Metal Music Reviews from DippoMagoo

MICHAEL ROMEO War of the Worlds / Pt. 1

Album · 2018 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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Whenever I listen to a metal album, the one instrument I tend to pay the most attention to is the guitar, as I’ll always love a good, crunchy riff, a killer solo or some awesome melodic leads whenever I hear them. One of my favorite guitarists of all time is Symphony X guitarist Michael Romeo, who has established his own signature sound over the past two and a half decades, and while his style has certainly evolved quite a bit over time, becoming a bit meaner and crunchier and a bit less neoclassical, whenever I hear anything with him performing on it, I can notice his distinct sound immediately. So obviously, I was beyond excited when I heard he was working on a new solo album, with his main band being on a bit of a break at the moment. He did previously make a solo record titled The Dark Chapter, back in 1995, but that was right at the start of his days with SX, and so his sound has changed a lot since then, making a new solo album all the more appealing. He has brought together a talented supporting band to create his new release, War of the Worlds / Pt. 1, an amazing release which promises more to come, based on that title.

Anyone who’s heard a Symphony X album before should have a good idea of what to expect here, as Michael hasn’t strayed too far from his normal style here, offering up the kind of aggressive, epic and at times melodic and relaxing progressive metal his band has become known for. There’s a bit of something for everyone here, with some crunchier, fast-paced tracks with power metal influences, which could have easily come from any of the past few SX albums, while other tracks in the second half of the album are a bit softer, some of them being more complex and having more layers to them, as expected. There’s a couple of tracks in particular that probably comes the closest to Michael’s classic sound than anything else he has done in recent years, which is pretty awesome. At the same time, there’s definitely some new elements here as well, with the album being surprisingly a bit more symphonic than anything he’s done in the past, even getting a bit cinematic at times. There are quite a few softer instrumental portions that have very little to do with metal, instead of being dominated by keyboards, orchestral sounds, and even some electronic effects, so those sections offer up a nice change of pace from the usual material. While Michael is clearly the star here, the other two musicians do a great job as well, with the drums especially sounding excellent, and everything is performed flawlessly, and of course, the production is perfect. Songwriting is quite varied and offers up a nice mix of more straight-forward material with strong vocal melodies, as well as some more complex tracks and a few tracks that are mostly instrumental, including two full instrumentals (one of which is the expected intro track, of course.)

Perhaps the most surprising and impressive thing about this release, though, is the vocals. It’s not like the vocals here are anything radically different from what fans would expect with this sound or anything. In fact, vocalist Rick Castellano manages to channel all aspects of Russell Allen’s vocal style so well, it almost feels like Michael specifically told him to listen exclusively to SX for several hours, focusing mostly on the vocals, so he could perform the vocal melodies on this album exactly how Russell would have. I’m not sure if that actually happened, but either way, Rick certainly pulls it off perfectly, with everything from the gruff, aggressive vocals on heavier sections, to the softer, more emotional vocals during more melodic portions, as well as even the huge backing vocals towards the end of tracks, all being performed to perfection, and certainly sounding familiar but in an amazing way. If I hadn’t been told this was a solo album, I probably would have mistaken it for a new album from Mike’s main band, that’s how similar the vocals sound at times, which is highly impressive, considering Russell Allen is one of my all-time favorite singers.

Of course, the quality of the performances wouldn’t matter a whole lot if the actual songs were no good, but thankfully that isn’t the case here, not in the least. Michael has produced an excellent batch of songs here, which flow together perfectly and certainly feel like they belong together, as expected from the first part of a multi-part concept album. The intro track is pretty impressive, opening up with epic orchestral pieces that certainly have a very cinematic feel to them before the full band kicks in and unleashes a couple minutes of epic instrumental metal. After that, the first full track comes in the form of “Fear the Unknown”, the shortest but also the most explosive of the full-length tracks on this album. It comes firing out of the gates with some epic shredding from Michael before Rick quickly steals the show with some excellent soaring vocals, which carry over into the chorus. There are some excellent riffs and shredding throughout the track, and it’s a very fast-paced, energetic track with a perfect mix of heaviness and great melodies, as well as an excellent instrumental section, as expected. Next is “Black”, the first single of the album, which starts off slowly with some heavy guitars and epic orchestral elements in the background, before the guitars take over after a bit and the music speeds up, becoming another hard-hitting and speedy track. This track is a bit more complex than the opener, mixing in some slower sections to go along with the frantic verses, as well as having some excellent rhythm guitar work at points, but it’s still a pretty speedy track with an excellent chorus, while having several sections where Michael gets to steal the show with some awesome guitar work, as expected. It’s probably the most aggressive track on the album, as well as my personal favorite.

The first surprise of the album comes in the form of “Fucking Robots”, a hilariously named track, which isn’t at all what I would have expected based on its name. Instead of being overly heavy or filled with profanity, it’s actually a fairly light, largely instrumental track with a very cinematic feel to it, as well as having some futuristic sounding keyboard effects and quite a bit of electronic elements. There’s a couple of very melodic vocal sections in the middle, but for the most part, it’s largely instrumental track which doesn’t feel particularly metal, though it’s definitely nicely done and serves as an interesting change of pace. Next is “Djinn”, the most complex and most progressive track on the album. It starts out pretty heavy, with some aggressive riffs, and it stays rather mid-tempo for a bit, before opening up with some huge vocal melodies, and then shifting gears with an extended instrumental section in the middle, which alternates nicely between soft and heavy sections. The track goes through different moods throughout and certainly brings to mind some classics from around the middle period of SX’s career. Speaking of which, “Believe” is a very classic SX feeling track, except with a slightly more cinematic feel to it than normal. It opens up with some nice piano work, which stays there throughout the track, and it’s easily the softest and more emotional track on the album, with some very powerful vocals from Rick. It stays mostly soft throughout, without feeling like a full ballad, instead of being a relaxing track with just a slight metal edge to it, while being very vocal driven, with the guitars mostly playing a secondary role, aside from an epic solo towards the end. Basically, the track reminds me a lot of the two “Accolade” tracks, which have always been among my favorites, and this one is definitely worthy of being mentioned alongside those masterpieces.

The heaviness picks up again with “Differences”, a slightly speedy track with some pretty heavy riffs, which alternates between speedy, energetic verses, and a softer but very powerful chorus where Rick really shines, once again. Next is the full instrumental track “War Machine”, which has some epic guitar work early on, though it’s mostly a very symphonic track, where the orchestral elements dominate and it again has a very cinematic, almost film score like feel to it, particularly reminding of Star Wars at a couple points, except with some heavy guitars added in to make it feel even more epic. The last heavy track is “Oblivion”, a slow but hard-hitting track which feels along the lines of “The Serpent’s Kiss”, with a dark atmosphere as well as some very crunchy riffs and aggressive vocals, mixed in with an excellent chorus, and of course an excellent solo section in the second half. The speedy part in the middle is my favorite moment, but the entire track is excellent. Closing out the album is “Constellations”, a soft and largely instrumental track, which brings back some melodies from the intro, and while Rick doesn’t sing a lot on this track, when he does he sounds incredible and gives perhaps his best performance on the entire album. It’s a very epic and beautiful track, which closes out the album on a definite high note.

Overall, War of the Worlds / Pt. 1 is an excellent solo album from Michael Romeo, which delivers plenty of great riffs and plenty of great moments that will remind listeners of his main band, while times stretching out a bit and going for a more cinematic sound than expected. While Michael is clearly the star, the album also represents a major breakthrough for Rick Castellano, who really excels throughout, and I’d certainly love to hear more from him in the future. The album is obviously recommended for all fans of Symphony X, as well as for anyone looking for some aggressive and fun prog, with some nice melodies to go along with the expected huge instrumental sections. I certainly look forward to hearing Pt. 2, whenever it comes, and hope for it to be on par with this one.

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REDEMPTION Long Night's Journey Into Day

Album · 2018 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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Sometimes, I’ll be excited for a new album not because of the name of the band releasing it, but because of something particular about the album itself. Either an interesting concept, a guest appearance or the inclusion of someone I’m a fan of, or it could just be that a hear an early single and it gets me excited. In the case of Long Night’s Journey Into Night, the seventh full length release from American prog band Redemption, I was excited as soon as I heard it would be the band’s first release with new lead singer Tom S. Englund, the mastermind behind Evergrey, one of my all-time favorite bands in the genre. I previously heard the band’s previous two releases, In This Mortal Coil and The Art of Loss, and while I found them both enjoyable, neither of them really blew me away initially nor stuck with me much over time. I was hoping the addition of Tom would help the band to finally realize their potential and produce an album that would hook me, and thankfully that’s exactly what happened, as Long Night’s Journey Into Day isn’t just by far my favorite Redemption album I’ve heard: It’s one of my favorite prog albums of the last few years!

Redemption has always been on the heavier side of the genre, with In This Mortal Coil in particular feeling like a very raw sounding prog album, so it’s no surprise there are some hard-hitting riffs on this new release. Alongside being notably heavy, the band is also known for having some outstanding musicianship, with guitarist Nik van Dyk in particularly being very technically proficient, and of course the keyboards and drums are excellent as well, with the former in particular being very prominent in this album, and adding some extra flavor to the music. Their music is known to be equal parts complex, emotional, introspective and accessible, and all of those definitely apply to Long Night’s Journey Into Day. Obviously, considering who the new singer is, it’s no surprise to know this album deals with some fairly dark lyrical themes at times, and the music itself is very atmospheric as well, with the guitar tone at times coming fairly close to Evergrey, but one of the biggest differences between the two bands is actually something both the name of the band and album would suggest. Where the former is very dark, with any hints of light being very short lived and outweighed by darkness, Redemption do heave their dark themes, but they often offer up some hope and optimism as well, and tracks like “Indulge in Color” and the title track of this album are a perfect example of that, with the mood changing subtly throughout the tracks, in a very effective way. While the tracks are often fairly lengthy, the majority of the tracks here are fairly direct and simple, with a few big instrumental moments to give them an extra edge. Obviously, the title track is much more complex, but it too has plenty of memorable melodies and hooks to grab onto, while at the same offering up plenty of details to look for on subsequent listens. Production is absolutely perfect as expected from Jacob Hansen, and this is definitely the most polished sounding Redemption album to date.

The one element of this album I was most excited for, was, of course, the vocals. While I enjoyed the two previous albums I’ve heard from the band, I found that Ray Alder’s vocals didn’t quite have the same spark there as they usually do with Fate’s Warning, and that was one of the reasons I was hopeful the change in singer would help me appreciate this band more. While I was initially concerned after hearing the lead single “Little Men”, as soon as I heard the full release I knew without a doubt Tom was given plenty of room to work with, and he excels just as much here as he does with Evergrey. He’s especially great at singing with emotion, and so the tracks where he has to alternate from themes of fear and doubt to themes of hope and optimism are where he especially shines, and he sings with as much power and emotion as ever. There are times where his voice gets a bit deeper than usual, and while it took some time for me to used to, these deeper vocals also sound quite good and definitely fit the rougher sound found on some of the heavier sections of this album.

One area where I was especially interested to see if the band would deliver was in the songwriting, as I found their previous two albums to consistently enjoyable, but they lacked anything truly memorable. Thankfully, that is not the case here, as there’s a nice mix between heavier, more instantly engaging tracks, as well as some more complex tracks and some subtler, more emotional tracks that take some time to open up. Everything is very well done, though, and the album, on the whole, is excellent. Opening track “Eyes You Dare Not Meet in Dreams” pulls a nice trick at the beginning, starting with some electronic effects that give the feeling it will be a rather slow and melodic track, but then the guitars quickly kick in and the music speeds up, turning into a fast, hard-hitting track with some power metal elements. It has fun verses, where Tom really excels, as well as a great melodic chorus, and the riffs and drums are energetic throughout, making it easily the most immediately engaging track I’ve ever heard from the band. At the same time, it has some really nice melodies mixed in as well, and it does still have signs of the band’s prog tendencies. It’s an excellent opening track, and one of my personal favorites on the album.

Next is: Someone Else’s Problem”, which again kicks off with an extended electronic intro, before the guitars kick in, though this track is a bit more relaxed. It still has some heavy riffs, but the keyboards are a bit more prominent here and there are some slight symphonic elements as well. It’s a more laid back track, moving at a mid-paced tempo, and it has a soft and very strong chorus as well as an excellent instrumental section in the second half. In similar territory is “The Echo Chamber”, which has an extended intro once again, though this time the guitars are out right at the start, and the track settles into a nice groove, moving at a slightly slower pace than the previous track. Again, it has a really big and melodic chorus, where Tom sings with a ton of emotion, and this is definitely one of the tracks where he shines the most. The track overall does a great job of alternating between heavy and melodic sections and is complex while still begin engaging and fairly accessible. Next is the heavier track “Impermanent”, a faster pace track where the guitar tone is especially dark and reminds me quite a bit of Evergrey at times, and while the verses are fast and fun, the chorus also feels familiar, in a good way, and Tom clearly excels again throughout the track. The instrumental section is quite intense, frequently shifting between guitars and keyboards, and overall it’s a fun and very engaging track, while still having excellent musicianship throughout.

The first two singles of the album are next and placed together, with the second single “Indulge in Color” coming first. This track absolutely blew me away the first time I heard it and is certainly one of the most complex and most beautiful songs on the album. It starts out softly, with some rather ominous sounding acoustic guitars and the soft voice of Tom, but after a while, it gets heavy, and turns into one of the most complicated tracks on the album, with a lot of layers to it as well as plenty of shifts in mood. Tom executes these shifts brilliantly, with the first half of the track being fairly dark, but by the end of the track the tone has become much more hopeful, and Tom sings the lyrics absolutely perfectly, helping to make it one of the most beautiful tracks I’ve heard from a prog band. Everything is perfect, from the vocals to the shifts in guitar tone and keyboard sound throughout, and once the music gets more upbeat later on, it just sounds incredible. On the opposite end of the spectrum, “Little Men” is a much darker, heavier track throughout, moving at a fairly fast paced. It’s a very impressive track musically and is very hard hitting, but I find Tom’s vocals don’t quite work as well as usual here, in large part because the vocal melodies feel a little bit lazy compared to on the rest of the album, but it’s still a fun track overall, if not one that sets a very favorable first impression for people who listen to the singles first.

Moving towards the end, the lone ballad of the album is “And Yet”, another track which shifts between moods very nicely, and it has some more very powerful vocals from Tom, as well as a nice guitar solo in the second half. It’s a more subtle track but still manages to hit quite hard in its own way. Next is “The Last of Me”, another faster-paced track with heavy riffs, a great chorus and excellent instrumental work throughout. It’s another fun and more instantly engaging track, which alternates nicely between being heavy and melodic. The next track, “New Year’s Day” is a bit more surprising, being a fairly light track with a strong emphasis on the keyboards. It almost feels like a pop/rock track at times, aside from the riffs and dark guitar tone. It’s certainly a more melodic track and one of the more accessible songs here, with a great chorus, as usual. Lastly, we have the epic 10-minute title track, which is definitely not one of the more accessible tracks here. It starts off softly, with an extended intro largely focused on vocals and soft guitar work, before the music fakes a sinister turn and gets much heavier. The track alternates between heavy and soft several times throughout, and goes through several mood swings, pretty much feeling like a perfect summary of the album on the whole. It’s a very complex track, which manages to throw in a ton of epic, technically impressive instrumental sections while still leaving tons of room for big vocal melodies, and memorable moments. It’s another very emotional track, and stands alongside the opener and “Indulge in Color” as one of my three favorites on the album.

I was cautiously optimistic before hearing Long Night’s Journey Into Day, and thankfully it managed to exceed my best expectations and has become both my favorite album from Redemption, as well as my favorite album involving Tom S. Englund in quite some time. It retains the complex musicianship and heavy riffs of past albums, while at times being very melodic and having some very powerful lyrics and amazing vocal melodies. It manages to be equal parts complex and accessible and is definitely one of the best prog albums I’ve heard in recent years. A must hear for any fan of Redemption or Evergrey and highly recommend for all prog fans in general.

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VAN CANTO Trust in Rust

Album · 2018 · Power Metal
Cover art 2.50 | 1 rating
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There are quite a few unique novelty bands playing various styles of metal, but perhaps no other band is more out there than Van Canto. Many bands focus on specific lyrical themes or use weird costumes or face paint and the like to distinguish themselves, but where Van Canto separates themselves from everyone else is purely with their sound. Their music is based around Acapella, a specific style of choral singing where the voice is used to create a full sound, often being used to make up for the lack of any physical instruments. Needless to say, pulling this off in the realms of metal is quite the challenge, and, at least to my knowledge, no one else has yet to attempt it, yet somehow Van Canto not only manages to make it work, they’ve had great success in doing so, releasing six albums through twelve years of existence, up to this point.

The band first exploded onto the scene in 2006, with their debut A Storm to Come, which was quite the impressive debut, containing a mix of original tracks as well as a cover of Metallica’s classic “Battery”, with the latter in particular catching the attention of many folks for being a unique and quite amazing version of the song. Over the next eight years, the band would release four more albums which followed roughly the same formula, featuring some original tracks, which were mostly based around a fantasy power metal style, along with the occasional ballad or more heavy metal influenced track, or even a track with slight symphonic elements through the use of vocal effects, as well covers of more classics such as “Wishmaster”, “Fear of the Dark” and “Master of Puppets”. My favourite work of theirs to date is their third album, Tribe of Force, which struck a perfect balance between originals and covers, as well as simply being an incredibly energetic and well-performed album. However, they changed things up a bit in 2016 with their sixth release, Voices of Fire, ditching covers completely and going for more of a conceptual approach, while also increasing the symphonic elements. It was a surprisingly cohesive and epic fantasy power metal album full of great tracks, and quickly became my second favourite by the band, as well as being their most adventurous and most epic. I was anticipating a follow up in the near future, but sadly longtime lead vocalist Sly left the band in 2017, which led to the band shifting gears. They recruited new vocalist Hagen Hirschmann and soon went to work on their next release. Now, in the second half of 2018, that new release, Trust in Rust, is here, and it marks a return to a more traditional format for the band, containing a couple of cover tracks, as well as being less focused and more silly, like past releases. Unfortunately, while it still contains some fun tracks and traces of their epic sound, less energetic and rougher performances, as well as inconsistent songwriting, prevent it from living up their past works, instead of ending up as easily their weakest release to date.

For those who’ve never heard the band before, Van Canto has a truly unique sound, with drums being the only physical instrument in place, while everything else is performed through vocals. They have members making different sounds to imitate the guitars and bass, as well as occasionally having co-lead vocalist Inga Scharf add in some effects to give more of a symphonic feel, and the way they make random sounds to perform “guitar” solos is quite comical yet also pretty impressive, in a weird way. Their style has stayed largely the same over the years, though their sound has become more polished, and their songwriting has gotten a bit more epic as well as more diverse over time, most notably on Voices of Fire. With that being said, Trust in Rust is quite surprising, as it feels like all the evolution found on the aforementioned album has been completely reversed, as the songs are back to being very simple, the symphonic elements are completely gone, and the songwriting is as straight-forward as ever. There’s a mix of speedier tracks, mid-paced tracks and one ballad, as expected, and some tracks bring back the classic “rakka takka” and “riddly diddly” sounds used on some of their most popular tracks, but overall I find the performances to be a little less inspired here than on past albums. Obviously it’s still a fun album, and the backing vocalists, drummer Bastian and Inga all give solid performances, but the energy of past albums isn’t quite there this time, and while Sly being out of the picture may be a part of that, it also could just be that the band has finally lost some of their magic. Either way, there’s still some great tracks here, as well as some fairly decent tracks, and unfortunately some major duds. The faster paced original tracks are generally the best and come the closest to recapturing past glories, while some of the slower tracks are more flawed and help expose one particular problem this album has introduced.

That, of course, would be a new lead vocalist, Hagen. Obviously, Inga Scharf is solid as always, mostly sticking to a higher register and sometimes singing somewhat operatically, giving the tracks a nice melodic touch, but she doesn’t seem quite as energetic here as on past albums. At the same time, most highlights of the album tend to come when she is singing. Which brings me to her new co-lead, Hagen. When the band first introduced him through a mini song they composed, with him performing some vocals in it, while the band sang about him being “Voice Number Seven”, I was quite intrigued to see what he could bring to the table. I instantly noticed a deep and rather aggressive voice, that could potentially open up new possibilities for the band, as well as the potential for some death growls and other rough kinds of vocals, but I also noticed a bit of weakness in his voice, that I was hoping the band could work around. Unfortunately, it’s the weaknesses that stand out the most when Hagen sings on Trust in Rust, as while his softer, deeper vocals are decent, they feel just a tad off at times, and every time he tries adding in some power, the results are far from pretty. His voice breaks often, with very little pressure put on it, and he has a tendency to get way over the top. When you put the two together, the results have the potential to be absolutely disastrous, which is exactly what happens a few times on this album, as there are actually some tracks here I can’t listen to in full most of the time, just because I can’t take his vocals anymore. I really don’t like to harp on anyone or single one individual out in a bad way, but when your band is as heavily reliant on vocals as Van Canto, if one performer is off, especially one of the leads, it’s going to stand out in a horrible way.

Another area where Trust in Rust doesn’t fully deliver is in the songwriting. I’ll be honest: When I initially saw this album would contain cover tracks again, I was a bit disappointed, because while the band has done some great covers in the past, I found they were getting to be less and less impressive with each album, and their absence on Voices of Fire actually allowed for a more cohesive, more focused album, which I greatly appreciated. This time around, lyrical themes are all over the place, with some of the epic and fun fantasy lyrics fans would expect, as well as some tracks where things get a bit silly, but in a bad way. One example of this that could instantly leave fans with a bad first impression is the opening track “Back in the Lead”. The backing vocalists do their best work to sell it, with some nice rhythms, but the song itself is very slow paced and not as energetic as I’d expect from an opener. Worse, the lyrics are obnoxious and unbearable, with the band talking about how great they are in a way that comes off as comical and even downright childish. To make things even more unbearable, Hagen sounds just a bit off throughout the track, especially falling flat towards the end where he starts going over the top and his voice breaks in a rather embarrassing way. I’d honestly go as far as to call this the single worst track the band has ever made, so for the album to recover from this, would be a tough task.

Thankfully, things pick up quite a bit with the next track, “Javelin”. This one has some nice harmonies at the beginning and quickly picks up the pace, bringing back the classic “rakkatakka” vocals and going full force with some epic vocal melodies. It’s a high speed, a very melodic track where Inga leads the way and delivers a strong chorus. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of classics like “Lost Forever” or “My Voice”, but it’s certainly a welcome return to form after that hideous opening track. Another highlight soon follows in the form of second single “Melody”, which I think would have been a better lead single, as while “Hagen” still struggles a bit during the verses, he sounds perfectly fine on the chorus, which is huge and epic, exactly how the band sounds at their best. It’s a track that mixes speedy verses with a slow but epic chorus, and it’s definitely one of the best on the album. The highlight of the track is the epic “Rakka takka/riddly diddly” filled section in the middle, where things get crazy in an awesome way. Not quite as good as that one, but still enjoyable, are the title track and “Darkest Days”, two more mid-paced tracks. The latter has some more fairly decent vocals from Hagen, as well as some nice melodies, while the former gets a bit silly like the opening track but thankfully it’s a more energetic track overall, and the lyrics don’t stand out in a bad way like they do on “Back in the Lead”. It’s simply a solid and fun track. Closing track “Heading Home” is the one ballad on the album, and along with some pretty awesome backing vocals, it has the best performance by Hagen on the album, as he’s much more relaxed and sings softer than normal, allowing the melodies of the track to come through. It’s a surprisingly nice way to end the album. One last highlight is “Infinity”, another fun track, with a super speedy chorus, and again Hagen actually sounds pretty good here, while Inga is great as always.

Moving back to the not so positive, “Neverland” is a slower track with a pretty decent chorus, though I find it a bit cheap that the band actually says the name repeatedly as part of the backing vocals, which clearly kills the immersion, as the backing vocals are supposed to represent instruments, so that just takes me out of it a bit. The song itself is decent, but a bit uninspired and clearly one of the weaker tracks here. On the disastrous side is “Desert Snake”, a mid-paced and heavier metal influenced track, which would be decent enough, except Hagen throws in some harsh vocals every once in a while and these get on my nerves every time, making it one of the tracks I can barely get through.

Lastly, we have the two covers. First up is “Ride the Sky”, a classic Helloween song, of course. This is a pretty fun cover, with the backing members and Bastian doing a great job of converting the song to the band’s style, but while Inga does a solid enough job, I find her vocals lack a bit of energy, especially during the chorus. Speaking of which, Kai Hansen himself shows up during the chorus, but he practically sounds like he’s falling asleep, which again takes me out of the song a bit. It’s a solid cover as is, but it could have been amazing if the lead vocals were a touch stronger and more fierce, I think. The other cover is of the AC/DC classic “Hell’s Bells” and to say I was expecting it to fail hard, would be a massive understatement. The band cheats a bit again by using an actual bell at the beginning, but that’s an iconic part of the original, so I’m fine with that. The backing members again do an excellent job, managing to recreate the classic riffs and rhythms perfectly, and this actually had a chance to prove me wrong and be a great cover. Sadly, though, Hagen shows up to spoil the fun and he is at his absolute worst on this track. Trying to channel Brian Johnson is a difficult task, as he manages to pull off an epic falsetto that has a ton of grit to it, while just barely straddling the edge between being too over the top and just perfect. Sadly, Hagen is way over the top right from the very start, and he only gets worse as the track goes on, with his vocals feeling very forced and strained, and he gets so irritating by the end, I almost always have to switch the song off. Some bands are best left uncovered, and AC/DC are one of them, as both Bon Scott and Brian Johnson are near impossible to emulate, and Hagen doesn’t even come close to the latter on this track.

This has probably been my harshest review in years, perhaps ever on this site, but let’s be clear here: I’m only being so critical because I know Van Canto can and have released far better releases than this, so it just saddens me to see them fall so hard, especially after Voices of Fire was such an amazing album. Trust in Rust is a disappointing mixed bag of an album, which still has traces of the band’s epic A capella power metal in fine form, but it also has some of their weakest songwriting to date, some embarrassing lyrics and it also happens to be hamstrung by easily the worst lead vocals the band has ever had. A tough recommendation for existing fans, though they should still find a few tracks to appreciate here, while anyone else is recommended to give “Melody” a listen, and if that impresses, the rest of the album may be worth a shot, but otherwise it’s a pretty tough one to recommend. It’s still a decent release, overall, but far from what I’ve come to expect from the band, and I badly hope they can find out a way to make a better album next time out because they’re much better than this album shows.

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MOB RULES Beast Reborn

Album · 2018 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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I find some of the best bands in metal are those who are able to take strong influences from the genre staples, but instead of just imitating them straight up, they find ways to incorporate their own unique touches to help stand out from the pack, mixing together modern and classic elements to create something truly special. One of the best bands in that respect is German heavy/power metal band Mob Rules, who are set to celebrate their 25th anniversary next year. Their sound has gone through a very steady evolution over the years, starting out as a fairly typical German power metal band, before picking up elements of other genres such as classic heavy metal and symphonic metal. Their own signature sound remains fully intact, but over the years they’ve developed a sound that makes me think of what Iron Maiden would have been like if they had been a modern German power metal band, as that’s basically the kind of Sound Mob Rules delivers: A mix of speedy power metal and classic, heavily Maiden infused heavy metal, along with some symphonic elements and some small modern touches to bring the whole thing together. Their last album, Tales From Beyond did an especially great job of showing off each layer of their sound beautifully, and that has continued with their new release Beast Reborn, set for release this coming week. I was a bit nervous at first, because I find the band tends to take big steps forward every second album, and then slowing down with a slightly lesser album in between, but that trend has stopped with Beast Reborn, as it’s another excellent album that fully demonstrates every aspect of the band’s sound perfectly, while also containing some of their best and most direct songwriting quite some time, without sacrificing any of the layers or complexities of their later albums. In fact, it may end up overtaking Among the Gods to become their absolute best album to date!

For those unfamiliar with Mob Rules, their sound is rooted in German power metal, as they play a fairly heavy, guitar-driven brand of the genre featuring some heavy riffs, speedy drum patterns, and some very epic melodies and choruses. One of their biggest strengths, though, is their ability to channel that classic Maiden guitar sound, but incorporate it into their power metal sound, to give the tracks a mix of the speed and energy fans would expect from the genre, while also having a very classic heavy metal feeling to them. Out of all bands that try to emulate the legends, Mob Rules are perhaps the best at being able to give their music the sort of epic feeling that makes some of the aforementioned band’s longer songs work so well, as they’re excellent at using soft passages to slowly build up to bigger moments, and while their songs are usually fairly straight-forward, there’s usually a lot of layers to the music, including some symphonic elements and keyboards to add some extra flavor. The band strikes a perfect balance between having a lot going on to keep listeners engaged, while also having some of the catchiest and most melodic choruses out of any power metal band, which sure is saying a lot!

Well, long introduction aside, Beast Reborn takes all those things and pushes them into overdrive, just like Tales From Beyond did. Fans of that album and the band, in general, should have a good idea of what to expect here, as it demonstrates everything the band is great at and then some. There’s a little something for everyone here, with a few direct, very speedy and intense power metal based tracks, some slower heavy metal tracks, one ballad, some mid-paced tracks that have a nice rhythm to them as well as an epic feel, and two mini-epics that are rather slow building but both develop into amazing tracks. As usual, the guitar leads are the band’s biggest strength, as well as their seemingly infinite supply of incredible choruses, which are in full effect once again. At the same time, the symphonic elements are as present as ever, giving even the less immediately engaging tracks an epic feel that helps make them easier to get into, and for sure the album is as epic as the band has ever been. Songwriting is excellent across the board, and obviously, all musicians are fantastic as always and the production is absolutely perfect, as expected from the band.

One of the best aspects of the band is the vocals, so it’ll be no surprise for longtime fans to hear Klaus Dirks is still in amazing form, as always. He’s quite varied in his approach, being able to sing with a rather deep and soft voice during some of the quiet moments, while being excellent at adding some intensity at heavier parts, and he can certainly do some classic heavy metal vocals as well as anyone, as well as being excellent at soaring power metal vocals. All aspects of his voice are on full display once again on this album, and he takes some already great choruses and makes them even better, as usual.

I tend to be a bit nervous with the band in regards to songwriting, as that’s the one area where it feels like some of their albums are a bit more inspired than others, and after their previous album was one of my favorites, I expected a slight drop off this time around. Thankfully though, that didn’t happen at all, as if anything Beast Reborn may contain an even better batch of songs than Tales From Beyond. After a nice but fairly typical orchestral intro, the explosive opener and lead single “Ghost of a Chance” kicks in, and it certainly reminds me of a particularly Maiden track, but in an awesome way! It’s a speedy power metal track, with some excellent guitar leads, fun verses and a huge, extremely epic and catchy chorus which instantly shows off the band’s amazing songwriting skills. The solo section is energetic and fun as usual, and overall it’s simply an addictive track, which shows off the band’s speed and energy, as well as their amazing vocal melodies and their ability to blend together elements of power metal and classic heavy metal in the best way possible. Next is “Shores Ahead”, a slightly more restrained track, though it still moves along at a decent pace. It’s the first track where the symphonic elements are more noticeable and help give the song an epic feel. This track effectively has the epic feel and huge melodies of power metal, while being a bit slower than usual and having slight traces of classic metal and some symphonic elements. Its chorus is absolutely incredible and stands out as the highlight of the track, though the verses are also fun, the guitar solo in the second half is melodic and very well done, and overall it’s simply a wonderful track.

The pace briefly drops off with second single “Sinister Light”, which starts off with a nice, very Maiden inspired acoustic intro, before settling into a nice groove. It’s a mid-paced track with some more excellent melodic guitar tracks, and it’s definitely one of the tracks where that classic heavy metal feel is most prominent, with some heavy riffs and excellent melodies that drive the verses, while the chorus is as huge, melodic and catchy as usual. Things only get even more epic next with “Traveller in Time”, which starts off with a soft, orchestral opening featuring some great vocals from Klaus, before the pace picks up and it turns into a perfect example of everything the band is capable of. This one track perfectly shows the heavy metal sounding guitars, the power metal tempos and melodies, the epic symphonic metal elements and once again has a phenomenal chorus. The instrumental section is also incredible, and perhaps the best on the entire album, with some absolutely outstanding guitar work. Overall, it’s definitely one of the best on the album. And the highlights only continue with “Children’s Crusade, the third single released. This is one of the most straightforward tracks on the album, being very speedy and having a classic power metal chorus, while having some slight heavy metal touches in the guitars as usual, and being another very energetic and fun track, with fun verses and a great chorus.

The first long track on the album comes in the form of “War of Currents”, a very slow building track, which uses some soft acoustic passages early on to set the tone, before slowing developing into an epic heavy metal track with some extra symphonic flavoring to it. The song gets heavier as it goes along while maintaining an epic feel throughout and having some great melodies, as well as a pretty strong chorus, as usual. It’s the longest on the album and one of the most epic, with another great instrumental section, but it still manages to be pretty fun as well, once it gets going, and it shows the band’s ability to use softer passages effectively to set up for something much more epic and intense. In between the two mini-epics is “The Explorer”, one of the more modern sounding tracks on this album. It’s another fast paced track, but the guitars have an extra edge to them and feel a bit more intense than usual, helping to make the verses even faster and more furious than usual. The music slows down for a soft but very epic and catchy chorus, and overall it’s a great, more straight-forward track which still shows the band’s masterful genre-blending skills while serving as a nice break in between two longer tracks.

Which brings us to “Revenant of the Sea”, the second of the two mini-epics. This track again starts off with some nice acoustic sections, which appear frequently throughout the track. It’s a slow paced, but very epic track, which fluidly alternates between calm and heavy sections, with the heavier sections, in particular, coming close to doom metal territory with a very dark and sinister tone. The chorus is melodic and epic as always, and while both tracks are excellent, I’d say this one is the slightly better of the two mini-epics on the album. Next is “Way Back Home”, a slightly faster but still fairly restrained track, with a nice chorus, energetic verses, and some classic heavy metal riffs, as usual. It’s another fun track with a heavy use of symphonic elements and does a great job of giving listeners one more energetic track before the finale. To close out the album, we have “My Sobriety Mind (For Those Who Left)” which is the lone ballad on the album. It’s a very beautiful piano ballad, with some nice symphonic touches in the background. It’s a duet between Klaus and a guest female vocalist, and both of them sound great together, singing with a ton of emotion and helping to make for an amazing chorus. It’s a soft, but excellent way to end the album.

I was preparing myself for Beast Reborn to be a slight step back after the amazing Tales From Beyond, but if anything Mob Rules has given listeners an even better album this time around, once again demonstrating their excellent mix of German power metal and classic heavy metal, while including some epic symphonic elements as usual. The songwriting is amazing across the board, with a mix of catchy choruses, some faster heavy tracks, some more melodic tracks, and everything is very epic as always, while mostly being straight-forward and immediately engaging. This band seems to be at a creative peak as they approach 25 years of existence, so hopefully, they can keep making great music for many more years to come!

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Album · 2018 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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Before 2017, Cryonic Temple was a band I had enjoyed in the past, but I had never even come close to considering them a favorite. I was introduced to them with their third album, In Thy Power, which is generally considered their best and that one and its predecessor, Blood, Guts & Glory definitely impressed me, but they never quite blew me away. Obviously, their fourth album, Immortal, was a total disaster, which led to the band going away for quite some time, but even those more acclaimed albums, while being consistently entertaining, never quite hit me in the way any of my favorite power metal albums do. Everything changed in 2017 with Into the Glorious Battle, which saw the band returning from their long hiatus with a renewed focus, as well as changing to a more melodic but still epic and intense sound. I was instantly blown away by the melodies throughout the album as well as the more dynamic and versatile songwriting compared to their past albums. Now with their latest album, Deliverance, the band has only taken things further, producing by far their most varied, yet also their consistently engaging album to date, making it a slight step above even its amazing predecessor.

Unsurprisingly, some folks were a bit disappointed with Into the Glorious Battle, as while it was an unarguably better effort than Immortal, some missed the more epic, heavier sound of their first three albums. At this point, I think it’s safe to say those days are over and they aren’t ever coming back, though, as the band has clearly moved towards a more modernized and more melodic sound, as well as breaking new lyrical ground with a multi-part Sci-Fi concept, which started on the previous album and continues with Deliverance. For those like me who loved the previous album, this one is sure to be an absolute treat, as it continues with the same melodic, guitar-driven sound, while at times getting slightly heavier and more intense, as well as occasionally being a bit more fun and pop-ish, with a couple tracks, in particular, having some pop melodies to them, as well as being more driven by keyboards and orchestras. In fact, the orchestral elements are in full force throughout this album, showing up on many tracks, and especially being noticeable during the two ballads, as well as on some of the lighter tracks. The best thing about the previous album was how it had a perfect balance between speedier tracks, slower, more melodic tracks, ballads and some nice, melodic mic paced tracks, and if anything this album is even more varied, never falling into predictable patterns and instead constantly finding ways to surprise, all while being consistently excellent the whole way through. There’s definitely a few excellent speedy tracks that should please classic power metal fans, as well as a couple ballads and a ton of surprises.

The area where I’m most pleased with this new era of Cryonic Temple is the vocals. While I enjoyed their first three albums and thought Glen Metal did a great job, I always found his vocals to be just a bit too over the top for my taste, while current singer Mattius Lilja has a softer and much more restrained voice, which puts extra emphasis on the melodies and really allows the choruses to soar, the way a great power metal vocalist should. At the same time, he does get a bit more intense at points on this album and does a great job of that as well, so it’s safe to say he fits the band’s current sound perfectly. I also notice some rather different sounding vocals at a few points on the album, which I’ll go into detail about below, but these are generally done quite well and I assume they’re done by other members of the band, as they certainly don’t sound like Mattias. Either way, though, the album has some amazing vocal melodies throughout, and they’re all performed perfectly.

After Into the Glorious Battle managed to be such a strong album in the songwriting department, I was excited to see what the band would do with a follow up, especially one that came so shortly after Thankfully, while the band has clearly continued with the sound they established on the previous album, they have managed to take things to the next level here, coming up with some even better songs than before including a few that stand out as sounding rather surprising and very different from anything they’ve done in the past.

The album gets off to an unsurprisingly strong start, with a nice intro track making way for “Rise Eternally Beyond”, which starts off with some soft guitar work before the rest of the band kicks in, along with the orchestra, and the track quickly turns into the kind of fast and fun power metal anthem fans would expect from the band. It’s a very fun and energetic track, which would have fit in perfectly on the last album, complete with verses that feel quite similar, though once the chorus hits it proves itself to be best and most melodic part of the track, with huge, soaring vocal melodies, to help kick the album off in an amazing way. The instrumental section is strong as expected and shows off the kind of excellent, very melodic guitar leads that have become an important part of the band’s sound in their current form, with some excellent leads and solos throughout the album, and this track is a great example of that. Next is “Through the Storm”, a more surprising track, with a slight cinematic feel to it. The intro to the song is quite interesting, with heavy keyboard effects as well as some rather eerie sounding voiceovers, and the song itself is much more relaxed than the opener, moving at a more laid-back pace, while still having some heavy riffs, but it feels more driven by keyboards and orchestras, especially during the chorus where we enter into pop territory but in an amazing way, with some truly epic vocal melodies. The track is quite surprising, being somewhat heavy but also fairly laid back and extremely catchy and melodic. It’s definitely one of my favorites on the album.

A more typical track follows in “Knights of the Sky”, a fast-paced guitar driven power metal track, where the excellent melodic leads are on full display. It’s another very energetic track with a strong and very catchy chorus while having more power to it than the previous track. It’s probably the most traditional power metal track on the album, and it has another great series of solos in the second half. Next is the slightly unconventional title track, which moves along at a fairly upbeat tempo, but it has more of a classic heavy metal feel to it, with some of the heaviest guitar work on the album. It’s the chorus where the song really gets weird, though, as the smooth vocals of Mattias are replaced by some wild falsetto vocals, which I initially found off-putting, but over time they’ve grown on me quite a bit, and I find the track to be quite fun overall. One of the biggest strengths of the previous album was how well written the ballads were, as it had three of them and yet all of them were excellent and served as a change of pace, without stalling the momentum at all. This holds true for both ballads on this album, the first of which is “The Loneliest Man in Space”, a nice piano-driven ballad with some added orchestral elements and soft guitars. It moves along nicely during the verses, with some strong vocals, but it’s the chorus where Mattias really shines, delivering a powerful and emotional performance, which really brings the lyrics to life. The solo in the middle is very emotional and well done as well, and overall it’s simply a very well written track, which can’t always be said about ballads on a power metal album. And yet, this is actually the slightly lesser of two on this album, which I’ll get into a bit later.

Next up is “Pain and Pleasure”, perhaps the heaviest and most intense track on the album. It’s another very fast paced track, but the riffs have a slight thrash edge to them and the vocals throughout the track are more animated and slightly wild, especially during the epic and super catchy chorus. The vocals are quite surprising compared to the rest of the album, but they’re very well done and fit the more aggressive tone of the song perfectly, which helps to make the track another instant highlight. A softer track is next in “Temple of Cryonics”, which of course comes close to being a self-titled track. Either way, it’s the most epic and cinematic feeling track on the album, with a heavy use of orchestral elements. It’s a rather soft and slow-paced track, but I wouldn’t quite call it a ballad as it has some slight heaviness to it at points, and it’s also a bit more epic and eventful than what you’d expect from a ballad. It has another strong chorus, as well as an excellent guitar solo in the middle, and while it’s not one of my personal favorites on the album, it’s an excellent track and shows how dynamic the band has become in their current form. My favorite track on the album is next in “Starchild”, an extremely fast-paced, incredibly melodic track which blazes through its verses at a frantic pace, setting the tables one of the catchiest and most melodic power metal choruses I’ve heard in quite some time. It’s seriously so damn fun and energetic, it brings a smile to my face every time, and is definitely a perfect example of the genre at its finest. The guitar solo is very melodic and well done as expected, and overall the track is simply pure power metal perfection from start to finish.

Speaking of songs with insanely fun and catchy choruses, next is “End of Days”, which has an almost dance-like beat from the keyboards at the start, and is a very upbeat track, with a slight metal edge to it. It’s a fairly fast-paced and very melodic track, with a huge chorus that has a slight pop feel to it, but it’s so damn fun and catchy I certainly can’t complain about it! Another instant highlight and one of my favorites on the album, though it certainly sounds a bit light and more modern than anything the band has done before, so some folks may hate it. The second ballad on the album is next in the form of “Swansong of the Last Emperor”. It’s mostly led by soft guitars and pianos again, though its vocal melodies and lyrics are the most inspiring elements, for sure, as it’s a very emotional track with an insanely good chorus and an excellent performance by Mattias, which takes it to the next level. Both ballads on the album are great, but this one feels just a bit more epic and more inspired. Shifting gears once again, we have “Under Attack”, a fast-paced and aggressive track, with some of the roughest riffs on the album, as well as another fun and catchy chorus. It has a great use of the orchestras in the second half and is certainly a very fun track overall. The last main track on the album is also my least favorite, that being “Blood and Shame”, a slower paced and very hard hitting the track. It has a heavy metal edge to it, for sure, and while the verses are energetic and fun enough, the chorus gets a bit rough for my tastes and lack a real melody or hook, making it the weakest on the album. It’s still a good track overall, but it’s certainly not on the level of any of the other tracks here. Lastly, there’s a bonus track called “Insomnia”, which starts off with a very Iron Maiden influenced acoustic guitar intro, before picking up speed and turning into a fun, speedy power metal track with slight traces of classic heavy metal. It’s definitely a better note to end the album on than the previous track, so I’m glad the band included it as a bonus.

Overall, Deliverance is an amazing power metal album, which shows Cryonic Temple picking up where they left off on Into the Glorious Battle, and continuing their resurgence as one of the best current bands in their genre. It has a mix of everything fans of the previous album would expect, with some of the most varied and dynamic songwriting in the band’s career, while still delivering tons of great speedy and melodic power metal. It slightly edges out its predecessor to become my favorite Cryonic Temple album to date and is definitely one of my favorite power metal albums of 2018 so far.

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POWERWOLF The Sacrament of Sin

Album · 2018 · Power Metal
Cover art 5.00 | 1 rating
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One question that frequently comes up among metal fans, is how long can a band go sticking to a familiar formula? Over the years, different bands have offered different answers to this question, even among power metal bands, with the likes of Iron Savior and Primal Fear mostly sticking to an established formula from album to album, while bands like Edguy and Sonata Arctica have branched out and tried many different experiments in their later years. One of my favorite bands that have up to this point managed to stick to an established formula is German band Powerwolf, who I discovered in 2009 with their breakthrough release, Bible of the Beast. Many of their fans may not know this, but their debut, Return in Bloodred, actually had a much different sound than what they are known for, going for more of a classic heavy metal sound, with their second release, Lupus Dei, marking the beginnings of their now famous anthem-like, super catchy power metal sound, featuring lyrics about werewolves, vampires and other nocturnal, otherworldly creatures, blended in with religious themes. With Bible of the Beast, they achieved perfection, and every release since has stuck to the same formula, with minor differences between albums, as the band continued to stick with what brought them success. Now with their upcoming seventh full-length release, The Sacrament of Sin, scheduled for release in the second half of July, can fans expect more of the same, or will the band finally change things up and try something different? Well, this time around, the answer isn’t so obvious, as it feels like the band has indeed changed things up quite a bit on some tracks, while still delivering their classic sound fans have come to expect on other songs. As a result, this is their most varied, most engaging and perhaps altogether best release to date. I think some fans may be a bit disappointed, if they’re expecting a certain sound to dominate the album, as usual, but most folks should be very pleased with it overall.

One thing I never expect to change when it comes to Powerwolf is their overall sound, in particular, the way they use keyboards in a unique way to create a church organ sound, which immediately gives their music its own atmosphere you won’t hear from any other metal band. This element is of course as present as ever on The Sacrament of Sin, with the organ being a driving force throughout many of the songs. In the past, I’ve seen some people mistake the band as being symphonic, due to affect the organs have on the music, but for the most part, the band has never really had many orchestral elements before, outside of intros or in quick bursts. That is one thing that has changed, as on this album the orchestras are out in full force, appearing throughout the album and giving the songs a strong symphonic element that was never there in the past. The orchestras blend in wonderfully with the organ, to create an epic, at times cinematic sound that takes the music to new heights, and if anything this album is even more epic than sounding than anything the band has done before, which is certainly saying a lot.

With all this talk about the organ and symphonic elements, though, I will say that fans of the band have nothing to worry about when it comes to anything else being removed or reduced, as the guitar work is still as present and as melodic as ever, and while the album isn’t especially heavy, there’s definitely some great riffs here as well as some nice melodic leads and solos. Songwriting has always been a strong point of Powerwolf, with their albums having some extremely catchy choruses, while managing to be addictive for their entire duration, and this is once again the case with this album, as tracks are shorter than ever before, but they flow wonderfully and breeze by at a pace that makes it very easy to get hooked and want to keep playing the album over and over and over again, something that’s always been the case with this band. As usual, there’s a mix between classic speedy power metal, as well as some slower, more melodic tracks, but fans expecting the former style to dominate may be in for a rude awakening, as unlike past albums, this one is actually quite a bit more restrained when it comes to the overall tempo on many tracks. Obviously, there are still a few tracks here where the band goes full speed ahead, and those songs are as energetic and fun as ever, but there’s actually a surprising amount of slow to mid-paced tracks on this album, including the band’s first attempt at a full ballad, which is something I certainly wasn’t expecting. I’ve always thought of Powerwolf as having some similarities to Sabaton and on this album that comparison is stronger than in the past, as while the organ helps assure the band’s sound is still recognizable, some of the beats and melodies in the middle section of this album remind me a lot of the Swedes, and it’s certainly a very melodic album, even by Powerwolf standards, while still being as epic and catchy as ever.

Of course, yet another standout feature of the band is the vocals of Attila Dorn, and that’s another aspect I never expect the band to change. As always, he’s in top form on The Sacrament of Sin, flawlessly mixing together his classical training with his rougher, more metallic vocals, and carrying already great vocal melodies and choruses to greater heights than just about any other power metal vocalist would be able to take them. I’ve always loved his deep voice and his unique singing style, and as much as I love the band overall, his vocals have always been my absolute favorite thing about their music, so it’s no surprise that on an album that leans more towards slower and more melodic songs, he has managed to reach new heights, and has delivered an absolutely incredible performance.

Songwriting has always been a big strength for Powerwolf, so every time I hear a new album from them I expect nothing but perfection. Unsurprisingly, they have once again delivered 11 songs that are absolutely phenomenal on their own, while flowing together perfectly. However, as I mentioned before, the pace is slightly different this time around, which may throw some folks off, though I certainly took no time to warm up to it. One thing’s for sure: If you don’t enjoy the opening track “Fire & Forgive”, you probably aren’t nor ever will be a Powerwolf fan, because if you are a fan, this is the exact kind of song that will knock your socks off! The track opens with some orchestral backing, before the organs kick in and Attila delivers some of his epic classical vocals, delivering the customary intro to a Powerwolf album, before the guitars and drums kick in, and the track starts moving at a blistering pace, delivering the kind of upbeat, hard-hitting but fun and epic power metal fans have come to expect from the band, highlighted by one hell of a catchy chorus, that I actually had stuck in my head for hours straight, after hearing it just once, that’s how catchy it is! That track seemed like an obvious pick for a single, and indeed it was the second single for the album, but the lead single is the much less obvious pick “Demon’s Are a Girl’s Best Friend”. This is a much lighter track than usual for a Powerwolf single, and it has a slight pop/rock feel to it, except that the organ and some epic keyboard effects are on hand to help give it a unique, somewhat creepy atmosphere. The track moves along at a nice pace, with the verses being fun and breezy, while the chorus is ridiculously catchy as fans would expect. While it’s not a hard-hitting track by any means, I really like the overall feel of it, plus that chorus is absolutely amazing, so I’m definitely glad they made it a single, even if it’s not the kind of song that will please all fans of the band.

Speaking of songs which may not please fans hoping for the usual Powerwolf sound, that brings us toward the middle section of the album, where the pace drops off quite a bit, giving room to a group of more restrained and melodic tracks, which still nonetheless manage to be as catchy and fun as usual. I mentioned earlier that I hear a fair bit of Sabaton influence on this album, and one needs to look no further than “Killers of the Cross” to instantly pick up on that, as it’s a mid-paced, very light track, where the drum patterns and overall rhythm of the music sound like they easily could have come from the Swedish band. Of course, it’s the organs and Attila’s voice that help make the track stand out, and it’s definitely as fun and epic as anything else on this album, with some absolutely terrific vocal melodies, and a great guitar solo. Next is “Incense and Iron”, another slower track, though this is one where the symphonic elements are in full effect to help give it more of an epic, cinematic feel, especially during the verses, where some cool chanting vocals are added in the background. It’s one of those tracks that isn’t fast at all but still manages to breeze by and have a ton of energy to it, with yet another spectacular and super melodic chorus, as well as another great guitar solo.

The biggest surprise of all is next in the form of “Where the Wild Wolves Have Gone”, the first real ballad the band has ever attempted. The symphonic elements are again out in full force, being one of the main elements along with some piano and of course the vocals. It’s a very epic, slow-building track where the verses help set the tone, and then the chorus absolutely knocks it out of the park, being one of the best and most epic choruses I’ve heard all year. In fact, I’ll just go ahead and say this may be the best metal ballad I’ve ever heard, and if not, its certainly the best one I’ve heard in many years, with the piano and orchestra setting the mood perfectly, and Attila absolutely kills it on vocals, putting his classical training on full display and showing why he remains the band’s MVP, despite the rest of the music already being amazing. The solo in the second half is just icing on the cake. Surprisingly, it’s my favorite track on the entire album. Another surprise is next with “Stossgebet”, another slower paced track, which starts off almost like a ballad, driven by vocals and the organ, before the track gets a bit heavier in time for the chorus. It’s a very moody and atmospheric track, while still having some wonderful melodies, as always, while once again using some symphonic elements. What makes it stand out, though, is the fact that it’s sung entirely in German, which is a nice touch, and allows Attila to excel, singing in his native language. Rounding out the middle section is “Nightside of Siberia”, the most typical sounding track of the bunch, which moves at a pretty nice pace without going full throttle, and it’s probably the track where the symphonic elements are most notable, really blending well with the organ to create some unique and epic melodies. It definitely has the fun and energy of a typical Powerwolf track, speeding up at some points without going overly speedy, and it has the kind of fun and addictive chorus fans would expect, as well as a pretty amazing guitar solo towards the end.

As we reach the final stretch, we enter the portion of the album where the band most relies on their usual formula, starting with the epic title track. Aside from some choral chants at the start, this is a very typical Powerwolf song, moving along at a frantic pace during the verses, with double bass drums going all out, and it’s a fast-paced, hard-hitting track with some great guitar work throughout, as well as yet another super addictive and catchy chorus. The song never relents and is definitely one of the fastest and most pure fun tracks on the album. Next is “Venom of Venus”, which follows suit, starting out with some epic classical flavored vocals from Attila, before slowing down a bit during its verses, but then speeding back up again for a super fun chorus, which sure to get stuck In the heads of many fans. It’s yet another super catchy and addictive track that is sure to please fans of the band. The slowest song during this part of the album is “Nighttime Rebel”, a track where the organ dominated early on, before giving way to guitars orchestra later on. It’s a fairly calm and slower track, but still has some excellent vocal melodies and a fantastic chorus, as well as an excellent and very melodic guitar solo. For the last few albums, Powerwolf has followed a predictable formula for the closing track, with a slow paced, slow-building yet super epic track that ends with a long fade out. Well, this time around they’ve changed things up with “Fist by Fist (Sacralize or Strike)” a track which comes firing out of the gates, only slowing down a bit during its extremely epic first verse where the orchestra is again on full display, with some inspiring melodies building up to a chorus that picks up the pace and again shows the band speeding along, with super catchy vocals and melodies, as usual. Once the song gets going it’s the exact kind of super speedy, super epic and just incredibly addictive power metal track fans have come to love from the band, complete with an excellent guitar solo in the second half. It’s a very high energy track which ends the album on a very high note and is certainly a welcome change of pace compared to how they ended their past few albums.

I always have high expectations whenever I hear Powerwolf is coming out with a new album, and they never disappoint me. With The Sacrament of Sin, the band has not only kept their winning streak going, they’ve produced possibly their best album to date, striking a perfect balance between giving fans what they want, and experimenting just a bit, creating some songs that aren’t quite what folks may be expecting from the band. I suspect fans hoping for a mostly fast-paced album may be a bit disappointed, though hopefully the high-quality songwriting will be able to win them over, but everyone else, whether they’re already a Powerwolf fan or just a fan of power metal, symphonic metal or melodic metal in general, should absolutely love this, and I’d definitely consider it a must hear for fans of the genre. Easily my favorite album through the first half of 2018, and I really don’t see anyone being able to top it any time soon.

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CIRCLE OF SILENCE The Crimson Throne

Album · 2018 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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Power metal is often known to be a very melodic and lighter genre compared to most types of metal, but there are some bands out there who like to play a more aggressive, thrashier version of the genre, most notably coming out of Germany. One of the better bands to emerge from this side of the genre in recent years is Circle of Silence, who impressed me a lot with their previous release The Rise of Resistance, a very in your face kind of album, loaded with tons of punishing thrash riffs, speedy power metal rhythms, and great choruses. After taking a long break in between albums, the band is finally back almost five years later with their third full-length album, The Crimson Throne. With this album, the band has picked up where they left off, giving listeners some of the most brutal and intense power metal possible, while still managing to mix in a ton of great melodies and vocal sections.

For those who’ve never heard Circle of Silence before, they play a very rough brand of power metal, with a ton of thrash elements in their music, as well as some very aggressive vocals at times. They do a good job of varying the tempos, with a nice mix of faster tracks and more mid-paced tracks, as well as occasionally changing things up partway through a song. For the most part, The Crimson Throne feels very similar to their previous album, though a couple tracks felt surprisingly lighter to me at times, with some heavy metal style melodic guitar leads at points, which add a bit of extra flavor, and these are quite effective. At the same time, this is definitely a very hard hitting album overall, and the heavier, speedier passages are definitely when the album is at its best. For the most part, it’s a consistently engaging album, with no weaker tracks to be found, though it doesn’t quite have anything that matches the masterpiece “The Architect of Immortality” from their previous album.

One element that took time for me to get used to the first time I heard a Circle of Silence album was the voice of vocalist Nick Keim. He fits the band quite well, to be sure, but he has a very deep voice and rough voice that’s a bit atypical for the genre, and he can at times be very in your face with his vocal delivery. He certainly delivers some fiery vocals that match the intense thrashier portions, though, while being able to rein himself in a bit and deliver some big vocal melodies during the chorus. While his vocals took some time for me to get used to, I now think he’s a great singer and he fits the band’s sound -perfectly, with this album especially doing a good job of letting him showcase both his more aggressive vocals and his smoother, more melodic vocals.

Another area where I’ve sometimes struggled with the band is in the songwriting, though thankfully that has proven to be an area where they’ve improved a lot over the years, with their debut The Blackened Halo being very inconsistent, while The Rise of Resistance was a mostly consistent album with one huge highlight, and now The Crimson Throne is their most consistent album to date, to the point where it’s hard to pick a favorite, not because there aren’t any great tracks, but because every single track is in very good to great territory, with nothing quite on the level of the best track from its predecessor, but the majority of the tracks here are slightly better than most other tracks on that album.

The band does a great job of letting listeners know exactly what to expect within the first few tracks, as following a brief but nice intro, the first three full songs all cover different elements of the band’s music quite nicely. The first of these is “Race to the Sky”, the most classic power metal sounding track here, though with a slight edge to the riffs. Still, compared to most tracks on this album, it’s both speedy and melodic in ways fans of the genre would expect, with some great riffs, nice melodic leads and an excellent chorus. The extended solo section in the middle is amazing, and overall it’s an excellent track. Next is “Destroyers of the Earth”, one of the hardest hitting songs out of the bunch. It immediately charges out of the gate with some pummeling riffs, and this keeps up throughout the verses, where Nick delivers some of his most fiery vocals. There are some great melodies during the pre-chorus section, but then the thrash edge kicks in again and the chorus is short but intense, and the most melodic section of the track is during the solo section, which is quite good. After those two faster tracks, the pace slows done a bit for the first time with “The Chosen One”, a slightly heavier metal influenced track, which moves along at a decent pace, with some great melodic leads and some of Nick’s smoother, lighter vocals. It has one of the most epic choruses on the album and is definitely another great track.

While I enjoy all elements of this album, I especially prefer the thrashier tracks, as these are more unique for a power metal band and Circle of Silence has always excelled at them. After the first group of songs, the next real hard hitter is the title track, a slightly more mid-paced affair, which nonetheless brings back some of the powerful thrash riffs from “Destroyers of the Earth”, and it again has a nice melodic vocal section leading into an intense chorus, though this time around even the instrumental section is quite vicious, and overall it’s a very hard hitting and satisfying track. Right after that is “Into the Fire”, a more upbeat song with an epic and more melodic chorus, though it too has some excellent thrashy riffs, and is quite a heavy track overall. In the same vein as the title track is “A Kingdom Divine”, another more mid-paced track with some very hard hitting riffs, though it has a slightly more modern sound to it, and well as occasional points where the vocals come very close to death growls. It has an insanely epic and catchy chorus, as well as a great solo section, and it’s definitely one of my favorites on the album. The last real heavy track here is “Possessed By Fire”, where the verses start off a bit slow but pick up speed as they go along, all while being heavy and intense throughout, while the chorus is frantic and intense right from the start, with some great gang vocals. It’s definitely another great thrash infused power metal track, which delivers exactly the kind of sound I want from the band.

On the more melodic side, we have “Lionheart”, which starts off with a great melodic guitar section, before speeding up quickly, and it actually starts off feeling like it’ll be another power/thrash hybrid track, but it actually get much lighter and more melodic as it goes on, with the second half being almost entirely instrumental and having some classic heavy influences. The chorus is a bit weak, but otherwise, it’s a great track overall. A few tracks after that is “Endgame”, which starts off with some beautiful guitar melodies, before picking up the pace and turning into a more mid-paced power metal track, with an excellent chorus, featuring some of Nick’s best vocals on the album. The closing track is “Wild Eyes”, a mostly mid-paced track, with another excellent chorus, though its highlight comes in the second half, during a speedy instrumental section which gives way an epic final run through the chorus, to the end the album in an extremely epic way.

Overall, The Crimson Throne is another great album from Circle of Silence, which delivers more of their hard-hitting brand of thrash infused power metal while mixing in a few more melodic sections every once in a while. I’d say it’s slightly better than their previous album overall, and I’d definitely recommend it to fans of the band, as well as any power metal fan who prefers the heavier, more guitar-driven side of the genre, with no presence of keyboards whatsoever.

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Album · 2018 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.44 | 8 ratings
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Out of all types of metal, one genre I’ve long struggled with and only managed to enjoy in quick bursts over the years is djent, a particularly rhythmic, repetitive and at times overly harsh sounding offshoot of progressive metal, which of course is one of my favorite genres. The band many consider to be the pioneers of the genre, Messhugah, have certainly never impressed me, while other famous bands like Periphery and Textures have managed to hook me in on occasion, but never entirely. So far, the one band in this style that has managed to keep me interested over the course of multiple albums is British band TesseracT, who I first discovered with their excellent second full-length release, Altered State, in 2013. Their next release, Polaris mostly eluded me, though I did eventually give it a listen and quite enjoyed it as well, so while their upcoming fourth full-length album, Sonder, wasn’t one of my most anticipated releases the year or anything, I was interested to see how it would turn out. In the end, if their previous albums hadn’t already won me over and convinced me that djent can work on a consistent basis when done correctly, then Sonder surely would have been the one to do it, as it manages to be equal parts accessible, hard-hitting and atmospheric, and it’s easily the most engaging and consistently impressive release I’ve heard from TesseracT to date.

One aspect of djent I tend to not be too fond of is the constant use of repetitive chugging guitars, which can grate on my ears badly if done the wrong way, with even a band such as Periphery sometimes falling into that trap. Thankfully, TesseracT have always been good at knowing just how far to take their heaviness, without pushing it to the point where it gets irritating, and they also do a great job of letting the guitars and drums settle into a nice groove, that allows the atmosphere and vocals to take and over and really push the songs to the next level. Which brings me to one aspect of the genre I do enjoy, and another thing TesseracT does amazingly, and that is the contrasts between the rough, aggressive sections, and the dark but rather calm and atmospheric, sometimes even ambient, sections. On Sonder, TesseracT have really perfected that side of their music, with almost every track seamlessly switching from loud and violent to calm and more introspective seemingly out of nowhere, and they handle these transitions perfectly. There are many extended softer portions on this album, where the electronic elements are used nicely along with more melodic guitars to add atmosphere to the music, and this goes along nicely with the lyrics, which deal with themes of insignificance, and it is definitely a very emotional album, with very strong performances all around. At the same time, fans looking for the more aggressive side of the band’s music still have a lot to look forward to, especially on tracks like “King”, “Juno” and “Smile”.

Another aspect I often struggle with is the vocals, as djent is a genre often known to use a ton of screaming, metalcore style vocals, and those are the kind of thing that can often grate on my nerves if done poorly, which I sadly find to be the case a lot of the time. Thankfully, that is yet another trap TesseracT manages to avoid, as vocalist Daniel Tompkins only uses screams in quick bursts, often during some particularly intense and powerful sequences where that kind of approach is necessary. When he does use them, he sounds fittingly intense, but certainly never grating or irritating. For the most part, he uses clean vocals and he is certainly one excellent singer, seamlessly going from high notes to low notes within the same sentence, with his lower range especially sounding very smooth and really fits the atmosphere of the music, though his high notes are also very nice, of course. He sings very calmly during the soft parts but can get his voice to sound rough and intense without screaming during some of the heavier parts, and this is used to great effect throughout the album. Overall, he simply does an excellent job and puts a ton of emotion into his performance, which helps to enhance an already great album even further.

One last area where djent can often be hit or miss is in the songwriting, as I find there isn’t really that many bands can do while sticking to their overall sound, so often times the songs will blend together, with few standouts. This is again an area in which TesseracT delivers, as while there is a consistent feel to the whole album and everything flows together perfectly, each track can definitely stand on its own, and it certainly never gets boring. Opening track “Luminary” does an excellent job of setting the tone, opening with some brief atmospheric electronic effects, before the dissonant guitars kick in, and then the music calms down again and Daniel enters in on vocals. It’s a great track which does a great job of briefly showcasing the heavier side of the band, while overall being a very melodic and surprisingly accessible track, with a very strong chorus, and a great use of atmospheric sounds throughout.

The first big standout is “King”, the longest track on the album at just under 7 minutes, and it’s a mammoth track, entering in with some very overpowering riffs that set a dark and ominous tone right out of the gate, and this is one of the tracks where Daniel showcases his screams, seamlessly mixing them in with his various types of clean vocals, with everything sounding perfect, of course. The track is definitely one of the heaviest on the album, getting especially intense during a screaming section in the second half, though it still manages to throw in a ton of calmer and more atmospheric moments both in the middle and ending of the track, and it has another strong chorus. After that is the interlude track “Orbital”, a brief but very nice ambient track, which uses some nice electronic sounds in the background, while Daniel sings very softly. It manages to be an emotional track, while also being very quiet, and despite being only 2 minutes, it is quite memorable. The next full song is “Juno”, which starts out heavy before settling into a nice groove, with some pretty nice guitar work as well as some cool electronic beats, that add a nice rhythm to the track throughout. This is one of the grooviest tracks on the album, for sure, and it moves along at a nice pace and manages to represent somewhat of a middle ground between the heavier tracks and the calmer tracks, and it does so quite wonderfully.

The second half begins with “Beneath the Skin”, a very dark and mostly soft track, which has an extended atmospheric section early on that uses minimal sounds very effectively, creating a thick atmosphere with very few sounds used, and it is quite the interesting track overall. It does get heavier as it goes on, with the typical djent chugs and grooves kicking in later on, though it’s still one of the slower and more melodic tracks on the album, with some wonderfully smooth clean vocals from Daniel, as well as an excellent chorus, once it shows up in the second half. Another soft track is next in “Mirror Image”, which is the closest this album comes to having a full ballad. It’s another track which uses some nice electronic effects and vocals to create a dark atmosphere, and it’s certainly one of the most vocal driven and melodic tracks on the album, with another very emotional and powerful performance from Daniel. It gets slightly heavier in the second half, and the guitar work towards the end is amazing, but it’s definitely a surprisingly calm and beautiful track overall. The last real heavy track on the album is “Smile”, which again starts with some dark and heavy riffs before settling into a nice groove, with a nice use of electronic effects to set the tone for the music. It’s somewhat similar to “Juno”, except a bit darker and more intense, with a very sinister feel to it, and the guitars have a very aggressive, alternative metal feel to them throughout the track, which is somewhat on the rest of the album, but it’s especially noticeable here. The screamed section towards the end is extremely intense and epic, and overall it’s definitely one of the highlights of the album. After such an intense track, closing number “The Arrow” is a suitably mellow and atmospheric track, with haunting vocals and very dark lyrics, as well as some beautiful but twisted sounding melodies. It has a slight heaviness to it but is another surprisingly soft and calm track for this style of metal. While it’s one of the shortest tracks on the album, it’s also one of my favorites, due to the vocals and lyrics working together so effectively with the music.

Overall, Sonder may be the best djent album I’ve heard to date, and while that’s not saying a whole lot, it definitely is an excellent album in its own right, with an excellent mix of heavy, punishing guitar work, a great use of atmosphere, and some very powerful vocals. Fans of the band are sure to be pleased, and anyone like me who has previously found this genre to be a bit too rough on the ears to handle may be pleasantly surprised, this is a very nicely balanced album that certainly has some excellent melodic and calm portions, to go along with the expected intense bursts. I was expecting to enjoy this album, but it greatly exceeded my expectations and become one of my favorites of the year so far, and I’ll definitely be looking forward to hearing anything else TesseracT does in the future.

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Album · 2014 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.80 | 7 ratings
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Some albums are challenging and complex, meant to force the listener to spend several hours of their time with them, before fully opening themselves up. On the other side of the spectrum are albums which immediately engage the listeners from the first play, but do little to keep them interested over a long period of time. And then there is the rare masterclass album that manages to instantly impress on first listen, while still proving to be just as addictive and mindblowing as ever some 30 listens later. Honestly, I don't usually get to the 20 listen mark with most modern albums, not because I don't enjoy them enough, but because I spend so much time listening to various new albums every year, finding the time to go beyond that point is tough, and yet one such album that has managed to not only pull that feat, but go further and approach the 35 listen mark in less than four years, is Heroes, the sixth full length album from Sabaton, which also happens to be the last of their albums I have left to review, at least until their inevitable next album is released (and as of the time of this review it's already said to be in the works.) While the band has always been one of my favorites, with The Art of War in particular standing out as an exceptional album, Heroes is by far my most played of all their albums, and is also by far my most played overall since I started tracking that stat back in 2013.

Following the comparatively more complex and ambitious Carolus Rex, Heroes is a very simple, very quick and to the point kind of album, clocking in at just under 37 minutes (excluding bonus tracks,) and it's definitely the kind of album that works best when played around 3-5 times in sitting, so the songs have enough time to pound their way into your head and never let up. I've always found Sabaton's music to be extremely fun and catchy, even as far as power metal goes, but Heroes is by far their catchiest and most addictive album ever, with only two songs going past the four minute mark, and every song on the album is designed to kick in, impress with their fun riffs, melodies and choruses, and then end before even beginning to drag on. This is an album that's all about the flow, as it moves seamlessly from highlight to highlight, with no less than amazing moments on the entire album, and not even a single second is wasted. It does somewhat continue trend Carolus Rex started, of Sabaton moving more towards slower songs, but unlike its immediate successor, The Last Stand, which reaches a point where I get a bit tired of all slower songs after a while, on this album the track placement is so perfect, I'm always getting exactly what I want at every point of the album, with the faster songs being spaced out enough and slower songs kicking in exactly when they should, with even “The Ballad of Bull” kicking in at the absolute perfect point just past the halfway mark. While it's not a full scale concept album like Carolus Rex or The Art of War, the album does have a over arching concept, with each track being focused less on battles and more on individuals and squads who performed some particularly heroic deeds in battle. This leads to a very cheery tone to the album overall, which fits the music perfectly, and when you combine these lyrics with the catchiness, epic melodies and pure fun of a Sabaton album, you know you have an instant classic on your hands. I don't even need to give a full paragraph for vocals at this point, as my thoughts are obvious, as once again Joakim Brodén is absolutely perfect and the accompanying choirs are also amazing and help makes the choruses even more than they already are.

Moving on to songwriting, then, and that's where this album absolutely knocks it out of the park, without a single less than perfect song to be found. I already mentioned the album having a perfect flow, so it's no surprise that things get off to an explosive start with the super hard hitting, incredibly addictive opener “Night Witches” quickly pounding its way into your head. This track is of course about an all women military squad, which is pretty cool. After a brief tease at its chorus, the riffs kick in quickly and the track speeds up, moving at a frantic pace, with Joakim and the choirs leading the way, bringing us to one of the catchiest and most pure fun choruses I've ever heard, and every time it appears throughout the track I just get more and more into it every time. There's a really nice guitar solo in the middle, and overall it's simply a super fast, heavy and just plain ass kicking opener, that ranks right up there with “Ghost Divsion” and “Lion from the North”.

After that incredible opening, “No Bullets Fly” keeps the momentum going, moving at a reasonably fast, though slightly more relaxed pace, with some excellent melodic leads. This album on the whole strikes a nice balance between the heavier sound of their earlier albums and the really light, keyboard driven sound of The Last Stand, and this track is a perfect example of that, as it's not as heavy or intense as some of the band's work, but it still has some excellent guitar work, including an excellent solo and some nice riffs during the chorus, and it certainly has more speed and energy to it than most tracks on the latter album, while still having some excellent melodies and of course an absolutely epic and unforgettable chorus. Next is the unbelievably cheery and upbeat track “Smoking Snakes”, one of the most triumphant sounding metal songs I've ever heard, with some incredibly happy sounding melodies, while still hitting pretty hard with its riffs. It moves at a slightly faster pace than “No Bullets Fly”, though still not quite as fast as “Night Witches” and it's another super addictive track, with Joakim and the choirs completely stealing show during the chorus, where the title of the album appears, and it's possibly the very best chorus on the entire album, while the bridge section is only even more epic. This is a case where the song would easily be my favorite even on the absolute best albums by just about any other band, and yet here it's just one among ten masterpieces, which are pretty much all impossible for me to rank.

The pace slows down a bit with “Inmate 4859”, the darkest track on the album. It's a slower paced, more keyboard driven track, though keyboards take a more atmospheric sound to them than on most Sabaton tracks, and even the choirs are used to add a bit of a haunting feel to the song, with Joakim singing in an even lower pitch than normal. The track is very subdued, but still has some pretty heavy riffs as well some awesome melodies, especially during the instrumental section in the middle, and of course the chorus, while more laid back than usual, is still absolutely incredible. After that is the lead single “To Hell and Back”, which has a pretty upbeat and playful sound at the start, before settling into a nice groove, settling into a mid paced rhythm, with some fun verses where Joakim steals the show, before opening up for a huge, unforgettable chorus that stands as another one of the album's best. It's certainly energetic, fun and super catchy, making it the perfect choice for a single, and it only gets better during the final run through at the end.

Perhaps the most controversial track on the album is “The Ballad of Bull”, a track I've seen many people criticize, but it's actually one of my absolute favorites. It's a beautiful piano ballad, where Joakim's voice gets to shine throughout, and while the melodies, vocals, piano sounds and chorus already make it epic, the lyrics also help make it a big highlight. The track is about Australian Corporal Leslie “Bull Allen”, who saved twelve Americans during World War II, and hearing this amazing tale set to music and being sung so amazing by Joakim just makes all the more inspiring and epic. Plus, anyone who says it's out of place on the album clearly needs to look at the album name,“Heroes”, read the lyrics, and then understand exactly why the track fits in perfectly.

The pace picks up again after that, with “Resist and Bite” being another mid paced track that has a ton of energy to it, opening with a light intro with just Joakim and some lead guitars, before everything else kicks in over time. The verses are fun enough, but again it's the chorus that stands out for being super addictive, melodic and catchy, with an amazing use of choral vocals. It's a track like the title track of Carolus Rex, which uses minimalism in very effective ways, and is definitely another great pick for a single. The last speedy track on the album is “Soldier of 3 Armies”, a typically hard hitting speedy track from Sabaton, with a great mix of keyboards, lead guitars and vocals. The riffs hit hard, the melodies are great and the chorus is amazing, super melodic and catchy as always, making it another instant winner. After that is the slower paced but super epic “Far from the Fame”, which opens up with some nice drum rhythms, before settling into a nice groove. It again has some nice lead guitars, while also being one of the lighter, more melodic and more keyboard driven tracks on the album, with of course another stunning chorus, an amazing guitar solo in the second half. Lastly, we have “Hearts of Iron”, which opens up with a huge choral section that briefly teases at its chorus, before slowing down and settling into a nice groove, with some great drum work and awesome vocals from Joakim. It's another surprisingly laid back track for being the closing track, but then the chorus hits and is absolutely gigantic, with some incredible choir vocals, some insanely catchy vocal lines and an incredible performance from Joakim. In the middle of the track is an unbelievably epic choral section that brings the epic factor to its absolute maximum, and overall the track is the perfect ending to a perfect album.

While The Art of War stands as the best, most cohesive and possibly the most varied Sabaton album to date, Heroes has overtaken it to become my favorite, due to its super addictive, quick and to the point tracks, which strike the perfect balance between immediately engaging and still holding up perfectly after 30+ listens. It's by far the most addictive album I've heard since I've been actively listening to metal, and it offers a perfect mix of speed, energy, heavy riffs, great melodies and incredibly catchy and epic choruses, while also taking it to the next level with some inspiring and uplifting lyrics. I doubt Sabaton will ever top this album for me, but that's okay, because it would take a Timeless Miracle for any power metal band to pull that off again, I think.

SABATON Carolus Rex

Album · 2012 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.30 | 15 ratings
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There are some albums by my favorite bands that I respect as much, if not more so, than I personally enjoy them. While it's hard to say that about a band I love as much as Sabaton, where all their albums entertain me greatly, that is somewhat the case with their fifth full length album Carolus Rex, which many of their fans consider to be their all time best. Obviously, I love the album as well, and definitely understand why some folks would think of it as a masterpiece. However, as much as I enjoy the album, I have to admit that personally, I find it doesn't quite entertain me as much as most other Sabaton albums, with even its predecessor, Coat of Arms, ranking slightly ahead of it for me. It's hard to talk negatively about a band as great as Sabaton, though, so don't get me wrong: There's definitely quite a few incredible tracks here, including three of my all time favorites, and overall it's certainly an album I'd take over the majority of all other power metal bands, as well as being miles ahead of the band's own weakest effort, The Last Stand.

In terms of ambition, Carolus Rex is certainly an impressive release, as while the band had done a concept album before in The Art of War, this one is a full scale narrative concept, chronicling the rise and fall of the Swedish Empire, specifically focusing on King Charles XII, from whom the album gets its title. Lyrically, I find the album quite interesting, as instead of focusing on different themes or on one particular theme but scattered across different battles, this release tells a full story and does quite a great job of it, with some very emotional moments, and it even has the first ballad the band released since their demo days, which unsurprisingly manages to be one of the best and most powerful tracks on the album. Another interesting thing about this album is that the band actually recorded two separate versions of it, with a “full” English version and a full Swedish version. It's not too surprising when bands do multiple versions of one or two tracks, but to have two “full” versions of one album in different languages is pretty awesome (and yes, those quotation marks are deliberate and I will explain their presence much further into the review.) Musically, the album continued where Coat of Arms left off, except it feels even more epic, with the symphonic keys being more dominant than ever, giving quite a few tracks a symphonic feel, and the band uses choir vocals quite a bit, to excellent effect. It's also quite the varied release, having a good mix of speedy tracks and slower tracks, as well a few of the most unique tracks the band has done in quite some time. For the most part, the songwriting is amazing as always, but I find this release has two weaker tracks which stick out just a bit, and help prevent the album from reaching the heights it could have. One last thing that must be noted, is that this was the last album for the band in its original form, with everyone except vocalist Joakim Brodén and bassist Pär Sundström leaving to form Civil War. As a swan song for them, it's an excellent album and a great way to go out, even if I don't consider it to be one of my personal favorites by the band.

Obviously, the vocals are not a problem, as Joakim Brodén sounds amazing as always, delivering his epic, deep, powerful and melodic vocals as smoothly as ever. The use of choir vocals is quite prominent and comes in many forms throughout the album, but these are always used to great effect and help enhance the choruses, which are of course outstanding as always.

One area that's almost never a problem for Sabaton is the songwriting, and as expected, that's largely the case with Carolus Rex as well, with the majority of the tracks offering up the same mix of heavy riffs, epic keyboard melodies, incredible vocals and huge choruses as always. The album certainly comes firing out of the gates, with a brief but nice orchestral intro giving way to “The Lion From the North”, one of the band's most symphonic influenced songs ever, with some pretty epic choral arrangements during the chorus. It charges along at a blazing fast pace, with heavy guitars and epic keys, and has a super fun and catchy chorus, further enhanced by those choirs, as well as an absolutely stunning section in the middle where the choirs fully take over, until Joakim briefly appears near the end to steal the show again. Overall, it's an explosive and stunning opening track that certainly sets the bar high for the rest of the album, and I'd even go as far as to say it ranks up there with “Ghost Divison” as one of my two favorite Sabaton openers ever.

The quality doesn't drop from there, though, with “Gott Mitt Uns”, being one of the band's most unique tracks to date, moving at a nice pace with some very smooth rhythms, while the guitars have a very folk feeling to them, which enhances the melodies and makes it more epic than it already is. Even Joakim attempts some slightly higher notes than normal and of course nails it, as always. The chorus is spectacularly catchy, and overall the track is another instant winner. Next is “A Lifetime of War”, an epic ballad enhanced by some symphonic elements, and of course dominated by an incredible, very emotional and powerful vocal performance from Joakim, with the chorus in particular being absolutely stunning. It's a beautiful track that really shows the potential in the concept of the album, and it only gets more and more epic and stunning as it goes along. it's definitely one of my all time favorites by the band, along with “Lion From the North”. Surprisingly, the quality still doesn't drop off much from there, with “1648” being the kind of super fast, hard hitting yet melodic and super addictive track the band specializes in, with energetic riffs and a very powerful, super catchy chorus.

Unfortunately, the quality does drop off a little bit on the next track, “The Carolean's Prayer”, the longest track on the album. It has an epic opening and it definitely has some great melodies and a pretty awesome chorus, as usual, but I find it to be one of the times where they tried so hard to recreate something like “Wolfpack” or “The Art of War” and came up just a tad short, with verses being a little bit on the boring side, at least by Sabaton standards. It's still a great track overall, with the symphonic elements enhancing it and the chorus really is amazing, but overall I find it to be just a bit below the usual Sabaton quality. One track that sure doesn't come up short is the title track, which starts off with some pretty epic drums, and only gets better from there. It's a bit unique, as it is one of their slower songs, but it has a more minimalist approach, throughout, dominated by vocals, drums and somewhat by keys in the background, but it doesn't have the full sound one would expect from a Sabaton track, instead slowing building up tension until chorus comes and completely blows your mind with how awesome and incredibly epic and badass it is. The vocal section near the end is also stunning, and overall it's a really awesome track, that stands as my third and last personal favorite on this album.

While the title track is the last absolutely incredible song here, the album doesn't lose much steam afterward, with “Killing Ground” being another winner, moving at a pretty fast pace and having some epic melodies, though it has its own unique feel to it, being a bit more of a harder hitting, classic metal feeling track compared to usual. The chorus is awesome, as is the big vocal section towards the end, and it's definitely another excellent track that stands out quite a bit. Next is “Poltava”, another speedy track that has some heavy riffs, excellent vocals and a great use of keyboards, as well as another super addictive and extremely catchy chorus. It's probably my favorite of the last few songs on the album. After that is a slow but very epic track in “Long Live the King”, which is pretty close to being a ballad, though it has just enough heaviness to not quite be one, I think. Either way, it's a slow moving track with some awesome melodies and another extremely powerful and emotional performance from Joakim, with the chorus being one of the highlights of the album, and overall it's an amazing track, for sure. Lastly, we have “Ruina Imperii”, which sadly ends the album on a bit of a disappointing note. Musically it just never did much for me, being the one and only Sabaton track where I find the keyboards to be slightly annoying and overdone, and while Joakim sounds great as always, it reminds me of “Wehrmacht”, in that the vocal melodies simply lack the kind of hooks and epic moments I expect from the band. It also feels odd that this the one and only track on the album to not be recorded in English, which is disappointing, because as someone who doesn't understand a word of Swedish, I can follow the entire rest of the album and then have no clue how the story ends, which is quite the letdown, indeed. Honestly, I think I'd go as far as to say that outside of their demos, this is my least favorite Sabaton track ever and it really brings the album down a bit. I haven't really been mentioning bonus tracks in these reviews, but one rather amusing one is here in the form of “Twilight of the Thunder God”, a cover of the Amon Amarth track, which officially confirms the theory I've always had, that if Amon Amarth were to ditch their growls and only use clean vocals, they'd essentially be a very hard hitting power metal band. Which would of course be awesome!

Overall, Carolus Rex is Sabaton's most ambitious album to date, being a full scale concept album telling the story of the rise and fall of The Swedish Empire, released in two languages. While one particularly weak track keeps it from being among my favorites from the band, it's a very entertaining album overall, with all the great melodies, choruses and epic war anthems fans have come to expect from the band, as well as some as their most emotional and powerful tracks. It'll never be my favorite Sabaton album as it is for some people, but overall it's still a must hear for fans of the band and it's an excellent album with three of my all time favorites by the band.

SABATON Coat Of Arms

Album · 2010 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.34 | 8 ratings
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One rule I find that applies to music is that the first album I hear by a band, no matter how its quality stacks up when compared against the rest of their discography, always ends up having a special place in my heart, if only because of the fact that it was my gateway for getting into the band. Sometimes, this can happen even with a fairly lackluster album, but thankfully in the case of Sabaton, the band has absolutely no weak albums (except arguably The Last Stand, though even that's very good when judged on its own merits,) so no matter what album I had started with, I definitely would have been impressed. So it Is with Coat of Arms, their fourth full length album, and one that can easily be overlooked by some, due to the fact that it comes in between their two most ambitious albums to date. I was of course greatly impressed the first time I heard it, and it immediately made me fell in love with the band, from the epic keys, to the speedy guitar driven power metal, to the epic choruses, war themed anthems and of course Joakim Brodén unique and awesome vocals. Over time, while other albums like The Art of War, Attero Dominatus and Heroes have overtaken it, I still consider it to be an excellent album, which I'd place roughly within the middle of the band's discography, and of course a middling album for Sabaton is an incredible album for basically any other band.

While Coat of Arms is far less ambitious and immediately surprising when compared against The Art of War and Carolus Rex, it still has its own feel to it at times, being the first time the keyboards started to give the music more of a symphonic feel, with the title track in particular being a perfect example of this. This album was around when the band's music started to get a bit softer, more melodic and more epic than ever before, though it still packed a serious punch at times, especially with tracks like “Midway” and “Screaming Eagles”, which hit as hard as ever. In some ways, this album feels like a bit of a precursor to the more simplified sound the band took with Heroes and The Last Stand. Obviously, their music has always been very catchy and vocal driven, but this album was their shortest at the time of its release, due to each track having a fairly short running time, and this leads to the album having an absolutely perfect flow, moving from one highlight to another, with only one track overstaying its welcome, and that's more because it's a slightly lackluster track compared to the rest, than it actually being overlong. Still, in comparison to many of the band's other albums, there aren't any obvious threads connecting the tracks, and instead it's simply a collection of fun, epic war themed power metal songs, with nine of the ten tracks being pretty much perfect, and so it's an album that breezes by quickly and is very easy to listen to over and over again.

I really can't say much else about Joakim Brodén that I haven't said already, but I was especially impressed by him on this album, due to the fact that it was my first time ever hearing him, and his deep, powerful yet melodic vocals instantly blew me away. Over time he has become one of my absolute favorite metal vocalists, and this album was the start of that. As always, he's in very fine form here, with some of the track really bringing out his accent and making perfect use of his super deep, yet smooth voice. It could be just because it was the first Sabaton album I heard, but I'd definitely consider this album to be one of his absolute best performances.

At this point, Sabaton was already on quite the hot streak, coming off of two consecutive masterpieces, with The Art of War in particular being one of my all time favorite power metal albums, so it wouldn't have been too surprising if this album had seen a drop off in the songwriting. Thankfully, though, that isn't really the case, as once again the majority of the tracks here are absolutely fantastic, with a few of them even ranking among my favorites by the band. First up is the title track, which begins with some super epic keyboards, that immediately give the music a slight symphonic feel, before the track picks up the pace and Joakim shows up to steal the show, as always. The verses are fast, driving and help get you ready for a big chorus, which the band is always happy to supply, and overall it's fast, fun and addictive track that gets the album off to a flying start. After that is the short, but very sweet “Midway”, the hardest hitting track on the album, which charges out of the gates with some pulverizing riffs, and instantly bulldozes its way into the listener's head with a brief tease at the chorus, before dialing up the epic factor to an eleven later, when the full version finally arrives. It's over too quickly, but aside from it's an incredible track, for sure.

Next is one of my personal favorites in “Uprising”, the first slower track on the album, but it's certainly a memorable one. It opens up with some nice keyboards before settling into a similar rhythm as tracks like “Wolfpack” and “The Art of War”, but I find the vocal melodies here to be some of the band's absolute most inspired and they really do an amazing job in taking advantage of Joakim's voice, with even the verses being incredible, while the chorus is one of the band's absolute best ever, and even a vocal section that shows up near the end, where choir vocals are added, is absolutely incredible. The pace picks up again for “Screaming Eagles”, one of the more traditional power metal tracks on the album, which charges away at a blazing fast pace, and has some energetic drums and riffs, being another one of the heavier tracks on the album. It has an amazing chorus, as always, and is a super addictive track. Speaking of tracks with super addictive choruses, next is “The Final Solution”, another slower, more keyboard driven track, with a nice rhythm to it, though it's the vocals and epic keys that drive the track throughout, giving way to yet another ridiculously catchy chorus, with some pretty epic lyrics. Towards the end all music fades away except drums, giving way to Joakim and some epic choir vocals, and the result is absolutely stunning, helping to make it another one of my personal favorites.

Things don't exactly go downhill from there, either, with the next track “Aces in Exile” being another hard hitter, being a bit slower than tracks like “Midway” and “Screaming Eagles”, though it still moves at a nice pace and has some great rhythm guitars, while the chorus is super addictive, as usual. It gets extra points for mentioning Canada towards the end, and lyrically it's a pretty great track. Next is “Saboteurs”, a speedy track with some nice melodic guitar work, and it's definitely another one of the more straight-forward power metal tracks on the album, with a speedy, super catchy chorus, fun verses and a nice solo section. The one weaker track is next, that being “Wehrmacht”, a darker, slower paced track with some nice keys, though I find the guitar sound to be a little too thick and off putting compared to most Sabaton tracks, and the song simply lacks the kind of melody and hooks I've come to expect from the band. It's actually a solid track musically, but vocally it lacks the spark all other tracks on the album have. Thankfully, though, that track is the one exception here, as “White Death” quickly gets things back on track, moving at a nice pace and having more driving guitar riffs, nice rhythms and an epic chorus where Joakim really shines. Lastly, we have “Metal Ripper”, the final part of the metal trilogy. This one seems to take random quotes from different songs, and I find I don't get most of the references here, unlike with the other two tracks in the trilogy, though there are references to tracks like “Highway to Hell” and “Mr. Crowley”, as well as an obvious nod to “Crazy Train” during the instrumental section. Musically, it's the slowest in the trilogy, though it still moves at a decent pace and has a nice mix of great riffs and keyboard melodies, as well as a super catchy and fun chorus, as always, with the last run through being especially awesome.

Overall, Coat of Arms in yet another amazing album from Sabaton, which kept the momentum going after arguably their best to date in The Art of War. While it doesn't quite reach the level of that album, and can easily be overshadowed due to coming in between two far more ambitious albums, it's still a must hear for fans of the band, offering up a ton of excellent war anthems, as always, and having a few of my personal favorites from the band. As my introduction to Sabaton, I definitely have a soft spot for it, though I do think I'd find it to be a very high quality release regardless of when I had heard it, as some of the songs are simply to amazing to not be impressed by.

KAMELOT The Shadow Theory

Album · 2018 · Symphonic Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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As someone who listens to a large amount of music every year, I’ve piled up a ton of favorite bands, some of which I’d say I can always rely on to produce an excellent album, while others fall into more of a long shot category, where sometimes they’ll disappoint me, but other times they’ll pull through and blow me away. One of the main bands I place into that category is American band Kamelot, one of the most well known and prolific power metal bands in all of North America. They’ve released three of my all-time favorite albums over the years in Epica, The Black Halo, and Silverthorn, but they’ve also released some disappointments like Ghost Opera and the total snooze fest, Poetry for the Poisoned. They’re one of those bands where every time I start to either lean towards loving them for all their great works or being a bit hard on them for their disappointments, they always manage to turn things around on me fairly quickly. So it’s no real surprise that after their last release Haven ended up letting me down a bit after the masterful comeback album Silverhorn, to the point where I started doubting the band again, their upcoming 12th full-length release The Shadow Theory has yet again managed to pull me back in. It’s not quite on the level of some of their all-time best works, but it’s a more consistent, more cohesive, yet somehow more varied and interesting album than Haven, which in some ways pushes their sound forward a bit, while also celebrating everything they’ve been in the past.

For a while it’s felt like Kamelot hasn’t quite known what to do with their sound, with the likes of Ghost Opera and Poetry for the Poisoned experimenting with melodic heavy metal and progressive metal respectively, neither of which quite worked for the band, while Silverthorn represented the return of their classic power metal sound in all its glory, paired with an increased focus on symphonic arrangements. At the time, I was expecting future albums to continue with that direction, but somehow Haven pushed the power metal elements into the background, while keeping the symphonic elements as the main focus, and so it ended up feeling like a slightly better version of the two aforementioned weaker albums, while still ultimately falling short of my expectations. Obviously, I had no clue what to expect from The Shadow Theory, but in the end, it has proven itself to be their most varied release in quite some time, possibly ever, combining elements from all their past releases, while also including some new elements at times.

Most notably, the keyboards seem to be a greater focus than ever before. Obviously, they were always there on past albums, but this time around they become the main focus a bit more often, along with the symphonic elements, of course. While they sound more typical on some tracks, others like “Ravenlight” and “Amnesiac” have a much more modern sound to them, almost giving the music a slight trance metal feel, which has never been there before. The guitar work is also a bit heavier and more modern sounding on some tracks, especially on “Phantom Divine” and “Kevlar Skin”. At the same time this is a Kamelot album, and so there’s still a ton of great melodies here as well, with some excellent melodic guitar leads, great guitar solos, epic symphonic arrangements, and huge vocal melodies and choruses. In fact, this album has some of their best melodies in quite some time, especially on some of the speedier, more power focused tracks, but even a slower, darker track like “Burns to Embrace” has an incredible chorus. As far as the songwriting goes, there’s a little something for everyone here, with fans of their classic power metal being given quite a few great tracks to look forward to, while fans of their slower, darker and more melodic tracks have quite a few songs to look forward to, and of course there’s a couple more progressive tracks as well as two ballads. Most importantly, though, where Haven had a couple tracks that bored me, this time around every song is consistently engaging. The musicianship is of course top notch as always and the production is absolutely perfect, as fans would expect.

The one element of Kamelot that’s consistently been excellent is the vocals, and of course, The Shadow Theory is no exception there. I’ve always loved Tommy Karevic’s vocals, and while I personally prefer his more emotional, higher ranged vocals he uses with his other band, Seventh Wonder, he’s done an excellent job of fitting in with Kamelot’s sound over these past three albums, and each time he sounds more and more comfortable. At this point, he feels like he seamlessly blends in with the band, doing an equally great job on the speedier, more upbeat sections and on the slower, darker sections. Perhaps the one thing I miss is some of the more dynamic vocal performances he gives with Seventh Wonder, as he seems to be more and more focused on channeling Roy Khan here, singing lower and darker than normal, which he, of course, does a great job of, but it does feel like some of his talents are largely being left untapped. Make no mistake about it, though, he does an excellent job on this album, and if anything my criticisms are more due to personal taste than anything else.

Of course, the biggest concern for any Kamelot album is whether or not the songwriting holds up. Thankfully, this time around the band has produced a collection of excellent tracks, which cover all aspects of their sound and it feels like they did their best job of giving everyone a little something to enjoy. Unsurprisingly, there’s both an orchestral intro and outro, both of which are quite nice, and in between those are 11 songs of varying sound, but each of them is memorable in different ways.

Fans of speedy power metal are in for a treat right away with “Phantom Divine (Shadow Empire)”, which has a brief keyboard intro before the orchestra and guitars kick in and it quickly speeds up, before slowing down for the slow but heavy verses. Once the chorus hits, though, it goes full speed ahead, with an excellent, speedy power metal chorus that fans of the band will instantly fall in love with, as Tommy delivers some epic vocals that bring Khan to mind in the best way possible, and from there the song keeps getting heavier and more intense as it goes on, with the second half of the track featuring the first of two appearances from Once Human vocalist Lauren Hart, who provides some pretty epic death growls. Overall, it’s an excellent track, which kicks things off in style. Next is “Ravenlight”, the first song released and it kind of represents a middle ground, largely being more of a darker, mid-paced track with some pretty heavy riffs and nice modern sounding keys, but it speeds up dramatically towards the end, for its most impressive section. Overall, I find the track to be solid, but it doesn’t fully grab my attention as the melodies are nice but not fantastic, and the main riff isn’t especially memorable. However, the final 45 seconds, when the song fully speeds up, are absolutely fantastic and help take it to the next level.

Other speedier tracks include the oddball “Amnesiac”, a fun and upbeat track which doesn’t quite reach full power metal speed, but it does move at a nice pace, especially during its chorus. It starts off with some very heavy guitar work, before giving way to some very trance-like keys, which lead the way through much of the track, especially the chorus, which is upbeat and very fun. It’s a bit of weird track, being a bit lighter and more keyboard driven than normal, but it’s actually very effective and feels fresh and new, while still having just enough of the classic Kamelot sound to fit in with the rest of the album. A more traditional power metal track is the hard hitter “Kevlar Skin”, which charges out of the gate and delivers some of the heaviest guitar work on the album, only slowing down a bit for the verses, before really speeding up during the intense and super addictive chorus. The guitar work only gets heavier as the track goes on, and the instrumental section is pretty damn intense and awesome. My favorite of all is “Vespertine (My Crimson Bride)”, the most classic symphonic power metal sounding track here, as it’s a track that constantly rolls along at a fast pace, mixing heavy riffs with epic orchestral arrangements, and it has an absolutely incredible, super melodic chorus, where Tommy delivers some of his best-soaring power metal vocals. Even the one slower section in the second half stands out due to how dark and heavy it gets, and it makes for a great contrast with the rest of the track, while the instrumental section that follows goes back to being speedy and super melodic. Definitely my favorite song here and one I’d proudly put up there with some of the band’s all-time best. After that is the last full song here and also the longest and most progressive, “The Proud and the Broken”. It’s a more complex song, which starts off with a nice piano section before quickly speeding up. It goes through many transitions throughout, largely being a progressive power metal track, but it’s a bit lighter and more melodic than one would expect from the band, and it has some very nice softer sections, as well an excellent chorus, as usual. It’s definitely the most progressive track here and is another one of my favorites.

On the slower side, the first big stand out is “Burns to Embrace”, one of the band’s darker, more atmospheric tracks, but where I found the tracks like this on Haven to be a bit forced, this one actually works much better, pairing dark and heavy verses with a huge and epic chorus, and the track builds up tension nicely as it goes along, starting off calm and soft during its first verse, before picking up during the chorus and then finally going all out during the second verse. It’s a song that gets better as it goes along, with the instrumental section being great and then at the end the band brings in a children’s choir for the last two runs through the chorus, which is something I usually don’t like on a metal album, but here their voices combine with the lyrics to give the song a chilling and powerful effect that really elevates the track from being solid to being one of absolute best on the album. Unsurprisingly, things calm down with the next track, “In Twilight Hours”, a nice ballad which has some great vocal melodies, as well as some excellent guest vocals from Beyond the Black singer Jennifer Haben, who works very well with Tommy and helps to elevate an otherwise decent but forgettable track. She especially excels during the final run through the chorus, which is the best part of the song. The other ballad on the album is “Stories Unheard”, a largely acoustic track which has some very soft and excellent vocals from Tommy, as well as another excellent chorus. I find it to be a better written and more engaging track than “In Twilight Hours” overall, though both are pretty nice. Also on the softer side is “Static”, a track which starts off with some nice piano melodies and symphonic elements before getting slightly heavier during the opening verse. It’s a fairly light and calm track, with just a slight metal edge to it, and it has some nice vocal melodies, as well as another great chorus. It feels like the kind of thing they were trying to do on Poetry for the Poisoned and parts of Haven, except here it’s much better executed and more enjoyable. Also similar to much of Haven is “Mindfall Remedy”, a more mid-paced but very heavy track, with some great riffs and modern keys. It has a very fun chorus, as well as some more growls from Lauren Hart, and again it feels like they took the sound they had on much of Haven, except here the riffs hit just a bit harder and the melodies are just a bit more engaging, so the track ends up being much better than most of that album.

Overall, The Shadow Theory is an excellent album, which has a bit of everything for all Kamelot fans to enjoy. It once again brings back some of the band’s classic speedy power metal, as well as features some of their heaviest tracks, while also featuring some very modern keyboards and some darker, slower paced tracks, as well as some more relaxed and more melodic tracks. It’s definitely one of their most varied releases to date, while also feeling fresh in spots, and after Haven let me down, this one managed to win me over once again. I wouldn’t place it up there with their all-time best, but I’d certainly take it over anything else they’ve done since 2005, aside from Silverthorn.

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SABATON The Art Of War

Album · 2008 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.42 | 9 ratings
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There are some albums that take a long time to fully open up and show themselves to be amazing. And then there are albums like The Art of War, the third full length album from Swedish power metal band Sabaton, that just completely blow your mind right on the first listen, immediately proving themselves to be masterpieces, with subsequent listens only managing to somehow impress you even further. During my early days of exploring Sabaton's discography, I found myself largely impressed by most of their material, but the one album that always impressed me the most and left me blown away every time, was The Art of War, both because of how well it takes its over arching concept and connects it so perfectly to the music, and because of how damn catchy and impressive every single song on the album is. In short, while their later album Heroes may be their most addictive album as well as my most played album in quite some time, this one is probably their most impressive and most consistently awesome release to date.

While their first two albums laid the foundation for the band's sound, The Art of War is the album where they really broke through and where their formula was fully unleashed in all its glory, with future albums trying to match it, and not quite getting there. Everything from the speedier tracks to the more mid paced affairs, all feel like the beginnings of tracks the bands would make on later albums, but here they're all executed to perfection. Gone is the darker tone of the previous release, as while the album does have some heavier sections, it's a more melodic and much more triumphant and heroic sounding album on the whole, with even the songs dealing with sad situations sounding lighter and more epic than most tracks on their first two releases. This album felt like the perfect middle ground between the speedier sound of their debut and the slower sound found on Carolus Rex and both albums they've done since, with a nice variety to the tracks, and everything is done perfectly. The album is based around an ancient Chinese military treatise titled The Art of War, written by Sun Tzu, with each track being focused on a particular chapter from the book. In between songs, a woman briefly narrates quotes from the book, which gives extra context to the tracks and I find this to be quite cool, as it adds an extra layer to the songs, and I think these quotes fit in perfectly with the lyrics of the songs, making the already epic and at times emotional lyrics of the album all the more powerful. In fact, while Sabaton has always had some epic lyrics, I find this album to be their best in that area, as some of the tracks are surprisingly very emotional and touching, and they do a great job of showing the effects war can have on people.

Of course, one area where the band always delivers is the vocals, and Joakim Brodén is in top form here, sounding very smooth and very powerful at the same time. His signature deep and powerful vocals are in full force and his delivery is even smoother than on Attero Dominatus, with his vocals on the more melodic sections being absolutely perfect and really adding some extra power to melodies and choruses that are already fantastic. He truly is the star of the band, and this album definitely proves that, once again.

While some Sabaton albums took a bit of time to grow on me, The Art of War is definitely not one of them, as it blew me away right from the first listen and hasn't let up in the least ever since. It's their one album where every song already impressed me on first listen, and I always enjoyed the narrations, as they're brief, effective and add a bit of extra context to the tracks, without ever getting in the way, so it was always a perfect album for me in every way possible. The album starts off with a brief narration track that introduces the concept, before launching into the first full song “Ghost Division”, which is an absolute killer. Opening with an awesome drum roll, the track quickly speeds up, with its triumphant sounding keyboards and heavy riffs at the front of the mix, and it charges along with some great melodies and an excellent performance from Joakim. The verses and keyboard solo are certainly awesome, but the best part is the chorus, which is not only catchy, but also super heroic and just plain badass, opening with the excellent line “We are the panzer elite, born to compete, never retreat, Ghost Division.” It's extremely hard to write lyrics that cool and awesome, but someone Sabaton always manages to do it again and again, though even by their standards, this track is one of their absolute best.

Next is the title track, which again has some nice narrations, before the keyboards take over and it turns into the kind of mid pace track the band has excelled at since “Wolfpack” on their debut, though here it's more polished and fully fleshed out, with some nice rhythms during the verses and the chorus is absolutely fantastic. It's definitely a song they've attempted to outdo on future albums, but this is one of their best mid paced tracks, for sure. After that is the super speedy “40:1”, which briefly teases at its chorus before quickly speeding up and turning into one of the heavier, speedier and more guitar driven songs on the album, definitely having more of a classic power metal feel to it, though the keyboards are still very much present, Joakim sounds very energetic throughout the track, and the chorus is super addictive, super badass and super catchy, once again. The closest thing the album has to a slow burn is “Unbreakable”, which starts out fairly slowly, with some nice guitar melodies and moves at a slow pace throughout most of its duration, with Joakim dominating on vocals, and it has a great chorus, of course, bu then in the second half the pace suddenly speeds up dramatically and from there the music gets intense and super epic, and it becomes the kind of super fun and epic track Sabaton are best at, though it's more complicated than anything they've done since, and is also a clear highlight. After another brief narration track, we get “Cliffs of Gallipoli”, which has a slightly playful sound to it, with some theatrical sounding piano sounds used throughout the verses, and it's actually one of the more emotional songs here, with Joakim sounding very powerful and talking about the death of war heroes and people mourning their loss, and its sung with such passion, it's hard not to feel it. Easily one of the best on the album, with an incredible chorus, despite also being quite sad. Even the guitar solo in the middle is very emotional, and again it reaches heights the band, or any band really, can rarely ever manage to reach.

The pace picks up again on “Talvisota”, another speedier, heavier and more classic power metal feeling song, with epic choirs during the verses, and it has a very heroic sound to it, like a typical Sabaton track. After what comes before it, the track definitely gives off a burst of energy and is yet another highlight. After that is “Panzerkampf”, one of the slower and heavier songs on the album and has a slightly darker tone than most tracks here, though it's still more melodic than most songs on Attero Dominatus, and it has another excellent chorus, with slightly harder hitting vocals and rhtyhms than normal. Another highlight is next in “Union (Slopes of Benedict”, a fairly upbeat and slightly folk infused track, which sounds happy and triumphant compared to some tracks on the album, with an extremely epic and super catchy chorus. It manages to fit the bands sound perfectly, while still sounding unique, and is definitely another easy favorite, with the folk melodies adding an extra layer to an already amazing track.

Nearing the end of the album, my favorite and perhaps the single most powerful song the band has ever done is next in “The Price of a Mile”, a slow but very hard hitting track, with some of the heaviest riffs on the album. It has a similar sound to the title track, except its riffs hit harder and it just feels all the more epic, with Joakim again delivering some very emotional vocals, and the lyrics are again very sad and a bit tough to take, but they're delivered so damn well. The line where the song's name showed up in particular is just amazing, while the chorus is absolutely incredible and probably their best to date. Overall it's simply a stunning, powerful track that the band has tried to recreate many times, but not quite managed to match it. After such a somber track, it makes sense that the band would speed things up one more time before ending the album, with “Firestorm” being an absolute scorcher of a track, moving at a frantic pace and having more heavy riffs, great melodies and a super intense and addictive chorus, making it the perfect way to end the album,before one last bit of narration come in to officially end it.

Overall, The Art of War is an absolute masterpiece, which simultaneously moves the band closer towards the more melodic and super catchy war anthems the band has become famous for, while also being their most cohesive work to date, thanks to an over arching concept that is executed perfectly. It has a perfect mix of speedy, instantly catchy tracks as well as some slower, more powerful tracks with some surprisingly emotional lyrics, and overall it's tough to argue against it being the band's greatest album to date. It's tough to say which I prefer between it and Heroes, but both are absolutely incredible, and this one probably is better from a technical standpoint.

SABATON Attero Dominatus

Album · 2006 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 6 ratings
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Sometimes I'll find an album by a long time favorite band, where initially I was disappointed with it and considered it to be among their weakest releases, if not their absolute weakest, only for it to suddenly grow on me and become one of my favorites over time. Such is the case with Swedish power metal band Sabaton's second full length release, Attero Dominatus, which follows their excellent debut, Primo Victoria, though it takes things in a darker direction at times, presenting one of their most ambitious and experimental song to date, while of course also providing some fan favorites, as well as one absolutely lyrical masterpiece, which I'll examine near the end of the review. Suffice to say, the first couple times I heard the album there were some tracks that just didn't quite grab me the way Sabaton songs usually do, but after several more plays I suddenly found myself blown away by it, and I now think of it as a masterpiece that rivals some of the band's absolute best works.

Compared to other Sabaton albums, Attero Dominatus is definitely one of their heaviest, as well as being an album that deals with some pretty dark subject matter at times, with themes of religious terrorism and the rise of Nazi Germany popping up on different tracks. As a result, the music has a darker tone then normal on some tracks, and quite a few of the songs are on the slower side of the band's music, though there's still a few more fun and upbeat tracks, as always. I find even the speedy tracks on this album hit quite hard, though, with some very heavy riffs throughout, and this album has some of the most most complex and most interesting guitar work of any Sabaton album to date, with a couple tracks in particular coming as close to being progressive as the band is likely to ever come. Obviously, there's still some fun and catchy tracks, as well as plenty of super catchy choruses, but this is definitely the band's most challenging album to date, as well as one of their most rewarding.

After establishing himself as an excellent vocalist on Primo Victoria, Joakim Brodén really hit his stride on this album, sounding smoother than on the previous album, while still singing with a ton of power and intensity, as always. His signature super deep and powerful voice is again in full effect here, and he gets to shine during some huge choruses, while just generally being the best part of the music as usual, even on the more complex tracks.

Attero Dominatus is a strange album, in that initially I found it to be by far the band's least consistent release, with a couple huge standouts and then everything else let me down a bit, but over time it's grown on me to the point where I now actually think it's one of their most consistent releases to date, with no less than amazing tracks. It gets off to an excellent start with the title track, a rather upbeat track which feels similar to the title track of Primo Victoria, with keyboards being rather dominant, except it moves at a slightly faster pace and is a fair bit heavier and more intense. The verses are fun and move at a great pace, while the chorus is melodic, super catchy and incredibly epic, easily standing out as one of the band's better efforts. It must be noted, this track was always one of my absolute favorites, even when I was initially not too impressed by the album overall. Next is “Nuclear Assault”, a slightly speedier track, which again has some hard hitting riffs, and is a fairly traditional power metal track, by Sabaton standards. It has an excellent chorus, great riffs and an excellent guitar solo, and it was another one of my early favorites.

The first track I struggled with in the past was “Rise of Evil”, the band's longest and most ambitious track to date. In case anyone was wondering if it was possible for Sabaton to do anything even remotely progressive, they should give this song a listen and be surprised, as it's definitely more complex than anything else they've ever done. I initially found it to be a bit plodding, as it uses the same kind of sound they established on “Wolfpack” from the debut, except it goes on for a much longer time. However, over time I've come to love both the overall slightly heavier sound of the track, as well as some of the more experimental instrumental sections in the second half, where we get some very retro sounding keyboards at times, as well as some nice guitar solos. In fact, that entire instrumental section is much longer and more interesting than anything else Sabaton has ever done instrumentally, and it's quite surprising to hear it, when compared against the more catchy, often rushed feeling songd of their later albums. It has a dark feel to it, as it deals with the Nazis, and it's certainly not one of the bands catchier songs, but it's actually quite interesting and still very epic, as always.

Following that, the band returns to more standard fare with “In the Name of God”, a mid paced and quite heavy track, with some great melodies and an extremely epic, super catchy chorus that instantly steals the show and becomes one of the highlights of the album. After that is the brief but super speedy “We Burn”, which has an extended intro before quickly picking up the pace and becoming one of the band's fastest and heaviest songs to date, with super heavy and addictive verses, as well as a very catchy chorus. It's one of those brief but oh so awesome tracks the band specializes in. One other song I struggled with before is “Angels Calling”, which has a nice symphonic intro before the guitars kick in and it moves at a fairly slow pace, being another fairly dark and heavy track. It reminds me a bit of “Stalingrad” from their debut, with more complex rhythms and guitar work compared to normal, but here the band adds in some extra melody to make it work better with their overall sound, plus the instrumental section in the second half is incredible and helps bring the song up to their usual standards. It's another pretty complex track with some interesting instrumental work, and it definitely feels like the kind of thing they aren't likely to ever attempt again.

Moving towards the end, the pace picks up again with “Back in Control”, a speedy hard hitting classic power metal track, with very fun verses and yet another awesome, extremely catchy chorus where Joakim gets to steal the show. It's another one of those brief but super addictive tracks the band is so damn good at making. The pace slows down one last time with “Light in the Black”, which has a nice piano intro, before turning into one of the epic mid paced tracks the band has become famous for. It has some great guitar work throughout, and is slightly more intense compared to other similar tracks, while the chorus is of course absolutely brilliant as always, making it another easy highlight.

One track that really needs to be singled out is the absolute masterpiece “Metal Crüe”, another part of the metal trilogy, this time focusing on metal band names. Musically, it's the fastest song in the trilogy, with excellent rhythm guitars and it moves at an excellent pace and has a ton of energy to it, with excellent melodies throughout. That's all just icing though, as the real highlight of the track is the lyrics, with the band taking many different band names and trying their absolute best to from some kind of story out of them, resulting in something that can only be described as pure genius. Let's just look at the chorus, as an example: “When the priest killed a maiden in the metal church, armored saints and warlocks watched the slaughter. Rage of the slayer forced the pretty maids, to kiss the queen in crimson glory.” I mean, I really have nothing to add to those lyrics, except to say the song is an absolute masterpiece, and one of those timeless classics I could play a million times over and never get even remotely tired of it. The insanely epic final run through the chorus, where some crazy falsetto vocals are added in the background, just makes it even more awesome. Easily the best Sabaton song of all time, which is saying a lot.

Overall, Attero Dominatus is quite the grower, as at first I wasn't overly impressed with it, but over time it has become one of my absolute favorite Sabaton albums, thanks to its combination of instantly memorable fan favorite tracks, as well as some more complex and darker tracks that explore a side of the band that has largely gone unseen ever since. Plus, there's just no way any band could ever write better lyrics than “ Metal Crüe”. That one is just an untouchable masterpiece, any other band could only ever dream of writing.

SABATON Primo Victoria

Album · 2005 · Power Metal
Cover art 3.35 | 11 ratings
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When I first started really exploring the genre of power metal back in 2010, one of the very first bands I got into was Swedish band Sabaton, known for making epic, heroic war anthems. Shockingly, though, I recently realized I haven't reviewed any of their albums previously, aside from their most recent release, The Last Stand, which I enjoyed but found to be a bit lacking compared to most of their superior albums. After recently going through all their albums yet again, I've decided to correct this mistake by giving the band the justice they deserve and writing full detailed reviews for all their main albums, starting of course with their 2005 full length debut, Primo Victoria. The band actually released a demo compilation titled Fist for Fight in 2001, which was later packaged with their canceled first attempt at a debut album in 2007, in a two disc set titled Metalizer. I will not be reviewing that set, though, as I find their very early recordings to be much less polished and, frankly, less enjoyable compared to anything they've done since. Which means, for all intents and purposes, I consider Primo Victoria to be the true beginning of Sabaton, and what an epic beginning it is!

Sabaton has always had a very recognizable sound, using very cheesy and epic keyboards to drive some huge melodies, while guitars are prominent sometimes, but they rarely dominate their sound, as the music is often very melodic, very epic and extremely catchy and vocal driven. Their music has gotten progressively lighter and more keyboard driven over the years, with The Last Stand in particular becoming very soft at times, which means that by comparison, Primo Victoria is actually pretty heavy in spots, as it and its immediate successor, Attero Dominatus, have some of their darkest and heaviest tracks ever. With that being said, this album is still very melodic and super catchy, being the beginnings of Sabaton's current sound, after all, and so I wouldn't recommend it for anyone only interested in pure guitar driven power metal.

Another way in which their first few albums stand out a bit compared to their newer albums, is that they fall more towards a classic Euro power metal sound at times, with the tempos often being faster and more intense than on their more recent releases, and this is definitely true of this album, with many of their fastest tracks to date coming here, and all tracks that fall into that category on this release are absolutely perfect. However, Sabaton is actually a rare power metal band where I'd say their slower tracks are at least as good as their speedier tracks, if not even better in many cases, and again, this album certainly holds true to that, with tracks like “Wolfpack” and the title track being among my all time favorites by the band. As always, the lyrics are centered around various war themes, and in fact, while their demos had dealt with many different themes, it was during the making of this album that they decided to experiment with lyrics based on historic battles and they found this idea fit their music well, so they ended p sticking with it, and of course now that has gone on to be one of the main signatures of their music over the years.

The main element of their music that wasn't quite up to par on their demos was Joakim Brodén's vocals, but while he still doesn't quite sound as polished on this release as he does on later albums, he's definitely much closer to being the show stealer he has become over the years. His distinct, super deep voice is very much on display here, and while his delivery isn't quite as smooth as on later albums, he still carries the melodies quite well, while singing a bit more aggressively than on later albums, and he definitely shines on the choruses. He's become my favorite element of the band's music over the years, and this album should definitely give listeners a good idea as to why he's so unique and so special.

One area where the band was really inspired on this release is the songwriting. They've always been consistently excellent when it comes to writing songs that are epic and super catchy, while still being heavy enough to work well with a metal crowd, and they always manage to be just varied enough while sticking with their main sound. Their first two albums showed them experimenting a bit more with their songwriting when compared to their later albums, with some of these experiments working out and some falling a bit short, but either way, while later albums would eventually follow an established formula, their first two albums had some more unique and interesting songs at times.

The album starts off with with the title track, a mid paced track which gives fans a perfect introduction to the band, as the keyboards dominate the main melody from the beginning and continue to drive the song through the verses, while the guitars kick in and get a bit heavy at parts, but overall it's a very melodic and super epic track. It has a huge chorus, which showcases Joakim's voice perfectly, and it's definitely one of the first songs think of whenever I think of Sabaton as it's the kind of track they've done many times since, but the first attempt at it will always stand as one of their absolute best. Next is the much speedier “Reign of Terror”, a bit of a unique track for the band as it has some slightly thrashy riffs throughout and is definitely one of their darker, heavier tracks, with Joakim singing with a bit of snarl that isn't often there on later albums, but it sure sounds awesome. It charges full speed ahead with awesome riffs and another super fun and catchy chorus, and it's definitely one of the most explosive and most addictive tracks on the album. Followed by that is another speedy track in “Panzer Battalion”, though this one feels more like the kind of song they've done many times since, starting off with an extended intro, giving us some nice guitar melodies, before speeding up and turning into a melodic, but upbeat and very fun track, with another excellent chorus, and some of Joakim's best vocals on the album. It has some slightly darker vocals and riffs at points, but overall it definitely feels like it paved the way for many future songs and is definitely excellent in its own right.

Speaking of songs that paved the way for future songs, next is “Wolfpack”, one of my absolute favorites on the album. I mentioned before that Sabaton are excellent at writing slower paced tracks and this is certainly one of them, opening with an extended atmospheric keyboard intro, before settling into a nice groove, which carries on throughout the track, where the guitars lead the way nicely and the keyboards are in the background, with Joakim stealing the show throughout. It has a very nice rhythm to it, and once again the chorus is absolutely incredible, very much feeling like the start of a formula that still has yet to wear thin, and in fact, one of the later tracks on this same album would follow pretty much the same formula. Next is “Counterstrike”, another hard hitting speedier track, and one of the more guitar driven tracks on the album, as well as being a very classic power metal feeling track, with heavy riffs, a super fast tempo throughout, and another fun and super catchy chorus, as well as an amazing melodic guitar solo later on. It's definitely one of my favorite tracks on the album.

I mentioned that the band experimented a bit on their first two albums, and one example of that is “Stalingrad”, a slower paced track that is much darker than their music typically gets, as well as having some more complex sounding guitar work at times. Honestly, I find the guitar sound on this track to be slightly off putting at times, as it just doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the album and while it's definitely heavy and interesting, with the instrumental section in particular being great, the song overall just doesn't quite grab me the way the rest of the album does, and it is in fact the main reason I can't quite give this release the perfect 5 star rating it otherwise deserves. It's a good track, don't get me wrong, it's simply not on par with Sabaton's usual material and it really doesn't fit their sound, I think.

Thankfully, the album quickly regains momentum after that one, with Into the Fire being another super fast, classic power metal track driven by heavy guitar riffs and a super catchy chorus, where Joakim again shines, as well as another great guitar solo in the second half. If anything, this track really feels like one they've tried to recreate many times since, but I think they did it best this time, and never quite matched it on later releases. Another clear highlight. The final serious track on this album is “Purple Heart”, which is very much from the “Wolfpack” school of songwriting, opening with an extended keyboard intro, before settling into a nice groove. Its chorus is a bit lighter, but still incredibly epic and overall while the song doesn't quite hit as hard as the aforementioned track, it still has some amazing melodies and that chorus is again absolutely outstanding, plus it has an amazing instrumental section towards the end where the speed picks up and the guitars go crazy. It's definitely a masterful track in its own right. Lastly, we have “Metal Machine”, the first in a trilogy of sillier songs the band made as a tribute to the genre of metal on the whole, with this one in particular focused on classic song titles, with classics suck as “Paranoid”, “Breaking the Law”, “Fear of the Dark” and “Kings of Metal” being referenced, along with several others. Musically, it's a mid paced track and is quite fun overall, with another catchy chorus. I love how right at the end they threw in a reference to “Master of the World”, by far the best track from their Metalizer set, appearing on both discs.

Overall, Primo Victoria is a an excellent start for Sabaton and an album that gives fans a great idea of what the band is all about and why they've become so popular over the years. It has a few classic tracks that feel like they laid the blueprint for many future songs, as well as a couple more unique tracks that show a darker sound the band never explored much beyond their first two albums. Aside from one track that doesn't quite do it for me, it's an amazing album overall, and it still stands as one of their best albums to date.

ELDRITCH Cracksleep

Album · 2018 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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So far in 2018, a recurring theme has been bands who hadn’t quite managed to win me over in the past, finally managing to break through and impress me with their new releases. The trend continues with Italian prog band Eldritch. Granted, this is one case where I wasn’t terribly familiar with the band’s work, only hearing three of their ten previous releases, but while Tasting the Tears, in particular, had its moments, none of those three albums managed to consistently hold my attention the whole way through, and so I wasn’t exactly expecting a whole lot from their upcoming eleventh full-length release, Cracksleep. Somehow, though, were their three most recent albums had all failed, this one manages to pull through and provide a consistently entertaining release that I have played several times over the past week and enjoyed it every time.

Eldritch has always been on the darker side of the genre, and their music has always been quite heavy and atmospheric, but Cracksleep especially comes close to the likes of Evergrey at points, with the atmosphere constantly being an important part of the music, as even the heavier songs have some dark sounding riffs and keyboards that add a foreboding feeling to the music. The guitar tone especially reminds me of the Swedish band at times, though musically the album is more varied and has more power metal undertones than that band usually does. There’s quite a bit of variety to the songwriting, with a few speedy power metal influenced tracks, a couple of which have some very thrashy riffs, as well as the expected heavy mid-paced stompers, a few lighter, more atmospheric tracks, and a couple ballads. The faster and heavier tracks tend to be the most memorable, with the occasional flashy instrumental sections standing out and adding some extra energy and flare, but even the more atmospheric and slower tracks are quite nice, and this is the first album I’ve heard from the band that has kept me consistently entertained. It also happens to be a concept album, based around insomnia, which is quite the interesting and effective theme for this style of music, and I think the band pulled it off very well, both lyrically and with some of the sounds they used to evoke the feelings they’re going for.

One element of their music I’ve always enjoyed is Terrance Holler’s vocals. He has a very distinct and memorable voice, sounding very clear and rather airy, but he can provide a bit of extra power to fit well on the heavier tracks. On this album he really shines, sounding a bit frail in a way that fits the lyrics nicely, and he gives a very emotional and powerful performance that greatly enhances the tracks. There’s some occasional death growls used, most effectively on “Voices Calling”, where the band does a nice job of creating the old “voices in your head” feeling.

As with many bands, my biggest problem with Eldritch has long been their inconsistent songwriting quality. Surprisingly, though, Cracksleep is a consistently strong album throughout, with a few big standouts and no duds at all. The opening title track is a brief but very effective intro that opens with some nice piano and atmospheric keyboards, before eventually introducing a hauntingly beautiful main guitar melody that sets the tone for the album, and is actually a slightly slowed down version of a melody from the chorus of the next track, “Reset”. Speaking of which, “Reset” is an instant barn burner, and one of my favorites on the album, opening with some very dark sounding guitar riffs, before quickly picking up the pace and turning into a heavy, speeding track with strong power metal elements throughout. It’s definitely one of the faster and more immediately catchy tracks on the album, as well as having one of the catchiest choruses, but it still has a ton of atmosphere, especially from the background keys and slight symphonic elements, as well as that lead guitar melody I mentioned earlier. It’s an amazing track that really sets the tone for the rest of the album.

Despite being a very dark and at times melancholic album, there’s actually quite a few speedier tracks here, continuing with “Aberration of Nature”, another instant show stealer. This one is probably my absolute favorite on the album and is definitely the fastest and heaviest. It has some very thrashy riffs throughout, as well as the occasional use of death growls, and it’s a very in your face kind of track which speeds along during its epic, soaring chorus, while the atmospheric keys and crushing guitars are present throughout and help make it quite the special track. The instrumental section in the second half is absolutely crazy, and easily my favorite section on the entire album, while the rest of the song is also amazing. Another faster song is “Voices Calling”, which again makes very effective use of growls, as well as again having slight thrash elements during its rapid-fire verses. Its chorus is slower and brings out more of the atmospheric elements of the music, and all around it’s another excellent track. The final speedier track on the album is “Night Feeling”, another hard hitter, with a very nice chorus and another excellent instrumental section, while offering the usual mix of heavy guitar riffs and atmospheric keys.

On the slower but still heavy side of things, “Deep Frost” is an epic mid-paced track with crushing riffs during its verses, which build up to a calm and very melodic chorus, that again really brings out the dark feeling of the lyrics, and Terry gives a very emotional vocal performance throughout the track. Another heavier track is “Silent Corner”, a mid-paced track with some very crushing guitar riffs, that moves along at a decent pace and it has a very epic and melodic chorus, which gets very intense right at the end, in an awesome way. The track comes pretty close to djent territory at points, especially in the middle, but it’s a very nice track overall, which fits in nicely with the concept of the album, the guitar tone during the solo is absolutely gorgeous. In similar territory is “Staring At the Ceiling”, a rather slow-paced track with some pretty heavy verses and a very nice chorus. Its instrumental section is very heavy and is probably the closest the album comes to reminding me of Evergrey, especially during the beautiful guitar solo towards the end.

On the calmer side of things, lead single “As the Night Crawls In” is a very light and mellow track, entirely built around the atmosphere. It’s a slow building track with some haunting melodies, and subtle but very nice chorus, which serves as a nice indicator of the overall tone of the album. It’s a fairly subdued track, with brief bursts of heaviness and is quite good overall. Even softer than that is “My Breath”, the first of two ballads on the album. It’s a fairly calm, vocal-driven track with some nice melodies and a memorable vocal performance. There’s a great guitar solo in the second half, and overall it’s a very nice and atmospheric track. Closing out the album is one other ballad, “Hidden Friend”. This track is by far the softest on the album, with very simple and subdued guitar work being used to set the tone, and it makes very effective use of minimal sounds to create a thick atmosphere, while the vocals are very emotional and powerful once again. It’s quite the haunting track, which closes the album out nicely.

Overall, Cracksleep is the first time Eldritch has truly impressed me, with a very cohesive consistently engaging concept album that uses atmosphere very effectively, while having some heavier tracks, as well as occasional elements of power metal and thrash. The vocals and lyrics are obviously an important part of why the album connects with me, though it’s a very enjoyable album on the whole, and is definitely one I’d recommend to prog fans looking for something a bit darker and more atmospheric, while still having some great melodies and great riffs at times.

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Album · 2017 · Symphonic Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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It’s always exciting to see a band that had long been solid but nowhere close to the top tier in their respective genre, finally break through and release a masterpiece. I was never expecting to be able to say this about Austrian symphonic metal band Visions of Atlantis, a band I have long been a fan of but never been blown away by, but finally, it has happened! Their first two albums left a lot to be desired, to say the least, but with the likes of Trinity, Delta, and Ethera, the band showed themselves to be just a step off from being something special, with a mix of lackluster male vocals and inconsistent songwriting being the two issues holding them back. The band has gone through many line up changes over the years, but it seems no matter who the musicians or female vocalists were, everything mostly sounded solid, and yet their full-length albums up until now had all failed to reach their full potential. With their sixth full-length album, The Dark & the Deep set for release later this week, the band has finally upped their game and delivered not only their best release to date but an early contender for best symphonic metal album of the year.

Going into the album, the band went through their biggest lineup change yet, with only original drummer Thomas Caser remaining from their previous lineup, while both singers, the bassist, and guitarist were all changed. Yet somehow, The Dark & the Deep still very much delivers everything fans of the band would expect, while also managing to be a far more consistent and enjoyable release throughout, with by far their best songwriting to date. Stylistically, listeners can expect some very melodic symphonic metal, with a heavy emphasis on vocal melodies, allowing for two clean vocalists throughout, which has always been a Visions of Atlantis staple. There’s a ton of variety in the songwriting, with the expected mid-paced and super catchy symphonic tracks being present, as usual, but there’s also quite a good amount of speedy power metal tracks, as well as a couple ballads. While this isn’t a particularly heavy album, the guitar work is very solid, with some great melodic leads throughout, as well as some very nice solos and a few really good riffs on some of the heavier tracks, especially the more power metal oriented songs. The songs are all excellent, and everything flows perfectly, unlike on some symphonic albums I’ve reviewed in the past, which have occasionally dragged at times.

Obviously, the most important aspect of the album is the vocals, an area where I’ve always somewhat struggled with Visions of Atlantis. I was not a big fan of previous male vocalist Mario Plank, but with him out of the picture, Dragony vocalist Siegfried Samer has stepped in and he does an excellent job. While he clearly plays second fiddle on some of the tracks, he has a very strong, somewhat theatrical voice which fits in great with the music, and he does an excellent job of carrying the melodies while adding a classic power metal feel to the vocals. His counterpart and the main vocalist throughout most of the album is Clémentine Delauney, who has been very active in recent years, from her one album tenure with Serenity to being in the all-female band Exit Eden. Out of everything she’s done, though, this album does the best job of showcasing her talents, as she’s given a ton of space to work with, and she’s able to show much more of her range than ever before. She has a very soft and pleasant voice which carries melody very well, and at times she sings more normally, while at other times she does some pretty epic operatic vocals, and occasionally she even does some more powerful, rock style vocals, and she sounds excellent no matter which style she uses. With Visions of Atlantis always being a band centered around dual vocalists, it’s important that both singers do their job well, and this album is the first time where I can confidently say that has happened, which makes a huge difference.

Songwriting is the biggest area where the band has frustrated me in the past, as all of their past albums have had a mix of great songs, mediocre songs and occasionally some downright terrible songs. Thankfully, that isn’t the case on The Deep & the Dark, as everything here is excellent, and there’s enough variety here that all fans should be happy with the album. Up first is the title track, which opens with a nice symphonic intro, before quickly picking up the pace. The main riff is quite nice, though overall it’s a fairly light and upbeat track, with slight power metal elements. Keyboards and symphonic elements dominate the track, while the guitar work is solid throughout, and Siegfried is mostly relegated to backing vocals, while Clémentine leads the way and instantly impresses, with some very smooth, yet powerful vocals. The chorus is melodic and super catchy, making the song an instant favorite, while the melodic guitar solo, later on, is also quite good. Overall, it’s a very fun opening track and a great way to start the album.

After that comes the first single, “Return to Lemuria”, which is one of the most power metal oriented tracks on the album. Following a nice symphonic opening, the track quickly introduces some excellent keyboard melodies and a great main riff, before fully speeding up during the verses, where we get out first real taste of Siegfried’s vocals, as he and Clémentine split vocal duties throughout the track, and sound excellent together, with the male vocals adding a bit of theatricality, while the operatic female vocals are as smooth and beautiful as always. The guitar solo in the second half is excellent, and overall it’s one of the fastest paced, catchiest and overall most enjoyable tracks on the album, with the chorus, in particular, standing out in a positive way. Continuing with the speedier songs, next is “The Silent Mutiny”, another very fast paced track with slightly heavier guitar riffs throughout, and it has a very classic power metal feel to it, with Siegfried again adding to the power metal feel whenever he sings, while Clémentine leads the way and is excellent, as always. It has another catchy chorus, more great symphonic elements, and a great solo, and overall it’s another great track. Perhaps the heaviest track on the album is “The Grand Illusion”, which has some very thick and heavy guitar riffs, and Siegfried sings a bit deeper than usual, while Clémentine uses some of her most epic operatic vocals throughout the super speedy and addictive chorus. It’s another very fast paced track, which is once again very catchy and has some great instrumental work throughout. The last really the fast paced song is “Words of War”, which opens up with some great keyboard melodies, before speeding up and turning into another heavier track. It has perhaps the catchiest chorus on the album, as well as more fantastic vocals from both singers, and it has another excellent solo. It’s the shortest track on the album, but also my favorite, as it’s simply so addictive and so catchy, I can’t help but love it.

On the slower side, “Ritual Night” is a nice mid-paced symphonic track with beautiful folk melodies thrown in from time to time, as well as some nice melodic guitar leads throughout, while Clémentine dominates the vocals, singing calmly and very smoothly. The chorus is another standout, and it’s definitely another great track overall. Another track with some very slight oriental influence is “Book of Nature”, another mid-paced track which has a slight kick to its guitar riffs, and both vocalists are on full display here, delivering another excellent chorus, which is one of the best on the album. It’s the longest track on the album and has some of the best instrumental work out of all the songs, making it yet another highlight. The first of two ballads Is “The Last Home”, a very nice piano ballad, which serves as a great showcase for Clémentine, who mostly uses a lower register, though she delivers some powerful vocals during the chorus, and it’s another great track overall. In between two of the heavier songs on the album is the lighter “Dead Reckoning”, a more relaxed and mid-paced keyboard driven track, which is again dominated by excellent vocals from both singers, and it has another great chorus where the pace picks up a bit, as well as bursts of great guitar riffs, and another great solo in the second half. Lastly, we have the closing ballad “Prayer to the Lost”, another piano ballad where Clémentine takes lead and sings softly but very beautifully. The chorus is excellent and gets better as the track goes on, and the guitar solo in the second half is very beautiful. Overall, it’s a great track and a very nice way to end the album.

I was excited about The Deep & the Dark when I saw who the two singers were, but I would never have expected it to turn out as well as it did! Visions of Atlantis have finally reached their full potential, delivering by far their best album to date, with a nice mix of folk-tinged symphonic metal and power metal, and this is an album I’d recommend for any longtime fan of the band, as well as any symphonic or power metal fans who enjoy dual leading vocals, as it can’t be done much better than this!

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Album · 2018 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.08 | 2 ratings
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It’s not often you see a singer or musician involved with two different albums from two different bands being released within a month of each other, but that’s exactly the case for famed vocalist Fabio Lione, who has certainly been very busy in recent years, since leaving Rhapsody of Fire. Earlier this month, he released a collaborative effort with Alessandro Conti, and now his current main band Angra are set to release their ninth full-length release, ØMNI, this coming February. I’ve had my struggles with Angra in the past, not enjoying their first couple of albums much at all and even finding most albums with Edu Falaschi to be solid but forgettable, outside of career high point Temple of Shadows, but I had hoped they would finally win me over with Fabio joining the band, as he’s by far my favorite of their three singers. Unfortunately, their previous album Secret Garden didn’t do much for me, so I had just about written the band off until I received the promo for ØMNI. Even then, I had my doubts after a couple of listens, but after giving it some more time, I have to say, this is the first time the band has truly impressed me outside of Temple of Shadows, and while it may not quite reach the heights of that masterpiece, it’s definitely a great album that can stand alongside it as by far my two favorite Angra releases to date.

While Angra is generally described as a power metal band, they stand out from most bands in the genre by having very diverse songwriting and by including some unexpected elements, such as a unique kind of percussion they include on many of their albums, as well as some very unique melodies. Their songs often stay in a more relaxed tempo than many power metal bands, and while this can work out well, I generally find their albums lack a lot of energy, which was especially a problem with Secret Garden, an album which I thought had some huge highs, but far too many lulls for my tastes.

With ØMNI, the band really hasn’t changed much, as the percussion is definitely in full effect on some tracks, the melodies are certainly unique and a bit bizarre at points and the songwriting is certainly varied, with many softer sections, but overall it definitely packs more of a punch than its predecessor, with the heavier sections really standing out in a positive way, giving the album a much-needed energy boost. Compared to Secret Garden, the prog elements are fully intact, and if anything this release has some much more complex compositions as well as even more technically impressive musicianship, occasionally reaching close to Dream Theater levels, and of course the symphonic elements still appear from time to time. The biggest difference is that where the previous album had shockingly little power metal compared to other Angra albums, this album has about the amount listeners would expect, with three full tracks of speedy power metal and many speedy bursts found on other songs. The songwriting is quite varied, as ever, and while the second half definitely is softer and slower paced, on the whole, there are enough heavier sections to keep it engaging this time around. Obviously, performances are strong all across the board and the production is flawless as always. It’s also worth noting that this is a concept album, based around a futuristic setting in the year 2046, though personally, I don’t find the lyrics to be either a selling point or a negative: They’re just kinda there.

One thing that’s definitely a selling point for me is vocalist Fabio Lione, who has to be the most prolific power metal vocalist in the world at this point. Seriously, it’s getting hard to find bands in the genre he hasn’t been involved in at least some way or another at this point. Regardless of how active he is, though, his voice still sounds as strong as ever, carrying the melodies perfectly as always and bringing in some extra power to enhance the heavier tracks. He gives an emotional performance that really lifts one particular track I’d probably find a bit lacking him and simply does an outstanding job all around. There’s also help from guitarist Rafael Bittencourt on a few tracks, as with Secret Garden, and he does a solid job, though I definitely prefer Fabio’s vocals over his. There are also some guest vocals on one track, which I’ll describe a bit further, but needless to say, they’re a real treat.

Moving on to songwriting, which tends to be my biggest problem area with most Angra albums, but this time around that isn’t the case. Opening track “Light of Transcendence” is a blazing fast symphonic power metal track with uplifting melodies, wonderful guitar work, a super catchy chorus, heavy riffs and an excellent guitar solo in the second half. It’s an amazing track that really got my hopes up for the entire album the first time I heard it. Next is lead single “Travelers of Time”, which is a pretty interesting track. It starts off with some of that percussion I described earlier as well as some very heavy, almost djent like riffs which carry on throughout the verses, but then as the chorus hits the track goes full speed away and becomes another epic, speedy power metal track that’s sure to please fans of the genre, with Fabio delivering some amazing vocals as always. The track gets heavier again later on and Rafael delivers some of his best vocals, which lead to a pretty memorable guitar solo, followed by an even more epic final run through of the chorus. Between this track and the opener, fans are treated to one heck of an awesome one-two punch to start the album.

After that strong start, we get one of the more bizarre and interesting tracks in “Black Widow’s Web”, which opens up with some very soft but quirky and kind of unsettling female vocals, which are very effective in setting the mood for what turns out to be a dark, heavy and very intense track. It’s more mid-paced compared to the first two tracks, though it does speed up at points, and it has a memorable chorus. The most notable feature of the track, though, aside from the uncharacteristically heavy, and again almost djent like riffs, is the inclusion of some very powerful and intense death growls, which show up frequently during the verses and chorus. Later on, there’s a section where the music gets even crazier and heavier, with the death growls being the sole focus. I’m sure some folks may be turned off by this track, but I find it to be one of the best on the album, and it’s certainly something I wouldn’t have expected from Angra.

After that, the album settles down somewhat. Next is “Insania”, another more mid-paced and progressive track, which still has some heavier sections, though it’s much calmer and melodic compared to the previous track, with its speedy and fun chorus being its best feature. It’s another epic track, with a nice use of symphonic elements, interesting drum patterns, great vocal melodies and some of that classic power metal feeling in the chorus. Following that is the first ballad, “The Bottom of My Soul”, which is led by Rafael. It’s a solid track in its own right, with a nice chorus and a nice use of symphonic elements, as well as an epic guitar solo later on, but I find it to be the weakest on the album overall. The pace picks up again after that, though, with “War Horns” being another fast-paced power metal track, falling somewhere in between the heavier “Travelers of Time” and the more melodic “Light of Transcendence”. It has some punchy guitar work, strong vocals, and another catchy chorus, as well as occasional voiceovers, which thankfully don’t distract much from the music. Definitely another one of my favorites on the album. Perhaps the biggest oddball on the album and one that took several listens for me to fully appreciate, is next, that being “Caveman”. It starts out with some odd rhythms, more of that djent influenced guitar work, and it features some of that unique percussion as well as some very odd chanting. Initially, I wasn’t really feeling the track and thought it was a big misfire, but over time I’ve come to appreciate the early parts as an interesting experiment and then after a while Fabio takes over and track becomes more melodic before eventually speeding up and delivering an epic power metal chorus. The instrumental section in the second half is very interesting and has a lot going on, and overall it’s certainly an interesting and very progressive track, which has actually become of my favorites over time, though I can see it being hit and miss for some folks. One thing’s for sure, though: That chorus is incredible, and easily the best on the entire album.

Moving into the last few tracks, the pace drops off a bit. Next is “Magic Mirror”, probably the most progressive track on the album, and one that brings Dream Theater to mind at times, with some of the complex guitar work in the second half, as well as the chorus. It also has a slight touch of retro prog rock during some of its softer moments, and it’s a pretty calm and melodic track overall, though it has one explosive heavy section in the middle, where the pace picks up. It’s definitely a very complex and engaging track, that shows how much the band has evolved over the years. After that is “Always More”, the second ballad, and while it starts off feeling a bit boring, with verses sung decently by Rafael, once Fabio jumps in to sing the chorus the track really picks up, as he delivers a very emotional performance that lifts the track to new heights. The final run through the chorus, in particular, is incredible and really enhances the song. The last full metal song is next, with the first part of the title track “Infinite Nothing.” It’s another progressive, mostly mid-paced track which has some great instrumental work, especially from the guitars, and of course, Fabio does an amazing job on vocals as always, delivering another emotional chorus. It’s a bit calmer than I’d expect for an epic length track, but it has quite a few memorable sections and is a great track overall. Lastly, we have “Infinite Nothing”, the second part of the title track and an orchestral piece containing melodies from all the previous tracks on the album. It’s a nice way to close the album and definitely brings Temple of Shadows to mind.

Overall, ØMNI is a pleasant surprise, being the second Angra album that has fully impressed me, and it comes right after their previous album left me feeling quite disappointed. It features the usual trademarks of the band, while also including some much heavier guitar work than expected at times, as well as some extremely varied and effective songwriting that helps lift it up to greater heights than most of their other albums. I expect longtime fans to be divided on it, but I’d highly recommend it to fans of power metal and prog who want a more varied and challenging album to listen to, as well as for anyone who can’t get enough of Fabio Lione.

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HEAVATAR Opus II - The Annihilation

Album · 2018 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.58 | 2 ratings
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Usually going into a new year, I have a pretty good idea of what bands will be in contention for my album of the year, but it seems every few years I’m thrown a curve ball and a band I would have never even thought of comes out and completely blows me away, leaving more anticipated albums far behind them. Obviously, it’s way too early in the year to tell if that’s how things will work out in 2018, but going into the year if anyone were to have told me that after a month my top album for the year would come from German power metal band Heavatar, I likely would have shook my head and said “not in a million years”, but somehow that’s exactly what happened. Heavatar was formed in 2012 by Stefan Schmidt, the mastermind behind a capella metal band Van Canto, who I happen to be quite a big fan of, so naturally when I heard one of their members was starting a new band, with a full metal sound, as well as some added classical music influence, I was excited. For whatever reason, though, Opus I: All My Kingdoms never really grabbed me, aside from a couple standout tracks, and I quickly forgot about the band. They’re now set to release Opus II: The Annihilation, an album which wasn’t even on my radar just a few weeks ago, and yet surprisingly enough it completely blew me away on my first listen, and has only grown on me more ever since, emerging as an early year favorite to possibly end up as my 2018 album of the year.

Stylistically, not much has changed on this album, as the band still plays an aggressive, guitar-driven brand of power metal, with a ton of classical melodies thrown in for extra flavor. As with Opus I, there are plenty of sections which clearly take classical pieces and create metal versions of them, with the likes of Puccini, Chopin, and Beethoven being cited as influences for some of the tracks. Sometimes these classical pieces are easy to recognize, such as on the title track and “Into Doom”, while on other tracks the classical influence is a lot more subtle, but it’s definitely there throughout the album. Honestly, it’s tough for me to pin down exactly why this album works for me in ways the debut didn’t, but I guess what it comes down to is more consistent, at times more adventurous songwriting, and the fact that the music constantly strikes a perfect balance, both between heaviness and melody, and also between being blazing fast at times, and slowing down to a more relaxing pace at other times. Many tracks go through tempo changes, especially during the four-part suite that closes the album, and I find overall the songs deliver everything I could ask for as a power metal fan, offering some awesome guitar riffs throughout, as well as big choruses on every track, huge, epic vocal melodies, plenty of great solos, which are often the points where the classical influence comes in, as well as a ton of other surprises. There simply isn’t a single dull moment on the entire album, where I found the debut to be very inconsistent. Obviously, the production is top notch, and the musicianship is great, with excellent guitar work from Stefan Schmidt and Sebastian Scharf, while former Stratovarius drummer Jörg Michael is explosive and exciting as always.

For some reason, I didn’t like Stefan’s vocals too much when I first listened to Opus I, but his voice has grown me a lot since then, and he has certainly delivered a strong performance on this album. He has a very deep and powerful voice that fits the music well, especially during the heavier sections and he can be very intense and animated at times, sometimes coming pretty close to using death growls, and his vocals add extra intensity to some already energetic and heavy tracks. Obviously, coming from an a capella band, he’s a great singer all around, though, so he can also sing very smoothly during calmer sections, which there are a ton of, especially in the second half of the album.

My biggest area of contention with Opus I was the songwriting, but thankfully this time around the band has delivered nothing but excellent music from start to finish. There’s nothing that clearly sticks out in a bad way like the acoustic “To the Metal”, and there are certainly many tracks that surpass even the best track on that album, the 11-minute epic “The Look Above”. Starting things off is “None Shall Sleep”, an absolutely stunning opening track that immediately had me collecting my jaw off the floor the first time I heard it. It opens with a brief keyboard section, before quickly giving way to some pummeling riffs that lead the way through the verses, which move by at a breakneck pace and bring a ton of energy, and then the chorus appears and is equal parts catchy, melodic, epic and just plain awesome. The best part, though, comes in the second half, with an excellent and very melodic guitar solo followed up by a classically influenced vocal section that is simply stunning and lifts the track to all new heights. All in all, this track is easily the best power metal track I’ve heard so far in 2018, and I won’t be surprised if it goes down as my favorite even at the end of the year, as it not only delivers everything I want from the genre, but it goes the extra mile with that one choral section to completely blow me away.

While that opening track is tough to match, the rest of the album certainly leaves nothing behind. Next is “Into Doom”, another fast-paced track, which has more of a classic power metal sound, compared to the somewhat thrashy riffs of the opener. It’s certainly still a heavy hitter, though, and it again has some huge classically influenced melodies throughout, as well as a blazing fast and super addictive chorus. Stefan changes things up during the verses with a soft and extra deep delivery, which works great. The big classical melody of the track comes in during the solo section in the middle and is both very obvious and quite awesome. After that is “Purpose of a Virgin Mind”, one of the tracks where I don’t notice the classical influence as obviously, but it’s certainly still an awesome track. It’s another up-tempo track, though slightly slower than the first two, with slow, but hard hitting verses with some great riffs, though it has some nice melodic leads, as well as one of the biggest and most melodic choruses on the album.

The first slower track of the album is the hilariously named “Hijacked by Unicorns”, which has some great lead riffs and some fun vocals during the verses, but it’s the chorus where the song really picks up, as the vocal melodies are excellent, the tune is super catchy and the lyrics are every bit as amusing as the name would suggest. It’s another track where the classical influences are quite easy to spot, coming in during the solo section later on, and it’s quite the fun track overall. After that is the title track, where the opening has a classical reference that is just as obvious as the one on “Replica” from Opus I, and it’s another heavy hitter, moving at a rather slow pace early on before picking up the pace in a big way, leading to an explosive and very epic chorus. Stefan comes very close to death growls later on in the track, and the choral section that follows is amazing, as is the guitar solo after that. The last normal song on the album is “Wake Up Now”, a mid-paced track and yet another heavy hitter, with slow but fun verses, excellent riffs throughout and yet another huge and super catchy chorus. This track changes things up a bit in the middle, with an epic keyboard solo, before the expected guitar solo, which is great as always.

After six amazing tracks, the band decided to go extra big for the grand finale, delivering a near 14-minute four-part suite, divided into four separate tracks. There’s a lot of ideas throughout the four tracks, but there’s one chorus that constantly shows up throughout, used in various forms, and it’s a very memorable one. Each part sounds different, though one thing that is constant is the use of symphonic elements, which help make the music even more epic and compared to the rest of the album these tracks are much more melodic and more complex. The opening part “A Broken Taboo” in particular goes through many tempo changes, and is quite the treat, introducing the main chorus in a big way, while also surprising me with some great female vocals, which appear later on, before again appearing briefly on the second part “An Awakening”, which is a more relaxed and melodic track, with some nice folk melodies. It’s definitely the closest the album comes to having a ballad, and it’s a very beautiful track. The most explosive section of the suite is “A Battle Against All Hope”, an epic, super speedy symphonic power metal track, which has some of the heavy riffs found on the first six tracks and it again moves at a breakneck pace and delivers a huge chorus, except this time the epic feeling is enhanced by the symphonic elements. I love all four parts of the suite, but this track is easily my favorite. Lastly, we have “A Look Inside”, which mostly serves as a softer, slower reprise of “A Broken Taboo”, and it’s a very nice ending to the main portion of the album.

There are two extra tracks here, the first being a cover of the Manowar classic “Metal Daze”, which is a very faithful recreation of the track, with a much better-sounding production than the original, while still hitting much harder and having more energy to it than Manowar’s own recording from Battle Hymns MMXI. Stefan uses some very over the top falsetto vocals at points, which are very cool, and it’s definitely a fun cover overall. One other bonus is “The Look Inside (Orchestral Version”, which is an instrumental version of the four-part suite, and while I obviously prefer hearing it with vocals, this version is quite good on its own, and it’s nice to have the whole thing on one track, which is perhaps the only thing I would have changed about the main version.

Overall, Opus II: The Annihilation is a huge surprise for me, as I didn’t care much for Opus I at all, but somehow Heavatar has really stepped up their game, offering some amazing and aggressive classically influenced power metal songs, which give me everything I could possibly ask for from the genre, while also managing to surprise me several times along the way. Obviously, fans of the band’s debut need to hear this, and I’d highly recommend it to any power metal fan looking for something just a bit different, as well as to any metal fan who wants to hear something with a classical influence, without being overly symphonic or using operatic vocals. A huge surprise, for sure, and while it’s still early in the year, I won’t be surprised if this ends up being one of my top five albums by the end of 2018, if not even my absolute favorite.

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LEAVES' EYES Sign of the Dragonhead

Album · 2018 · Symphonic Metal
Cover art 3.57 | 3 ratings
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It can be hard for longtime fans of a band when a founding member suddenly departs, especially when that founding member happens to be a singer with a very distinctive voice like Liv Kristine. Well, that’s exactly what happened with Leaves’ Eyes in 2016, and while I won’t go into details (because that sort of thing is best left kept between band members) it sure sounds like the two parties didn’t part ways on good terms, which makes the situation even harder for fans to take. Personally, I’ve always found Leaves’ Eyes to be one of those bands who I can always rely on to deliver a solid album, but they rarely blow me away, outside of their 2011 release Meredead, which surprised me with its extensive focus on Celtic folk, and while I always enjoy their music, I wouldn’t put them up there with the likes of Nightwish, Epica, Within Temptation or Xandria as my favorite symphonic metal bands. With that being said, I am a fan of both Liv Kristine and her replacement Elina Siirala, and so I was interested to see what this new lineup would do all their first full-length release, following the Fires in the North EP in 2016. After waiting over a year, the band is finally set to release their seventh full-length album, Sign of the Dragonhead in 2018, but does it represent the start of a new era, or is it a sign that the band should call it quits? As usual, the truth is somewhere in between, in that there’s nothing here that truly blows me away, but it’s definitely a solid album that’s sure to please fans of the band, as long as they’re willing to give Elina Siirala a chance.

For their first few albums, Leaves’ Eyes seemed to be changing things up slightly each time, with Meredead in particular feeling like a shift into longer songs as well as being the album to put the most emphasis on folk elements, while its predecessor Njord, was perhaps the band’s heaviest and most gothic sounding album. Ever since Meredead, though, it feels like the band has started blending the two sounds together, with Symphonies of the Night and King of Kings both providing a steady mix of symphonic, gothic metal and Celtic folk, as well little bits of power metal here and there. I was curious to see whether or not the change in vocalist would also lead to a change in musical direction, but at least so far that isn’t the case, as Sign of the Dragonhead feels very similar to its two closest predecessors. Fans can expect some heavier tracks which mix in some gothic elements, including the expected death growls, as well as some lighter tracks, a ballad, some more folk-infused tracks, one speedy power metal track, and an 8-minute epic that closes out the album. Which is to say, this is quite the varied album, so at the very least it should keep most fans of the band happy, and the songwriting is fairly solid all around, with one exception. Musically, everything sounds tight as always, and while there’s nothing overly flashy going on, at least from the metal instruments, everything is well done and there are some good riffs and a few nice solos here and there. The symphonic arrangements and folk instruments stand out the most, as usual, but on the whole, it’s a nice sounding and well-produced album, as expected.

Obviously, the biggest point of interest on this album is the vocals, seeing as it’s the debut of Elina Siirala. I’ve reviewed both albums she’s done with her other band Angel Nation, so I was familiar with her voice before hearing this album and was already a fan, so it’s little surprise that I enjoy her vocals on this album a lot. She uses an operatic approach, like what Liv Kristine had been doing for a while, though her voice is a bit deeper and has a slightly darker tone. She doesn’t sound as distinct as Liv Kristine, but her voice is very nice and she does an excellent job throughout the album, sometimes using her operatic vocals in a very light and accessible way, while other times opening up a bit more and singing with more power, but she sounds equally great on every song and definitely fits in very well with the band. As usual, keyboardist Alexander Krull provides some growls, and once again, while his deep growls are powerful, they sound a bit forced to me, and there’s just something about how he uses them that I find a bit irritating, so the harsh vocal sections tend to be my least favorite parts of the album, just as they’ve always been.

The album gets off to a strong start with the title track, a rather fast-paced and epic symphonic metal track, which makes great use of its symphonic arrangements throughout. It has some pretty heavy lead riffs as well, and is definitely one of the harder hitting tracks on the album, as well as having one of the better choruses, where Elina instantly shines and proves herself to be a worthy vocalist for the band. There’s a brief harsh vocal section later on, which doesn’t bother me too much, and overall it’s an excellent start to the album. Next is “Across the Sea”, which opens up with some nice folk melodies, and it’s a very folk-infused track, where Elina’s vocals are very soft throughout in a pleasant way that carries the melodies well and blends in nicely with the music. It has a very catchy chorus and is one of my favorite tracks on the album. After that is “Like a Mountain”, a slower track which opens with a soft piano section where Elina uses some very strong operatic vocals. Once the song gets going, though, it’s a fairly standard symphonic metal track. The vocals are great throughout and there are some nice melodies, but it’s a fairly unremarkable track overall, aside from that great opening, and a similar section in the second half.

The rest of the album is quite varied and is fairly solid throughout, with a few standouts here and there. Going into some favorites, we have three folks infused tracks in “Jomsborg”, “Völva” and “Riders of the Wind”, which are all right next to each other. The first of these stands out to due to some very effective gang vocals, which add to the overall feeling of the track and help make it more epic, though musically it already has some great Celtic folk melodies, moves at a nice pace and has an excellent chorus, so it’s a very strong track overall. The middle track here is probably the least memorable of the three and is the slowest paced, though it has some great melodies and a great chorus as well, where the harsh vocals work effectively as backing vocals, though one harsh vocal section later in the track is a bit annoying. Lastly, “Riders of the Wind” is the most upbeat of the folk-infused tracks here, and it probably has the strongest Celtic folk influence, with some very nice melodies throughout, as well as some epic backing vocals and another amazing chorus. It’s a very fun and extremely catchy track which uses the folk elements particularly well, and the use of marching drums, later on, is pretty awesome. One last favorite is “Shadows of the Night”, a speedy symphonic power metal track, with great riffs and excellent vocals from Elina. Even the harsh vocal section, later on, is quite effective, and overall it’s the fastest track on the album, as well as one of the heavier songs, and it’s definitely one of the catchiest and most fun as well.

On the less memorable side of things, the ballad “Fairer Than the Sun” has some great vocals, but it never really gets going, with even the chorus not being overly strong, and aside from a nice guitar solo in the middle, there isn’t much about it that stands out. Fans may have already heard “Fires in the North” from the EP in 2016, and while it’s a solid mid-tempo track with a nice chorus, it’s another one of those songs which feel like fairly run of the mill symphonic metal to me. Lastly, we have the closing 8-minute epic “Waves of Euphoria”. To me, this track feels like the band’s attempt at a heavier, more extreme brand of symphonic metal in the style of Epica and newer Xandria, but while it has its moments, particularly the chorus where Elina really shines, the track overall comes up well short of its ambitions, unfortunately. Musically, the riffs are decent but nowhere near as strong as Epica’s guitar work, and on a compositional level, the song is decent but not as complex or impressive as what either band I mentioned has done in recent years. Worst of all, Alexander’s harsh vocals seem especially irritating on this track and really get on my nerves at points. There’s one really memorable guitar melody around halfway through, and Elina sounds excellent throughout, but otherwise, I find the track to be a fairly disappointing ending to the album.

Overall, Sign of the Dragonhead is a solid symphonic metal album which starts a new chapter for Leaves’ Eyes in much the same way as the last one ended, meaning it’s another enjoyable album, which mostly meets expectations, but musically it doesn’t quite reach the heights of some of the elite players in the genre. It does provide a nice blend of symphonic metal and Celtic folk, as well as strong gothic elements and occasional power metal elements, and I think it should please most fans of Leaves’ Eyes who are willing to give Elina Siirala a fair chance. I’d say it’s roughly on par with King of Kings and Symphonies of the Night, but not on the same level as Meredead.

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Album · 2017 · Traditional Doom Metal
Cover art 3.97 | 8 ratings
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Doom metal is not a genre I'm very experienced with, as I don't even know many of the more famous bands in the genre and in fact, for a long period when first getting into metal, it was a genre I struggled to listen to at all, simply finding it too slow and plodding. However, over time I've come to enjoy two particular styles of it, that being death doom in the style of bands such as Novembers Doom and early Katatonia, as well as the the more recent wave of heavy psych and classic hard rock influenced bands, usually led by female vocalists, such as Blood Ceremony and Avatarium on their first two albums. Falling into the latter category is Australian band Devil Electric, who released a 4 track EP in 2016 called The Gods Below and are now back in 2017 with their self-titled full length debut. Out of all albums I've heard in this style, Devil Electric is definitely one of the best, and is arguably the most doom infused of all.

Unlike other bands that fall into similar territory, Devil Electric clearly allow their doom metal elements to dominate their music most of the time, with some very heavy guitar work, dark atmospheres, and some very groovy rhythms, with some often complex and quite interesting drum patterns. Most tracks on their debut fall into the heavier side of the genre, with the guitars especially being dominant, and there's some very interesting riffs here, often with a sinister tone and the guitars are often used to add to the overall tone of the songs, as well as at times being used for some great melodic solos. While the more doom infused tracks tend to be fairly slow paced, there are some tempo changes at times, as well as some slightly more upbeat hard rock influenced tracks, which have some added energy to them, so there's never a point where the albums drags or I start to lose attention. Of course, the rather short 36 minutes running time also helps with this, though curiously, this release is only about 15 minutes longer than the EP the band released previously, which feels a bit odd, especially when considering one of the tracks from that release appears on this album, keeping the new material at just over 30 minutes. For the most part, heavy psych elements are kept to a minimum, though I do occasionally notice some slight psychedelic tones to the guitar, and one particular track definitely feels like a 70's psych rock inspired track.

While there's some excellent instrumental work throughout the album, the band's biggest star is definitely lead vocalist Pierina O'Brien, who feels like an absolutely perfect fit for this style of music, and she delivers a show stealing performance on every song. She has a fairly deep and very powerful, aggressive voice that works perfectly for the heavier sections, and she also has a certain sinister quality to her voice a lot of the time, which works perfectly with the dark atmosphere of the album. She also has a voice that exudes confidence and energy on every track, and while it doesn't happen very often, most noticeably on “The Dove & the Serpent”, she also has a very beautiful softer voice that helps a lot during the more melodic sections. There's also some occasional male backing vocals, most noticeably on “Lady Velvet”, and these are nicely done and work well in harmony with the lead vocals. All around, this is an amazing album vocally.

The area I tend to be most nervous about when listening to a doom metal album is the songwriting, but Devil Electric has done a nice job here, with every track being enjoyable, some standing out a bit more than others for sure, but there's definitely no filler. Opening track “Monologue (Where You Once Walked” has a nice atmospheric guitar intro, before picking up the pace a bit and turning into a pretty fun track with some heavy riffs and it has a nice tempo to it, as well as some very good drum patterns that have a nice groove to them, and excellent guitar work all around. It's a great introduction to the band, and of course Pierina shines throughout with her excellent vocals, especially sounding great during the slow and powerful chorus. Next is the brief but very memorable “Shadowman”, a heavier track where the guitars give off a very sinister tone, which is enhanced by the vocals, and it's definitely one of the more doom infused tracks on the album.

After that comes the most heavy psych influenced track in “Lady Velvet”, a very melodic, mid paced track where the guitars have a 70's psych rock feel to them, but with just a slight metal edge added, and of course Pierina's rocking vocal manage to fit the style perfectly, and the drum patterns are very interesting and add a nice groove to the track. The vocals get more intense in the second half of the track and this section is incredible and easily the highlight of the album, while the guitar solo near the end is also great, and the track is probably my favorite on the album overall. Following one of the lighter tracks, it of course makes sense that “Acidic Fire” is a slower, more doom infused track, with some heavy riffs, dark tones and more excellent vocals. The song is great all around, but in the second half when the tempo picks up and the vocals get more intense, it reaches a whole new level, with the following guitar solo only making it even better. Definitely another one of my favorites on the album. After that we get the first of two instrumental tracks in “Monolith”, which is the heavier of the two, featuring some great guitar work. It's brief, but quite enjoyable while it lasts.

Next is “The Dove & the Serpent”, another very doom infused track, which starts out heavy and intense, before slowing down for a while, and it's during this softer section where we get some of the best vocal work from Pierina, as she sings a bit more softly than normal, but still adds in a bit of power and still maintains her dark tone throughout. The chorus is very nice, and showcases her voice wonderfully. At the same time, once the tempo picks up and the riffs kick in during the second half, her powerful vocals shows up again and are amazing as always, so overall it's simply an incredible performance from her, and is probably one of the best songs I've heard all year, when it comes to the vocals. Next is the brief but very enjoyable track “Sacred Machine”, a more hard rock infused track with a slight psych rock feel. It has some heavy riffs, but doesn't feel dark as most of the other songs here, and it moves at a nice pace, while of course having great vocals as always. After that is the softer of the two instrumentals, “Lilith”, which feels like an atmospheric interlude, and then we get the excellent closing track “Hypnotica”. This is the longest song on the album and is another slow and heavy doom meta track, with some nice atmosphere, great guitar work and drumming, as well as of course some excellent vocals as always. The instrumental section that closes out the album is especially great, and it's another one of the more memorable tracks on the album, for sure.

Overall, Devil Electric is an excellent debut, which offers up a nice blend of doom metal, hard rock and a bit of heavy pysch, with some excellent guitar work, great drumming, an excellent dark atmosphere, and one of the best vocal performances I've heard all year. It's definitely an impressive release and one of my favorite albums in the genre to date, so it certainly raises expectations for anything the band releases in the future, and I highly recommend it to any fan of this particular style of doom metal, as well as anyone looking to hear an album with some amazing, powerful female vocals.

VINSTA Vinsta Wiads

Album · 2017 · Death Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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When I was first getting into metal, one of the very first death metal (or at least death metal influenced) bands I was introduced to was Swedish band Opeth. I first heard their 2005 release Ghost Reveries and was immediately blown away by their unique sound, and checking out some of their earlier albums only led to more excitement. Sadly, the band never again managed to recapture what made some of their best albums work after 2005, as their next album Watershed was a disappointment, and ever since they've switched to more of a retro progressive rock sound, leaving some of their fans disappointed. While I personally find some enjoyment in their newer albums, I've definitely been left wanting to hear something closer to their classics. Well, I've now found one band who's here to help fill the void, that being the Austrian progressive death metal project Vinsta, created by Christian Höll with the help of various guest musicians. His self-titled debut was apparently a non metal folk album, but for his second release, Vinsta Wiads, he has changed to a progressive death metal sound which very much reminds me of classic Opeth, and while it doesn't quite reach the levels of some of their best albums, it's a pretty strong release, and one I can easily recommend to fans looking for something along those lines.

While I have enjoyed other progressive death metal bands since I first discovered Opeth, I've never found another band that can so successfully create the kind of dynamic music the Swedes were capable of in their glory days, so fluidly moving from extreme death metal riffs one minute, to calm, atmospheric progressive music the next. This is some something Vinsta does very well, as all four full length songs on this album range from just under 9 minutes, to over 10 minutes, and they each have various movements and each strike a nice balance between more extreme metal moments, and calmer, atmospheric sections. There's certainly some heavy riffs to be found during the death metal portions, as well as some very intense and technical drumming at points, while during some of the more melodic portions there's some excellent instrumental work, including some nice solos. The production is top notch, not feeling over produced, but feeling polished enough to sound clear and powerful, and everything comes through clearly. While Vinsta's debut was apparently more folk oriented, there are very few moments on this release that I'd described as folk, aside from maybe a couple of the interlude tracks, which have some kind of chanting vocals and some of the softer instrumental portions maybe fall into dark folk or neo folk territory, but I certainly wouldn't expect any flutes or violins or any kind of flashy folk melodies on this release, as instead the songs are all a mix of progressive metal and death metal throughout.

One very important aspect of this kind of album is the vocals, as you need a vocalist capable of both enjoyable death growls, as well as smooth clean vocals. Thankfully, Christian Höll proves himself to be very good at both styles, with his harsh vocals being fairly deep and quite powerful, while his clean vocals are mostly calm and lower pitched, often blending in nicely with the atmosphere of the music. One notable touch is that this album is sung entirely in a regional Austro-Bavarian dialect, so Christian's vocals end up sounding a bit more unique just because of that, and it's a pretty nice touch.

I often struggle with the songwriting on any death metal related albums, as I find many bands in the genre tend to have too many samey sounding songs, with nothing standing out, and so I lose attention easily. This isn't the case with Vinsta, as while every full length song is complex, there are memorable moments on each track, as well as some obvious differences that make each one standout. The opening title track is a perfect indication of what to expect from the album, as following a brief but nice acoustic guitar opening, the heavy riffs and death growls quickly kick in, and it turns into a very classic Opeth sounding track, with the guitars being very heavy, while also managing to have the kind of dark atmosphere fans would expect from this style, and it all works very nicely. The track stays heavy through most of the first half, and then around the midway point we get the first calmer section, where the clean vocals kick in during a more atmospheric section, and then there's a nice melodic guitar solo. After that, the rest of the track alternates between calm and heavy sections, with the death metal elements mostly dominating, though the few calmer sections are all very nice and the melodic guitar work at times is also excellent. It's a great track overall and a great start to the album.

The next track “Gedonknschwa”, is a mostly mid paced track, which starts out pretty heavy, and overall it's definitely one of the more death metal oriented tracks on the album, though it has a really cool section early on where the drums get super intense and the guitars are pretty heavy, but Christian uses his clean vocals on top of this and it makes for a pretty neat effect. The guitar work is again very strong throughout, and is used very effectively to add to the atmosphere of the track. The second half of the track in particular has a nice melodic solo, as well as a great clean vocal section.

Following a brief but nice interlude track, “Bluatlauf” is the slowest paced song on the album, and it's a more melodic and very atmospheric track, with some great clean vocals early on, though it still has some heavy riffs at points, and both vocal styles are used effectively throughout. While it's a fairly calm track for the most part, there's an intense and speedier section near the end, where the growls get more intense, and it's definitely one of the highlights of the album, as is the excellent melodic guitar work that follows. The longest and most folk infused interlude track is next, and this is the one with the weird chanting vocals I mentioned earlier. Following that is the last full length track “Dei Ruaf”, the shortest of the full length songs, though it actually has quite a lot going on, including a really nice guitar solo at the start that immediately sets the tone. The track starts out slowly, but builds up tension as it goes along, and it's actually probably the most death metal oriented track overall, with most of the song being heavy and featuring death growls. The last couple minutes are pretty epic, before the track ends quietly, giving way to acoustic outro track that ends the album.

Overall, Vinsta Wiads is a very high quality progressive death metal album, which strikes a nice balance between heavy extreme metal sections with harsh vocals, as well as calmer, more melodic clean vocal sections, all while maintaining a dark atmosphere throughout. It very much reminds me of early Opeth and I think fans of that band who have been disappointed by their more recent works may find a lot to like on this album. Hopefully this isn't just a one off, as Christian Höll has made a great album here, and I hope to hear more from him in this style in the future.


Album · 2017 · Groove Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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What would it sound like if Mystic Prophecy decided to release an entire album focused largely on slower tracks, removing most of their power metal elements and replacing them with a large amount of groove metal influence? Well, you’d probably end up with something close to War Is Coming, the full-length debut from German heavy metal band Souldrinker. The band was formed by Mystic Prophecy guitarist Markus Pohl and vocalist Iris Boanta, who I had previously heard with The Mystery. They released two EP’s in 2013 and 2014, and now they’re looking to close 2017 out in style with their debut. On my first couple of listens I wasn’t terribly impressed, thinking it often sounded too much like a slowed down version of a certain band, but after cranking the volume up some more on subsequent listens, I found myself really digging the album and I actually find it to be a fresher sounding, higher energy release than anything Markus has done with his main band in quite some time, probably since their 2006 release, Savage Souls.

As expected, this is a very hard hitting album, with the guitars packing quite the punch and some of the riffs here definitely go into thrash territory at times, though I notice more of a groove metal influence here than anything else, due to the more subdued tempos. But yeah, the guitar work is definitely one of the strong points of the album, as it’s crushingly heavy throughout, with many of the songs having a dark feel to them, making it closer to Ravenking than any other Mystic Prophecy album, except the performances all around are much higher energy than on that album, and the songwriting is more consistently excellent here as well. There’s the occasional section where the music is calmer and a bit more atmospheric, allowing for some more melodic vocals, and there’s also a couple speedier tracks with slight power metal elements, but for the most part this is a mid-paced heavy metal album with strong groove metal leanings, especially during the middle portion of the album. Songwriting is very good all around, with every song striking the right balance between heavy sections, excellent and super catchy choruses, and some great solo work.

One big strength of the band is vocalist Iris Boanta. I mentioned hearing her with The Mystery before, on their 2012 release Apocalypse 666, and while I thought she was great on that album, she sounds just as good here, if not even better! She has a very deep voice and can get very animated at times, with a very fierce and powerful delivery that makes her a perfect fit for a more aggressive metal band like Souldrinker, but at the same time she also sounds great during the more melodic and atmospheric portions on tracks like “Promised Land” and “To the Tick”. Her vocals on this album definitely remind me a bit of R.D. Liapakis, though I think she sounds more invested in the songs here than he has sounded on recent albums, making the heavier parts sound all the more fierce and powerful, while making the melodic portions all the more effective and emotional as well.

In the songwriting department, the band doesn’t take long to kick things into high gear, with lead single “Let the King Bleed” is an instant standout. It’s a very heavy track, which is mostly mid-paced, though it moves slightly faster than many of the other tracks here, and is a very fun and immediately engaging track with a very catchy and memorable chorus, excellent vocals from Iris, and an excellent guitar solo in the middle. This song immediately makes it clear that this is the kind of album that needs to be cranked up loud in order to fully appreciate it. Next is the band’s self-titled track, a very groovy mid-paced track, with a nice rhythm to it, and of course some great riffs and vocals as well. This is the first of many tracks that took time for me to open up to, but once I did I loved everything about it, especially the powerful, super catchy chorus. If anything, it’s even harder hitting than the first track, with excellent guitar work all around, and it’s definitely a great indication of what to expect from the album. After that is “ Promised Land”, a slower, more atmospheric track, with more excellent riffs and some slightly calmer, but still powerful vocals from Iris. It’s the most subdued track on this album, but it’s still very enjoyable the whole way through, with another strong chorus.

I initially struggled with the next track, “To the Tick”, another slow track which starts off feeling like it’ll be a piano ballad for the first 45 seconds. I actually liked that part immediately, especially the vocals, but then it gets heavier and I initially found the chorus to be too repetitive and even a bit irritating, but over time it’s grown on me, and the rest of the song is amazing, with some of the most punishing riffs on the album. It’s probably the most groove influenced track here, which could be why it took more time to grow on me, but either way, it’s a great track with excellent guitar work, especially in the second half where they add in some extra melody during the solo section to make it all the more memorable. Next is “Take My Pain”, which picks up the pace a bit and is another pretty heavy track with a super catchy chorus, as well as some very emotional vocals from Iris, which helps make it one of my favorites here.

From that point on, the rest of the album is a nice mix of mid-tempo tracks and slightly speedier tracks, and it’s all excellent. On the slower side, we have “Like Rain”, “Fire Raiser” and “Voices”, all of which have the right mix between heavy, powerful verses, and great melodic choruses, with “Fire Raiser” in particular being super catchy and addictive. The second half of the album also has the two speediest tracks here, the first of those being “Raise the Flag”. This is a nice uptempo track with some nice grooves throughout, as well as some speedy sections during the verses, with more driving guitar work, as well a typically intense and powerful chorus, and a great solo section. It’s definitely the most Mystic Prophecy sounding song here, and it especially sounds like some of their thrashier songs, which tend to be my favorites, so it’s no surprise this track is my favorite on the album. Lastly, we have closing track “Final Stand”, another pretty fast-paced, thrashy track with excellent riffs, and a more melodic chorus, to go along with the expected great riffs.

Overall, War Is Coming is an excellent debut from Souldrinker, offering some very powerful and intense groove influenced heavy metal, that definitely deserves to be played at a high volume. It’s a very a high energy release, with excellent, passionate performances all around, and it’s a consistently entertaining album the whole way through, with nothing but excellent tracks to be found. Hopefully, Markus Pohl can find the time to continue with this band in the future because this is a very promising album and I’d certainly be happy to hear some more albums that combine his guitar work with Iris Boanta’s excellent vocals. Highly recommend for anyone looking for some killer, hard-hitting heavy metal.

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AMBERIAN DAWN Darkness of Eternity

Album · 2017 · Power Metal
Cover art 3.08 | 2 ratings
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Finnish symphonic power metal band Amberian Dawn has long been one of my favorites in the genre, but at the same time, I’ve always felt they had potential to be even better than they are if they could just be a bit more consistent with their songwriting quality. They’ve released some excellent albums in the past, to be sure, with 2009’s The Clouds of Northland Thunder, 2011’s Circus Black and 2015’s Innuendo being my personal favorites. However, I find even their best albums always manage to fit in one or two tracks that don’t quite do it for me, as the band often goes for some oddball tracks, some of which deliver big time and end up as major highlights, while others fall flat and end up stalling momentum on their respective albums. I’ve said all this to say, out of every album Amberian Dawn has released so far, Darkness of Eternity, their seventh full-length release, and one I was highly anticipating, is easily their most frustrating, inconsistent release to date, with some tracks that match their career highlights, while others simply feel odd and out of place on a metal album, and it all makes for a release where you can have songs placed together that conflict with each other and are so strikingly different, it feels like you suddenly switched to a different album. With all that being said, the high points of the album are good enough to make it easily worth enduring the low points, and it’s still a quality album overall, but it’s also incredibly frustrating.

Every Amberian Dawn album to date has a had a mix of different styles, ranging from speedy symphonic power metal with excellent guitar riffs and epic keyboard solos, to slower, more theatrical tracks, all while mixing in some classical flavoring throughout. All of this is true on Darkness of Eternity, however, while the speedy power metal portions are still intact on a few tracks here, a couple of which can be considered among the band’s best work to date, I find some of the slower songs here to be a bit off-putting and not really in line with what I want from the band. Obviously, they’ve never been the heaviest, most guitar-driven band in the world, as keyboards and orchestras have always been the most dominant elements of their music, however, some of the tracks here fall into straight up 80’s pop territory. Again, this is something they’ve briefly hinted at on past albums, with “The Court of Mirror Hall” from Innuendo being perhaps the most obvious example, but even a track like that felt more metal and more epic than a few of the tracks on this album. Take, for example, the second track, “Sky Is Falling”, a track dominated by bouncy vocal hooks, cheesy, pop-inspired keyboard lines and a catchy, overly pop-infused chorus. There’s absolutely nothing in that track I consider metal in any form, and even the brief flashes of guitar work sound so light as to have no effect, plus I don’t even notice any symphonic elements at all, effectively making the track feel more like a dance-pop track than anything else. I will admit, it’s a decent track in its own right, but I really don’t think it belongs on a metal album, even coming from a band that tends to stay on the lighter side of the genre most of the time. The song especially feels out of place when coming after such a classic sounding power metal track like “I’m the One”, and it’s the first sign that band leader Tuomas Seppälä is perhaps overreaching a bit in his attempts to be creative and ambitious.

Moving onto the biggest positive element of the album, Capri’s vocals remain as strong as they’ve been since she first took over vocal duties on the excellent re-recordings compilation Re-Evolution in 2013. As always, her voice is very powerful and deeper than many other female vocalists in symphonic bands, and she sounds as impressive as ever, be it during the heavier tracks like “I’m the One” and “Dragonflies”, or the lighter, more pop-infused tracks, all while sounding as varied in her approach as ever. In fact, she briefly does some semi-operatic vocals on “I’m the One”, making it an instant highlight. She’s also very effective on the two ballads, as expected, and her vocals are definitely the band’s biggest strength at this point.

Unfortunately, the area where the album struggles the most is in perhaps the most important area of all, that being the songwriting. The band at least gets things off to an exciting start with “I’m the One”, a very speedy, classic sounding symphonic power metal track with some excellent guitar leads, epic symphonic arrangements, a huge, catchy chorus with awesome operatic vocals, and an amazing keyboard solo. For all the flaws in the songwriting department, the band still displays some great musicianship throughout the album and this track is certainly one of the best examples of that. It’s also extremely catchy, while still sounding metal and it would definitely feel right at home on one of the band’s earlier albums. While that song is probably my personal favorite here, “Dragonflies” isn’t too far behind. It has some pretty heavy guitar work throughout, with a darker feel than many of the other tracks, though Capri’s vocals still help add a lighter tone to the track, and she excels throughout as always. It has incredible instrumental sections, with some very chunky guitar riffs and epic orchestras accompanying an excellent keyboard solo, and of course, the chorus is spectacular as well. From a purely instrumental standpoint, I think this is probably the best track on the album, and I love how the guitar manages to have come excellent neoclassical flavoring while still being very heavy. Also in the speedier category, are“Golden Coins” and “Abyss”, with the former again having a very classic Amberian Dawn vibe throughout, with epic keyboards and some very impressive, classical flavored melodies, while the latter is brief but very fun and perhaps the speediest track on the album, with some more excellent keyboard work and vocals.

On the slower side of things, we start with the previously mentioned “Sky is Falling”. I’ve already mentioned why I’m not so fond of it, with the biggest reason being that it really throws off the pacing, being thrown in there right next to such epic speedy tracks as “I’m the One” and “Dragonflies”. Well, I wish I could say it was one-speed bump and that the album fully recovered afterward, but sadly that would be a lie. Two tracks later, we get lead single “Maybe”, another very pop inspired track, with some cheesy keyboards, bouncy vocal lines, a catchy chorus and a general lack of anything resembling metal. Again, I know the band has done tracks like this in the past, but this feels very pop like even by their standards, and while I do slightly notice symphonic elements on this track, they aren’t enough to prevent it from having an “Abba with guitars” feel, and the thing is, if I wanted to hear dance pop, I’d listen to dance pop, not a symphonic power metal album. Even worse, the track feels like it’s cut off at the end, as the keyboard lines simply fade out instead of actually reaching a conclusion. I’ll admit it’s certainly a catchy and well-written track, but it simply isn’t what I want from the band, and that ending does come across as a bit sloppy.

Moving into the second half, there are two ballads and two tracks which feel like a blend between the two dominant styles on the album. Firstly, “Luna My Darling” is a pretty solid track, starting with an epic vocal section before moving onto some bouncy, pop-infused melodies during the verses, which give way to a slightly heavier, more epic chorus. The highlight of the track is in the second half when the music speeds up and we get epic dueling guitar/keyboard solos. See, if I’m going to get obvious pop elements in my symphonic metal, I prefer it to be done in this way, as at least this track has a nice blend of both pop and power metal, and is a nice track overall. Similarly, “Ghostwoman” is a speedy track, which also has a power metal feel to it, though it sounds a lot bouncier than the other up-tempo tracks on the album, especially during the verses, and even the chorus is pretty pop like as well. It’s a fun track, and the chorus is very catchy, though not really one of my favorites. The highlight is the epic guitar solo in the second half.

Lastly, we have the two ballads which close out the album. Yes, just in case the overall flow of the album wasn’t already completely out of whack, the band decided to end with not one ballad, but two ballads! First is “Breathe Again” which starts out slowly and calmly, serving as an excellent showcase for Capri’s vocals, before the music picks up in the second half, with some epic orchestral arrangements and some heavier guitar work at points. It’s an excellent track overall and probably the better of the two ballads. After that, we have the closing title track, which also happens to be the second part of “Symphony Nr.1”, the epic sequence the band started on Innuendo. Where part 1 was an epic, complex symphonic metal track, with many twists and turns, this track is a pure ballad throughout, with some nice classical piano serving as the main focus, though there are also some nice orchestral elements in the background. Capri does a wonderful job as always, and it’s a nice track overall, but because part 1 was so epic and especially because this one serves as a title track, I was expecting a bit more from the track overall.

And that about sums up my feelings towards Darkness of Eternity on the whole: It’s a nice enough album, which at times has some big standout moments that equal some of the band’s best works, but overall it’s simply a messy, inconsistent album that left me wanting a whole lot more. Power metal fans, in particular, are likely to have mixed feelings, as “I’m the One” and “Dragonflies” are sure to get them excited, while many of the more pop-infused tracks are likely to frustrate them just like they frustrate me, and the overall focus on bouncy keyboards over epic symphonic arrangements on many tracks here is a rather puzzling choice, as is the decision to end an already oddly paced album with two ballads. Overall, longtime fans are sure to find some songs here to be satisfying, but I consider this to be Amberian Dawn’s weakest album to date, and I have a hard time recommending it to my fellow metal fans.

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Album · 2017 · Heavy Metal
Cover art 4.37 | 6 ratings
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Classic heavy metal is not a genre I've listened to much in recent years, outside of personal favorites like the legendary Iron Maiden and the last three releases from Dark Forest, but I can still enjoy new releases in the genre from time to time. The latest such release to win me over is the self-titled debut from Swiss all female band Burning Witches. I had listened to a couple songs earlier in the year and was already impressed, but never got around to giving the album a full listen until recently, and I have to say, I'm very glad I did, because this is some enjoyable classic heavy metal, with quite a bit of power metal mixed in, as well as occasional melodic death metal influences.

Stylistically, Burning Witches play a very aggressive, fairly old-school brand of heavy metal for the most part. One can certainly notice similarities to the likes of Judas Priest at times, with many tracks having some rather raw sounding and heavy riffs, and musically I'd say the album is very high energy throughout. There's a nice mix of speedy and mid tempo tracks on the album, and as mentioned above, I hear some power metal elements at times, though this mostly falls on the rougher side of the genre, with some of the riffs reminding me of the likes of Grave Digger and Primal Fear. There are also places where I detect some melodic death metal elements, with some of the guitar work having a more modern and more extreme sound at times, while there are also some occasional harsh vocals, though these are mostly used in quick bursts and are mixed in with clean vocals. I also notice a fairly dark tone to the music on many of the tracks, especially on some of the slower songs, and this helps add extra flavor to the music. Regardless of what kind of song the band is playing, the instrumental work is quite solid throughout, with some very good riffs on every track as well as some nice solo work, and the production is top notch as well.

Vocally, the album is also very strong, with lead vocalist. Seraina Tell proving herself to be a very capable singer. I had actually heard her before with melodic metal band Rizon, but she sounds so different here at times, I never even noticed it was her until I looked it up. I'd say she's definitely improved over the years, though, as her performance here is both much smoother and much more varied than what I remember hearing from her in the past. When she sings normally, she has a very deep and powerful, yet also very smooth voice that especially shines during the choruses and softer moments, though she tends to be pretty animated at times, occasionally mixing in some death growls and classic heavy metal wails. The former are quite good, while the latter took some time for me to get used to, but are done decently enough.

An album can't be considered fully enjoyable if the songs are no good, but thankfully that isn't the case with Burning Witches. Right away, the band brings it with opening track “Black Widow”, a speedy track with some heavy riffs and some very animated screams from Seraina during the verses, though she uses her normal voice during the chorus to bring some melody into the song, and does a great job of it. The guitar solo in the second half is very good, and overall it's an explosive, very fun track that serves as a pretty good indication of what to expect from the album. Next is the self-titled track, another fairly up tempo track with some more classic heavy metal riffs and more slightly over the top vocals, though once again, the chorus is more melodic and quite catchy. There's a slightly sinister tone to the guitar throughout the track, and this carries on throughout much of the album.

Also on the speedier side, “Dark Companion” is the first track on the album where death growls appear, and it has very aggressive riffs, which certainly give a melodic death metal feel, and the mix of clean and harsh vocals is done very nicely, making it an immediately engaging track, and certainly one of the standouts on the album. The melodic death metal riffing continues on “Metal Demons”, another speedy track, though the vocals are clean throughout that track, and the chorus is very melodic and quite catchy. The most traditional power metal track on the album is “Creatures of the Night”, which has slower moments during the verses where the riffs give it more of a heavy metal feel, but the chorus is very speedy and sounds like classic German power metal, while the vocals there are very clear and melodic, and the guitar work is generally very melodic throughout, aside from a couple points. Another speedier track is “Deathlist”, the last of the original tracks, here, and it's another fun track, with a mix of very heavy verses, a melodic chorues, and some nice melodic guitar work at times, and a very nice extended guitar solo in the second half.

On the slower side of things, “Bloody Rose” a hard hitting track, with a very dark tone to the guitar work, and the vocals are very deep and powerful on that track, with one particular repeated phrase coming across as very intense, though the chorus is still nice and melodic, as usual. One song that took me a while to open up to is “We Eat Your Children”, which aside from having an off putting name, also opens with some really over the top wails that initially annoyed me, though I've grown used to them by now. Otherwise, it's a slow and heavy track, with some very punishing riffs, and another pretty solid chorus. It's probably my least favorite song here, but it's still pretty enjoyable. In a similar vein is “Creator of Hell”, probably the slowest out of the heavier songs here, and it has some very mean sounding riffs, as well as some very intense vocals, and the music has a very dark and sinister tone throughout. It's a quality track overall, with a very strong chorus. Lastly, we have “Save Me”, the one ballad on the album. It's a very nice track, with some nice melodic guitar work throughout, that helps set the mood, while Seraina uses her softest vocals of the album during the opening verse, before opening up more as the song goes on, and she gives by far her most powerful and emotional performance of the album on this track, making it an obvious standout. There's also a very memorable guitar solo in the second half, and overall it's definitely one of my favorites on the album.

For the closing track, the band decided to include a cover of the classic Judas Priest track “Jawbreaker”, which proves to be a great fit for their sound. Their version is very faithful to the original, with everything from the main riff to the chorus being instantly recognizable, though I think I actually prefer Seraina's smoother vocals, as well the much more polished production. It's definitely a very strong cover, that doesn't lose any of the intensity of the original.

Overall, Burning Witches is a very strong debut from the Swiss all female band, with a great mix of classic heavy metal and power metal, as well as occasional flashes of melodic death metal. It's a very heavy album, with one exception, and it features strong performances all around, as well some consistently good songwriting. Fans of classic heavy metal are especially recommended to check this out, while power metal fans should also find much of it to be to their liking. I'm definitely looking forward to hearing more from the band in the future.

ELVENKING Secrets of the Magick Grimoire

Album · 2017 · Folk Metal
Cover art 4.69 | 5 ratings
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Being a huge power metal fan, and someone who likes it equally when in its purest form and when mixed with other genres, one of my absolute favorite genre combinations is power/folk metal, a style which has sadly not been done a lot in recent years, but the best band in the style continues to go strong. Of course, I’m talking about Italian band Elvenking, who stormed onto the scene with their incredible debut Heathenreel in 2001, and they haven’t let up ever since. The band has managed to come up with a very diverse sound while sticking with their two main genres, and they’ve certainly surprised folks throughout their career, sometimes going for a more aggressive, almost metalcore sound, sometimes completely toning down the power metal in favor of pure folk, and sometimes striking a near perfect balance between the two. Their previous release, The Pagan Manifesto felt like their best and most perfectly balanced release to date, serving as a perfect summary of everything the band is capable of, so I had high expectations for their next release. Three and a half years later, they’re back with their ninth full-length album Secrets of the Magick Grimoire, and if its predecessor felt like a mission statement, this release feels like the band continuing to execute that mission to near perfection.

Compared to past releases, Secret of the Magick Grimoire doesn’t feel like a big departure from previous albums. Many times in their career, just when it seemed like their fans had them figured out, Elvenking would manage to surprise them, with no release sounding very similar to the previous release. However, after The Pagan Manifesto managed to be such a perfect blend of everything the band had done before, it really felt like they didn’t have much room to develop their sound further, and so it’s no surprise this album feels like a direct continuation. What this means is, anyone who loved the previous album is almost certainly going to love this album as well, as the band has once again struck the perfect balance between speedy power metal, epic folk melodies, huge choruses, heavy riffs, occasional sections with harsh vocals and huge symphonic arrangements at times. Basically, everything the band has done on previous albums is here in full force and executed just as brilliant as always. I thought the songwriting on The Pagan Manifesto was both extremely varied yet consistently perfect, and aside from a couple tracks in the middle that don’t quite seem up to par with the rest, Secrets of the Magic Grimoire follows suit. There’s a nice mix of more straight-forward power metal, more relaxing tracks that put extra emphasis on the folk elements, tracks that strike a perfect blend between the two, alternating between heavy, fast-paced sections and calmer, more folk-infused sections, and even a couple full symphonic power metal epics where the band dials everything up to 11. As with the previous album, the band has struck a nice balance between having a polished sound, and some excellent musicianship, including some excellent solos, while also having a raw energy to the music, with very high energy performances all around.

Another area where the band has always excelled is the vocals, and of course, Damna is as great here as he’s ever been. As always, he has a unique delivery that sounds a bit rawer and a bit more wild compared to a typical power metal vocalist, and he brings a certain kind of passion and intensity to the songs that fit the music perfectly. He uses some surprisingly deep and creepy sounding vocals on this album at times, as well as the occasional softer vocals, as usual. There’s also the occasional use of harsh vocals. These are very good and are used quite a few times, though they’re often kept in the background, adding extra flavor to the songs without getting in the way of Damna’s always stellar lead vocals.

In the songwriting department, while I wouldn’t quite put this album on the same level as its predecessor, it’s still a consistently satisfying release, with several songs that do reach the masterpiece status of the band’s career high point, while even the couple exceptions are still excellent tracks in their own right, which simply don’t quite blow me away as much as the others. The album gets off to an amazing start with “Invoking the Woodland Spirit”, a track which only clocks in at a little over 6 minutes, but it definitely feels like an epic, as orchestral elements are in full effect, and it’s a very fast-paced, super epic symphonic power metal track with slight folk leanings. It’s definitely on par with some of the band’s absolute best work to date, with the verses being fast-paced and very engaging, while the chorus is absolutely phenomenal, and the guitar solo in the second half is very melodic and very impressive as well. Overall, it’s the kind of track where it feels like the band went all out and delivered one of their absolute best songs to date. Following that incredible opener is the lead single “Draugen’s Maelstrom”, another fairly speedy track, which has an excellent lead guitar melody and again has fun, energetic verses to go along with an insanely catchy chorus, where some death growls are used nicely in support of Damna’s lead vocals, and it makes for a pretty cool effect. The instrumental section gets really speedy and intense and is a definite high point of the album. Overall, another instant winner, and of the band’s best singles, for sure.

Following such an impressive opening, the remainder of the album mostly follows suit, with other early highlights including “The One We Shall Follow”, a slower track with some excellent melodies, more symphonic elements, epic choir vocals and another fantastic chorus, as well as the second single “The Horned Ghost and the Sorcerer”, a mid-paced, folk-infused track which again has some incredible melodies, fun verses and perhaps the catchiest chorus on the album. It definitely brings to mind “Pagan Revolution” from the previous album and is almost as fun and catchy as that song, with the folk melodies perhaps being even better than on that track, and it’s definitely another excellent choice for a single. It has an excellent softer section in the middle where the band uses some tribal drums as well as some epic acoustic folk instrumentation for a bit, and it’s definitely one of the highlights of the album. After those two, we have “A Grain of Truth” a track which has some slower paced, heavier verses, mixes with a speedy chorus where the harsh vocals lead the way. I think the excellent, melodic pre-chorus section is my favorite part of this track, though the chorus is nice as well, and overall it’s one of those tracks that doesn’t quite impress me as much as some of the best on the album, but it’s still very good overall. Rounding out the first half is “The Wolves Will Be Howling Your Name”, a track which blends power and folk metal elements seamlessly and is a fantastic track. It starts off with some epic folk elements and has a nice use of violins throughout. The verses alternate between slow and speedy passages, while the chorus is slow and calm, with some of Damna’s best vocals on the album. The track has some amazing folk melodies throughout and is definitely another highlight.

The second half begins with two very good, but not quite outstanding tracks in “3 Ways to Magick” and “Straight Inside Your Winter”. The former again has a nice blend of power and folk elements and the chorus is amazing, but it feels like it loses focus at times, trying to fit a bit too much into it’s 4 and a half minute runtime, so it ends up not being as memorable as some of the other tracks on the album, while the latter is the slowest full-length song on the album and it has some nice folk melodies and a nice chorus, but it simply doesn’t quite reach the heights many of the other songs reach.

The remainder of the second half, though is perfect and very much represents some of the best music found on the album. First up is “The Voynich Manuscript”, a near 6 and a half minute track, which has a perfect blend between speedy power metal passages and calm folk passages, as well as one of the best choruses on the album, some of the most energetic and exciting verses, and a ton of memorable moments. The music gets darker and more epic in the second half, and from there the song just gets insanely good, with the ending sequence having some of the best harsh vocals on the entire album. Next is “Summon the Dawnlight”, the shortest and most relaxed of the final three full songs, though it’s still fairly fast paced and has some excellent lead guitar melodies and some verses which, while not overly speedy, move along at a nice enough pace and are very fun, while the chorus is simply fantastic as always, and the instrumental section is perhaps the best on the album. The last full song is “At the Courst of the Wild Hunt”, which starts off with a very folk-infused section, featuring some dark and kinda creepy vocals, performed by guest Snowy Shaw, before the track speeds up and turns into another very epic, symphonic power metal track, with another excellent chorus, extremely energetic verses, an amazing middle section where the folk elements appear again, and some nice surprises in the second half. It definitely feels like the band packed a lot into this track, but everything works perfectly and it’s up there with “Invoking the Woodland Spirit” as one of my two favorite songs on the album. Lastly, we have “A Cloak of Dusk”, an acoustic outro which features some nice violin melodies, as well as some of the softest vocals ever performed by Damna. It’s a nice little track which ends the album effectively.

Overall, Secrets of the Magic Grimoire is another outstanding album from Elvenking, which builds off the momentum they gained from their career high point The Pagan Manifesto, and at times even reaches the same level of perfection. I wouldn’t quite put it on the same level as that release on the whole, but it has its moments for sure, and overall it’s another fantastic blend of power and folk metal, with occasional symphonic elements and harsh vocals, as usual. Fans of past Elvenking albums are sure to enjoy this one, especially those who loved the previous release, while anyone looking for a nice blend of power, folk and symphonic metal is highly recommended to give this album a try.

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SERENITY Lionheart

Album · 2017 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.83 | 2 ratings
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At this point, it’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of symphonic power metal, and it’s also no secret that out of all bands to play that style of music, Austrian band Serenity is easily my all-time favorite. Ever since I heard their third album Death & Legacy for the first time, I’ve been absolutely in love with their brand of epic, cinematic symphonic metal mixed with speedy power metal, and everything they’ve done before and after that album has left me almost as impressed as that release did. Their previous release Codex Atlanticus was perhaps their weakest release since their second album Fallen Sanctuary, which came before their current sound had fully developed, yet it still kept me thoroughly entertained, so obviously I was excited when I heard the band was planning on releasing their sixth full-length album, Lionheart, less than two years later. Well, that release is now almost here, and I can say once again the band has delivered in a big way! In fact, this time I’d say they’ve stepped up their game once again, delivering a more consistently impressive album than Codex Atlanticus, and even perhaps matching Death & Legacy (only time will tell on that one.)

One thing working in the band’s favor this time around is that Lionheart is actually their first release since Fallen Sanctuary to not feature any lineup changes, which has allowed more time for the current members to work together and build off what they had going on their previous release. In particular, guitarist Chris Hermsdörfer showed a lot of potential on Codex Atlanticus, throwing in some heavier riffs than expected at times, and also including some very nice solos, but throughout most of the tracks, it felt as if he was being limited a bit. This time around, while the orchestras and vocals are obviously still as important to the music as ever and remain the main focus, Chris has been given a ton of room to work with on most of the tracks, and he uses a thicker, more modernized guitar sound at times, which adds an extra edge to the music, and some of the riffs here are quite aggressive but they fit in with the songs perfectly, while his solo work is very beautiful and melodic, like it was on the previous album, except even better. It does make sense that the guitar work would be a bit heavier and have a more expanded role on this album, as the overall theme of the album tells the tale of Richard 1 (often known as Richard the Lionheart) and so a lot of the songs talk about epic battles and achievements, which allows room for the heavy guitars to come in, while the orchestras and vocal melodies are still as epic and ever, and also very much fit in with the tone of the lyrics.

Of course, this being a Serenity album, there’s also a softer side to the music, which comes through on many of the tracks, and there are some very emotional lyrics at times, especially on tracks like the ballad “Heaven”, the sort of power ballad “My Fantasy” and the epic closer “The Final Crusade”. These are all tracks where the vocals take the leading role, and of course, Georg Neuhauser delivers the goods as always. He has a warm, beautiful tone to his voice that works perfectly on the softer tracks, allowing the melodies to really shine through, and as always he sounds like a much calmer, smoother singing version of Tony Kakko. At the same time, he can put in a bit of extra power to fit in well during the heavier passages, and as always he does a fantastic job on the epic choruses, which are very much in full supply on this album. As always, though, he also gets a bit of extra help on a few tracks, both from bassist Fabio D’Amore, whose more aggressive, animated vocals fit in well on the heavier track “Stand and Fight”, as well as from two female guest vocalists, who both work very well with Georg and help provide some of the biggest highlights of the album.

As expected, the album kicks off with a brief but epic orchestral intro, which very much feels like it would fit in perfectly as part of a film score, with epic choir vocals used to add extra flavor. This feel carries over to the start of the opening song “United”, which opens softly with orchestras and keys, before the lead guitar kicks in with some nice melodic leads, and the album officially gets underway. Like some of Serenity’s classic openers, this is a more mid-paced affair, though the presence of heavy guitars during the verses helps add an extra layer to the music, to go along with the orchestras and Georg’s vocals, which are both as epic and amazing as ever. The heavy verses give way to the chorus, which is of course insanely epic and well sung as always, as well as being engaging and very catchy. The guitars actually get even heavier during the second verse and Georg sings a bit deeper and with more power than usual, which is pretty awesome. Towards the end of the track there’s an epic guitar solo, which really shows Chris’s skills off, and then we get an incredible final run through the chorus. All in all, it’s a perfect album opener, which at times brings back memories of when I first heard “New Horizon” from Death & Legacy, and was immediately blown away.

In case that song didn’t already set the bar high, the title track comes next and is an absolute masterpiece! It comes flying out of the gate with some nice folk melodies, and the verses keep the momentum going, charging along at a very fast pace, and overall it’s a track that very much feels like classic Euro power metal, complete with an epic, very speedy chorus that is of course as insanely catchy as one would expect from a Serenity single. Georg is in top form as always, the choir vocals are epic, and the guitar work is again heavy in bursts, and Chris once again delivers an excellent melodic solo in the middle. The end of the track is also a highlight, as the folk melodies return and we even get some epic marching drums to close out the track. Easily one of the best tracks on the album, though things hardly go downhill afterward. Next is “Hero”, another track where the guitar work really stands out. It kicks off with easily some of heaviest, most brutal sounding riffs I’ve ever heard on a Serenity album, and after a brief calmer section where Georg steals the show, the song continues moving at a fast pace, and is another instantly memorable track, where the orchestra, guitars, and vocals blend together to create something truly special. The chorus is once again a highlight, and the heavy riffs are used pretty much constantly throughout, especially in the middle right before giving way to an extended softer passage where the orchestra and vocals take over. After that is yet another speedy track in “Rising High”, though on this track the guitars are a bit softer and have more of a classic power metal sound. It’s another fast-paced track with energetic verses, complete with one of the catchiest choruses on the album, and another excellent guitar solo in the second half.

Things settle down for a bit after that track, with the only full ballad on the album, “Heaven”. It’s the kind of epic, folk-infused ballad the band always does well, with some nice folk melodies throughout, which blend in well with the piano and orchestra, and of course, Georg’s beautiful vocals feel right at home on this kind of song. The chorus is again excellent, very catchy and very beautiful at the same time. There’s a nice guitar solo in between verses, before we get the first guest appearance on the album from Faun vocalist Katja Moslehner, who has a very soft and lovely voice that carries the second verse and chorus for a while, though the song gets, even more, epic when Georg comes back in and the two sing together for the final chorus. Serenity is always excellent at delivering ballads, and if anything this is one of their very best efforts to date. The following track may disappoint some folks, as the title “King’s Landing” is sure to make fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones excited, with that being the name of one of the show’s main settings, but in fact the song has nothing to do with that series at all, and is instead a simple, but very beautiful piano interlude that offers a slowed down take on some of the melodies found on the next track.

Which takes us into the second half, where “Eternal Victory” kicks things off at a high tempo once again, following another nice folk section at the beginning. It’s another very speedy track, with some excellent guitar leads to go along with the epic orchestras, and it has another fantastic, super catchy chorus, which uses choir vocals effectively, as well as some very fun verses, and another great guitar solo. The final run through the chorus dials the choir vocals up to an 11 and is simply incredible. Next, is “Stand and Fight”, perhaps the catchiest song on the entire album, and yet another speedy track that delivers the goods. It begins with a brief tease at the chorus before the guitars kick in and we get some heavy riffs during the verses, to go along with some very animated vocals performed by Fabio, before Georg takes over just in time for the chorus, and sings along with some epic choirs. The instrumental section is again brilliant, as first, we get an extended orchestral section where the symphonic elements are used in full force, and then we get another amazing guitar solo. Overall, it’s yet another major standout track and for sure one of my favorites on the album.

After that the track, the pace slows down a bit for the final four tracks, though the quality doesn’t let up at all. Next is “The Fortress (of Blood and Sand)”, the kind of hard-hitting mid-paced track the band had a ton of on their earlier albums, and here it’s done very effectively, with the verses offering a nice contrast between aggressive guitars and Georg’s soft vocals, while the chorus is melodic and very catchy as always, and of course the solo section gets heavier again and is pretty awesome. The following track “Empire” is slightly speedier and more melodic, though it’s still more mid-paced than many of the earlier tracks. It has some very epic vocal melodies as always and features another one of the stronger choruses on the album, especially the final run through. Though it’s a softer track, Chris is again given room to showcase his skills during the middle section, with some heavy riffs, and as always he adds an extra guitar presence that I felt was missing a bit from the previous three albums.

Things go softer again as we head towards the end, with “My Fantasy” starting off feeling like a ballad, with some nice piano work and soft male vocals. I can’t tell if these are performed by Fabio or someone else, but they”re definitely not done by Georg, as they sound different from him. Whoever is singing there, they do a nice job of setting the tone for the song, before the guitars kick in and the track turns into more of a power ballad, with Georg leading the way as always, providing some of his best vocals during the chorus. As always, there’s some great guitar work, later on, this time with a very emotional guitar solo, which leads the way to the final run through of the chorus, and ends the song on a high note. Last, but certainly not least, we have the epic closing track “The Final Crusade”. This is a lot calmer than most Serenity closing tracks, opening with some nice acoustic guitar work before settling into a mid-paced groove, and it stays at this tempo the whole way through, with some relaxing but fairly engaging verses, which give way to the most surprising section on the album, that being a brief extreme metal passage where some harsh vocals are included. The growls sound pretty cool and add extra flavor to the track, leading into a very emotional and exciting chorus, where Georg delivers some of the most powerful vocals I’ve ever heard from him. It’s a beautiful song the whole way through, but the highlight of the track, and perhaps even the entire album, comes in the final two minutes, as Sleeping Romance vocalist Federica Lanna comes in at first during a beautiful piano section, then sings with Georg during the chorus, and she closes out the album with an absolutely beautiful final run through of the chorus, along with some amazing guitar work in the background. Serenity has always delivered some amazing closing tracks, but I think this one may be their very best yet.

I always have very high expectations when I listen to a Serenity album, as they’re far and away my favorite symphonic power metal band in the world, and that happens to be my favorite genre of all, but once again the band has managed to blow me away with Lionheart, delivering one of their very best albums to date. It contains the kind of epic, orchestral symphonic metal fans of the band have come to expect, with some very melodic and emotional tracks, enhanced by excellent female vocals on a couple tracks, and it, of course, has the epic mid-paced tracks the band has always excelled at, but it also has some of their best speedier tracks to date, as well as an increased use of heavy guitar work to further enhance the songs. It’s easily the best album of its kind I’ve heard since Death & Legacy, even surpassing the two previous efforts from the band, Codex Atlanticus and War of Ages. Longtime fans of the band are sure to love it, and I’d highly recommend it to any fans of symphonic power metal as well, as the genre doesn’t get any better than this!

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POWER QUEST Sixth Dimension

Album · 2017 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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There have been quite a few comeback releases from well-established bands recently, and perhaps my most anticipated of all, Sixth Dimension, the sixth full-length release from the UK power metal band Power Quest, is set to be released in mid-October. I’ve been a fan of the band for a long time, with their previous release Blood Alliance, in particular, being one of my top power metal albums of this decade, so I was excited for anything the band would do in the future, which made it very disappointing when shortly after the release of that album, keyboardist and bandleader Steve Williams announced the band was done, because he didn’t think he could afford to continue with it anymore from a financial standpoint. Happily, six years later, through the help of crowdfunding, the band has been able to make a full comeback, first with the EP Face the Raven in 2016, and now with Sixth Dimension itself in 2017, set to be released by Inner Wound Recordings. I had high hopes for the album, and it certainly delivers!

In their early days, Power Quest played a very energetic brand of super speedy power metal, in the same style as DragonForce. In fact, Steve Williams actually formed the band after leaving DragonHeart, the original form of DragonForce, and guitarist Sam Totman was actually on the band’s first two albums, Wings of Forever and Neverworld. The one key element that has always set the band apart has been Steve’s very retro sounding keyboards, which have always dominated the band’s music and this was especially noticeable on an album like Magic Never Dies, a career highlight, which maintained some of the speed of their first two albums, while also showing the band moving to a lighter sound. This continued on Master of Illusion, the band’s least popular album to date, which dropped a lot of the speed and was a very light album overall, though I personally still enjoyed it a fair bit. After that, Steve fired all his bandmates and brought in an entirely new lineup for Blood Alliance, which brought back some of the speed, while also showing the band incorporating elements of classic Hard Rock and AOR, making for a varied but extremely melodic album which stands to date as my personal favorite by the band.

Which brings us to Sixth Dimension, with Steve again making some changes, this time keeping bassist Paul Finnie and drummer Rich Smith, while bringing in new guitarists Andy Kopczyk and Glyn Williams, as well as new vocalist Ashley Edison. The band made references to Neverworld while promoting the album, even calling their crowdfunding campaign Guardians of Neverworld, a line which appears on the track “Kings and Glory”, so it’s no surprise that a few of the tracks here have a very classic feel to them, complete with the speed and energy fans would expect from the band. At the same time, the more mellow hard rock and AOR elements from more recent elements are still very much in place here, with some of the tracks being very slowed down and more laid back, so there’s a nice variety of the songs here, and from a songwriting perspective, every song here is excellent, very melodic and very catchy, with a couple tracks having some harder hitting riffs than usual. Musically, there’s a bit more guitar presence than normal on this album, which makes sense because Steve apparently wrote the songs using a guitar this time around, but his keys are still very prominent on most tracks and still have a very 80’s sound to them, as always, which helps give all the songs that distinct Power Quest feel.

The one change I was most nervous about was in the vocals department, as I wasn’t too excited by Ashley Edison when I first heard him on the title track of Face the Raven, which also appears on this album along with “Coming Home”, but overall I think he does a pretty solid job. He has a deep and gritty voice, which helps give the music a bit of an extra edge., and he has a smooth delivery that works well on most tracks, with his mid-range vocals generally being excellent, but I find sometimes when he stretches for high notes his voice becomes a bit grating, and take away from the music. He does a nice job throughout the album, though, and those high notes only really bother me on “Face the Raven” and “Revolution Fighters”.

The album gets off to an excellent start with “Lords of Tomorrow”, which has a quiet intro before those retro sounding keys kick in and the track quickly speeds up, turning into a classic Power Quest track, complete with a great solo section and an extremely fun and catchy chorus, making it the perfect way to open the album. Ashley does hit some higher notes on the chorus, but he sounds pretty good overall on this track and doesn’t bother me at all. Next is “Starlight”, a slightly slower though still relatively up-tempo track, which has some great riffs, epic vocal melodies, and another fantastic chorus, where Ashley stays in the midrange and really excels, getting the most out of the melodies. The guitar and keyboard solos are also amazing, and it’s another excellent track overall. After that is another very classic sounding track, “Kings and Glory”, which opens up with some characteristically cheesy but awesome sounding keys, before quickly going rapid fire and turning into the speediest track on the album, and also one which certainly brings the band’s early albums to mind. Again, the chorus is super catchy and excellent, the musicianship is great throughout, complete with a nice solo section, and the vocals are excellent throughout, making it another clear highlight.

The first oddball of the album is actually the aforementioned “Face the Raven”, which, aside from the keyboards, has a very different feel to it, with much heavier guitars the usual, and it’s a harder hitting, more mid-paced track, which really takes advantage of Ashley’s grittier vocals during the verses. The chorus is good, but not one of the band’s better efforts, and I find Ashley’s high notes really irritating on this track. The solos are excellent as always, though, and musically it is a great track if a bit different sounding for Power Quest. Next is “No More Heroes”, a lighter, more mid-paced track, where the keys once again dominate, and Ashley delivers a very smooth vocal performance. In fact, I’d say he gives his best performance of the album on this track, especially during the incredible chorus, which is one of the best on the album, and of course, the solo section is absolutely fantastic once again. My least favorite of the album is next, that being “Revolution Fighters”. It begins with a nice acoustic guitar section, then after a while there’s a nice guitar riff, and then the track settles into a mid-paced, hard rock influenced sound with some nice guitar work throughout and the chorus would be amazing, except I find Ashley’s high note’s extremely grating, more so than on “Face the Raven”, and his vocals here completely kill the track for me. It’s a nice track musically, but sadly I care too much about vocals to not be annoyed by how Ashley sounds here. Unsurprisingly, the band returns to a softer sound for the next track, “Pray for the Day”, the most AOR influenced track on the album, and definitely a softer, slow paced and very 80’s sounding track, with some excellent keys and a great performance from Ashley, where he stays in his mid-range and really carries the melodies well, especially during the fantastic chorus.

The best track of all is next, that being the absolutely glorious “Coming Home”, which has some of the best sounding keys on the album, and is another very fast paced, classic sounding track, which effectively mixes in some slower sections during the verses, before speeding up and becoming more epic for the incredibly catchy chorus, which stands as not only the best chorus on the album, but one of the band’s absolute best to date, and thankfully Ashley delivers it perfectly. As always, the solo section is amazing, and overall it’s simply an addictive, super epic track which stands alongside some of the band’s all-time best songs. Lastly, we have the title track, another more calmer, more mid-paced track where Steve’s keys sound a bit less retro than normal, and overall it’s a very melodic track with an excellent chorus and some great vocal melodies. There’s an excellent solo section towards the end and then former Nightwish vocalist Anette Olzon makes a brief but very memorable appearance, leading to some great keyboard work and then one last run through the chorus before the album ends. It’s an excellent song overall, and definitely a great way to end the album.

Overall, Sixth Dimension is an excellent comeback album for Power Quest, and it was certainly worth the wait for longtime fans! It delivers a little something for everyone, giving fans of the band’s early speedy power metal a few new songs to be excited about, while fans of the more hard rock and AOR influenced tracks on later albums also have a lot to look forward to. There isn’t much new to be found here, but the album really is everything fans could hope for from a comeback album, and aside from a couple sections where the vocals bother me a bit, I’m very pleased with how it turned out, and I definitely hope the band can continue on for many years to come.

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Album · 2017 · Heavy Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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Sometimes a band will release an album that at the time upsets their fans so much they want nothing to do with the band anymore, only for those same people to end up badly missing the band over time, hoping desperately that they will one day return with a triumphant comeback album. The latest band to fit into this description is Swedish power metal band Nocturnal Rites, who I was introduced to with their 2007 release, The 8th Sin, an album I actually enjoyed, but many of their longtime fan loathed it and criticized the band for falling into a more commercialized sound. After the release of that album, the band went quiet for several years, making fans think that could be the end. But now in 2017, they have finally returned, ready to release their ninth full-length album, Phoenix, but can they rise from the ashes, or should they have just stayed buried? I’ll go into full details below, but suffice to say, there isn’t a really clear cut answer for that one.

Nocturnal Rites actually started out as a death metal band in their very early days, releasing a couple of demos in that style before changing to a classic power metal sound with their full-length debut, In a Time of Blood and Fire, and they stuck with that sound for three albums, until current singer Jonny Lindqvist joined the band for their 2001 release, Afterlife, and they switched to a more aggressive, somewhat thrashy power metal sound. That album had a fairly mixed reception, but I personally consider it to be one of their best, but again they switched to a more melodic sound for their next few albums, with their 2004 release New World Messiah, in particular, standing out as a career high point. But again, they changed their sound in 2007 for The 8th Sin and that’s when everything seemed to come apart, as while the album still had some power metal elements, it had a much more modernized, very commercial sound that upset a lot of fans and while the songwriting was fun and catchy, it’s not hard to see why many folks felt betrayed by the band.

Which brings us to Phoenix, an album that largely continues with the more modern sound of The 8th Sin, but it comes across as a bit more metal sounding and does have small traces of their old sound. The band went through a couple different lead guitarists in between albums, before bringing in Per Nilsson, best known for his work with melodic death metal band Scar Symmetry. As soon as I heard he was brought into the band I was very interested in hearing what Phoenix would sound like, as while he’s an excellent guitarist, I wasn’t sure if his style would fit this particular band very well. It turns out, I was right to be concerned, because while he certainly does some great work on this album, including some incredible solos, there are many points where he resorts to modern sounding chugs which would fit in great with a band like Scar Symmetry, but they really feel out of place on a Nocturnal Rites album, and bring some of the tracks down.

Stylistically, Phoenix is a very modern sounding album, and I’d describe it more as melodic metal than anything else, as most of the tracks are slow to mid paced, and rely on huge vocal melodies above everything else. The chugs mostly come in quick bursts and most songs are fairly laid back throughout, with occasional heavy sections and bursts of speed, to remind fans they are listening to a metal album, but it’s clear the band has settled into a much more accessible, more radio friendly sound. There’s definitely still traces of power metal left in the music, and I generally find the heavier, speedier sections to be the highlights of the album, but the majority of the time the music is fairly slow paced and very melodic, just as the three pre-release singles would suggest.

I mentioned that the vocals were a huge focus on this album, so obviously the band requires a great singer, and thankfully they have one in Jonny Lindqvist. He has a rather animated voice that I’d describe as an odd sounding mix between Tobias Sammet and Chris Jericho (seriously, that may sound like a bizarre combination, but that’s what I think of every time I hear him,) and he does an excellent job of carrying some of the less interesting songs on the album. He may not be the best singer technically, but what he really excels at is singing with emotion. He always sounds very energetic in his delivery and it’s always easy to tell he’s very passionate about the lyrics, as he puts a ton of emotion into everything he sings, and he is definitely the band’s biggest asset at this point.

With the most positive aspect of the album out of the way, unfortunately, it’s time for a more problematic area, that being the songwriting. Things get off to a rocky start with “A Heart as Black as Coal”, a slow paced slog of a track which has some ugly modern sounding chugs throughout the verses, as well as vocal melodies that give it a strong pop feel, kinda like “Never Again” from The 8th Sin, except that while its chorus is decent, it’s nowhere near as fun or catchy as that song was, instead just kinda feeling like it exists and not doing anything beyond that. The track does have an excellent solo from Per, but that’s the one highlight on an otherwise forgettable track, and one I definitely don’t think works well as either a single to sell an album or as an opening track. Next is the first single, “Before We Waste Away”, another slow paced track, though it has some great melodies throughout and effectively builds to an excellent chorus that instantly got me excited for the album the first time I heard it. Again, Per delivers an excellent solo in the middle and overall this track is a great single and one that really set my expectations high for the album, so it’s a bit of a shame the entire album isn’t on the same level. The third, and so far last, single is “Repent My Sins” another slower track, but again it has some nice melodies and a very passionate vocal performance from Jonny, so while it doesn’t quite hit me as hard as “Before We Waste Away” it’s a pretty great track on its own.

In between that two track is “The Poisonous Seed”, the first real heavy track on the album, and one that offers brief glimpses of the band’s power metal roots. This track has some heavy riffs throughout and has a very dark feel, as well as feeling like a modernized take on their power metal sound, being much harder hitting than anything on The 8th Sin, while still sounding far more modern than any of their prior albums. It also has some light symphonic elements, which are used on a couple other tracks for some extra flavor, and it’s an all around excellent track, where Per really gets to shine with some great riffs and an excellent solo. I kinda wish there were more tracks like this on the album, as his style fits a heavier track like this perfectly, where on some of the slower tracks his chugs just don’t quite feel right. The only other consistently fast songs on the album are the closing track “Welcome to the End” and the bonus track “Used to Be God”. Out of those two, “Welcome to the End” is a very fast, heavy track which effectively uses some symphonic elements, and is definitely a highlight, but “Used to Be God” is actually even better, as it has by far the best riffs on the album, as well as an excellent solo section and an incredible chorus. However, I can see why they chose to make it a bonus track, as it has a thrashy sound to it which doesn’t quite fit the tone of the album on the whole, so if anything it just makes me even more disappointed about the direction they chose to go with many songs on the album, as I’d definitely be excited to hear the band do a full album in the style of this song and “Welcome to the End”, yet I realize that’s totally not what they were going for overall, so it’s obvious me and the band are not on the same page.

In between those tracks and “Repent My Sins”, we get a bunch of tracks that are solid but none of them do a whole lot for me, and they mostly blend together to just become forgettable. Tracks like “A Song For You” and “The Ghost Inside Me” do a nice job of mixing brief faster sections with mid paced verses and solid choruses, but neither track blows me away, while slower tracks like “What’s Killing Me” and “Nothing Can Break Me” feel like weaker versions of tracks from The 8th Sin, with the latter in particular having some modern sounding keys which are oddly distracting and give the track a slight pop feel. Lastly, we have “Flames”, a decent ballad where Jonny delivers some excellent vocals, but musically the track just does nothing for me at all. It has a nice chorus, but throughout the rest of the song, I just get bored, as the symphonic elements and vocals are far more interesting than the basic chugs and anything else that’s going on. Another track where Per doesn’t really fit in for me.

Overall, Phoenix is a pretty frustrating release for me, as there are brief moments where it teases at a modernized power metal sound that I could see working out great for the band, but there are far too many slower tracks where Per Nillson’s chugs don’t really fit the sound, and if not for Jonny’s excellent vocals, I’d probably be getting bored to death. For fans of Nocturnal Rites, this album is tough to judge, as it does have a few excellent tracks that feel fresh enough to stand out, while having some familiar elements, but anyone disappointed with The 8th Sin will also likely struggle with many of the lighter tracks on this album, and I don’t expect many pure power metal fans to be too thrilled, either. Fans of melodic metal who look for excellent vocals and melodies above all else are recommended to give this album a listen, and anyone else should try the singles to see if they have any interest, but again I have to point out for power metal fans, that all three of the tracks most likely to impress is hidden away, with one of them even being a bonus track. For me, personally, Phoenix is a solid album, maybe slightly behind The 8th Sin, but it definitely doesn’t come close to the band’s best works. So, it’s not a total disappointment, but it’s also not really the triumphant return I was hoping for, either. It just kinda exists.

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Album · 2017 · Folk Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 3 ratings
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With some bands, it’s hard for me not to be at least a bit nervous every time they put out a new album, whether it’s being worried they’ll do a misguided experiment that goes horribly wrong or just produce something that sounds so samey it comes across as a pointless retread. Then there are other bands, like Finnish folk metal band Ensiferum, where every time I hear they’re coming out with a new album, I feel nothing but extreme excitement, because every time they release a new album they manage to prove themselves as being the absolute best in their genre, sticking to tried and true elements while managing to add in a little something special each time, so that each album stands out from the pack. While their previous release, One Man Army, came across as a little familiar sounding compared to their past releases, it was still an excellent album with enough standout moments to make me confident they could keep their impressive run going, and now with their seventh full-length release, Two Paths, the band sounds more energized than ever and they’ve produced yet another album that contains all the expected elements, while managing to feel fresh and exciting at the same time.

Ensiferum’s lineup has remained very stable over the past several years, so it was a rare case when keyboardist Emmi Silvennoinen left the band shortly after the release of One Man Army. Her replacement on tour was Netta Skog, who has gone on to officially join the band for Two Paths. Interestingly, Netta plays a digital accordion, which can be used to effectively recreate the kinds of keyboard sounds Emmi was using on the past three albums, while at the same time she can also use it as a normal accordion, which adds extra folk flavor to the music, something the band has done very effectively on this album. In fact, while albums like From Afar and One Man Army were pushing the band pretty far into a symphonic metal direction at times, on this album they have dialed those elements back a bit, and instead the majority of the album is dominated by folk melodies, with the accordion, in particular, being used very effectively to lead the way on many tracks, and there’s also the occasional use of violins and other folk instruments. Obviously, folk elements have always been a large part of Ensiferum’s music, but on this album, I notice them even more so than on their previous few releases, and they add extra flavor and energy to some already impressive music. While the folk elements dominate more than ever, though, there are still some very epic symphonic arrangements on a couple tracks, as well as the expected melodic death metal elements, which while again not as dominant as on some albums, are still very much present and are used as well as ever. The majority of the album is very fast paced and energetic, with most of the songs being written in such a way as to be extremely catchy and addictive, so fans hoping for some of the more complex and lengthy tracks found on the past few albums may be disappointed, as nothing here even approaches 5 and a half minutes. Instead, the songs are all simple, but extremely catchy and fun, which I personally don’t mind as a change of pace, since it allows the album to flow beautifully from one highlight to another, and it’s certainly an easy album to listen to several times in a row.

The band has always been known to use various different vocal deliveries on their albums, and Two Paths is certainly no exception to this rule. As always, harsh vocals are an important part of the music, and Petri Lindroos sounds as epic and powerful with his growls as ever. Also, as usual, the clean male vocals from bassist Sami Hinkka and guitarist Markus Toivonen are quite varied, sometimes even sounding a bit different from past albums, as they occasionally sound a bit more wild than usual, which fits in well on some of the more folk flavored tracks. Gang vocals and choirs are also used on many tracks, as always, and are as epic as ever, adding extra flavor to the music, and helping to make some already awesome choruses even better. Lastly, the band has used various different female vocalists throughout their past few albums, and this continues on this album. I’m not sure if the female vocals here are done by a guest or by Netta Skog, but either way they’re very impressive, sounding just a bit wild but also very pleasant and they add even more of a folk flavor to the music, whenever they appear, which mostly happens in short bursts as supporting vocals, but they do show up as lead vocals a couple times and are quite nice.

Songwriting is an area where Ensiferum has always excelled, so it’s no surprise that Two Paths is a consistently amazing album from start to finish, with none of the songs being anywhere near less than perfect. The album begins with an intro, which makes nice use of folk melodies and symphonic arrangements, while also having nice female vocals early on before we get the main melody that we’ll be hearing a couple more times on the album. In fact, while this intro track is very heroic and epic sounding, there’s also an outro track which feels like the reverse, as it uses the same main melody but it’s slowed down and sounds a lot sadder, which serves as a nice contrast. But those aren’t the only two times that melody appears, as it’s actually taken straight from the lead single and proper opener “For Those About to Fight for Metal”. In case anyone is like me and instantly thinks of AC/DC when seeing that name, it actually does feel like an intentional reference, as the chorus has a line that certainly reminds me of a famous track from that band and even the extended guitar intro is a little bit similar. Once the song gets going, though, it’s pure Ensiferum through and through, moving at a very high tempo throughout, with some explosive riffs, epic choirs, symphonic arrangements, folk melodies and an extremely epic chorus, dominated by choir vocals. It basically feels like a full representation of their sound and it definitely gives listeners an idea of what to expect, from the super energetic, more straightforward songwriting found throughout the album. It also has an awesome instrumental section in the middle where the guitars lead the way for a while, and then suddenly Netta takes over with her accordion and it gets really epic from there. Definitely an exciting opening track, but surprisingly not even one of my favorites on the album, as awesome as it is.

Next is “Way of the Warrior”, another explosive, fast paced track with an awesome chorus. This track uses more traditional keyboard sounds, but the actual melodies definitely have a folk feel to them, and it actually reminds me a little bit of “One Magic Potion” from Victory Songs, which was always a favorite of mine. In fact, while this album definitely has elements of all the band’s albums with Petri Lindroos, if I were to compare it most to one album in particular, I’d go with Victory Songs, due to the heavy focus on folk elements and also due to some of the gang vocal arrangements sounding quite similar to songs from that album. The title track follows and is the most folk infused of the first few tracks, with the accordion playing a very prominent role throughout and sounding quite impressive, and I also hear some violins during the verses, which adds extra flavor. Meanwhile, we get some very wild clean vocals throughout the track, especially during the chorus, and while it took a couple listens for me to get used to how they sound, I now think they fit the track very well, and it’s definitely a catchy and very fun track, which actually feels very fresh, as while it is fast paced, it isn’t overly heavy and has a more traditional folk feel to it at times. After that is a track which comes from the opposite spectrum, that being the super explosive “King of Storms”, a very heavy, super bombastic track which very much feels like it would have fit perfectly on From Afar or One Man Army. It’s the kind of epic, symphonic flavored melodic death metal that dominated those two albums, and on this track, it’s pulled off as effectively as ever, with some explosive verses, insanely epic symphonic arrangements and a huge chorus as always. It’s also one of the tracks where Petri most gets to dominate with his harsh vocals, though the very deep clean vocals during the chorus are also impressive.

And of course, the track right after that has to once again serve as a contrast to the track preceding it, as “Feast of Valkyries” is a more laid back, very folk infused track. Right from the start, the accordion dominates on this track, and it sounds very nice. While it’s still a fairly upbeat track musically, it isn’t as fast or as heavy as most other tracks on the album, instead of being more relaxed and very melodic. During the verses, we get some rather unique sounding female vocals, which lead the way through the track, before giving way to some epic gang vocals during the insanely epic and catchy chorus, which again brings back fond memories of Victory Songs. What we get next is a slight surprise, as “Don’t You Say” has more of a folk rock feel to it, being very upbeat but rather light and not at all heavy compared to most songs on the album. In fact, everything from the more simplistic drum patterns to the super catchy chorus, makes it feel like a more accessible, almost radio friendly track by Ensiferum standards. The track has no harsh vocals and is sung almost entirely by one singer, who does an excellent job and his voice fits the folk flavor of the track perfectly (the one exception is a brief use of female vocals as support right near the end.) I can see some fans being disappointed by this track, but I personally love it, as it serves as a nice change of pace from some of the heavier songs and the folk melodies are beautiful, especially the use of a violin throughout, while the chorus is an absolutely killer and super addictive. In fact, it’s actually one of my favorite songs on the album, even if it is by far the least metal.

Heading towards the end, “I Shall Never Kneel” is another standout, which again has strong folk elements throughout, though it’s a heavier track, with varied tempos throughout. Its main riff is fast paced, and there are some explosive moments throughout, but the verses and chorus are more mid paced, and there’s also a very beautiful slower section in the middle where the keyboards take over and we get some nice female vocals. On the whole, it’s a very fun track and uses the full range of vocals fans can expect from the band, all in one track, which is cool. After that we get another very folk flavored track in “God is Dead”, which actually has my favorite use of the accordion on the entire album, as the lead melody is absolutely beautiful and adds a ton of folk flavor to the music, while the track overall is fast paced and is simply a wild, good time, with an insanely epic chorus, wild but awesome sounding clean vocals, and it’s simply one of the most wildly fun and addictive tracks I’ve heard all year, even if I’m not overly fond of the lyrics. This track is one case where the music and songwriting are simply so awesome, it wins out over the lyrics. Lastly, “Hail to the Victor” is the slowest track on the album, leading off with a nice guitar melody, before settling down and turning into a slow but epic melodic death metal track with strong symphonic elements, It has an amazing chorus, where clean vocals show up, but while the first half is very good, the track gets much better around halfway through, as the guitar tone suddenly changes, becoming more epic, and we get some huge symphonic arrangements, in a section that very much reminds me of the album Unsung Heroes and especially the track “Burning Leaves”, except dialed up to an 11. From there, we get some incredibly epic choir vocals, and the track ends in epic fashion. While that is the last proper song on the album, followed by the outro I mentioned earlier, the band also elected to provide alternate versions of the tracks “Don’t You Say” and “God is Dead”, with these versions featuring harsh vocals throughout. While some folks may prefer one version over the other, I personally think both songs work equally well with either clean or harsh vocal, as both are simply so incredibly fun and well written, they’ll work for me in either form, so having these alternate versions is certainly a nice treat, and I always listen to both versions of each track every time I play the album.

At this point, I never expect anything less than greatness from Ensiferum, and I’m never disappointed. Two Paths is once again no exception, as it’s yet another masterful album that has all the elements fans of the band have come to expect, while also having stronger folk elements than the band has had in a long time, as well as being one of their most energetic albums ever. It’s certainly yet another highlight in their impressive career and is easily my favorite folk metal album since at the very least Unsung Heroes, possibly even eclipsing that and going back to From Afar, which stands as my favorite from the band. Either way, though, I highly recommend it to all fans of folk, symphonic and melodic death metal, as it’s certainly a must hear, and one of my top three albums of 2017 so far.

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Album · 2017 · Folk Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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There are many metal bands right now who can fluidly blend together elements of genres such as folk, symphonic and melodic death metal all in one package, so any band trying to pull off that kind of sound has their work cut out for them, trying to find a way to stand out. One band, I tried a few years ago but wasn’t overly impressed by, was Finnish band Crimfall. I barely remember anything about their second release, The Writ of Sword, except that I thought it had some good moments but wasn’t too enjoyable overall, so a new release for them wasn’t exactly on my radar. But now they’re back with their third full-length release, Amain, and I have to say, this time around they have definitely impressed me!

The band released their first two albums with two different labels, and have again changed labels this time, being picked up by Metal Blade, who of course also have Ensiferum in their lineup. I mention this, because the two bands definitely have some stylistic similarities, with both blending elements of folk, symphonic metal, and melodic death metal, using varying amounts of all those elements throughout their songs, and also mixing in varying amounts of harsh vocals, clean vocals, and choirs. However, the biggest difference between Crimfall and any similar band is that while they certainly do have their epic moments, at least on Amain I find their music to be a bit more complex at times, as many tracks on this release are a lot calmer and take more time to build up than one would expect from this style of music. Obviously, there are some huge instant winners like the two singles “The Last of Stands” and “Mother of Unbelievers”, where the music goes full out epic, with some explosive guitar work, epic orchestras, and some folk elements, but there are many extended quieter sections on this album, and many tracks take a few listens to fully click.

Vocally, the band offers the kind of approach one would expect from this mix of genres. Which is to say, there are the expected harsh vocals, which are done very well by Mikko Häkkinen, who has a very powerful voice that would work perfectly on a pure Melo-death album, as well as some epic choir vocals during choruses. And of course there are the clean vocals, which are handled by Helena Haaparanta, who mostly stays in a lower register, and has a very powerful voice that works great on the louder, more epic passages, but she also excels during the many softer sections, as her voice is very smooth and very beautiful at times. There are also some clean male vocals, most notably on “It’s a Long Road”. I’m not sure who does them, but they’re very good, slightly animated and pretty emotional, really adding to the feel of that particular track.

Moving on to songwriting, the album gets off to an excellent start. After a brief intro track, which has some voice overs, listeners are treated to the explosive opening track “The Last of Stands”, which opens up with a brief folk infused section where Helena delivers some beautiful vocals before the guitars kick in and we get our first taste of the epic growls. From there the track picks up the pace, leading to a section with epic vocals from Helena and then eventually a stunning chorus, sung by choirs. This is a very fast paced and explosive track which has some of the best guitar work on the album, and certainly gives listeners a taste of the band’s cinematic style, while also being possibly the most instantly enjoyable track on the album.

After that, the album takes a surprising turn, as we get the four part epic “Ten Winters Apart”, which feels like one song split into four tracks. Obviously, these tracks all flow into each other perfectly, and together they form a narrative, with the occasional use of voiceovers, though I find they add to the experience and aren’t distracting. Overall, the first two tracks are mostly fairly calm for the most part, with the occasional explosive growl section, but it’s mostly Helena dominating the vocal passages, especially on Pt. 2, where it turns into a ballad. Pt. 3 is the darkest, most explosive track, and has an exciting folk passage near the end, while Pt. 4 is probably the most upbeat track. On the whole, it’s a great sequence, though it does feel a bit odd to place it so early on the album, especially coming off such an explosive opening track.

Next is another standout in “Mother of Unbelievers”, which opens up with an extended folk passage, before giving way to the heaviest guitar riffs on the album, and the opening verse is very intense, with some powerful growls from Mikko, though the highlight of the track is the chorus, where Helena delivers some very epic and powerful vocals, probably her best work on the entire album. After that is another calmer track in “It’s a Long Road”, which starts off as a ballad, with some pretty solid clean male vocals early on, and going into the chorus, but the track builds up tension as it goes along, with growls kicking in around halfway through, and from there the track gets heavier and becomes pretty epic as it goes along. This track took a few listens to click for me, but once it did it ended up being one of my favorites. The following track “Wayward Verities” is probably the most folk infused track on the album, starting off with some epic group chants, before the growls kick in and then as the track gets heavier it certainly reminds me a lot of some Ensiferum tracks, though Helena’s vocals help it to stand out, and she does a great job as always. It’s definitely a fun, catchy song and one of the more instantly entertaining tracks on the album. Lastly, we have “Until Falls the Rain”, the longest individual track on the album. This track is mostly fairly calm and has some great melodies, as well as some excellent vocals, but I find musically there isn’t much to it and there aren’t really enough memorable moments to justify the near 8-minute running time. The epic vocals and voice overs help, but overall I find it to be the weakest track on the album.

Overall, Amain is an excellent release, which has a nice blend of folk, symphonic and melodic death metal elements, as well as a nice mix of heavier, more immediately satisfying tracks, and some calmer, slower building tracks. The closing track doesn’t do much for me, but everything else is excellent, and it’s an album I can easily recommend to fans of any of the genres I mentioned, as well as obviously fans of the band’s prior releases. Hopefully, Crimfall takes less time to release a fourth album and hopefully they can build on this release and produce something even better in the future.

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JOHN FRUM A Stirring in the Noos

Album · 2017 · Technical Death Metal
Cover art 3.17 | 2 ratings
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Technical death metal is one of those genres I can't say I'm an expert on or anything, but it is a genre I've had some good times with in recent years, with a few different bands such as Allegaeon, The Faceless and Fleshgod Apocalypse impressing me, for different reasons. At the same time, it's one of those genres I tend to be a bit picky with, as there's a certain balance I'm always looking for, between ultra technical musicianship, which is obviously a must for the genre, and creative and memorable songwriting, which is something I require for albums in the genre to hook me in. Some bands manage to hit that sweet spot and blow me away, while others fail to hit it and end up going forgotten rather quickly, Which brings me to American tech death band, John Frum, a kind of supergroup formed in 2011, though it took until May of 2017 for them to release their debut full length, A Stirring in the Noos. I'll admit, this album is a bit of unique case, as usually with this kind of music I can form an opinion rather quickly, where this time around I never reached a conclusion until after several listens, and I'll explain the conclusion I reached in detail below.

Looking at the lineup, all members are metal veterans, with vocalist Derek Rydquist in particular being the former vocalist of tech death band The Faceless, while bassist Liam Wilson was with mathcore band The Dillinger Escape Plan for 17 years. Obviously, one would expect high quality stuff from those two, and on a technical level I'd say the music on A Stirring in the Noos is definitely top notch. The riffs are very aggressive and powerful sounding, with the production striking a nice balance between sounding professional and well done, but not being over produced to the point of taking away any of the force from the instruments. There's some very technical musicianship at times, as expected, with some very complicated drum patterns, as well as some pretty complicated arrangements, with many tempo changes throughout, especially on the shorter tracks, and from a pure technical standpoint, this is a very strong release.

Vocally, Derek Rydqist is obviously very talented, as one would expect having come from a well established act like The Faceless. His main vocal style is traditional death growls, using a very deep and powerful voice which fits the music perfectly, though at times he adds in some more animated, higher pitched growls, which are also effective and fit in nicely. However, there are some points where I find he gets a bit carried way, with some very over the top screams that detract from the music a bit and can be rather distracting. This doesn't happen terribly often, but it can be rather irritating when it does happen.

Moving on to songwriting then, which ended up being the deciding factor on my enjoyment of this album. It gets off to a pretty strong start, with opener “Presage of Emptiness” being the kind of explosive, hard hitting track I can easily enjoy from this genre. The drums are absolutely crazy throughout, and stand out as the biggest highlight, along with Derek's impressive death growls, but overall it's just a very impressive and fun opener, which has several memorable moments throughout, including an awesome guitar solo near the end. If anything, “Pining Light” is even better, having tons of tempo changes throughout and being surprisingly complex and eventful, considering it clocks in at under 4 minutes. There's obviously some insane musicianship going on here, but at the same time the songwriting is very good and everything seems to work here, aside from a couple points where Derek gets just a little too over the top for my tastes.

After this point, we get the first really long track of the album in “Memory Palace”, which clocks in at over 9 minutes. The track is very dark and has some atmospheric guitar work throughout, with the opening section being entirely instrumental and not getting heavy until around the 2 and a half minute mark. I actually really enjoy this soft opening, as it serves as a nice change of pace, but as the song picks up in heaviness, it quickly falls apart, and the weaknesses of the album start to show. Where the shorter tracks have a lot going on musically, this track and other lengthy tracks on the album, tend to stay slow throughout and are surprisingly uneventful, with this one in particular dragging badly and getting boring well before it ends. It's a case where musically everything is well done, but between some over the top vocals, extreme repetition in the chords and a simple lack of hooks or anything to grab onto, it simply drags on and on and is a trial to sit through. The other really lengthy track, “Assumption of Form”, has a bit more going on, but still drags a bit, and has possibly the worst vocals on the album towards the end, during a really slow section that ends the track in a horrible way.

The rest of the album never sinks as low as those two tracks, but it also never quite reaches the heights of the first two tracks, either, and in general I find myself a bit worn out towards the end, despite the relatively short 43 minute run time. Tracks like “Through Sand and Spirit”, “Lacustre Divination” and closer “Wasting Subtle Body” each have their share of memorable moments, but fail to keep my attention the whole way through, with the latter in particular again having some annoying vocals. The one track I do thoroughly enjoy in the second half is the instrumental “He Come”, which starts out with a basic tune that gets more and more complex as it goes on, adding more elements into it, and is generally quite an impressive display of great musicianship.

On the whole, A Stirring in the Noos is a tough album for me to review, because technically everything is well done, and aside from some sections where the vocals bother me a bit, there isn't a whole lot to criticize. However, from a songwriting perspective, there are two many tracks that either drag on at a slow tempo far too long to be enjoyable for me, or go all over the place without enough memorable moments or anything to hook me in, which makes this a challenging listen. Overall, it's competent and fairly enjoyable tech death, but nothing special and not something I plan on listening to again in the near future. I do think fans of the genre should give it a try though, as it is a fairly well made album, with great production, but those who aren't overly fond of the genre probably won't find anything here to change their mind.

BROTHERS OF METAL Prophecy of Ragnarök

Album · 2017 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.83 | 2 ratings
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Vikings and metal tend to go together very well, and the idea of combining the two has obviously been made popular by the likes of Swedish melodic death metal band Amon Amarth and German power metal band Rebellion, and now a new challenger has arrived to prove themselves worthy of fighting for Odin. That band is Brothers of Metal, from Sweden, and they have unleashed their debut Prophecy of Ragnarok, which is not only an incredibly addictive power metal album, with varying influences from other genres and a ton of different exciting elements, but it also happens to be perhaps the very best Viking themed metal album I’ve ever heard, as the band takes familiar ideas and mashes them together perfectly, while also managing to create their own distinct sound that really has to be heard.

On the surface, comparisons to Sabaton are pretty obvious, as the band puts the same emphasis on anthem like choruses, huge symphonic elements, including the use of epic backing vocals at times, and their songwriting is insanely catchy and often does feel similar to the aforementioned band. At the same time, while the main concept is themed around Vikings, lyrical comparisons can also be drawn to Manowar, particularly when it comes to the kind of true metal attitude the band often displays, which can at times come across as a bit cheesy, but the band displays so much energy that one can’t help but smile and have a great time through it all. One thing that separates Brothers of Metal from either band, though, is the use of folk elements, which are quite prominent and are used very effectively. At times this comes through the simple use of epic folk melodies in the guitar work, but there are also many sections where folk instruments come in and take over for a while, and these sections are pretty epic. On a compositional level, this is an outstanding album, as there’s a ton of variety in the songwriting, ranging from epic fast paced tracks, to more mid paced crushers, slow and melodic tracks, ballads, and songs which aren’t overly fast, but move at a pretty decent pace and include folk elements. One last thing that has to be mentioned is just how confident this band seems already, as everything from the guitar riffs, to the vocal lines to the way symphonic and folk elements are used even to the simple things like how the drum beats sound, all exude confidence, and it really feels like that band know exactly what they want to do with every song, and they’ve done it perfectly, which is truly impressive for a band on their first album.

For everything this album does right, the one area where I’m most impressed has to be the vocals. There are three vocalists in the band, but they’re used much differently than in a band like Amaranthe. Instead of three leads, we have Mats Nilsson providing some epic backing vocals at points, as well as doing various vocal effects throughout, which is pretty epic, while the other two vocalists carry the bulk of the load. First up, Joakim Lindbäck Eriksson has a gruff and very deep voice that certainly reminds me of Sabaton’s Joakim Brodén, though he often sounds a lot wilder and more intense, almost coming close to a growl at times, and his delivery is generally quite fiery and very energetic. His co-lead is Ylva Eriksson, who has a very powerful voice and often stays in an alto range throughout the album, though she can go higher at times as well, as she provides some epic soaring vocals throughout and does a great job of bringing out the melodies in the songs. Vocal duties are split very evenly between the two, with many sequences letting one take the lead for a bit, then letting the other singer take over, and there are also many parts, especially during the choruses, where the two sing in harmony and these are generally the best parts on the album, as while they’re both excellent on their own, they sound incredible when paired together. In fact, while many bands in recent years have utilized dual lead vocals, I think this pairing may be my favorite of all, they sound that impressive together.

The album gets off to an excellent start with the exciting opener “Death of the God of Light”, a track which opens up with some epic folk melodies and moves along at a pretty quick pace, while having some great riffs and an excellent chorus, which showcases the two lead singers very nicely. It’s a very fun, extremely catchy song that serves as a great introduction the band’s sound. Next is the slower, heavier “Son of Odin”, which opens with a brief voiceover, before the guitars kick in and it turns into a slow moving, but still very epic track with another excellent chorus and has a cool vocal section in the middle where the folk elements take over, and we get some epic backing vocals. One thing I really like about this track is that the drums are made to sound like a blacksmith’s hammer, which is a pretty cool effect.

Songwriting is clearly a big strength of this band, as every song here is outstanding, and offers a ton of variety for listeners. Fan looking for some speedy power metal have a ton to look forward to, starting with the epic title track. This track is one of the fastest paced songs on the album, and has excellent verses, with great riffs and great alternating vocals between the two leads, and of course, the chorus is super catchy as always and includes some cool gang vocals. The section near the end is also epic and uses narration quite effectively. In fact, while the album does have some occasional narration, especially on the brief interlude track “Concerning Norns”, it blends in nicely and is used seldom enough that it never because distracting, but instead adds extra flavor. Moving on, “Siblings of Metal” is another super fun speedy track which has an epic choral section at the beginning, before speeding up and becomes one of the most epic tracks on the album, with one of the most addicting choruses. Right after that is “Gods of War”, another speedy track which slows down for its epic symphonic infused chorus, but also stays epic throughout. Perhaps my favorite of the faster songs is “Sleipnir”, a track which stays heavy throughout its verses, with some very powerful near growls from Joakim, and then it speeds up as Ylva takes over and provides some epic soaring vocals for the chorus.

On the slower side, “Yggdrasil” is an amazing ballad, which has some subtle folk elements throughout, and it’s a very enjoyable track overall, and has a nice vocal section towards the end, but it’s the chorus that really stands out, as the two leads harmonize together so wonderfully and it is just an absolute treat to hear. There’s also a really nice guitar solo in the middle, which leads into the epic vocal section later on. As amazing as the rest of the album is, this may actually be my favorite, though it’s tough to tell as I could make that claim for basically any song on the album. Similarly, “Freya” is a fairly slow and laid back track, which has enough heavy sections that I wouldn’t call it a full on ballad, though it’s certainly on the softer side and Ylva provides some very beautiful vocals throughout the verses, while Joakim comes in during the chorus as usual, and it’s another folk influenced track, with some symphonic elements as well. Lastly, closing track “We Believe in Metal” is another fairly soft track, which has yet another epic and super addictive chorus, as well as an excellent guitar solo. It’s a very upbeat track and certainly ends the album in a great way.

In the realm of not overly fast but also not particularly slow, we have songs like “Tyr”, “The Mead Song”and “Fire, Blood and Steel”, which move along at a decent pace and are all pretty hard hitting tracks, while still providing the same epic vocal harmonies and great choruses as usual, with “The Mead Song” in particular being a very silly track with strong folk elements throughout, and it has an especially epic section in the middle where the folk elements really take over. One more heavily folk influenced track is “Defenders of Valhalla”, which opens up with a nice folk section and moves along at a pretty nice pace, while once again providing an insanely epic sing along chorus, complete with excellent harmonies from the two leads and some super epic backing vocals. This track is perhaps the catchiest and most fun track on the entire album.

For a debut, Prophecy of Ragnarok is an absolutely stunning achievement, as it provides an extremely entertaining mix of power, folk symphonic and heavy metal with a wide variety of insanely catchy songs, as well as introducing an excellent vocal duo that instantly impresses, all while delivering an epic Viking themed concept. Fans of Sabaton, in particular, should find a lot to enjoy here, but I’d highly recommend this album for any fan of power metal or just epic Viking themed metal in general, as there’s enough variety here that it should please a wide group of metal fans. Brothers of Metal have certainly stormed onto the scene with an impressive debut, and I really hope they catch on and have the success they deserve because this is definitely one of the most fun and instantly satisfying metal albums released in 2017 so far.

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ANTHRIEL Transcendence

Album · 2017 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.15 | 6 ratings
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As a reviewer, it’s generally best not to overdo it when making comparisons between bands, but sometimes a band will come along that wears their influences so clearly on their sleeves, that such comparisons are unavoidable. In the case of Finnish progressive metal band Anthriel, one only needs to hear brief samples of their music to know they were clearly influenced by Symphony X, particularly the more neoclassical flavored sound they had going on classics such as The Divine Wings of Tragedy and V: The New Mythology Suite. This was obvious on their 2010 debut The Pathway, an album that didn’t get a lot of attention but was largely praised by fans of the genre who heard it, and now on their highly anticipated sophomore effort, Transcendence, this influence is only all the more obvious. However, just because the band uses a familiar sound, that doesn’t mean they can’t deliver their own take on it and do something hugely impressive, which is exactly what Anthriel have done. Just as on The Pathway, they have taken a sound that worked well in the past and have put their own stamp on it, making easily one of the best prog albums of the year.

As on their debut, Anthriel has delivered the mix of prog, neoclassical, symphonic and power metal elements one would expect from a Symphony X album, and they’ve also included two epic length tracks, something the latter hasn’t done so much recently. At a first glance, Transcendence may seem like more of the same, but in reality, it actually has a much different feel from its predecessor. Where The Pathway generally leaned towards the softer, more melodic side of their influence, with even some prog rock elements at times, Transcendence is definitely a much darker, harder hitting album. If anything, I’d say this album feels like what could have happened if Symphony X had evolved into the heavier sound of their later albums a bit more naturally, while keeping the neoclassical elements in, as well as continuing to use longer compositions. Basically, where The Pathway leaned fully towards the old, Transcendence almost feels like it gives listeners a welcome middle ground, combining the best elements of both eras, while still being distinct enough to feel like its own work and not just a copycat.

Either way, you look at it, Anthriel are definitely top notch musicians, with the guitar work, in particular, being out of this world good at times, with some incredible solo work and complex, yet hard hitting riffs, as well as tons of neoclassical flavored guitar work. Of course, the use of keyboards and symphonic elements for atmosphere is also quite prominent in their music, and the softer sections are still as impressive as on the debut, even if they aren’t quite as frequent this time around. In the songwriting department, everything is excellent, with a nice mix between more straightforward and speedier tracks, as well as more epic, drawn out compositions with varied tempos, as fans would expect.

One element of the band that really stands out for me in a positive way is the vocals. Simo Silvan definitely has the kind of gruff and powerful voice needed to deliver the songs, but I find his voice is a lot deeper than most prog or power metal singers, and he goes especially low on various sections of this album, sounding quite impressive. Some of his more powerful vocals come from these deeper sections, on tracks such as “Oath of Darkness” and “Rhapsody of Fire”. At the same time, he can certainly deliver higher, soaring vocals on the choruses as well, and does an equally impressive job during these sections. He’s able to vary his approach expertly to fit in with both the heavier and more melodic passages on the album, and his vocals are always a definite highlight.

The album gets off to an interesting start, with the intro track “The Calling” mostly using acoustic guitars and keyboards, and the vocals on this track are much softer than they are anywhere else on the album. It feels a bit weird to have a light sounding track leading into something as heavy as “Under Burning Skies”, and initially it felt off putting, but over time it has grown on me, and it does its job of serving as a nice intro. Speaking of “Under Burning Skies”, though, that track is an excellent opener, with an immediately recognizable guitar sound and lead riffs that should sound familiar to many listeners, with epic keyboards used in the background. As the song gets going, it moves along at a fairly brisk pace, speeding up for its epic chorus, which showcases Simo’s talents greatly, and then there’s a nice softer section in the second half. It’s one of the more straightforward tracks on the album, but it serves as a great introduction to the heavier sound the band has gone for this time around.

Next is the first of two epics, the 11-minute mammoth “Oath of Darkness”. This track opens up with a fairly soft and atmospheric instrumental section, but it doesn’t take long for it to get heavy, and once it does it goes full force. The verses here are extremely intense, with Simo using his deepest and most powerful vocals, almost coming close to death growls at points, and these sections are very dark and super epic. Eventually, this gives way to a huge chorus, where Simo again shines, and then as the song moves on we get some epic instrumental sections before the song slows down and we get an extended softer section, with some very beautiful guitar work. Eventually, the vocals come back in, and this leads into an incredibly epic finale. This track may take a couple listens to open up, but once it does it’s an incredible track and definitely one of the best prog compositions I’ve heard in recent years.

The next few songs are a bit more straightforward, though there’s still some interesting stuff going on through each of them. First up, “Siren’s Song” is another more atmospheric track, with some very nice sounding keyboards and it definitely has a strong classic Symphony X feel throughout, leaning towards the more melodic side of this album. It moves along at a nice pace and has one of the best choruses on the album, and it serves as a nice change of pace because while the guitar work is still great, especially during the solo section, it’s the keyboards that really dominate and steal the show on this track. The most neoclassical flavored track is next, in “Painted Shadows”, where the guitars and keyboards have a very classical feeling to them throughout, as well as the symphonic elements being more prominent than normal, and this is definitely the fastest paced track on the album, with some strong power metal influences. It’s also one of the heaviest tracks and certainly one where the guitars dominate, with some excellent riffs, though there’s an outstanding keyboard solo in the middle and the chorus is outstanding as well, as is the epic vocal section that comes near the end. Simply put, this track is one of the absolute best on the album. Next is “Rhapsody of Fire”, and despite its name, it isn’t really a power metal track or even all that symphonic. It’s a more mid paced track, and again the guitars dominate, with excellent riffs and an absolutely stunning solo section in the second half, and I think this track has probably my favorite chorus on the whole album, with Simo delivering epic soaring vocals. The second half of this track is simply incredible, and enough to make it my absolute favorite on the album, even though there isn’t a single less than excellent track here. Next is yet another instant favorite in “My Dark Morning Star”, another heavier track which stays fairly slow and subdued throughout, though it has a speedy and very catchy chorus, as well as yet another amazing solo section.

Last up, we have the massive 19-minute epic closing track “Fallen Souls”. This track is very slow building, with a ton of extended softer sections throughout, as well as some very lengthy instrumental sections. It moves at a fairly slow pace throughout, though it does have a few tempo changes in the middle and it does get pretty intense at points. The vocals are once again a highlight, as Simo delivers some very epic vocals throughout, and does a great job of varying his approach as always. As the name would suggest, it’s a dark and very atmospheric track, with some of the riffs even having a slightly sinister feel to them and the keyboards are used very effectively to add a creepy feel, while even some of the solo sections feel a bit sad and are of course brilliantly done as always. It’s one of the more challenging and less immediately engaging tracks for sure, but it’s a very well written track that gives the album the grand finale it deserves.

Anthriel fans had to wait almost seven years for a follow up to their excellent debut The Pathway. But at last Transcendence has arrived and it is an absolutely brilliant album for sure, providing some of the best prog metal to be released in the last few years. It continues along the same path as its predecessor, while a delivering a darker and heavier sound, that is sure to please fans of early Symphony X in particular. For fans of that band, this album is an absolute must hear, and I’d also highly recommend it to any fan of prog, power and neoclassical metal, as it expertly blends all those elements together for an incredible album that I would even say is a big improvement over the band’s already impressive debut.

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Album · 2015 · Symphonic Metal
Cover art 4.79 | 3 ratings
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Sometimes there’s nothing more satisfying than that moment where an album finally finally connects with you for the first time after multiple attempts, when previous reservations are put aside and you’re just swept away by the music. I had one of those experiences with Project X, the tenth full length album from Dark Moor, one of my absolute favorite symphonic metal bands at this point. Most previous Dark Moor albums managed to impressive me right away, with their two most recent efforts Ancestral Romance and Ars Musica especially leaving strong first impressions, so I was a bit concerned when by the end of my first listen, Project X had left me scratching my head, wondering what in the hell I had just listened to. A couple listens later and I was already starting to get into it, and then by the end of my sixth listen I finally understood what the band was going for, and from that point onwards it has become one of my favorites by the band.

For longtime Dark Moor fans, their previous album Ars Musica may have seemed like a big departure from their normal sound, toning down the power metal elements which had been dominant on their earlier albums and taking the band in a much lighter, more dramatic direction with an even bigger focus on symphonic elements and choirs. I was curious to see whether the band would continue with this style or go back to their older sound, so I was somewhat caught off guard when the brief intro track of Project X started off with modern sounding keyboards, and the rest of the album only proved to be even more surprising, on first listen. I will say it right now, to get it out of the way: Power metal fans hoping for the neoclassical symphonic power metal style of their early days will probably want to avoid Project X, as at this point that style seems to be a thing of the past and the band is clearly moving on to new things. For anyone else, though, and especially for fans who prefer their epic symphonic arrangements and choral sections, the album is a must hear.

After that rather surprising intro, the first full song “Abduction” is a fun little opener that mostly sticks to the band’s formula of upbeat power metal with symphonic backing and choir vocals, and in comparison to the rest of the album, it feels like a more modernized take on the usual Dark Moor sound, complete with cheesy but fun sci-fi lyrical themes, which carry on throughout the album. After this point, though, the album takes a turn for the weird with the super theatrical track “Beyond the Stars”, where the choirs are in full force, and along with the piano and symphonic elements, they overpower the guitars, making for a much lighter track than one would expect so early on the album, though the melodies are fantastic and Alfred Romero’s dramatic vocals work incredibly well with the choirs, which have more of a gospel choir feel to them than usual. Yeah, you read that right: At times the choirs sound like they’re coming straight from a church and this feel is only heightened as the album goes on, and is one of the things that initially left me feeling confused. This song also serves as a great example of where the band is now, as the music is constantly driving along at a reasonable pace, so much so that calling it slow or mid tempo would be wrong, but it certainly doesn’t match the speed or energy of classic power metal, either. It’s more of a light symphonic infused brand of melodic metal, which works very well for the band.

The next track “Conspiracy Revealed” is a bit faster and the guitar riffs at the beginning give it a slight edge, which carries on throughout the track. Which brings me to one element of the band I’ve always appreciated, that is very much a factor on Project X: The guitar work of Enrik Garcia. As always, his guitars can be very understated, allowing room for the keyboards, vocals and symphonic elements to be the main elements, but on every track he allows himself to shine for brief periods, and he does an amazing job of it. Songs like “Abduction”, “Beyond the Stars” and “Bon Voyage” have some fantastic melodies and melodic solos, while on “Conspiracy Revealed” and“Gabriel” he injects a bit energy to the songs with some great riffs. The latter in particular starts off with the heaviest guitar work on the album, and it turns into one of the faster, more power metal oriented tracks, as well as one of my favorites.

Most tracks have at least occasional heavy sections and bursts of speed, but it’s the vocals and symphonic elements that win out most of the time. Another personal favorite is “I Want to Believe”, a ballad where the early sections allow Alfred to showcase his ever improving vocals, and then as the song goes on the choirs become more and more central to the song, until it turns into something incredibly epic and larger than life. Some of the songs have a bit of a broadway musical vibe to them at times, as well as some Queen influences, where everything just gets insanely over the top and cheesy, but in delightful ways.

I especially notice this on “Bon Voyage”, which starts off as more of a laid back mid tempo track, until about halfway through when the choirs kick in and it turns into something very theatrical and super cheesy. I was initially put off by this, but over time I’ve found myself blown away by just how impressive the arrangements are and just how epic the whole thing sounds, in a delightfully cheesy sort of way. Likewise, the closing track “There’s Something in the Skies” initially turned me off, as after its soft piano driven first half, it suddenly takes a turn into musical like territory, with an end sequence that may bother some people with its rather odd and unexpected lyrics, though after several listens the song has grown into one of my favorites, even though I’d consider it about as far away from usual Dark Moor as they could possibly get, without outright trolling their fans. If anything, it just shows the band fully willing to evolve and take risks, as this track in particular, as well as much of the album in general, is certainly not something I would have imagined the band doing around six years ago when I first heard their music, but in some warped kind of way it just works.

Even the weird extended intro and outro of “Imperial Earth” work, and the itself is another excellent mid tempo symphonic track with occasional heavy bursts and an extremely awesome chorus. The one other song I haven’t mentioned yet is “The Existence”, a super melodic mid tempo track that would have fit in great on “Ars Musica”. It’s less theatrical than some of the other tracks, but it’s an excellent track and it fits in well with the overall modern style Dark Moor is going for nowadays.

While I was initially disappointed by Project X and its experiments with gospel choirs as well as its increased emphasis on a more theatrical sound, several listens have left me blown away by what the band has pulled off, and if anything I now consider it one of my favorite Dark Moor albums. Fans of their earlier albums may be in for a rude awakening, but fans of symphonic metal and melodic metal in general are highly recommended to give it at least a few listens, as it’s proven to be by far my biggest grower of the year.

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Note: This is actually an old review I wrote a couple years ago, yet somehow never got around to publishing here until now, which is odd for me.

ALTAIR Descending: A Devilish Comedy

Album · 2017 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.42 | 2 ratings
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Sometimes I’ll hear an album from an up and coming band and think to myself that I’d better take note of them now and keep them in mind for if and when they release future albums, to make sure I’m constantly up to date with their music. One such band is Italian power metal band Altair, who released a pretty solid debut in 2013, titled Lost Eden. That album was a case where it was clear the band still had some work to do when it comes to distinguishing themselves from other bands in their field, but otherwise it was a very strong album in all areas, with solid vocals, catchy songs, great instrumental work and it had a nice variety, mixing in symphonic and prog elements to go with their main sound. After hearing that album, while I wasn’t blown away, I enjoyed it enough that I was curious to hear anything the band would do in the future, and so when I unexpectedly saw I had access to a promo for their sophomore effort, Descending: A Devilish Comedy, I was excited and immediately jumped at the opportunity to review it. Suffice to say, the band has delivered in a big way, with an album that builds on everything they had going on their debut and expands on it greatly while presenting a more clear direction for their music that helps them stand out a bit more

On Lost Eden, the band played a more traditional brand of power metal, very much focused on the melodies, and while it did have some progressive sections and some heavier parts, it never strayed too far from what fans of the genre would expect. This is not so much the case with Descending. Not much has changed with their lineup in between albums, with the only change being guitarist Gianluca Ferioli departing and being replaced by Albert Marshall, while another guitarist Gianmarco Bambini remains, to keep the dual guitar attack in place. I’m not sure whether this one change is responsible or not, but either way this is definitely a much heavier, more guitar-driven album, and while there are moments where the keyboards stand out, such as on the chorus of “Flame of Knowledge”, it’s definitely the guitars that lead the way most of the time. While the power metal elements from their debut are fully intact and there’s certainly plenty of speedy sections throughout, this time around the band has gone for a much more progressive sound, in the vein of a band like Symphony X, especially with how some of the lead riffs and solos sound. Make no mistake about it, this album features some excellent guitar work, with everything from the leads to the solos all being very impressive and there’s a ton of great extended instrumental sections. At the same time, the band has remained very good at writing songs, and there’s a nice variety here, as well as a good balance between more challenging songs like “Seven” and closer “A Lesson Before Ascending”, which requires multiple listens to fully open up, and more accessible, catchier songs like opener “Path of Worms” and lead single “Seed of Violence”, which are more immediately engaging.

While the album has some fantastic musicianship, vocals are still very important, and thankfully Simone Mala can definitely hold his own along with his bandmates and does a great job throughout the album. He has a very deep and powerful voice and can be very animated at times, adding some extra power and emotion to the songs. He also has a very impressive range, sometimes able to go much lower than a typical power metal vocalist, while at the same time also being able to hit some very high notes, and many of the songs are well written to fully take advantage of his capabilities.

The album begins with the title track, which is a fairly typical intro, using a mix of orchestral sounds, guitars, and drums. It does a nice job of building up the tension until opening song “Path of Worms” kicks in, and immediately we get some very heavy guitars, which carry on throughout the song. The track moves at a fairly fast pace throughout, and is a great introduction to the band’s new sound, as it has a mix of great riffs, powerful vocals, and an excellent chorus, as well as having some nice keyboard effects, symphonic elements and a very impressive solo section where the musicians really get to shine. On the whole, it’s a fairly straightforward track, but it does show signs of the more progressive direction the band has taken on this album. The next track “Limbo” is a bit more complicated, using some interesting keyboard sounds that help establish the theme of the track and fit in well with the dark tone of the album, and while it’s still a fast-paced track, it’s definitely a bit more complex than the opener, and it has some great instrumental work once again, as well as some more progressive arrangements.

Things get really interesting with “Seven”, easily the most complicated track on the album. Simply put, there’s a whole lot going on here, as the track starts off with a fast paced riff, before slowing down for a section where it feels like a ballad, with Simone going very low with his voice for a nice atmospheric section, and this carries on for a while before the guitars kick in and the tracks get heavier for a mid-paced section which leads into the closest thing the song has to a chorus. As the song continues on, there are several tempo changes throughout as well some great instrumental passages, with the highlight being a brief speedy section in the middle. This track does an excellent job of showing the band moving into more of a prog direction, while still maintaining some of the band’s power metal elements, and it’s definitely a highlight, though one that may take listeners a few listens to fully appreciate, due to how much is going on. After that is “Godless”, more of a mid paced track, which is full of some very heavy guitar work and is again a very progressive track, with some of Simone’s most powerful vocals on the album, and it has a very nice chorus.

Next, we have a group of more straight-forward tracks, starting with “Seed of Violence”, which is probably my favorite on the album. It starts off with a complex instrumental section, which gives way to a very heavy, super speedy first verse, and on the whole, this is a very accessible, super fast track with great lead riffs and a great chorus. This track feels like a more straight-forward power metal track, while still having some of the heaviness and prog elements of the rest of the album and it’s definitely a great pick for the first single. Similarly, “Frozen Graves” might be the heaviest on the album, with some pretty thrashy riffs, and it’s another super fast paced, fairly accessible track with an excellent chorus and some great instrumental work. In between those is “Flame of Knowledge”, a slightly calmer, more mid-paced track that still moves at a pretty good pace throughout, and is certainly the most keyboard driven track on the album. It still has some great guitar riffs though and still has a slight Symphony X feel at points during its instrumental sections, while the chorus has Simone singing some of the highest notes he sings on the entire album, and he does an excellent job as always. All three of these songs are very catchy and I think placing together like this in the middle of the album is a smart move, as it gives listeners a bit of a break in between the two complex tracks that come before them, as well as the more progressive closing track, “A Lesson Before Ascending”.

Speaking of which, that track is the most symphonic track on the album, using some orchestral elements throughout to help give it an epic feel, and it begins with an epic instrumental section, before giving way to another softer section that sounds a bit like a ballad, though this time Simone’s vocals aren’t nearly low as they are on “Seven”. It’s a mostly mid-paced track throughout, with more great instrumental passages and some excellent arrangements as always, and it has an excellent chorus as well as an excellent instrumental section near the end, which leads to a calm closing section where the orchestral elements become the main focus. It’s an excellent track overall and a great way to end the album, for sure.

Overall, Descending: A Devilish Comedy is an excellent album which takes the melodic power metal sound Altair had established on their debut and adds in some extra heaviness and a more progressive direction, to help set itself apart more from the competition. It’s a big improvement over the band’s solid debut, and has a great mix of more accessible songs and complicated songs, and is sure to please fans of prog and power metal looking for something a bit heavier and more guitar driven than the norm. I’m definitely excited to hear anything else the band does in the future.

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Album · 2017 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 3 ratings
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Sometimes a band can change their sound in such a subtle way, that it only truly becomes noticeable over a long period, and multiple albums later. For example, when I first heard Ravenhead, the fifth full-length album from German power metal band Orden Ogan, I thought it felt like a direct continuation of their previous album To the End, and yet found myself a bit surprised to realize I was liking it slightly less. Over time, the album actually grew on me a little bit, but at the same time I came to realize that the band’s sound had indeed changed in ways that took time to notice, that I had briefly hinted at in my own review of the album two years ago, but listening to the band’s latest effort, Gunmen, due for release in July of 2017, has helped confirm that the little changes I had been noticing were indeed not my imagination, but signs of the band moving in a slightly different direction, while still keeping most of their classic elements intact. The result is another album I wouldn’t quite put up there with my all-time favorite, To the End, but it’s definitely another excellent album in a long line of them, and I think fans of Ravenhead, in particular, are going to absolutely love it.

First off, yes Gunmen is still largely the same kind of epic power metal Orden Ogan has always played, with a huge emphasis on vocal melodies, insanely epic choruses, and symphonic arrangements, so fans don’t have to worry about any major changes to the sound. In fact, I’d describe the album as falling somewhere in between the more complex sound of Easton Hope and the more straight-forward approach of Ravenhead, as it certainly has songs that are longer and more complicated than anything on the latter, but at the same time it’s also much catchier and more accessible than the former. Where the changes come in, though, more has to do with the intensity level. This is something I was noticing on Ravenhead, that at the time I had hoped would only be a temporary thing, but basically while that album still had a few of the classic, driving riffs found on albums like To the End and Easton Hope, I found that overall the tempos were a bit more restrained and the riffs weren’t hitting as hard as normal, with the band instead often relying more on mid-paced chugs that simply lacked the same power. Well, with Gunmen the band has taken this even further, as the majority of the songs here are more mid-paced throughout, mostly alternating between melodic leads, rhythm guitars and those chugging riffs, with truly killer lead riffs being few and far between. There certainly are bursts of speed on some tracks, but for the most part, the verses are rather uneventful this time around and move along at a rather plodding pace compared to some of the band’s past albums. As a result, while I love the choruses on every song, as well as the huge symphonic arrangements, choir vocals, and killer melodies, only a couple songs manage to keep me excited the whole way through, the way the band is capable of doing when they’re at their absolute best. At the same time, I can definitely understand what the band is doing here, as it feels like they’ve gone all in with the melodies and epic feel of their music, while toning down the intensity a bit, so I think it may even sound more distinct than past releases, but I guess it’s just a matter of preference, as I personally do miss the speedier tracks and higher intensity level found on To the End.

One area where the band thankfully hasn’t changed at all is the vocals. Needless to say, Sebastian “Seeb” Levermann’s singing has always been one of my favorite aspects of the band’s sound, as he has a very deep and powerful voice that stands out among power metal singers, while at the same time he’s amazing at adding in a bit of touch and pulling off some of the most melodic and epic sounding choruses ever written. Obviously, the band’s biggest strength throughout their entire career has been their ability to write some of the best choruses ever, and Seeb is a master at pulling these off. As always, there are some excellent choir vocals used throughout the album, as well as one memorable guest appearance, which I will talk about in more detail a bit later in the review.

Songwriting is the one area where I mentioned having some slight issues with the album, so let’s get to it. First up, we have the title track, which is actually a perfect opener and a much better title track than Ravenhead. It’s a western themed track which opens up with some huge orchestral arrangements, before the guitars kick in and the track speeds up, moving along at a brisk pace throughout the verses and keeping the intensity going with some great riffs, while of course the slowed down chorus is the best part, and is one of the most epic choruses the band has ever written, which is obviously saying a lot. The solo section is also really good, and overall it’s simply an amazing song that really raised my expectations for the album. The other song that really impresses me the way through is “Come With Me to the Other Side”, which opens up with a soft acoustic section featuring the beautiful voice of guest vocalist Liv Kristine, and while at first it feels like a ballad, something the band has always been great at, it quickly speeds up and becomes the fastest song on the album, with very speedy and fun verses, as well as probably the single best choruses on the entire album. Even the solo section feels particularly inspired, and overall it’s easily my favorite song on the album.

Compared to those two tracks, the rest of the album is still solid, but I find most of the other tracks to be lacking a bit in the energy department. The second single from the album, “Fields of Sorrow” is a great indication of what to expect from the album, as right from the start it opens up with some mid paced chugs, which dominate most of the track, as it’s a more restrained track that’s more about the epic feel of the music than it is about being fast or heavy. The chorus is absolutely stunning, though, and it’s a nice track overall. Likewise, tracks like “Forlorn and Forsaken”, “Ashen Rain”, and “One Last Chance” are fairly plodding during their verses, but once the huge arrangements and choruses take over, they become a ton of fun. I will single out “Ashen Rain” in particular, for being a track where I really struggle with the chugging during the verses as it can get really repetitive and boring in a hurry, yet at the same time, I really can’t fault the track become of how damn brilliant that chorus is! Really, my biggest complaint about this album is that the band just can’t quite put enough full songs together that works for me, the way they were able to on To the End and in the middle of Ravenhead and this frustrates me to no end, because I know they’re capable of doing it, but it’s like they just chose not to for some reason. The biggest example of this is the near 9 minute closing track “Finis Coronat Opus”, which starts off slow and remains mostly plodding throughout the first half, before opening up with a beautiful soft vocal section towards the end, and between this and the opening of “Come With Me to the Other Side”, I can’t help but feel the album could have used a ballad to break up some of the tedium between all these mid-paced tracks. Overall, though, the song, like the rest of the album, is solid but definitely not as strong as the band is capable of.

Moving back to the positives, “Face of Silence” is fairly fast and fun during its verses, and while I wouldn’t quite put it on the same level as the two best on the album, it’s an excellent track overall with another unforgettable chorus. Likewise, “Down Here” is a fairly paced track, with another memorable chorus, though at just over 3 minutes it does feel like it ends a bit too early. One last highlight is “Vampire in Ghost Town”, another track which stays mid-paced throughout its verses, though I find this one a bit more fun than the rest and once it speeds up for its epic chorus, it becomes a favorite. Again, not quite as strong as my two favorites on the album, but still an excellent, incredibly addictive track, and if the whole album was even as strong as that one, ignoring those two masterpiece songs, I’d be very happy.

Overall, Gunmen is probably the weakest of the last few Orden Ogan releases for me, as it has too many mid-paced tracks where I struggle to find excitement during the verses, and I miss the faster, heavier riffs of past albums like To the End and Easton Hope, but it’s still a great release overall and is sure to please fans of the band. The symphonic arrangements and choruses are as awesome as ever and the production and performances are as strong as always, so despite my complaints about the songwriting, I’d still say it’s a very high-quality release. To be honest, this is a case where if it was a different band I’d probably be more positive, but just knowing how good the band can be I feel the need to be a bit harsh, especially in a case like this where there are two songs that show the band at their absolute best, and then the rest just can’t quite measure up to those two. Still, an easy recommendation for any power metal fan looking for some great melodies and some truly spectacular choruses.

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IRON FIRE Among the Dead

Album · 2016 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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Sometimes, even a long anticipated album will sneak up on you from out of nowhere. The latest case of this is Among the Dead, the eighth full length album by Danish power metal band Iron Fire. I loved their previous release, Voyage of the Damned and had been looking forward to a follow up for a long time, but aside from the occasional update, I knew little about the album (not even its final name) or when it was coming, so when I checked my promos one day and saw the release there, I was shocked and excited, to say the least. Better yet, as soon as I heard the album I was instantly satisfied, and it has only grown me more since then. While it doesn't quite match its predecessor for me, I'd still rank it ahead of all prior Iron Fire releases, and it's certainly a great example of how to modernize power metal in a way that actually works.

Iron Fire started out as a rather typical Euro power metal band, with releases like Thunderstorm and Revenge representing some great, mostly fast paced power metal with fun choruses and epic songwriting, and vocalist Martin Steene had a rather typical voice for the genre, except he sounded a bit more animated than usual at times. By the time their fifth album To the Grave was released, the band had mastered their classic sound and were at a point where they were consistently producing great album after great album. So it was a bit surprising that with their next album Metalmorphosized, they started adding in some modern elements, giving their music a bit of an edge and Martin started doing some death growls. That album was my introduction to the band and at the time I didn't like it much, but I've since realized that it was somewhat of a transitional album, moving away from their old sound and into something new. The band only evolved further with Voyage of the Damned, where their usual guitar dominated sound was somewhat dialed back to allow for the inclusion of keyboards, which managed to fit in well with the Sci-Fi concept of the album, and between that, a more extensive use of symphonic elements, and even a bit of prog, especially on the title track, it ended up being their most ambitious album to date and by far my favorite. Sadly, the album wasn't particularly well received, and so the band went through a bit of an overhaul, and have since returned as a three man band.

After Voyage of the Damned proved to be a rather divisive album, I was expecting some kind of return to the roots with Among the Dead, but suffice to say, that's not what what happened. While the new album lacks the experimentation found on the previous album, it's still very modern sounding compared to their first 5 albums, and it's also much rougher. In fact, this is by far the darkest and heaviest Iron Fire release to date. Which makes sense, as this time around the concept centers around the ever popular theme of a world being overrun by zombies. While not the most original concept, it's executed pretty well here, with a cool and rather entertaining voice over filled intro track, and the lyrics fit in well with the music. Getting back to the music, it's a much more aggressive sound than the band has had in the past, with the keyboards from Voyage removed completely, and now some of the riffs have a bit of a thrashy feel to them. If anything, the growls and metalcore screams from the previous two albums are even more prominent this time around. In fact, Martin's delivery all around is a lot rougher, with a much deeper and more gruff voice than he's displayed in the past. He remains the band's biggest asset, though, and shines throughout the album, as always.

One area where the band somewhat toned it down this time is the songwriting. Listeners won't find the kind of experimental tracks found on the previous two albums. Instead, most songs here are fast, furious and straight to the point. After that rather enjoyable intro, the title track kicks things off and right away the more aggressive, modern riffs are on full display, and the song charges ahead at a fast paced, with Martin mixing clean and harsh vocals effectively. The chorus is very good, and overall it's an excellent start to the album. Next is “Hammer of the Gods”, a slower track that still has a lot of energy to it, and again the riffs are very strong and the harsh vocals are used effectively. The rest of the album doesn't stray too far from these two tracks, though there are some amazing moments throughout.

My favorite song on the album is “Tornado of Sickness”, a very speedy track which has the best chorus on the album, and it's a very aggressive track with a ton of energy. Other highlights include the more melodic but still rough up tempo track “Higher Ground”, the fast but largely more melodic “Last Survivor”, which alternates between clean and harsh vocals in an awesome way during its chorus, “Iron Eagle”, where the guitar lead sounds like something from a classic Iron Maiden album, and “No Sign of Life”, which has the thrashiest riffs on the album, with even the chorus feeling like it would have fit well on an 80's thrash album. “Made to Suffer” is a very good fast paced song, while “Ghost from the Past” is a slower track and probably my least favorite on the album, but it's still fairly enjoyable, if not one of the band's more memorable efforts. One last song to mention is the closing track “When the Lights Go Out”, a nice ballad where Martin's vocals really shine. I usually don't like when albums end with a ballad, but this is a very well written track and after the intensity that precedes it, it feels like a nice way to end the album. Lastly, the band has included as a bonus track, a cover of the classic Metallica song “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, which fits their sound surprisingly well, and Martin's harsh vocals add a new element to the song that makes it a pretty interesting cover.

While I don't see Iron Fire ever making another album that's so in line with my musical tastes as Voyage of the Damned was, Among the Dead isn't too far behind and it's definitely a great, aggressive and more straight-forward release that demonstrates how a band can effectively add in modern elements to the genre and make it work. I can see it being another divisive release for the band, but I'd recommend that fans of their previous works at least give it a try, and I'd strongly recommend it to anyone looking for a power metal album with more of an edge to it, and especially to anyone who won't be scared off by all the harsh vocals.

SECRET SPHERE The Nature of Time

Album · 2017 · Power Metal
Cover art 3.45 | 3 ratings
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As much as I enjoy reviewing music, there are times where I initially struggle with an album and wonder if it’s even worth it to keep trying and see if it will open up for me, or if I should just give up on it. Often times, situations like this can ultimately be rewarding, though, as albums I usually wouldn’t have the patience for if I wasn’t committed to reviewing them can often end up winning me over in the long run, and such is the case with The Nature of Time, the eighth full-length release from Italian progressive power metal band Secret Sphere. I’ve had some experience with the band in the past, being immediately blown away by their 2010 release Archetype, which ended up being the last album with their original vocalist Roberto Messina, and being fairly disappointed by their 2012 release Portrait of a Dying Heart, which marked the beginning of a new era for the band. Between being disappointed with that album, being unimpressed with the samples I checked for 2015 re-recording of their 2002 album A Time Never Come and initially being fairly bored with this new release, I was just about ready to give up on the band for good. And then it suddenly clicked on the third listen, completely out of nowhere!

Portrait of a Dying Heart was quite the change in sound for the band, as earlier releases like Mistress of the Shadowlight and A Time Never Come featured more of a classic power metal sound, while Archetype was their most modern sounding, hardest hitting blend of prog and power metal to date, with some very aggressive riffs at points, where Portrait of a Dying Heart was a much more laid back album, with the prog albums taking on more of a melodic prog style compared to their past releases. This approach has only continued further on The Nature of Time, as this is very much a stripped down, less explosive album than anything they’ve done in the past, which is probably part of the reason for why it initially didn’t impress me much. The one lineup change on this album was the departure of guitarist Marco Pastorino, and I wonder if that affected the music in a big way, because the guitars are certainly less punchy on this release, even compared to its immediate predecessor, and instead the leads are mostly very melodic and guitars are used more to set the tone than to be particularly heavy, aside from on a couple tracks. One thing that hasn’t been reduced is the use of symphonic elements, which are quite prevalent throughout the album, both on softer tracks like “The Calling” and more speedy tracks like “Courage”.

Speaking of which, this release is a concept album, which seems to be about dealing with your inner feelings. Just by looking at the track listing, you can see 8 of the 11 tracks have to deal with positive emotions and personality traits, such as “Love”, “Courage”, “Honesty” and “Commitment”, and so lyrically it’s no surprise that this is a very emotional album and one that impresses more with its overall feel than it does with exciting musical passages. Indeed, there are quite a few tracks here that are fairly tame for the genre, as well as probably more balladry than the typical power metal fan is willing to put up with, which again is a reason I struggled with the album at first. At the same time, once you get a bit deeper into the album there are a few more upbeat and catchier tracks, and the power metal elements are very much still an important part of the music, even if they aren’t as dominant as on past releases.

Another aspect I wasn’t too impressed by at first is vocalist Michele Luppi. In fact, I’ll be honest here: I’ve heard some of his work with Vision Divine as well as obviously his previous work with Secret Sphere, and for some reason, I just never cared much for his voice. He’s definitely a great singer, with a very impressive range, able to hit all kinds of high and low notes with seemingly little challenge at all, and he can be very emotive at times, but for some reason there’s just something about his voice that prevents me from liking him as much as I should and I can’t figure out what it is. With that being said, I definitely enjoy his vocals more on this release than I have on anything else I’ve heard him on, and I do think he sounds terrific throughout, whether it’s on the more powerful, speedier tracks like “Courage”, “Faith” and “Reliance” or slower, lighter tracks like “Love”, “Kindness” and “The New Beginning”.

Moving onto songwriting, things get off to a rather slow start. Contrary to what its name would suggest, “Intermission” is, in fact, the beginning of the album, and is a fairly typical orchestral opener, with some nice piano parts in the middle, and a very brief voiceover at the end. One thing I will say right away, while this album uses narration throughout, it’s done rather tastefully, usually at the beginning or end of tracks and doesn’t really get in the way like it does on some albums, but instead just adds a bit of context to the overall concept, so this is one case where I can actually appreciate it. The first full song is “The Calling”, a rather slow paced track which has some nice melodic leads, including a nice guitar section at the beginning, before the orchestral elements take over, and it settles down into a fairly nice melodic prog track. The verses are a bit tame for my tastes, but the chorus is excellent and showcases Michele’s voice nicely, and I love the more emotional vocal section that comes towards the end and how it sets up the excellent guitar solo and epic final run through the chorus that closes out the track. Basically, it’s a track that starts out kinda boring but gets better as it goes along, and by the end, it’s really good.

After that, though, things slow down further with “Love”, a ballad mostly dominated by light keyboards and vocals. It’s a nice enough song, and the symphonic elements are again effective, but it’s not exactly the most exciting track and doesn’t really do much to help the momentum of the album early on. Thankfully, things pick up big time with “Courage”, the first speedy track on the album, and one of the best. While not quite as intense as anything on Archetype, this track is very fast paced and has some solid riffs, moving along at a great pace throughout, and delivering another huge chorus, as well as excellent instrumental second in the second half, and then the final run through the chorus is simply incredible. Easily the best song on the first half of the album. As expected, “Kindness” is another ballad, roughly on par with “Love”, meaning another solid, but unspectacular track, with some decent vocal melodies, but nothing really special. The first oddball of the album is next, that being “Honesty”. Right out of the gate it has some very modern sounding riffs, mixed in with epic orchestral arrangements, making for quite the weird contrast. This track took some time for me to get used to, as initially, the chugging riffs were bothering me, but over time I’ve come to appreciate them and how they contrast nicely with the very melodic and uplifting chorus, which is definitely the highlight of the track. There’s an epic instrumental section, later on, enhances both of these elements further, and the second half of the track is pretty amazing on the whole. Excellent track, overall, though it definitely requires a few listens to fully appreciate it.

Moving towards the final stretch, “Faith” is another fairly straightforward power metal track, with some solid riffs and a big, epic chorus. Definitely one the more fun and upbeat tracks on the album. Next is “Reliance”, another fairly uptempo track, though this one is much harder hitting than the others, with some pretty explosive riffs as well as a nice use of epic symphonic elements. The chorus is slower and brings in some of the prog elements, while later on, we get some pretty intense instrumental sections. This track is a bit all over the place, but it’s all very well done and it certainly makes for one of the more exciting and complex tracks on the album. After that, we have the fairly calm instrumental “Commitment”, which starts off with some heavy riffs, but quickly turns into a more melodic track, with some great keyboard work as well as some nice melodic solos throughout. It’s a pretty solid instrumental and serves as a nice lead-in to the climax of the album.

That climax comes in the form of a near 9-minute epic, titled “The Awakening”, which starts off with some epic orchestral arrangements during the first minute before the guitars kick in and it speeds up and turns into another epic, fast paced power metal track. I find this track takes all the elements found throughout the rest of the album and kicks it all up a notch, leading for one of the fastest tracks on the album, as well as easily the most epic and most memorable. Michele is also at his absolute best on this track, delivering easily the best performance I’ve ever heard from him, and there’s some great instrumental passages throughout, as well as a catchy chorus. Easily the highlight of the album, and along with “Courage”, and “Faith”, I’d say it’s one of a few tracks should leave listeners impressed right from the first listen. Lastly, “The New Beginning” is another ballad, but it steps things up a bit, by reusing lyrics from previous tracks but in a more emotional way, and again Michele delivers some great vocals, making it a nice way to end the album.

Overall, The Nature of Time is a great release, which shows Secret Sphere continuing to move towards more of a melodic prog sound, without sacrificing their power metal elements entirely. It’s an album that likely won’t blow many people away on first listen, but given some time it should open up and prove itself to be a very rewarding release, with some great tracks and some excellent vocals. I still prefer the more aggressive approach of albums such as Archetype, but I will admit this release has won me over in the end and has made me want to revisit its predecessor, as well as making me excited for any future releases the band puts out. Recommend for fans of power metal and melodic prog, and especially for those who like concept albums that are more about the lyrics and overall feel than about individual tracks.

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DRAGONFORCE Reaching Into Infinity

Album · 2017 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.38 | 4 ratings
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There are many ways for bands to evolve their sound over a long career. Some bands change their sound up a lot from album to album, always keeping their fans guessing, while others follow along a predictable path for a while, then suddenly decide to move in a completely different direction after a few albums. Still, others prefer to stick to an established sound while adding minor tweaks from album to album, which is where British power metal band Dragonforce currently stands. After their first four albums were all fairly similar and each had their share of highlights and low points, “The Power Within” and “Maximum Overload” both showed them streamlining their sound a bit and adding in some new elements, while still keeping all their trademarks and their overall sound in full force (no pun intended.) Now with their seventh full-length release, Reaching Into Infinity, it feels like the band is looking to push their sound even further than before, providing listeners with quite a few surprises, while still delivering many tracks filled with their unique brand of super speedy, hard hitting power metal with extremely epic choruses and guitar solos.

Longtime fans of the band should know what to expect from them at this point, as their brand of over the top, super fast power metal is still as much intact as ever, and the blistering duo guitar leads from Herman Li and Sam Totman are still very much the main focus, while Vadim Pruzhanov’s keyboards are impressive sounding as well and still play a big role at points, often sounding rather cheesy and giving the music a retro, sometimes slight pop feel as usual. The faster tracks on this release very much follow in line with the band’s past two releases, as they’re still as over the top and fun as ever, but they aren’t stretched out quite as much as most songs on the first four albums, and there are some heavier riffs at times, sometimes giving the music a slight thrash feel. Obviously, though, the huge choruses, epic melodies, and impressive extended solo sections are still present and as impressive as ever, and for the most part, the speedy songs on this album continue to feel like classic Dragonforce, except streamlined just a little bit. However, there are a few tracks where the band experiments more than ever before, and while I’ll go into full detail later in the review, there are at least three songs here that may surprise listeners, bringing in unexpected elements and sometimes going in directions fans probably wouldn’t expect from the band, so it’s definitely an even more varied and interesting release than Maximum Overload was in the songwriting department.

In the vocals department, Marc Hudson remains as strong a vocalist as he was on the previous two albums, and if anything he sounds even more in his element on this release than ever before. He has a fairly high pitched voice that fits the genre well, and he does an excellent job during the very melodic choruses, but he can also sing with a deeper voice at times and with a bit more grit and power than before. On a couple tracks, he even adds in some thrash style vocals as well as some pretty solid harsh vocals. This is most definitely the most varied Dragonforce ever when it comes to vocals, and everything works very well.

When it comes to songwriting, fans know what to expect from the band, and for the most part Reaching Into Infinity does deliver more of the same. The title track is a typical intro, with some nice keyboard sections and some very nice guitar melodies, and then “Ashes of the Dawn” starts out with some heavy guitar riffs and slight symphonic elements before picking up the pace and turning into the kind of high-flying opener fans would expect from the band. Right out of the gate, it has some excellent guitar leads, as expected, and it’s a very fast paced track with a super catchy chorus and fun instrumental sections, enhanced even further by having more of a symphonic presence than their songs usually do. It’s definitely a perfect example of the more simplified take on their classic songwriting that their recent albums have been delivering. Other speedy tracks on the album follow suit, including “Judgement Day”, which has a very cheesy, pop-styled keyboard intro before speeding up and turning into a classic Dragonforce song, with a super fun chorus, “Astral Empire”, which has a cool intro that showcases new drummer Gee Anzalone’s skills, before turning into a very straight-forward and fun power metal track, “Curse of Darkness”, which has a nice slower section in the middle, but mostly follows the band’s formula neatly and is another excellent example of their modern sound, “Midnight Madness”, which may actually be the most traditional Dragonforce song on the entire album, with no real gimmicks, but instead just being awesome all around, “Land of Shattered Dreams”, which is slightly darker and harder-hitting, and the closing track “Our Final Stand”, which has an amazing chorus and one of the best guitar solos on the album, making it a perfect closer. All these tracks are excellent, fast paced and have a nice balance between catchy vocal sections and impressive instrumental work, giving listeners everything they could ask for from the band. Bonus track “Hatred and Revenge” very much fits in line with all these tracks, and is another instant winner, with some of the best guitar work on the album and an absolutely incredible chorus.

Mixed in with all those tracks are a few surprises, the first of which is the ballad “Silence”. They have done one ballad before, that being the awesome yet super cheesy “Trail of Broken Hearts”, but this one feels much more serious and more sincere than that one did, using some nice acoustic guitars during tits verses and allowing Marc to really showcase his talents during the chorus. The solo section is also very nice and features an absolutely beautiful guitar solo at one point. A very surprising but excellent track. Another surprise is “WAR!”, a speedy but surprisingly hard hitting track which very much has a thrash feel the whole way through, especially during its verses and its chorus, with some aggressive riffs, thrashy vocals from Marc and some pretty angry lyrics. The pre-chorus section is nice and brings in some melody, but otherwise, it’s a surprisingly hard hitting track coming from Dragonforce. On the one hand, I think they did a great job with it and pulled it off very well, but on the other hand, because I listen to these guys to have a good time and enjoy the happy sounding melodies, this track does stick out a bit. Still, I can appreciate them trying something different and while it’s not one of my favorite tracks here, I do think they pulled off what they were trying to do with it.

Also on the thrashier side, the band included a cover of the classic Death track “Evil Dead”, where the guitars feel surprisingly close to the original and Marc’s vocals are great, while the keyboards are mostly used to add in a bit of atmosphere and are pretty interesting. It’s actually a really good cover, and the only part that feels a bit out of place, but still awesome, is the classic Nintendo style keyboard outro. Lastly, “The Edge of the World” is the band’s longest and most ambitious track to date at just over 11 minutes. The track is mostly mid-paced and has a very prog feel to it, with some epic sounding guitar work and the verses feel more calm and relaxed compared to most of their tracks. The chorus is impressive as always and there’s a very nice solo section, but musically I have to say the band didn’t really throw in as many tempo changes as I would have expected and the lack of any real speedy sections is a bit surprising. Still, it’s a great track and one section that really stands out comes a little more than halfway through, where the guitars get heavier and we get some pretty cool death growls. Overall, the track isn’t what I would have expected from Dragonforce and is quite interesting in that they went for more of a prog sound, which I feel they pulled off quite well. I think one or two speedier sections would have really pushed it over the top, but I guess they wanted to make it a fully experimental and different sounding track, so it still works great as it is.

Overall, Reaching Into Infinity is another excellent album that shows Dragonforce continuing to deliver a more streamlined version of their classic sound, while also throwing in some surprises, with two of their most experimental tracks to date. I think I still slightly prefer Maximum Overload, but it’s definitely an excellent album which is sure to please longtime fans of the band, and any power metal fans who doesn’t mind a bit of cheesiness, is highly recommended to give this one a listen.

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WIND ROSE Stonehymn

Album · 2017 · Folk Metal
Cover art 4.86 | 3 ratings
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One of the most surprising albums for me in recent years was Wardens of the West Wind, the 2015 release from Italian power metal band Wind Rose. I had been intrigued by the band after their 2012 debut Shadows Over Lothadruin, which was an interesting prog album that showed potential, but also had a lot of things wrong with it that really brought it down. So while I was interested in Wardens of the West Wind when I got a promo for it, I was absolutely shocked, both by how much I loved it and by how all the flaws from the previous album were fixed and the band had shifted styles quite impressively, going with more of a symphonic power metal sound, while still keeping elements of their debut. After how good that release was, I was excited to hear what they would do next and expected them to continue along the same path, but now their third release Stonehymn is set to come out later this month, and I have to say, the band has surprised me in an awesome way once again!

Wind Rose is an interesting band, in that so far each release has taken a fairly minor element from the previous album and expanded upon it greatly, making it the primary focus. For example, Shadows Over Lothadruin was primarily a mix of symphonic metal and prog, somewhat similar to Symphony X, but it contained brief bursts of power metal, which ended up becoming the main focus on Wardens of the West Wind. Meanwhile, that album was primarily a symphonic power metal release in the vein of Rhapsody of Fire, but it contained folk elements on a couple tracks, most notably on its closing track “Rebel and Free”, and on Stonehymn, this sound has taken over and become the main focus.

I’d say the best comparison to this album would be if you were to take the faster, more epic sections of bands like Ensiferum and early Turisas, remove the growls and then make that into an entire album, then you’d end up with something similar to Stonehymn. Of course, Wind Rose have still kept their own sound intact here, so the symphonic elements from previous releases are still used at times, choirs are still used a ton, power metal riffs remain a driving force and even the prog elements from the debut are still there in bursts, but the overall sound feels very fresh and new, with much more of a folk element than past releases. There’s a ton of epic gang vocal sections, group chants and all kinds of folk instruments used throughout, with many instrumental sections that would usually give way to guitar solos on most albums instead turning into interludes where various folk melodies are played, and this adds quite a lot of flavor to the music. The metal elements are still as present as ever, though, with the guitars still playing a big part, and there are some great riffs here for sure, especially during some of the mid-paced sections where the prog elements come in, and there are some nice sections where keyboards take over as well, but I find the folk elements add an extra layer to the music and are certainly much more prominent and more effective than I would have ever expected.

Vocals remain a strong point for the band, and if anything I’d say lead singer Francesco Cavilieri sounds even more comfortable with this sound than he did on either of their first two releases. He has a very deep voice with just a bit of a wild edge to it that fits in perfectly with folk music, and he’s equally effective at reining it in a bit for softer sections or going full out for epic, heavier sections. There’s still some epic choir vocals as on the previous album, though I find on this album gang vocals play a much bigger part, with most choruses and other big vocal sections having a ton of supporting vocals from the other band members, and there’s lots of fun chanting style vocals as well, which bring a lot of energy and fit in great with the folk elements. It really does feel like the band fully committed themselves to the sound they wanted on this album and did everything they could think of to pull it off perfectly.

The songwriting on Stonehymn is interesting, in that it’s a rare case of me not being at all bothered by a lack of variety in the tracks. Honestly, most songs here do follow a formula, where they tend to start out quietly, with soft sections where the folk elements dominate, then the orchestral elements and metal instruments kick in the and the music speeds up, which tends to happen at the start of almost every track here. No songs stay slow throughout, and there are also no songs that are really speedy every second of the song either. Usually, this kind of approach to songwriting would bug me, but there are a few reasons why it doesn’t in this case. The first and most obvious is that the folk elements are used so effectively, even if the songs themselves are all similar, there are so many interesting sounds here and so many epic melodies, I find myself enjoying every second of every track. Secondly, the band plays with so much energy, especially during the faster sections, that I simply can’t help but love it. And lastly, every song on its own is just so well written, with the right mix of catchy choruses, epic vocal sections, fun verses, great folk and symphonic sections, and just a ton of great surprises, that the lack of variety in songwriting ends up not hurting it at all. There’s also a lot going on in each track, as well as tons of tempo changes, with most tracks seamlessly going from slow to fast or mid paced to fast pretty much out of nowhere, and the band pulls this off extremely well, so the songs all flow perfectly.

Because of the approach to songwriting, it’s hard to do a full song by song breakdown, but I can say every track is fantastic and they all have plenty of memorable sections. There’s two brief instrumentals here, the intro track “Distant Battlefields” and “The Animist”. The latter is a nice folk interlude, while the former has a nice mix of orchestral and folk elements, with its main melody being very memorable and returning throughout the first full track “Dance of Fire”. In fact, one early highlight is during the first verse of “Dance of Fire”, where after a fun speedy intro, it slows down and brings back the main melody of the intro track, except here Franceso sings and it makes the music feel all the more epic, Then after that, the track speeds up and continues switching tempos throughout, with many epic vocal sections and a huge chorus.

Tracks like “Under the Stone” and “Fallen Timbers” use the folk elements to enhance the music throughout, with the former in particular having an epic use of gang vocals and folk elements leading into its chorus, while has nice folk melodies in its intro, but they mostly move along at a very fast pace throughout, with power metal elements being dominant, only occasionally slowing down a bit for some more progressive sections. Both tracks are awesome, fluidly mixing elements of folk and power metal, with the latter in particular having possibly the best chorus of the album and being probably my favorite track on the album. Other tracks like “To Erebor” and “The Eyes of the Mountain” use more extended slower sections, with the latter in particular probably being the most symphonic track on the album, using big choir vocals during its chorus and the orchestras have a much bigger presence on that track, though folk elements are still there at times. Meanwhile, “To Erebor” is probably the most folk-infused track on the album, with everything from its intro to the epic chanting vocals of its chorus and the tribal-like sounds used at various points, all giving the track a strong folk feeling. One point early on even reminds me of a certain Turisas track from their second album, though this doesn’t last very long, and gives way to the epic chorus.

On the softer side, “Returning Race” is the longest track on the album and also one of the more interesting tracks. It uses acoustic elements effectively early on, with the music giving the feeling of a sort of a tavern song during its early sections, and it effectively mixes these sections with speedier sections, with the tempo changing throughout and there’s quite a lot going on. It’s definitely a track that showcases how well Francesco’s vocal fit in on a more folk-infused album, as he sounds amazing during the softer sections here. Also on the softer side, lead single “The Wolves’ Call” starts off slow and the whole track makes very good use of extended calmer sections to build up to brief explosive moments, with the chorus, in particular, starting out very calm and then speeding up and becoming more and more epic as it goes along. The final run through the chorus is stunning and one of the highlights of the album.

Wind Rose surprised me big time in 2015, and they have done it once again in 2017! Where Wardens of the West Wind showed a promising band fully living up to their potential and then going much further to fully blow me away, Stonehymn is in some ways even more impressive, as it shows the band willing to move a bit away from what worked so well previously, and into something new, but manages to pull it off just as impressively. Fans looking for another symphonic power metal release may be disappointed, but as someone who always enjoy hearing power metal and folk mixed together and has been sad to see this mix of genres not being used too often in recent years, this release is just as pleasantly surprising for me as the band’s previous release, and stands as one of my top two albums for the first half of 2017. Fans of power metal and folk metal are highly recommended to give this album a listen, as it pulls the two styles off brilliantly and is one of the best releases I’ve heard from either genre in the last few years.

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Album · 2017 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.76 | 8 ratings
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One of the most promising bands in all of metal right now is American progressive power metal band Mindmaze, led by the brother/sister team of Jeff and Sarah Teets. The band made their debut in 2013 with Mask of Lies, a self-released album that blew me away, as well as being impressive enough that the band was quickly signed by Inner Wound Recordings around a year and a half later, in time for their follow-up release, Back From the Edge, an album that took everything that worked on the debut and changed things up just a bit so it could be a somehow even more impressive sophomore release. With such an impressive start to their career, it seems there’s no limit to their potential, and now with their recently released third full-length album, Resolve, the band has done it once again, kicking into a higher gear than ever before and producing easily their best album to date!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Album · 2011 · Symphonic Black Metal
Cover art 4.30 | 11 ratings
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MMA Reviewers Challenge: Album Selected by adg211288

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VANDROYA Beyond the Human Mind

Album · 2017 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.53 | 6 ratings
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Out of all metal bands to come out of Brazil, my favorite is progressive power metal band Vandroya, who absolutely blew me with their 2013 debut One, and so even in a month as crowded with big new releases as April 2017 has been, their sophomore release Beyond the Human Mind was one I absolutely had to hear. One was an album where everything just clicked with me immediately and I loved the seamless blend between power and prog elements, as well as the amazing lead vocals, and so I had very high expectations for Beyond the Human Mind. Thankfully, there’s no sophomore slump for this band, as they have delivered another excellent album that very much falls in line with their debut, while also having a slightly rougher, more raw sound that works out quite well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PYRAMAZE Contingent

Album · 2017 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.47 | 5 ratings
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April 2017 is a very crowded month for new metal releases, with three of my most anticipated releases of the year all coming on the same day, and so it would be easy for something to get lost in the shuffle. On the same day as those three releases, though, we have what is sure to be a highly anticipated release for many other people, which is Contingent, the fifth full-length release from Danish progressive power metal band Pyramaze. Fans were excited two years ago, as after releasing three well-regarded albums in the previous decade, the band was dormant for a while, only to return with a slightly different lineup to release Disciples of the Sun, which ended up being a very well-received comeback album and seemingly triggered the start of a new era for the band. Now, two years later, the band has retained the same lineup and are ready to release their next album Contigent, which very much feels like a natural evolution, though it does take the band into slightly new territory compared to past releases.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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AYREON The Source

Album · 2017 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.61 | 19 ratings
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All music fans have certain bands or certain musicians, who whenever they announce a new release, they’re instantly excited and immediately consider hearing it as soon as it’s available their top priority. For me, that musician is Arjen Lucassen, and especially his Ayreon project, which first blew me away with the 2004 release The Human Equation, my all time favorite album, and has yet to let me down ever since. I’ll admit, after the rather lengthy break and several side projects Arjen made in between 01011001 and The Theory of Everything, I was actually a bit surprised when he announced the eighth Ayreon album, The Source, less than three years after the release of its predecessor, with the release coming roughly three and a half years after that one, only doing one side project in between. I can’t complain, though, because while I have enjoyed all of Arjen’s other works in the past, I find I prefer him when he’s at his most dynamic and using the widest range of sounds he can, which is exactly what he does with Ayreon. After The Theory of Everything ended up being one of my all time favorite releases, I was excited to see if The Source would be yet another masterpiece, and suffice to say, it is!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CRYONIC TEMPLE Into the Glorious Battle

Album · 2017 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.25 | 2 ratings
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Less than four months into 2017, we already have a very strong contender for the comeback of the year! Swedish power metal band Cryonic Temple has been through some troubling times recently, after showing a ton of promise early in their career. Their first three albums were all great examples of epic power metal done right, with their 2005 release In Thy Power, in particular, showing how much potential the band had in their early days. Unfortunately, vocalist Glen Metal left the band in 2008 and was replaced by Magnus Thurin, which led to the band trying out a more aggressive, thrashy power metal sound on their fourth release, Immortal, that didn’t work well at all, and Magnus in particular stuck out like a sore thumb. I’ll be honest: I almost never dislike power metal albums, but Immortal is a rare example of such an album I really can’t stand to listen to the whole way through, due to both the vocals and lackluster songwriting. Suffice to say, I had no expectations for the band going forward, and so I’m both shocked and happy to report that roughly eight and a half years after their downfall, the band has not only returned with their fifth release, Into the Glorious Battle, but they have produced possibly their best album to date!

It’s clear the band needed some time to regroup and plan out exactly what they wanted to do after their fourth release bombed so hard, as Into the Glorious Battle feels like a different band entirely when compared against any of their previous releases. Obviously, fans of the first three albums may be disappointed, but I think it’s clear the band felt they had gone as far as they could with their old sound, which led to them experimenting and failing big time on Immortal, and so, by comparison, this album feels like they decided to rein it in a bit and go for a much more relaxed, melodic power metal sound. There’s certainly still some moments where the music gets pretty epic and there are some really impressive vocal melodies, but on the whole, this album is definitely more restrained and feels like a more traditional power metal album compared to their previous work. The guitar work is very strong throughout, though there aren’t too many heavy riffs, as the guitars are mostly used for melodic leads and solos, which are pretty much fantastic all around. This is some of the most melodic guitar work I’ve heard on a metal album in quite some time, and it’s certainly a refreshing change of pace after how rough Immortal sounded. Keyboards are also used very effectively, mostly in the background serving as atmosphere, though they do come to the front of the sound at times and sound very nice. There’s a good variety of the tracks here, with the expected up-tempo power metal tracks, as well as some more mid-paced tracks and a few ballads, and everything works out great, with all but one track fitting in perfectly, which makes sense as this is the band’s first concept album, focusing on a futuristic setting.

Obviously, the one element that had me the most nervous was the vocals. Glen Metal was a huge reason for why the band’s first three albums were so good, while Magnus Thurin was one of the main reasons why their previous album was such a failure, instantly making me wish Glen Metal was back, and so I was a bit scared the same thing could happen with new singer Mattias L. Thankfully, that is not the case. Compared to both his predecessors, Mattias has a much more relaxed vocal approach, mostly staying in mid to low range, and while he can add a lot of power when he needs to, he has a much smoother delivery than either of his predecessors, and he’s actually a big reason why this new sound works out so well. He especially excels on the calmer tracks, with his performance on the ballads being especially impressive, though he does sound excellent on the speedier tracks as well. I actually think he’s my favorite Cryonic Temple vocalist to date, though that’s more a matter of taste. In any case, he’s certainly the perfect singer for this new version of the band.

After a solid intro track, opener “Man of a Thousand Faces” kicks in and is an absolute killer track. The song has a brief orchestral intro before the excellent guitar leads kick in and the track speeds up and turns into one of the heavier, more intense tracks on the album, with great riffs during the verses, and then when chorus comes Mattias gets to show off his great voice, especially when the incredible full version of the chorus comes about 2 minutes into the song, immediately casting away any doubts that the band still has the ability to write great songs.

Next is “All the Kingsmen”, which starts off with a nice acoustic melody before the riffs take over and it turns into one of the heavier tracks on the album. It starts off mid-paced for a bit, but when the chorus kicks in it speed up and turn into a more traditional power metal track, and one that should definitely please fans of the genre. Other speedy tracks include “Mighty Eagle”, a brief but amazing track with one of the best choruses on the album, the title track, “Flying Over the Snowy Fields”, which is probably the fastest and most classic power metal sounding track on the album, “Can’t Stop the Heat” and “Heavy Burden”, which starts off as a slow, calm track before speeding up after a bit and turning into another stand out. All these tracks are excellent, with an emphasis on the great guitar work and vocals. One more somewhat speedy track that feels a bit different to me is “Mean Streak”. This is the one track of the album where melodic guitars aren’t really present, as it instead has a more classic heavy metal feel to the riffs and the chorus seems very simplistic compared to the rest of the album It’s a fun and solid track, but it feels very different. I immediately thought it was a cover track, that’s how out of place it feels, but I haven’t found anything to confirm that. Either way, it’s the one track on the album that doesn’t quite fit for me.

On the softer side, the album has three ballads in “Heroes of the Day”, “The War is Useless” and “Freedom”. Even on these tracks, there’s some great melodic guitar work, with each of them having some great solos, especially the latter as it’s a near 8-minute epic that closes the album. All three are excellent tracks and have some great vocal work from Mattias, but “The War is Useless” especially stands out for me, as it’s more of a piano led track, with some symphonic elements as well, including a lengthy orchestral section in the middle that is very nice, and it also has my favorite chorus of the three ballads. My favorite chorus on the whole album, though, is on “Prepare for War”, a mid-paced melodic metal track that speeds up a bit in an epic section towards the end. I mentioned that this album has some of the most melodic guitar work I’ve heard in quite some time, and that statement is especially true for this track, as the guitar work is just incredibly beautiful and melodic, with some of the best leads I’ve heard on a power metal track in a very long time. Easily my favorite song on the album, and probably my favorite Cryonic Temple song ever.

I wasn’t sure what to expect going in, but needless to say Into the Glorious Battle has proven to be not only an amazing comeback from a band I once thought might be gone for good but also feels like it could be the start of a new era for Cryonic Temple. I sure hope so, as it’s a nice change into a new, more melodic sound that works great for the band, and it has some of the best guitar leads I’ve heard on a power metal album in recent memory, as well as some great vocals. Highly recommended for fans of the band who thought they were done, and for any power metal fans, especially those who prefer the lighter, more melodic side of the genre.

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STORMHAMMER Welcome to the End

Album · 2017 · Power Metal
Cover art 3.50 | 2 ratings
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Even as a huge fan of the genre, there are always going to be some bands I miss along the way, one such example being German power metal band Stormhammer, who I hadn’t heard of until their 2015 release Echoes of a Lost Paradise, despite the band being around for over two decades up to that point, and having released four albums previously. That release was fairly solid, if a bit standard at times, and I found the heavier moments were generally the most interesting, and that proves to be even more the case on their upcoming sixth full-length release, Welcome to the End, another solid release that shows potential towards being excellent at times, but doesn’t quite get there.

I don’t remember too much about Echoes of a Lost Paradise, except that it was a fairly heavy power metal album at times, and that the riffs tended to be the most memorable parts of the tracks. Welcome to the End is similar in that regard, though I find it does have more memorable songs overall and it has a nice variety between tracks. This is very much on the harder hitting side of power metal for most of the album, and it also has occasional elements of classic heavy metal on some tracks, and obviously there’s quite a bit of thrash influence in the guitar work at times. The vocal melodies are solid, though I find the best tracks are the ones that strike a nice balance between the thrash riffs and big melodic power metal choruses, and those tracks tend to be excellent. Otherwise, the instrumental work is solid all around and the production is solid, though not a lot stands out on the slower and less aggressive tracks.

Vocally, Jürgen Dachl does a pretty solid job throughout and he can vary his voice quite a bit. He usually sounds a bit rough, but with a powerful voice that fits the music well, and he can do a very good job of carrying the more melodic sections and choruses. Sometimes he sings with a really deep voice that sounds a bit cheesy, though it still works in a weird kind of way. There are also many sections where he reminds me a bit of Hansi Kürsch, except his voice sounds a bit rougher and not quite as smooth. I especially notice this on “Watchmen”, which is probably my favorite track on the album, and the track where I think Jürgen sounds at his best.

The songwriting is where the album struggles a little bit, though it’s still mostly good. Opening track “Northman” is a solid track that I wouldn’t call overly speedy, though it moves along at a decent pace and it has some good thrashy riffs and powerful vocals. Next is the title track, a rather slow to mid-paced track which has more of those thrashy riffs during the verses and very deep vocals, though for me this track kinda drags for the most part, with only the fast paced and fun chorus being particularly enjoyable. Following that is “The Heritage”, one of the more heavy metal influenced tracks on the album. It starts off with a calm, slower passage before speeding up a bit and leading to a section with solid backing vocals from guest Natalie Pereira dos Santos, and then the chorus has a very melodic guitar line that feels straight out of a classic heavy metal track and is actually the highlight of the track. A very solid track on the whole, with some obvious Iron Maiden influence.

The rest of the album mostly varies between the three different styles, though the power metal elements are the most prevalent throughout. Some of my favorites include “Watchmen”, a mostly mid-paced track with some very thrashy riffs during the verses and a very catchy addictive chorus, “Soul Temptation”, one of the faster paced tracks and one where the thrash elements dominate during the verses and the chorus is very melodic, and the speedy, classic power metal tracks “Road to Heaven” and “The Law”. The latter of these is the longest song on the album and has a very epic feel to me, as well as one of the best choruses on the album. The only track I’m not overly fond of is “My Dark Side”, a power ballad where Jürgen uses his deeper vocals, but while they work fine elsewhere, here they sound comically bad and feel terribly out of place, which brings the track down. The chorus is actually quite good, but those deep vocal sections are just very strange and off-putting. The rest of the tracks are solid, if unremarkable, with “Black Dragon” in particular being a little bit underwhelming for a closing track. It has a nice chorus, but otherwise, it just feels a bit bland and forgettable.

Overall, Welcome to the End is a solid album which features a nice blend between speedy, melodic power metal and some aggressive thrash riffs, along with occasional heavy metal elements. It has a couple weaker tracks and I wouldn’t consider it an album of the year contender or anything, but it’s still a solid album overall and one I’d recommend to power metal fans looking for something a bit heavier and who don’t require all songs to be really fast. Hopefully, Stormhammer can develop this sound further on future releases and produce something even better in the future.

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CELLADOR Off the Grid

Album · 2017 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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It’s always exciting to see bands that have either been long thought dead or have been on a very lengthy hiatus, seemingly quiet for years, make a sudden comeback and release a new album. That isn’t entirely the case for American power metal band Cellador, admittedly, as they had been hinting at a new release for quite some time, but after their highly praised debut Enter Deception was released in 2006, they weren’t heard from again until they reappeared in 2011 with a new lineup and released an EP, Honor Forth. Since then, the band had largely been quiet again for a while, but now after over 10 years of anticipation, they are finally set to unleash their second full-length album, Off the Grid, and I can assure fans that it most certainly delivers!

A lot has changed for Cellador over the years. Obviously, the previous vocalist Michael Gremio left before Honor Forth was released and guitarist Chris Petersen, the only original member remaining, has taken over the mic. No other members who played on Enter Deception appear on Off the Grid, so obviously, it’s safe to expect a much different sound this time, but while I certainly wouldn’t call this album a carbon copy or even a logical continuation of its predecessor, it’s not exactly a radical departure either. Instead, it feels like the band has retained their focus on pure, speedy power metal and their knack for neatly balancing between heavy riffs and melodic vocal lines, but their approach feels a bit more polished and more mature this time.

Where Enter Deception fell on the more extreme and silly side of the genre, often being compared to the likes of Dragonforce, as while it was entirely guitar driven a lot of the melodies felt similar, this release actually feels closer to classic Euro power metal in how a lot of its riffs sound, though the band has also included some keyboards to give the album a bit of a modern feel. With that being said, while keyboardist Diego Valadez does a nice job and gets to do some great solos, for the most part his keyboards feel more secondary, mostly in the background and giving way to the duo guitars, which dominate with some pretty heavy riffs at times, though there’s also some very melodic playing at points as well. There isn’t much experimentation here, with most tracks being straight-forward speedy power metal with addictive choruses, and all tracks fall around the 3-5 minute range, so it’s a very focused, no nonsense kind of release, that certainly doesn’t waste the listener’s time.

I was initially worried about the change in vocalist, as I wasn’t too pleased with Chris on Honor Forth, but on the new album, I find he does a pretty solid job. He has a fairly deep, powerful voice and mostly stays in mid range, only occasionally stretching for some higher notes. His voice fits in pretty well with the music, though I find he’s best when using his grittier vocals, as sometimes when he tries to go for higher notes he ends up sounding a little bit over the top, such as on “Good Enough”. It’s the sort of thing that fits in well for power metal, though it doesn’t sound all that great. Aside from that, though, he does a pretty good job throughout the album and carries the melodies well, especially on tracks like “Shadowfold”, “Wake up the Tyrant” and “Swallow Your Pride”.

The songwriting is fairly straightforward, with few surprises, though in this case that works fine as every song is great and everything flows together well enough that it’s certainly an easy album to listen to in its entirety over and over. Opening track “Sole Survivors” instantly kicks in with some classic metal riffs and moves along at a breakneck pace right out of the gate, making it the kind of instantly satisfying track you’d expect to hear at the start of a power metal album. The riffs are great and Chris does a solid job on the chorus, so it gets the album off to a flying start. I won’t list all tracks on this album in detail, as most tracks are fast, hit a nice balance between being heavy and melodic and have addictive choruses, so to mention everyone in detail would be pointless, but suffice to say even tracks I won’t mention much like “Break Heresy”, “Shimmering Status”, “Swallow Your Pride” and the title track are all excellent tracks.

Moving on to highlights, the first track that really impresses is “Shadowfold”, which starts off with a thrashy lead riff that carries on through the opening verse, before giving way to a very melodic chorus, and then in the second verse the keyboards actually take over for a bit, which makes for a nice change of pace, and the solo section features both guitars and keyboards and is excellent. Probably my favorite track on the album. Right after that is “Wake Up the Tyrant”, another track which has some slightly thrashy riffs, and as usual moves along at a very fast pace, with intense verses that give way to a very epic and super catchy chorus. Another one of my favorites and the solo section is awesome, probably the best on the album. Coming after the one oddball track on the album, which I’ll get to in a bit, “This Means War” is back to business and is another one of the faster, heavier tracks, feeling very much like a classic power metal track. Closing track “Running Riot” is another super fast track, where the verses are very addictive and fun, and the chorus is frantic and very enjoyable, though I do think it’s one of the times where Chris goes a little bit overboard with vocals. Still a great track, though, and a fun way to end the album.

Lastly, we have “Good Enough”. This track immediately stood out to me as feeling a bit weird, as it starts off at mid-tempo, with some bouncy rhythms and is much more keyboard driven, so I instantly knew something was off. Then the chorus comes in and while it’s super fast paced as always, Chris sounds extremely over the top and it feels like a pop track. It made me wonder if the track was a cover of some sort and after a bit of research I discovered that it is, in fact, a cover of aa Cyndi Lauper hit, which makes sense. Reviewing it on its own merits, the track feels like a bit of an oddball, though it did eventually win me over, and when you consider it’s a cover of a pop song, I think the band did a nice job of keeping some of the feel of the track while also sticking somewhat within their usual sound. So overall, a pretty cool cover.

Overall, Off the Grid is a great comeback album for Cellador, which retains the core power metal sound of their debut, while also feeling much more polished and more mature. It’s hard to say if I think it’s a better release than Enter Deception on the whole, but it’s definitely a logical release for the band to put out right now, and I think longtime fans of the band should be happy with it. I’d recommend it to all power metal fans who want something straight-forward, fast and furious, and with some great vocal melodies, as that’s what this album delivers.

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MANILLA ROAD Crystal Logic

Album · 1983 · Heavy Metal
Cover art 4.32 | 28 ratings
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MMA Reviewer's Challenge: Album Selected by Warthur

80’s Metal is not exactly my specialty. In fact, aside from some of the obvious suspects like Iron Maiden, Metallica and Helloween, my knowledge of classic metal is perhaps alarmingly bad, as I tend to prefer the modern production and use of keyboards found more often on newer metal albums. With that out of the way, then, it’s no surprise I had never heard any of the earlier albums from US heavy metal band Manilla Road until recently, though I did have previous experience with the band, hearing some of their more recent albums and getting a decent amount of enjoyment out of them, especially their 2013 release, Mysterium. From what I gather from reading reviews online, their newer releases are considered much weaker compared to their classic, with their 1983 release Crystal Logic in particular often considered their best, and so I was interested to give this thing a listen and see if it really would end up being my favorite by them. I’ll go into more details further into this review, but In short, it did not disappoint.

Manilla Road play a very melodic brand of epic heavy metal, with most tracks being mostly mid tempo, though they do speed things up from time to time and many of the tracks on Crystal Logic have some pretty fast paced sections. There’s some really great heavy metal riffs to be found throughout the album, as well as some occasional nods to classic hard rock, and even some more atmospheric, slower sections that sound like doom infused heavy metal. The latter element is something I recognized from hearing it quite a bit on some of their more recent albums, most notably the poorly received Playground of the Damned, though those elements, while not as prominent on this release, feel better defined and more like a natural part of the music, and really help add to the overall feel while also adding some variety. Speaking of which, this is probably the most varied Manilla Road album I’ve heard, as their newer releases are generally slower paced and more relaxed throughout, where this one has a nice range of sounds going on and the songs are more individually recognizable. It’s an album that stays consistently entertaining throughout, while still having a few huge standout tracks.

One element I was interested in was the production, as the band’s later albums sound very rough, and honestly, I think this album has slightly better sound quality than some of their albums released in the 2010’s, which sure is a testament to how rough those albums sound. This one sounds perfectly fine for an 80’s album, and it has a very bass heavy sound, which is cool. I’ve seen some criticism of the guitar work, but while it can be a bit rough in some spots, I find overall the riffs are very good and there are certainly some nice melodic solos here. There’s really only one trouble spot, which I’ll mention later on.

Another element that tends to be love or hate is Mark Shelton’s vocals. That makes sense, as he is also the same guy doing all the guitar parts, so I guess it’s just inevitable that his vocals would be polarizing as well. His voice isn’t overly high pitched, though he has a bit of a unique tone that works especially well on some of the calmer and more melodic sections, though he generally makes it work on the heavier parts as well. There’s a couple parts where he sounds a bit irritating to me, but for the most part I like his vocals quite a bit, and I find when he’s less animated and focuses more on singing the songs naturally, that’s when he tends to be at his best.

The album certainly gets off to an incredible start, as after an atmospheric intro track featuring some rather cheesy but charming voiceovers, listeners are immediately treated to the best track on the album, “Necropolis”. This is a fast paced track with very fun verses dominated by some great riffs and smooth rhythms, and then that chorus is very melodic and features some great vocals from Mark. Even the solo section is very melodic and really cool. Easily the best Manilla Road song I’ve ever heard. Next is the title track, which is actually almost as good. It starts off as another fairly speedy track with some great rocking riffs, before slowing down a bit around the halfway point and turning into more of an epic, mid paced heavy metal track. It has some great instrumental work and from a compositional standpoint is perhaps the best written track here, as it goes through quite a few changes throughout, while never losing track and remaining rather fun and catchy throughout. The darker tone to the guitar adds a bit of an atmospheric feel to the chorus, which is cool. Another early favorite is “Feeling Free Again”, another fairly upbeat track where the riffs feel more like classic hard rock to me. In fact, the track feels to me like a slightly speedier, more metal take on a classic AC/DC track, and it has a very fun, if cheesy, chorus. I know some people think of it as a weak link, but I actually think it’s one of the most addictive tracks on the album.

Moving in to the second half, and things slow down a bit. We have a more typical classic heavy metal track in “The Ram”, which is a solid mid paced track with some great riffs, but that one comes in between the two slowest and most doom influenced tracks on the album. The first of these is “The Riddle Master”, a mostly slower track with some great guitar work early on, before it speeds up towards the end, and honestly the instrumental work on that track is excellent, but Mark gets a bit carried away during the chorus, and so that brings the song down a bit for me. Still a solid track, but not as great as it could have been. The other slower track is “The Veils of Negative Existence”, a very dark and atmospheric track where the guitars have a very doomy sound to them and some of the riffs sound very dark and quite interesting.

Closing out the main album, we have “Dreams of Eschaton”, a 10 minute epic which is mostly a mid paced epic heavy metal track. It moves along at a pretty good pace and has some nice melodic sections and some great vocal work, though the highlight is the second half, where we get some of the best guitar work on the album and some excellent solos. Which leads into the closing “Epilogue”, another atmospheric instrumental track which is very similar to the opening track and brings the voiceovers back. Some versions of the album contain one last track titled “Flaming Metal System”, a fairly interesting song as overall it’s another faster track with some very fun vocal sections, and in fact the song itself is great. Sadly, it has an intro lasting about 70 seconds, where the guitars get really screechy and this sound hurts my ears, so I have a hard time even sitting through that part. When I do manage it, though, the rest of the song is great.

Overall, Crystal Logic is a great classic heavy metal album that sounds a bit heavier and more varied to me compared to the more recent Manilla Road albums I’ve heard, and it’s certainly highly recommended for any fan of epic heavy metal who somehow hasn’t heard it yet. Definitely the best Manilla Road album I’ve heard so far, and it makes me interested to hear some of their other classics.

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