Metal Music Reviews from DippoMagoo

HEAVATAR Opus II - The Annihilation

Album · 2018 · Power Metal
Cover art 5.00 | 1 rating
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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 3.50 | 2 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 · Doom Metal
Cover art 4.40 | 7 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 3.25 | 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 · Traditional heavy metal
Cover art 4.34 | 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 4.37 | 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 4.50 | 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 · Traditional 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 4.84 | 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 3.50 | 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 4.50 | 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 4.18 | 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 4.50 | 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 4.25 | 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 3.33 | 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 4.25 | 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 4.51 | 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 4.69 | 7 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 4.55 | 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 4.49 | 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 3.38 | 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 4.26 | 16 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 4.43 | 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 | 1 rating
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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 · Traditional heavy metal
Cover art 4.63 | 27 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.


Album · 2017 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.41 | 4 ratings
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Great music can come from all over the world and from any country, no matter how major or obscure it is. For example, Andorra is not exactly the first country I’d think of when discussing metal bands, but one of my favorite bands happens to be from there, that being Persefone, a progressive death metal band that first blew me away with their sophomore release Core, and everything they’ve done since has been nothing short of excellent. The band has changed their lineup several times since then, and their sound has evolved over time, but through it all, they have managed to be easily the most consistently satisfying band in their genre, and certainly a band I always look forward to hearing new material from. Their fifth full-length release, Aathma, is now out and once again the band has delivered some of the most complex, most technical, most engaging and most satisfying progressive death metal you’ll ever hear.

One thing I’ve always liked about Persefone is how while they have certain elements that are always a part of their music and they never do massive genre shifts, each of their albums brings something new to the table. For example, Core was a massive 70 minute concept album broken down into just three tracks, over 20 minutes each and both structurally and stylistically it very much reminded me of classic Opeth, while the following album Shin-ken felt a bit more accessible, modernized the music a bit and added some unique Japanese flavor, which immediately gave the album its own feel. Compared to those two albums, Aathma doesn’t feel like as massive a leap from its predecessor, Spiritual Migration, an album which felt like the band went into overdrive, featuring some of their most adventurous and most technical instrumental parts, as well as some of their most extreme death metal sections, and some very atmospheric and melodic clean vocal sections. By comparison, Aathma feels rather similar in that it does hit the same kind of balance between all extremes, but the biggest difference is that it feels a bit more subdued in its tempos, with the music never really speeding up the way some tracks on Spiritual Migration did, and the extreme vocals feel a little bit more restrained. Other than that, though, I’d say it very much feels like a natural evolution of its predecessor, where each previous album tended to feel quite a bit different. Not that I’m at all disappointed, though, because Spiritual Migration was an excellent album that at times showed potential to be even better, and I’d say in some ways Aathma manages to be better, even if the end result is about the same quality overall.

Musically, this is a very complex album with quite a lot going on. Obviously, keyboardist Miguel Espinosa is a very important part of the music, as he adds a lot of atmosphere and texture to the music, both with keyboard effects and some very creepy piano notes at times and this is especially noticeable on some of the soft interlude tracks, but also very much an important part of the heavier tracks as well. Guitarists Carlos Lozano and Filipe Baldaia also have a lot to do, of course, and some of the guitar work on this album is extremely technical and very impressive, as always. Just like its predecessor, this album has a ton of heavier instrumental sections where the musicianship really shines, as well as some excellent riffs during the extreme vocal sections, but the softer sections are just as impressive, if not even more so, and there’s just the right balance between heavy and melodic sections on this album, as well as a perfect balance between great musicianship and cohesive songwriting. In fact, on a musical and compositional level, I’d say this album may be the band’s best work to date, and it is just about perfect.

Vocals have always been the biggest sticking point for me with this band, as no matter which album I listen to, there are some parts where the vocals amaze me and some parts where they just don’t quite work. Spiritual Migration was especially notable for this, as Carlos did an excellent job with his smooth, deep clean vocals and every section where he sang impressed me, but lead vocalist Marc Martins while sometimes solid with his extreme vocals, occasionally got to be a bit irritating as he’d launch into some overly screamy metalcore type vocals I wasn’t a big fan of. This time around, both are actually in fine form as Carlos sounds excellent as always and for the most part, Marc is a little more restrained with his vocals, often using some deeper, yet still powerful death growls, and even the more extreme screamed sections feel a bit better than I was expecting. There are also two notable guest performers, who I will be talking about a bit further in the review, but suffice to say, one of them is a very important reason for my overall score being what it is.

Moving on to songwriting, and this is where Persefone has really delivered this time around. Every track here is brilliantly written, from atmospheric, instrumental interludes “Cosmic Walker” and “Vacuum” which do a great job of calming things down and setting the mood, to heavier tracks like “Spirals With Thy Being” and “No Faced Mindless”, everything here is just about perfect on a compositional level. After a brief opening track, dominated by keyboard effects and voiceovers, which I’ll discuss in more detail later on, we get “One of Many…” the first full instrumental track and it immediately sets the tone, mostly with atmospheric pianos, but also with some nice riffs and a great guitar section near the end, and it serves as a great lead-in to “Prison Skin”, as the overall atmosphere carries over into that track, before the band goes into full prog mode for an extensive instrumental section with excellent musicianship. As the track moves on, we get some great death growls from Marc and some excellent clean vocals from Miguel and the track is relatively straight-forward for a bit, until pausing for an atmospheric section and from there the track is just brilliant, making excellent use of all elements of the music and serving as a great first full song.

It’s really hard discussing individual tracks here, as everything flows together so well, but another early standout is “Spiral Within Thy Being”, which starts out with a nice instrumental section before slowing down and giving us some of the most atmospheric death metal sections on the album. Meanwhile, “No Faced Mindless” speeds things up a bit during the first half and has some melodic death metal elements early on, before becoming a bit more technical in the second half, as we get some very proggy instrumental sections and more great clean vocals. The longest individual track (at least on my promo) is “Stillness is Timeless”, an excellent song which goes through many different phases and does a great job of alternating between many different styles, before slowing down near the end and building up for the four-part, 20-minute title track. I’m not sure if the song is meant to be broken into four tracks or presented as one, but my promo has it split up, so I’ll judge it as four parts, Anyway, each part of the title track serves its own purpose, with parts 1 and III representing the bulk of the song, giving us some heavier parts and growls, to go along with Miguel’s clean vocals, while part II is a largely instrumental track, mostly on the softer side, with a brief voiceover section from guest Merethe Soltvedt, who also sings on part IV, a soft closing track played entire on keyboards and piano. Her vocals are very pleasant and fit the music well, giving the album an amazing ending.

One last track I haven’t mentioned yet is “Living Waves”. Its second half is absolutely brilliant, featuring some great extreme metal sections as well as some of the best clean vocals on the entire album. However, it’s the first half that really stands out and that makes an impact on my overall impression of this album. I mentioned earlier that the opening track features some voiceovers. Well, those voiceovers are provided by another guest, Cynic vocalist Paul Masvidal, whose voice I’ve always struggled with as I tend to not like an overuse of vocal effects in metal. Unfortunately, he goes overboard with those effects on this album, greatly distorting his voice on both the opening track and “Living Waves”, and in case that wasn’t enough, the latter track has a brief part where his voice gets high pitched and whiny, and when you combine that with the distortion effects….. Let’s just say my ears disagree terribly with the result, and so the first half of that track is very unpleasant for me to sit through. I hate to harp on this, but when the rest of the album is pretty much perfect, and especially when there are two other vocalists on this album who provide excellent clean vocals without needing to use annoying voice effects, I just can’t help but wonder why the band thought this was a good idea. This is made all the more frustrating by the fact that, as I said earlier, the rest of that track is so amazing, and so I never end up skipping it, instead of forcing myself to endure those painful 2-3 minutes in which Paul appears.

Aside from that one horrible miscalculation, though, Aathma is a brilliant album from a band that continues to impress me, and I don’t want that one paragraph to scare listeners away, or even to upset fans of the band, as on a musical and compositional level this is progressive death metal at its absolute best, and every section not featuring Paul Masvidal is about as perfect as music gets. Persefone have long been one of my favorite metal bands and I hope they can continue to be great for many years to come, and I highly recommend this album and all their other album to all fans of extreme prog metal who like their music to be complex and adventurous. One frustration aside, this is still an early highlight in 2017, and in many ways some of the best work the band has done yet.

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STAMINA System of Power

Album · 2017 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.31 | 4 ratings
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Italy is known for having some excellent power and progressive metal bands, but for every big name band from that country, there are several other bands who consistently make quality albums that tend to go largely under the radar. One such band is Stamina, led by guitarist Luca Sellitto. They have released three albums to date, with their previous album Perseverance being my introduction to them, and it was quite the stellar release. Now they’re back with their fourth release System of Power, with a slightly revamped lineup as well as a slightly different sound than what I remember from Perseverance, but if anything I’d say this new album is even better.

With Perseverance, I remember having a difficult time trying to nail down an overall genre for the music as I was hearing traces of power metal, hard rock, heavy metal and even some AOR to go along with the supposed main sound of melodic prog. With System of Power, though, that isn’t so much the case, as most of the lighter hard rock elements have been removed, in favor of a more predominantly melodic progressive metal sound, mixed in with quite a bit of power metal and the occasional symphonic elements. On the whole, this is a much heavier, more guitar-driven release and it’s definitely a more clearly metal album than its predecessor, though it’s still a very melodic album overall, and the new singer is given a ton of space to work with. There’s some very impressive instrumental work on this album and the musicianship is very technical at times, much more so than I remember from the previous release, with Luca especially shining during some epic solos, though keyboardist Andrea Barone does some pretty impressive work as well, and there are still many sections where the keyboards dominate. It’s a very well balanced and great sounding album overall, with a nice mix between faster tracks with power metal elements, and slower, more progressive tracks.

The area where the band has changed most, though, is the vocals. On Perseverance, there was no lead singer, as the band instead used various guests for all the vocals. In between albums, they recruited vocalist Alessandro Granato, who does all the lead vocals on this release, and he does one hell of a job, for sure. He sings with a very deep and aggressive voice at times and he can also be very animated at times, occasionally using some higher pitched vocals that especially work great on the speedier tracks. In fact, on the whole, I find his vocals work great for power metal and so he does an especially great job on the tracks that focus more on that side of their music, although he sounds very good all around.

Opening track “Holding On” immediately feels like a change to more of a prog sound, as it begins with some excellent keyboards before the guitars eventually kick in and the pace picks up, turning into a more power metal oriented track. This is a fairly heavy, fast paced track with some great instrumental work all around, especially from Andrea, and it also does a great job of introducing Alessandro, as he sounds excellent throughout and especially during the chorus. I mentioned previously that he excels on faster songs, and my favorite of these is definitely “Love Was Never Meant to Be.” The track begins with a rather lengthy intro where the keyboards dominate and help give the track a very playful, sort of theatrical mood right from the start, and the verses are a lot of fun and do a nice job of alternating between fast and mid-paced, but it’s the super speedy chorus that stands as the clear highlight, and it’s there where Alessandro delivers his best vocals on the entire album.

Other great faster tracks include “One in a Million” and “Why”. The former begins with a nice orchestral opening, before turning into one of the heavier tracks on the album. The guitars feel a bit chunkier than usual on this track and add an extra dose of heaviness to the verses, while the chorus is more melodic and fun as usual. “Why” also begins with an extended symphonic intro, though on this track those elements are rather prevalent throughout, which gives the music more of an epic feeling throughout, and the chorus is once again outstanding.

On the slower side, the title track and closer “Portrait of Beauty” are two very solid mid-paced tracks, where the prog elements are more dominant. Both tracks do a nice job of switching between guitar parts and keyboard parts, with both musicians doing an excellent job and they both deliver some great solos. Those tracks are both very good, but I find they pale in comparison to “Must be Blind”, probably the most progressive track the on the album, and certainly the track with the best instrumental work. Right from the start, the guitars sound just a bit heavier and more complex than usual, and that little keyboard flourish at the end of the main riff is a nice touch. The track also has a fun, fast paced chorus, but it’s the instrumental section in the second half where the track really picks up as the musicians go all out and the result is quite stunning. Lastly, “Undergo” (Black Moon Pt.2)” is a very nice ballad, though it’s also the one track where Andrea’s keyboards feel the least prominent. It begins with a nice acoustic guitar section before Luca adds a really nice melodic section with the electric guitar, and then throughout it’s mostly a vocal driven track that serves as a great showcase for Alessandro, and then in the second half, Luca gives himself plenty of space to deliver a nice solo section.

Overall, System of Power is an excellent album that will hopefully bring more attention to Stamina, as it’s a great blend of melodic progressive metal and power metal, with some excellent musicianship, great vocals, and consistently strong songwriting. More importantly, it represents a slight step up from the band’s already very good previous release, and now with a new lineup I’m hoping for more great things from the band is the future. Highly recommended for power metal fans and prog fans who prefer the more melodic side of the genre.

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BLOODBOUND War of Dragons

Album · 2017 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.75 | 2 ratings
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I’ve made it no secret over the past few years that Swedish power metal band Sabaton are one of my absolute favorites in the genre, but I’ve found myself surprised recently as offshoot band Civil War has managed to seemingly beat them at their own game, while other bands have been effectively incorporating elements of their music into their own sound to make for something a bit more unique. Which brings us to their fellow Swedes Bloodbound, a band who I’ve enjoyed a lot over the years and who especially impressed me with their 2014 release Stormborn. That release felt like a full return to the band’s classic power metal roots and on some tracks they seem to be influenced a bit by Sabaton, while still retaining their own sound. Now, not quite two and a half years later the band is back with their seventh full-length release War of Dragons, and if anything those influences are stronger this time around, with almost the entire album feeling like something I can best describe as “Sabaton on steroids.” But does this sound actually work out for the band, or are they better off going back to the drawing board and trying something different? Short answer: It works brilliantly and is easily my favorite Bloodbound release to date. For the long answer, I’ll go into more detail below.

I’ll try and avoid name dropping too much as I go along, but suffice to say on this release Bloodbound has taken the core power metal sound of Stormborn, and dialed it up to 11 on all fronts, resulting in an album full of extremely fast paced tracks, with huge anthem-like choruses, huge choral vocal sections, an increased use of symphonic elements, and of course the sound wouldn’t be complete without keyboards and that’s one area where the band has really gone all out on this release, as on past releases they played more of a minor role, where on this track they lead the way quite often and are extremely prominent throughout. But of course, one element the aforementioned band has been lacking in recent years is those heavy guitar riffs, something Bloodbound has always had. I’m sure the previous couple sentences will have some longtime fans worried that the guitars have been toned down to allow for the other elements I mentioned, but thankfully that is not the case as there are still a ton of great riffs and excellent guitar solos here, and on some tracks the guitars definitely add more of a classic metal edge, which is the one area where the band really refreshes the formula and brings something new to the table, compared to other bands who use a similar sound.

At this point, not much needs to be said about vocalist Patrik Johansson, who by now has earned his place as the voice of the band. His vocals are as powerful as ever and he can certainly deliver strongly on the heavier sections, but I find he has always excelled at the more melodic sections as he happens to be one of the best in all of metal right now when it comes to choruses, and on War of Dragons he once again delivers, singing some of the best vocal lines I’ve heard on any album in recent years. The supporting choir vocals are also extremely epic in some sections and help add to the overall symphonic feel of the album.

Songwriting is an area where the band usually does well, but up to this point, they had never released a batch of songs I’d consider perfect. That has changed with “War of Dragons”, though, as not only are there no songs I’d ever consider skipping, there aren’t any songs here I don’t absolutely love and get excited to hear every time I play the album. After a brief voice over intro, opening track “Battle in the Sky” does an excellent job of showing the listener what to expect from the album, as Patrik briefly introduces the epic chorus, before the track speeds up and the keyboards and symphonic elements quickly take over, then the guitars appear and get pretty heavy during the fast-paced verses. It’s a typically up-tempo and very fun track with a huge, instantly memorable chorus and it’s certainly a song that blew me away immediately and has stayed stuck in my head since the very first listen. Next is “Tears of a Dragonheart”, another speedy, slightly more straight-forward track where the keyboards are once again quite prominent, and it’s another really fun track overall, though its highlight comes in the middle where the choirs take over and a singer with a really deep voice briefly takes lead and the way his voice sounds makes the main inspiration for this album even more obvious.

The title track is another fast paced track, that once again delivers a great chorus and plenty of fun moments throughout, but it’s actually the slow paced, very epic lead into the chorus that stands out as the highlight, as Patrik does an especially fantastic job during this section, and the marching drums are pretty awesome. Next is “Silver Wings”, the first track that stands out as sounding a bit different, and it’s another instant winner, with its nice folk melodies leading the way, especially during the very upbeat and epic chorus, and while it’s a bit more mid-tempo compared to the first four tracks, it still moves along at a nice pace and is another very fun track. The first real mid-tempo track of the album is “Stand and Fight”, another track which wears its influences on its sleeves, as the keyboards are very prominent again and the chorus feels familiar, while still being incredibly addictive. It has another epic section with marching drums, but once again it’s the middle section that really steals the show, as first, we get a really epic vocal section, then a nice melodic solo where the pace really picks up and then we get a super speedy final run through the chorus which is just absolutely glorious and one of my favorite moments on the album.

Staying on the speedy front, “King of Swords” is probably the heaviest and most guitar driven track on the album, and its main riff has more of a raw, classic metal edge to it, though the chorus is still super melodic and catchy as always, and the keyboards are still in full force. The folk elements from “Silver Wings” are back for this track, and add a bit of extra flavor, though overall the track is definitely one of the more pure power metal tracks on the album. Likewise, “Guardians At Heaven’s Gate” is easily the most traditional power metal track on the album and probably the fastest, as well as being more guitar driven than much of the album, while once again still having a fantastic chorus, which is obviously a theme on this album. After that comes “Symphony Satana” and as that name would imply, it’s the most symphonic track on the album and the choirs are also in full force, with some very epic choral sections especially in the second half, though it’s still a very speedy track and is certainly one of the more addictive tracks on the album. Next is “Starfall”, another more mid-paced track, that again has some heavy riffs during its very enjoyable verses, while the folk elements are prominent during the chorus, which is fantastic as always. The album closes with “Dragons Are Forever”, yet another very speedy track with strong symphonic influences, though anything some of the guitar melodies here reminds me more of Dragonforce, especially during the solo section, though obviously, the song is much catchier and more straight-forward than anything by that band.

I only left out one track during that rundown, that being “Fallen Heroes”. The reason for that isn’t because I think it’s a weak link. Instead, it’s because I think it stands out, both as being the only really slow track on the album, but also as possibly my favorite. Right from the opening keyboard notes and brief tease at the chorus it becomes obvious it’s the kind of track a certain band wishes they could have written first, as the keyboards are even more prominent than on any other track on the album and while it does very much fall into the formula of the aforementioned band, everything here just feels better and more epic, with those keyboards being more epic than usual, the choirs being fantastic, the verses being fun and that chorus being just absolutely spectacular, especially during the final run through.

Overall, War of Dragons is a fantastic power metal album and while Bloodbound has clearly been influenced heavily by other bands this time around, they have managed to take those influences and fit them in perfectly with their own sound, making for easily their best and most addictive release to date. In fact, I’d say this is one of my favorite power metal albums of this decade so far, and I’d highly recommended it for any fan of the genre, especially anyone who doesn’t mind a heavy use of keyboards and symphonic elements, as all songs here are amazing and some of the vocal melodies just have to be heard.

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DREAM THEATER The Astonishing

Album · 2016 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 2.64 | 32 ratings
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Two of my favorite bands are Dream Theater and Ayreon. The former because of their insanely top notch technical musicianship and ability to write some of the best instrumental sections ever into their songs, and the latter for the unique combination of epic storytelling and songwriting project mastermind Arjen Lucassen brings. I have long wondered, though, what would ever happen if the two were to be combined somehow? If either one of the two tried to borrow elements from the other or if some new band came along and managed to combine elements of the two expertly themselves? Well, after years of wondering, I finally have my answer as in 2016 none other than Dream Theater themselves decided to make an attempt at an Ayreon style rock opera, the result of which is a hugely ambitious concept album titled The Astonishing. So, what has this experiment led to exactly? Well, for the very long answer, you can read the following few paragraphs that answer everything in great detail. If you’d like a short answer, please feel free to skip to the very end of the review.

Over the years, Dream Theater have become a rather controversial band, as some of their early releases such as Images & Words, Awake and Metropolis 2: Scenes From a Memory are widely considered as some of the absolute best progressive metal records ever, but in recent years the band has lost of their fans as they’ve had some questionable releases, a rather infamous meltdown with former drummer Mike Portnoy that led to him leaving the band, and overall it seems the band has lost a lot of the respect they once had among metal fans. Personally, I’ve enjoyed every album of theirs to at least some extent, and I’ve welcomed drummer Mike Mangini from the very start and now think of him as a very important part of the group. At the same time, while their previous self-titled release was excellent, I was anxious to see them attempt something a bit more focused again, and so I had very high expectations for The Astonishing when I first heard it would be a concept album, and those expectations only rose when I learned it would be a full blown, 2 disc rock opera. Needless to say, my expectations were more than met, and the album instantly became one of my all time favorites. However, seeing how the band’s recent output had been getting a mixed reception, this album marked a possible turning point for the band, as to whether or not they could finally win their fans back, or if those fans would only drift further away.

In that regard, making an album such as The Astonishing was a massive risk, as it’s such an ambitious undertaking, and unsurprisingly many folks were not pleased with the result. Stylistically, this album is not going to please those looking for a pure, straight-forward prog metal album, and I really don’t think that’s what the band was going for. Instead, they have brought in a full orchestra, added in some choir vocals for added effect in some sections, and have made what can best be described as a mix between an Ayreon style rock opera, a broadway musical and even in some aspects a Disney movie. So yes, that mix of styles was bound to be met with mixed responses, but personally, I was always on board and excited to hear what the band would do with this album and over a year after its release, I have to say it’s absolutely brilliant and one of the greatest things ever created. I will say, though, in order to fully appreciate this album it certainly helps if the listener enjoys at least one or two of those styles I mentioned, or even progressive rock as well, because anyone looking only for progressive metal will be hugely disappointed.

Obviously, Dream Theater have some of the best musicians in the world, with guitarist John Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess in particular being considered among the absolute best of the best at their respective instruments, but on this album while they’re still given a bit of space to show their talents, these are often limited to shorten periods than normal, as this is a largely vocal driven album, making James LaBrie perhaps the most important factor as to whether or not the album could work or if it would be a massive failure. For the most part, the album is focused more on telling its story than on flashy musicianship, but in some ways I love this as one criticism against the band has always been that they’re all about technical showmanship and can’t put any feeling into their music, but the few solo sections on this album are much more melodic than usual and to me they help prove that everything said against them is false, with John in particular putting in a lot of extra touch into his solos on this album. On the whole, the music is much softer than usual for Dream Theater, as it’s a very fun and very showy album, with a lot of added orchestral elements and there are many more progressive rock oriented sections where Jordan uses piano sounds. In fact, many tracks here could best be described as mini ballads, with no metal to be found. At the same time, there are still some metal moments to be found, and if anything the lower quantity of heavier sections helps them to stand out more than usual, and indeed, there are some very intense passages on this album, especially during the first half of disc 2, which is very much a turning point for the story.

Speaking of which, while I can’t go into full detail to avoid turning this review into a novel, the story is a very important aspect of the album, and while it’s at times extremely cheesy, I find it works very well when set to music and it’s certainly very entertaining. Basically, the album takes place in a dystopian world, ruled by the evil tyrant Emperor Nafaryus, and it’s a world where all music has been taken away to be replaced by noise machines (or NOMACS.) A rebel faction called the Ravenskill Militia, led by Arhys exists, and is counting on his brother Gabriel, who’s considered the chosen one who will use his voice to free them from the evil empire. Other important characters include Faythe, the daughter of Nafaryus, who falls for Gabriel once she discovers his music, and Daryus, son of Nafaryus, who’s jealous of the attention his sister gets and so he seeks to end the rebellion on his own. Obviously there are far more pieces to this story, but for the sake of giving a brief summary, those are all the essential characters and plot elements to know. I’d definitely recommend that anyone interested in the album read about the story and characters on the Dream Theater website before listening for the first time and to read the lyrics while listening at least once, to help get the full experience. Some questions to ponder, as you listen: Will Gabriel come through in the end? Will love prevail? Will Nafaryus learn the error of his ways? Can music save the day? And most importantly: Is Emperor Nafaryus such a ridiculous(ly awesome) name that Disney writers are now beating themselves up every day for not coming up with it themselves? Okay, I think the answer to that last one is pretty obvious.

Moving on, I mentioned earlier that James LaBrie is a very important part of this album, and so this brings me to another very controversial fact: You see, on Ayreon albums (and really most rock and metal operas) each character is played by a different guest singer who has been brought in just for the album. Well, that is not what happened with The Astonishing. Nope, always wanting to do things their own way, Dream Theater decided to have James play every role on his own, be it male or female. I actually find he does an amazing job, as he has to show his full vocal range, as well as his ability to portray different characters, which he demonstrated expertly on Ayreon’s The Human Equation. This time around, he makes subtle changes in his delivery to indicate which character is singing. For example, while Nafaryus and Daryus are both menacing, you can tell the two apart fairly easily because the former tends to sound more quirky and showy, while the former is always more serious and business like. Obviously, James has to sing a bit higher than normal when portraying Faythe and other female characters, and he does this quite well, while he’s probably at his best when portraying the strength and determination of Arhys. All in all, I’d say this album represents some of his finest work to date, and as a longtime fan who’s always defended him even while others criticized, I’m extremely pleased with how he sounds on this album. At the very least, it’s definitely a very unique and interesting way of doing a rock opera, and so for that alone it stands out big time.

Usually I’d do a song by song section, but for an album such as The Astonishing, that would be rather difficult, to say the least, seeing how the album contains 34 tracks. Instead, I’ll be briefly detailing some of my favorite moments, both musically and for plot reasons. First off, though, it’s worth mentioning that a few of these tracks are brief instrumentals, which are mostly just various sound effects that may seem inconsequential at a quick glance but these are actually sounds from the NOMACS and are meant to represent the kind of “music”, the world of this album has become dominated by. Let me tell you, that kind of “music” sure is creepy and I’d want nothing to do with it, so if I lived in that world, I’d totally be sending in an application to join Ravenskill!

Moving on then, each disc begins with an overture track, and this kind of structure is meant to mimic that of a musical, with both tracks containing instrumental passages from various tracks on the album, with “2285 Entr’acte” in particular having some great call backs to some of the best moments on disc one, and both tracks allow John and Jordan to have some memorable solos. The first full song on the album is “The Gift of Music”, a rather straight-forward track which starts off as a mid tempo prog metal track before Mike Mangini starts speeding up his drums midway the first verse and we actually get a very brief power metal passage. Aside from that section, the track is the kind of prog metal the band is great at, and Jordan gets a really nice solo in the second half, while the track on the whole does a great job of introducing the concept of the album. The first few tracks on the whole serve as a nice introduction, with the brief ballad “The Answer” doing a great job of introducing Gabriel and showing us his doubts, while “ A Better Life” is basically Arhys giving his men a pep talk, and the track does a great job of showing us how determined this man is, and of course the aptly named “Lord Nafaryus” introduces us to one of the villain figures and shows us how unimpressed he is by the rebellion. Speaking of which, “Three Days” is an interesting track as it’s at times dark and quite heavy, while also being a very theatrical track, and James does an excellent job as Nafaryus on that track, as he issues a threat against Gabriel, and his vocals there are both very menacing and yet also suitably goofy. Likewise, “Act of Faythe” is a softer track and is a great introduction to the title character, showing us how this sheltered girl is surprised and amazing by what she sees from Gabriel and the folks beyond her castle walls.

Moving past the introductory phase, “Brother, Can You Hear Me” makes excellent use of marching drums, and is effectively a rally cry, and shortly after that comes the ballad “Chosen”, my personal favorite track from disc one, as by this point in the story Gabriel and Faythe have been united, and this is beautiful track where Gabriel finally starts to show some of his brother’s determination, giving us the super inspiring chorus “But I can’t climb this mountain without you. No I can’t face this on my own. With you by my side, we will open his eyes, and the truth will deliver us home.” Truly an inspiring chorus, and one my absolute favorite moments on the album. Disc one ends with hints of a possible betrayal on “The X Aspect”, as Daryus threatens Arhys with his son Xander, and says he can only be free if Arhys hands over Gabriel. Thus, begins an epic plot line that carries over to disc 2. Meanwhile, “A New Beginning” features a confrontation between Faythe and her father over her wishes to be with Gabriel, and this is a pretty cool scene, while musically this is the most progressive track on the album and features some great instrumental sections in the second half.

On to disc two, then, and after that excellent overture track, we get “Moment of Betrayal”, another more traditional prog track that is great on its own, but also sets off a huge chain of events, eventually paying off with a very dramatic scene in “The Path That Divides”, a track that starts off soft but quickly assaults the listener with some of the heaviest, darkest riffs on the album as the plot takes a violent turn with Arhys not betraying his brother, and instead being murdered by Daryus. This, of course, leads to Xander being really angry and he gives us an outburst of emotion on “The Walking Shadow”, the last really heavy track on the album, and probably the darkest moment of all, as Daryus attacks a target emerging from the shadows, thinking it’s Gabriel, but it turns out to be…. Faythe! Yep, it appears tragedy strikes, and Gabriel descends into darkness on “Whispers on the Wind”, before being riled up by a huge choir of fans on “Hymn of a Thousand Voices”, the climatic track of the album where Gabriel uses his voice to bring Faythe back, and we get a happy ending after. Following that track we get two happy tracks to close out the album, though the real standout of the two is “Our New World”, more of a soft progressive rock track where John Petrucci gives us one the happiest sounding guitar solos I’ve ever heard, and this section especially to me helps disprove anyone who says he can’t play with any feeling, because damn do I ever get major feels during that track! Really, most of the album does that to me, and his guitar work is brilliant throughout the album, but that song in particular really stands out. Lastly, the title track while more of a ballad, is a very nice closing to the album and it gives us an incredible final line “Our lives will be astonishing again.” Absolutely brilliant!

Even after over 2500 words, I will admit I still have not done this album justice, and to do so without writing a full length novel would be impossible, but alas, it’s now time to bring things to a close. For that, I will return to my opening question: What would happen if there was ever an album that combined the technical mastery of Dream Theater and the storytelling of Ayreon? The answer: That would be something absolutely brilliant! No, more than brilliant: It would be……… Astonishing!


Album · 2017 · Power Metal
Cover art 3.91 | 7 ratings
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Using crowdfunding platforms to help fund albums has become increasingly more popular among metal bands in the past few years. One recent example of this is Decennium, the fourth full-length release from American Power Metal band Seven Kingdoms. The band had released three albums previously, but for both the new album and the preceding EP In the Walls (which featured two songs from the album as well as two re-recording tracks from their debut) the band used Kickstarter to allow their fans to help support the making of the music. The result, is an album that diehard fans of the band are sure to enjoy, especially those who loved their previous album, The Fire is Mine, as this one very much feels like a more polished continuation of that sound.

I first discovered Seven Kingdoms with their self-titled second album, which was quite the interesting release because their debut Brothers of the Night felt like some kind of hybrid with a mix of power metal, thrash and melodic death metal elements, where the self-titled release still featured some death growls and thrash elements, but it also saw the band pushing towards more of a classic European power metal sound, and so that made for quite the varied and interesting release. Personally, it ranks as my favorite by the band, with Brothers of the Night following closely behind. With The Fire is Mine, the band removed the most controversial element of their music, that being the death growls, and on the whole it was a much more focused album, leaning much closer to a traditional power metal sound. This trend has continued with Decennium, and if anything I’d say it has even less of the thrash elements found on their older albums and is very much a classic twin guitar power metal release through and through.

Musically, fans can expect some excellent guitar work, as both guitarists do a great job and there’s a ton of great riffs, fun solos and some excellent melodic leads throughout the album, with each track striking the right balance between heavy and melodic. Most tracks are very speedy, with occasional changes in tempo, though this is mostly just alternating between moderately fast and extremely fast. Vocally, Sabrina sounds as good as ever, with her crystal clear voice suiting the more melodic sound very well, and her soaring vocals drive the choruses, though she does get to show a bit more power at times as well, most notably on “Undying” and the verses of “Stargazer”. I think I’m in the minority for liking the growls on their first two albums, but at this point, I don’t miss them too much because Sabrina does a great job of carrying the songs on her own. On a technical level, everything sounds crisp, powerful and very tight, and I’d say the production quality is better than on any of their previous albums, so at least in that regard, it’s easily their best work to date.

Moving on to songwriting, things get a bit more problematic. Don’t get me wrong: There aren’t any bad songs here. In fact, I’d say the songs all range from good to excellent. As I mentioned before, all tracks are up tempo throughout, with some tracks alternating between moderately fast and super fast, and there are great choruses here as well as some excellent instrumental work, but compared to the first two albums, I find the songwriting more limited and lacking surprises. There are no ballads, no epic length tracks like the two previous albums had, and really nothing unique or surprising to change things up even a little bit, which I find disappointing just because of how good the band’s songwriting has been in the past. Obviously, I know the band has changed their sound over the years so I wouldn’t expect them to bring back the growls of thrash elements on their first two albums, but I would like to see them try and be a bit more inventive and more varied even while staying within the more classic power metal sound they’ve gone for here, in the future. Basically, if this album had been a debut I’m sure I would have been blown away and likely raised my score up a notch, but because I know what this band is capable of, I’m left wanting just a bit more.

With that one negative paragraph out of the way, let’s move on to some highlights. Opening track “Stargazer” come out blazing right away, with its super speedy verses delivering some great riffs and Sabrina singing with a bit more power than usual, while the gang vocals that lead into the chorus are cool and the chorus itself is great. Overall, it’s an excellent track that gives a pretty good idea of what to expect from the rest of the album. After that, the two tracks from the EP are up, with “Undying” being another fairly solid track, while “In the Walls” is my favorite, as it feels like the band has dialed it up to 11 in all areas: The riffs are super powerful, the vocals are very melodic and soaring, as usual, the pace is frantic and the chorus is fantastic and super catchy. Likewise, “The Faceless Hero” is fairly straightforward but has a lot of energy to it, while “Neverending” is an excellent single and has probably the best chorus on the album.

Aside from those tracks, everything else is solid, though not as memorable as I’d like. There are some attempts to change things up a bit, but they’re all very brief and don’t lead to much. For example, “Castles in the Snow” has more mid-paced verses and the vocal melodies are fairly unique and different, but once the song gets going it becomes a less remarkable, more straight-forward track. Likewise, “Kingslayer” has a nice soft opening section, but then it speeds up quickly and the rest of the track is solid but doesn’t really stand out. Lastly, where the two previous record had epic length closing tracks that sounded pretty unique and different, “Awakened from Nothing” is a solid track, with a slight thrash edge to its riffs, but it doesn’t really stand out from the rest of the album on the whole.

I’ve been perhaps a bit harder on Seven Kingdoms in this review than I’d like, but that’s partially because I love their music and I think they’re capable of giving a bit more than what they’ve delivered here. At the same time, I would say this is their most polished album to date, and musically it’s still a very well made album, so here’s the bottom line: If you’re looking for an album full of speedy, melodic power metal, with excellent female vocals and a slight edge to the riffs, then Decennium is sure to please you, as that’s exactly what it delivers for about 52 minutes. I think fans of The Fire is Mine should also be pleased, as the album feels like a more polished, though even more narrowly focused version of that album. Fans who prefer either or both of their first two albums may have mixed feelings like I do, but I’d still say it’s worth checking out as it’s still a great release overall, and I’m definitely still looking forward to hearing more from the band in the future.

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XANDRIA Theater of Dimensions

Album · 2017 · Symphonic Metal
Cover art 4.62 | 7 ratings
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Five years ago I heard an album that pulled off what I thought may have been impossible: Take the classic Nightwish sound and make slight tweaks to it, while also modernizing it just a bit, to create something even better and more exciting. That release was Neverworld’s End, by German band Xandria, and it ranks to this day as one of my absolute favorite symphonic power metal albums of all time. In between albums they made slight lineup changes, and the following album Sacrificium came across as a nice continuation, but it didn’t seem to add much new the way its predecessor did, so I was left wondering if the band would ever be able to approach the same level of brilliance again. Well, the band has retained the same lineup since Sacrificum and are now set to release their seventh full-length release Theater of Dimensions. Even though the previous album never hit me as hard as its predecessor, I still thought the current lineup had a lot of potential, and I was excited to see whether or not the band could release another masterpiece this time around and the answer is a definitive yes!

The biggest difference this time around is that while Sacrificium felt like a direct continuation of Neverworld’s End and seemed specifically focused on one aspect of the music, Theater of Dimensions retains many of the same elements but uses them in different ways at times, while also adding in some new elements and just overall being a much more varied and dynamic release. Stylistically, this album is much more grounded in symphonic metal specifically, with an ever increased focus on the orchestral elements and a heavy use of choir vocals, and compared to the previous release in particular, it feels like the band wanted to do as many different styles of songs as they could pull off while letting the symphonic elements lead the way, and so there’s a lot happening on this album. As a result, the power metal elements have been reduced a bit and aren’t as much of the main focus as before, though they still show up on quite a few tracks, most notably “Call of Destiny” and “Song for Sorrow and Woe”.

At the same time, while the symphonic elements dominate, there are a ton of other influences on display here, such as small traces of neoclassical metal on “Call of Destiny” (really, that track has a bit of a late 90’s Stratovarius sound to it with the guitar leads and is sure to be a crowd-pleaser) as well as an increased use of folk elements, most notably on the instrumental track “Céilí”. I also noticed some progressive elements, most notably on the monster length title track, which I will cover in more detail further into the review, but needless to say, it doesn’t disappoint. Perhaps most surprisingly, there’s also a more modern sound to the album, even sometimes hinting at extreme metal elements, with the guitars, in particular, having more of a harder edge than one would expect at times, and of course Soilwork vocalist Björn “Speed” Strid provides some growls on the track “We Are Murderers (We All)”. And of course, there’s some balladry as well, with some tracks having extended softer sections, and there’s one full ballad on the album, that being the outstanding “Dark Night of the Soul”. For all the album does, though, and for how varied the tracks are, the most impressive thing about it all is how consistently amazing everything is, and just how good a job the band does of making different sounding tracks that are equally amazing in different ways, and it’s in that area especially where the album manages to match Neverworld’s End.

A very important aspect of Xandria is their vocals, and they have one of the best singers in the genre in Dianne van Giersbergen. I was initially blown away by her performance on the Ex Libris album Medea, and while I thought she sounded very good on Sacrifium as well, I was left with the feeling the band hadn’t used her to voice to its full potential. This time around, that isn’t the case, though, as not only does Dianne still shine while delivering her smooth operatic vocals as before, this time around she gets to show her full range, sometimes singing very powerfully and more explosive, while other times using the more theatrical vocals she used a lot with Ex Libris, and the way she fluidly switch between styles is something I’ve always been impressed with, so it’s exciting to get to hear her do that on this album. Obviously, there are some excellent guest vocalists on this album as well, with the aforementioned “Speed” as well as current Firewind vocalist Henning Basse, Van Canto’s Ross Thompson and Myrath vocalist Zaher Zorgati, all of whom do an excellent job on their respective tracks.

Moving onto songwriting, and I already mentioned it as being a huge strong point, but let’s dig in a bit deeper. Opening track “Where the Heart is Home” begins with an extended orchestral opening, before the choirs join in and this serves as excellent intro to the album, until eventually, the crunchy, modern sounding guitars make their first appearance and the song turns into an epic, mid-tempo symphonic metal track with an outstanding chorus, great riffs and a really nice guitar solo in the middle. The track also serves as a great showcase for Dianne’s vocals, as she uses her huge operatic voice throughout the track, but the near end is a great softer section where she uses much calmer vocals and that section is an early highlight for sure.

Next up is “Death to the Holy”, an early album standout that has a slight folk feel with its guitar leads, and it’s a very upbeat, happy sounding track that moves along at a pretty fast pace, and is certainly one of more power metal based tracks on the album. It also has an extremely fun chorus, which is pretty much par for the course on this album. Other faster songs include the previously mentioned “Call of Destiny”, which feels like the band took a classic power metal track and gave it some modern touches, with some heavier guitars and using the orchestral elements and choir, and this results in an instant winner of a track that stands as one of my favorites. Along with that track, we also have “We Are Murderers (We All)” a track which gets very fast and explosive during the verses, though it’s hard to call it a full power metal track due to how heavy the guitars get at times and because of the chorus, which alternates between Dianne’s operatic vocals and the previously mentioned death growls. It’s quite the interesting track, for sure, and shows how the band has taken the sound they started on Neverworld’s End and evolved it to the point where they do some more unique tracks. Lastly, we have the more traditional symphonic power metal tracks “Song for Sorrow and Woe” and “Queen of Hearts Reborn”. The first of these is mostly fast paced and straightforward throughout, aside from one softer section in the middle where Dianne uses some of her more theatrical vocals, while the latter starts off with a nice softer section before speeding up for most of the track, and then Dianne does some great voice overs towards the end.

On the slower side, we have the more folk influenced track “Forsaken Love”, which starts off feeling like a folk ballad for a while, though it does get heavier as it goes along, and the choirs show up later into the track to help make it more epic. The last run through the chorus, in particular, is just stunning. Another folk influenced track is “Burn Me”, a nice mid-paced track which has an extremely fun and catchy chorus, while musically it’s folk elements at times remind me of Myrath, which isn’t a coincidence, because it also happens to be the track with Zaher Zorgati, who does an excellent job as always and adds his unique flavor to an already insanely addictive track. But the most folk influenced track is probably the instrumental track “Céilí”, a very upbeat sounding track which uses a ton of different folk instruments and it has some very nice melodies. In fact, it stands out as quite the unique track in Xandria’s discography, both because it’s an instrumental and also because it just sounds so different from anything else they’ve done, and is certainly another highlight.

Moving away from the folk elements but still sticking to slower tracks, we have “When the Walls Came Down (Heartache Was Born) and “Ship of Doom”. First up, “When the Walls Came Down” is a heavier track and has some excellent riffs as well as one of the strongest choruses on the album, and it also has an amazing explosive section towards the end where it speeds up and the guitars get even heavier. The second of these, ‘Ship of Doom”, is an interesting track in that the main riff is quite heavy and suggests a darker tone right from the start, but then the majority of the track sounds much lighter and there are some nice folk melodies during the verses, as well as some pretty cool guest vocals from Ross Thompson who also gives the track a bit of a folk feel, while the chorus is just beautiful as Dianne and the choirs sound amazing. Lastly, “Dark Night of the Soul” is an excellent piano driven ballad, that serves as an excellent showcase for Dianne’s vocals, and there’s also an excellent guitar solo in the second half.

In case the rest of the album wasn’t already impressive, the band saved their most ambitious track yet for last, that being the 14-minute title track. There is a whole lot of stuff happening on this track, though in many ways it feels to me like they took the kind of epic length track Nightwish has done in the past and gave it their own unique spin. It goes through all the twists and turns you’d expect, starting off feeling like a ballad, with some beautiful vocals from Dianne, before giving way to a huge, epic chorus where the choirs are in full force, and then this leads to a dramatic middle section, before the track eventually comes back to that epic chorus. Structurally, it reminds me a bit of something like “Ghost Love Score”, in how it starts calm, gets epic, calms down again, and then gets, even more, epic towards the end, but it’s that middle section where it manages to really surprise. The band brought in Henning Bass to do some guest vocals on this track and the middle section takes a surprisingly dramatic turn, at times feeling more like a musical than a metal track, and both Henning and Dianne alternate between voiceovers and some very theatrical singing, with Henning, in particular, sounding much different than anything I’d ever heard from him before, and this section is very epic and feels totally different from anything else I’ve ever heard on a metal album before. Then you add in those epic choirs and the beautiful ballad like passages from Dianne that bookend the track, and you have something truly special.

It’s still very early in the year, but I can say now I’ll be extremely surprised if I hear a better symphonic metal album this year than Theater of Dimensions. It takes what Xandria started on Neverworld’s End and expands on that sound, adding in new elements and exploring different styles, all while delivering the kind of epic symphonic metal the band has become known for on recent albums, and while still maintaining some of their power metal elements. The album is one of the most varied yet consistently entertaining albums I’ve heard in quite a while and I’d highly recommend it to all fans of symphonic metal, looking to hear the absolute best in the genre. I said last year I didn’t think Epica could possibly be matched, and while their track record speaks for itself, if anyone else in the genre can challenge them at this point, it’s Xandria.

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FIREWIND Immortals

Album · 2017 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 2 ratings
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As a power metal fan, there are a few rather major bands in the genre I still haven’t looked into as much as I probably should, and one of those is Greek band Firewind. Obviously, I’m well aware of guitarist Gus G. and his insane technical prowess, but the band, on the whole, has never really grabbed my attention, until now. I first discovered them with their previous album Few Against Many, and while Gus and keyboardist Bob Katsionis impressed me with their musicianship, the songwriting seemed rather boring and forgettable, like the band was focused more on showing off their technical skills than on writing memorable songs, so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to hearing any new albums from them. Then I heard the lead single “Hands of Time” from the upcoming album Immortals, and was immediately impressed. After hearing the entire album several times, I’m happy to say the band has managed to win me over, striking the right balance between being technically proficient but actually writing fun and memorable songs to go along with that excellent musicianship.

First off, there’s one major change that happened in between albums and that is the departure of former vocalist Apollo Papathanasio. I’m sure many fans were disappointed by the news as he’s a great singer with a very distinct voice, but thankfully the band decided to move on without him and they brought in Henning Basse, another well-known singer who immediately makes an impact on the music and fits in perfectly. Henning has a very raw and powerful voice that helps give the music a bit of an edge, and he does quite a bit with his voice throughout the album, sometimes singing with a slight grunt, other times providing the kind of soaring vocals required for speedy power metal and sometimes singing in a much more relaxed voice, particularly on some of the softer sections, of which there are quite a few on the album. He does a great job all around, and I think he’s the perfect singer for this new version of Firewind.

Speaking of which, this album feels like somewhat of a restart to me. Obviously, the core of the band is still there and Gus G. still leads the way with his brilliant guitar playing, but I find stylistically this album feels more like a traditional power metal album at least compared to their two previous albums, in that there’s a much bigger focus on the melodies this time around and there are some pretty huge vocal melodies throughout, with the guitars still adding a bit of an edge, but the music certainly doesn’t get as rough or as dark as what was heard on Few Against Many. It’s certainly a much lighter and more melodic album on the whole, with more of a focus on catchiness, though obviously there’s still a ton of memorable instrumental sections, where Gus and Bob go back and forth with for some pretty epic guitar/keyboard solos.

Another thing to note is that this is a concept album, based on ancient Greece, and while that subject has been covered by metal bands before, this album provides an enjoyable take on the history, and obviously it’s appropriate considering most of the band members are from Greece. The track “Ode to Leonidas” does the best job with the theme, starting off with a nice acoustic section leading to pretty cool voice over from the perspective of Leonidas, which gets the song off to a great start.

I mentioned it already, but opening track “Hands of Time” is an instant winner and is the main reason I was curious enough to give the album a go because it really is that good. After a brief intro with some electronic beats, the melodic guitar leads kick in and the track turns into a super fast power metal track, with fun verses, great riffs, a huge sing-along chorus, and of course an excellent solo section with dueling guitars and keyboards. Henning Basse instantly steals the show, with his huge soaring vocals, and it’s the kind of melodic, super catchy power metal track I will never get tired of and also the kind of track I felt a previous couple of albums were lacking, so it certainly gets things off to a promising start.

I will say, while I don’t think anything else on the album is quite as fun as that track, it’s a very strong album overall, with no real duds. I also mentioned the song “Ode to Leonidas” previously. Well, after its big intro it turns into something of a mix between epic heavy metal and classic power metal, with fast tempos and a huge chorus, but it also has some pretty heavy riffs and some of the melodies remind me more of epic heavy metal, and so it’s quite the interesting track and certainly one of the highlights. Similarly, “Live and Die by the Sword” also starts off with an extended acoustic section, this time allowing Henning to show off some of his softer vocals, before speeding up and turning into another very epic and rather heavy track with some memorable vocal and instrumental sections. Those are the two longest songs on the album, and also two of my favorites.

Elsewhere, tracks like “We Defy” and “War of Ages” are still fairly fast, though a little bit slower than previously mentioned tracks, and they bring back a little bit of the roughness found on the previous album, though they’re still fairly melodic overall and are both have catchy choruses. The last really fast track on the album is “Warriors and Saints”, possibly the fastest of all, and it has some slight neoclassical flourishes from the guitars, as well as some nice acoustic sections, but it’s the chorus that really stands out. Likewise, “Rise from the Ashes” is a mostly mid-tempo track, which also has a bit of a rough edge during the verses, though its chorus is spectacular and possibly the best on the album.

On the softer side, we have the ballad “Lady of 1000 Sorrows”, which is a fairly nice track which really showcases Henning’s softer vocals nicely, and it has a pretty nice guitar solo in the middle as well. Lastly, we have the instrumental title track, a brief but very fun track which starts off fast and heavy before slowing down a bit and allowing Gus to provide a very beautiful solo in the middle that demonstrates not only skill but an ability to write beautiful melodies. The bonus track “Visions of Tomorrow” also features multiple extended instrumental sections, and it’s another excellent, mostly mid-tempo track with a pretty huge chorus.

Overall, Immortals is quite the surprise for me, as I wasn’t expecting too much after being less than impressed by Few Against Many, but it seems a new singer and a renewed focus on fun, memorable songwriting overall technical showmanship have allowed Firewind to excel in new ways, and help kick 2017 off with a great album. Recommended for all fans of melodic power metal, who enjoy a mix of great vocals and impressive of musicianship to go along with the expected speedy tracks and huge choruses. I actually think fans of the band’s previous works may be disappointed, but personally, I’m very pleased with the album and I hope the band can build off of this and do even better things in the future.

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GRAVE DIGGER Healed By Metal

Album · 2017 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.19 | 11 ratings
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There are some bands that it seems time itself can’t slow down in the least, one of those being German heavy/power metal band Grave Digger. As 2017 kicks off, the band is approaching 37 years of activity, and unlike many bands their age who tend to slow down over the years and take more time in between albums, they have been consistently releasing at least one album every two years since the release of The Reaper in 1993. Their upcoming release Healed by Metal represents their longest gap in between new albums since then, coming roughly 2 and a half years after their previous release Return of the Reaper, and yet no one can claim the band has been inactive in between, because in late 2015 they released Exhumation – The Early Years, a re-recordings album of tracks from their first three albums. With that being said, the quantity of albums wouldn’t matter much if the band was releasing crap, but surprisingly their past few full lengths albums have been quite strong, with Return of the Reaper in particular being very much on par with some of their best works, so I was excited to hear Healed by Metal, and once again the band has delivered the goods, and produced an album that’s sure to please longtime fans.

The band appears to be in a very celebratory mood at this stage in their career, as recent albums like The Clans Will Rise Again and Return of the Reaper have felt like obvious spiritual successors to past releases (Tunes of War and The Reaper respectively) and of course Exhumation was the biggest example of this, and while Healed by Metal doesn’t feel like an obvious reference to any particular release, it definitely follows their recent trend of sticking very close to what’s worked for them in the past. If anything, I’d describe it as feeling like a mix between the raw energy and intensity of their first three albums and the more melodic, mature sound of some of their recent albums, so in that regard, it feels like an even leaner, meaner follow-up to Return of the Reaper. And indeed, it is a very lean album, clocking in at just over 36 minutes if you don’t include bonus tracks. It makes great use of that time, though, featuring the usual mix of speedy power metal tracks and slower heavy metal tracks, though I’d say it leans a bit closer to the traditional heavy metal side of their music than some of their past few albums have. It’s definitely their hardest hitting album in quite a while with some very powerful riffs at times, and yet it still has some very catchy and melodic choruses, and so it feels like they struck a nice balance.

Obviously, one element that has always separated Grave Digger from other power metal band’s is the voice of Chris Boltendahl, who helps give the music an extra edge with his very raw delivery, and this is as true as ever on Healed by Metal, though at times he does sound a bit lighter and more melodic than normal, especially on tracks such as “When Night Falls” and “Call for War”, where he delivers the choruses very smoothly, by his standards. As always you can tell Chris is having a ton of fun with the material, and really at this point, he is definitely one of the biggest reasons why the band can keep going on and producing great album after great album this late in their career.

The album gets off to a bit of a slow start with the title track, which I find to be one of the weaker songs on the album, though it still has some good parts. Its main riff is quite interesting and has a little bit of a southern rock touch to it, while the verses are slow paced but pretty fun. Its biggest weakness is the bland, repetitive chorus which doesn’t work for me at all, but otherwise, it’s a fairly solid classic feeling heavy metal track. Likewise, tracks like “Ten Commandments of Metal” and Laughing With the Dead” are slower paced and can get a bit silly with the lyrics and vocal delivery during the choruses, but they’re still mostly fun and provide some solid classic heavy metal, with the latter probably being the best of the group.

The first highlight on the album is “When Night Falls”, a much speedier, very hard hitting track that has some energetic verses, before speeding up and allow Chris to deliver some huge vocal lines during its soaring chorus, which is probably my favorite part of the album. It definitely feels like a classic Grave Digger track in the best way possible. Similarly, tracks like “Lawbreaker”, “The Hangman’s Eye”, “Kill Ritual” and “Hallelujah” are all the kind of fun, up-tempo tracks that should please the power metal crowd, and they all have a mix of great riffs and melodies, with “Kill Ritual” in particular having one of the most fun and addictive choruses on the album and probably being my favorite of the group. The album features no ballads or anything really experimental, though the mid-paced tracks “Free Forever” and “Call for War” feel a little more toned down and more focused on melodies than the rest of the album, and both tracks feature some fantastic vocal work from Chris, with the latter in particular being one of his finest vocal performances in quite a long time, while the former has a very nice guitar solo in the middle and a nice acoustic vocal section.

Overall, Healed by Metal doesn’t bring much new to the table, but what it does bring is several more excellent tunes that nail the balance between classic heavy metal and power metal Grave Digger have had since The Reaper, and it very much feels like it could stand toe to toe with their classics, just like its predecessor. While I wouldn’t quite rank it up there with Return of the Reaper, because it has a high percentage of tracks that don’t quite knock it out of the park for me, it’s still a very fun, hard-hitting album with a ton of energy behind it, and I definitely expect it to please longtime fans of the band. Highly recommended for any fans of power metal and heavy metal who like to have more of an edge to their music, as it gets pretty heavy and intense at times, like all Grave Digger albums.

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Album · 2016 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.25 | 4 ratings
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Up until recently, French metal band Nightmare had been a band with two very distinct eras, starting out in 1979 and releasing a couple of albums in the 80’s as a heavy metal band, before disappearing for a long time and then returning in 1999 as more of heavy/power metal hybrid. While bassist Yves Campion has remained the one constant in the band, being the only remaining original member, perhaps the most important part of the band’s sound in recent years was Jo Amore, who joined the band as a drummer in 1980, before taking over the mic when the band returned in 1999, while his brother David played the drums. The band released seven full-length albums during this period, and between the heavy riffs and Jo’s unique vocals, they established themselves as a major standout band in the genre, with such albums as The Dominion Gate and Genetic Disorder being especially impressive.

But, of course, good things often have to come to an end, and so as shocking as it may have initially seemed, in the long run, it probably isn’t terribly surprising that in 2015, following the release of The Aftermath in the previous year, both Amore brothers left, to be replaced by Magali Luyten on vocals, and Olivier Casula on drums. And so begins the third phase in the band’s history, starting with their latest full-length release, Dead Sun, released already in Europe and to be released in North America in January 2017. One thing I can say right off the bat: This version of the band has picked up where the previous version left off, and if anything I’d describe it as probably their best work since Genetic Disorder in 2007.

Stylistically, Nightmare has always leaned towards the absolute heaviest, most aggressive side of power metal and with their previous album The Aftermath they were only getting meaner and harder hitting, throwing in some occasional thrash riffs as well as some more modern elements to keep their sound fresh. Unsurprisingly, Dead Sun pushes even further in this direction, and is easily their heaviest release to date, with many tracks featuring some hard hitting thrash riffs throughout, especially the title track and “Red Marble & Gold”, which both very much feel like mid-paced thrash songs most of the way through. The guitar work seems even more prominent than ever before on this album, with some instrumental portions getting very technical at times, though the songwriting remains fairly straightforward and catchy.

Some of the band’s better-known albums had strong symphonic elements, but while those haven’t been removed entirely, they only appear very sparingly here, most notably on “Inner Sanctum”. At the same time, while the music leans more towards the heavy metal side of their music compared to some of their more recent works, this is still a very much a power metal album, and so every song still has some great melodies as well and a ton of room for the vocals to shine through.

Which brings us to the biggest change, of course. I remember in my review of The Aftermath I said I could never imagine hearing this band without Jo Amore, and while that was certainly true at the time, as surprised as I was to learn about the change, I was equally excited when I saw the band had brought in Magali Luyten. For folks who haven’t heard her before, she mostly sings in an alto range and she has a very powerful, very rocking voice that fits this style of music perfectly, and she does an equally great job of handling the heavier parts and the more melodic parts, which makes her a perfect fit for the band. At times she adds in some grunts that come very close to death growls, and these give an extra edge to the music, though her main vocals are certainly powerful enough on their own.

The album gets off to an excellent start with “Infected”, a track which starts out with a bit of an atmospheric instrumental sections mostly led by the guitars, before the riffs fully kick in and it turns into a very heavy, riff filled mid paced track, with just a bit of a thrash feel during the verses. Magali immediately shows off her powerful voice and some of those grunts I mentioned earlier, before really taking over with some more melodic vocals during the chorus. This track and the excellent lead single “Ikarus” do a great job of showing listeners what to expect from the album: Very heavy, mostly mid-paced heavy/power metal with some very obvious thrash leaning at times, and vocals that alternate between very aggressive and softer but still very powerful. I mentioned the thrash elements being strong on this album and they are at their strongest on “Red Marble & Gold”, which is an assault on the ears right from the start, and it also has a really good instrumental section in the second half. It’s perhaps the band’s heaviest track to date, and also one of the highlights on the album.

Most tracks on this album are fairly similar and this is largely an album more focused on the overall sound, though there are some little surprises throughout, like a nice use of a kids choir on the slower, more laid back “Seeds of Agony”, which also uses some electronic sounding keyboards at points, as well as the darker, more traditional heavy metal track “Indifference”, another slower track which also has a slight doom metal feel to it, and it’s certainly a change of pace from the thrashy feel of much of the album.

On the faster side of things, a few of the tracks speed up partway through, though the fastest tracks, on the whole, are closing track “Starry Skies Gone Black”, one of the more melodic tracks on the album, with an excellent solo section later on, “Tangled in the Roots”, a heavier track with fast verses and a slow, but very memorable chorus, and “Serpentine”. The latter of these really stands out, not just for its thrashy riffs, though those are certainly memorable and impressive, but because the band brought in guest vocalist Kelly “Sundown” Carpenter to sing on the track and he helps give it an extra edge while sounding great together with Magali.

Sometimes change can be a bad thing for a band, but other times it can work out great, and thankfully Dead Sun is an obvious example of the latter. As much as I’ve loved previous albums by Nightmare, they’ve proven that they’re capable and willing to move on after a big lineup change, and they’ve delivered yet another excellent album that pushes them even further towards the heavier side of the power metal genre while adding in some thrash elements. Obviously, longtime fans of the band shouldn’t be scared away by the change in the singer, while fans of the hardest hitting kind of power metal are also highly recommended to give this album a listen. Hopefully, the latest era of Nightmare can last a long time and produce several more albums of this quality.

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SYMPHONITY King of Persia

Album · 2016 · Power Metal
Cover art 2.83 | 3 ratings
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Writing a negative review is never fun, but one thing that can be equally frustrating is reviewing an album that feels like it has huge album of the year potential, but ends up falling a bit short, due to some serious drawbacks. Such is the case with King of Persia, the second full-length album by symphonic power metal Symphonity. If anything, this album is a special kind of frustrating, because on paper it seems like it should be one of my top 10 albums of the year, but while it certainly shows signs of reaching that level, it doesn’t quite get there, due to reasons I’ll mention below.

Symphonity made their debut in 2008 with Voice From the Silence, a pretty nice album that fell on the more melodic side of the genre, and it featured moments of brilliance as well a very strong vocal performance from Olaf Hayer, who I’ve always been a fan of, especially during his time with Swedish band Dionysus. For unknown reasons, Olaf hadn’t been heard on an album since Magic Kingdom’s third album Symphony of War, released in 2010, so knowing he was back in the game was enough reason for me to be very excited for King of Persia. My excitement only grew more when I heard that the band had recruited Sinbreed vocalist Herbie Langhans to be a co-lead vocalist on the album, which is why I had such incredibly high expectations. Well, long story short, about half of the tracks are truly magical as I was hoping for, but the rest of the album leaves something to be desired, and unfortunately there is a predictable pattern that explains why some songs are better than the rest, which I’ll get to in a bit.

Musically, Symphonity tends to lean more towards the power metal side of their genre, with the symphonic elements mostly being secondary and more in the background, outside of the title track. There’s some much heavier riffing on this album at times compared to on their debut, and there’s also slight progressive leaning at times. For the most part, though, this is definitely still on the more melodic side of the genre, with a ton of soaring choruses and memorable vocal sections, and even the guitar work is still very melodic at times. This is quite the varied album, with a nice mix between faster and slower tracks, and there’s a pattern as well where Herbie tends to sing the most explosive tracks, while Olaf tends to only take lead on the more laid back tracks. This makes sense, as Herbie has a very powerful voice that’s well suited to faster, harder hitting songs, though Olaf has excelled at singing power metal in the past, and Herbie has shown himself to be capable of singing ballads before, so there’s already some mixed feelings there.

Moving on to the songwriting, we have the title track and then we have the rest of the album. By that, I mean that the title track is one mammoth of an epic where it feels like the band threw in everything they had to create the most epic song possible, and it truly is the highlight of the album and one of my favorite songs of the year. It opens with some atmospheric keys before giving us a brief preview of the heavy riffing that appears later on, immediately reminding me a bit of Symphony X with how the guitar sounds and the track definitely have some strong progressive leanings throughout. Verses are mostly slow and Olaf does a nice job with his more theatrical approach, but things really pick up once we get a first taste of the chorus, where guest vocalist Jana Hrochová provides some excellent mezzo-soprano vocals to go along with Olaf, and this makes for an amazing effect. The track also has some excellent instrumental sections where the guitars and orchestra take over, but it’s the speedy version of the chorus that appears later on where the track really reaches takes off, and while Olaf is the lead singer for most of the track, Herbie shows up later on and really steals the show with his powerful voice.

Speaking of which, the tracks where Herbie takes lead are without a doubt my favorites on the album. The first of these is “The Choice”, a speedy track where the guitars again have a bit of edge, though it’s certainly not as heavy or as complex as the title track. Instead, it’s a more straight-forward power metal track with an outstanding chorus, where Herbie’s vocals are the clear highlight. While he sounds as powerful as ever on this album, he also shows an ability to tone it down just enough to let the melodies shine through, and this is especially noticeable on more melodic mid-paced tracks like “Live to the Tale” and “Flying”, with the latter having a huge vocal section towards the end where Herbie provides the most powerful moment of the entire album and probably the best vocals I’ve ever heard from him. On the faster side of things, “Unwelcome” and “Children of the Light” are both instant winners, with the latter especially having yet another outstanding chorus, though it also has some extended instrumental work and there’s a slight neoclassical feel to the track. All in all, that track is definitely one of my favorites on the album. On the whole, I have to say this album may be the best performance I’ve heard from Herbie, and so at least on that front, the album delivered big time.

It’s been all positive so far, and things continue to look promising with “In the Name of God”, the first track where Olaf sings by himself. His more dramatic vocal style works very well during the mid-paced verses, and he does a great job of getting the lyrics through, while the chorus is great and overall it’s a very melodic track with some excellent guitar work. Perhaps the only negative thing I can say about the track is that it doesn’t quite have the same spark the tracks with Herbie have. After that, though, things go a bit downhill as “A Farewell Meant to Be” is the first ballad and while Olaf sounds decent on the chorus and the guitar solo in the second half is amazing and helps save the track, the verses are not so pretty, to say the least. This is the first case where we hear Olaf struggling a little bit, as his voice seems much lower than it did in the past and he’s clearly struggling to hit some of the notes here during the verses, his dramatic approach not quite working the way it should be, so as much as I’ve liked him in the past, it pains me to say he’s clearly the weakest link in the band at this point. Likewise, his performance on “Siren Call” is downright embarrassing at points, where his voice just clearly isn’t there anymore. I hate to say it, but I would have much preferred the album if those two tracks were either removed completely or if Herbie had sung them.

So in the end, Olaf Hayer’s big return ends up being a bit of a disappointment, though at the same time with how good he sounds on the title track, it really leaves me with mixed feelings on where Symphonity should go, as he still shows signs being great. That little bit of negativity aside, though, King of Persia is still a quality symphonic power metal album I could easily recommend to fans of the genre, and fans of Sinbreed who would like to hear more from Herbie Langhans have a lot to enjoy here, so it’s still a satisfying album overall, even if it feels like it could have and should have been even better.

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SIRENIA Dim Days of Dolor

Album · 2016 · Gothic Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 3 ratings
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Sometimes, as a fan of a band who’s gone through many changes in the past, you may eventually reach a point where it seems like things have finally settled and you know roughly what to expect from them each time, only for change to suddenly and unexpectedly strike once again. The latest case of this is Sirenia, the gothic metal band led by former Tristania mastermind Morten Veland. In this case, the change shouldn’t have come off as surprising as it did for me, because for the first four albums with his current band Morten had brought in a new singer each time, but after Spanish vocalist Ailyn had lasted four albums I thought for sure he had finally settled down, and then the two suddenly parted ways, with Ailyn being replaced by French vocalist Emmanuelle Zoldan, who had been helping the band with choir vocals for a long time, though she had also sung lead vocals on one track from the Sirenian Shores EP released in 2004. At first I had no idea what to expect from the band going forward, as I loved Ailyn’s vocals and I thought the first three albums with her were some of Morten’s all time best, so I was extremely nervous to hear Dim Days of Dolor, but once again he has surprised me and has proven himself to be one of the best songwriters not only in his genre but in metal period.

Sirenia’s music has changed quite a bit over the years, starting off as somewhat of a simpler continuation of the classic gothic metal sound Morten had perfected on his Tristania swan song Beyond the Veil, with the debut At Sixes and Sevens in particular feeling like an excellent follow up that album, while later albums like The 13th Floor and The Enigma of Life had seen the band switch to a much softer, more accessible sound with an increased emphasis on female vocals and catchy choruses. Then came Perils of the Deep Blue, which felt like somewhat of a bridge between two styles, maintaining the more melodic and catchy style of the latter albums, while bringing back some of the complexity and the growls from the earlier albums.

With Dim Days of Dolor, it feels like Morten has once again set out to make a seamless blend between all phases of the band, with most songs initially seeming straightforward and lighter like The 13th Floor, and some fans may be disappointed to discover the lack of growls on most tracks, but once you start looking beneath the surface and start to pay full attention to the songs, you can notice there’s a ton of stuff going on musically, with all kinds of layers and elements thrown in to keep things interesting even on the simpler songs. As always, synths and orchestras are used for atmosphere and the music gets very dark at times, though not as dark as on Morten’s earlier albums, and I’ve also noticed an increase in the guitar work on this album, at least compared to the past few. Parts of the album remind me a bit of later Epica with how heavy the guitar sound can get, and there’s more speedy guitar driven passages on this album than I was expecting. At the same time, that lighter sound from some of their lesser regarded albums remains present on most tracks, and so if anything this is quite the varied album and there’s quite a bit going on musically throughout.

Getting back to that big change I mentioned, Emmanuelle fits in great and brings back an element many Tristania fans have been missing, which is the operatic vocals. Unlike the previous few Sirenia singers, Emmanuelle has had extended classical singing training and this immediately shows, as she can fluidly switch from high pitch operatic singing to normal, clear singing in an instant and she does so quite often throughout the album, most notably on the excellent track “Treasure n’ Treason”. She also has an excellent lower register which she uses a few times throughout the album, and this is another element that helps separate her from previous singers. While I don’t find her voice as unique as some singers Morten has worked with in the past, her abilities can not be denied and she certainly does a great job of carrying this album.

Fans of earlier albums will likely be pleased with the opening track “Goddess of the Sea” which starts off with some very dark and ambient keys, before turning to the kind of atmospheric mid-tempo the track the band specializes in. It’s a track very much dominated by Emmanuelle, whose operatic vocals immediately make an impact on the music, and the choir vocals, which are used frequently on this album, more so than on the past few albums, I think. While the track doesn’t have any growls, musically it feels like a nice mix of old and new, and it features some nice guitar work in the second half. On the other side of things, the title track is the kind of much lighter, catchier track found on The 13th Floor and The Enigma of Life, with everything from the sweeping orchestra at the beginning to the chorus all being designed to immediately grab the listener’s attention. Emmanuelle sounds much lighter on this track as well, and it’s certainly a more upbeat sounding track, which makes the sad lyrics seem a little out of place, though that’s not really a criticism as Morten has been known to mix upbeat music and sad lyrics from time to time, so listeners should be used to that by now. More importantly, the chorus is fantastic and all around the track is easily one the catchiest and most fun Sirenia tracks ever, making it the perfect choice for a single. The track also features some nice guest vocals from past collaborator Joakim Næs, who has a very warm voice that fits in well with the track, and he does a great job as always.

The other single “The 12th Hour”, is actually a bit more surprising, as it has some of the heavier, speedier guitar driven passages I mentioned earlier and it also has a particularly heavy section in the second half which really reminds me of Epica, though the soft passage that follows and the vocal section from Emmanuelle immediately bring the song back into familiar territory. Really, the track has a lot going on for a single, with a nice mix of the heavy guitars and synth, as well as great higher vocals from Emmanuelle during the chorus. Also, this track features some of Morten’s growls, and as always, they’re amazing.

While those two tracks are my favorites, there are more gems to be found on the album. As mentioned earlier, the mostly upbeat “Treasure n’ Treason” may be the best showcase for Emmanuelle, as she fluidly switches between operatic vocals and clean vocals throughout, and a softer passage in the second half does an amazing job of showcasing her lower register, while the chorus is very nice as well. More nice clean male vocals can be found on “Veil of Winter”, which very much feels like classic Sirenia, especially with how the guitar tone sounds during the male vocal passages, while “Playing With Fire” is another faster, heavier song in which Morten showcases his growls. One last appearance from the growls happens towards the end of the album on “Fifth Column”, a darker, heavier track that very much reminds me of early Sirenia, and I expect fans to be very pleased with it.

Aside from a few tracks, though, this album mostly feels like a nice showcase for Emmanuelle and the choirs, as lead male vocals aren’t very prominent and softer tracks like the power ballad “Elusive Sun” and piano ballad “Aeon’s Embrace” are especially driven by the female vocals, with the latter, in particular, having some great operatic vocals. Even the slow, crushingly heavy track “Ashes to Ashes” surprisingly doesn’t feature any growls, though in this case they aren’t really needed as the lead vocals are excellent enough, and musically it’s a hard hitting track with some great riffs nice melodic leads at points, so there’s already enough going on that growls aren’t necessary. Perhaps the one odd moment of the album happens on “Cloud Nine”, as, after the expected atmospheric intro, there’s a weird use of dubstep effects, though these quickly fade away and the rest of the song is a melodic mid-paced track with an excellent chorus.

I’ll admit I was initially not looking forward to hearing new Sirenia music as much I should have been, between their last album The Seventh Life Path being a bit of a step back and the change in singers leaving me disappointed, but with Dim Days of Dolor Morten Veland has once again stepped up his game and released an excellent album with a nice of old and new, all while doing an excellent job of showcasing his latest vocalist. Highly recommended for longtime fans as well as fans of symphonic and gothic metal who don’t mind having a lack of growls compared to past albums.

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FREEDOM CALL Master of Light

Album · 2016 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 3 ratings
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Power metal has a reputation as being rather light and happy compared to most other metal sub-genres, with some detractors referring to it as “flower metal”. Obviously, as a huge fan of the genre I could easily provide counter examples of bands that play harder edged power metal, but today I’ll be talking about a band that most definitely fits all descriptions such detractors may have, and yet they also happen to be one of the most fun and addictive bands in all of metal.

That would be German band Freedom Call, who stormed onto the scene in 1999 with their impressive debut Stairway to Fairyland, an album which introduced fans to their brand of super epic and very cheerful power metal. With their third release Eternity, they perfected this sound, producing a masterful album full of epic melodies and huge choruses, and while their next few albums featured some experimentation, with not everything working (Legend of the Shadowking, in particular, had some pretty major lows,) the band’s heart and soul were always there. With their previous album Beyond, the band fully embraced everything that made their early albums so special, while maintaining just a tiny bit of their modern experimentation, which resulted in their best album since Eternity, so I was very excited to see if their next release would keep the resurgence going. Well, their ninth full-length release, Master of Light, is nowhere, and I can say right off the bat this thing feels like classic Freedom Call through and through, and it’s not only an improvement over the already awesome Beyond: It may very well be their best release to date!

At their core, Freedom Call sound like a fairly traditional German power metal band, in that their music is mostly fast paced and it tends to be fairly guitar driven, with keyboards and symphonic elements used occasionally for added effect, but their music is exceptionally light and melodic, even as far as their genre goes. They tend to focus more on light melodic guitar leads and rhythms guitars, with riffs mostly used in quick bursts, and their songwriting is heavily focused on huge vocal melodies and choruses. In fact, while lead singer Chris Bay is a solid vocalist in his own right, and does a great job of carrying songs when he has to do, the band tends to use layered vocals more often than not, with a near constant use of choir vocals throughout, and that’s one thing that instantly helps them stand out from the pack. Another thing is that even compared to other bands in the genre, their lyrics tend to be very fun and upbeat in a way that is often cheesy, but combined with how the music sounds it always just feels right. Basically, if you’re having a bad day and need some cheering up, or if you just want some fun, super happy music with just a slight edge to party to, Freedom Call could easily become your go to band.

One area where the band has had ups and downs throughout their careers is in the songwriting, as I alluded to already. While albums like Eternity and Crystal Empire flowed smoothly and were pretty much flawless the whole way through, more recent albums have been less successful at times, mixing in the kind of classic, speedy feel good power metal the band specializes in with some kind of weird attempts at being dark, some overly sugary pop influenced track, or some other kind of weird experiment gone wrong. Their previous album Beyond already showed the band moving away from this trap, as even its few experiments were more successful, and overall it had the same kind of flow their early albums had, and I’m happy to report Master of Light is the same way, as most songs here are upbeat in the kind of way the band always excels at, and even the few slower tracks fit in wonderfully, with only one song initially feeling a bit weird, though even it eventually won me over, as I’ll talk about in a bit.

One thing’s for sure: Opening track “Metal Is for Everyone” wastes no time in creating a fun, positive mood, as it kicks off with some light keyboards and epic choral vocals, before the riffs slowly kick in, and then it turns into the kind of fun, super cheesy yet ultimately addictive kind of power metal the band can always be counted on to deliver, with its verses being fast and fun, and the chorus being insanely catchy and upbeat. Its bridge section is nonsensical and silly but in the kind of way that puts a smile on my face, just the way this band always does at their best. Next up, “Hammer of the Gods” is slightly slower, though still a bit up-tempo, and it’s an even lighter track where the lead melody is quite nice, and it too has an instantly engaging chorus that hooks you in and doesn’t let go.

There are many fast paced tracks here, but they tend to fall into two categories. First up, are the more traditional power metal songs that bring to mind bands like Helloween and Gamma Ray with their guitar leads, blistering fast riffs and choruses. The first of these is “Kings Rise and Fall”, a song which would very much feel at home on an album by either of the aforementioned bands, especially its chorus and solo section, though Freedom Call takes it further with their choir vocals and superb vocal melodies, while “Riders in the Sky” is similar though it has slightly heavier riffs, and if anything it’s an even faster track, with yet another outstanding chorus.

Secondly, we have tracks where the band uses everything they have and go all out, creating some of the most epic, super upbeat and cheesy, yet insanely fun power metal. After the opening track, the next example of this is “A World Beyond”, a track which starts off with some weird distortion effects in the background during an epic open choral section, which also uses some marching drums, and then the track immediately speeds up, with symphonic elements in full effect, and it becomes the kind of light, upbeat track that would have felt at home on Eternity. It has an exceptionally strong chorus, as well as an epic section with choir vocals and a surprisingly heavy section in the middle leading into the solo section, but the highlight of the track is the last run through the chorus, where the guitars sound even more happy than usual, and the whole thing is just unbelievably huge and epic sounding, eventually leading to a nice quiet section that ends the song. That is probably my favorite on the album, though “Emerald Skies” is up there as well, with its excellent use of symphonic elements during the chorus to make for a sweeping score to go along with the full speed attack of the rest of the band, and as is par for the course on this album, the chorus is extremely catchy and fun, with that orchestral score really adding a nice effect, especially during the incredibly epic final run at the end. Lastly, “Hail the Legend” is a fun, keyboard driven track that stays great the whole way through, though it once again shines during the chorus, which starts off at a pretty good pace, before the double bass drums fully kick in halfway through and from there it just becomes insane. That song also has a really cool guitar solo towards the end that sounds fairly unique and is a bit more advanced compared to other solos on the album.

On the slightly slower but still upbeat side of things, we have the title track, which starts off with a nice acoustic guitar led section that would feel at home on an Iron Maiden song, before the choir’s kick in and the song speeds up just a little bit. This track makes especially effectively use of the huge choir vocals during the chorus, and there’s also a brief but very obvious nod to classic Metallica early on, which is pretty neat. The one somewhat odd sounding track I referred to earlier is “Ghost Ballet”, and with a name that sticks out immediately when looking at the track listing, it’s no surprise it sounds a bit different from the rest of the album. It starts off with some weird electronic beats before bringing in the kind of down-tuned guitar work the band occasionally uses on their more experimental work. The song is rather slow, a bit dark and heavy at times, and its odd rhythms initially threw me off, but in the end, its fun chorus ended up winning me over, and the track definitely has that unique charm always found in Freedom Call’s music. On the lighter side of things, “Rock the Nation” is the kind of soft, mid-paced melodic metal track the band is known to bring out from time to time, relying on it’s nice melodic guitar leads and ever happy chorus to deliver something that while not as epic as many tracks on the album, is still a lot of fun and serves as a bit of a breather before the awesomeness of the last two tracks.

Speaking of which, closing track “High Up” begins with a slow preview of the chorus before picking up the pace a bit and turning into something quite similar to “Beyond Eternity” from the last album, in that it’s a very simplistic, somewhat repetitive track which mostly relies on its chorus, but when that chorus is so undeniably catchy and addictive, it all works out. Last but not least, we have the ballad, “Cradle of Angels”, a track mostly dominated by acoustic guitars, which moves nicely through its verses and chorus, before a very nice guitar solo comes in, and then the track ends with, you guessed it, a super epic final run through the chorus, which takes the song to new heights and is certainly one of the highlights of the album.

I’ve talked a lot about amazing choruses in this review, but simply put, if that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for in your power metal, to go along with insanely happy lyrics, fast paced songwriting and some insanely epic choir vocals, then Freedom Call never disappoints and Master of Light is no exception. In fact, I’d put it right up there with Eternity as the band’s best, most consistently enjoyable album to date, and it’s certainly one I’d recommend to all fans of lighter power metal, and just anyone looking for an upbeat, insanely fun album to listen to.

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HAMMERFALL Built to Last

Album · 2016 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 3 ratings
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Over the years, I’ve discovered that I tend to have some unique opinions on metal that differ wildly from most fans, and one of the best examples of this is with Swedish band Hammerfall. The band started out in the 90’s as a mostly pure, old school power metal band which should have been perfect for my tastes, and yet for some reason the primitive, basic songwriting of their debut Glory to the Brave, for all the energy it had in its speediest moments, never really grabbed me the way some of their more polished efforts like Renegade and Crimson Thunder did, despite the fact that many consider it to be their best album.

Likewise, in 2011 when the band made the zombie themed Infected, an album that moved away from their typical blend of epic, upbeat power metal and old school heavy metal into a darker, harder hitting and more modern-sounding heavy metal album with only occasional bursts of speed (also their one and only album to not feature their mascot Hector on the cover art) and the majority of their fans hated it, I was largely impressed. In fact, that album still stands as my favorite in their discography due to its unique feel, its powerful riffs and how much it stands out when compared to the rest of their work, which aside from that release I usually tend to judge not on which albums I like the most overall, but on which albums have more highlights. Unsurprisingly, when the band attempted something of a return to the roots on their previous album, (r)Evolution, and many of their fans thought of it as their best in years, I was left with mixed feelings. So suffice to say, I was a little bit nervous when it came time to hear their tenth full-length album, Built to Last, but against all my expectations it has ended up as one of my favorite heavy/power metal albums of the year, and I like it almost as much as Infected.

Don’t let that last part serve as a warning, though, because this album definitely isn’t similar to Infected at all. In fact, one of my complaints about (r)Evolution was that it felt like the band was stuck in a spot where part of them wanted to go back to their early sound, while another part wanted to stick to their modern sound, and so it ended up feeling like a weird mishmash between the two, with even some songs like “Wildfire” feeling like failed attempts to do speedy power metal while incorporating modern elements, and things fell apart quickly. The highlight of that album was the lead single “Hector’s Hymn”, a track which along with “Bushido” felt like classic Hammerfall at their best, and so I was hoping the band would commit one way or another this time around, either going fully back to their roots or continuing with their modern sound. Thankfully, they did, and they made a decision I’m sure longtime fans will be pleased with: They’ve made a full on return to their classic sound, with a blend of epic speedy power metal and catchy old school heavy metal tracks, in a release that stylistically falls somewhere in between Renegade and Crimson Thunder, my two favorites from their early years, leaving very little trace of the sound found on Infected and, to a lesser extent, its predecessor No Sacrifice, No Victory.

Now that I’ve gotten that long introduction out of the way, let’s move on to the fun part. Musically the band sounds tighter and more energetic than they’ve been years, with the fast parts having more energy than they did on the previous few albums, and there are some very nice melodies and guitar solos to be found throughout. At the same time, the slower tracks are also equal parts more fun and more inventive than on the previous album, while being much lighter than Infected or its predecessor. Vocally, Joacim Cans sounds as strong as ever, and he hits some pretty high notes on a couple tracks, showing he still has it in him to deliver huge choruses the way he could in the late 90’s/early 2000’s. More importantly, the songwriting is very consistent across the board, as there’s only one less than the great track to be found (which I’ll get to in a bit). In fact, while Infected is my favorite Hammerfall album stylistically when it comes to pure songwriting quality, I’d put this right up there with Crimson Thunder as the band’s best work to date.

Things get off to a rocking start with “Bring It!”, a fast paced track with a bit of a heavy metal edge to its guitar riffs during the verses, and while its chorus falls victim to the kind of basic songwriting found on their debut, here it’s delivered with so much energy from the choirs that it ends up working in a kind of weird way. One thing’s for sure: If you listen to the song even a couple times, you’ll get that chorus stuck in your head for a long time. Next up is “Hammer High”, a slower track which starts off with nice drumming, before settling into its slow but steady verses, which then give way to the first big chorus of the album, where both Joacim and the choirs deliver some deliver some epic vocals. It’s the first of many tracks on the album that instantly gives the feeling of classic Hammerfall, and this feeling continues on the next track “The Sacred Vow”. After a brief but nice acoustic section, the song speeds up for the verses, which have nice riffs going on, before slowing down for another huge chorus where Joacim delivers some huge high notes. That chorus is possibly the catchiest on the album, and that along with a calm vocal section before the solo section are easily the highlights of the track.

After a strong start, the rest of the album settles into the kind of pattern you’d expect from the band, mixing up fast and slower songs as it goes along. Out of the speedier tracks, “Dethrone and Defy” immediately impresses with its heavy riffs and super speedy verses, while “Stormbreaker” is almost the reverse of “The Sacred Vow”, with slow, heavy verses giving way to a very fast and epic chorus, while “The Star of Home” is a more melodic track, and it has some nice melodies and a huge chorus that would fit in on any classic Hammerfall album. All three of these are equally strong and show the band at their best. The one slight oddity here is “New Breed”, a faster track which has very small traces of the most modern sound found on their later albums, especially with how the riffs sound during the verses, though it too has a very addictive chorus.

Out of the slower tracks, “Hammer High” is probably my favorite, though the title track is also great. Right from its opening melody it grabs the listener, and its verses move at a slow but steady pace that keeps you hooked in until the chorus comes in with its very creative and addictive vocal melodies. It’s equal parts cheesy and fun, which makes it the perfect title track for a Hammerfall album, especially one that represents a successful return to their roots. Out of the two ballads, closing track “Second to None” is an instant winner, hooking you in with its verses and chorus, before exploding during an epic speedy section in the second half, which eventually leads to an even more awesome speedy run through the chorus. Between that and a great use of keyboards, the track makes for an excellent end to the album, Unfortunately, the other ballad “Twilight Princess” is the one weak spot on the album and it simply doesn’t fit in at all. Following a nice intro, the track turns into a full ballad with only acoustic guitars and vocals, and while it has a nice guitar solo in the middle, the vocal melodies are surprisingly bland and boring compared to anything else on the album, and the lyrics are repetitive but not in the fun way listeners would expect, instead become really boring and irritating quickly. By the end of the track, one can’t help but be equal parts annoyed by what they’ve just sat through and relieved that it’s finally over.

Outside of that one misstep, Built to Last is an excellent album that shows Hammerfall pulling off what they attempted but failed with (r)Evolution: They’ve brought back the energy and feel of their early albums. While I’ll admit to being an unlikely source of helpful news for longtime fans of the band, just going on everything I wrote in the first two paragraphs, I highly expect this to be a well-received album for the band, and I definitely think it’s one of their most consistently entertaining albums to date, featuring the expert blend of power metal and heavy metal I’ve come to expect from the band, and doing a great job of it. Highly recommended for all fans of heavy metal and power metal, and I’d say even for people who have never heard the band’s previous work, this would be a much better starting point than any of their previous few albums, maybe even since Crimson Thunder.

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Album · 2016 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 4 ratings
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Metal bands are known for dealing with dark lyrical content a lot of the time, with death and black metal bands especially being known for dealing with anti-religious themes, even Satanism sometimes, while even within a lighter genre like power metal it’s not too uncommon to hear bands sing anti-religious lyrics. On the opposite side of things, Christian power metal does exist, and in fact, 2016 has been a pretty big year for this, as one of the most popular bands in the field, Swedish band Narnia, made their return this year. For me, though, one of the most anticipated albums of the year was Ghost Ship, the fourth full-length album from American power metal band Theocracy, and despite its name, it is not a horror themed album: It’s actually a collection of hopeful, uplifting anthems, with obvious biblical themes throughout. More importantly, though, it’s yet another great album from one of the most consistent bands in the genre.

I was first introduced to Theocracy with their 2008 release, “Mirror of Souls“, a fantastic album where every song hit me hard, though it was clearly building up to the outstanding 22 minute title track, while their 2011 release “As the World Bleeds” was more diverse and more song oriented, and while it didn’t impress me quite as much as its predecessor, it was still amazing. Five years later, the band is back with their latest, and unsurprisingly Ghost Ship follows more in the footsteps of the latter. In fact, if anything this is an even more straightforward song-driven album, with all but two songs being under six minutes, and nothing going past the ten-minute mark.

Stylistically, the music feels like a continuation of the band’s previous works, as singer, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter Matt Smith hasn’t strayed too far from what he’s done before. Basically, listeners can expect varied tempos throughout, with most songs speeding up for at least a little bit, some very melodic guitar work at times, as well as some huge, distinct vocal melodies and also some surprisingly heavy riffs on a few tracks, as well as some nice sounding keyboards and the occasional use of orchestral elements, most notably on the closing track “Easter”. As always, Matt has a very clear voice that fits well for power metal, and while he may not be the most powerful or most unique sounding vocalist ever, he does a very good job throughout, with some very emotive vocals. Instrumentally, everything is excellent, as expected, especially some of the guitar riffs and solos, though keyboards are used effectively as well, and the orchestral elements are quite nice and well done. For the most part, this is a very melodic album as one would expect, though the band certainly isn’t afraid to get heavy at times.

Songwriting is very good all around, and quite varied, with a wide mix of sounds throughout. Opening track “Paper Tiger” is the kind of straight-forward, up-tempo opener power metal fans should love, and right from its great melodic leading guitars at the beginning, it grabs you from the start and never let’s go. The title track starts off a bit slower, with some heavy riffs, and it stays this way throughout the first verse before picking and speed and becoming much lighter during its catchy chorus, which is an early album highlight. There’s a pretty cool orchestral section leading towards the guitar solo in the second half, which is also great.

Fans of speedier tracks have quite a bit to look forward to, as outside of the opener and the speedy parts of the title track, there’s also two heavier fast paced tracks in “The Wonder of It All” and “Stir the Embers”, with the former especially being one of my favorites on the album, with its surprisingly thrashy riffs out of the gate and during the instrumental portion in the second half, though it still has tons of melody as well, and it has a particularly inspired vocal section in the middle that’s one of the most memorable moments on the album. On the lighter side of things, “Castaway” is probably the fastest song overall, and it has a really speedy chorus, with some excellent vocal lines throughout, as well as a pretty awesome guitar solo.

Fans of more subdued, relaxing tracks also have a lot to look forward to, starting with “Wishing Well”. This track starts off with a nice orchestral opening before the guitars take over and it turns into a power ballad, with slow but steadily moving verses that work effectively, and help set up the chorus, which is perhaps the best chorus on the album, making effective use of build ups before getting really epic towards the end. Later on the track is a really awesome fast paced part that ends things in style, and on the whole, the track is definitely one of my favorites. Right after that track is “Around the World and Back”, another lighter, more keyboard driven track that moves at a decent pace throughout, though it never speeds up or gets particularly heavy, instead relying on some excellent vocals from Matt, most notably on the chorus and a huge vocal section that comes in the second half. A bit heavier but still more subdued than some of the other songs is “A Call to Arms”, a mostly mid-tempo track that uses some heavy but not overly aggressive riffs during the verses, and while these parts aren’t my favorite they do a good enough job of building towards the chorus, where it speeds up and turns into an epic fight song. Last, but unfortunately least, we have “Currency in a Bankrupt World”, a track which has a very nice and uplifting chorus, but sadly the verses are slow, boring and rather dreary. I can get what the band was going for here, where the verses are supposed to be sad and the chorus is supposed to cheer you up, but I don’t find it particularly enjoyable to sit through those verses every time, so the track ends up being my least favorite on the album, though it does still have some good parts.

Lastly, we have “Easter”, the near ten-minute epic that closes the album. Lyrically it does, in fact, talk about the story behind the holiday (hint: no bunnies are involved), and musically it feels like a mix of most of the sounds found throughout the album, starting out slow and calm, mostly relying on the vocals and some light guitar work, before the midway point where the orchestra shows up in a big way and we get one of the heaviest and best riffs on the album. Aside from that part the song is more relaxed than the band’s previous epics, though it’s still an excellent track in its own way, with its upbeat, catchy chorus being one of its highlights, and obviously Christians will enjoy the lyrics a whole lot.

Overall, Ghost Ship is an excellent power metal album with some progressive and symphonic leanings, and it features a nice mix of heavier, faster tracks, light, and super melodic tracks, as well as some surprisingly subdued sections, with everything coming together to make a very memorable album. Theocracy has always been my favorite Christian metal band, and once again they have delivered. Longtime fans of the band should find a lot to enjoy here, and I’d also recommend the release to any fan of power metal or melodic metal in general, looking for some uplifting lyrics to go along with their heavy riffs and huge choruses.

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IRON MASK Diabolica

Album · 2016 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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Dushan Petrossi has a been a busy man in recent years, making a new album for his main band Iron Mask every 2-3 years, as well as finally returning to his other band Magic Kingdom last year for the very impressive Savage Requiem. While his style has evolved over the years from a neoclassical power metal sound to more of a mix of heavy metal, power metal and even some hard rock, the quality of his music has remained great as always, so I always look forward to hearing new albums from him. His latest is Diabolica, the sixth full-length release from Iron Mask, and once again he has created a great album filled with excellent guitar work, plenty of big vocal hooks, and memorable songwriting.

I was a little bit disappointed with the last Iron Mask release, “Fifth Son of Winterdoom”, as it pushed the power metal elements back a bit, in favor of a more hard rock flavored sound, and while it still had some great songs, it’s up there with Shadow of the Red Baron as my least favorite I’ve heard by Dushan. The fact that it came straight after the excellent Black as Death only left me more concerned about the direction of the band, so I was a bit nervous about where he would go with this album.

Well, it turns out he didn’t really go anywhere in particular. What I mean by that is, where most of his previous albums have had their own distinct feel while still being recognizable, with this release and Savage Requiem it seems as if he has reached a point where his bands are starting to blend together more than in the past, with this release in particular feeling like somewhat of a “Greatest Hits” collection. There’s everything that you’d expect here, including simple, fast-paced and fun power metal tracks like the opener “ I Don’t Forget, I Don’t Forgive” and “Oliver Twist”, slightly more complex and technical neoclassical power metal, especially on “ Doctor Faust” , dark heavy metal like the title track, “Ararat” and “The Rebellion of Lucifer”, epic melodic heavy metal like “Galileo”, which has a slight Iron Maiden feel at points with its melodic guitar leads, a decently fast and super catchy track in “The First and the Last”, a slightly hard rock flavored track in “Flying Fortress”, and of course the super big closing track “ Cursed in the Devil’s Mill”. Even lyrically this is quite the varied release, with some tracks dealing with historical and literary themes (even biblical themes on one track,) while others are more simplistic, like the ultra silly “March 666” and of course metal worshiping track “All for Metal”, which is extremely stupid but fun, in a guilty pleasure sort of way. While I can’t help but feel the album comes off more of a compilation than a cohesive album where everything fits together perfectly, every song here is well written, so I can’t say I’m unhappy with it, especially after the previous release was slightly weaker than normal.

One area where Dushan has always struggled is finding the right singer and sticking with him. Iron Mask, in particular, has never had the same lead singer for more than two consecutive albums, and this trend continues, with Mark Boals leaving after his second album. This time around the vocals are sung by Diego Valdez, who I had heard with Argentinian heavy/power metal band Helker, and I have always liked him. He has a powerful, gritty voice that fits the music well. In fact, he honestly sounds a bit similar to Mark Boals, so that helps keep a similar sound to the vocals, even if the man behind the voice is different. He excels on harder hitting tracks like, “I Don’t Forget, I Don’t Forgive”, but he also sounds excellent on choruses, especially on “The First and the Last”, which has easily the best chorus on the album. In fact, that track reminds me a lot of “The Absence” from Black as Death, which is one of my favorites by the band.

I already gave a bit of an idea of what the songwriting is like on this album, so I won’t go into full details as usual, but I’d like to give special mentions to a few favorites. First up, opener “I Don’t Forget, I Don’t Forgive” is a very fast-paced, instantly engaging track with a great, super catchy chorus, that immediately hooks you in. Meanwhile, “Doctor Faustus” is still fast, but a little more complex, and it features some great neoclassical guitar work from Dushan, especially on the leads and the excellent solo section, where the music gets surprisingly heavy at points. The track also has minor symphonic elements, as do some other tracks, most notably “The Rebellion of Lucifer”, and “Ararat”. The former is a track that took a while for me to appreciate, but the contrast between its dark, heavy chorus and its light, melodic chorus eventually won me over. I of course mentioned “The First and the Last” multiple times already, but it’s definitely my favorite track on the album, and it has some truly fantastic melodies. Another favorite is the fast paced, super fun track “Oliver Twist”, which has some extremely fun vocal lines, especially during the chorus. Lastly, the near 14 minute closing track “Cursed in the Devil’s Mill” is excellent from start to finish, making great use of acoustic guitars in its early portions, as well as some epic heavy metal leads during an impressive middle section, but it’s actually a pretty fast-paced track on the whole, with a great chorus and quite a few memorable moments. Dushan has always been great at epic length tracks, and this time, he has succeeded once again.

Overall, Diabolica is a great new release that should easily please existing fans of Iron Mask and Dushan Petrossi. It feels like a celebration of everything the band (and its leader) have done in the past, pulling together elements of all previous releases to create an album that while not overly original or unique, definitely provides some excellent power metal from start to finish. It may not be one of the band’s all-time best, but it’s certainly better than the likes of Fifth Son of Winterdoom and Shadow of the Red Baron. I’d personally put it right up there with Black as Death, and I’d recommend it for all heavy/power metal fans who haven’t already discovered this band.

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EPICA The Holographic Principle

Album · 2016 · Symphonic Metal
Cover art 4.89 | 11 ratings
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The past couple of years have not been the best for symphonic metal fans, and I personally have not heard many albums from the genre lately that have impressed me much, but one band I can always count on to deliver is Epica. I first discovered them with their second album Consign to Oblivion, which immediately hooked me in, becoming one of my favorite albums in the genre, and they’ve only gotten better over the years. Ever since guitarist Isaac Delahaye came in and gave their music more of an edge, starting with their fourth album Design Your Universe, the band has been easily the most ambitious and most consistently satisfying symphonic metal band by far. Their last album, The Quantum Enigma, in particular, felt like the band had pushed as far as they could possibly push, combining the heavier sound of their newer albums with all the symphonic and choral aspects of previous releases to create what I consider easily the best symphonic metal album I’ve ever heard. So heading into their seventh full-length release, The Holographic Principle, I was both excited to see what the band would do next, and also a bit nervous, because I figured it would be impossible to top their previous album. After giving The Holographic Principle several listens, I’m no longer sure about that. One thing I know for sure: Once again the band has exceeded all expectations and delivered another outstanding release that stands far above the rest of the pack.

After a couple albums in a row where they evolved their sound quite a bit, and experimented a little, The Quantum Enigma felt in many ways like the ultimate album for them, the realization of everything their previous releases had been building towards, so it’s no surprise that with The Holographic Principle they have settled down a bit, and made minor tweaks to push their sound just a bit further. In short, this album feels like they have taken all elements of their music and pushed them all to the extreme, with everything from the guitar riffs, to Simone’s vocals, Mark’s Growls, the symphonic elements (now with a huge, full orchestra) and choral elements feeling even more epic than ever before. The one thing that feels like it’s been focused on most is increasing the heaviness, and while their previous three albums were already quite heavy at times, this album has some truly killer riffs and is by far their hardest hitting release to date. At the same time, the orchestral elements are still as prominent as ever, and the band used some percussion as well as other unique elements at times, making it a packed album, to say the least.

One area where Epica really stands far above the pack is the production. Something I’ve struggled with lately on many symphonic and even symphonic power metal albums has been the mixing, as many bands have fallen into the trap of either putting the orchestra on top and letting it overpower the metal instruments, or watering everything down so it sounds like a muffled mess. Thankfully, Epica has avoided this, instead of pushing the guitars quite high up in the mix, while still leaving plenty of room for the vocals, drums, keys and orchestra to shine. In short, it’s the one recent symphonic release where I can say everything feels perfectly balanced, and I wish more bands could pull off having so many elements in their music and making it sound perfect the way this band can.

Moving on to songwriting, which has always been a strong point for the band, and once again, the band does not disappoint. Where The Quantum Enigma was an awesome album anchored by probably their best song ever, this release doesn’t have quite as big a high point, but if anything I’d say the songs are even more consistently amazing if that’s even possible. As expected, “ Eidola” is an excellent intro track, with a very cinematic feel. It seems a bit darker than most of their intros and it gets pretty epic and intense towards the end, leading in nicely to the first full song, “Edge of the Blade”. This track is once again the kind of opener fans would expect, storming out of the gates with fast-paced guitar riffs and the orchestra is in full effect immediately, before Simone’s ever more angelic vocals take over during the verses, and then it speeds up again for the epic chorus where the choirs take over. Mark’s growls make their first appearance during an intense bridge section, and overall it’s an excellent opener that serves as a perfect example of what to expect from the band at this point. The following track “A Phantasmic Parade” is mostly slower, and a bit more focused on choral vocals, though it speeds up for another epic growled section later on. It’s worth noting, that compared to past releases, this album feels like the band has mostly stuck to a formula, so most of the songs use similar elements in similar ways, but it’s the way every song is so well constructed, and how they each come with their own surprises and memorable moments, that makes the more straightforward approach to songwriting not become a problem in the least.

An early highlight is “Universal Death Squad”, a heavier, faster paced track where the guitars dominate quite a bit. The orchestral elements and choral vocals are in full effect as always, but it’s the lead riff and especially the excellent guitar solo in the middle that really stand out, though Simone’s higher notes during the chorus are certainly quite impressive as well. “Divide and Conquer” is the first track that feels a bit different. It’s very much dominated by the choir vocals, though it’s also the first track where Mark’s growls show up during the verses to alternate with Simone, and it does have some very impressive and heavy instrumental work, especially later on during a full growled section. Another one of my favorites is up next, in “Beyond the Matrix”, a much catchier, more straight-forward song with perhaps the best chorus on the album, and the choirs are truly epic on this track. It also features a quite impressive solo from Isaac later on. Next is a unique track in “Once Upon a Nightmare”, the closest thing this album has to a ballad. One thing’s for sure, though: This isn’t a typical, simplistic ballad. Nope, it has an extended orchestral opening, and it’s a very atmospheric keyword driven track, with some very memorable and extended instrumental sections, as well a bit of voice over work that adds more atmosphere to the track. Simone does get some impressive vocal lines, but it’s surprisingly not as vocal driven as you’d expect from a ballad. It’s certainly quite interesting, though it took multiple listens for me to fully get into it.

On the flip side, “The Cosmic Algorithm” is another instant winner, with a very fast paced choral section leading into another fantastic chorus, but overall it’s actually one of the heavier, more guitar-driven tracks on the album, and some of the riffs are quite aggressive and killer. Unsurprisingly, it has another excellent guitar solo. The next track “Ascension – Dream State Armageddon ” is slower paced, but has more crushing riffs, as well as some intense growls, to go with the usual great chorus, and an epic section later on where the choral vocals are used in a more haunting way, leading towards a brief voice over section. It’s a very dark and hard hitting track, and certainly another highlight. After that, we have another more unique track in “Dancing in a Hurricane”, a more laid back track, that starts off softly with mostly the orchestra, Simone and some percussion, which is used nicely. The rest of the band slowly comes in as the song progresses, but it’s a fairly calm song overall, with the percussion reappearing later in the track, though it does have one brief intense burst in the middle where the growls show up. By comparison, the next track “Tear Down Your Walls” is much more intense the whole way through, leaning more heavily on the guitar work and Mark’s Growls, but as usual, the chorus is very nice, and so it’s a well-balanced track.

Lastly, we have the epic length title track, which I was a bit nervous about at first, just because I couldn’t see the band possibly topping their previous title track. Thankfully, they didn’t really try, instead of doing a mostly more laid back title track, this time, around. Indeed, it has a rather slow start, using the orchestra and choirs to set things up, before the rest of the band slowly comes in. The first half is fairly calm and melodic, and the chorus is once again outstanding, giving Simone plenty of room to give probably her best vocals on the album, and while it’s certainly not huge and epic like the chorus of The Quantum Enigma, it’s still very effective. Growls are used sporadically in the first half, but the highlight of the track comes a little bit past the halfway point, where the music speeds up, the riffs get more intense, and Mark’s growls are in full force. The track then alternates between this and some epic choir vocals, and it just keeps getting more and more intense an epic for a while, before finally calming down again towards the end. While I wouldn’t quite put it on the same level as The Quantum Enigma, it’s still another excellent example of how to get an epic length track right, providing an excellent chorus, as well as a ton of memorable moments and enough surprises to keep the music fresh throughout its near 12 minute playing time.

After hearing The Quantum Enigma for the first time, I very much doubted it would ever be possible to top it, but while I still consider it the best symphonic metal album I’ve ever heard, The Holographic Principle is certainly not far behind. Once again, Epica has successfully built on their past successes and delivered an album full of everything fans would expect and more, with a focus on heavy guitars, epic choirs, and orchestra, Simone’s always wonderful vocals, and of course, a ton of great growls. Right now, Epica is clearly at the top of their game and they’re clearly far ahead of all other bands in their genre, so everything they release is a must hear, both for longtime fans of the band and the genre on the whole. Really, anyone looking for an album that expertly combines symphonic elements and metal is recommended to give this a listen. Easily my 2016 album of the year so far, and one of my favorite albums of the past decade.

originally written for myglobalmind:

OBLOMOV Mighty Cosmic Dances

Album · 2005 · Melodic Black Metal
Cover art 3.60 | 11 ratings
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MMA Reviewer's Challenge: September 2016

Outside of its symphonic form, black metal is not a genre I've explored very much at all since I got into metal, but I have found a few gems in the genre over the years. The latest of these is Mighty Cosmic Dances, the debut by Czech Republic's Oblomov. The band has since released one other album, that being Communitas (Deconstructing the Order) in 2009. Both of their albums are lesser known but quite highly regarded by people who have heard them, and so while I didn't really know what to expect from this debut, I figured it would probably be good. What I got was some expertly done melodic black metal fused with melodic death metal, and with the occasional use of some more unique and unexpected elements, making for quite the excellent experience.

At a first glance, Oblomov appear to be playing rather typical melodic black metal, with the first full song “Mentality Failure” starting off with mid tempo riffs and an overall dark tone suitable for the genre, but as the track goes on they speed it up and the riffs start to feel more like melodic death metal. The two styles alternate as the track goes on, and it's this ability to fluidly blend the two sounds together that already helps to make a strong first impression. Then you consider how great everything sounds, from the excellent guitar leads and nice solos, to the rather sporadic but effective use of atmospheric keys, which often have a spacey feel to them, and of course the vocals. 99.9% of all vocals on this album are growls, mostly lower range blackened growls, though there are some occasional higher growls as well, and all the vocals are very powerful and well performed. Harsh vocals tend to be hit or miss for me, but in this case they definitely hit all the time. I also enjoy the occasional use of unexpected instruments, as well as the occasional folk vibe, which is especially noticeable on the second half of “Lost Between Emotions”. One last important element is the production. One reason I don't often listen to a lot of black metal is because many bands in the genre have rather low quality production that makes it hard for me to enjoy the music, but such is not the case with Mighty Cosmic Dances. The guitars are crunchy and powerful, vocals are clear, drums sound great, and all the other instruments they incorporate also sound great and it's all clear and very powerful.

From what I understand, Mighty Cosmic Dances is a concept album dealing with Sci-Fi themes, though admittedly the lyrics can be tough to decipher, so I couldn’t really go into more detail. Everything flows well together, though, and the spacey, sound effect heavy intro and outro tracks sure give the feeling of a concept album. In fact, one cool detail I noticed: If you play the album on repeat, you can notice that the last note of the outro is the exact same as the first note of the intro, which is pretty neat, and the two tracks sound quite similar overall.

As far as songwriting goes, this is a very consistent album, and it's more about the overall feel than it is about individual tracks, though it does have some highlights. I already mentioned the intro and outro, which are both nicely done, as well as the excellent opening track, which speeds up and builds up intensity as it goes along. Perhaps the biggest highlight on the album is “Lost Between Emotions”, which starts out slower paced and atmospheric, before throwing in a few curve balls. The first of these comes in the form of a surprising saxophone solo less than a minute in. I've mentioned before that the saxophone is not one of my favorite instruments (it's my least favorite, in fact), but here it's used effectively and in a rather unique way, to help give the track a bit of a folk feel, and this feeling is only increased later in the track with various other folk sounds, to go along with the excellent guitar work and growls. It's quite the excellent and unique track overall.

There's another use of saxophone on the much faster paced, more death metal oriented track “Starsend”. Here its use is less unique, but still pretty cool. Another favorite track is “Nostalgic Idolization” another mostly fast paced track, with has a pretty cool section where the atmospheric keys take over and the vocals get more intense. The last full song on the album “Dreamworks” is great all around, but its highlight comes towards the middle, in the form of a much softer section with some kind of semi-clean vocals, which again sound quite unique and are pretty cool. Perhaps the only track with no huge moments is “Plague”, though it's still a very good track with some pretty awesome vocals, and it's also the track where I have the easiest time making out the lyrics, for some reason.

Overall, Mighty Cosmic Dances is an excellent debut, which fluidly blends together elements of melodic black metal and death metal, while also adding some rather surprising elements to help it stand out. As someone who rarely listens to black metal, I have to say it has left me quite impressed, so I have no doubt fans of the genre would be pleased with it as well. Oblomov made quite the strong first impression with this release and from what I've read Communitas (Deconstructing the Order) seems to be quite the unique and genre bending release as well, so I plan on checking that out in the near future.

EVERGREY The Storm Within

Album · 2016 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.74 | 7 ratings
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One of my most anticipated albums for the second half of 2016 was The Storm Within, the 10th full length album by Swedish progressive metal band Evergrey. I’ve made it no secret over the years that I’m a huge fan of their unique brand of dark progressive metal, where everything from the guitar tone to the keyboards, vocals and lyrics all contribute to the overall atmosphere of their music. Their 2004 album The Inner Circle still ranks as my favorite by them, but after some ups and downs following that release, they came back strong with their previous release Hymns for the Broken, so I was excited to see what they would come up with next, while admittedly still a bit nervous, just because they’ve had difficulties putting two consecutive great albums together in recent years. Thankfully, with The Storm Within they’ve not only retained all the strengths of their previous album, they’ve managed to put together an album that improves upon it in every possible way, making for one of the strongest albums of their career, and for sure one of the best prog albums to be released in 2016.

After several albums in a row marked by changes, it seems the Evergrey lineup has finally stabilized, as The Storm Within is the first time since Monday Morning Apocalypse that they’ve kept the exact same lineup for multiple albums in a row. This is a good thing, as the two longtime mainstays vocalist/guitarist Tom S. Englund and keyboardist Rikard Zander are both pretty much irreplaceable at this point, bassist Johan Niemann has settled into his role well, and obviously fans were excited to have guitarist Henrik Danhage and drummer Jonas Ekdahl back in 2014. While the songwriting of Hymns for the Broken wasn’t always the best the band is capable of, its biggest strength was the energy of the returning members as well as the fact that them being back seemed to energize the rest of the band, resulting in some of the best performances from the band in recent years. This time around, Tom’s vocals and lyrics are as powerful and emotionally resonant as ever, Rikard’s keyboards continue to provide nice ambiance as always, Henrik’s riffs are as crushing as ever before and Jonas is as smooth and on point as ever on drums. It also helps that the production is just as strong as it was on the last album. So basically, the band has lost none of the energy they regained on Hymns for the Broken, making this the first time in years where it feels like the band has successfully built on their previous album. More importantly, the song writing this time is on a slightly higher level, still containing the same kind of dark and atmospheric tracks the band has always excelled at, but also stretching out a bit with some of their heaviest songs in recent years, as well as a bit more speed than their last two albums. I also find this album to have some of the catchiest songs they’ve written since Recreation Day. On the whole, it’s an Evergrey album through and through, but with some slight modern touches.

Evergrey has always been great at opening tracks, with songs like “The Masterplan” and “A Touch of Blessing” being among the best, most immediately engaging opening tracks I’ve ever heard, and even “King of Errors” from their previous album was pretty damn impressive. They’ve done something a little bit different this time, with “Distance”. The track starts off very slowly with very cold sounding piano notes, then some modern sounding, punishing riffs enter in, but the pace remains very slow. It’s the kind of crushing, atmospheric prog the band specializes in, and while it doesn’t have the immediate impact of some of their other openings, it’s the kind of track that slowly grows on you until eventually you realize how brilliant it is. Its chorus is very strong, and the choirs towards the end are used very effectively, to help set the tone for the album. After this, “Passing Through” is a much harder hitting track, moving at a slightly faster tempo, though it’s still mostly mid paced. In the second verse the riffs get heavier and the song really picks up, with some great vocals from Tom, and the chorus is definitely one of their strongest and catchiest in quite a while.

My main criticism against Hymns for the Broken was that after a strong start it kinda lost momentum in the middle, with several similar sounding tracks in a row that, while effective on their own, blended together so that they weren’t all that enjoyable to listen to all in a row. While I can’t say this album completely avoids that pitfall, it definitely doesn’t lose as much momentum as its predecessor did. “Someday” is a more typical power ballad, mostly reliant on the atmospheric keys and Tom’s excellent vocals, but with occasional bits where the guitars take over. It’s a very nice track with another excellent chorus. Really, the only track that makes me lose my patience a little bit is “Astray”. It has a great main riff and it’s a nice song overall, but it feels a bit too samey to the previous song for my ears, except it’s not as memorable.

Aside from that, though, the album never loses its way for an extended period like Hymns did, and after the really nice piano driven ballad “The Impossible”, we hit the best sequence of the album. “My Allied Ocean” is probably my favorite on the album and it comes as a bit of a surprise, as it’s the kind of guitar driven, fast paced track they haven’t done much since Recreation Day. In fact, between the overall feel, the speed and the guitar leads after the chorus, it reminds me a lot of that album’s classic opening track “The Great Deceiver”. Henrik really shines on this song, with some great riffs throughout, especially during a voice-over section in the middle,and the solo that ensues, as well as those aforementioned leads after the chorus.

Another track where he stands out is “The Lonely Monarch”, a track which has faster paced verses, though the modern sounding keys and Tom’s vocals take over during the excellent chorus. It has a solo section that reminds me of classic Evergrey, and that’s where Henrik gets to really showcase his skills. In between those two tracks is “In Orbit”, more of a mid paced keyboard driven track, with another very catchy chorus. In fact, it’s one of the most accessible songs the band has ever made, and this feeling is enhanced by guest vocals from current Nightwish vocalist Floor Jansen, who shows up during the second verse and the last few runs through the chorus. It’s certainly one of their most melodic songs as well one of their catchiest to date. Another late album highlight is “Paradox of the Flame”, a piano driven ballad where we get the expected appearance from Carina Englund. As always, she sounds amazing with Tom and the two of them provide some very emotional vocals that help enhance the powerful, devastating lyrics. The end of the album reminds me a lot of how the previous album ended: We have the lengthy, hard hitting “Disconnect”, where we get some very modern sounding riffs contrasted against the atmospheric keys and a very nice chorus, eventually giving way to an excellent extended instrumental section towards the end, while the closing title track is the kind of power ballad the band always does well, and it too has a nice extended instrumental section. I don’t find the latter quite as impressive as the 5 tracks that come before, but it’s still a nice way to close the album.

After Hymns for the Broken proved to be one of the strongest Evergrey albums in recent years, I was a bit concerned their next effort would feel a bit uninspired, but thankfully The Storm Within has proven me wrong. Instead, it carries over all the energy of its predecessor while also containing some of the best, most varied songwriting the band has had since their classic period from 2001-2004. It features the unique brand of dark, atmospheric prog the band has always been known for, but it also has some of their catchiest and most melodic songs to date, making it a very good starting point. Longtime fans of the band should be very happy with this release, and I also think fans of prog in general, especially those who like their music to have a darker tone, should enjoy this one.

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