Metal Music Reviews from Diogenes

JAMES LABRIE Impermanent Resonance

Album · 2013 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.86 | 12 ratings
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Diogenes
After finishing up the highly successful tour for Dream Theater’s A Dramatic Turn of Events, vocalist James LaBrie got back together with songwriting partner and keyboardist Matt Guillory to record the follow-up album to 2011’s Static Impulse. Even though the more abrasive style on that album came as a surprise to some who follow LaBrie’s musical career closely, it was received fairly well, and Impermanent Resonance is written and played in mostly the same vein as its predecessor, and yields mostly the same results.

You could call this album “Static Impulse II” and not be too far off base; if you’ve heard that album, not much on Impermanent Resonance will shock you. It’s a collection of shorter pop metal songs with a heavier edge, thanks to the modern and aggressive guitar tone of Marco Sfolgi and the growling vocals of Peter Wildoer. The centerpiece of the album is, of course, still the unmistakable singing of James LaBrie, though his clean singing and Wildoer’s growls are used extensively in a “call-and-response” fashion not unlike that of mid-era Soilwork and many other Gothenburg-style metal bands. That’s where the comparisons to the melodic death metal genre end, however, as both the album’s riffs and recurring electronic sampling lean towards accessibility rather than heaviness. Make no mistake about it; both Sfolgi and Wildoer know their ways around their instruments, but technicality is reigned in for the most part here.

Being the album’s main focus, LaBrie’s vocals are in fine form on Impermanent Resonance, as they have been on his two previous “solo” efforts. Though his higher register hasn’t been employed nearly as much on recent Dream Theater material, the vocals on this album sit even more comfortably in the middle of LaBrie’s range, as he sings possibly the catchiest group of vocal melodies I’ve ever heard from him. It’s pretty clear that Impermanent Resonance was written with this in mind, and they did a good job of it, as there are hooks en masse and some really great choruses on here; “Slight of Hand,” “Lost in the Fire,” and “Amnesia” are my personal favorites, though there is nary a song on this album that doesn’t feature a really poppy hook or vocal line of some sort.

As the sing-along moments of Impermanent Resonance are so prevalent, particular attention is drawn to the album’s lyrics; like on Static Impulse, they’re quite angst-y and personal, and this is where this album lets me down a bit. I don’t want to call the penmanship on Impermanent Resonance lame, but it’s a little weird to hear a veteran vocalist like LaBrie sing lines such as “Say you're mine, that we're not broken in two, say you're still mine, say it's me and you.” I’ll be honest: I find the album’s lyrics so polarizing that I shy away from certain songs that are otherwise pretty good just because the words are so cheesy.

Fortunately, that’s the only part of Impermanent Resonance that I can see anyone having a problem with. With its sleek, modern production and well-written songs, it’s an incredibly easy album to listen to, and for that reason I’d recommend you give it a try regardless of your opinion on LaBrie and/or Dream Theater (because apart from the voice, this album sounds nothing like the prog metal giants whatsoever). It’s a solid piece of pop metal that you should enjoy if you also liked the previous LP released under LaBrie’s name.

STRATOVARIUS Nemesis

Album · 2013 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.39 | 15 ratings
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Diogenes
The youth movement of melodic power metal pioneers Stratovarius continued in 2012, as longtime drummer Jorg Michael departed after a lengthy tour supporting the band’s Elysium LP. Enter Rolf Pilve behind the kit. With 3 of the 5 band members being replaced since the last instance of their “traditional” lineup in 2003, the Finns went back to work, promptly recording and releasing their 14th studio album. That album, Nemesis, immediately blew me away; it might just be the best effort of Stratovarius’ long and storied career.

What grabs you about Nemesis right away is how fresh, energetic, and modern it sounds, as the songwriting combination of guitarist Matias Kupianen and bassist Lauri Porra show no intention of revisiting the band’s past clichés. Kupianen’s guitar tone, in particular, has a nice bite to it that compliments Jens Johansson’s crystalline keyboard melodies quite well; the bridge section of lead single “Unbreakable” is a good example of this, reminding me of some of Symphony X’s more recent works without deviating too far from the album’s power metal roots. I’d even go as far as saying that this is their darkest album (at least in quite a while, maybe since Dreamspace), as tracks like “Castles in the Air” and “Out of the Fog” portray an epic mood closer to that of a post-apocalypse than your usual medieval fantasy land. The choirs are used especially well in this sense.

This being power metal, though, the thing you’re looking for is mostly likely still going to be catchy melodies, uplifting themes, and sing-along choruses, all of which Nemesis features in spades. “Abandon,” “Nemesis,” “Stand My Ground,” and bonus track “Fireborn” all carry a sense of freedom and invincibility that is bound to please any power metal fan. After blasting through a series of vocal chord injuries and albums that featured some painfully high singing, Timo Kotipelto’s once-unlimited upper register is all but gone, but he still delivers a strong and emotional performance behind the mic; Nemesis is not an album short on catchy vocal melodies, and the warmer timbre makes them all the more accessible. This culminates in possibly the most infectious song Stratovarius has ever written: everything about “Fantasy” is just sickeningly catchy, from the dancing keyboard melodies to the massive chorus. Stratovarius exploring darker realms on Nemesis while also writing their most uplifting material in a very long time proves that once again, there is no substitute for excellent songwriting.

So many years after releasing some of the most influential power metal material ever, Stratovarius is in the best shape they’ve ever been. Nemesis is an album that both makes a killer first impression and features the songwriting that will keep it playing in your library for quite a long time. Without a doubt, one of the best metal releases of 2013, and a sure treat for any power metal fan.

ASCENSION (SCT) Far Beyond the Stars

Album · 2012 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.12 | 6 ratings
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Diogenes
Ascension is a fairly young band-you can hear it in their playing. Almost immediately, I got the same vibe from this album as I did from Sonata Arctica’s Ecliptica (so it’s no surprise that I like this too), and that’s pure, unadulterated power metal energy. Granted, Ascension goes about their business in a fairly different manner than the Finns ever did, preferring to front their assault with a twin-guitar attack rather than noodle around with keyboards, harpsichords, and what have you. Now, I’m as big of a fan of the Stratovarius method of power metal as anyone (well, maybe not ANYONE, but I like it), but the music on Far Beyond the Stars is certainly not without charms of its own. The lack of a real electronic presence means that there are riffs-yes, RIFFS!-heavily rooted in speed metal territory. Make no mistake about it; Ascension is just as adept at kicking your ass as they are at riding unicorns and slaying dragons (or whatever power metal cliché you wish).

Still, while this album isn’t a total cheesefest, the majority of the over-the-top power metal mannerisms that you’re bound to be sick of by now are here in abundance. Most of the songs are fast-paced, built on guitar harmonies that border on Maiden territory, and frequently break into melodic choruses that feature plenty of crotch-grabbing vocal moments from singer Richard Carnie (the dude can WAIL). Double bass drum patterns are used extensively, and the lyrics aren’t exactly gospel to anyone who’s familiar with the genre (freedom, self-empowerment; all of that good stuff).

In the end, though, I have to give it to Ascension; these guys have taken a formula that’s been beaten to death, beat it some more, and spit out a debut album that’s just plain enjoyable as all get out. Not once while listening to Far Beyond the Stars did I think “gosh, this sounds an awful lot like bands X, Y, and Z;” rather, my reaction was more along the lines of “If I was in a power metal band, this is EXACTLY what I’d want it to sound like”. Why? Because it has good songs! This album is simply full of great, catchy tunes that will go in one ear and stay there right from listen number one. It’s an album that just pounds you with energy from the get-go and doesn’t let up, while remaining plenty interesting to hold anyone’s attention through multiple plays in a row.

This isn’t luck, either. Ascension is clearly just good at writing catchy material. Part of this goes back to the overall energetic nature of the band; after all, that’s what should be expected from a power metal album, and it’s something that Far Beyond the Stars delivers in spades. Yes, there’s a lot of double bass, but the patterns played scream creativity and enthusiasm; they’re an actual boost to the songs instead of something that’s been thrown in there because this is power metal and that’s just what happens. In the big picture, though, Ascension obviously has a very clear vision of what they want to play, and they go out and play it with conviction. That’s really all you can ask for from an up-and-coming band, and sometimes it’ll yield some pretty impressive results too. This is definitely one of those examples; Far Beyond the Stars is one of the best power metal albums I’ve heard in a very long time, and is one more brilliant example of how songwriting is the great trump card.

THRESHOLD March Of Progress

Album · 2012 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.91 | 27 ratings
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Diogenes
The tragic passing of Andrew “Mac” McDermott last year left quite a few people (myself included) in shock. Though he had left Threshold long before then, it was a disheartening wake-up call for those who had come to love the band’s landmark albums of the mid-2000s, as that lineup would never be seen again. Of course, being the pros that they are, Threshold had already begun work on their next album, and now that March of Progress has finally seen the light of day, I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s glad they’ve decided to carry on.

If you’re a Threshold fan, then the music on March of Progress probably won’t seem too foreign; it’s true that Threshold hasn’t exactly reinvented the wheel here, as many tracks on this album sound like they would be right at home on Dead Reckoning or Subsurface. Then again, if you’re a Threshold fan, chances are that doesn’t matter to you and you’re listening for highly polished, professional prog metal with a heavy emphasis on melody. Rest assured, just about everything that made Threshold’s previous works great is once again on display here in 2012.

What will probably be the most notable aspect on March of Progress are the vocals of Damian Wilson, who has re-joined the band after Mac’s passing. In comparison, Wilson sings in a much more operatic tone and has a charisma that won over a lot of people who listened to his previous guest performances (Ayreon, Star One, etc…but then, who hasn’t sung in an Arjen Lucassen project? Seriously), as well the earlier Threshold efforts featuring his voice. I must say that it will be a bit of a change for those used to hearing Mac’s vocals taking flight over Threshold’s sludgy guitar riffs, but in the end, if this record has a weakness, it’s no fault of Wilson’s; his singing here is easily up to par to whatever was expected of him. In fact, a few tracks into March of Progress, it’s hard to tell much of a difference at all; the vocal melodies are still top-notch and range from supplying a large array of hooks (the chorus of “Ashes” is just one of many examples) to majestically soaring (“Liberty, Complacency, Dependency”), all while carrying vintage Threshold messages of political protest and outcry.

Instrumentally, too, this is Threshold at its finest. Johane James might be the most unassuming prog metal drummer out there, but the dude hits his kit HARD and never overplays (something that I’m sure is appreciated by the detractors of so-called “wankery” out there). Karl Groom and Richard West are, as always, the dependable duo of songwriting, consistently putting out well-structured tunes that are rooted in strong melodies while still pushing the envelope technically. The interaction between the two is simply second to none. “The Hours” stands out almost immediately, filled with hooks and subtle texturing that might not stand out at first, but is bound to put some smiles on people’s faces once it does. Meanwhile, Wilson continues his workman-like effort behind the mic, delivering an emotional chorus and a seemingly endless supply of poetic lyrics (the inspiring “Don’t Look Down” is just fantastic in this regard), which should once again satisfy the “thinking men” of the metal crowd. It really can’t be stated enough how Threshold manages to draw all of these elements together on a consistent basis; while they’ve slowed their pace considerably since the ‘90s (their last album being released 5 years ago), they never fail to bring an abundance of material once recording time rolls around. In fact, if there’s anything negative to be said about March of Progress, it’s that it’s a couple of songs too long; they’re all good, but the album tends to drag on a bit in spite of how great the music is.

While it didn’t hit me as hard as Dead Reckoning did upon my first listen, March of Progress undoubtedly delivers the same goods that prog fans have been expecting from Threshold for the past decade and a half. It’s classy, well-produced, and mature; none of which should be surprising, but will be delightfully devoured by metalheads and progheads all the same. Another winner by the boys from Britain!

DREAM THEATER Awake

Album · 1994 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.06 | 139 ratings
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Diogenes
Awake is, to me, the “prime” of Dream Theater’s career; perhaps not as musicians, but as songwriters. The band’s third studio album hits the “sweet spot” of a unique sound fallen far enough from the trees of influence, with plenty of creative juices still flowing. While there may not be an overarching concept or some of the technical wizardry that sent their later works into the metal history books, I much prefer a collection of well-written songs that retain a progressive core and melodic structure. This, Awake features in spades.

This is a landmark release for several reasons. Being the follow-up to Dream Theater’s breakout album Images and Words, Awake was written in a bit of a pressure situation, which resulted in keyboardist Kevin Moore’s departure from the band during the recording. Who the best Dream Theater keyboardist is will probably be a debate forever; while Jordan Rudess has flashiness (and now longevity) on his side, Moore’s case is made by tasteful, atmospheric playing an excellent compositional skills (as evidenced by Awake’s beautifully melancholic closer, “Space-Dye Vest”). Indeed, this album is at the bottom of the Dream Theater barrel as far as the complexity of the keyboard lines go (although they’re still very impressive, don’t get me wrong), but again, they fit wonderfully within the context of the music; on no Dream Theater album will you hear melodies as vivid as the ones fluttering through “Scarred,” “Caught in a Web,” and the stirring instrumental “Erotomania”.

Awake also boasts what is far and away the best vocal performance in James LaBrie’s career. It was recorded right before the infamous food poisoning incident (which was arguably the worst thing to ever happen to the band, as LaBrie’s voice has never been the same since), and the difference between the vocals here and, say, Train of Thought are startling; LaBrie’s high register is both powerful and emotive (think “shrieking” rather than “wailing”), actually driving the songs instead of just hanging there. There’s also a certain warmth in the vocals that really embellish the album’s softer moments; a complete effort in every sense of the word.

Song-wise, there are zero weak links here, which might be surprising at first considering how little fanfare Awake tends to get among prog fans. You have “Lie” and “The Mirror,” which are easily two of the heaviest Dream Theater tracks (from a time period in which they weren’t forcing such things), the tremendous opener “6:00,” which features an incredible chorus courtesy of LaBrie, and the fan favorite “Innocence Faded”. Then there are the two greatest Dream Theater ballads in “The Silent Man” and “Lifting Shadows off a Dream;” the former a slow, quiet number with an acoustic guitar lick that tickles the senses, and the latter an excellent showing of the build-and-climax formula that Dream Theater uses so sparsely. Both are equally uplifting and beautiful, and the fact that they stand out in a rather heavy progressive metal album just proves how meticulously crafted the songs here are.

Instrumentally, this is still undoubtedly the Dream Theater that we all love (or hate). It’s technically proficient, tight, virtuosic…whatever you want to call it. When compared to the crowd, though, Awake stands out in almost every category: production, songwriting, texture, and so on…it’s all there. The complete package, and a timeless progressive metal classic that I return to again and again.

SEPULTURA Chaos A.D.

Album · 1993 · Groove Metal
Cover art 3.97 | 60 ratings
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Diogenes
Some time after the release of their landmark album Arise, the well of thrash metal riffs that had powered Sepultura’s last few efforts abruptly ran dry, and the Brazilian pioneers briefly adopted a style that was far slower and groove-oriented than the scene was used to at the time. That Chaos A.D. was the band’s first big step into the mainstream probably isn’t a coincidence, but regardless of how Pantera-influenced it may seem at first, Sepultura’s fifth full-length album remains a classic of the metal genre and a huge influence to this day.

As highly regarded as the trio of Schizophrenia, Beneath the Remains, and Arise are among thrash-heads, Chaos A.D. is undoubtedly the album in which Sepultura really found themselves as a band and forged a sound that really set them apart from the crowd; it’s the first indication that they would be around for the long haul, if you will. The tribal and industrial elements that were introduced on Arise are explored in earnest here, from the famous drum intro to “Refuse/Resist” to the full-fledged acoustic instrumental “Kaiowas”. These are blended quite nicely into the slower compositions, giving the music plenty of room to breathe without sounding forced (a problem people might have with the band’s next album, Roots). There are also a couple of punk-ish tracks in “Biotech is Godzilla” and a cover of New Model Army’s “The Hunt,” which actually sound really good (though Sepultura have always been an excellent cover band, so this shouldn’t be a surprise). This doesn’t completely excuse Chaos A.D. from its absence of great riffs, but the melting pot of different genres makes each and every track well-distinguishable from one another. For this reason, it’s also a pretty easy album to listen to from beginning to end.

What ultimately makes Chaos A.D. a winner in my book is its absolutely impeccable atmosphere. Andy Wallace really did a spectacular job producing this one, but that’s just gravy compared to how Sepultura plays their instruments here. Each song is dark, hulking, and aggressive, and you can just feel the anger flowing through the guitars while Max Cavalera rages on about governmental corruption and censorship; once again, the cover art fits the music like a glove. Andreas Kisser is definitely the MVP of the album, projecting evil and hatred with his six strings, and really making the listener feel like they’re a part of that weird mummification process on the album art (the lead in “Propaganda,” for instance). This is something that just isn’t found on modern groove metal releases (or most groove metal releases, for that matter); clean and polished the album is not, but I think that’s ultimately what makes it so appealing.

While I’m no fan of groove metal, Chaos A.D. is just a solid album in every sense of the word. With its unique combination of world elements, suffocating production, and accessible instrumental work, it’s not only an important stepping stone for Sepultura as a band, but for the genre of metal as a whole. As such, it’s definitely deserving of a place in just about any metalhead’s collection, and continues to stand the test of time as a must-listen collection of tunes.

SONATA ARCTICA Reckoning Night

Album · 2004 · Power Metal
Cover art 3.68 | 22 ratings
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Diogenes
Reckoning Night is considered by many fans to be Sonata Arctica’s swansong, as if the band mysteriously disappeared in 2005 and has been missing ever since. It’s a silly idea, but what those people are right on is that this is, by far, the band’s most mature effort to this point. The production is rich and powerful, bringing forth tight musicianship from all angles (although they’ve never been the most technical group around) and sounding every bit as wintry as their previous works while packing a punch that a lot of metal records like it lack. It’s also noticeably darker, as this is where the Finns really started to explore territory beyond their Stratoesque roots, writing longer songs and easing up a bit on the tiring double-kick drum patterns; the use of keyboards can still be considered “flowery,” except they’re accompanied by a great dose of melancholy this time around. When the band’s discography is listened to chronologically, it’s quite easy to tell that this is where they exchanged their light, fun atmosphere for something much heavier and intimate, though not yet to the point of Unia or The Days of Grays.

Lyrically, Tony Kakko has never been better, painting somber tales of sadness (“Misplaced”) and angst (“Blinded No More”), along with the traditional Sonata Arctica wolf anthem, “Ain’t Your Fairytale”. His vocals, despite being somewhat lower-pitched than they were in the band’s earlier years, convey the songs’ messages perfectly while being intertwined with complex choir arrangements; the best example of this would probably be in the classic “Don’t Say a Word,” although the vocal arrangements are consistently strong throughout the album as a whole and really show Kakko’s growth as a composer rather than a singer.

The mood change and musical evolution on Reckoning Night acts both as a boon and a hindrance; while it may appeal to those who were wishing Sonata Arctica would find their own sound (which, in my opinion, they already did on Winterheart’s Guild), it just seems plodding in areas where I’m used to the band soaring. Yes, there are more midtempo tracks here, but that’s not necessarily it; “My Selene,” while being one of the album’s faster songs, is simply not up to the usual Sonata Arctica standard of power metal. The same goes for “The Boy Who Wanted to Be A Real Puppet” and “Blinded No More,” which are basically just there-not bad enough to be filler, but not really memorable in any way either.

Sonata Arctica hits a grand slam, however, on the epic “While Pearl, Black Oceans”. A fascinating yet woeful tale of a lighthouse keeper and a tragic shipwreck he indirectly causes, the song stands both as the end of the straightforward power metal era of the band and perhaps their biggest triumph as an overall composition. A lyrical masterpiece, the song builds as the story goes on, Kakko adding more and more choirs before it reaches its sorrowful climax. It’s just so beautifully sad and gripping, making it the perfect album closer (unfortunately, this is not the case). Definitely the best song on the album, and maybe in Sonata Arctica’s career.

So while I find myself missing the energy and enthusiasm of the band’s earlier works, the fourth Sonata Arctica album certainly has its fair share to offer. Reckoning Night is certainly worth a listen, even if it’s just for its standout tracks; inconsistent, but enjoyable nonetheless.

KREATOR Phantom Antichrist

Album · 2012 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 4.06 | 23 ratings
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Diogenes
Like clockwork, German thrash metal kings Kreator are back with another slab of Teutonic metal for the masses. While their latest album, Phantom Antichrist, breaks a streak of album covers with malignant and disfigured faces on them (sort of; the dude’s pretty ugly, but it’s not an extreme close-up), the music features no such dip in quality. Of course it’s good!

Phantom Antichrist continues to develop the well-balanced, clean, and melodic thrash metal sound Kreator first adopted on their 2001 “revival” album, Violent Revolution. While there isn’t anything as melodic as, say, “To the After Burn,” Phantom Antichrist is not short on slick guitar harmonies, and they’re beautifully blended with the band’s trademark aggression and Mille Petrozza’s raspy vocals to form the modern Kreator style we know and love. Indeed, if you’ve heard the band’s past few efforts, there’s probably not much on this album that will surprise you, but that tends to fall by the wayside when the music is as tight and well-produced as it is here.

Frontman Petrozza has mentioned that Kreator went into the writing of Phantom Antichrist wanting to make their greatest album ever; while their landmark albums of the ‘80s will probably never be topped, it’s obvious that a lot of effort went into this. The transitions within the songs are absolutely sublime, as tracks like “Civilization Collapse” and “Until Our Paths Cross Again” trade melody for aggression so seamlessly that you actually have to, you know, pay attention to the music! There’s also a definite sense of urgency in the band’s playing, almost as if they know it’s their last album or that the world is ending this December (who actually believes this?) and they want to put one more solid notch in the thrash totem before they go out. This, again, goes back to the care put into Phantom Antichrist; just listen to the climax of “The Few, The Proud, The Broken” and tell me you don’t just feel every note in that anthemic guitar lead. Kreator have never been a band to mail in a performance (even when they didn’t really know what they wanted to play in the ‘90s), so this isn’t necessarily anything new, but they really hit the songwriting nail on the head this time around. The only thing on this album that I could definitely do without is the addition of clean vocals; for all his greatness as a harsh vocalist, Petrozza ain’t that good of a singer (at least, not anymore-who knows if he could have pulled it off 15 years ago), and the way they’re used seems awfully In Flames-ish. Please, keep the mumbling out of my thrash metal!

Thirteen albums into their career, Kreator shows that they can still bring it with the same intensity as their peers, even after going through enough sonic changes to put most other bands down for the count. I’d be lying if I said Phantom Antichrist is anything groundbreaking or surprising, but at the same time, it’s highly professional and executed well enough to appeal to almost anyone with ears. It should shock no one that this album is recommended, and will probably go down as one of the top thrash releases of the year.



SONATA ARCTICA Stones Grow Her Name

Album · 2012 · Traditional heavy metal
Cover art 3.56 | 13 ratings
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Diogenes
Having grown to love Sonata Arctica’s last album, The Days of Grays, I hoped that the band had finally found a style in which they were comfortable, and that their next album would be a continuation of it; so what if they don’t play power metal anymore? The 2012 single “I Have a Right” effectively dashed my hopes and got me worrying: is that what their new album is going to sound like? POP? It was the complete antithesis of what made The Days of Grays special. And so, I rather tentatively began my listen of Sonata Arctica’s latest, Stones Grow Her Name, not knowing what to expect. It was fitting, in a way, because this album is going to throw people for a loop if they aren’t careful.

First, let’s go over what hasn’t changed, since none of it is really surprising anyway. Stones Grow Her Name marks the fourth album in a row in which Sonata Arctica’s mood is melancholy at best; anyone expecting a return to their earlier days of cheese-infested happy sappy stuff should probably turn elsewhere. Tony Kakko’s lyrics remain unorthodox, but his vocals are as emotional as ever, painting scenes of longing and angst as he crows, whines, and growls his way throughout tracks like “Alone in Heaven” and “The Day”. It’s safe to say that no emotiveness or lyrical creativity is lost, despite some really awful track names (“Shitload of Money?” Wildfires Part II AND III? Come on guys).

As for everything else? It’s all up in the air. After experimenting with a darker, more progressive sound on Unia and solidifying it on The Days of Grays, Sonata Arctica have changed gears yet again to incorporate more straightforward hard rock elements. Elias Viljanen is given much more leeway this time around, playing less of a “support” role than he did on The Days of Grays; good riffs are still hard to come by on this album, but Elias gets more of a chance to show off his chops in the shorter compositions, as well as being generally higher in the mix than before. That’s not to say that keyboardist Henrik Klingenberg is absent, of course; his work in the slower passages of tracks like “The Day” make the songs more than tolerable, despite Sonata Arctica’s reputation for writing really crappy ballads, so that alone would net this album some points.

It’s the experimentation, though, that ultimately makes (or breaks) Stones Grow Her Name. It’s almost as if Sonata Arctica threw all sorts of shit at the wall just to see what would stick. The album begins with a simple power-pop number in “Only the Broken Hearts (Make You Beautiful)” and ends with perhaps the most complex Sonata Arctica arrangement ever in the two-part “Wildfire” continuation. You’ve got the electronic beats to begin “Shitload of Money” and the banjo in “Cinderblox”. Make no mistake about it; Stones Grow Her Name is far from an album on which every song sounds like the previous one.

Tony Kakko’s creativity has never been in doubt, though; it’s whether the material he writes is any good or not. Stones Grow Her Name has a lot of variety (probably the most of any Sonata Arctica album to date), but it seems as if the band is going through another identity crisis. A lack of direction? Maybe, but that’s what Unia suffered from, and this album is considerably better. Inconsistency within the compositions would describe it better, I would say. It’s not just a “I like Song X, but I don’t like Song Y” sort of thing; the songs themselves are roller coasters, going from striking the perfect emotional chords one minute to wondering where the hell that lovable Finnish cheeseball band went the next. “Shitload of Money,” which is bound to be a controversial track, starts off as boring and cliché, but is saved by a catchy and tasteful clean guitar lick (of all things!), a point at which the track becomes quite enjoyable. Even the sole track that can actually be classified as power metal, “Losing My Insanity,” has its ups and downs, with an infectious chorus offsetting the out-of-place piano intro. The whole thing is just all over the map in terms of how well all of those weird elements work, to a point where choosing standout tracks is almost impossible.

If there’s anything to be drawn from Stones Grow Her Name, it’s that Sonata Arctica are going to keep evolving, and if you don’t like it…then you can just wait for their next album, I guess. This is totally respectable, and the risks they take on this album warrant a few listens, if for no reason other than finding out if you like banjo-metal or not. For the wide spectrum of elements on the album, though, I can’t help but feel that Stones Grow Her Name falls a tad short; it sets out to be an adventure in experimentation, but its inconsistent material falls somewhere in between the directionless disaster of Unia and the vast depth of The Days of Grays. Somewhat disappointing, but at the same time, I can’t tell you if you’ll dig it until you give it a serious listen.

HOUR OF PENANCE Sedition

Album · 2012 · Brutal Death Metal
Cover art 3.93 | 10 ratings
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Diogenes
Italy’s Hour of Penance have been on an absolute tear lately. They’ve been around since the late ‘90s, but their past two albums, The Vile Conception and Paradogma, have catapulted the band to the front of today’s technical/brutal/insane/whatever death metal scene, and it seems as though they just keep getting better. 2012’s Sedition was released after losing vocalist Francesco Paoli to fellow countrymen Fleshgod Apocalypse and a change in the guitar department, but the band’s direction couldn’t be clearer; extreme metal of the utmost quality, an unrelenting assault whose only objective is to kick your ass. Does it ever…and then some.

Upon first listen, Sedition is probably going to sound a lot like other albums that fall under the tech/brutal death metal category. There’s a guy growling/roaring incomprehensibly (spewing anti-Christian lyrics, as usual), really fast riffage, and more blast beats that you can shake a stick at. And sure, music of this caliber can be hard to get into; those riffs can be hard to pick apart at first, and drummer Simone Piras’ style is, well…a little much for all but the most numb of metalheads. It’s not an album that can be digested immediately-that, you can be sure of.

And yet, there’s something about this album. There’s something that keeps you drawn in after that first listen, something that tells you that Sedition isn’t just another random display of fret-dancing and blast-beating. It’s something that sets Hour of Penance apart from the rest of the repetitive and wanky modern death metal scene, and that will hold its listeners’ interest long enough to discover the hidden jewels that really make this album tick.

…It’s substance. You know, that undefinable “stuff” that makes an album great. It’s there on Sedition; you just don’t know it yet. As best as I can describe it, there are “levels” on this album that accomplish multiple things: the brutality on the surface to appeal to your average death metal fan (or generally angry person), the riffs (which are produced excellently) to get that fan hooked, and the technical prowess and craftsmanship beneath it all, to really make Sedition worthwhile. Hour of Penance just plain know what they’re doing, and know how to make a great death metal album, no matter what bells and whistles may be covering it up.

While there is absolutely zero filler on this album, I’ll choose “Decimate the Ancestry of the Only God” to make my point. Right off the bat, there’s that opening riff: it thunders forward like a freight train on a one-way path to hell, immediately accounting for extreme brutality over Piras’ frantic drumming. Hour of Penance could have stopped there and left the track to be one-dimensional, but no; just 30 seconds in, there’s a lead. It’s sinister, it’s confident, and it immediately changes the dynamics of the song from a straightforward headbanging-fest to something you can actually appreciate. Keep listening, and you’ll come across that same lead 3 minutes in; this time, it builds and builds, howling in agony, but over that riff, it couldn’t feel more right. Hour of Penance perfectly captures what it’s like to be both the torturer and the tortured, all in less than 5 minutes of some of the best death metal you’ll ever hear.

Of course, that’s only one track. Sedition has 9 of them (including a short intro; normally, I don’t like these, but the mood this one sets is impeccable), and they all accomplish more or less the same thing: encapsulate brutality and technicality in the perfect ratio, all while showing off the band’s artistry. This is, without a doubt, an album that will continue to grow on you; with Sedition, Hour of Penance have managed to transcend all of those silly subgenres, writing an album that fulfills everything death metal stands for, while standing as a mind-blowing piece of music in its own right. If you’re a fan of the extreme side of music, you’d be wise to pick this one up.

UNISONIC Unisonic

Album · 2012 · Traditional heavy metal
Cover art 3.28 | 6 ratings
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Diogenes
In what is surely one of the most anticipated releases of 2012, ex-Helloween pals Michael Kiske and Kai Hansen are together again in Unisonic! Despite the pumpkins remaining quite productive (and as good as they’ve ever been, if you ask me), this is what seemingly everyone has been clamoring for ever since Kiske reappeared in the world of metal a few years ago. Be careful what you wish for, though, as our old friend Mike is now bald. Yikes.

First, if you’re expecting this album to be anything like the Keeper series, Gamma Ray, or even modern Helloween, you’re going to be disappointed. It would be a far stretch to call Unisonic power metal; heck, I’d say that most of the songs on here are closer to a mix of modern hard rock/AOR than anything you’ve heard from Hansen. Of course, the opening title track is a cooker, with galloping riffs and a blistering guitar solo (as you might have heard already; good marketing, leaking the best song on the album before the whole thing is released), but mostly everything else on Unisonic is mid-paced, with Kiske hogging the spotlight while avoiding many of his signature high notes. Yep, no Marches of Time for you!

That’s not to say the music is bad, mind you. It’s tight and very well-produced (as you’d hope, considering this took at least an extra year to get out than was originally planned), and if you take a handful of the songs and put them on shuffle, chances are you’ll find them very enjoyable. “Never Change Me” is my personal favorite; a fun, upbeat number with the album’s catchiest chorus, it sums up the rest of the album in four minutes pretty nicely. “Never Too Late” follows in the same vein, even though the lyrics are a bit silly (but this should be nothing new) and “We Rise” would make a great album closer (sadly, this is not the case) with its solid riffage and climactic chorus.

This album’s lack of real standout songs becomes a problem, though, about halfway through. Why? It never gets going! There are simply too many mid-tempo, straightforward rockers that are devoid of any big hooks. Taken song by song, they’re all pretty good, but it’s hard to listen to this album all the way through because there’s too much…ah, I really hate to use the word “filler,” and I hate saying “all songs sound the same” even more, but both phrases would apply here. It’s like an album full of singles with a ballad tacked on at the end; once you’ve heard the whole thing, there’s really no reason to hear it all again, except for the few tracks that might have caught your eye (or ear). In other words, there’s nothing to be discovered beyond the first couple of listens. No depth. No Easter Eggs. No lasting impressions.

I have mixed feelings about Unisonic’s debut. Michael Kiske is one of my favorite vocalists, and his performance here does nothing to change that. I really, really like a few of the songs, and they’d be in regular rotation in my music library had I bought this album. It’s professional-sounding and not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it just seems like another side project featuring Kiske’s vocals, rather than the grand reunion of two of power metal’s founding fathers. I want to love this album like you wouldn’t believe, but I just can’t give it any better than 3 stars.

RUSH Vapor Trails

Album · 2002 · Hard Rock
Cover art 3.46 | 45 ratings
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Diogenes
Anyone who is familiar with Rush knows that the band was going through some tough shit in the late ‘90s. Drummer Neil Peart tragically lost both his daughter and his wife in the span of less than a year, effectively putting the band on a hiatus for quite some time. It’s because of this that Vapor Trails even getting released in the first place was surprising to people, since most had written the band off. But as fate would have it, the trio from Canada did indeed reunite to record their comeback effort in 2001-one that a decade later, people still aren’t too sure about.

First: the infamous production. Yes, it sucks. It’s a freakin’ mess. Alex Lifeson’s guitar is too distorted. Geddy Lee’s vocals are either too muffled or too up-front, depending on which vocal effects are used (more on this later). It’s too dense. It’s basically the opposite of the clean, professional production that Rush had used for the previous twenty years, and it’s probably the main reason why people tend to shun Vapor Trails. What’s curious about this is that the band actually spent a really long time writing and recording it; although the circumstances definitely warranted Rush easing back into the swing of things, it’s still a little strange to think that Vapor Trails came out the way it did.

However, I present to you a different perspective: the production on Vapor Trails can actually be seen as a blessing in disguise. GASP! Sure, when compared in a vacuum to virtually any Rush album before it, Vapor Trails sounds awful, but just listen to the songs. There is a discernible energy to this album that Counterparts and Test for Echo lack. Part of this is undoubtedly due to Vapor Trails being Rush’s “reunion” album (the time off giving them some really emotional tunes to write), but you can’t convince me that songs like “Earthshine” or “Ghost Rider” would sound nearly as good with the production that they used on their 90s material. Simply put, the songs on Vapor Trails have a bite, an edge, a punch about them, and that’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned.

When you think about it, though, this falls right in line with Rush constantly changing and evolving to fit the times. They have fathered both proto-metal and progressive rock, explored synths in a way that wasn’t totally cheesy, and successfully experimented with grunge and alternative rock sounds; it should come as no surprise that they would eventually release an album like Vapor Trails (let alone in their late 40s). It’s noticeably devoid of guitar solos, Lifeson instead opting for a dirtier guitar tone to fit the riff-oriented songs. The keyboards are totally gone. The traditional Rush melodies are still there, but in a way that’s both charged and yet unable to get out. It’s quite fitting, as you can almost feel the band’s emotional experiences spilling over into their music. Granted, melodically structured songs like “How it Is” tend to be thrown away by the fanbase because they sound buried, but there’s still plenty of beauty to be found here. And on the other side of things, songs like the opener “One Little Victory” and “Nocturne” are what the band tried to do on Counterparts: use a guitar-based sound to create energetic, aggressive tracks.

Really, what Vapor Trails suffers most from is filler. There aren’t any songs here that I’d call “bad,” but the album certainly could be a couple of tracks shorter; it’s getting the point in the band’s career where you have to wonder if another installment of “Fear” is really necessary. And the “thousand Geddy” approach to the vocals can get a little irritating, too. I know the guy’s getting up there in age, but I think the band waited one album too long to get him to sing in a lower register, instead of adding all sorts of vocal effects to the already muddy sound (although Snakes and Arrows had both). I mean, they’re not even consistent, and they’re the only thing on this album that sounds thrown together or done at the last minute.

In the end, what is usually regarded as the most dividing album in Rush’s career is simply another exploration in a new sound; this time, it’s heavier and more intimate, a perfect match to suit the most tumultuous time in the band’s history. It may not be a top album in their extensive discography, but there are plenty of hidden gems here, more than enough to give Vapor Trails a fair shake. Remember, production isn’t everything!

OVERKILL The Electric Age

Album · 2012 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 4.34 | 35 ratings
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Diogenes
If you’ve heard Overkill’s previous album, Ironbound, then many of the elements on their sixteenth full-length will probably seem familiar to you: a catchy, groove-tinged thrashfest with killer drumming, a clean production, and the unmistakable vocals of Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth. As such, comparisons to that album will be inevitable; after all, it did put the mighty ‘Kill back on the map for those who began to dismiss them. So, here are your comparisons: The Electric Age is beefier. It’s darker. It’s got even more aggression and even more attitude. Don’t think Overkill could get any better? Well, they just did.

Jumping right into things, The Electric Age proves that more than anything, Overkill are still extremely capable of writing great thrash songs. It does this by making three compelling arguments: “Come and Get It,” “Wish You Were Dead,” and “Drop the Hammer Down,” all of which are good enough to be placed among the band’s best, regardless of the era. The reason for this is that Overkill explore longer song structures on this album, giving Dave Linsk more room to work (which is a good thing). There’s plenty of space for face-melting riffs, and as those who are familiar with D.D. Verni know, he has an endless supply of them (leading to many more good things).

But the big reason why this progression in songwriting is key for The Electric Age is that it allows Overkill to turn up the speed on the rest of the songs without sounding too repetitive. They’ve never been a band to write many ballads, but The Electric Age goes balls-to-the-wall from the beginning to end, with the only real slow-down being in the intro of the final track, “Good Night”. It’s really the best thing an Overkill fan could have hoped for: the riffing of the old days combined with enough progression to keep the sound fresh, all without falling into a rut of any kind.

Honestly, I shouldn’t even have to discuss the lineup, because these guys have been doing the same killer job for a very, very long time. D.D. Verni and Ron Lipnicki remain one of the tightest rhythm sections in all of thrash, and Dave Linsk and Derek Tailor provide their usual killer guitar work. But Blitz? My god. He’s stepped up his game, BIG TIME. Sure, he still sounds like a pissed-off, rabid hyena (very comfortably, I might add), but regarding his vocal range, it seems like he’s found the fountain of youth; there are some screams on The Electric Age that would lead you to believe the man is in his mid 30s at the latest, and certainly not 52. It’s unbelievable that a guy who’s been doing this for so long can still sound this amazing, but tracks like “Electric Rattlesnake” and “Black Daze” prove that Blitz is still one, if not the best frontman in the business.

When I listened to Ironbound for the first time, I couldn’t help but reflect on Overkill’s legacy; if they somehow released another album as good, I thought, it might just force them to the top of the thrash elite, where they had deserved to be for so long. However, I absolutely did not think that album would end up being Ironbound’s immediate successor, and yet here we are with another modern thrash masterpiece. This time, it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back: Overkill is the greatest thrash metal band ever, with the Electric Age being the oh-so-delicious cherry on top of a legendary career. Buy this with pride, my friends.

VEIL OF MAYA Eclipse

Album · 2012 · Deathcore
Cover art 4.01 | 7 ratings
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Diogenes
Veil of Maya’s fourth studio album Eclipse is not something that I should like. I don’t want to like it, even. –Core music centered around breakdowns and br00tal vocals generally isn’t my thing (and don’t even get me started on the fanbase), so I went in fully expecting this album to suck eggs. Needless to say, I felt awfully stupid for making such assumptions beforehand, because there’s not a whole lot of Hot Topic crap here-and what do you know? It’s really freaking good!

Working with Michael Keene from The Faceless and now Misha Mansoor of Periphery has obviously had a profound effect on Veil of Maya, as influences from both bands (although I can’t say I’m a fan of either) are loud and clear on Eclipse. They’re integrated in the right manner, too-it can’t really be classified as a deathcore, djent, or technical death metal album, but rather a melting pot of all three subgenres, taking the best of all worlds while leaving out most of the clichés. This is what ultimately makes Eclipse a damn fine album: instead of following the “rules” set by bands before them (chugging, breakdowns randomly inserted into songs, -core-ish vocals), Veil of Maya stuffs a crapload of ideas into each track, many of which will probably throw off the listener that goes in expecting something generic. The ending to “Enter My Dreams,” for example, really surprised me; it’s both technical and melodic, and although it’s nowhere to be found anywhere else in the album, it fits pretty well.

Here’s the other thing: this album is SHORT. It’s not even a half hour long, and most of the songs are under 3 minutes. But honestly, I think that makes Eclipse a hell of a lot more listenable than most of what’s being put out in the technical death metal subgenre these days. The dudes in Veil of Maya have some incredible chops, but don’t take 80 minutes to prove it to you, which is actually really nice. Instead of feeling obligated to count how many time changes are in the music or getting bored with an abundance of technicality, it’s very possible to just rock out to Eclipse. Of course, the album’s short length may make you think that you’re not getting your money’s worth if you buy it, but I’d say the quality of music on it more than makes up for the quantity.

Despite being pretty short, Eclipse is balanced in that each track has something unique to offer. The atmosphere in “Punisher,” the mindblowing drumming in “Vicious Circles,” the guitar wizardry in “The Glass Slide”…even the instrumental title track, which comes off as an interlude of sorts, is worth a few listens. This is a testament to how far the band’s songwriting skills have come; to incorporate so many influences in such little time while making each song distinguishable is no easy task, but Veil of Maya make it sound relatively easy.

Aside from the album length making me think twice about dropping 12 bucks on it, I can’t really find much wrong with Eclipse. None of the songs are bad enough to skip (and they’re all so short that it wouldn’t matter anyway), and the musicianship is very tight. Veil of Maya have matured to a point where they can mix stuff that’s already been beaten to death with their own sound and make it sound fresh and energetic, no matter how tired and clichéd their influences might have become. Rest assured, this is NOT just another technical deathcore album!

FREEDOM CALL Land of the Crimson Dawn

Album · 2012 · Power Metal
Cover art 3.21 | 5 ratings
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Diogenes
Well, I have absolutely no idea what Freedom Call are trying to do anymore. Like, not even a clue. Everyone knows that they USED to play your typical over-the-top, cheeseball power metal, and were actually quite good at it. No, their music never had balls, but at least it was fun, catchy, and everything else that makes the European power metal scene so guiltily addicting. Unfortunately, their seventh studio album has none of that. In fact, it doesn’t really have much of anything. I’ll explain…

What makes this such a frustrating listen to me can be summed up pretty simply: there are fourteen tracks (which is too many, but that’s not the point), and yet only a handful can even be considered power metal; the rest are full of halfsy experimentation that’s more indicative of a band that’s out of ideas than one trying to move in a new direction. Now, this would be less of an issue if this wasn’t the third straight album in which Freedom Call were getting stuck somewhere between Euro power metal and radio pop rock, but it is. Just take a listen to “Rockin’ Radio” and tell me that the DJ voice and lyrics aren’t completely lame. “66 Warriors” sounds out of place at best; why are choirs even being used anymore? To cover up the lack of substance? I mean, they don’t even add anything. And, for a real treat, check out “Sun in the Dark”: a groove metal riff. Freedom Call, with a groove metal riff. That should seem like a good idea to no one, and not surprisingly, it doesn’t work at all.

Then, of course, there’s the one outlier: “Back Into the Land of Light,” with the triumphant horn intro, the sickeningly catchy guitar melody, and the anthemic chorus that makes you want to play it over and over again. You know, what you’d expect from a power metal album! But here, it sticks out like a sore thumb, as if to say, “Yeah, we still know how to write this type of music, and we might want to get back to it eventually”. To me, that screams lack of direction, as does the rest of this album. This brings us back to my main point: that Freedom Call have been stuck in this transitional phase for several years now, and while this track is good, it does nothing but muddy the album’s focus, having just as little place as the rest of the uninspired material. There are a few better tracks toward the end of the album, too, but by then it’s far too late to lift it back up from the depths of boredom-land.

Everything else about this album is fine. The production is fine (the vocals might be too loud, but Chris Bay is a good singer, so whatever). The art is fine. The song titles are not lifted from other bands (a la Circle of Life). It’s all set up for Freedom Call to make a heroic return to the world of power metal, but the band still doesn’t seem quite ready for that.

Bands change their sound. I get that. I encourage it, even; I would have been just as confused if Freedom Call just released Stairway to Fairyland for the seventh time over. But here’s the thing: the experimentation on Land of the Crimson Dawn isn’t even interesting. It doesn’t sound like the band is taking risks, or is even genuinely interested in trying something new. Rather, it seems like Freedom Call is simply going through the motions, releasing a new album because Steamhammer told them to without having the faintest idea of what to put on it. Mediocre at best, again.

IN FLAMES Come Clarity

Album · 2006 · Melodic Death Metal
Cover art 2.78 | 25 ratings
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Diogenes
In Flames post-Clayman. Yuck. Probably one of the most criticized metal bands ever for their drastic change in sound, the once-proud Swedish melodic death titans find themselves in the middle of their confusing transition with 2006’s Come Clarity, an album I had long avoided because of obvious reasons. Alas, as fate would have it, it recently landed in my lap for free (read: got it from the library), and what better way to listen to a band that many people hate than without paying for it? So, with much hesitancy, I begin my review!

If you haven’t been scared off by the negativity surrounding In Flames since 2002, you will be pleased to find that this album is at least somewhat listenable. No, it isn’t The Jester Race or Colony (and if people are still expecting them to return to that style, then I don’t know what to say), but Come Clarity also doesn’t feature anything as offensively bad as In Flames had been putting out for the previous few years. I know, that’s pretty sparse praise. It’s just that this album deserves something beyond “Modern In Flames? Sellout bastards!” I mean, it’s worth at least a couple of listens…that’s something, right?

The music on Come Clarity is best summed up by In Flames injecting a good amount of metalcore into their alternative metal sound, with diminished riffs, shorter songs, and what have you. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as guitarist Jesper Stromblad sounds a lot more at home playing riffs that actually have some substance, and is much more effective when he isn’t hidden by various keyboards and samples. There’s no doubt that a group with this much talent should be able to pull this off without a problem, and sure enough, the instrumental portion of Come Clarity is very tight. Daniel Svensson is solid on the drums as always, backed by a pretty good production that brings the drums and the guitars to the front. The overall energy is also brought back up on this album, as it sounds like In Flames actually gives a crap about what they’re playing again, instead of simply going through the motions while being stuck in pop-land. This means harder riffing and the signature melodic leads that the band became known for; although neither are really out in full force, it’s a good compromise considering that the song structures are too watered down to feature anything virtuosic. Like, “Pacing Death’s Trail” actually kinda sorta sounds like In Flames, with the sexy lead in the chorus and whatnot. Joy!

What brings Come Clarity back down to the level of most modern metalcore is (surprise!) another lousy batch of vocals from Anders Friden. The guy could never sing, and yet someone in the band had the terrific idea of having him sing more. Now, there are a lot of layered vocals and distortion added to keep things tolerable on this end, and some of the choruses (“Vacuum,” “Take This Life”) are actually quite catchy despite Friden’s obvious shortcomings as a singer (title track notwithstanding-it’s tough to cover up a full song’s worth of bad singing). The real problem lies within the absolutely deplorable lyrics:

“I cut myself to sleep

I close my eyes for a second

And curse my fragile soul

I scream to hide that I'm lonely

The echo calls my name”

AAAH! Kill it! Kill it with fire!

Needless to say, this along with the Jonathan Davis-esque whining is easily the worst part about Come Clarity, and what I will readily agree with this album’s naysayers on. What happened to this band’s BALLS, for crying out loud?! Oh, and “Dead End”. When the chick you bring in to guest sing on your metalcore album is better than your full-time vocalist, that’s a problem. Skip this track.

So, if you’re looking for the elusive “new In Flames that doesn’t totally suck,” then consider your search over! Listen to Come Clarity and enjoy the next couple of hours until you inevitably get bored. It’s certainly not an album to buy, although it looks like a masterpiece sandwiched in the middle of one of the most infamous declines in metal history. Conclusion: meh, with slightly positive overtones.

SCAR SYMMETRY Holographic Universe

Album · 2008 · Melodic Death Metal
Cover art 3.84 | 16 ratings
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Diogenes
Circa 2008, Scar Symmetry certainly had their fair share of up-and-coming weapons. Both jack-of-all-trades vocalist Christian Alvestam and lead guitarist Per Nilsson were getting quite a bit of hoopla for the band’s relatively quick rise to stardom, and rightfully so; the vocals and guitar work on Pitch Black Progress are what makes it pretty special as far as melodic death metal goes. So, why not take what made them pretty successful, and push it allll the way to the front to make them even MORE successful? A novel idea, my dear Swedes!

Sure enough, the vocals and lead guitar on 2008’s Holographic Universe are more prevalent than ever before: Alvestam’s ultra-clean vocals having all sorts of layers and freakish range about them and Nilsson’s frantic leads quickly garnering him several spots on unknown Youtube guitar channels (and if that isn’t fame, I don’t know what is!). Also thrown into the mix are various futuristic keyboard effects; while the band had dabbled in this area before, they hadn’t been used to this extent, working with the guitar to create spacey atmospheres amongst the squeaky clean production. Put all of this together into some Soilworky song structures, add a dose of science fiction-based lyrics, bake in the oven for 30 minutes, and out comes the album of the year, guaranteed!

…If only it were that simple. Yes, Scar Symmetry seemingly struck gold with their 3rd album, straying from their roots just far enough to carve a niche for themselves and making Nuclear Blast damn proud for milking the Gothenburg cow one last time. There isn’t much not to like here; Holographic Universe is catchy, it’s tight, it’s what was cool at the time, so what could possibly be making it fall short of its predecessor? Let’s investigate.

First, the songs. They’re all pretty good; “Morphogenesis” is your traditional strong opener with a sing-a-long chorus, “Quantumleaper” and “The Missing Coordinates” show how freakishly talented of a singer Alvestam is, and “Prism and Gate” just kicks all kinds of ass . The title track is 9 minutes, and makes good use of every one of them. If there was one knock on previous Scar Symmetry works, it was that there was too much filler (I don’t buy this, but meh); this is certainly not the case here. Put on any track of this clean and technical mix of death and power metal, and you’re bound to be impressed.

The issue is this: it gets stale. Fast. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why I can’t listen to this album all the way through. There are simply too many tracks; I could easily do without “The Three-Dimensional Shadow” because by that point, the growled verse/sung chorus formula just doesn’t sound interesting anymore. The polished sound might be appealing at first, and you could easily put Holographic Universe on shuffle and enjoy the hell out of it for 30 minutes or so. But after that, it just loses its luster, droning on and on without sustaining the impact it initially had. While Pitch Black Progress is even longer, it has that dirty edge that can hold the attention of a death metal fan much longer than something that’s clearly overproduced.

The ideas are good. The music is very good. The originality is there. There is no reason why Holographic Universe shouldn’t be Scar Symmetry’s best album, and yet…it isn’t. While I was as enthralled as the rest when I first heard it, the a)lack of heaviness and b)eventual repetitiveness left me wondering what happened to that album that I once couldn’t get enough of. If you’re new to Scar Symmetry, this is still a great place to start (if not the best) for its overall accessibility, but I can’t help but feel that it doesn’t show this talented group of musicians at their best.

NEUROMIST Move Of Thought

Album · 2010 · Technical Death Metal
Cover art 3.71 | 9 ratings
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Diogenes
A progressive death metal band from…Moldova? I don’t even know where the hell that is. Fortunately, Neuromist figure that their country probably isn’t on most metalheads’ radar, so they’ve released their full-length debut Move of Thought for free on their website. Of course, my cheap ass can’t turn down free stuff no matter where it comes from, so this album was worth a few listens to me based on that alone. And after listening to it…wow. Me likey Moldova.

First, you’re going to want to throw out all of your preconceived notions about free (and legal!) downloads before listening to Move of Thought. No, it doesn’t sound like it was recorded with a cellphone; it’s mixed properly, the sound isn’t fuzzy, etc. The level of musicianship is high, as usual for bands of this genre. It actually sounds like a professional band and not some garage act full of teenagers. You get the point!

Anyway, Move of Thought is a very interesting release in that it has only 7 tracks, but each of them are quite distinguishable from one another, given enough listens. This isn’t a case of the album not having “flow,” either; listening to it all the way through is no problem. Believe it or not, there aren’t many progressive death metal albums that I can say that about, so Neuromist definitely scores some points here.

Songwriting is an area in which Neuromist clearly excels. It takes a few listens to fully understand this, sort of a “why do I like this so much?” thing, but these guys really have a great feel for writing technical metal that’s not a total wankfest. This being progressive death metal, there are time changes flying everywhere, but Neuromist make the transitions between them seem so smooth, so natural, where you can just keep on enjoying the music and not have to stop to digest everything that’s being thrown at you. Aiding in this are drums that are not all over the place, allowing the bass to be turned up nice and LOUD, and, what’s that? Riffs! Plenty of great death metal riffs. While the guitar tone is pretty clean, there are moments on Move of Thought that assure you Neuromist know when to let loose and riff away, despite their wide range of progressive influences. Finally, the jazzy sections are melodic enough to be enjoyable and maybe even a bit fun, without disrupting the flow of the metal too much. Look to about the 1:15 mark of “Inner Voids”-see? Isn’t that a fun little doodle?

If there’s one complaint I have, it’s that the vocals on Move of Thought are very inconsistent. I wouldn’t say that Vladimir Ghilien is a bad vocalist, but it seems like he’s trying to do too much on this album; a Patrick Loisel (Augury) impression, if you will. To me, this album would seem a lot more cohesive if Ghilien stuck to the more guttural stuff instead of trying so many different styles.

Neuromist aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel here; Cynic and Atheist comparisons are inevitable when listening to Move of Thought. But hell, originality isn’t a big deal to me when a band can execute their ideas this well and then release it for free. So while you’re waiting for Pestilence to get their act together and Necrophagist to do SOMETHING, give Neuromist a shot.

MASTODON The Hunter

Album · 2011 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.03 | 58 ratings
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Diogenes
After finishing up their little four-album exploration of the elements, Mastodon returns with their latest offering The Hunter. Unlike their other efforts, The Hunter features artwork that is not badass in any way, shape or form (although you can purchase a mask of it, if you so desire), so that’s a bit of a letdown, but let’s ignore aesthetics for a second and get into what might be one of the most polarizing releases of the year.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before-this is different than previous Mastodon albums. And of course you’ve heard that before, because Mastodon never makes the same album twice…except this time, they went in reverse. Whereas Crack the Skye saw the band explore progression so far away from their roots they might as well have been on Mars, The Hunter takes a major step backward both in terms of technicality and breaking new ground. The songs are more structured for the most part; no more 13-minute epics for you! In their place are fairly standard, verse-chorus tracks that like to jump right into things, rather than build up and set an atmosphere.

For lots of other bands, this would have been a problem. Crack the Skye is, in my opinion, one of the pinnacles of American metal progression; an effort that you wouldn’t have believed came from the same boys that wrote “March of the Fire Ants” had the band name been covered up or something. So when I heard the samples of stuff from The Hunter, I was genuinely concerned. Had Mastodon run out of gas? Did they dig themselves a hole too deep, leaving no options other than backing up the truck in hopes of saving their identity?

No worries. This is still Mastodon, you can be assured of that. Brann Dailor’s frantic drumming is still top-notch and instantly recognizable, as are the unorthodox vocal deliveries of guitarist Brent Hinds and bassist Troy Sanders. While Dailor does pull some punches to compensate for the stripped-down sound, it doesn’t make for any worse of a performance, and his short time in the vocal spotlight on “Dry Bone Valley” and “Creature Lives” is excellent as usual. The sludgy riffage is there in spades, making tracks like “Curl of the Burl” seem heavier than the radio-friendly singles that they really are. The lyrical content is…well, it’s weird (sex in outer space, anyone?), but it’s probably time to stop expecting anything different in that regard. So yes, if you’re scared that this change in style is an identity-sacrificing move, don’t be; if you’ve liked anything this band has done before, chances are you’ll like this too.

Word on the street is, The Hunter is hard to get into. While a couple of songs are kinda OH NOES SYNTHESIZERS?!?!?!?, this album is very accessible, so I don’t buy into that line of thinking. Brent and Troy couldn’t have picked a better time to learn how to sing (never thought they were all that great before now), because some of the vocal lines here are as catchy as your standard European power metal album, sans choirs and whatnot. Try “All the Heavy Lifting” or “Octopus Has No Friends” for some really great vocal performances. Most of the tracks don’t go past 4 minutes, so they’re not broken into parts, movements, or anything that would scare off someone with a short attention span. For the fans of the band’s early days, this is good news, although I’m still missing tracks like “The Czar”…but that wouldn’t fit here.

That being said, there are a few elements in here that will throw you off upon first listen, although I don’t think they’re prevalent enough to warrant a negative opinion. As catchy as “Blasteroid” is, it’s basically a pop rock song with harsh vocals in the chorus, with little substance outside of that. The first minute of “Creature Lives” sounds like a modern space ambient project or Pink Floyd cover band, there are so many synths floating around-and the rest of the song is equally as strange, unfurling into a ballad with Brann’s vocals and a simple guitar lick portraying sadness and angst. Whether this stuff works is up for debate; put me in the camp of being able to do without it. Other than these two tracks, however, there really isn’t anything on The Hunter that’s too alienating.

At the end of the day, it’s another change in direction yielding another successful album by the guys from Atlanta. While I still believe that the Crack the Skye approach was Mastodon’s best route to greatness, I can’t fault them for The Hunter; truly talented is a band that can explore different styles of their genre, without a drop in quality or abandoning what got them there in the first place. The Hunter doesn’t score as well as it might have by virtue of not having a high enough ceiling, but it’s nonetheless another notch in the pole for one of America’s few great modern metal bands. Definitely worth a shot.

SEPULTURA A-Lex

Album · 2009 · Groove Metal
Cover art 3.67 | 21 ratings
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Diogenes
Man, was I excited about this one. There was a bunch of talk in early 2009 among Sepultura fans that the band’s upcoming album would be a long-awaited return to form, especially after their previous effort Dante XXI was so well-received. I bought into it after hearing the samples of “The Treatment” and “We’ve Lost You,” sensing that a Chaos A.D.-style album was in the works. Two-plus years later, I can say that SPV did a damn good job of marketing, because there aren’t many more highlights than those two songs on the disappointing A-Lex.

A-Lex is a concept album based on the famous novel “A Clockwork Orange”. This is a really cool idea in theory, since anyone who’s read the book and/or seen the movie adaptation knows that A Clockwork Orange kicks a whole bunch of ass. Unfortunately, the most important part of any thrash album was seemingly lost in this whole concept: the riffs! Yes, there are some fast songs here, namely “Moloko Mesto,” “Forceful Behavior,” and the aforementioned “The Treatment,” but those serve only as a mask to some very average riffing; other tracks reveal that this is basically the same guitar work that Andreas Kisser has been criticized for throwing out there ever since Max Cavalera’s departure from the band. The same guitar tone, the same hardcore influence, the same plodding style. It really stinks that the band never hired an additional guitar player, because the one-guitar approach brings A-Lex down. On past Derrick Green releases, this was acceptable since it fit what the band was trying to do (or, if you want, not trying to do), but here the intricate concept is completely nullified by the mediocre guitars. It’s like a domino effect gone haywire: the concept means that there are more songs (some of which don’t even hit 2 minutes), which means that the riffs that Kisser did come up with are more spread out, and that ultimately leads to an album that’s half filler despite supposedly needing those songs for the concept!

That being said, A-Lex is saved somewhat by the two factors that should have otherwise been afterthoughts. Derrick Green’s vocals have never sounded better, his rough barking excellent as usual while mixing in some surprisingly effective cleans. Behind the drumkit, newcomer Jean Dolabella is no Igor Cavalera, but his energetic playing carries tracks such as “Sadistic Values,” showing that he’s a worthy replacement to one of thrash metal’s greatest drummers. Beyond that, Paulo Jr. is usually solid when you can hear him, offering some fun little bass doodles throughout the album. None of this is really enough to overcome the glaring blandness of the guitars, however.

Don’t get me wrong; A-Lex isn’t terrible. It simply suffers from having too much of too little. Many of the negatives can be ignored if the album is played all the way through at once (it is a concept album, after all), but that shouldn’t be necessary. There’s just too much filler. This would have been right up there with Against and Roorback had the band either a) ditched the concept or b) put more time into filling out the music for it. If you’re looking for a place to start with the unfortunately overlooked latter half of Sepultura’s discography, this isn’t it.

IN FLAMES Clayman

Album · 2000 · Melodic Death Metal
Cover art 3.94 | 26 ratings
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Diogenes
When you talk about In Flames, people are pretty divided. Any band that makes such a sudden and drastic change in sound (to one extremely popular at the time…just sayin’) will undoubtedly have a line drawn in its discography as a point where the band stopped banging heads and started causing seizures. For our old friends In Flames, that album is Clayman: the last hurrah of their famous Gothenburg style of melodic death metal, and the final set of good tunes the band put out.

Clayman represents a few points for In Flames other than the obvious “last good one”. Namely, it is the album where the band reached its peak in both songwriting and overall energy. While previous records such as Colony and The Jester Race may get more overall fanfare just because, I will take it to my grave that this is the most fun In Flames album to listen to. The reason for this is twofold: the guitar harmonies of Jesper Stromblad and Bjorn Gelotte are nothing short of spectacular, and they’re backed by a powerful production that makes them all the more memorable. “Swim” is the most upfront example of this, boasting an insanely catchy chorus riff, but the band proves apt with slower songs as well, with “Only For the Weak” being equally as inspiring even while sacrificing some speed. And the thing about the songs on here is, they get you PUMPED. I’m serious. “…As the Future Repeats Today,” “Clayman,” and “Swim” are three of my favorite tracks from any genre, solely because they’re executed with a combination of energy and confidence that makes me want to go out there and just start punching random people on the streets for no reason. Really!

Now, this is all dandy (until my inevitable arrest), as Clayman succeeds where many previous In Flames albums just don’t do it for me, but it still falls victim to the same thing that those others do: ANDERS FRIDEN. He’s just not a very good vocalist, but I’m not even talking about his screaming; it’s actually quite competent, if not a little heavy on the accent. No, what grinds my gears is the AWFUL, AWFUL attempts at clean vocals on this album. It’s not even singing, really, or at least what’s featured on the last couple of In Flames albums. It’s this… weird sort of mumbling that he does in several verses. As silly as it may sound, the Jonathan Davis comparisons are not overexaggerated in this case, because that’s exactly what Friden sounds like. That may work for Korn, but this is IN FLAMES, man! It’s apparent right away with “Bullet Ride”: the fist-pumping intro riff repeats a couple of times, getting you ready for a total ass-kicking, and then there it is, mumbling over a clean guitar lick. I don’t know if it’s supposed to be a build-up sort of thing or what, but it takes away a solid chunk from the listening experience, especially because it’s so abundant. This is the main reason why this album isn’t getting at least 4 stars.

As my unfortunately pessimistic self seems to have rambled on about one negative just as long as the many positives, you may think Clayman is a tad schizophrenic. Not so! This is still a great album, if not a bit marred by stupid vocal techniques. It’s definitely worth a few spins, as it’s very accessible even for those who aren’t huge fans of the band, like myself. In Flames We Trust(ed)!

INSOMNIUM One For Sorrow

Album · 2011 · Melodic Death Metal
Cover art 3.92 | 12 ratings
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Diogenes
The secret is out! Insomnium is one of the best melodic death metal bands of today-no, of all time-and it’s high time they started getting the recognition that they deserved all along. Hopefully joining Century Media (who made a damn fine decision in this signing, for once) will help get that ball rolling sometime soon, but in the meantime, there’s a new album to be heard. And oh, what an album it is…

If you’re new to Insomnium, here’s a little bit of what to expect: extremely melodic guitar work, guttural vocals, amazing lyrics, and hard-hitting drums, all tied together underneath a crushing, doomy atmosphere. While most of their works have followed that same formula, this is anything but repetitive; truly unique is a band that can have their albums listened to in a vacuum, knowing both what you’re going to hear and discovering something new to enjoy each time. This time around, it’s a layer of keyboards to add to the already thick sound, but they’re actually used properly, going straight into the final product rather than meddling around in territory owned by the guitars. Prominent synth leads are very rare. So, no Soilworking about on this album.

Being an avid fan of post-rock, I really appreciate it when guitars, you know, actually DO something, and do it for a reason. This is where One for Sorrow scores, and scores in bunches: the melodies here are beyond contagious, sticking in your head from the very first listen. It’s not like they’re simply slapped in there to make the music appealing, either; these melodies are genuine, telling all sorts of stories as they gracefully weave throughout the arrangements. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that Ville Friman and Ville Vanni make their instruments “talk,” although it’s cliché. Just listen to the last couple of minutes of “Song of the Blackest Bird” and tell me you don’t really feel each of those notes. Beautiful, simply put.

The other area in which Insomnium has always excelled is the vocal department, and things are no different this time around. Niilo Sevanen has a very distinctive growl, being very deep and broad while retaining emotion that only elite vocalists (Mikael Stanne comes to mind) can convey. Once again, he’s not growling just for kicks; he’s growling because it accents everything else perfectly. From the ending of “Lay the Ghost to Rest”:

“I'm in the thousand winds that blow In the circling flight of blackbird In the stars that shine at night In the last dying rays of light Be gone sorrow, leave your dead behind Stay away grief, lay the ghosts to rest”

Absolutely dripping with sorrow (great fit with the album title, too). While clean vocals are also employed on this album, they aren’t used in a way that recalls poppy song structures or “singing because we can”. The cleans aren’t great, especially in comparison to the growling, but what they bring to the overall feeling is certainly valued.

The final pieces to this masterful puzzle are the moments when Insomnium takes it down a few notches. The mellow passages scattered throughout are wonderfully done, giving the music that extra kick of power, but not nearly enough to a point where they get boring or tedious. Better yet, the clean guitar acts almost as a “second voice” for the despair-filled lyrics, adding a whole new dimension to the stories within the songs. Case in point, the instrumental: normally I hate these things, especially in the middle of an album where they kill momentum, but “Decoherence” works in conjunction with the mood almost flawlessly, building upon the journey so far rather than impeding it.

Songs? I don’t know. There really isn’t any filler on this album. While I wish that “Weather the Storm” (featuring the aforementioned Stanne) was included on the normal edition, it doesn’t make for a good closer, unlike the excellent title track. My favorite would have to be “Only One Who Waits,” which showcases pretty much everything I’ve outlined: infectious melodies, a killer voice spitting killer lyrics, and an acoustic passage that’s beyond tasteful. Other than that, it might be a good idea just to put this thing on shuffle and enjoy the hell out of it.

I don’t like giving out 5 star ratings. I like giving out 5 star ratings to newly released albums even less. But here, I feel that no less would be justified. One for Sorrow has very, very little that is actually wrong with it, and should be at the top of every metal fan’s wish list this coming holiday season. A must-have, certainly!

SONATA ARCTICA Ecliptica

Album · 1999 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.17 | 38 ratings
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Diogenes
Oh, how I wish to be a child again. Hours on end spent doing nothing but running around and enjoying myself, playing baseball and building Legos without a care in the world. No worries! No stress! No social expectations either, save for maybe not hitting girls. They were days without anxiety and conformity, when I could do whatever the hell my mommy would let me and not give a crap about what anyone said; that’s what made childhood so awesome. And as the child of Sonata Arctica’s discography, Ecliptica fits the frame of our younger days to a T: relentless enthusiasm, doing only what we know and what we enjoy without any concern over what would happen in the future. Wasn’t it grand?

Technically speaking, Ecliptica has quite a few flaws that might turn off fans of more advanced or aggressive metal subgenres; this, I cannot deny. The guitar work from Jani Liimatainen is mostly just background noise for the keyboard melodies flowering uncontrollably all over the place, without many real riffs. Tony Kakko sings cheesy lyrics at an insanely high level, nailing all sorts of high notes in a way that you can’t understand what the hell he’s saying. The Stratovarius double bass patterns are out in full force, except Tommy Portimo isn’t nearly as skilled as Jorg Michael, and as such the drumming will inevitably get repetitive.

But guess what?! None of that matters. None of it. None of it matters because a) this album is still amazing and b) some of those flaws actually contribute to what makes it so great. Allow me to explain: while it’s true that Ecliptica is neither technically proficient nor original by any stretch of the imagination, the music on it is played with so much FEEL, so much CHARACTER that it’s totally negligible. Every little detail, from the over-the-top nature and cheesiness to the immature yet seemingly endless energy, contributes to the album’s charm. Take the opener “Blank File”: the double bass, the sing-along chorus (if you can even go that high), the woah-oh-oh section, the keyboard-guitar duel…all mixed together and executed in a way that will make you coming back for more, no matter how much you may want to hate it. Those types of moments are everywhere in this album: the addicting harpsichord melodies in “UnOpened,” the anthemic chorus of “Kingdom for a Heart,” the chanting backing vocals in “FullMoon”. Ecliptica is chock full of hooks that make it akin to a book that you just can’t put down, no matter how late at night it is or what television show you might be missing. That’s the mark of a really good album, right there. It’s nearly impossible to listen to just one song; I’ll go through “8th Commandment” and end up wasting a half hour doing nothing but grinning to myself as the rest of the album plays out.

…Well, not EXACTLY that, but you get the idea! This album is fun, plain and simple.

A little side note (but important!): you might have heard, or gotten the impression, that Sonata Arctica do not write good ballads. This is mostly true, and must be accepted as a fact of life, just as the Chicago Cubs will never win a championship and there will always be some sort of dishonesty and corruption in governmental systems. “Letter to Dana” can best be described in two words: SKIP and LAME. If you listen to it, you are at serious risk of barfing because of how cheesy it is. You don’t want that, do you?

But other than that, we’re good. When I say that I love Ecliptica, I don’t say that because I like the playing, or the vocals, or anything specific like that. I love this album because it is among my favorites to listen to. That’s all that matters, isn’t it? It’s energetic, it’s infectious, and it’s timeless as far as I’m concerned: the everlasting memory of a young band believing every single sappy note that they’re playing, and thus creating and album that’s both lively and pure. Unfortunately, that’s not something that you see a lot of, which makes Ecliptica all the more treasured. Yes, Sonata Arctica have made great strides lately, showing maturity in both songwriting and musicianship…but I feel that they will never come close to this, their childhood, ever again.

Growing up sucks.

VOYAGER The Meaning of I

Album · 2011 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.29 | 7 ratings
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Diogenes
Voyager are a band I’ve heard a lot of, but nothing from. All I knew before listening to this was they’ve played at ProgPower a couple of times, have a pretty cool brand of melodic/symphonic/progressive/whatever metal going, and all of their albums have a capital V in their titles somewhere. Obviously, that’s not a good load of background knowledge to carry with you into battle, so I began my listen of Voyager’s new album The Meaning of I with a fairly clean slate. To my disdain, not much of the above was true, at least initially. Still no V’s in the title…

First, let me get out of the way my number one gripe: the guitars don’t do a heck of a lot on this album. Yes, there’s an obligatory solo here and a melodic lead there, but there’s really nothing to speak of in the riffs department. There were maybe two riffs that stood out to me: one in the title track, and one in “Are You Shaded?” Other than that, it’s just this stupid one-string, stop-go stuff.

Needless to say, this made me quite suspicious. It sounded like someone had hooked me up with a demo, or a channel was missing, or some other technical issue. There was no way the sound could be this…thin! And slowly, after each track of repetitive half-riffs and monotonous vocals, the real culprit made itself more and more known: THE MIX! Of course! There wasn’t something missing; that something (the keyboards) was just really, really, really far back in the mix. Everything sounds fine, it’s just mixed really poorly. Folks, this is what happens when you have a keyboard- and vocal-centric sound and it isn’t mixed right! It simply doesn’t translate like it should, and everything that isn’t very interesting will get exposed as such.

With this little annoyance accounted for, it’s a little easier to enjoy The Meaning of I. Although a lot of the songs take forever to build up, there are some pretty enjoyable climaxes (heh) on this album, namely on the tracks “She Takes Me (Into the Morning Light)” and “Seize the Day”. The problem is, the music is kinda boring until you get to those points. Again, lack of serious riffing is an issue, as are the vocals; they’re technically pretty good, but they rarely stray out of the middle range, and of course being backed by basically nothing during the verses can only make a vocalist sound worse. To me, the only song that’s really consistent all the way through is the upbeat “Iron Dream,” ironically dedicated to the late Peter Steele (R.I.P.). Other than that, many of the tracks are wishy-washy, but that may depend on your tolerance of this type of metal. I don’t want to call it “soft,” it’s just…easy-listening, maybe? That would be 110% okay, if the album was able to hold my attention for more than 4 or 5 tracks at a time.

I’m not saying that The Meaning of I isn’t an enjoyable album, because I can certainly see how this would appeal to you prog/power peeps out there. There just isn’t enough substance on it to make a lasting impression. Good musicianship and smooth compositions don’t go quite far enough to overcome a bad production job and a lack of any real attitude or “stuff,” and as such The Meaning of I isn’t much more than a middling release.



ANUBIS GATE Anubis Gate

Album · 2011 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.14 | 34 ratings
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Diogenes
Just when Danish prog/power masters Anubis Gate seemed to be hitting their stride, releasing the critically acclaimed The Detached in 2009, vocalist Jacob Hansen stepped down from his duties to focus solely on his career as a producer. This was some pretty bad news to a lot of people, as Hansen’s piercing vocal delivery made The Detached what it was (i.e. really, really good), and yet there was never any concern about the band’s future. Why? Look no further than their new self-titled release, my friends. Great musicianship tends to find ways to survive the rough times (sometimes getting even stronger in the process), and the Danes show us how it’s done once again.

Stylistically speaking, this album sees Anubis Gate leaning more towards the power than the progressive-to call this “progressive power metal” would still technically be correct, but this time it would refer to power metal that’s more advanced, rather than a mix of the two genres. This whole shtick is inconsequential (as are most genre classifications), since this album kicks a whole lot of ass, but it’s still worth noting. I’d say the two outliers in this area would be “World in a Dome” and the majestic album closer “Circumstanced”; both tracks are longer, giving the band more room to work and show off a little more flair. Apart from those, the album is pretty straight-forward, albeit technically proficient as usual. You might be able to call this US power metal on musical steroids (“Telltale Eyes” and “Desiderio Omnibus” are prime examples of this), but the masterful electronic sampling and melodic hooks running rampant remind you that it’s still the best prog/power metal band in Denmark, not some second-rate Iced Earth knockoff. Yep, that’s a relief!

Vocally, bassist Henrik Fevre takes over the position he held part-time during and before the Hansen days. Fevre doesn’t hit the abundance of high notes that were all over the place on the previous two Anubis Gate releases, but rest assured that his voice is still perfectly suited for this type of music-perhaps even more so than Hansen’s. Like the rest of the band, Fevre’s performance on Anubis Gate has an air of both confidence and professionalism about it; nothing over-the-top, but that’s not needed anyway. “Facing Dawn,” in particular, proves that you don’t need any choirs or loads of layered vocals to write a strong chorus, something that many bands seem to have forgotten.

With Hansen still on board as a producer, Anubis Gate sounds equally as wonderful as the rest of the band’s catalogue. Those of you familiar with his production style know what to expect: thick guitars, an excellent snare sound, and an extremely rich aura that surrounds you and just forces every single bit of the music right into your brain. Absolutely flawless engineering, but anything less would not do this album justice whatsoever.

To go with their small change in approach, Anubis Gate made this album more song-based than their last few, which I must say was a wise decision. You won’t find any grand arrangements here; instead, you’ll get a bunch of tracks that really have no big weaknesses. Each one is great in their own right: from the uplifting power of “Golden Days” to the killer guitar work in the opener “Hold Back Tomorrow,” and so on. Consequently, the album is pretty easy to get into (although Anubis Gate have always been accessible for a prog band), although it might not have the astronomic ceiling that The Detached does, which costs it a few points in the end. Still, that should be far, far, down on your list of worries-or not even on it at all.

Writing solid, professional metal is one thing. Doing it on a consistent basis, while enduring multiple vocalist changes and reinventing the overall sound each time, is a completely different story. Anubis Gate may be one of Scandinavia’s best-kept secrets, but at this rate, they’re going to hit it big sooner rather than later…at least, one can hope so, because metal this good deserves to be noticed.

TESTAMENT Low

Album · 1994 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 4.05 | 24 ratings
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Diogenes
The fact that Testament got a late start in the Bay Area thrash scene is pretty unfortunate for a bunch of reasons. For one, they never really got included in the “Big Four” stuff (that holds way more significance than it should, but that’s another rant), constantly getting lumped into the second tier of thrash veterans, even while Metallica was going through its mullet stages and Slayer was basically irrelevant. Consequently, their magnum opus got released during a bad time period, and virtually no one knew about it, which kinda sucks considering Low is both Testament’s best and most diverse record to this point. Now, that’s not saying much, since they never released anything that will totally knock your socks off, but I digress…

Anywho, Low is the album where Testament finally found their own sound, i.e. mid-paced thrash metal that actually sounds nothing like their previous 80’s worship. In a sense, it takes the groove of The Ritual and mixes it with the future death metal aspects of Demonic in a way that isn’t totally out of their element, while having a certain energy about it that neither of those albums had. That’s probably because drummer John Tempesta’s work behind the kit is much tighter than anything Testament had previously thrown out there, and James Murphy fits the band as a lead guitarist better than Alex Skolnick ever did (all due respect). While not as technically sound as Skolnick, Murphy’s previous experience in Death and Obituary proves him to be the more effective axeman for this type of sound.

As for the rest of the guys in the band, it’s business as usual: Chuck Billy gives a stellar performance on vocals, absolutely owning the heavier songs like Dog Faced Gods with his newfound death growling (appropriately placed, mind you), while still using the pipes that makes him one of the most distinguishable singers in all of thrash. Eric Peterson and Greg Christian round out the Testament core trio, being a solid rhythm section while showing great maturity in their songwriting abilities. They ensure that not every song sounds the same, throwing in structure changes or strangely cool instrumental stuff like Urotsukidoji (named after a manga that’s, erm…well, just look it up). Basically, this is one thrash metal album that doesn’t get stale halfway through.

I must stress once again that a lot of the music here, while clearly influenced by the usual suspects, isn’t thrash that’s a gazillion miles per hour every single bar; Testament were not safe from the mass groove infection of the 90s (although they pull it off quite nicely here), and as such, there’s a lot of it in Low. The difference is that they make this groove, um, groovy instead of just a nuisance. The downside to this is that there aren’t many riffs, which is a definite downer, although the riffs that are there work pretty well.

With this album, Testament FINALLY got a good production job, which is what gives Low the final edge over their previous efforts. Pretty much every Testament album before this one had that thin guitar tone that just bugs the hell out of me, but here that isn’t an issue at all. Both Peterson and Murphy are clearly audible and sound as brutal as they’re meant to, while Tempesta (what a great name for a drummer!) comes through loud and clear on every piece of his setup. If you don’t believe that good production value can make a difference, compare Low to say, Souls of Black and tell me that this doesn’t sound 300% better. Seriously!

Despite all of this, Low should not be Testament’s best album. It’s really, really solid, but it lacks that final “wow” factor and memorability that makes an album a masterpiece. Unfortunately, Testament threw this style away shortly after Low was recorded (opting to masquerade as a death metal band instead), so we never got to see just how far this lineup could have gone. None of this means that Low should be as overlooked as it is, though; it stands alone as the only Testament album that I can listen to all the way through without hearing anything glaringly wrong with it. That’s about as much as I can say for a good album by a good band, neither of which reached the status that they should have.

DREAM THEATER Octavarium

Album · 2005 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.62 | 117 ratings
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Diogenes
I’m probably (definitely, more like it) in the minority here, but I don’t think Dream Theater’s early 2000s efforts are very good. It’s undeniable that Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and Train of Thought are both mind-blowingly technical and progressive, but the seemingly endless wanking gets tiresome. And while we’re on that subject…if there’s one thing more boring than listening to a bunch of world-class musicians randomly stuff as many notes as possible into 70 minutes, it’s listening to a bunch of world-class musicians play watered-down radio rock void of their trademark progression for 70 minutes. That would be Octavarium.

The main problem with Dream Theater’s eighth studio full-length is that it has an amazing title track with a concept that needs seven other songs in order to exist. It’s not a concept album as a whole; we’re not talking Scenes from a Memory 2 (3, if you want to be anal about it) here. The album has seven tracks that are unrelated to each other, with the eighth and final one wrapping it all together as if to say, “This album is secretly mega-progressive and you didn’t even realize it! How you like them NUGGETS?!” It’s a neat idea in theory, but the band puts all of its eggs in one basket, playing so far below their talent level most of the way that you’d think it’s an entirely different group.

I’d like to address the good part(s) first, but that wouldn’t make much sense from a chronological viewpoint, so…the first seven songs on Octavarium range from being mediocre and good for a couple of listens to just plain bad and skip-worthy. The Root of all Evil is okay; it’s certainly heavy, probably the heaviest song on the album, but the whole Portnoy-AA saga has gotten a little stale by this point. These Walls is decent too, but nothing spectacular. After that, the album falls apart: The Answer Lies Within is the lamest Dream Theater ballad ever recorded, which is saying something considering their ballads aren’t usually good anyway. Panic Attack and Never Enough are both pseudo-heavy, starting off well but having absolutely nothing memorable about them. I Walk Beside You is not worth listening to (unless you want to hear Dream Theater attempt a U2 cover-What the hell?), and you deserve a cookie if you can get through Sacrificed Song without falling asleep. Bluntly, the first “phase” of Octavarium is riddled with pop influences, making for an underwhelming listen of an underachieving band.

Now, for the title track. This is where Dream Theater wakes up and writes one damn good song. It’s got all of the stuff you would expect-it’s broken up into movements (one of them involving each of the concepts of the other tracks), it’s really freaking long, it’s got a bunch of instrumental work (bearable since you haven’t been sitting through it for most of the album already), and it has the professional feel that you want to hear from these guys. It’s actually an “epic” (not just a long song considered to be such), and would go down as one of the best tracks Dream Theater ever wrote. Finally, the band gets its crap together and tries…and then the album’s over.

Pretending that the skip button doesn’t exist, the $34,729 question is: can YOU-yes, you-sit through 50 minutes of mediocrity to get to 24 minutes of pure prog excellence? And if you can, is it even worth it? You might as well just buy the title track on Amazon or iTunes and save yourself the hassle. Obviously, this is the best Dream Theater album for newbies or people who generally don’t like the band, since it’s so basic compared to everything else they do, but it’s also among their least fulfilling and enjoyable. The title track saves Octavarium from being an uninspired disaster and then some, carrying the rest of the album on its back, but the most it can all add up to is still a good-but-not-great release.

EXCALION Waterlines

Album · 2007 · Power Metal
Cover art 3.93 | 4 ratings
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Diogenes
Power metal from Finland? Whoopie. High-pitched vocals, lame ballads, double bass patterns that give new meaning to the word “repetition,” half-assed riffs…If there’s a horse that’s been beaten to death and then some, it’s the Finnish power metal scene. Fortunately, that’s not what Excalion is all about, and their sophomore effort Waterlines is a diamond in the rough in the cheese category.

The music on Waterlines isn’t exactly groundbreaking; I guarantee that you’ve heard most of the stuff on here before. The songs have fairly simple structures, keyboards play a large role, and the music is largely based on melody rather than shredding. Nothing new…and yet Excalion succeeds by taking this “less is more” route.

The answer, of course, is SONGWRITING! Overproduction is hard to find here; most of the songs on Waterlines are written in a way that makes them distinguishable enough to sound different, despite their relatively short and simplistic structuring. Take, for instance, The Wingman and Between the Lines, two of the faster songs on the album: you can easily pick out the melodies in each one and remember them fondly as two separate songs, not just “the fast ones”. To me, it sounds like Excalion took a dedicated approach to make songs that, erm, sound good and can appeal to anyone. Funny how going back to the basics can yield such great results sometimes!

On the other side of this coin are songs like Delta Sunrise and I Failed You, which are ballads that-gasp-DON’T TOTALLY SUCK! In fact, they’re two of the more enjoyable songs on the album. That deserves some praise right there, or maybe my expectations are just too low because of all the crappy power metal ballads out there. In any case, the slower stuff on Waterlines is proof that there are still a few metal bands out there that can write this sort of thing.

If there’s one thing that stands out on Waterlines, it is without a doubt the vocals of Jarmo Paakkonen. The man sings with a combination of power and charisma that’s hard to find nowadays. He still hits the incredibly high notes that you would expect in a power metal vocalist’s repertoire, but they’re accented by the general feeling that he genuinely loves singing. Paakkonen’s vocal melodies dominate songs like Arriving as the Dark, being incorporated into the band’s songwriting style in a way that’s nothing short of remarkable. As a bonus, the lyrics he sings (although written by other members of the band), don’t deal with dragons or the magical mumbo-jumbo that I despise; if you’re looking for Rhapsody-inspired lyrical content, look elsewhere!

Although it’s not really original, Waterlines does benefit from its overall restrained nature. All of the puke-inducing, over-the-top, cheeseball crap is hard to find on this album, and that’s saying something when you consider what bands these guys sound like: Sonata Arctica, Twilightning, and the other usual suspects. The lack of innovation on this album is canceled out by its great balance and overall maturity of the band’s sound. While I wish that it was a little more riffy, I can’t argue with the results; those being that this album is both easy to listen to all the way through and memorable enough to pop in many times over. Highly recommended!

SECTU Inundate

Album · 2011 · Technical Death Metal
Cover art 4.17 | 9 ratings
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Diogenes
Technical death metal isn’t a genre I’m normally big on. To me, the majority of the bands focus more on the technical part than the death, electing to noodle around for 50 minutes instead of really dishing out the aggression that the genre was founded on. This is what makes Sectu’s debut album Inundate such an impressive listen; finally, a band that can play with the dizzying technicality that’s become expected of Swedish death metal, while showing some restraint and actually writing songs too! Hallelujah!

While Inundate is loosely based on your typical technical death metal styles, there’s plenty of room for everything to breathe, so much that you might not even consider this technical death metal at all. Make no mistake about it; these guys can obviously play (they’re Swedes, duh), but there’s a considerable amount of groove and, more importantly, melody in this music. In a way, you could say this is a best-of-both-worlds scenario; Sectu take the same approach as your Obscuras or Neuraxises (Neuraxes?), but wear the influences of fellow kinsmen such as Grave on their sleeves all the same.

What I’m trying to say is that there are plenty of awesome riffs here-yes, RIFFS! Not dual-guitar wanking. Tracks such as Incantation of the Lost Continent and Dream Vessel demonstrate the band’s riffing ability as well as any, while maintaining that small aspect of technicality with a few seconds of shredding here and there. The key to this whole thing is moderation; for a debut, Sectu strike a surprising balance in their influences, showing a level of maturity that I don’t see in a lot of modern death metal bands.

Obviously, guitarists Angel Dominguez and Stefan Lundgren are at the front of this death metal assault, but I’d like to address how good the drumming of Calle Backstrom is on this album. He can blast, sure, but at the same time shows the versatility needed to mesh with all of the tempo changes. His fills in particular are very good, shifting between each groove and blast pattern seamlessly. Remember that having a good drummer is key to success numero uno, and Sectu sure have a good one in Backstrom.

One of Inundate’s greatest strengths is also its biggest weakness. The song are, for the most part, short; if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s bands playing mindlessly for extended periods of time. This doesn’t happen here, both because Sectu keeps their music interesting and because there isn’t really enough time for wankfests anyway. Since the tracks are short, the band is able to throw in the instrumental Ceremonial March without disrupting the flow of the album, and that’s cool. But as much as I appreciate Sectu staying concise with their music, I’d like the album to be a little longer than 33 minutes, whether that be through longer songs or just more of them. If you have something working for you, keep exploiting it!

One more thing! The production of Inundate is absolutely outstanding. The guitars are thick and dirty, a welcome contrast to the shiny and polished sound that seems to be the hot setup nowadays. Really, this works perfectly with what the band is doing: you can hear everything, but not in a way that takes away from the heaviness of the album.

Yes, it’s true that most of this stuff has already been done before. But really, it’s hard to expect a newer band to come up with things that are 100% original, especially in the repetitive realm of modern death metal. What Sectu lack in originality, they make up for with sheer execution of their ideas, and that’s what makes Inundate one hell of a debut album. Not bad at all!

THRESHOLD Dead Reckoning

Album · 2007 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.82 | 31 ratings
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Diogenes
When you hear about a band wanting to “streamline” their sound, that’s usually not a good sign; at least, it isn’t good if that band has been making some of the most substantial progressive metal around for the last 15 years. Let’s face it: there was nothing wrong with the Threshold approach to prog metal before this album, so a slightly stripped-down formula might have been cause for concern among fans of the band. But once again, Threshold’s professionalism eliminates any doubt about their future, and when combined with a more modern sound, actually produces their best effort yet.

The excellent Slipstream makes for the perfect album opener in regards to Threshold’s little makeover. Everything that’s changed is all right here: heavier riffage, shorter songs, more basic song structures, and even some death growls (courtesy of Dan Swano). Even though they’ve always been known for making progressive metal accessible, the music on Dead Reckoning takes that to a whole new level; before, Dream Theater’s Awake would have been the first album I would show to someone new to the genre, but now I’m not so sure. There’s very little in the way of build-up or mood-setting in the tracks on here, making Dead Reckoning quite easy (for progressive metal, anyway) to jump right into.

The beauty of all of this is…it’s still Threshold! This means classy musicianship and inspiring lyrics. Andrew “Mac” McDermott gives arguably his best (and unfortunately, his last) offering on vocals, belting out vocal lines that that are both catchy and emotional. As usual, there are no wasted notes, as both Karl Groom and Richard West make full use of their instruments without overdoing it even once. Songs like Hollow, for instance, showcase the band’s impeccable ability to add tasteful melodies to things that would be quite standard otherwise. I’m talking about the “little things”: a guitar lick where most bands would just lay down power chords, a keyboard doodle here and some atmospheric effects there. The songwriting here is just amazingly coherent and solid. This holds true on the longer songs, too; I have a hard time finding a better 1-2 punch in the band’s discography than Pilot in the Sky of Dreams and Fighting for Breath. And just as Slipstream introduces the album in fine fashion, One Degree Down closes it out beautifully with one of the best outros you’ll ever hear. The whole album just seems so complete and well thought-out, and the fact that’s it’s performed by some of the best musicians around makes it that much more impressive.

If there’s anything to gripe about, it’s Swano’s growls, which are out of place and fairly useless when you compare them with the rest of the music. But aside from that, Dead Reckoning is an absolutely fantastic listen. Its remarkable combination of modern elements with the familiar Threshold style of play should make it enjoyable for almost anyone. Needless to say, it’s nice to see a band that’s able to make some changes and still keep faithful to what makes them so good in the first place.

SOILWORK Stabbing the Drama

Album · 2005 · Melodic Death Metal
Cover art 2.92 | 8 ratings
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Diogenes
Soilwork’s sixth album is what you might call “safe metal”. It’s super easy to get into, it doesn’t have anything that’s really out there in terms of instrumental work, and the production is nice and clean. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, mind you, but there’s not a whole lot right with it, either…and that’s not even taking into account what kind of stuff this band used to play. Stabbing the Drama is great for people new to the wonderful world of metal, but it leaves much to be desired among those who look for things that are even vaguely challenging or memorable.

Easily the best aspect of Stabbing the Drama is the vocal performance of Bjorn “Speed” Strid. He pretty much carries the rest of the band on his vocal chords, giving his best effort of any Soilwork output and making this album what it is. His knack for easily transitioning between shouting in the verses to singing gracefully in the choruses is quite distinguishable, as Soilwork have been doing this for a while, and it’s never been more upfront than it is here. Although the deeper death grunts are absent, they wouldn’t have fit with what the band was trying to do, and his cleans more than make up for any remaining deficiencies in his harsh vocals.

After Strid’s vocals, though, Stabbing the Drama is the epitome of average. Almost every song follows the same basic structure, taking zero adventures with very little in the way of technicality. This is a shame, since Soilwork have shown their competence as musicians plenty of times in the past. What makes this even worse is that although Strid’s vocals are great, it’s almost as if he’s the only one improving, while the rest of the band gets lazier and lazier. Just listen to the riffs: they’re about as simple and watered-down as you can get for a metal band, full of groove and chugging. Hell, you could replace the guitars with synths and get basically the same result, which is something that’s just there to back up Strid singing. For the entire album, I was waiting for the guitars to do something interesting, but they never did! Booooring!

In spite of all of this, the music isn’t half bad, which makes this album even more of a frustrating listen. I begrudgingly admit that lots of the choruses (Nerve, the title track, Distance, and Observation Slave) made me rewind and listen to them a few more times, and the catchiness factor as a whole keeps this album just above the surface. The playing is far from sloppy (although for stuff this simple, it’s hard not to be tight), and the production is good, as usual. Still, none of this is prominent enough to redeem lackadaisical songwriting; if anything, the album’s strengths make the simplistic writing even more noticeable, serving as a reminder that Soilwork do in fact know what they’re doing.

Had this album been recorded by some other band as a debut, I might have been okay with it. But it’s almost impossible to not think where Soilwork used to be while listening to this…this…POP metal. It’s only classified as melodic death because that’s what Soilwork used to play (and because melodic groove metal isn’t really a subgenre at the moment). It’s devoid of any aggression, attitude, or “coolness” factor that used to define this band, and that’s what ultimately makes Stabbing the Drama a “pass”. Granted, it’s not as much of a bore as Figure Number Five, but that’s because they had already stooped to that level anyway. Stabbing the Drama is the unfortunate metamorphosis of a band that was once promising and influential into one that simply falls into a niche with the rest of the sheep.

DREAM THEATER A Dramatic Turn of Events

Album · 2011 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.86 | 112 ratings
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Diogenes
BREAKING NEWS! The new Dream Theater album finally got released (amid much hype and overanalysis), and it’s the best material they’ve come up with since 1999’s Scenes from a Memory.

Is that what you wanted to hear? IS IT? HUH?! Well, it’s what I wanted to hear. After what seemed like an eternity of experimenting and trying out new sounds without ever coming close to the magic they achieved in the early 90’s, Dream Theater has finally harkened back to what made Images and Words such a landmark of progressive metal…and all it took was the departure of a founding member, a pissing match worthy of the 3rd grade, and endless crap being thrown around by the fanbase during an overblown drummer audition! There were two, maybe three things keeping me from enjoying Dream Theater’s last few albums as much as most other people. Over and over and over again: too much wanking, too many attempts at being “modern” or “metal,” and backing vocals from a certain someone that just should not have been there at all. For the most part, A Dramatic Turn of Events sees these issues as things of the past (hopefully forever). There is still your occasional noodling in extended instrumental sections (particularly in Lost Not Forgotten and Outcry), but they sound less…I don’t know, forced? The team play by each of the band members should be apparent right from the first listen, as both John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess manage to [gasp!] play WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF THE MUSIC! Wowie-kazowie! This isn’t a “this album needs BALLS!” spiel either, as the sound is much more synth-oriented, with melodies and piano bits that will bring back vivid memories of the 90s for those who miss them so. And as for the backing vocals, heh, let’s just say those aren’t a problem anymore.

That’s not to say this album isn’t heavy. People seem to forget that Dream Theater still had a pretty heavy edge circa Awake; however, Train of Thought and Systematic Chaos were heavy to the point of trying too hard, so those were more noticed. There are plenty of heavy riffs here: Bridges in the Sky is the most obvious culprit, sounding somewhat like a Glass Prison-y song with more of a focus on melody (the chorus, mainly). Build Me Up, Break Me Down is the traditional Dream Theater “we had to put a radio-friendly song on here SOMEwhere” track, but its heavy riffage and distorted vocals keep it from stepping into the dangerous I Walk Beside You territory. Petrucci has always had a heavy guitar tone for the most part, and on A Dramatic Turn of Events, he crunches along per usual.

As for the two band members I’m obligated to discuss…Mike Mangini’s drumming may seem underwhelming at first (partly because he’s lower in the mix), but if you pay attention to the percussion in relation to the other instruments, you’ll see how amazing he really is. Instead of playing lead drums with flashy fills and ooga-booga solo parts, Mangini employs his knowledge of polyrhythms to “be the connective tissue” (his words, not mine!), basically embellishing on the other members of the band instead of showing how fast/crazy/omg he can play. He’s undoubtedly a spectacular drummer technically speaking, but on this album, it’s more about what Mangini does as part of the rhythm section than individually. Again, this change is more than welcome, as I really don’t ever feel the need to listen to 3 lead sections at once.

I absolutely refuse to take a stance on James LaBrie. His vocals are a huge issue when one talks about Dream Theater, and while I can see why, I don’t think they’ve ever been a problem. He once again sings mostly in the middle and lower registers (this is probably better for him nowadays). I know every new DT album has James’ “best performance since album X,” but yeah, he sounds basically the same. If you like him, cool. If not, then rest assured he once again does not ruin the album. Hooray!

This album isn’t accessible. Like, at all. Even Build Me Up, Break Me Down can be hard to get into (techno effects? C’MON MAN!). No matter what they’re playing, Dream Theater have a tendency to sound very robotic, and as such, you might not feel an instant connection to some of the songs on here. But all of that’s okay, because the ballads are here to make it all better! Yes, you read that correctly. Me, praising an album’s ballads. Unless I’ve gone crazy, Beneath the Surface and This is the Life are two of the best ballads this band has written in quite some time. If anything, they’re not too cheesy like the ones on Six Degrees, and LaBrie gives his best effort on them, so there are a few points whether you like slow songs or not.

I’m not the biggest Dream Theater fan, but when they decided against quitting, I was thrilled. I hoped that maybe, just maybe, this would prompt them to become a band again, rather than five excellent musicians playing under one name. A Dramatic Turn of Events rewarded my faith and then some, proving that this bunch of coots still has plenty to give. With a renewed sense of direction, fresh energy behind the drum kit, and their finest album in over a decade to build on, the future for Dream Theater looks as bright as it did back in 1993.

Updated review 9/16: Added some stuff after listening a few more times.

SKYFIRE Spectral

Album · 2004 · Melodic Death Metal
Cover art 3.91 | 4 ratings
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Diogenes
Skyfire are another one of those bands that crawled from the woodworks just when the melodic death/power metal style started hitting its peak. The difference here is that they actually took that sound and ran with it, instead of releasing the same Children of Bodom worship over and over again (Norther, I’m looking at you). Being the third album from the Swedes, Spectral shows the band in full creative bloom as they push the boundaries of the “power metal with growls” shtick, and manage to make it halfway interesting in the process.

True to its subgenre, Spectral is basically a power metal album with the death metal parts coming from the vocals and, on occasion, the drums. Everything else is deeply rooted in the Euro power metal scene that you’re bound to be sick of by now…but these guys have somehow found a way to make this not sound like a garbled mess. The atmospheric keyboards, the shredding leads, and the shrieking vocals are all there, and yet on this album it’s almost as if I haven’t heard this style before at all.

How is this possible? For one, most of the guys in this band are a notch above what you might be used to for the melodic death/power metal subgenre. Everyone that is audible (can’t hear the darn bass again) puts forth at least an above-average performance, with big ups going out to Martin Hanner and Andreas Edlund for their guitar and keyboard work. Both of them are credited for both instruments, although I don’t really care since they both did a magnificent job. The leads are marvelous, which should be expected, but what might catch you off-guard is how solid the riffs are. This alone puts another notch in the “CoB with balls” pole. Take A Dead Man’s Race, for instance: the lead during the chorus is catchy as all get out (you’ll hear this a lot on Spectral), but there are plenty of great riffs on the bottom end, forming a nice and thick guitar sound. And those keyboards…oh my. They’re awesome. Using synths to set a “cold” atmosphere is nothing new for metalheads from Sweden or surrounding countries, but Skyfire takes it to the next level as far as the whole “wall of sound” thing goes. They are both harsh and beautiful at the same time.

In spite of all this, the coolest thing about Spectral is the way it flows from one song to the next. The album actually seems to go through a mood swing as it goes on; Conjuring the Thoughts is undeniably upbeat for a song under the death metal genre, but by Awake you can feel the atmosphere getting gloomier, and Tranquility’s Maze ends the album on an absolutely dreary note mood-wise. It’s not a concept album or anything like that, either. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s nice to find a record with changes like this that isn’t a) 90 minutes long and b) insisting you go along with some sort of story to understand the thing. Props to the Skyfire guys for rediscovering the lost art of creating an actual album, not a CD with 9 separate songs on it.

What keeps Spectral from being a total OMG WORSHIP EVERY SINGLE NOTE album are the vocals. This isn’t a shot at Henrik Wenngren, because he’s more than competent, but this about the only area where Spectral becomes cliché. It’s the “death/black metal vocals because that’s how this genre is” feeling; the album is filled with twists and turns and changes of every kind, and then there’s Wenngren and his fairly monotonous vocal delivery. Again, keep in mind that there’s technically nothing wrong with the vocals, although I believe that some great cleans to contrast the shrieks would have put this album over the top as an essential. Let’s just leave it as an acquired taste.

Spectral is one hell of an album in that it shows a band staying true to its roots, yet at the same time forging a style all its own. This is about as innovative as melodic death/power metal gets, and although it won’t change anyone’s opinion on the subgenre, I’ll be damned if it isn’t light years ahead of almost every other album of its kind. Kinda sorta highly recommended!

CHIMAIRA The Age of Hell

Album · 2011 · Groove Metal
Cover art 3.70 | 9 ratings
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Diogenes
Let it be known that I think the whole “New Wave of American Heavy Metal” thing is a bunch of garbage. Aside from it being a lame rip-off of the NWoBHM moniker, it reminds me about the problems plaguing American metal bands everywhere: repetitive, generic, and unwillingness to get out there and play something original. Chimaira’s latest, The Age of Hell, embodies this about as well as any other modern metal album from the States, being an unfortunate step back for a band that once held a boatload of promise.

If you have heard anything by Chimaira before (save for their first one), then you probably know what to expect on this album. That would be a combination of groove metal and metalcore, with your occasional delves into thrash metal. Here’s why this isn’t very appealing: they did basically the same thing on The Impossibility of Reason, and again on their self-titled, and again on Resurrection. The Infection was a hint at a “logical continuation” sort of thing, but on The Age of Hell it sounds like the band is going backwards, with lazier songwriting than before. There’s a riff in Born in Blood which might as well be the same as the one from Resurrection…and these riffs aren’t even that good! They’re just your same old chugging. I can think of maybe four riffs on the album that are good: one on Year of the Snake, one on Trigger Finger, and the other two on songs that I can’t remember because the rest was so bland.

So, Andols Herrick left the band again, and in comes Austin D’Amond to take over behind the drums. He does a very nice job as far as following the usual Chimaira drum patterns goes, which could either be a testament to his skills or how overhyped Herrick really is. But here’s another take: there’s also a new synth guy, Sean Zatorsky, and once again he fills in for the former without much of a thought. Not that electronics are (or should) be a big part of this type of music anyway, but the fact that Chimaira got two people to do what the previous members did shows just how little the band has progressed on this release.

Taking the musicians argument a bit further, there is no reason why The Age of Hell should sound so half-assed. Rob Arnold and Matt DeVries proved themselves as very competent guitarists a while ago, so why can’t they come up with riffs that sound good? Mark Hunter is the only one in the band that sounds interested in trying something new, incorporating more (better) clean vocals and layered effects to give The Age of Hell its only shred of freshness. A few years ago, this would be unthinkable, as Chimaira seemed to be a band on the rise being held back by a mediocre vocalist, but here it’s just the opposite.

Granted, The Age of Hell isn’t a total rehash of old ideas, because here there is even MORE groove than on previous releases! This means even more repetition and lack of variety. Most of the songs are all slow and uninteresting, which stinks considering that this band has put out some pretty killer thrashcore in the past. I’d love to blame the record label for rushing the band, because some of the songs definitely sound slapped together, but this wouldn’t hold much water since Chimaira has been on an every-other-year release schedule forever. The songwriting is not very good, plain and simple.

I want to like this album. I really do. Chimaira isn’t a band I hate by any means, but it seems that whenever they’re primed for a huge record that will separate them from the rest, they stagnate and put out something like this. The Age of Hell isn’t as heavy as the self-titled, isn’t as angry as The Impossibility of Reason, isn’t as technical as The Infection; it’s just there, standing for everything the New Wave of American Heavy Metal really means. Disappointing, to say the least.

ARK Ark

Album · 2000 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.81 | 13 ratings
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Diogenes
Wow, is this a treat or what? There are so many metal bands out there that keep trying to forge a new sound by going forward. Everything has to be faster, heavier, more brutal, or more self-indulgent, depending on what subgenre you’re looking at. But Ark take a different approach: make something new and fresh by looking back and re-introducing those elements to the today’s metal world. So, instead of trying to build on something and running the risk of sounding like a clone band, you get something that’s creative and unique.

Ark plays what’s classified as progressive metal, but that’s not really fair to this album; it should be called PROGRESSIVE metal. Yes, you read that right. Progressive in caps. There is some very heavy progressive rock and jazz influence on here, and that should be acknowledged, damn it! But seriously, Ark draws from many 70s and 80s progressive acts and mixes them together with metal guitar work in a way I have never heard before. There are your obvious influences, like early Dream Theater (what progressive metal band hasn’t been inspired by them?), but some more subtle ones as well; Mother Love features a couple of keyboard lines I swear come from Eloy’s Planets, for example. Flamenco guitars and organs pop up several times. When you can hear the bass, you can tell that it doesn’t come from this time period, either. I can’t say that this whole spiel is easily accessible, but if you like prog, you should have little to no problem getting into the sound of this album.

What’s a huge shame is the way that this thing was produced. I don’t know if the band was on a low budget or what, but this piece of work deserves so much better. The percussion, while fantastic, is too loud, with the guitars buzzing softly in the background. I almost want to say that the drums sound like the lead instrument because of how horribly they are produced. Jorn hops from place to place, as if each of the vocal lines were recorded differently and patched across the songs at different times. The whole thing just sounds cheap. This really sucks, because it brings the album down; normally I can tolerate thin 80s metal because technology hadn’t caught up to the musicianship yet, but there is no reason this album should have been mixed so poorly.

But, let’s get back to the good parts, huh? When I first saw this band, I thought, “Okay, Jorn Lande and a bunch of guys that used to play with Yngwie”. Again, Ark are so much more than that. Out of all the individual performances on this album, Jorn’s might be the third best, and that’s saying something. For one, the drumming is incredible; John Macaluso uses an amazing array of different beats in odd time signatures, changing things up at a pace that you don’t hear very often. If there’s one upside about the production, it’s that every piece of Macaluso’s kit comes through loud and clear. Guitarist Tore Otsby plays the axe with both quality and zest, being the main receptor through which the various influences are transmitted. The instrumental sections are a joy to listen to, simply because Otsby’s clean guitar sounds so earnest; the dude can shred, as he shows on opener Burning Down, but the real fun begins when he employs a jazzier style. Then, you have Lande, who…well, he’s Lande. His vocals are superb as always. Those of you familiar with his voice should know to expect by now: pure excellence.

I was extremely disappointed to see that this album had only 7 ratings at the time I wrote this. I know that their second album Burn the Sun is probably better, and is certainly more popular in the prog community (how does that happen?), but this is still a gem of creativity and should be one of the first recommendations to those looking for something different. Ark isn’t perfect, but it’s incredibly fresh and innovative for its time period, which is something everyone should respect.

JAMES LABRIE Static Impulse

Album · 2010 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.68 | 21 ratings
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Diogenes
Here we are with another album by James LaBrie. It’s not really a “solo” album per se, since Matt Guillory also wrote it, but far more people know who James LaBrie is, and marketing 101 says to put the most profitable name on the record. So, a JLB solo album it is!

To be honest, I didn’t think this would be any good. I never got into Mullmuzzler and I thought Elements of Persuasion was pretty forgettable. Fortunately, LaBrie wrote some good stuff this time, exploring a new style and hitting on it for the most part. Static Impulse shows the longtime Dream Theater frontman blending a more traditional heavy metal style with modern melodic death metal elements, with sludgy riffing courtesy of Marco Sfolgi and Matt Guillory’s keyboards playing a big role. There are some harsh vocals provided by drummer Peter Wildoer, but they are used pretty sparingly; if anything, the majority of the Gothenburg influence comes from the guitar work and not the vocals. This should come as somewhat of a relief to those of you who hated unnecessary AAARRRRGGGGHHHHs from a certain someone COUGHMIKECOUGHPORTNOYCOUGHCOUGH in an aforementioned band. Hum.

As for James himself, he’s been criticized on pretty much every Dream Theater album since Falling into Infinity; his voice is either annoying, or too operatic, or too unfitting with the Dream Theater approach, or whatever. However, here his vocals are much more tolerable, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering he wrote his own vocal lines-what a concept! It should be known by now that LaBrie’s not going to be hitting any more F#s, but on Static Impulse he sounds both as confident and comfortable as he did in the old days. His slightly smaller vocal range fits the heavier sound shockingly well; if you didn’t like how he sounded compared to the music on, say, Train of Thought, you might want to give this one a shot for kicks.

Apart from LaBrie’s vocals, there aren’t really any due Dream Theater comparisons on this album. The songs are all fairly short and structured with no extended instrumental sections, which might be a bummer if that’s what you were expecting. Make no mistake about it; LaBrie’s supporting cast (Sfolgi in particular) has some chops, but they’re not playing much in the way of progressive metal on Static Impulse. There are plenty of catchy melodies, both of the keyboard and vocal variety (I TRIED! I TRIED!). The playing is still pretty tight, serving as a reminder of the experience in this lineup, yet the album largely of the “low-risk” variety. As such, it’s hard for me to say that anything on this album is a must-listen, although I find that a lot of the songs (Euphoric in particular) are catchy enough to have a permanent home in my collection.

The only major issue this album has is the order of the songs. One More Time is good, but the Wildoer’s screaming right off the bat gives the impression that Static Impulse is going to sound like some random Gothenburg band. This is not the case. On the opposite end, Coming Home is an anticlimactic album closer, being the only “soft” song on here. This whole thing is fairly negligible though, as my pickiness is easily put to rest with a simple click of “shuffle”. So, that’s that.

Obviously, if you’re a fan of LaBrie, you’re going to like this simply because his vocals are much less strained than on most Dream Theater releases. Other than that, I can’t think of anyone that will surely love this album; it’s straightforward enough to appeal to many, although it might not have enough memorability to stick. It’s pretty obvious that Static Impulse is more of a side project, and thus it isn’t an essential…but it’s very well done for this sort of thing, and it’s good for a few listens.



OVERKILL Ironbound

Album · 2010 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 4.28 | 42 ratings
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Diogenes
OHMYGAWD! This is ridiculous. Here we have all sorts of ancient thrash bands trying their darndest to play the real stuff again (resulting in some very mediocre attempts), while Overkill shifts gears almost effortlessly and releases something that takes a massive poo on everything else. Ironbound is the fifteenth album by the incumbent New York thrashers, and it makes one of the most powerful statements in today’s modern metal scene: Overkill is alive and well, perhaps now more than ever. And you know what that means? Pure ass-kickery, once again. That’s what this album is.

It’s no secret that the Overkill sound has changed over the years. Groove metal has made more and more of an appearance on each Overkill record, and while the band continued releasing some great material with it, they eventually fell into a rut around 2005. However, the groove sound has been pushed waaay back on this album, to the delight of myself and other thrash fans. There are genuine, true-blue thrash riffs aplenty on Ironbound, and whether they’re woven through tracks like The SRC and Bring Me the Night or sneaking up on you in the title track, rest assured that you’ll be sent back to the good old days with each bang of your head. But that’s not the whole premise of this record; there is still a tiny bit of groove to keep things interesting (most noticeably on The Head and Heart), mixed in there in just the right amounts so your neck doesn’t hurt too badly after listening. In this sense, Ironbound could be considered an “Overkill yearbook” (I couldn’t come up with anything better than that…), with the best of every era present on here. The Goal of Your Soul, for example, is very reminiscent of Bloodletting, In Vain gives more of a Horrorscope vibe, and so on. And yes, there are still your gang shouts and Overkill-ish things like that, for better or worse. I always liked them, but I completely understand if they’re not your cup of tea.

Just as the musical style is a new-yet-old sort of affair, the production has been totally reinvented on Ironbound. For a while, the thick guitar tone was what Overkill went with, but here everything sounds much more modern. The guitars have a sharpness that reduces chugging, and the drums are nice and loud. The best part is, you can still hear D.D. Verni clearly, which must set some sort of record for consecutive thrash releases with audible bass. Anyway, you would probably expect all of this for a Nuclear Blast release, but that sort of thing only seems to come up when an album is a failure (“This album sucks, but I need more reasons to hate it…I KNOW! It sounds too modern!!”), and it doesn’t matter because everything sounds gorgeous.

In keeping with my little shtick of this being a collection of Overkill at their best, I can confidently say that Ironbound has the least filler of any Overkill album in a while. Pretty much every song has something cool to bring to the table: the melodic solo in Endless War, the little breakdown and successful clean vocal experiment in Give A Little, the amazing drumming performance on In Vain…you name your preference, and there will be something here for you. Guaranteed.

Just about the only thing that hasn’t changed is the performance of Blitz on vocals. No, he can’t shriek like he used to, but he once again brings the pissed-off !!!FUCK YOU!!! attitude that makes Overkill so distinguishable, and his raspy vocal style fits the songs perfectly. This man never fails to amaze with his boundless energy behind the microphone, outperforming many thrash metal vocalists twenty years younger than he is (okay, thrash isn’t the most vocal-friendly genre, but you get the point).

What makes Ironbound so good is the combination of variety and quality, with the extra surprise factor added in. I kid you not, it’s like the band just flipped a switch and made an amazing piece of career-spanning metal, just to remind everyone how it’s done. The 80s Overkill run of awesome thrash metal releases will always be tough to beat, but Ironbound holds its own against albums old and new, standing as a testament to resiliency and dedication to the genre. Remarkable!

ALLEN / LANDE The Battle

Album · 2005 · Traditional heavy metal
Cover art 3.13 | 11 ratings
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Diogenes
Russell Allen and Jorn Lande singing on the same album, huh? I’m kind of surprised that this album doesn’t get a little more support, since Symphony X seems to be the hot setup nowadays and whatever bands Jorn is in are pretty good. Then again, this did come out six years ago, so that shows how late to the party I am. Oh, well.

The name of this project is a little misleading. It’s called Allen-Lande, but guess what? They’re just singing. Neither of them wrote anything on this album. In fact, everything was written by one guy, Magnus Karlsson, who also played all of the instruments except for the drums. Now, to me, this absolutely screams “I’m using two famous vocalists to get me money and exposure,” but I’m probably more cynical than you, so take that with a grain of salt. Anyway, this isn’t necessarily a problem, but you might want to change your expectations if you’re thinking this is going to be something like Symphony X or Ark, or even Masterplan. Again, this isn’t bad, but it’s something that threw me for a loop when I first listened to it.

The Battle is more of a melodic rock/heavy metal album, with lots of formulaic song structures and power ballad influences. If you look at it that way, it’s very good; Karlsson is a gifted musician, considering he put something like this together. His riffs have plenty of crunch, his solos are pretty good (although a few of them are bit long), and the pianos are used tastefully. Obviously, vocals are far from a weak point on this album, with both Allen and Lande giving their usual excellent performances. And pretty much every song on here is catchy and friendly enough to be played on the radio (see Come Alive or My Own Way Home), but with enough metal thrown in to keep it from being a straight-up rock project. In short, there’s nothing really WRONG with this album per se, as it’s easy to listen to with solid songwriting and musicianship. It’s also put together in a way that doesn’t get boring or repetitive, even though there might be one too many songs for people who like shorter albums.

Here’s the issue I have with all of this. This album (and this project, for that matter) is centered around two extremely talented vocalists. So why in the world are they singing stuff this simple? The vocal lines are good, yeah, and catchy as all get out, but there aren’t really any “epic” moments on this album that you might find in another Allen or Lande band. They’re either taking turns in the verse or singing together in the choruses, and that’s pretty much it. Allen rarely gets into the upper register, and when he does, it’s usually just backing Jorn’s midrange vocal lines and not at the forefront. So, Mr. Karlsson…did you REALLY want to form a groundbreaking project with two of metal’s finest vocalists? Or did you just want a couple of famous guys to sing vocal lines that could easily have been done by someone else? Of course, I’m kidding. I’ll drop the accusations. But seriously, I feel like there is a LOT being held back on The Battle.

To embellish on what defines The Battle, I present to you the following scenario! Let’s say that I’m going out to buy a car. I have a shit-ton of money (lottery winnings, I guess), so I settle on a Ferrari California with a V8 engine. But wait! I still live in the suburbs, where the speed limit is 25 miles per hour. It’s still a Ferrari; I can use it to get chicks and make my friends jealous. But there’s no way I can use it to its full potential because this stupid town doesn’t allow street racing. That’s the sort of thing I’m getting at here.

I’m not sure if fans of any other Russell or Lande acts will like The Battle as much as those. Yes, they’re singing on this album, but they’re definitely not as big a part of it as the band would like you to think. If you’re looking for a catchy, no-nonsense melodic metal album with plenty of tracks to sing along to, don’t let this stop you. Just don’t be disappointed with what you find.

P.S. I apologize fifty-seven times for not spelling Jorn's name with the cool slashed-O. Curse my Americanized keyboard!

DEVIN TOWNSEND Ghost

Album · 2011 · Non-Metal
Cover art 3.50 | 43 ratings
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Diogenes
I love the Devin Townsend Project. Not the music necessarily (the first two albums have been sorta hit or miss for me), but rather the idea behind it; it’s Townsend’s way of kicking himself in the ass to further explore all corners of his incredibly creative brain. Dev’s music has always been unique in that each album has a different mood and style than the last, but his Project takes that concept to new extremes. Ghost is by far the softest, most peaceful album that he’s put out, and the furthest removed from the metal genre, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Not even close, my friends!

First, to please you genre freaks…I’m not sure if I would call Ghost an ambient album. It’s not one of those packs that you get for free that’s full of spacey synth noises to help you relax (although some of the songs on here could be used like that). There are ambient elements, but that’s not all that Ghost is. I like to think of this more as an expansion on the atmospheric and airy parts of Townsend’s sound; if that must include ambience, then so be it. But by listening to this, you can tell right away that this isn’t some unknown Russian artist with his keyboard or some sap hired by the Discovery Channel to make their programs more interesting. It’s definitely Devin Townsend, but I guarantee you haven’t heard him like this before.

What we have on Ghost is a collection of flutes, synths, and the occasional acoustic guitars coming together with Devin’s wonderful clean vocals to form an album of incredible cohesion and emotion. This isn’t the first time that he’s experimented with foreign influences to add a special flavor to his music, but it is the first time that he’s done so in a genuinely uplifting manner. I use that word carefully, mind you; Ghost is not happy in a bombastic or energetic manner. Think of it as a walk through your local forest or nature preserve right after a good rainfall. The sun is peeking out of the clouds, there’s not a soul around, the water droplets are still fresh on the leaves, and the air is abundant with that fresh spring smells that lets you know that you’re alive. That’s more or less the feeling I’m getting listening to Ghost; undoubtedly upbeat, but in a more serene and blissful manner.

There isn’t a boatload of guest appearance on Ghost like there is on Deconstruction. However, on an album like this, less is truly more; the vocals by Katrina Natale build upon and ultimately make the peaceful atmosphere what it is. What better way to convey this sort of thing than to have a gorgeous female voice humming along with the synths and woodwind instruments? I can’t think of any. Her voice contrasts yet compliments Devin’s in a truly unique way.

The tracks on Ghost are arranged in a way that has the calmer songs both up front and behind, as both an introduction and conclusion for the more upbeat ones in the middle. Kawaii, the title track, Blackberry, and Texada are the more “interesting” tracks and the catchiest on the album, with banjos making an appearance and vocal harmonies that spread the merry feeling like a virus. But that’s not to say that the other tracks aren’t worth listening to! Fly is an amazing opener and As You Were is an amazing closer. Infinite Ocean is exactly what it sounds like: a never ending musical voyage over quiet waters. Feather is my personal favorite, with Devin giving an astounding vocal performance and telling quite the heartfelt tale. There’s a myriad of content on Ghost that, true to the Devin Townsend trend, differs just enough to stay interesting, but is all awesome in its own way.

Whoever says that this is a boring album is missing the point. It’s long, yes, but this isn’t music that you listen to while you’re shooting people on Xbox Live or rock out to when you have nothing better to do. It’s thinking music. Try it when you’re out driving at night or while you’re reading a book. You MUST have the right mindset when listening to Ghost, or you will be bored halfway through Feather. If you think of Ghost not as “an ambient album by Devin Townsend,” but instead as a relaxing musical journey through your thoughts and desires, then you’ll see what a beauty this album really is.

Ghost succeeds in every place that it tries to and in some places that it doesn’t. While most people will flock to Deconstruction as the wild and crazy side of their lovable Devin, I feel that Ghost tells us all that we need to know: Devin Townsend is the brightest and most versatile mind in metal, even when he isn’t writing anything of the sort. Simply outstanding.

OBSCURA Cosmogenesis

Album · 2009 · Technical Death Metal
Cover art 3.85 | 25 ratings
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Diogenes
Obscura have abruptly shot up towards the top of the modern death metal scene, thanks to both touring with Suffocation, and coming out with album right here. After the release of Cosmogenesis in 2009, they’ve become a household name in both the somewhat overblown space-metal fad and the “death metal so technical it’ll blow your balls off” category. As such, their sophomore effort is one of the most talked-about death metal albums of its kind, but while I can definitely see why many people are attracted to it, I can’t say I share their enthusiasm. It’s good, but all of the hype it gets exceeds what’s actually on here.

The first thing you will notice about Cosmogenesis is that there are a lot of things going on. Obscura certainly aren’t bashful about their technicality, making it apparent right from the get-go on Anticosmic Overload. The riffs are amazingly tight, the drummer sounds like he had six cups of coffee pre-recording, and there are fretless bass notes flying all over the place. There’s a good amount of jazz influence on the album (especially in the bass); enough to get away with calling it progressive, but not nearly up to the level of Atheist or Cynic. This trend continues throughout most of the album, in songs that don’t follow much of a structure. So yeah, it’s a progressive technical death metal album…but only MORE so! This is why Cosmogenesis stands out among modern extreme metal: it takes something that’s already crazy and over-the-top and one-ups that. That’s something to be admired.

Okay, so this album is pretty mind-blowing from an instrumental perspective. But at some point, you have to draw the line concerning technicality and focus somewhat on writing good songs. This is where Cosmogenesis experiences the same old problems that victimize the majority of modern technical death metal; there’s almost nothing on this album that is catchy, or thoughtful, or…dare I say, heavy. That’s right folks, this album is not heavy whatsoever! You might think, “So what? The instruments are AMAZING!” But hold on a second. This is death metal first, is it not? I mean, it’s supposed to be. Yes, there are growling vocals, loads of double bass work, and…that’s about it. The production is pristine. There are very few riffs that get you headbanging rather than sitting there with your jaw hanging open. And those vocals…they’re good, yeah, but what’s the point of having evil-sounding growls over wanking instruments? It all sounds so garbled on this album. My point is this: eventually, the awe of this album’s sheer technicality is going to wear off, and it might not seem so godlike once that happens.

However, despite the genre confusion and overall jumbled nature of Cosmogenesis, I must give due credit to the musicians on the album. Every member of the band excels at his individual role, once again going back to Obscura’s eye-opening take on the technical death metal genre. Special mention goes out to Jeroen Paul Thesseling’s bass work; thanks to the crystal-clear production, he plays just as big of a role as the guitarists in making Cosmogenesis a beast of musicianship. It’s because of this that I might recommend this album to a progressive metal fan before a hardcore death metal addict, but it would have to depend on their appreciation of instrumental work.

In the end, the overblown character of this album creates a great first impression, yet at the same time yields little substance. The outstanding playing is sort of canceled out by the lack of direction, with neither positive nor negative outweighing each other. If anything, Cosmogenesis is proof that Obscura are extremely talented musicians with a bright future. That’s as far as I’m going!

STRATOVARIUS Elements Part 2

Album · 2003 · Power Metal
Cover art 3.25 | 22 ratings
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Diogenes
Well, here we are with the second of the two Elements albums. Despite being named Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, being released around the same time, and having cover art with some half-person reaching up to a glowing ball, these albums don’t really have a lot to do with each other. While Elements Pt. 1 was a delve into broader and more symphonic territories, Pt. 2 shows Stratovarius returning mostly to a sound that’s more, hmm, Stratoesque.

Strangely, the few songs on Elements Pt. 2 that continue the band’s experimentation are also the ones that I find to be the most memorable. The album opener Alpha and Omega breaks the traditional Stratomold of leading with a short, upbeat number; its haunting atmosphere and slower pace make you feel as if you’re hovering above vast oceans and plains. This song absolutely NAILS the “epic” sound that Stratovarius whiffed on in the first part of the Elements project. Dreamweaver, too, is a solid track, being more of a midtempo hard rocker than a power metal song. The chorus to this one is great. And I know I’m in the minority here, but I really like Awaken the Giant. It’s slow, but still headbangable, and the distorted vocals actually work here for reasons that I will outline later. Regardless, all three of these songs strike the perfect balance between progression in the Stratovarius sound and typical melodic power metal.

Other than that, it’s business as usual for Tolkki and company. This means that the power metal songs are, erm, heavily inspired by earlier Stratovarius, and the ballads are forgettable. I Walk to My Own Song, I’m Still Alive, and Know the Difference will probably sound pretty damn familiar if you’ve hear anything this band has recorded before 2003. But therein lies the problem: it’s a little too familiar. The lack of originality isn’t as blatant as it would become later on (there are no recycled riffs or anything here), but these tracks are still very much alike to those you would find on Episode or Visions. That might appeal to you anyway, but be warned: the individual performances aren’t as good here. Save for the always steady Jorg Michael on drums, Stratovarius sounds like they’re just going through the motions. The once-mighty Timo Kotipelto, with less choirs and tri-vocal layering on this album, sounds weak and tired from the beating his vocal chords have taken over the years. He’s still hitting the notes, but sings with noticeably less power than on previous Stratovarius releases. Tolkki’s riffing is, again, repetitive, and his solos don’t add anything other than taking up part of the songs. Jens Johannsson appears to be playing his keyboard just because he’s in the band and Tolkki can’t figure out how to incorporate him in the songwriting. That’s more or less the impression that I’m getting from listening to the fast tracks. They’re solid alone, but underwhelming when all put on the same album.

On the surface, all of the ballads might seem pretty bad. Slow songs have never been Tolkki’s forte, even at the height of his creativity, but in truth, these aren’t so horrid. They aren’t good, but they aren’t bad either. Season of Faith’s Perfection and Luminous are just sort of there, but Liberty is actually a decent song with a catchy guitar solo, and I might have upgraded it a little more if it wasn’t another album closer (STOP ENDING ALBUMS WITH BALLADS!!! I swear…) I’m having a hard time saying anything else about these, so that should give you an idea of how effective they are.

So, there’s a lot of repetition, three of the songs are taking up blank space, and I still don’t like Tolkki. Then why the hell am I giving this three stars? Um, there really isn’t anything that’s BAD on Elements Pt. 2. Yes, there are only a few good songs that will stick with you, but there aren’t any moments where I’m inclined to hit skip or painfully rip out my headphones. It’s true that the ballads aren’t spectacular and the songs where Stratovarius usually excels aren’t that memorable either, but after filling their previous album with pointless and bland crap, Stratovarius have made an album with direction and some idea of what they’re doing. That, and it still might be of some value for the band’s hardcore fans because it actually sounds like Stratovarius this time.

Giving Elements Pt. 2 another leg up on its predecessor is the production. Again, it doesn’t sound a lot different than any Stratovarius albums except for Elements Pt. 1, but that’s mostly good news. Michael’s drums don’t sound nearly as triggered, and the whole thing isn’t as flat. Making more room for the actual METAL instrumentation, perhaps?

So I guess this isn’t the worst album you can get. It’s definitely not where you would want to start in the Stratovarius discography, and you still might prefer Elements Pt. 1 over this, depending on your tastes and tolerance for overlong and boring songs. Elements Pt. 2 is a fun listen, although pretty unfulfilling, and would be the last decent effort by the band for quite some time.

AMORPHIS The Beginning of Times

Album · 2011 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.98 | 36 ratings
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Diogenes
Upon hearing that Amorphis was releasing a new album in May (June for Americans like myself), I was ecstatic. Skyforger is one of my favorite metal albums of all time, and while I doubted that the band could top that, I was still expecting the usual excellence from the band that has given us nothing but since 2006’s Eclipse. And while some people might be put off by the Finns’ latest effort by virtue of it not being up to snuff to its predecessors, The Beginning of Times is what it is: another masterpiece by Amorphis.

I know when I first heard The Beginning of Times, something seemed a little…off. The album is definitely darker than Skyforger, but not dark to the point of Silent Waters. It’s somber, and almost sad at certain points. Tomi Joutsen’s impressive death metal growls are used much more often here, to the delight of the band’s older fans, but they’re employed in a manner that’s more melancholy than it is aggressive. The album length is another concern; although the 54 minutes isn’t that much longer than previous Amorphis efforts, when coupled with the downtrodden sound, it becomes more problematic. Whereas time flies by whenever I listen to Skyforger, The Beginning of Times seems plodding in comparison. The title track at the end was the only one that really stood out to me at this point.

BUT WAIT! After a couple of listens, the genius of The Beginning of Times suddenly explodes out of the murkiness like the giant chicken is about to explode out of that egg on the cover. The melodies, which seemed unmemorable on the album’s first spin, begin sticking just the same as those on Skyforger did. The album’s more complex sound, with many more folk elements being used, is suddenly refreshing instead of disappointing. Take Soothsayer, for instance; what I initially deemed as being “boring” is anything but. It’s gloomy, yes, but the emotion pours from the instruments and Joutsen’s vocal chords all the same. You I Need, the album’s radio-friendly single, may not be catchy as House of Sleep or Silver Bride, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t up there. And guess what? It’s a metal song with love-related lyrics, and it doesn’t suck at all! Amazing. Oh, and the title track is by far the best album closer Amorphis has written in a while. Joutsen steals the show in a chorus that you won’t be forgetting any time soon, and the lyrics wrap up the previous songs perfectly. Each and every track that may have seemed too weird or too slow before comes forth with something unique. The Beginning of Times takes some tender loving listening to fully digest, and it can be hard to make an effort to do so with the gloomy mood, but you really should try to listen to this at least three times. There’s some amazing stuff here.

I already mentioned that there are more folk elements on this album. While the flute, saxophone, and clarinet are all used, there are clearly more folk influences in the regular instrumentation as well. Santeri Kallio, known for setting the traditional Amorphis atmosphere with his synth, uses his piano to stunning effect, especially in songs such as the opener Battle for Light and Reformation. The piano melodies on The Beginning of Times tug at the heartstrings with feeling, each one reminding you that this is not just another metal album. The lovely Netta Dahlberg provides the female vocals that add the perfect tinge of emotiveness, whether it be backing up Joutsen or having the spotlight to herself in Mermaid. And, as usual, the lyrical content of the album is based on Finnish mythology; the band tells the tale in a way that isn’t too cheesy. The folky aspects might seem like a mixed bag at first, but I’m glad they brought them back in full force.

In what would be a pointless aside in any other review, this is one of the few metal albums that I can think of with cover art that flawlessly represents the music inside. The darkness is accented by the waves crashing against the land, with a dim, cloudy sky that seemingly never ends. But the light in the distance hints that the old Amorphis magic didn’t leave at all; it’s just more concealed within the album’s depths. When you find it, it’s more satisfying than ever. To hide such a magnificent piece of work under a morose aura shows a band that has mastered both their individual instruments and the art of working together; six men working as one in perfect harmony.

Overcoming an unimpressive first listen, I must say that these guys continue to meet the lofty expectations that they set for themselves. The Beginning of Times is simply another day at the office for THE premier melodic metal band. Amorphis have truly perfected the act of reinventing themselves with every release, while sticking to the same formula that makes their music so damn good at the same time. Thus, I now realize that comparisons to Skyforger or any of their older albums should be left alone. While this is the band’s first effort in a while that will inevitably bring up debate as to whether they’re running out of steam, the final conclusion should be nothing less than another album of the year by the venerable Finns.

STRATOVARIUS Elements Part 1

Album · 2003 · Power Metal
Cover art 3.51 | 23 ratings
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Diogenes
After taking a couple of years to recharge their batteries (releasing 6 albums in 7 years from 1994-2000), Stratovarius came back with the Elements siblings, those being the last hurrah creatively for Timo Tolkki. Elements Pt. 1 was supposedly an experiment by the band to explore more bombastic and symphonic territories, but what we get instead is an inconsistent and overblown power metal album that shows Stratovarius branching out too much for their own good. Bluntly, everything on this album is too over-the-top. I know, you’re thinking Stratovarius has always been a little cheesy, but there’s a noticeable difference between this and say, Visions.

First, the vocals. Timo Kotipelto had always been used as a high-register vocalist until this album, but here they are REALLY FREAKING HIGH and almost unbearable. His falsetto goes so high you can’t even understand what the guy is singing. If you had ever wondered why his voice had dropped off so sharply around 2004-5, thank Mr. Timo Tolkki for writing these insane vocal lines and making Kotipelto sing them (I know this probably isn’t the only reason, but who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory?). Making matters worse, his vocals are backed by way too many choirs; I usually don’t mind choirs used as background during a chorus here and there, but again, on Elements Pt. 1 they are just plain overused.

The songs are, for the most part, way too long. They’re bogged down by long, “epic” intros, more stupid choirs, and boring orchestral sections. I mean, look at the song lengths: Soul of a Vagabond 7:22, Fantasia pushing 10, Papillion 7, the title track 12 minutes? Almost all of these tracks could be cut down and made a lot better had the band shown some restraint in the above areas. I understand that a concept was trying to be conveyed on this album, but there’s no way in hell you can convince me that it couldn’t have been done in a way that’s more interesting. You can’t make a 10 minute power metal song with 9:30 of slow material and call it epic! You just can’t!

Did I say everything on this album is too over-the-top? I take that back. Everything on this album is over-the-top, except the instrument that actually matters: THE GUITAR! Save for the traditional neoclassical shredding that Tolkki will throw in on every album he creates, the guitars generally do just about nothing on this album. By this time, the riffs have become boring and predictable; they are used as nothing more than background noise for the keyboards. Tolkki has never been a virtuoso in the riffs department, but here it’s as if he isn’t even trying.

Find Your Own Voice is the perfect example where all of these problems come to a head. It could have been a great power metal song, but it succumbs to the many issues that are abundant on Elements Pt. 1. The song takes too long to get off the ground, with the music not really starting until a minute in. My vocal chords ache just listening to Kotipelto croon through the verse. Then the chorus comes, and…oh my god. The lyrics are indiscernible because Kotipelto is going so high, and at the same time, Jens Johannsson is playing some freakish keyboard solo. There’s just too much going on at once. Granted, this track has less symphonic elements than others, so it’s not a total snoozefest like some of the others, so maybe this wasn’t such a perfect example. However, I’m not going to go over the title track because I might fall asleep mid-review. The same could be said of Fantasia, or A Drop in the Ocean. Why would you make such a boring track as the album closer? WHY???

But, never fear! As this is still pre-2005 Stratovarius, there are still some parts of Elements Pt. 1 to be enjoyed. The opener Eagleheart is just about the only song on the album where the mass of cheese doesn’t get in the way. It’s poppy and radio-friendly, it’s still over-the-top, but it’s only a little under 4 minutes, and it went down as another Strato classic anyway. Just make sure you don’t watch its music video, because it stinks! Learning to Fly is a decent power metal song, although it’s still too long and Kotipelto’s vocals are too high again. And, this being Stratovarius, you gotta have an awesome instrumental shredfest in there somewhere. If the SNES had a better sound bitrate than 16-bit, you’d probably find Stratofortress on an old Kirby game or something. It’s an awesome song, with Tolkki doing by far his most impressive guitar work on the album…but it’s also the shortest. See a pattern here?

This album could have been great, and I know a lot of Stratovarius fans still regard it as such (just look at all of the different viewpoints of this album. There are a lot). Personally, I’m not hearing it. While there is a fair share of good material on Elements Pt. 1, the many experiments the band went through get in the way too often. Honestly, I’d say this would probably appeal more to fans of symphonic metal than power metal, or those who don’t mind if their power metal takes lots of risks.

DISMEMBER Like an Everflowing Stream

Album · 1991 · Death Metal
Cover art 4.21 | 17 ratings
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Diogenes
Mmm, old school Swedish death metal. Sludgy, dirty, and 100% evil. Dismember was one of the founding fathers of the movement (Carnage hiatus included), bringing the exceptionally heavy style to the metal forefront in the late 80s and early 90s. While they’ve remained strong in modern times, it’s their first effort that set the tone for the massive outbreak of death metal in Europe in the 90s; and it came surprisingly close to perfection while doing so.

The reason why Like an Everflowing Stream is so legendary (to me, anyway), is the remarkable blend of aggression, melody, brutality, and technical prowess that it features. I really haven’t heard anything quite like it before. There are loads of death metal bands out there nowadays claiming to be “technical brutal melodic progressive blackened death metal with thrash influences” (or some other annoyingly long description), but none of them pull it off like Dismember did…in 1991. You can go through this album and easily pick out the parts that are melodic and the parts that are bone-crushingly heavy, but be just as satisfied with taking in all of the elements at once. It’s just so coherent and wholesome. Waaay ahead of its time in so many ways.

The album is short, with 8 songs spanning a total of just over 31 minutes (10 songs totaling about 40 minutes if you get the reissue), but rest assured that there is no lack of good material here; in fact, it’s the opposite. You’d be hard pressed to find any filler on this album. Each track is a cornucopia of classic death metal riffs, which once again, bind melody and heaviness with great care. Override of the Overture sets the perfect tone for the rest of the album, containing the BEST old school death metal riff you will ever hear in your life. It’s right around 3:15. Listen to it. Embrace it. Worship it. It’s among the many riffs that will absolutely throttle you while listening to this. Did you think that straight-up death metal can’t be catchy? Think again, sucker. I must have played this song 20 times over the first time I heard it. And here’s the kicker: every song is like this. Yes, EVERY SONG. Yeah, they’re short, but that’s just because the band packed so much killer into each of them. Each song is like a compacted ball of evil awesomeness. Evil runs rampant through the riffs of Bleed for Me. Dismembered is half sweet, sweet melody and half total asskickery. And Skin Her Alive, well, that song got Nuclear Blast taken to court for being so damn awesome (actually, they were looking for obscene and indecent material. They found none). That should give you an idea of just how cool this stuff is.

One knock against this style of metal is that in its early days, it wasn’t very technical. Yeah, most Swedish death metal bands were heavy as all get out, but there was plenty of sloppy playing going on under those muddy guitar tones. But sloppiness is one thing you will not find here. Oh no. The musicians in Dismember were well above average at this time. David Blomqvist and Robert Sennebäck throw riff after riff at you with rigor and energy, each striking its target like a smart bomb blowing the hell out of the latest terrorist establishment. The drummer, Fred Estby, is of particular note here, being especially solid with his double bass and cymbal work. He throws a couple of time changes in there for good measure, all of which is more impressive when coupled with the fact that he was only 19 when this album was recorded. And Matti Kärki’s vocals hit the death metal spot right on target; not too incoherent, but evil and aggressive enough to add to the overall atmosphere and piss off all of your neighbors. Of course, some of the members of Dismember got their trial run in with Carnage the year before, but that takes nothing away from their efforts on Like an Everflowing Stream. This is the sound of a band firing on all cylinders, and it’s amazing.

Everything else on this album is about the norm that you’d hear for a Swedish death metal band at the time. The lyrics are about things such as hell, body parts being chopped off, anti-religion, and all that good stuff (once again, perfect if you have some people living around you that you aren’t fond of). The production is just about perfect, considering that it’s 1991 and the engineering in Sweden hadn’t yet caught up with that of American recordings; the drums are a little thin, but that’s a non-issue when you consider that the guitars sound absolutely sublime. Each of those crushing riffs is magnified by a sludgy and downtuned guitar tone, and they’re still clear enough to, you know, actually hear the notes that David and Robert are playing. It isn’t over-produced, as there’s still somewhat of a hollowness during the solos, but this ends up adding to the atmosphere instead of removing from it.

Like an Everflowing Stream is a genre-defining classic, there’s no doubt about it. The amount of influence it had on both sides of the death metal spectrum is undeniable. However, unlike a lot of prototypical metal albums, this one withstands the test of time and is still one of the best that the genre has to offer today. Definitely a must-have for any death metal fan.

GOD FORBID Gone Forever

Album · 2004 · Metalcore
Cover art 3.52 | 4 ratings
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Diogenes
With Gone Forever, God Forbid have gone and done something I had long thought to be impossible: create a metalcore album that doesn’t suck. Stop the presses! Granted, that was a few years ago, and I have since found plenty of metalcore acts that aren’t complete rubbish, but this album still stands as one of my favorites among the genre.

Gone Forever is God Forbid’s third album and is the beginning of their departure from metalcore to more of a melodic thrash metal style. This album is still firmly based on their humble metalcore origins, but there is definitely enough thrash and melodic death metal influence for you to tell the difference between this album and your standard –core band. This will probably make it more accessible to those of you who won’t otherwise touch metalcore with a ten-foot pole. Hooray for unity!

The part of Gone Forever that makes the album so good is the diverse guitar work. Wisely, the band centered this album around the guitars, without any tricks in the rhythm section or anything like that. Doc and Dallas Coyle form an impressive duo, to say the least. Their riffs are, again, obviously very thrash-inspired, and although there’s still a bit of metalcore flavor in there, it doesn’t create any problems on my end. Melody is very prevalent here, especially during the excellent solos, as both guitarists show their skills with a great combination of feeling and technicality. The best part about this is that the music does not suffer as a result; the melodic parts are still heavy and the heavy parts are still melodic. There are fewer moments in the album where you can say “oh, here’s the brutal riff…now here’s the soft part”. It blends together quite nicely, avoiding more of your metalcore stereotypes along the way. There are little to no cookie-cutter song structures, basically. And this is coming from a guy who loves cookies.

Unfortunately, the thing that does not immediately jump out at me is God Forbid’s vocals. Byron Davis, the guy who’s going “RRRAAAGGHHH” is solid, but he doesn’t really build on the instruments as much as I’d like him to. The clean vocals are provided by the guitarist Dallas, who can sing perfectly fine (his voice reminds me a little bit of Brann Dailor’s), but again, they don’t really hold a special place in the music. The good news is Davis is at least somewhat understandable, and switches up his delivery from time to time (from higher pitched shrieks to some gutterals), which is a breath of fresh air in a genre that mostly features monotone mumblers behind the mic. Also, despite neither vocalist being anything to write home about, their effectiveness is magnified when the harshes are layered over the cleans, creating a melodic chaos sort of thing.

I’d like to point out that the songwriting is extremely solid here. Remember that this is still metalcore, and that means you have some breakdowns on Gone Forever. But guess what? God Forbid manages to use breakdowns in a way that does not take away from the music at all. Yes, you read that right! The band has written in breakdowns in a way that COMPLEMENTS the rest of the songs that they’re in; they’re sort of eased in. What an idea! This means that whenever the songs start going chugga-chugga, it won’t seem like they’re doing it just to make them longer or to get more scene fans. I don’t know about you, but that’s something I can appreciate. Another thing is that the structures of the songs aren’t too predictable; each song has something different to offer, whether it be a killer solo, a powerful chorus, or a breakdown that will get you headbanging instead of pressing fast-forward. There isn’t much of the harsh vocal verse-clean vocal chorus structuring, which is probably for the better.

Despite the songs being pretty well-written, I have a hard time picking any standout tracks on this album. Living Nightmare is a good candidate, its solo being the prime example of how the band uses melody in a strong manner, but other than that I can’t choose any other highlights. I’m not saying all of the songs sound the same; they don’t. It’s just that they’re good but not great. Perhaps the reason for this is that there isn’t much of a theme to the album; it’s aggressive, sure, but it isn’t dark, or upbeat, or anything really recognizable. This being the band’s first shot at this style of music, I can’t fault them too much, as their future albums are a lot better at keeping you interested.

Gone Forever is a good album, that’s for sure. It isn’t the band’s best, but it’s an important first step for them, and is still light years ahead of most generic metalcore that’s being pumped out nowadays. Fans of thrash metal that are looking for more of a modern edge will eat this up and they’ll like it! Woof!

SEPULTURA The Roots of Sepultura

Boxset / Compilation · 1996 · Alternative Metal
Cover art 3.55 | 3 ratings
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Diogenes
Disclaimer: I am not very good at economics or anything like that. I am basing this review purely off of common sense. If any of you business types have a bone to pick with my logic, then by all means, let me have it!

Great value, this one should be. No matter what you may think of Roots as an album, to get an extra hour of bonus material along with it would be pretty shrewd. And, as a bonus, wayward reviewers essentially get to write about two albums at once, making their reviews even longer and making them seem smarter than they really are! Awesome!

...As much as I might fit that bill, I tried my best not to be a lazy jackwad, and wrote about Roots separately. If you care enough to fancy my opinion of the actual Roots album, that’s around here somewhere.

Anywho, The Roots of Sepultura is a fantastic release for a few reasons, although it isn’t as awesome as it was when it was first released. Like I said earlier, you’re getting the whole Roots album with another disk chock full of goodies. These would be several bonus tracks found on Arise, a few original mixes (OooOooOoOoo) of tracks from the same album, a couple of rare demos, three short covers, and a nice little live show. Now, I know what you’re saying…”Hey Diogenes, big f’in deal! It’s just a b-sides album!” Well, it isn’t. I can’t say much for the original mixes of the Arise tracks (I admit this might be kind of pointless unless you’re a hardcore Sepultura fan), but everything else is well worth it.

The demos (Necromancer and The Past Reborns the Storms (earlier version of From the Past Comes the Storm)) are cool, because…they actually sound better than the final recordings! The production on Morbid Visions and Schizophrenia sucked major ass, so this isn’t THAT surprising, but still. There’s some serious CRRRUNCH going on in these demos, and although they’re still pretty sloppily played, I’d prefer listening to them than the ones that actually got released.

Believe it or not, Sepultura was heavily influenced by both hardcore punk and psychedelic rock. So, it seems fitting that they pay tribute to some of those bands on this collection of bonuses. The covers of Os Mutantes, Dead Kennedys, and Ratos de Porão are obviously not essential, but they’re a fun listen. The gem of the covers here is by far Orgasmatron, with the band building on the original Motorhead track and adding their own special flavor to make it that much better. You may or may not have gotten this on Arise, but this wouldn’t be much of a Sepultura cover collection without it.

The live tracks are probably the best parts of the bonus disk. They were taken from the excellent 1991 Barcelona concert, which you can also find on DVD. Sepultura are (or were, at this time in their career) a very good live band, and this shows them off in their prime, playing some of their best songs from their best albums. Morbid Visions, Schizophrenia, Beneath the Remains, and Arise are all treated in this mini-show, with excellent live mixing and a great performance from Max and the band. And, as a bonus-bonus, you get a live performance of the rarity Anticop as well. Pretty good deal, if you ask me.

Now that I’ve run over the material, here’s what makes The Roots of Sepultura such a great compilation. The band has released other compilations like this (namely Blood Rooted), but there is almost no overlap between those releases and this one. That means if you get this album, you can still get Blood Rooted and not feel completely ripped off. Sounds good, yes?

However, there might be a couple of catches, depending on what your CD collection looks like. The problem is that The Roots of Sepultura is supposedly a pretty rare album. On the band’s 25th anniversary, Roadrunner decided to make another one like this, but with a bunch of different material on the second disk. This was a pretty dumb move, because that had several tracks that overlapped with Blood Rooted, so people will now just rather buy the double album instead of the rarity collection. In addition, the label eventually decided to take pretty much all of these bonus tracks and spread them out over various re-releases of the band’s earlier works. What all of this means is that The Roots of Sepultura is hard to find (with its value is somewhat diminished compared to when it was first released), and thus people looking to make a quick buck will try to convince you that it is worth something around $50. Is it? NO! Hell no. Absolutely not. I got mine from Amazon for around $17. Let the buyer beware!

Whether I’d recommend that you get The Roots of Sepultura would depend on what you already have; my rating might not mean much to you. If you own the re-released versions of Arise and Roots, then hunting for a good price on this compilation is not really worth it, unless you’re a diehard fan. However, if you don’t own any Sepultura albums, then go ahead and try to find this for a good price. Keep in mind that the bonus tracks come bundled with the real Roots CD, so it’s still good value. Just watch out for redundancy and think before you buy!

AS I LAY DYING An Ocean Between Us

Album · 2007 · Metalcore
Cover art 3.65 | 6 ratings
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Diogenes
Hot damn, it’s amazing how a couple of riffs here and some experimentation there can turn something ordinary into something, um…a little above ordinary. That’s more or less what happened on As I Lay Dying’s fourth album, An Ocean Between Us. The band shows a more mature songwriting style and a willingness to try new things here, which would probably appeal to new fans as well as their…unique fanbase.

Before I go any further, let’s get some things out of the way. This is still a metalcore record, so if you don’t like metalcore, then go ahead and leave now. Also, this is not a total reinvention of the As I Lay Dying sound, as there are still plenty of flaws that plagued this band on earlier records. Namely, the vocals of Tim Lambesis still aren’t anything to write home about, especially the autotuned clean vocals. There are still religious lyrics, so if that’s not your thing, then take a hike. And, there are still those pesky breakdowns, infecting your brain with rotten goo and horridness.

However, if you’re still reading, then you might be happy to know that no combination of the above flaws makes this album unlistenable, as might have been the case for their previous efforts. In fact, this album as a whole is actually decent and enjoyable. Why? Well my friend, I’m glad you asked!

First, the guitar work. Now, the guitarists themselves have never been the weak point in this band, as both Nick Hipa and Phil Sgrosso wield their instruments with skill and precision. Rather, the problem had been that the guitars were often chugging along with no aim, being used as the forefront of the band’s sound but giving off more of a background effect. An Ocean Between Us puts this firmly in the past, with more guitar harmonies and less pointless noodling in the lead department. Oh, and another thing…listen to Within Destruction. Is that a…? WOAHMYGOD! THRASH! It’s a thrash riff! Yep, on this album As I Lay Dying finally stopped fooling around with half-thrash riffs, and upgraded to, er, full-thrash riffs. Granted, this album isn’t a full-out thrash assault, but there are still plenty of great riffs here. Check the title track, Bury Us All, and Comfort Betrays for more thrashcore fun. To top it off, there are actually a few guitar solos that are, you know, part of the songs. This is opposed to “Gosh, this song is awfully short. Hey, why don’t you throw in some shreddy shreddy here to make it sound cooler?” Cohesion, man. It’s actually there this time.

If you take a look at the tracklist, you’ll probably notice that there is more variation in the track lengths compared to the norm for this band. This is due to more variation in the songwriting area. Nobody wants to hear the same thing 12 times on the same album, and rest assured that won’t be a problem on this one. There’s your standard intro track and an interlude that –surprise!- actually fits in and isn’t totally pointless. Neither of these are needed, of course, but they’re nice to see. There are the thrashy tracks that I pointed out earlier. There’s I Never Wanted, which a slower song that, through the use of layered clean and harsh vocals, doesn’t completely suck in the vocal department. Basically, the deviations that As I Lay Dying incorporated in An Ocean Between Us makes the album a more interesting listen, at the very least.

The album is very well-produced, as you might expect. The guitar tone is amazing once again, thundering through every riff like a freight train at full speed, but everything else sounds good, too. Jordan Mancino’s drums are nice and sharp, leading one to notice his improved technique on this album (excellent double bass work in particular). The bass is, well…you can kind of hear it this time. It still doesn’t add to or take away from the sound, but it’s there, at least.

If you didn’t like As I Lay Dying before, you might want to at least give An Ocean Between Us a shot. It’s not a total 180 from their style, but it’s certainly no generic metalcore album, either. I still can’t call myself a fan, but this album was at least fun to listen to multiple times, and it should be for you, too.

SEPULTURA Roots

Album · 1996 · Alternative Metal
Cover art 2.68 | 47 ratings
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Diogenes
So, it’s 1996 and metal is just about as dead as a dodo. Sure, there were your various underground bands keeping the faith, and Pantera was there, but for the most part the genre had been an afterthought for a while. It was during this time that many of the longtime staples in metal had begun to change their sound, either out of mainstream starvation or out of boredom. Sepultura was one of the prime examples, releasing Roots early that year to some controversy. Oh, was there controversy. The media, for the most part, loved it. The metalheads, for the most part, hated it. I love me some controversy, especially regarding music, so Roots is a very interesting album to me. I was on the fence for quite a while, trying to decide if it was either creative genius or nu-metal garbage, but after navigating through the deepest jungles of South America (read: my brain), I have finally seen the light in Sepultura’s most diverse record.

Roots is famous for being one of the first metal albums to incorporate heavy doses of tribal elements. Of course, there were some hints of the band going in this direction on Arise and Chaos A.D., but not to this magnitude. Just about every track has Brazilian percussion and reggae influences thrown in there, making for a listening experience that’s unique, at the very least. Tracks like Ratamahatta and Breed Apart are centered around such drumming, with Brazilian musician Carlinhos Brown making a significant contribution on the former. This is the album’s calling card, as the tribal aspects outshine everything else and make Roots what it is.

Don’t be confused. This is still a metal album. The thrashing is all but gone, but Roots is still one heavy sonofabitch. The riffs are slow, sludgy, and simple, creating more of a bottom-heavy atmosphere than a guitar-oriented attack. When tribal drumming is not being used, Igor Cavalera is still as steady as they come behind the kit, beating his drums with relentless energy and vigor, especially on Dusted and the Cut-Throat. It’s different, sure, but that’s why they call it alternative metal. Oh, and the other Cavalera? He’s on an absolute rampage on this album. I would hate to be the person who sent Max over the edge, because he’s beyond pissed on every track. His guitar work might be a bit lazy, but his emotive vocal performance more than makes up for it.

So, what’s wrong with Roots? To a lot of people, this album comes off as too experimental. The tribal elements are annoying, it’s not metal enough, and the band’s changing image (Max’s dyed dreadlocks, in particular) made many fans wonder where the hell that great 80s thrash band went. It’s no secret that two of the biggest influences on Sepultura’s alternative metal adventure were Korn and Deftones, which was a big no-no to those who cared way too much. The guitars are downtuned to an atrocious level as a result of these influences. Did I mention it’s not metal enough? I mean, those exotic jams are just WEIRD! The distorted vocals are stupid (I can agree with this), some of the songs are too noisy (I agree with this too), and it’s still not metal enough. Lookaway is definitely a “miss” in the grand experiment, using the vocals of Jonathan Davis and Mike Patton to zero effectiveness, and having two tribal jams in a row (Jasco and Itsari) kind of put me off. Obviously, when a band changes its sound so drastically, you can’t really expect consistent songwriting results on the first (and only) try; there are plenty of things on Roots that just flat-out do not work. The album is closed with another jam, which might have been a good idea if it wasn’t so damn long. Instead, it acts as a sort of anticlimactic ending to an album full of variety.

Despite all of the mixed feelings I have about Roots, here is why it ends up working. In making this album, Sepultura did not just base their music off of Brazilian culture, but they embraced it. Forget about the nu-metal influences for a minute; the band went to great lengths to make this album a piece of Brazilian history, and that should be commended. Sepultura met with the Xavante Indians to help with recording and learn more about their culture and, they based almost all of the lyrics on problems in the Brazilian culture and politics. This can be hard to take in going track-by-track, but if you look at it from a broader perspective, you can realize that the album is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Roots is not a concept album, and yet it embodies the society, emotions, and people of Brazil all the same. As a straight-up metal album, Roots falls short; but as I understand more and more about the creation of this album and the ground it broke, I have less and less of a problem giving it the respect it truly deserves.

AS I LAY DYING Shadows Are Security

Album · 2005 · Metalcore
Cover art 2.84 | 6 ratings
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Diogenes
As I Lay Dying seems to be one of those bands someone has to either love or hate. All the scene kiddies are like, “AHH this band is soooo br00tal and hardXcore! Heavy metal 4 lyfe!” while the devout metalheads say, “NO this band sucks, they aren’t tr00 metal, metalcore sucks, poser!” Not being a big fan of the genre (or internet arguments), I never really gave them a good listen, as the few songs I had heard weren’t really that memorable. Alas, being the adventurous type, our paths eventually crossed once again, and I felt compelled to listen to this album. Upon further investigation, Diogenes can conclude that Shadows Are Security is totally mediocre and probably not worth a purchase.

My initial fear was that this would be one of those annoying “br00tal” bands with songs composed entirely of breakdowns and stupid gimmicks like “crabcore”. To my relief, this was not the case, as Shadows are Security is indeed a real metal album, with musicians playing actual metal music. Yay! Stage one, pass.

The musicianship on this album is tighter than I expected it to be, although it’s bogged down by middling songwriting. The guitarists are obviously pretty talented, playing some thrashy riffs with decent melodies. There are some dual guitar harmonies, which are a joy to listen to, but those don’t really come up to often. Yes, the guitars sound generic, but they are by far the strongest point of the album, which is good, since the songwriting puts them as the driving force of the album anyway. They are backed by drums that don’t take many adventures and a bass that might as well just not be there at all. Nothing to note here.

Being a metalcore band, As I Lay Dying plays breakdowns. Oh no. Not breakdowns. Anything but those. They aren’t used in excess here (thankfully), but there are enough to make you wonder, “Was that really necessary?” The songs aren’t very long, and they would be even shorter if no breakdowns were used, but c’mon. They’re dumb and unneeded. The album is plenty headbangable without them.

The vocals, frankly, aren’t very good. They’re just your standard metalcore vocals. Honestly, this is probably why a lot of people dismiss As I Lay Dying as being “just another crappy metalcore band”. Most of the time, they stick to an almost-gutteral growl, spitting out incomprehensible Christian lyrics. The cleans, when they make an appearance, are forgettable, with little power (being lower in the mix than the harsh vocals doesn’t help). There are a couple of moments on the album that experiment with a harsh barking a la some death metal bands, and it fits the music a lot better than the gutterals do. I guess my main problem with the vocals on this album is that, like the guitars, they are directionless. Are they trying to be angry? Evil? What? There’s little to no emotion. It’s like the growls are there just because it’s metal and growls sound nice over distorted guitars.

Where Shadows Are Security runs into some big problems is towards the end. It’s at the end, actually. All gripes I had before this one are negligible compared to this. Here’s the dealio: this album is about 43 minutes long. On minute 44 (that would be when the album is over), I was through listening, and…I felt absolutely no reason to listen to it over again. As I had felt when first listening to this band, there was nothing memorable on this album at all. I could remember maybe three riffs, zero solos (understandable, since there aren’t many), and one breakdown, since I was expecting those anyway. That was about it. The only other thing I could remember is how generic the vocals are, and that’s not really a good thing. Refusing to be defeated, I listened to the album again. Still nothing. A third listen yielded the same result. I simply did not want to listen to the album again. Yes, that’s not good.

Not liking metalcore any more or less before listening to Shadows Are Security, I may have exaggerated on the album’s weak points too much. So, here are some build-ups for you! The thrashy guitar work is enhanced by a production that is flattering, to say the least. Even the chugging riffs sound nice and clean. Say what you will, but I love me some clean production, and the guitar tone here is splendid. The songs are easy to listen to (lack of memorability notwithstanding), with most of the intros being catchy enough to hook you and hold your attention for 3 and a half minutes. Because of the guitar-embellishing production and style of playing, Shadows Are Security is definitely good for some embarrassing air guitaring and headbanging. Do not try this at home, kids!

What I hear in Shadows Are Security is a band that is ready to break all of the stereotypes, but for whatever reason is still playing below their potential. The signs are there, sure. There are your thrash and melodic death metal influences, so this might appeal to fans of those genres. And obviously, if you like metalcore, then go pick this up. However, I can’t see this being a treasure for anyone who takes their metal more seriously than “Hey, I’m in the mood for heavy music”. Too generic, too cookie-cutter-ish, too mediocre. If you want this band at its best, try their next album instead.

RAINTIME Flies & Lies

Album · 2007 · Power Metal
Cover art 3.52 | 2 ratings
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Diogenes
Raintime are an up-and-coming melodic death/power metal band. No, they aren’t from anywhere in Scandinavia. Sorry to disappoint you.

As with many bands of this subgenre, Raintime isn’t really “death metal” per se. A more accurate description would be “power-metal-with-harsh-vocals”, but that’s a few words too many for those in charge of these things, so here we are.

The sound on Flies and Lies is very energetic (save for the slower ballad-ish track Finally Me), with upbeat drumming and all sorts of melodies flying around in the mix. The music here is very keyboard-centric, with Andrea Corona often using his instrument as a lead while the guitar duo of Matteo Di Bon and Luca Michael Martina fills out the bottom end with plenty of meaty riffs. The good thing is, these keyboards are not in any way “flowery” or over-the-top, as opposed to how many European metal bands use them. Instead, they lend a great atmosphere, giving the impression of, um…rain falling on your window or sidewalk. Rain time, indeed. Listen to Rolling Chances and you’ll get an idea of what I’m trying to say here. When given their time to shine, the guitars excel too, with more melodic riffs in the verses and just an overall awesome tone. As a result of all those melodies, there are LOTS of times where this album is very catchy and accessible. You can pick from almost any song at random and you’ll be bobbing your head to it for sure. Finally, the rhythm section is pretty tight, with drummer Enrico Fabris providing oodles of energy behind the kit. His bass drum patterns sprint right alongside the keys and guitars, with the occasional oddities thrown in there to keep thing interesting.

Vocalist Claudio Coassin gives a pretty good performance on Flies and Lies, showing improved versatility from the band’s debut Tales of Sadness. What he does isn’t anything spectacular, choosing to “bark” where most other vocalists would growl, but it works here, suiting the music more than a more guttural vocal style would. In the clean vocal department, high notes are not his specialty, but his midrange vocals are extremely enjoyable to listen to. Another plus would be that he took a very active songwriting role in this album (something I’d like to see metal vocalists do more often), which is probably the main reason why his vocals fit the music so well. Definitely commendable.

Flies and Lies would be an excellent album if not for two issues. Number one, and the more obvious, would be the Michael Jackson cover. What’s it doing here? I (somewhat begrudgingly) admit that it’s well done, and a fun idea, but this is something that I’d much rather see the band put on an EP or B-sides collection, or even at the end of the album as a bonus track. Being in the middle of two tracks as it is makes it awkward and out of place. The other issue is that after a few listens, this album seems kind of repetitive. While the songs are written well, most of them are samey in the riffs department, and not many adventures are taken in their structuring. This isn’t a problem if you’re listening to just a couple of tracks, but it takes away from the album as a whole. However, the silver lining is the album length (46 minutes) isn’t too short or too long; the band makes their point in a timely manner.

Despite the repetition that this album runs into in its second half, there are still some standout tracks here. You can’t start and album off much better than Raintime did with this one, as both the title track and Rolling Chances hook you with mesmerizing keyboard work and earnest vocal performances. They are both very lively tracks, getting you that much more interested in what the rest of the album has to offer. Finally Me is a…surprisingly good ballad. Coassin’s vocals steal the spotlight, belting out emotional (not cheesy) lyrics, with the keys adding that little tinge of sadness without overdoing it. And Matrioska is the perfect album closer, leaving you with one more catchy intro, one more melodic verse, and one more great chorus.

In a point that you may or may not (but definitely should) care about, the production on Flies and Lies is fantastic. It’s thick without being muddy, clear without being too loud, and all of the instruments are balanced in a way that contributes to the sound as a whole, instead of each one individually. Bluntly, whoever mixed this did a great job.

While the material on Flies and Lies is a bit monotonous, you should really consider giving it a listen. It’s a fun, vigorous effort that manages to add a speck of originality to what you already love about the power-metal-with-harsh-vocals genre. No umbrella needed!

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