980s golden days. Tate himself has stated that these covers were only recorded for the healthy cash bonus included, and they sound just as impassionate as you would suspect. On these covers and the album as a whole, Tate's voice remains distinctive, but it's clear he retains a fraction of the range he once did. "I Don't Believe In Love" is particularly criminal; he can't hit notes and makes no effort to adapt the arrangement accordingly. Covers- even under the bleak auspices of Tateryche- could have conceivably worked, but only if they had done something fresh with them. Had I been there, I could have made the suggestion to do some down-to-earth unplugged covers. Unfortunately, the re-recorded versions are all the more explicit a reminder that this is no longer Queensryche we're dealing with.

If Queensryche was Lego, then this (whatever this is) is Mega Bloks. As much as it might try to persuade us otherwise, it's an inferior version of a better-known, better-loved thing. "Frequency Unknown" does get some things right, but there are too many weaknesses for it to be enjoyable. A rough, unfinished production mix (that has since been moderately improved), unimaginative musicianship and painfully conventional songwriting keep Tateryche from rising above the silly drama and context. Bitterness can sometimes translate into great art, but at this point, it seems bitterness is the only thing Tate has left. "Frequency Unknown" is not the end-all disasterpiece that some people may have hoped it would be, but there isn't much of a redeeming value here. I do retain a shred of hope that Tateryche might be able to come unto its own and do something interesting, but after seeing how low the Queensryche name has been dragged over the past decade, I wouldn't be surprised future work is stained with equal disappointment and apathy. What I'm most excited for is to see what the other 'ryche will do now. If they manage to come out with anything resembling a solid record, then this schism will have been for the best. As far as Mr. Tate is concerned however, it may be best to focus on memories of better days gone past.

NILE At the Gate of Sethu

Album · 2012 · Technical Death Metal
Cover art 3.79 | 17 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'At the Gate of Sethu' - Nile (5/10)

It’s a pattern we’ve seen before; regardless of musical genre, there will come a point in most ambitious artists’ lives where they will hit a plateau. As musicians become more confident and skilled within their style, there is often a yearning to see how far they can push their boundaries. This usually results in a string of progressively more complex and detailed albums. Ultimately, the artist will reach a point where they either cannot push the envelope any further, or long for the comforts of their earlier incarnations. Such was the story for Black Sabbath, Metallica, Bathory, Voivod, Dream Theater and most other bands that lived on past their glory days. So too, it seems, is the case for Nile and their seventh album, “At the Gate of Sethu”. Following the ambitious compositions, vicious hooks and untraditional instruments used in “Those Whom the Gods Detest”, Nile have returned to a more primordial state, focusing instead on a stripped-down approach reminiscent of their earlier material. To their credit, Nile’s unrelenting technical chops retain their claim as one of death metal’s best acts, but this regress has robbed their sound of many of the things that made them interesting to me in the first place.

Over the course of “Ithyphallic” and “Those Who the Gods Detest”, Nile had departed somewhat from the technical death metal style to focus more on sounds of oriental ambient music befitting their Egyptian mythological themes. Not only was this ‘Egyptian music’ being used in interludes; it was a vital part of the band’s musical expression- the epic climax to “Kafir!” comes to mind. Barring the non-metal instrumentation, these albums (with particular regards to the latter) took Nile past the confines of their technical death metal songwriting, fusing the music with excellent hooks and otherworldly atmosphere that made the albums work on a level beyond the style Nile were known for. “At the Gate of Sethu” takes the band’s sound to a time before the dynamic of these albums. The unrelenting aggression of their defacto magnum opus “Annihilation of the Wicked” appears to be the direction they were looking to take on this one. As a result, the songwriting has been generally condensed, the speed turned up and the unessential elements left for the jackals to feed upon. Although the potential to bring Nile back to their more aggressive form could have worked wonders, this latest album feels like a rehash of ideas, largely less inspired and memorable than the former style they are trying to rekindle. Nile’s cutthroat skill with their instruments hasn’t faltered any, but the songwriting lacks both of the momentum of their early work, and scope of their latter work.

Although it was likely a conscious decision in order to give the album a more stripped-down feeling, the production feels far less vital than it did on the last two albums. Although the now-scarce Egyptian instrumentation still enjoys the rich atmosphere I’ve come to associate with Nile’s interludes, the prevailing metal element feels like a studio throwback to somewhere between “In Their Darkened Shrines” and “Annihilation of the Wicked”. The rhythm guitars bear the brunt of the weakened production, sounding pretty dull compared to albums of the more recent past. Although George Kollias’ technical barbarism on the drumkit is the most impressive aspect of Nile’s performance this time around, the drum production sounds completely sterile, succumbing to the all-too common ‘trigger’ syndrome. Fortunately, the lead guitarwork sounds as great as it ever has, although this sense of inconsistent production is a bit of a problem in its own right. It’s a shame really, because some of the riffs on the album are fantastic. “The Eternal Molestation of Flame” in particular is a powerhouse of exciting death metal riffs. “The Inevitable Degradation of Flesh” is another great one, finding a firm balance between groove and dissonance. Although the technicality is constant throughout most of the album, most of the album passes by as something of a blur, one frantic riff after another. The highly informed and well-researched lyrics that have in part defined the band’s career are still here, but in a style of music where people complain ‘you can’t even understand what they’re saying’, it’s not enough to keep the perception of quality from taking a firm dip southward.

Nile’s latest album is the musical equivalent of a celebrity acting in a biographical film about themselves; even though this is their signature style, it comes off feeling contrived anyways. Nile’s willingness to go beyond the boundaries of what is normally considered ‘death metal’ is one of the big things that got me into them in the first place. “At the Gate of Sethu” has nothing necessarily wrong about it, but goddamn, was I ever expecting more from them.

HELLOWEEN Helloween

EP · 1985 · Speed Metal
Cover art 4.12 | 24 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Helloween' - Helloween (8/10)

Even before there was "Keeper of the Seven Keys", the German power metal titans Helloween were flying high. Although they hadn't yet redefined the genre with which they would be most associated, there are plenty of monumental riffs and falsettos to behold in the band's early canon. Drawing upon the styles of Judas Priest and the melodic gallop of Iron Maiden, Helloween's debut EP sets a solid foundation for the glorious power metal to come. For any fan of Helloween, or slightly thrash-infused speed metal, this self-titled release shouldn't be missed.

As opposed to the more refined atmosphere and fantasy vibe of their later work, the Helloween of 1985 are much more in tune with the typical topics and sounds of metal. As opposed to singing about mythology, quests and autumnal holidays, Helloween are writing about Satan, murder, and war. As you might guess, "Helloween" is a fair bit darker and more aggressive than their future sound. Anyone who has heard Iron Maiden's "Killers" before should know what to expect. In twenty six minutes, Helloween manage to run the gamut of human misery. In contrast with the subject matter, Helloween bring many of their trademark choruses to the mix here. In particular, "Starlight" and "Warrior" stand out as great tracks that could have fit on later albums.

Although Kai Hansen was the driving force behind what made early Helloween so good, it shouldn't come as a great surprise that his vocals aren't as technically impressive as those of Michael Kiske or Andi Deris. Although his singing ability would ferment and mature in his time with Gamma Ray, Hansen's vocals don't have the same operatic bravado that later Helloween vocalists would bring to the table. That's not to say, however, that he is a bad singer. Kai Hansen's raspier style fits the early Helloween's thrashier leanings. Particularly on the Judas Priest-esque "Victim of Fate", Hansen pulls off a few pretty impressive falsettos. The latter vocalists' contributions may have brought a greater finesse to the band's sound, but Hansen's more weathered voice gives Helloween an added sense of heaviness that they may have partially lost as the years went on.

Especially considering this is the band's debut EP, the quality of the production is surprising. While not as fine-tuned as the either "Keeper of the Seven Keys", the sound quality would not sound out of place on a professional full length. The guitar duo of Hansen and Weikath are, without a doubt, the strongest aspect of Helloween's sound. Although they were both in their early twenties at the time of the EP's recording, they already have a firm grasp of the neoclassical leads and speed-oriented riffs that would define the band's later sound. As far as the lingering question of whether Helloween were already innovating power metal as early as this EP (as opposed to pioneering it with "Keeper of the Seven Keys Pt. I"), the essential elements of power metal were already in the mix, but the songwriting and slight thrash edge may lure the style closer to being rightfully called speed metal, or perhaps a Teutonic adaptation of NWOBHM. Regardless of any arbitrary genre-tags however, "Helloween" is a fitting companion to "Walls of Jericho", and precursor to the band's better-known "Keeper of the Seven Keys" duology. Although it may be a pre-debut EP with the appearance of a fans-only apocrypha, "Helloween" is an excellent album and one of the better releases from one of metal's best-loved acts.

HOLY GRAIL Label Showcase - Prosthetic Records

Split · 2012 · Traditional heavy metal
Cover art 2.50 | 1 rating
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Conor Fynes
'Label Showcase - Prosthetic Records' - Various Artists (5/10)

Instead of opting for each band's in-studio material, Prosthetic Records decided to demonstrate some of their fine younger bands by recording a live show and compiling some of the takes onto a sampler. Being a big fan of two of these bands and a casual fan of a third, it was a welcome bonus to get this label showcase free-of-charge at a Witch Mountain/Castle show late last year. Apart from Prosthetic Records being one of my go-to labels when it comes to promising new albums, Scion A/V has also had a pretty solid history so far, having released albums for Enslaved and Immolation. Given this amount of promise squeezed into it, I'm surprised how disappointing it turned out to be. Although the exclusive live material for each band makes it worth a checkout for bigger fans of any of the bands, there are many more flattering ways these bands could have been showcased.

The showcase doesn't get off to the greatest start; although The Greenery demonstrate some chops within their given genre, their style of punk-infused hardcore sounds adolescent to my ears, particularly with regards to the shouted/whined vocals.Scale the Summit and Last Chance to Reason are the two bands here that I liked quite a bit before even hearing about this showcase, and I've also had the good fortune of seeing both play live- LCTR when they played with Obscura in Vancouver, and Scale the Summit when they toured through Las Vegas with Dream Theater on the ProgNation '09 tour. With that in mind, I wasn't surprised at all to hear both of these bands offer some great cuts here. Scale the Summit's typically mellowed style is most spared by the recording quality, which is weak at best. Sadly, while Last Chance to Reason's guitars get through well enough, Mike Lessard's vocals come across as screechy and far weaker than when I saw him perform live. Although I had heard a few songs by Holy Grail in the past, most of my experience with them had been vicariously, through hearing others talk about them. Within the context of this showcase, they demonstrate the greatest live energy, but they're also hurt the most by the bootleg-quality recording standard. Although they don't seem to innovate the tried-and-true style of power metal they're playing, I don't get the impression that was their goal to begin with.

With a particular nod to Scale the Summit, the quality of performance and musicianship here is kept to a fairly high standard, and while I can say with some confidence that The Greenery do not fit my tastes in the slightest, I could imagine some others digging what they have to offer. Had it not been for the sound quality and lackluster live setting, I could have recommended this to someone on the prowl for some good new bands. Instead, this may be best left as an apocryphal release for fans of one band to look for if they go through all of the official recordings and still want more.

DEAD SAMARITAN The Only Good Samaritan...

Album · 2012 · Death Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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Conor Fynes
'The Only Good Samaritan...' - Dead Samaritan (6/10)

In what little has been written online so far about these guys, Finland’s Dead Samaritan are often pegged as a crossover between melodic death metal and thrash, or described with the painfully vague (and overused) term ‘female-fronted death metal’. Although neither description will get any argument from me, the band’s latest output (and first full-length) struck me otherwise. “The Only Good Samaritan...”- to my humble ears- stands at a meeting place between death metal, and classic rock n’ roll. Although the fusion between rock riffs and death metal energy has been attempted before (and often unsuccessfully), Dead Samaritan manage to find a working balance. There is nothing here of a “Heartbreak Hotel” nature, but the balls-out energy of vintage rock n’ roll and 80’s sleaze has found a home in this death metal host.

Although I mentioned a basis in more traditional rock music, make no mistake; Dead Samaritan bring a pure death metal sound to the table. Growled vocals, double-kick drums and crunchy guitars are all staples here, withdrawing from the riff assault only sparingly. Rather, the ‘rock’ vibe emanates from the songwriting. “The Only Good Samaritan...” is a glorification of song structure, something often dismissed by a great many metal bands these days. Although the riffs are often fast, ideas are rarely strained past the point of expiry. There’s always a tasty chorus or new set of riffs to take the old ones’ place. Although Dead Samaritan’s style of songwriting may feel ironically fresh in the scheme of modern metal, the quality itself isn’t particularly astounding, although there are a few songs that demonstrate the band’s talent in full. Among these are the excellently catchy “Laid to Waste”, and the far-and-beyond album highlight; “In the Shadows of the Mind”. Here, Dead Samaritan step away from the fast-paced riffs for a bit, offering something much darker, something akin to the feeling of melodic dread I get listening to the first two Dissection albums.

Dual guitarists Marko Saarinen and Matti Viholainen make for a great core to the band, offering catchy riffs and tastefully thrashy leads to boot. Although it may be the comparison everybody always makes when speaking of female death metal vocalists, Valendis Suomalainen is a stone’s throw away from Archenemy’s Angela Gossow. Although her higher-range growl is admittedly something of an acquired taste, her vocals compliment the band’s rock n’ roll vibe quite well, although it would have been nice to hear more of the lower grunts. The gang vocals are somewhat less impressive, often coming off as a dull thud in the mix. The production of the album is decent: certainly better than what the genre’s innovators had to cope with, but lacking the organic ferocity best suited for their style.

In a way, it’s refreshing to hear the typically chaotic sound of death metal transposed onto such traditional song structures. Naturally however, this comes at the price of losing the element of control that often makes the death metal style sound so dangerous. There are hooks aplenty to behold with Dead Samaritan, and I cannot say I’ve heard too many death metal records that get this catchy without resorting to superfluous melodies, but there are many times on the album where I would have loved to see the band toss off the restraints and go for something unpredictable. With that being said, “The Only Good Samaritan...” is a solid outing from this band, and I can easily imagine these guys bringing a stronger game to their next outing.

TRANSCEND The Mind

Album · 2012 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.87 | 5 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'The Mind' - Transcend (6/10)

Montreal-based progressive metal quartet Transcend are a recent addition to a hideously lengthy list of prog bands looking to build upon the innovations of their influences. Unless you're a newcomer to the prog metal realm, chances are you'll agree that the term has become something of a misnomer, with many of the associated artists looking to the past for their sound, rather than truly innovating something new. Alas, this goes well to define the musical approach on Transcend's debut, a full-blown, double disc concept album that wears each of the band's influences on a silken sleeve. With this perceived lack of originality in mind however, Transcend's take on this well-weathered style remains impressive for other reasons and should be enough to get existing fans of the style excited about them.

As in the case with a vast quantity of contemporary prog metal, Transcend are rooted in the sound of Dream Theater, and- to a lesser extent- Rush. As is the case with much of Melodic Revolution Records' generally neo-prog oriented roster, Transcend's angle on this style is light, polished and focused heavily on the vocals, provided here by the talented Costa Damoulianos. Instrumentally, "The Mind" is an album driven by every prog-power convention imaginable. Guitar and synthesizer harmonies are to be expected in droves, and though there are tech riffs aplenty, listeners shouldn't be surprised when they hear just as much of the album's hour and a half devoted to anthemic choruses and softer passages. The spirit and style of Dream Theater is alive particularly when Transcend emphasize their metal aspect. Transcend's music is almost always based around a lead of some sort. Whether it's Damoulianos' vocals, a synthesizer solo or virtuosic guitar lick, Transcend likes to have a spotlight shining down on someone on virtually any given time. Sounding familiar at all, prog metal fans?

Although I am sceptical of Transcend's painfully derivative choice of style and love of cliché, there's no denying that they execute it well. "Entity Divine" features some pretty mind-boggling instrumental interplay, and the disc-length epic and title track enjoys some fairly cinematic passages. Without a doubt, the most impressive part of the package is the musicianship itself. Although it may be a cliché saying this in itself, Transcend are able to wow and impress from their playing chops alone. The production fits their melodic style as well, although it would have been nice to hear the guitars roar a little more.

I think that years from now, when all of humanity transcends and I am a disembodied brain floating in space somewhere, I will remember Transcend's debut with some warmth. After all, in spite of being part of a genre saturated by likesounding copycats, Transcend have some serious playing ability, and "The Mind" is an apt reflection of their talent and chemistry as a performing act. Sadly, they also have a tendency to embrace just about every cliché and tired convention the progressive metal genre has spawned within the past twenty years. Ambiguously philosophical lyrics, needlessly extended compositions and cheese enough to make a gourmand sick will potentially squander the experience for some, but for other prog metal lovers such as myself, the album makes for a welcome return to the style's roots.

FEN Dustwalker

Album · 2013 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 4.16 | 11 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Dustwalker' - Fen (9/10)

Around this time two years ago, Fen offered its second record to date, "Epoch". Adorned with an inconspicuous blue cover and coming from a band I had then-heard very little about, I would never had predicted that it would become one of the most powerful experiences I'd ever had with metal overall, let alone any of the specific sub-genres listeners claim the band fit into. Boasting a style fusion of atmospheric black metal and post-rock popularized by some North American bands (namely Wolves in the Throne Room and Agalloch), Fen put their own twist on the tried-and-true formula, evoking an atmosphere like few I'd ever heard before. To this day, I've considered "Epoch" one of the greatest black metal albums to come out of the contemporary period, and it comes as no surprise, then, that "Dustwalker" was, and still is an album that inspires quite a bit of excitement in me. Although it may still be too early to tell how "Dustwalker" will ultimately stand against its near-perfect predecessor, I can't think of a better album to have started 2013 on. It's a rich, darkly beautiful exploration of the feelings between hope and despair, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's just as impressive by year's end.

Especially considering the effect "Epoch" has had on me, it's only natural to have approached "Dustwalker" wondering how it would stand up to the one before. Although albums have been cut from the same proverbial cloth, there is the sense that Fen wished to reinvent themselves here, however subtle the changes may be. While "Epoch" gave the impression of an air, or aether-based album, "Dustwalker" offers an earthier experiences. Many of the superfluous background synths have been taken out of the mix, now replaced by a greater focus on clean guitar tones. Although the emotional emphasis on melancholia and sober reflection has never faltered within Fen's formula, the way they convey the atmosphere feels far for natural. Rather than "Epoch"s experience of soaring lonesome over a dark forest, "Dustwalker" plants you beneath the tree canopy, looking from the roots up and feeling all the more insignificant as a result.

As one may imagine, Fen's black metal aspect has become grittier with this earthy atmosphere and production. Even so, Fen's style seems more rooted in post-rock aesthetic than ever. Although the distorted guitar tones have been kept true to organic form, there's nothing about the sound that grinds against the ears; it's a rare case where I would call a black metal album beautiful from the classical aesthetic. Much like Fen's past work however, "Dustwalker" enjoys a fair deal of cinematic complexity birthed by an influence in progressive rock. Most of these tracks linger around the ten minute mark, and there are ideas enough to keep each of them vibrant and engaging throughout. Among these, the first three tracks ("Consequence", "Hands of Dust", and "Spectre") are the best things the album has to offer. "Consequence" takes a more progressive approach to songwriting than previously seen from the band, whereas the second and third opt for a slower-paced, 'cinematic' feel. "Spectre" may very well be the greatest thing Fen have ever done, opening with warm acoustics and brittle-yet-tender clean vocals, before ultimately building up into an almighty climax that has never lost any of its staying power. The second half of the album follows a similar stylistic direction, but it never feels quite as memorable and emotionally perfect as the first three tracks.

Although it has higher highs than "Epoch", "Dustwalker" is not quite as consistent as its predecessor. Regardless, Fen have successfully innovated their sound just enough to make this album take on a life of its own. It will be curious to see if any other atmospheric black metal band this year is able to knock off Fen off of their early throne. Ultimately, it will be up to time to decide where the album stands, but it's rare that an album leaves such an immediate, yet lasting impact on me. 2013 is now upon us, and it is sounding incredible.

HELLOWEEN Keeper of the Seven Keys Part I

Album · 1987 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.32 | 89 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Keeper of the Seven Keys Part I' - Helloween (8/10)

Although their first album “Walls of Jericho” has earned a well-deserved spot as a metal classic, it was Helloween's sophomoric release “Keeper of the Seven Keys Part I” and its like-titled sequel that engraved their place as the kings and overseers of power metal. It would be blind to say that power metal as a style of music had not been around for a few years before this, but never before had the genre been defined so overtly. With that being said, it is an essential bit of metal history, and regardless of contemporary opinion positive or negative, anyone any bit interested in the speedier, melodic side of the heavy metal spectrum would do well to give it a good, intent listen. Even outside of its historical context, Helloween’s second album is a memorable, impressive record. However, in spite of its significance and defacto ‘masterpiece’ status, it is not an album without some faults to keep it from achieving that bliss I’ve experienced with some of metal’s other god-tier albums.

Since the album’s release, power metal has become one of the most popular (and yet infamous; funny how that works?) styles of metal out there. Love it or hate it, it’s likely you already have an idea of what the genre’s all about. Melodies, often neoclassically-influenced guitar work and cheese enough to feed France for a year tend to be the basics, and “Keeper of the Seven Keys” is in no short supply of any ingredient. To modern ears, there is more of a traditional, anthemic heavy metal pomp at work, but from the album’s post-intro opener “I’m Alive” onward, Helloween’s best elements tend to be the ones that influenced the power genre later on.

The most evident change in the band’s sound since the debut is the introduction of vocalist Michael Kiske, whose high-pitched wails and falsettos would be integral in crafting the power metal formula. Although Kai Hansen’s gruff vocals fit “Walls of Jericho”s quasi-thrash approach, Helloween’s updated sound on “Keeper of the Seven Keys” is far more refined. Giving the impression at times of a neoclassical heavy metal symphony, Michael Kiske’s fully-fleshed falsetto is a perfect companion. It’s made even more impressive by fact of his youth during the recording of this album; although there are arguably a few power metal vocalists that managed to perfect the singing style even further, I can’t think of any that did it when they were 19 years old! “Twilight of the Gods” is Kiske’s brightest-shining moment on the album, particularly during the soaring chorus, where his high register is complimented gorgeously by a subtle choral backup. In terms of performance and production, “Keeper of the Seven Keys Part I” is impeccable. Unfortunately, there’s a point where the album’s excellence runs out. It’s not necessarily the songwriting itself that is the problem, so much as its inconsistency. “Keeper...” never quite hits the level of true filler, but there’s a significant gap between the songs that melt faces, and the ones that don’t do so much. As mentioned earlier, “Twilight of the Gods” is one of the best things the album has to offer, beautifully integrating melody and neoclassical metal- two things that rarely work so well together. “I’m Alive” is effective in its straightforwardness, and the epic “Halloween” has enough brilliant ideas to make a track twice its length interesting. It’s granted and forgiven that the intro and outro are fairly forgettable, but that leaves two songs that don’t do nearly as much for me. “A Little Time”, and particularly the lame power ballad “A Tale That Wasn’t Right” are not terrible, but lack the sophistication and cleverness that the rest do. Perhaps not so coincidentally, these are also the only two tracks that guitarist Kai Hansen did not write. Perhaps it’s not fair to the Hansen-penned tunes to rob “Keeper of the Seven Keys Part One” of a ‘masterpiece’ declaration on the demerit of these two, but it’s difficult to give the album the commendation when half of the album’s first side consists of relative mediocrity.

Regardless, “Keeper of the Seven Keys Part One” deserves its classic recognition, and in spite of a couple of less brightly shining stars among the sky, Helloween’s second album remains an excellent staple for epic, cheese-infused listening. Kai Hansen’s guitar work is brilliant, and Kiske’s vocals are an inspiration to power metal wailers everywhere. If you haven’t already, don’t wait as long as I did to check it out, and do so as soon as you can!

THERION Les Fleurs Du Mal

Album · 2012 · Symphonic Metal
Cover art 3.56 | 11 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Les Fleurs Du Mal' - Therion (7/10)

There aren't too many bands out there that can say they have been around for a decade, let alone a quarter of a century. For those few that manage to hit the twenty five year mark, some sort of celebration is usually in order. Some might go on a world tour and appeal to their aging fanbase, while others may record an album or release a collection of shelved demo tracks for the diehard followers to eat up. Of course, Therion have never been known to follow in the footsteps of others. Although the operatic symphonic metal style is all-too common in current metal culture, Therion carved out their own niche, unshackling from their death metal roots and taking a more sophisticated and experimental approach to the symphonic style. With that in mind, it's no surprise that Therion didn't decide to celebrate things the regular way; instead, they went ahead and did an album of 1960's French pop song covers. It's sure to be a head scratcher at first, and while not every fan will get it, Therion's attention to finesse and detail makes this far more than the average covers album.

The beauty of "Les Fleurs Du Mal" lies in Therion's inate ability to take the core material and work it into their own style. By this point in their career, the band has a firm and matured grip on their sound, and a strong idea of where they want to go with it. The operatic soprano, symphonic arrangements and virtuosic neoclassical guitar work is all nothing new to Therion. The fact that Therion are able to so successfully translate these tunes to their own sound is impressive in its own right. Although most of the original songs already enjoyed the backing of a 'big band' style orchestra, many of them essentially remained pop songs, or love ballads. Especially with the peppier selections, the originals have the same head-nodding quality as alot of the Beatles' earliest stuff, with the major distinguishing factor being the female French-language vocals. When you prop the original and Therion's reimagining in comparison, it's effortless to see that they're the same song. Therion puts their own signature on the cover without losing the essence of the original. Instrumental motifs and vocal melodies are retained, transformed by the symphonic metal medium. Even on the originally orchestral-led songs (such as France Gall's "Poupée de cire, poupée de son"), Therion's symphonic element is amped up in complexity. Unless you have the prior knowledge that Therion are paying contribute to France's contemporary equivalent to the Flower Power movement, you may be more easily convinced that these are Therion originals, or at least renditions of classical operatic repertoire.

Although it's about as strange a match-up as I can imagine, Therion have managed to make this experiment work. Although this is a relatively straightforward covers album, Therion have given these tunes the same tender care and consideration they would give their own music. The songs are chosen well, and the rich phonetics of the French language translate well into Therion's music. The appropriately soaring operatic melodies of "Soer Angélique" and film-score quality of "Initials BB" were two of the most memorable moments on the album. The only song here that doesn't seem to fit is their rendition of "Je n'ai besoin que de tendresse", a Claire Dixon track that could have had the staying power of the rest of the album, were it not for the ridiculously over-the-top power metal cheese direction they chose to take it in. The musicianship and production are both excellent, although anyone who has laid ears on Therion's music before shouldn't find that surprising. In particular, operatic soprano Lori Lewis' vocals sound as bright and stellar as anything of the sort you will hear in metal. A covers album this may be, but Therion have given it their greatest effort, and it really shows.

Alot of disappointed fans have gone as far as to say "Les Fleurs Du Mal" is the band's biggest misstep, and a major letdown in the scope of an otherwise illustrious career. I would hope it was a granted that Therion wasn't trying to make a revolutionary masterpiece here. Instead, here is one of the most innovative symphonic metal bands taking a step back from the composition duties in order to stretch their arms and have a bit of fun while they're at it. It's futile to compare this to Therion's real albums. Although an album of new Therion originals may have been preferable, this is a really great way for the band to commemorate the twenty five year milestone. Maybe they'll do some symphonic metal covers for Tibetan throat singing or gamelan music for their fiftieth anniversary? I hope so!

YNGWIE J. MALMSTEEN Spellbound

Album · 2012 · Neoclassical metal
Cover art 2.33 | 5 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Spellbound' - Yngwie Malmsteen (5/10)

When I was 11 or 12, I came upon a copy of Yngwie Malmsteen's debut "Rising Force". I had never heard anything quite like it before, and within a month of being exposed to Malmsteen's music, I went out and got my first guitar. Although neoclassical shred metal is no longer a significant part of my musical vocabulary, it goes without saying that Malmsteen's music has had a huge influence on me, both as a musician and a listener. With that in mind, it's all the more of a disappointment to hear Malmsteen in such a stagnant place with his career. Although there was that concerto he did with a symphonic orchestra some years back, Yngwie has tended to stick close to his comfort zone when it's come to the release of new music. Perhaps even moreso than the rest of his new millennium material, 2012's "Spellbound" shows him reverting almost entirely to the largely instrumental sound he started with on "Rising Force". Although I would normally be thrilled to here more of the sort of music that first had me really appreciate the guitar as an instrument, it would be a fool's hope to think that, after years of relative mediocrity, he would achieve something anywhere as exciting. No; as could be expected, Malmsteen pulls out the same baroque stops that he's used to cruise on throughout his career. Add that to a less-than-impressive production standard, and you have an album that barely squeezes by on the merit of his legendary skill with guitar.

"Spellbound" kicks things off on its strongest note. The title track instantly plants Malmsteen in familiar territory; baroque shred patterns warm up the album as the rhythm section gradually swells. Before long, Malmsteen has made the dive into brushfire guitar soloing, eventually even tossing a recurring melodic idea the listener's way once he's had his fill of assaulting the fretboard. Particularly when it comes to his sweeps, it's instantly clear why Malmsteen has become such an icon in the shred metal world. His guitar tone is distinctive and rich, and there is an organic quality to the performance that is rarely heard in the next- gen shredders. In other words, there's no sense that the recording has been altered in any significant way to make Yngwie sound better than he actually is. Of course, especially at this point in his career, Yngwie's skill with guitar is not in question. Without a doubt, it's the best thing the album has going for it.

Although Yngwie has almost always flown under his own name, "Spellbound" has a certain honour of being a solo effort in the truest sense. On top of guitar, Yngwie performs everything here, including vocals on a few of the tracks. Normally, this would lead to complaints of the album in question being one-sided- of course, this was always the case for Malmsteen. Contrary to what I would have first thought, the backup arrangements are surprisingly well done. Although there's little complexity to anything outside of the guitars, the drums are effectively performed (or programmed?) and the subtle choral synths give an added classical atmosphere. Although his voice is nothing special, he has a decent mid range, well capable of holding a tune. Even more surprising however, is how weak the production itself has been left. Considering Malmsteen's resources and experience, the production feels decidedly hollow and plain. Barring the omnipresent shred, it's as if Malmsteen was on a strict budget here. Even the guitars fall victim to the subpar production; "Majestic 12 Suite" is filled with audible guitar buzz, the likes of which would be just as annoying in a high school garage jam. On a record from one of the greatest guitar legends though? It raises alot of questions.

Barring his baroque shredding, there's a handful of bluesier moments. However, regardless of style, all of "Spellbound" seems to suffer from the cardinal sin of much shred metal: it's a celebration of flash over substance. While "Rising Force" enjoyed excellent compositions that could have stayed afloat regardless of Yngwie's guitar wizardry, whatever writing that went on here is little more than a showcase for his shredding. Thankfully, that shredding is a great thing to behold. Fans of Malmsteen should check it out if they're in the mood for it, but it offers nothing that wasn't already done on the early albums in greater quality.

LUSTRE They Awoke to the Scent of Spring

Album · 2012 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 2 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'They Awoke to the Scent of Spring' - Lustre (6/10)

Especially since it became a larger part of my musical diet, I have stood by the belief that there is a style of black metal for just about any occasion. Although the typical surface black metal image evokes equal parts cheese and Satanism, just about every mood and energy has been touched upon by someone. With that in mind, it should be less of a contradiction to say that Lustre’s “They Awoke to the Scent of Spring” is one of the mellowest albums I have heard in ages. Although the production and guitar tone tends to indicate something that would fit under the black metal umbrella, the direction, tone and lilting atmosphere all give the impression of tranquility- something rarely seen in metal to begin with. Slow, gloomy and brooding, Lustre has created a notably ungrim soundtrack for meditation. It’s great when it suits the mood, but if a listener isn’t in the mood for something so ambient, the ponderous approach will wear out fast. Don’t forget to bring your sleeping bags, gentlemen.

In an album structure seemingly optimized for a vinyl release, Lustre has split the album into four pieces. More importantly, the first and latter sides take a separate approach to achieve the dreary ambiance. While the first half adopts a melodic, depressive sound, the third and fourth segments eschew black metal entirely in favour for a much cleaner sound, halfway between traditional dark ambient music and post-rock. This separation aside, “They Awoke to the Scent of Spring” has a pretty uniform mood throughout. The atmosphere betrays sadness and grief, but not to the extent where hope escapes completely. Regardless of style, Lustre creates a feeling that requires no effort or challenge on the part of the listener. For a year that’s seen quite a few cerebral black metal albums released, Lustre offers a refreshing change of pace.

That’s not to say, however, that Lustre’s music is entirely mindless. Although each composition tends to stick with and exploit a couple of ideas each, Lustre mastermind Nachtzeit builds these compositions well. While there’s not quite enough depth to satisfy an attentive listener, the gradual changes in percussion and synth textures are subtle and effective. The first half is very strong in this regard- although there’s enough repetition here to make Varg Vikernes check his watch, occasional changes (in the case of the drum pattern) or additions (in the case of the pleasant synth arrangements that pop up at the end of parts one and two) are a thoughtful bolster to the otherwise monotonous structure. The instrumental production is well-chosen; the music has an incredibly soft touch to the ear. Even the vocals- practically inaudible whispers that barely survive the mix and reverb-sound designed to wash over the listener. Nachtzeit’s vocal work has been tweaked with atmospheric effects to the point where it barely sounds like a human voice, and more like a subway train passing by. It’s unsettling to hear at first, but the completely declawed sound of it doesn’t warrant more than a moment’s consideration.

Although the first side’s listless approach leaves something to be desired from the wakeful listener, it is a well-composed and executed ambient twist on the black metal formula. The second half is even more listless however, and this is where the conscious interest seems to drop off completely.”Part III” adopts a similar compositional approach to the first two, albeit with a clean guitar this time. “Part IV” takes the ambiance a step further, throwing out the drums and guitars and introducing a pleasant rain sample to pair up with the synth. Once again, there is absolutely nothing offensive or jarring to the ears, but Lustre doesn’t create enough tension in the sound to make it all that interesting. Side B lacks the stirring melodies of the first half, but the melancholic atmosphere remains.

I guess I would tend to call this ‘sleeptime metal’ if I were to give it some sort of arbitrary label. The slow, slothlike music is an effective soother, and the rain sample that ends the album is proverbial icing on the cake. It’s not an album that excites in any way, but it’s a pleasant piece of ear candy that demands nothing of its listener. As an ambient album, it succeeds, although I wouldn’t recommend listening to this while driving or operating heavy machinery.

OCEAN ARCHITECTURE Animus

Album · 2012 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.29 | 4 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Animus' - Ocean Architecture (7/10)

Until relatively recently, I saw the world of prog metal as a stagnant genre. Sure, there were bands out there doing remarkable things with prog and extreme metal styles, but as far as the 'classic' sound largely popularized by Dream Theater went, I got the impression that the majority of participant bands were more or less content to retrace the territory outlined by a few great musicians. Arguably since 2010 with Haken's "Aquarius" however, I've become excited again about progressive metal, largely in thanks to young bands like Ocean Architecture. Like Haken, Caligula's Horse, and Distorted Harmony, Ocean Architecture fuse the classic sounds of progressive metal with a strong contemporary influence. Although the synthesizers and shred sweeps of the bygone era are in full display here, you're just as bound to here parts that would fit on a present day alternative rock record. Ocean Architecture's style isn't completely fresh in the way it brings its many sounds and ideas together, but in combination with strong melodic writing, impressive musicianship and a pleasant conceptual approach, these guys have put together a fine debut with "Animus".

Progressive metal is usually defined by a penchant for time signature changes, synth solos and guitar wizardry, and "Animus" enjoys all of these qualities. However, there's more of a down-to-earth vibe to the performance that you would more likely see in a contemporary rock band. Ocean Architecture's sound is remarkable for its lack of pretentious bombast and 'epic cheese'; exactly the sort of stuff that first bored me with the genre. Although the instrumentation on "Animus" betrays a strong Dream Theater influence, Ocean Architecture clearly brings in more of a present day influence than anything else. Although vocalist Parker Deal's performance here is versatile, his natural tenor sounds like it could fit on an artistically accomplished pop album. Although his voice can be a bit of an acquired taste within the metal sphere, his clean delivery is indicative of great skill, particularly with note to his vibrato. However, in lieu of another of the band's contemporary influences- metalcore- there are also a fair amount of sections here where screams are used. Although there's certainly nothing wrong with harsh vocals, the way they're used on "Animus" feels unnecessary. In fact, many of the album's metalcore influences tend to feel out of place on the album. The worst case of this is an apparent breakdown towards the end of the second track, "The Last Stand", where the strong atmospheric momentum that was built up throughout the rest of the song is broken.

Although you probably wouldn't be able to tell from the album art and music alone, "Animus" is a conceptual album "that tells an unfolding story about doubt, anger, perception, confusion, fear, insanity, and enlightenment." It sounds vague on paper, and perhaps it remains so in the music, but it regardless lays a firm groundwork for a wide range of emotions to be explored in the music. Conceptually, "Animus" is remarkably similar to To-Mera's "Exile", also released this year. Initial anxieties and isolation eventually gives way to a sense of relief and acceptance. The lyrics are functional, but rarely brilliant, seeming to fall back on now cliched 'prog' tropes of reality and metaphorically dressed up ways of describing emotion. Take from it what you will, but Ocean Architecture keep the focus on the music itself, leaving the concept as a sort of 'optional extra' that can be more or less done without. The big thing that the conceptual angle gives here is a greater sense of overarching flow. Particularly with regards to Parker's vocal melodies, there are a few recurring motifs throughout the album. These themes are not recycled ideas from past tracks either; Ocean Architecture's skill with composition enables them to approach the idea from a new perspective. For example, pay attention to the tense melodic chorus of "Plato's Cave", a melody that is altered only slightly in structure, but completely recreated with the much more optimistic melody that fuels the album's climax at the end of "Animus Pt. II". This flow and structure really compliments repeated listens, and leaves "Animus" feeling very memorable when taken as a whole.

It's great to hear a new band so willing to experiment with so many sounds on one album. At over an hour long, "Animus" was a very ambitious undertaking, and for the most part, it has paid off. On top of a strong sense of style and structure, Ocean Architecture also sport a degree of musicianship that you wouldn't expect from a band of their youth. In particular, Nic Giordano's drum performance and Joe Dorsey's keyboard work are fantastic, with the former offering a wide dynamic and the latter adding some great depth and texture to the mix. The production may run a little flat when compared to the 'professional standard', but the fact that Ocean Architecture are capable of competing with the genre veterans this early on is a testament to their potential.

DEVIN TOWNSEND Epicloud

Album · 2012 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 34 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Epicloud' - Devin Townsend Project (8/10)

Although I don’t think Devin Townsend’s Project series has ever come close to matching the jaw-dropping quality of his masterpiece “Terria”, it’s exciting to hear the man being so prolific with his art. With five studio albums released over the past three years, it’s clear that Devin is enjoying a sense of revitalized spirit and inspiration. Most importantly, Devin now seems to be at the point where he is most open and unrestricted with his musical expression. There’s no telling whether he might do a theatrical metal masterwork next, a soothing ambient record or, as is the case here on “Epicloud”, a peppy and melodic album to showcase his cheerier side. Although initial reactions may have left me yearning for something more creatively ambitious from the mad scientist of metal, Devin’s latest offering has a much longer lasting appeal and charm than the ‘pop’ label would suggest.

It’s obvious that Devin Townsend is picking up on “Epicloud” where he left off on “Addicted”, his pop-oriented and danceable chapter in the original four album Project. Although it didn’t leave as strong an impression as the atmospheric “Ki” or the balls-out mania of “Deconstruction”, I ended up listening to “Addicted” more than the others, if only because it allowed for the enjoyment of Devin’s unique style without having to invest the undivided attention necessary for his most adventurous albums. Although “Addicted” was about as poppy and commercial as I could have imagined Devin would go, he seems to up the ante here. The proggy arrangements and signature dense ‘wall of sound’ production are still here, but the songwriting is an unabashed celebration of everything catchy and fun. Townsend’s guitarwork still occasionally brings out the best of his talent, but the focus here is on the vocal side. “Epicloud” has fewer ‘standout’ tracks than “Addicted”, but an overall greater sense of consistency and flow to it. Overall, this is some of the cheeriest Devin’s music has ever sounded, possibly rivaled only by the hyperactivity on “Synchestra”.

By this point in Townsend’s career, a killer, unique sense of production and bombastic atmosphere are pretty much granted. Indeed, “Epicloud” sounds incredibly vast, especially considering that most of these tracks revolve around a familiar verse-chorus structure. Although the mix can get a little overwhelming at the album’s loudest moments, it really fits the album’s ‘epic’ approach. Although the larger-than-life instrumentation is sure to impress (especially if you haven’t heard anything by Devin before), the real highlight are the vocal performances. Drawing upon his work on “Addicted” once again, Devin continues to enlist the talents of Anneke van Giersbergen (of The Gathering and Ayreon), whose unique and wonderful voice works really well with Devin’s quirk. Although Devin’s over-the-top and versatile voice has always been a highlight of his music, some of his vocal parts here are out of this world. The undeniable highlight “Kingdom” features possibly the greatest operatic vocals he has ever put to record.

Although the execution here is top-notch, “Epicloud” leaves the impression that only a few songs here really stand out. Among them, the epic “Kingdom” is the one that will stand the test of time, although the sugar-coated “True North” and atmospheric “Save Our Now” also distinguish themselves. Although I wouldn’t say it’s quite an inevitable by-product of Devin’s ‘accessible’ approach here, many of the songs lack the shock factor to create a memorable impression in their own right. Especially considering that some of the tunes here are jaw dropping, I would have loved to hear an album that manages to hold up that amazing level of quality throughout. Seeing how much Devin has improved the pop metal approach on “Epicloud” over “Addicted” however, it’s very possible that we’ll hear something even greater from this end of Devin’s music in the future. For the present, however, it’s doubtful progressive metal has ever been catchier than this.

BEHOLD... THE ARCTOPUS Horrorscension

Album · 2012 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 2.50 | 2 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Horrorscension' - Behold the Arctopus (5/10)

Think of the perfect tech metal dream band; a shining example of everything good and great about the style. Now, take that band, and remove everything that would make them even remotely appealing to the general public, and you might get a sense of what Behold the Arctopus sound like. Suffice to say, it’s not a scene for everyone, and I’m still left wondering if I could call myself a fan of what they do. As is to be expected from the trio, “Horrorscension” is an absolute mess in every musical (or non-musical) sense of the word. Like some nightmarish labyrinth, most of the chaotic ideas here lead absolutely nowhere, and a noxious atmosphere of calculated disorder saturates every minute of the album. Its artistic merits aside, Behold the Arctopus’ hideously dense sound is an acquired taste that takes a few rough listens to begin appreciating, although the album never comes close to fulfilling the potential of its ingredients. The mathematics are here, but the chemistry isn’t.

Really, there’s no wondering why Behold the Arctopus’ second album has received such a mixed (though largely negative) response. The music here generally flows in a rhapsodic form, furious tech metal ideas are barraged at the listener, pummeling away for a few seconds before Behold the Arctopus move on to the next idea in line. Although the fanatic precision and cooperation between the guitars and drums implies that each of these ideas were meticulously designed, the composition and structure seem to do everything in their limited power to convince the listener that the music is a random mess. “Disintegore” is a perfect example of this. Although there are a few ideas that initially suggest the track will develop into something cohesive and memorable, it never really goes anywhere. It’s understandable for an instrumental tech metal band to lack a sense of melody, but “Horrorscension” really feels the lack of a thoughtful structure.

Of course, with this and any relatively challenging album, it takes several listens before all of its layers are truly revealed. Around the third or fourth spin, the patchy string of ideas becomes easier to overlook, and the atmosphere becomes more evident. It’s strange for an album of this technical density to have any sort of atmosphere at all, but the chaotic soundscape creates an eerie vibe that I might describe as a lesser counterpart to the feeling that the similarly dissonant Gorguts presented on “Obscura”. Although the screeching, frantic guitars are the most pronounced aspect of the sound of “Horrorscension”, the most impressive aspect is Christopher Walter’s drum performance, an equally sporadic performance that indicates a firm background both in metal and jazz.

There’s little emotion in the performances themselves, but altogether, they create a dark atmosphere, although it’s up to each listener whether they want to stick with it for the first few painful listens. I could draw a comparison between “Horrorscension” and a school bully who dangles a stolen lunchbox in front of little Timmy, only to snatch it away when Timmy makes a reach for it. Although there are some great single ideas here (particularly on the ten minute “Annihilvore”, which seems to nod partways in the direction of black metal), they don’t usually stick around for very long, and when they do, the ideas afterwards break whatever momentum you may have hoped was going to come. It’s a rocky, messy, ugly album, but there’s more to it than first meets the ear.

FORGOTTEN TOMB ...And Don't Deliver Us From Evil

Album · 2012 · Melodic Black Metal
Cover art 3.51 | 3 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'...And Don't Deliver Us From Evil' - Forgotten Tomb (6/10)

Although Forgotten Tomb have never strayed from their fixation on depression, self-harm and the darker side of human nature, at some point they underwent a change in style. Gone was the strictly depressive black metal sound, with its melodic, ‘pretty-sounding’ guitars and tortured howls. In its place has come something more tempered, and therefore more digestible to the metal crowd at large. Although this added focus on structure and more typical rock-based elements shouldn’t come as a surprise to fans of Forgotten Tomb by this point, I cannot help but mention that this style-shift continues to disappoint when compared to the emotionally devastating stuff they released earlier on in their career. With that being said however, “...And Don’t Deliver Us From Evil” is no pushover; it is a well-composed and produced black metal record with a few great moments to boot. Although Forgotten Tomb’s latest release doesn’t tend to sway my opinion concerning this change in sound, it’s a worthy companion for anyone feeling the strain of the dark winter months.

Although I prefer the days of “Songs to Leave” and “Springtime Depression”, Forgotten Tomb have in many ways improved their act. For one, their style has been fleshed out to incorporate elements outside of the typically narrow depressive black metal mainstay; gothic rock, doom metal and even a mild progressive have found their way into the mixing bowl. Add to that a fine production standard and one of the more memorable album covers of the year, and it’s clear that Forgotten Tomb have realized their potential as their execution goes. Although the music tends to rely on simple riffs and chord progressions, there is often a solid arrangement and layering to the music. Acoustics and clean guitars are often used in tandem with the metal tones, and as always, there are great lead melodies to enjoy. Forgotten Tomb tend to stick close to comfort when it comes to sounds and instruments used; although the occasional acoustic break offers a welcome respite from the gloom, there are few surprises to behold throughout the album. Forgotten Tomb rarely stray from the main course, but fortunately, they have a remarkably meaty sound as black metal goes. The guitar tones- however tired as they feel by the end of the album- enjoy a nice richness to them, and the bass end of the mix is given a pleasant boost; it’s not often where the bass guitar is audibly heard on a black metal record!

Although the songwriting is solid, the compositionship on “...And Don’t Deliver Us From Evil” suffers the same pitfall as their performance; it feels generally anaesthetic, too clean to get across the same sense of grief they once conveyed so powerfully on early albums. Greater an issue still is not the fact that they have evolved their sound, but where they took it. Although the melancholic, gothic doom/black hybrid sounds great and promising on paper, Forgotten Tomb suffer from a painful case of follow-the-leader here; that is, they sound as if they are following the examples of a few other bands, rather than forging a clear path of their own. Being influenced is one thing, but the incarnation of black metal Forgotten Tomb have conjured here sounds as if they’re trying to copycat the Swedish Shining. Although I will say that their take on the sound certainly rivals what Shining have done this year, it feels futile to have taken so many steps to develop their sound, only to seemingly emulate someone else. Closer still is the pitch-perfect resemblance to fellow Italian doomsters Novembre when the gloomy clean vocals are brought out on “Adrift”. Forgotten Tomb perform these styles well, but at the end of the day, the derivative approach doesn’t make so great of a lasting impact.

“...And Don’t Deliver Us From Evil” is a good album, but in fairness, I would have hoped to hear something with more of a unique identity than what they’ve done here. There are some great musical ideas and melodies throughout the album, but perhaps not enough to entirely excuse the lack of originality. The dark atmosphere has survived Forgotten Tomb’s translation to the cleancut end of the depressive black metal medium, but they’re not taking it as far as they once did.

WAYLANDER Kindred Spirits

Album · 2012 · Folk Metal
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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Conor Fynes
'Kindred Spirits' - Waylander (7/10)

When it comes to the oft-attempted realm of folk metal, Waylander’s “Honour Amongst Chaos” remains one of my favourite examples. Finding a striking balance between the traditional sounds of Celtic folk and the aggressive edge of extreme metal, Waylander are up there with Primordial as one of the best metal acts Ireland has to offer. Being as how we had to wait four years between albums for “Kindred Spirits”, there’s been some great anticipation for this record. Best summarized in two words, Waylander don’t disappoint with their fourth full length. Once again, the battle cry sounds out in a fury of chugging riffs and Celtic whistle. It doesn’t seem to knock “Honour Amongst Chaos” from its throne, but the band’s latest serves as a strong offering for anything wanting folk metal the way it was meant to be.

One of Waylander’s greatest strengths has always been the sense that the folk elements really seem to fit the band’s metal mold, and this trait is plainly evident here. “Kindred Spirits” takes no time to get started, erupting with a chugging riff and signature whistle overtop. The Celtic whistle plays a fairly significant role throughout the album, offering a strong melodic contrast to the heavily riff-oriented blackened style that makes up much of Waylander’s metal roots. Although the Celtic instrumentation stills plays a central role in the way Waylander crafts melodies, there does seem to be more of a metallic edge to “Kindred Spirits”; that is, the folky aspects are a little less overt than they were in the past. The Celtic culture is very much alive on “Kindred Spirits”, but listeners shouldn’t expect anything of a mellow sort here. Once the riffs get going, Waylander rarely yield.

Although the sound and style is epic, it’s worthy of mention that “Kindred Spirits” is largely made up of concisely structured songs. Although they tend to rest around the seven minute mark, Waylander sticks to a formula of rhythm-oriented riffs, melodic choruses and the occasional break into a fully Celtic mode. The quality of writing stays fairly consistent, although “Echoes of the Sidhe”, “Twin Fires of Beltine”, and the excellent title track all win a special commendation. This consistent success aside however, “Kindred Spirits” is held back by its homogenous writing style. Although many of the melodic and folkish moments are memorable, the songs are rarely memorable in their own right. There are few surprises in store for a listener once they get wise to the band’s regular structure. “Kindred Spirits” never gets boring, but there is the concrete feeling around halfway into the album that the songwriting could have used some added variety to boost it to the next level.

There’s a lot of great things about Waylander’s fourth album. Ciarán O'Hagan’s vocals have never sounded better, and the album is remarkably solid from start to finish. It would have been nice to hear the band innovate and recharge their sound some more than they did, but “Kindred Spirits” shouldn’t disappoint fans of the band and folk metal at large. Although Waylander never lose touch with their Celtic influence, they manage to stay heavy while doing it, and that is something I think many so-called folk metal bands seem to miss out on. I think “Honour Amongst Chaos” will remain my favourite album by the band for now, but Waylander have impressed here once again.

ENSLAVED RIITIIR

Album · 2012 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.10 | 39 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'RIITIIR' - Enslaved (9/10)

In almost every article about this band I've read recently, there's a repeated emphasis on how remarkably consistent Enslaved are when it comes to releasing new material. In truth, I'd tend to agree with this statement. Although I don't enjoy their Viking-styled material nearly as much as the more traditional black metal or later progressive incarnations, these guys have managed to develop and evolve with each new album, With that being said, it's no surprise that "RIITIIR" continues to embellish the band's progressive sensibilities. While previous albums "Vertebrae" and "Axioma Ethica Odini" both showcased a rich progressive black metal sound, "RIITIIR" sees them pushing their ambitious nature to new heights. In short, it's arguably the best album of their career, although I imagine most of us weren't expecting any less from them.

The musical evolution from "Axioma..." to "RIITIIR" is reserved, but noticeable. For one, these are some of the longest song structures the band has ever contended with. With most of the tracks resting around the nine minute mark, there is the strong impression that Enslaved have decided to loosen the restraints on some of their songwriting, allowing the compositions more time to develop textures and ideas. Although there remain traces of the original black metal sound, the current Enslaved shares very little in common with its older incarnations. Although some of the riffs recall the band's heritage as part of the Norwegian Second Wave, there's just as much of a drawn influence from 1970's space and psychedelic rock. If Enslaved had not already crossed this point already, it seems unfitting to label them as a black metal band now, when there's so much about them that turns its nose at the genre.

"Thoughts Like Hammers" is the opening track and pre-released 'sneak preview' fans had of "RIITIIR" before the album was released. At nine and a half minutes long, it is filled with meaty riffs and familiar atmosphere, boosted by a unconventional song structure and several mood changes. Although Enslaved have done this sort of thing before, it feels most natural with "RIITIIR". The powerful highlight "Death in the Eyes of Dawn" and majestic "Roots of the Mountain" both showcase an affinity with vocal melodies. Although the clean vocals have not always been a 'high point' with Enslaved, Herbrand Larsen's voice has never sounded better. Thanks to Iver Sandøy's suggestion to branch out into a 'live reocrding' style, Enslaved's production has never sounded warmer or better suited for their progressive sound. A somewhat mechanical sound of production was something I had long felt held back some of Enslaved's more recent material, but the issue is cured in full on "RIITIIR". There are details in the performance and arrangement that will reward attentive listeners.

Although "RIITIIR" does not disappoint on any level, there is the sense that the album's second half is not quite as engaging as the first. Up to and including "Roots of the Mountain", there is not a second of filler; particularly in the way "Thoughts Like Hammers" and "Death in the Eyes of Dawn" cope with structure, the ways the musical ideas are organized is close to perfection. The less ambitious title track and "Storm of Memories" are less concerned with this optimal usage of time however. The performance is kept up to an incredible par throughout the album, but certain musical ideas eel dragged out longer than they should have been, as if to keep up with the 'extended song structure' approach. Especially keeping in mind that much of the album manages to achieve that long-sought for perfection, it's disappointing that the album is given a somewhat anti-climactic end. Although "Forsaken" opens on one of the album's highest points, the final four minutes of the album are left for a quiet, repetitive guitar idea, akin to something Neurosis might do. I think it could have worked well as a denouement to an otherwise intense and complex listening experience, but it's drawn out past the limit where it would have worked best.

"RIITIIR" is certainly the best Enslaved have ever sounded, with a production and performance standard rivaled by virtually none in their style. The decision to further explore the progressive realm has worked very well, employing use of some of the vintage 70's sounds while sounding as musically relevant as ever. With that in mind, I'm still not sure if I prefer this over "Vertebrae" or "Axioma Ethica Odini". Although some aspects of the band have been finally boosted to perfection, there are times when a more concise approach would have worked better. Regardless, Enslaved have brought the spirit of the classic progressive rock album to extreme metal, and done it in such a way that it will be surprising if people aren't still talking about it years from now. If Opeth's attempt to crossover fully into the prog realm with "Heritage" was only an ambivalent success, Enslaved have achieved a 'vintage' sound without losing any bit of what made them excellent in the first place.

PIG DESTROYER Book Burner

Album · 2012 · Grindcore
Cover art 3.51 | 4 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Book Burner' - Pig Destroyer (6/10)

The brand of musicians and people attracted to grindcore have rarely been ones to care much about what others think of them. In spite of that, Washington-based grindlings Pig Destroyer have been an object of love and affection from press and fans alike. Whether it’s for their surprisingly technical approach to the style’s trademark fury, their provocative lyrics or beyond-the-call ambitions, Pig Destroyer have long been a go-to act when demonstration is needed to show what grindcore is potentially capable of. With a five year break since their last full-length (2007’s “Phantom Limb), it’s been about bloody time that we have something new from these guys. With consideration that “Prowler in the Yard” and “Phantom Limb” are among my favourite grind records, it’s more than a little disappointing that “Book Burner” is what it is; a fairly monotonous ‘more of the same’ type album that doesn’t seem to offer much more to the band’s career than what came before it. The trademark tech-aggression and ferocity is indeed here, but I’m not sensing the clever songwriting and dynamic that made some of their past work so remarkable.

“Book Burner” follows a proud grind tradition- that is, the breaking up of music into short, bite-sized tracks. The 19 tracks here consist of 32 minutes, although for the sake of approaching “Book Burner” as an album, the entire thing feels like a single, flowing chunk of aggressive music. Each track floods seamlessly into the next, and unless you’re paying heed to the track numbers as they whiz by, it’s conceivable that you won’t even notice a break between songs. For all purposes, this is one of the best things about “Book Burner”; although there are few ‘recurring themes’ to give it the semblance of a half-hour epic, the furious momentum brokers no surrender once it’s fired up. Save for a few ambivalently successful voice samples, there’s little pause in the string of thrashy riffs and punkish rhythms. At little over half an hour, the album ends before the formula thin.

Pig Destroyer’s greatest strength remains their razor-sharp performance, and this is something that hasn’t lost any of its bite during the band’s studio silence. For one, “Book Burner” enjoys one of the angriest-sounding guitar tones I’ve heard in recent memory. It’s got the richness of tone that Meshuggah sports, but it’s filtered through a much more frantic style of riffing. Generally, Scott Hull’s guitar work alternates between a barrage of furious noise and more structured riffs, the likes of which I could imagine hearing in a raw-produced thrash record. The addition of Adam Jarvis is a fitting one; the new drummer brings an appropriate attack of blastbeats and manic permafills that riles up an added whirlwind while keeping the technical edge of the music refined and precise.

Of course, performance standards only take a band so far, especially when the compositions themselves aren’t so interesting. This is certainly the case with “Book Burner”, an album that seems to suffer a tragic case of déjà vu. Although it’s clear that the band intended to create a record that emphasized anger over anything else, “Book Burner” is essentially an artillery barrage of the same few elements, over and over and over again. The handful of tracks that amount to conceivable ‘full song lengths’ (the single “The Diplomat” included) are forgettable on their own, instead blurring facelessly into the rest of the album. Frankly, as much as the initial impact seems to nail exactly what Pig Destroyer were aiming for, it’s the repeated listens that show the album’s flaws. It doesn’t take long for the album’s style to become familiar, but even when it does, there isn’t much of a memorable nature to speak of here.

Pig Destroyer haven’t given up on their core values, but for whatever reason, the album lacks the dynamic and lasting appeal of alot of their earlier material. There is some chaotic fun to be had here, but the shock value is sadly short lasted. The initial burstfire energy may be worth the price of admission alone, but “Book Burner” won’t be one to admire on the long haul.

THE SWORD Apocryphon

Album · 2012 · Stoner Metal
Cover art 3.67 | 5 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Apocryphon' - The Sword (6/10)

Something I’ll never quite be able to understand is the fascination with the throwback riff metal sound. Although I’m as much a fan of Black Sabbath as the next guy, the idea of taking the sound of the 1970’s and reviving it forty years after the fact has rarely appealed to my taste as a listener. Mind you, as this sort of music goes, The Sword have long been at the top of their class. With each album leading up to “Apocryphon”, they have managed to up their game somehow, whether it was through developments in their style or improvements in the way they brought their retro-rock to the recorded medium. On “Apocryphon”, this experience and momentum has certainly paid off, and as a result, it’s one of the tightest-sounding records you’re bound to hear this year. Sadly, The Sword fail to back up their expert craft with the sort of innovation I’d hope for from a band with such a bold reputation. For the listener looking for some swell riffs and rich guitar tones, “Apocryphon” is ideal. Regardless, I’m left feeling a little underwhelmed.

First, I’d like to say that The Sword are masters when it comes to the execution and presentation of their product. In both the production- which is organic and expertly mixed- and the gorgeously psychedelic artwork, The Sword have a perfect frame to present their tunes through. Although the studio has translated the gritty guitar distortion into something very clean-cut, there’s no shortage of heaviness in their riffs. The drums and bass are equally powerful, with Santiago Vela’s percussion coming across as especially impressive. Stylistically, I found myself almost instantly reminded of Black Sabbath, as if “Apocryphon” was picking up where the first three or four Sabbath albums left off. There’s tons of Iommi worship in these riffs, although the heaviness is offset by a moderately psychedelic atmosphere and extremely melodic set of clean vocals, both reminiscent of where Mastodon took their sound last year with “The Hunter”. Although the riffs tend to stick to the bluesy pentatonic realm of classic metal canon, there’s plenty of meaty energy behind each lick and power chord.

Of course, The Sword are not the only ones who have narrowed in on this particular way of doing things. Although it’s been executed with excellence, there’s little else about “Apocryphon” that helps it stand above the hordes of other stoner metal records out on the market. Although “Cloak of Feathers” and the closing title track each distinguish themselves for their strength of songwriting, the songs on “Apocryphon” tend to rehash the same increasingly tired tricks. Granted, there are a few curveballs thrown along the way- I definitely wasn’t expecting a synth intro to the closer!- but The Sword’s songwriting generally tends to play it safe, eschewing any sort of intent to grow beyond what they have done on albums past.

Although the album seems to trail off anti-climactically, therein lies one of The Sword’s most brilliant ideas on “Apocryphon”: it feels the structural intention of the album is to listen to it on cyclical repeat, rather than an ordinary ‘start-to-finish’ affair. With the band playing the album tracks in reverse live and certain lyrics (“The serpent eats its tail”) as clues, The Sword seem to have very subtly incorporated a conceptual element to the album. Of course, it may simply be e looking for an added layer of cohesiveness in an album that feels lacking something important. In spite of its killer production values and impressive musicianship, “Apocryphon” feels bland, and in need of something to break the blues riff-induced monotony. It makes for an enjoyable afternoon, but I think some innovation to the style could have made the album great.

DRAGGED INTO SUNLIGHT WidowMaker

Album · 2012 · Death-Doom Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 2 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'WidowMaker' - Dragged into Sunlight (6/10)

Although there was good reason why Dragged into Sunlight never received much (if any) mainstream attention for their debut, “Hatred for Mankind” was a shaker for the underground. Although negativity and pessimism is nothing new for extreme metal, this pack of Englishmen’s sincerity to the mood and atmosphere was undeniable. Arguably doing with dark atmosphere what Motorhead did with volume, Dragged into Sunlight’s first album was something of an underground gem, and even a couple of years since first hearing it, it’s still as vicious as it ever was. Although there’s no doubt that many listeners will find it disappointing that the band have distanced themselves from their original black metal sound with “WidowMaker”, I should start by saying there wasn’t much these guys could have done to expand upon “Hatred for Mankind”. With ‘misanthropic demon-birth black metal’ fully actualized in one fell swoop, Dragged into Sunlight have found a new realm of sound to fuel their sonic assault. “WidowMaker” is a much more meditative offering than what the band’s done before, but the noxious atmosphere is cut from the same cloth. The end result is something that doesn’t quite match the visceral intensity of the debut, but allows for a fresh experience of its own.

There’s no doubt that Dragged into Sunlight intended to reinvent themselves here with “WidowMaker”. Although split into three parts (presumably for the sake of navigation), it’s a single album-length composition. The band has never been a stranger to longer song structures, but there is the sense of further liberation from time constraints and ‘concise’ songwriting. This more longwinded doctrine is applied most explicitly on the album’s first part, which acts essentially as an introduction for the rest of the music. Relying on a few minimalistic guitar motifs, ambient recordings and a gradual violin, the opening to “WidowMaker” is about as musically distant from the sonic chaos of “Hatred for Mankind” as could be imagined. The deliberately paced ambiance and creeping composition of Godspeed You! Black Emperor may be a suitable way to describe the sound here. It’s both an eerie way to introduce an album and a major middle finger to any fan looking for a more familiar black metal palette. At fifteen minutes however, there’s no doubt that the introduction ambles on for far too long, and repeated listens only exacerbate the fact. Although there were good intentions here, the concept of the apocalyptic, mellow intro is dragged far past the point it should have been taken.

Although the first portion of “WidowMaker” is an ambivalent success, the near-two thirds that remain enjoy a more familiar sense of aggression and rawness that first put Dragged into Sunlight on the map. It’s no surprise however that the metal aspect has been largely altered as well. Instead of a bestial black/death combination, “WidowMaker”s heavy element appears more comfortable in the waters of doom, sludge, and even post-metal. I’ll admit that Cult of Luna and even Isis came to mind here, and given the context of the debut, this comes off as quite a musical surprise. The riffs and musical ideas are more drawn out here, and less outright aggressive than they have been in the past. A stalwart exception in this case are the primal howls and grunts of the vocalist known as T, who sounds just as sincerely disturbed as he did on “Hatred for Mankind”. There are no blistering guitar solos or unexpected changes of pace in the album’s second half, but the music gains a solid sense of momentum. Moreover, the production sounds organic and suitably chaotic, in spite of the minimalistic composition. The occasional flourish of violin and serial killer samples bring the atmosphere of “WidowMaker” full circle. Dragged into Sunlight do not lose hold of the sludgy intensity once they have found it, although given the overdrawn lengths they went to introducing the album, it’s nevertheless a disappointment that “WidowMaker” lacks a fitting finale or memorable close.

Some things about Dragged into Sunlight’s sophomore are incredibly promising, and there remains a powerful sense of sincerity and atmosphere on “WidowMaker” that shouldn’t be underestimated, in spite of the style change. It took some balls on account of the band eschewing a style they had been received so well with, and going for something new. I can appreciate that fully, but the more drawn out, post metal sound of “WidowMaker” does not grab me nearly as much, nor does it create much of an impression after the record has ended. Although it’s not even forty minutes long, “WidowMaker” feels longer and more drawn out than it rightly should have been. Dragged into Sunlight made an ambitious leap here, but it’s turned out to be something of a mixed success. Repeated listens don’t make the album much more satisfying than it is on the first count, but there’s no doubt that Dragged into Sunlight remain as much a mystery as they ever have. Knowing now that they so eager to explore new territory, it will be very interesting to see where they go next, in spite of “WidowMaker”s ambivalent success.

TO-MERA Exile

Album · 2012 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.25 | 13 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Exile' - To-Mera (8/10)

Coming from a listener now long bored by the traditional progressive metal style, To-Mera are a go-to source for prog metal the way it should be; musically rich, dynamic, and even original. First hearing them via their member-sharing with the contemporary genre legend Haken, I've only recently discovered that their drummer, Paul Westwood, also offers rhythms for the black metal band Fen, who themselves released one of my favourite records last year. In short, it seems talented folks tend to stick together, and taking into account the other great bands these musicians have been in, To-Mera looks like a meeting place for some of the best of their genre. This latest record "Exile" is no slouch in a line of great albums either. Pairing up dynamic, aggressive and atmospheric metal with a poignant concept, newcomers will be surprised by how well To-Mera are able to digest their influences into something convincing and fresh. Of course, existing fans of the band already knew to expect this!

My first experience with To-Mera was a couple of years ago, with their then-recent EP "Earthbound". Four songs may have not been alot to go by, but it was enough to give a strong look at the band's skill and style. Opeth and the contemporary djent sound were both factors there, but they were overlaid with a strong female voice that one wouldn't normally associate with such technically accomplished music. "Exile" is cut from the same cloth as "Earthbound" and what has come before for To-Mera, but the production and delivery is decidedly improved. Although the band has always had an impressive sense of knowing how to bring out the best in their compositions, "Exile" gives the impression that To-Mera have found a perfect sweet spot between rich production, aggression and atmosphere.

Fans of guitarist and band mastermind Tom McLean's other band Haken will find a similar consistency and fire burning under To-Mera. There is a familiar progressive metal foundation here, the likes of which listeners will have no doubt seen in countless bands by now. Moderate experimentation with time signatures, a fusion of synth textures and guitars, and longform song formats are descriptors that could easily define a large portion of prog metal. They are not separate from some of the more generic qualities (and cliches) of the style, but they ultimately set themselves apart with their atmosphere. Whether its the Egyptian motifs that open up the album on "Inviting the Storm", the playful prog metal freakouts on "The Descent" or the symphonic bombast of "All I Am", "Exile" is doused with a thick layer of dark atmosphere. The vocals of Julie Kiss are a great compliment to the constantly shifting sound. Although her higher register delivery is typical of many female metal singers, the staying power of her voice gives her a great presence. Unlike many progressive metal vocalists- who tend to get swallowed by the instrumental wizardry- Julie brings a sort of proggy weirdness to her voice of its own. While her voice itself is never challenging to the ear, many of her vocal melodies are a little strange in the way they're placed up against the music. It can be difficult to first get into, but it gives her performance a lasting effect that persists far beyond the initial listen.

Even before listening to "Exile", I was struck by the album's concept and lyrical themes. While not a narrative concept like Dream Theater's "Scenes From A Memory" or Queensryche's "Operation Mindcrime", "Exile" does tell a story of sorts. Instead of events or actions however, "Exile" unfolds as a journey through the mind. Paraphrasing from the press kit; the protagonist finds herself conflicted, and seeks to ostracize herself from the world in order to protect herself from harm. With that alone, the psychological allegory fits well with the methodical, atmospheric musical approach they take. In actual practice, the lyrics are decent, but don't quite reach the potential that the concept had, either in its wordcraft or the places To-Mera goes with the idea. Although they bring plenty of musical and stylistic twists to the table throughout the album, To-Mera are not as good with emotional dynamics. Unlike Haken's "Aquarius", in which listeners were taken to almost every conceivable feeling and mood, To-Mera's emotional range feels a little limited, a surprise considering their success on virtually every other front.

Musically, To-Mera sound at the top of their game. If they weren't already, they are at the frontlines of contemporary progressive metal. Especially considering that their style has been tread and explored many times before, "Exile" is a surprisingly challenging and meaty project. Listeners should expect to invest several listens before they unlock all of the rewards here, although it would have been nice to have a shred more of the emotional warmth that Haken excels with. Really, it's a great record overall, and prog metallers will find many nights' worth of enjoyment here. I won't be surprised to see this on many 'best of the year', come the end of 2012.

WINTERSUN Time I

Album · 2012 · Symphonic Metal
Cover art 3.86 | 22 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Time I' - Wintersun (9/10)

Unless the time comes where post-apocalyptic music scholars are reading this and all other mention of the arduous wait associated with Wintersun's second album has been erased, I don't think it's necessary to offer a pre-amble about the ridiculous anticipation eight years of waiting have wreaked upon fans. Suffice to say, after so many delays, "Time" became rooted somewhere in between the status of legend and inside joke. Of course, with such expectations, people can be led to say rash things; initial media reports of "Time I" as one of the greatest albums of its generation appeared well-aware of the hype. I've given myself a couple of weeks now to digest it in all of its glory, and while the success of the yet-upcoming "Time II" will ultimately decide where this project rests in history, Wintersun have offered one of the most intense listening experiences of the year with this one. It certainly deserves the polarized opinions it has met, but there's depth and detail here to merit however long we waited for it. Love it or hate it, "Time" is finally here.

The first thing that really surprises on "Time I" is how much Wintersun have developed and changed as a musical outfit since the debut. Although the debut now passes me as one of the finest of its style, it was still rooted in a style and sound that would have been familiar to any fans of Jari's previous band, Ensiferum. Wintersun's direction on "Time I" may still be described with the same melodic, epic, progressive and symphonic adjectives as the debut, but everything is now larger than its ever been, to the point where it becomes difficult to fairly compare the two. Whereas "Wintersun" focused on the quality of its hooks and riffs, "Time I" is painted in terms of orchestration and atmosphere. Jari and his mates fashion a vast folk metal symphony of sorts, not in the traditional 'symphonic metal' sense, but there's not really another word that can aptly describe the complexity and subtle flourishes throughout the album. In news reports prior to the album's release, there was word that "Time" would feature hundreds of tracks at the same time, and though that was enough to raise a few eyebrows, it's readily evident in the music. Wintersun's music is still led largely by guitars, but "Time I" makes its mark by the amount of time and detail invested into the background. Cinematic orchestral flourishes match the intensity of burstfire guitar work, and frequent folk roundabouts give plenty of space for Jari to sport his arrangement skills. Even within an intrinsic 'background' element like the orchestrations, there are plenty of levels to dive into. Even to the attentive listener, "Time I" is an initially chaotic and harrowing experience.

In what I can only imagine would have been a mixer's nightmare from the ninth circle of Hell, "Time I" demands a listener's full attention. "When Time Fades Away" is a remarkably beautiful way to open the album, gradually adapting the listener to a steadily more intense and complex palette of orchestration. There's a definite East Asian motif here- certainly not something you would expect from Finland- although a minute into "Sons of Winter and Stars", the definitive Wintersun sound is at full blast. The riffs are not too fargone from what Jari was doing on the debut; they are fast, melodic, and open to techniques from many sub-genres of metal. Below these guitar riffs are what sounds like a thousand other parts, each grasping for their share of the mix. "Land of Snow and Sorrow" and the finale title track follow in the footsteps of "Sons of Winter and Stars", although each of these three are memorable in their own right. The fourth (and shortest) piece, "Darkness and Frost" is an interlude that also functions as the extended intro to the song "Time", it begins as an acoustic bridge and soon finds itself in the same sort of cinematic orchestration heard on the rest of the album."Sons..." is arguably the best offering on "Time I", although the other two 'full' pieces are not far behind. "Sons of Winter and Stars" is a perfect manifest of where Wintersun are now as a creative act, throwing everything at the listener at full force, yet still finding time to offer a beautiful acoustic break towards the end.

For all of its cerebral orchestrations, the vocal melodies here are remarkable, and may be the most accessible thing on the record. Jari's black metal rasp is still used here, but there's a certain preference for clean singing here. Whether its for an epic chorus of pagan warriors or Jari's own lead voice, Wintersun's intense style manages to make room for these vocal arrangements. As may have been evident from the overblown production, Jari seems to be a bit of a Devin Townsend fan, and "Land of Snow and Sorrow" best illustrates this, occasionally featuring guitar and vocal elements that are virtually indistinguishable from Devy himself. It's a minor disappoint to hear a genius in his own right tracing the footsteps of another genius, but Jari's vocals have a great sound of their own. As a clean singer, he sounds much more confident here than he did on the debut. Thanks in large part due to the heavy symphonic focus here, his black metal rasps now sound less fitting, although it retains his distinctive snarl.

It's almost a granted truth by this point that Wintersun's musicianship is going to be through the roof. Besides Jari Maenpaa's not-inconsiderable skill with vocals and guitar, the rest of the musicians offer remarkable performances befitting a project of this magnitude. Special commendations go to drummer Kai Hahto, whose epic and aggressive technique backs up the metric tons of orchestration. Although the production is about as good as current technologies can allow for something of this density, some performances on this album can be difficult to hear. At its most symphonic, "Time I" pushes Kai's drum recording down to the level of the background, and bassist Jukka Koskinen can be even more difficult to hear, unless you know what to look for. There are times when I feel the debut's more concise and straightforward approach would have been better, but considering the scope of the instrumentation, it's no surprise that things get just a little murky on the production end. At only forty minutes, "Time I" is certainly shorter than most albums, although this slightly shorter-than-average length works to an advantage. Particularly on the first listen, it's quite a bit to take in, and it ends before the 'epic' atmosphere draws thin.

"Time"s complexity is both its greatest strength and most inviting vulnerability. Depending on your tastes as a listener outside the context of Wintersun's debut, it's likely most who hear it will either love it or hate it. Although the depth here is virtually unsurpassed by any other album of its style, that complexity can feel overblown for its own sake. "Time I" achieves the feeling of an epic atmosphere like few albums have managed to do, but there's the sense that some of the overbearing density could have been done without. With that being said, repeated listens only make the album more and more satisfying of a trip. The initial experience is bound to be fairly disorienting, but there's so much to explore here. As I said towards the start of the review, it's going to be up to "Time II" to match the par that's been set, but there's no doubt that the sweat and blood that's evidently been spent investing in this project has paid off. Only coming years will tell if this has the same lasting appeal as its predecessor, but the music speaks for itself; Wintersun are now among the elites of their style... whatever their style might actually be.

ACHING BEAUTY L'Ultima Ora

Album · 2004 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.33 | 3 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'L'Ultima Ora' - Aching Beauty (8/10)

Hailing from France a few years back, progressive metal act Aching Beauty disappeared almost as soon as they entered the stage. The brevity of their careers robbing them of any real recognition, their short span did leave the world with a great album. 'L'Ultima Ora' delivers a good hour of classic-style progressive metal with beautiful melodic touches all around.

Aching Beauty will be sure to appeal to those that appreciate the technical complexity and instrumental sound of Dream Theater, particularly their first two releases. The vocals however, are much different, and while DT comparisons could be made to this band all day long, the vocal work on 'L'Ultima Ora' gives the music a very classical, European sound to it. Think along the lines of Il Divo or something pop-classical, and transpose the style of the voice onto a progressive metal backdrop.

The melodic sensibility here is of particular note. Crafted here are hooks and memorable, emotive lines of beauty amidst the metal. On that note, Aching Beauty are careful not to overdo things; things never get too heavy, or too one-tracked. There's plenty of variety here.

The album opens with a beautiful acoustic passage before erupting into the first rocker 'Steps.' The first three tracks (while not even being ten minutes altogether) form the first song suite of the album. The band doesn't go anywhere near acheiving their potential in any manner with the next two songs (the third track; 'Endlessly' sounds like a syrupy Josh Groban ballad) but by the time the funky opening bass line of 'Pairsonality' rolls around, its clear that the album is finally getting really, really good. 'Pairsonality' was the first track in the album that really stood out to me, and while its not the total highlight of the album, it would have worked very well as a 'single,' had the band ever gotten so far.

After two good, but ultimately forgettable tracks, 'L'Ultima Ora' finally shines its brightest with the title suite. Composed of the final four tracks, it opens up with a powerful, moving riff of counterpointing keyboards and gutiars before going into the rest of 'Shatter The Shelter,' the darkest, heaviest offering the album has. The middle two parts ('Lost' and 'Aching Awakening') in the suite give the listener an absolutely gorgeous, sometimes heavy instrumental section with a perfect, beautiful guitar solo.

If I could ever ask for a perfectly epic end to an album, the last fleeting moments of 'Masked Life' would be it. The vocals shine here louder then ever, synths are blasting, and many choral counterpoints make for a spectacular end to a great album. As the last triumphant chords erupt, a soft piano outro reprises the finale... Beautiful.

Aching Beauty proves with one album they are talented and creative musicians, although the sound is far too much akin to Dream Theater to really call it 'essential.' However, if only the song 'Aching Awakening' had been applied to their careers, perhaps France would have produced the next great band in prog metal. We'll never know!

IRON MAIDEN Killers

Album · 1981 · NWoBHM
Cover art 3.79 | 128 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Killers' - Iron Maiden (5/10)

"Killers" could be seen as a transition album for Iron Maiden. Although the band had a relatively firm grasp of their galloping sound since the debut, Paul Di'Anno's punkish style and image had a pretty significant impact on the way Maiden carried themselves. "Killers" indeed picks up where the self-titled debut left off, but nothing is done with the same sense of sincerity and excitement. Perhaps "Killers" was needed in order for the band to finally opt out of their ties with Di'Anno and move forward, but we have here a record that falls under a terminal case of 'second album syndrome'. Iron Maiden's signature sound is here, but the magic certainly isn't.

Looking back on my fond memories of the debut, Maiden may not have had the degree of sophistication in their sound and lyrics as they are known for today, but, as the towering "Phantom of the Opera" would testify, they were capable of great things, fusing raw energy with technicality and pomp likely influenced by the progressive rock of the decade past. The idea of moving one step forwards, and two steps back seems to apply here. Although there is a slight progression towards a grittier heavy metal sound, the aggression and intelligence have been siphoned out. "Killers" puts all of its best tunes at the front; although "The Ides of March" functions as a simple, anthemic intro to the record, its martial rhythm leaves a greater impression than most of the songs here. "Wrathchild" has become a bit of a fan favourite, and there's no doubt that it takes the dubious prize of album highlight. Steve Harris' bass licks on "Wrathchild" are some of the best of his early career, and though Di'Anno's performance throughout the album feels generally inferior to his vocals on the debut, he executes some incendiary wails. "Murders in the Rue Morgue" follows up "Wrathchild" quite nicely, delivering a faster pace more indicative of the album as a whole. After that, the songs begin to blur together. Iron Maiden deliver many of the same tricks each song, and though it is made a worthy listen for their consistent tightness as a band, the songwriting lacks the excitement and distinctiveness most of us have come to expect from this band. The one exception later in the album is the relatively long "Prodigal Son", which actually ends up feeling like an unwelcome change of pace for the album. It's as if Maiden suddenly decided to toss out their metal direction in exchange for a painfully watered down prog rock style. Di'Anno's vocals notwithstanding, "Prodigal Son" sounds like something Rush could have done on "Fly By Night", then decided to toss away.

The first two Maiden albums are usually seen as being apart from the rest, if only because Bruce Dickinson had not yet entered the fold. Paul Di'Anno is a great frontman with a charismatic delivery, but his vocal work on "Killers" lacks the precision and ballsy guts it sported on the debut. His performance is decent, but he favours the 'charismatic' angle of his inflections far too much over the more melodic aspects here. As a result, DiAnno's vocals still feel larger-than-life, but there's not a single vocal melody on the album that really sticks, even after several listens. In short, the worst thing that ever happened to "Killers" was the fact that it was being expected to follow one of the best heavy metal debuts ever. There is still much potential in Iron Maiden's style- which remains powerful and exciting- but it's a tough sell to say that the album is really worth checking out for anything more than the fact that it's Iron Maiden. Luckily, it wouldn't be long before the excellent "Number of the Beast" was released under the vocal guidance of Brucey, but considering the sort of artistic success Maiden had with Di'Anno with their first record, it's pretty difficult not to feel disappointed.

AFFECTOR Harmagedon

Album · 2012 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.84 | 9 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Harmagedon' - Affector (7/10)

Sure, like so many of their contemporaries, these progsters are following in the footsteps of Dream Theater, but does this truly do a disservice to their music? In most cases of the dreaded DT-clone, I'm left feeling like great talent is wasted on emulating the work of others who did it better in the first place. Given that an actual member of Dream Theater offers his musical stylings here, it shouldn't be so much of a surprise that multinational prog metal collective Affector have more than a little in common with the legends. Although we can discount much talk of originality from the start onward, Affector deliver a polished, incredibly performed and tastefully composed hour-plus of traditional progressive metal, and had it not been tarnished by trite lyrical content, I might call it one of my favourite prog metal albums thus far this year.

While this may be Affector's first album, they are by no means newcomers to the prog and metal scene. Here, we have a guitarist from Divinity, drummer from Spock's Beard frontman Neal Morse's solo material, bassist from Symphony X, and a singer from Spock's Beard and Thought Chamber. Make no mistake; each band member has earned a reputation for good reason. If that weren't enough, "Harmagedon" is rife with guest keyboard solos from some of the most recognizable musicians in prog today- two of Dream Theater's own keyboardists (Derek Sherinian and Jordan Rudess), Neal Morse and Alex Argento. Throwing in an orchestral introduction, you should be getting the impression by now that Affector have gone all out with this record. The production is professional and slick, and there are more time signature changes than you can share a mellotron at.

As for the actual quality of the music, "Harmagedon" starts off in an incredibly impressive fashion, delivering the sort of technical showmanship and complexity we have come to expect from the progressive metal style, paired up with some surprising beauty. Although I'm often wowed by music like this on a cerebral, unfeeling level, Affector manages to make their instrumentation beautiful as well. Daniel Fries' guitar work is excellent, and while Jordan Rudess' keyboard solos here may be few and far between, his signature gives an essence of authenticity to the band's otherwise derivative style. Stylistically, Affector are certainly not busting down any doors and shaking the progressive world, but it's difficult to speak ill of them as a prog metal act when they do it so damned well.

Decidedly less successful than the instrumentation however are the vocals. Although I caught myself thinking throughout the opening instrumental that Affector could have been better with a vocalist, Ted Leonard delivers something of an imbalanced performance on "Harmagedon". He is certainly a skilled vocalist, but the melodies are something of a hit-or-miss arrangement. The vocal harmonies are lush and powerful, but his voice often sounds a little too weak and vulnerable to pass off some of the more 'epic' moments on the album. Perhaps a greater issue at hand however are the lyrics themselves. "Harmagedon" is a concept album dealing with the biblical interpretation of the end of the world- Revelation. While an apocalypse sounds like it could be a very fertile ground for some imaginative lyrics, Affector take it from a purely Christian perspective, and a saccharine one at that. Although I do not personally share or agree with the beliefs of Christianity, I try not to let my religious opinions get in the way. However, it seems the only time Affector stops reminding the listener of its Christian motivations are during the instrumental sections- which, not incoincidentally, happen to be my favourite moments on the album. With lyrics explicitly praising their Lord and denouncing sinners and hedonists, it would be an understatement to say that the message grows tiresome quickly. It's beautiful to me whenever someone gets inspired or excited enough about something to make art about it, but the lyrics' utter lack of subtlety or cleverness leave me pretty disappointed.

"Harmagedon" at times feels like it is trying a little too hard to be a Christian metal album. The truth is, Affector sound their most inspired and alive when they steer clear of any concept, and simply aim for making the sort of mind-bending progressive metal that has kept proggers on their toes for a good couple of decades. It does not expand much past what Dream Theater have already done, but given this band's astounding grasp of the style, it doesn't deter from the excitement of their instrumentation. It's a very good first step as a new project, and it's a shame such otherwise minute issues could affect my enjoyment of the album so much.

ANATHEMA Weather Systems

Album · 2012 · Non-Metal
Cover art 3.74 | 33 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Weather Systems' - Anathema (9/10)

Going back around this time two years ago, I remember first listening to ANATHEMA's 'We're Here Because We're Here' and finding myself surprised. It wasn't that it was some great leap of quality that startled me- in fact, I had loved their previous album 'A Natural Disaster'. Where ANATHEMA caught me off guard was the tone, or 'mood' of the music. In the several year cooldown period between their seventh and eighth records, Anathema had inverted their trademark dreariness for something that sounded much more fresh than it admittedly should have; a sense of optimism. This more harmonious, hope-filled approach is continued on 'Weather Systems'. Like all great sequels, this one builds upon the previous work's strengths in every way, solving many of the last record's problems as a result. In the end, 'Weather Systems' does not stand only as a successful maturation of the style cultivated on 'We're Here Because We're Here', but one of the brightest moments this band has ever experienced.

Like 'We're Here Because We're Here', the resurrected ANATHEMA's sound is accessible, but in more of an ambient, rather than a 'pop' sense. To elaborate on this, the music enjoys rich orchestrations and ambitious structure, yet ultimately demands little from the listener, save for an openness to emotional suggestion. In truth, by progressive rock standards, the compositions are straightforward, but complexity has never been an aim for ANATHEMA. 'Weather Systems' is an album that would be nothing without its melody and vast atmosphere, and both are supplied in overwhelming quality.

Christer-André Cederberg gives ANATHEMA their greatest production job yet, correcting the somewhat treble-centric Steven Wilson mix of the last. The instrumentation benefits the most from the production quality, with many subtleties in the mix that won't get noticed by the average earphone or computer speaker set. Although ANATHEMA have all but absolved themselves of their metal leanings at this point, the music is far from mellow, often with many things going on at once. Somehow though, ANATHEMA never demand anything of the listener, and no matter how lush the string section or vocal harmonies get, 'Weather Systems' remains an album that instantly lets the listener fly.

It takes barely a minute into the gorgeous first segment of 'Untouchable' to know what 'Weather Systems' is all about. The album takes no time to get going, quickly pulling in a listener with a slick acoustic fingerpicking idea, courtesy of guitarist Danny Cavanagh. Vincent Cavanagh's vocals are soft at first, but as the rest of the band comes into play, a cinematic intensity is built until the point where it's damned near impossible to resist the emotional power of it. Although the orchestration is at times mindboggling, the true highlight of ANATHEMA remains the beautiful vocal work and accompanying melodies. In a nearly hyperbolic contrast from the doom-n-gloom 'Alternative 4' and earlier, there is nary a dreary word sung by any of the band's three vocalists. More than ever before, ANATHEMA focus in on harmonies in the vocals, and it works perfectly with the equally vast instrumentation. On a less positive note, the lyrics are not particularly engaging, generally falling upon credos of optimistic imagery and the recurring motif of nature, as reflected by the album's title. For what it's worth, the lyrics do work for the soaring sound of the band, and when they don't, it's not enough to detract from the rich atmosphere the rest of the music has created.

'The Gathering of the Clouds' continues where 'Untouchable' left off, without much of a noticeable gap between the two. Comparing natural imagery to a state of mind, ANATHEMA veer the album down a more melancholic route, all the while putting an even greater emphasis on vocal harmony and counterpoint. Within three minutes, ANATHEMA have worked enough orchestrations into the song that they could have fed a song twice its length. 'Lightening Song' plays on the momentum, but reins the intensity in a little, leaving it to Lee Douglas' gorgeous voice to reclaim the feeling of serenity. Lodged in the middle of the album, 'Sunlight' is arguably the least memorable track on the album, keeping the mood and orchestrations consistent and enjoyable, yet failing to add any new surprises to the already-magnificent string of songs so far.

Besides the five minute, 'single-worthy' tune 'The Beginning And The End', the second half of 'Weather Systems' is left up to longer-form compositions. Having found myself pretty damned disappointed by the so-called 'epics' on 'We're Here Because We're Here', I had my apprehensions when I got to this point in the album the first time around, and while 'The Storm Before The Calm' does not enjoy the same stirring melodies as those that came before, the atmosphere and sonic beauty are just as strong and beautiful. 'The Storm Before The Calm' does feel as if it could use a minute's shortening, but in fairness, the piece may have been best cut in two, with the first track comprising the trance-like rhythm built up over the course of five minutes, and the second devoted to the refreshing return-to- form ANATHEMA use to wrap up the piece.

'The Beginning and the End' sees 'Weather Systems' following an increasingly dark path, with one of the band's most memorable guitar ideas driving the song along. Although the song is surprisingly based around a single idea, it never feels tired, constantly building up in intensity until its climax. Finally, 'Weather Systems' arrives at my absolute favourite track off the album. Although at least one person I have talked to about the album has cited it as one of their least favourite tracks, 'The Lost Child' holds some of the most beautiful melodies I have ever heard. The piano plays softly and simply, and the introspective melancholy is reminiscent of the same dreary atmosphere Radiohead often evokes. The string section that has been so far lodged in the background is thrust to the forefront, and by the piece's devastating zenith around the five minute mark, there's little to do but sit in emotional shock and awe. Admittedly, the climax's dramatic beauty is offset a bit by the vocals milking the repetition of the words 'save me' towards the end (when you listen, you'll understand), but it's an easy flaw to look past in light of the rest of 'The Lost Child's quivering beauty.

'Internal Landscapes' ends what I consider to be the album of the year thus far on a somewhat mixed note. Although the pleasant ambiance ultimately builds up into a song, it feels as if 'Weather Systems' may have been better with the same concise melodic brilliance that defined the early half of the album. Instead, the first few minutes plod softly along, with some spoken word sample concerning life-after-death and redemption playing overtop. Although the rock-centric meat of 'Internal Landscapes' offers 'Weather Systems' a just and powerful ending, the sparse moments of 'Internal Landscapes' where so little is happening is the only time I would daresay I feel bored when listening to the album. Normally, this less-than-climactic finale would rob an album of being called a masterpiece, and while 'Weather Systems' doesn't see ANATHEMA quite reaching an inhuman perfection with their music, the significant proportion where the music does become inhumanly perfect is reason enough to give it the highest recommendation. Although ANATHEMA do not challenge the listener with this music, they excel at doing what music is most meant to do; evoke emotion. It's easy to say that music is emotional, but when listening to an album can change someone's mood so profoundly, it's reason enough to call it something special.

NEGATIVA Negativa

EP · 2006 · Technical Death Metal
Cover art 3.99 | 3 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Negativa' - Negativa (8/10)

As a reviewer, I should admit to the bias that I am a huge Gorguts fan. Not only is "Obscura" one of my favourite albums ever, but I also consider it to be the artistic pinnacle of the entire death metal realm, much in the same way as I feel Deathspell Omega's "Fas..." record reflects the potential of black metal. As a result, hearing that Negativa's sound was a continuation of Gorguts' more left-field style was more than enough reason to get excited about them. There were plans that the band was going to take a direction of its own, but things sadly never progressed that far. As it stands, Negativa and their self-titled EP stands as an extension of Gorguts' avant-garde take on death metal, an 'expansion pack'- if you will- to what Gorguts had already done. While it's certainly not the same degree of mind-blowing intensity that I first heard on "Obscura", Negativa bring an otherworldly sense of atmosphere to their strange brand of dissonance.

Compared to "Obscura" and "From Wisdom to Hate", Negativa take a sludgier approach, without necessarily treading into sludge metal territory. "Chaos in Motion" starts the EP off on its strongest note- a mind-bending collage of technical fury, dissonant feedback, and Luc Lemay's ever-haunting howl-growls. The production is raw and down-to-earth, but the furious musical tightness more than makes up for the occasional distortion buzz. With the trademark dissonant riffing and Lemay's distinctive vocal style, Negativa could sound a little close to the proper Gorguts to be considered something independent. Particularly on "Chaos in Motion", it sounds like it could have been a polished demo for something that could have possibly been heard on one of Gorguts' last two records. Fortunately, Negativa etches out more of a unique niche on the EP's centerpiece, "Tedium Vitae".

There are times on this nine minute stretch of dark atmosphere where one might think they're listening to some sort of abrasive doom that Esoteric cooked up. In fact, some extended passages here are devoted to a more downtempo heaviness- quite the far cry from the technical onslaught on Gorguts' albums. On top of the progressive tech-death, Negativa takes the dissonance to new heights with segments I might only describe as chaotic noise. Feedback and distortion are used to make some fairly painful sounds. Although it's certainly in keeping with the dark, dreary atmosphere, these 'guitar experiments' get a bit overdrawn, particularly towards the end.

I may have been left with an even greater impression had Negativa gone for a different approach than its parent band, but there are no disappointments here. Negativa bring the chaotic, fearful avant-death sound many listeners will already be familiar with, but- as the saying goes- 'if it ain't broke...'

THY CATAFALQUE Rengeteg

Album · 2011 · Avant-garde Metal
Cover art 4.30 | 16 ratings
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Conor Fynes
'Rengeteg' - Thy Catafalque (8/10)

There's something to be said for a metal band that manages to find an original sound. Even in the so-called avant-garde metal style, a listener is bound to find scores of artists pulling out the same 'weird' cliches, without necessarily doing something fresh with them. First hearing Thy Catafalque and the work of Tamás Kátai through his more death metal-oriented project Gire, it was clear to me from the start that there was something sincerely 'out there' about this music. On "Rengeteg", fans of this Hungarian act's previous work will get what they expect: a viciously eclectic dose of strange folk melodies, industrial percussion, and plenty of synthesized goodness. It's not a taste for everyone, but "Rengeteg" is one of the most interesting musical experiences I've heard in recent times.

As far as avant-garde music goes, it almost feels wrong to get the impression of catchiness, or even 'fun' in the music. After all, this is supposed to be heavy, experimental art- catchy hooks and danceability are traits most often reserved for the worst forms of pop. With that being said, "Rengeteg" is an album filled with crazy hooks. "Trilobita" is a feisty folk metal jig fueled with mesmerizing vocal and synth melodies. "Az eső, az eső, az eső" is a little more melancholic, but no less instantly memorable, built around a fiery organ lick that blends perfectly with the more jarring metal riffs. Compared to Thy Catafalque's earlier stuff, "Rengeteg" comes across as a more melodic incarnation of the band's sound. The industrial riffing is still potentially heavy as ever, but Thy Catafalque has largely absconded its more black metal-oriented origins.

"Rengeteg" may have moments of accessibility, but at its core, it remains challenging, even ugly in parts. To counter off the shorter pieces, "Vashegyek" looms around the fifteen minute mark, swerving through Eastern European folk tradition and harsh industrial riffs. Although it largely amounts to personal taste, the industrial elements feel less fitting for Thy Catafalque's sound. It is not so much that it is so much heavier than the rest of "Rengeteg"s ingredients, but rather that it sounds so robotic. Thy Catafalque enjoys some brilliant guest vocalists, warm keyboards and synths, and vast atmosphere. In the midst of this, electronic double-kicks and noisy guitars don't seem to fit as well as they could have. As one could expect from something so eclectic, the production is a little inconsistent, once again favouring the warmer, 'human' elements of the album over the industrial sounds.

There are a great deal of synth and keyboards on "Rengeteg", but the strange Eastern melodies seem perfectly suited for them. Thy Catafalque takes a vast array of styles and ambitions, and condenses them into a blending pan of strange, enjoyable music. Comparisons may be drawn with Sigh, but it's clear that this Hungarian act has a sound it can call its own. Nightmares may ensue, but they'll be worth it.

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