Metal Music Reviews from adg211288

NEAL MORSE Sola Gratia

Album · 2020 · Metal Related
Cover art 4.46 | 3 ratings
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Sola Gratia (2020) is a progressive rock solo release by US musician Neal Morse. Believe it or not this album marks Morse's first normal progressive rock based solo album since Momentum (2012), as all progressive releases between the two have been either with The Neal Morse Band entity, which uses a different song-writing approach to a Neal Morse solo album, or was the rock opera Jesus Christ the Exorcist (2019), which I can't really consider a normal Neal Morse solo album by its very nature which also saw him giving the lead vocal role to someone other than himself. Of course though Morse has used his regular collaborators, the entirety of The Neal Morse Band, as his supporting musicians on Sola Gratia – Mike Portnoy on drums (except for the song Building a Wall where Morse plays them himself), Randy George on bass, Bill Hubauer on piano and Eric Gillette on guest guitar.

Sola Gratia no doubt immediately brings to mind Morse's earlier album Sola Scriptura (2007) with its title and that relationship is further brought into evidence throughout the release with many throwbacks to both that album's music and lyrics, effectively making this a companion album. As anyone who is familiar with Neal's music knows, he is a Christian artist and this concept album explores the story of Paul the Apostle. Compared to some of his work Sola Gratia does come across as being somewhat more overt on the Jesus theme, but as a concept album it doesn't come over as excessively preachy for the sake of being preachy, which can be off-putting to all but the most devote of listeners. And as always the music is fantastic, though more of a slow burn next to albums like Sola Scriptura, One (2004), or The Neal Morse Band's The Similitude of a Dream (2016), which is the main thing.

Speaking of the instrumental work, Sola Gratia is both somewhat familiar territory for Morse, but it also has a fresh feel to it. Despite the relationship and throwbacks this isn't really Sola Scriptura 2.0, as that album was one of the most metal influenced albums that Neal Morse has made, along with The Neal Morse Band's The Great Adventure (2019). This album I would say has some metal on it, and is certainly one of the heavier (though varied) Neal Morse solo albums, but some of that heaviness seems like Morse was as much influenced by classic hard rock as heavy metal. I would say he also relies far less on symphonic prog ideas that he has sometimes in the past and with other ventures like Transatlantic. The result is a rather varied album.

I said earlier than Sola Gratis was more of a slow burn than some Neal Morse work and that's been true for me ever since the first single In the Name of the Lord was released. But that track shows off how my perception of the whole album has been: getting better every time I hear it. I do after several listens find it an album that mostly works as one continuous piece and since the songs segue into each other it sounds like that was Morse's intention, though perhaps not to the extent of the 'it's really one long song' albums like ? (2005) or Transatlantic's The Whirlwind (2009). There are a few standouts though and I think Morse choose his singles from this well, since those are the songs I'm going to primarily name here: In the Name of the Lord, a very hard and heavy track, Building a Wall, a rather catchy memorable number (though I do wonder if Morse has been listening to a lot of Another Brick in the Wall when he came up with this one) and finally Seemingly Sincere. Seemingly Sincere, the album's longest track at 9:34 and the closest that Morse has come to an individual lengthy epic since The Neal Morse Band's debut album The Grand Experiment (2015), is basically a masterpiece unto itself.

With Sola Gratia Neal Morse has proven once again why he is one of the greatest musicians in progressive music today. I would go so far as to say that due to its varied sound and ideas the album is the strongest solo album he's made for over a decade, also right up there with the trio of excellent The Neal Morse Band releases. A strong start to a new decade for Neal Morse.

NEAL MORSE Morsefest! 5015

Movie · 2017 · Metal Related
Cover art 5.00 | 1 rating
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Morsefest! 2015 is a live release by US musician Neal Morse. Morsefest! shows are without a doubt the most special Neal Morse shows that a fan could attend – a two day event with a different Neal Morse set each night. Morsefest! 2015 was released on either a 2x blu-ray or 4 x CD/2x DVD package in 2017. Strictly speaking it is The Neal Morse Band playing on the release – Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy, Randy George, Eric Gillette & Bill Hubauer – but Morsefest! 2015 was released under just Neal Morse's name likely due to the event's focus on his albums ? (2005) and Sola Scriptura (2007).

While the focus is indeed on those albums, with ? played in full on night one and Sola Scriptura in full on night two, the set is varied with various extra tracks. The Neal Morse Band had released their debut album The Grand Experiment earlier in 2015 and that album also gets a fair airing across the two nights, particularly in the first half of night one with The Call, the title track and the limited edition bonus track New Jerusalem gets played, while Waterfall was featured on night two complete with some instrument changes for various band members. Three Spock's Beard songs are also brought out, Go the Way You Go on night one and At the End of the Day and Wind at My Back on night two, the latter two featuring Nick D'Virgilio first on drums then co-lead vocals. An edited version of Transatlantic's near eighty minute whole album epic The Whirlwind closes the second night, with further guest vocals by D'Virgilio and guitar by Phil Keaggy, who also makes an appearance on night one and was the support act for the event. Finally the band brings to the live stage for the first time a lesser known Neal Morse epic called A Whole Nother Trip, which appeared on his first solo album while still a member of Spock's Beard amongst what was otherwise a bunch of pop songs. There is also a cover of the song MacArthur Park, originally released by Richard Harris, which has been given the prog treatment by Bill Hubauer on challenge from Mike Portnoy. Neal Morse hates the song apparently and always swore he'd never cover it, but there you go. Hubauer sings lead on it.

The main draw to the Morsefest! 2015 live release is of course the full performance of two of Neal Morse's best known albums. ? is basically one long song in and of itself and is treated like the crowning piece of what Morse describes as a night of epics – a fair description when the shortest song is about seven and a half minutes long. For me personally the performance of Sola Scriptura is the key focal point of the two night show though. That's my personal favourite Neal Morse album, not to mention the one that really got me into his music. It's also one of his heaviest and most metal works which along with various parts of The Neal Morse Band's music gives a metallic edge to those otherwise symphonic progressive rock fuelled double concert.

Morsefest! 2015 is one heck of a show if you're into progressive rock. The scope is tremendous not just through the double show but each night's set is over two hours a pop as well. The amount of musicians on stage at one time goes far beyond the core band – far too many to recite in a review. Suffice to say there's a lot of people involved to pull this off. The sound and picture quality of the blu-ray release is excellent and you certainly get a lot of music for your money. The only fault with the set is that one listed bonus feature called Prog Jeopardy is completely missing from the release. Not sure what the story is there, perhaps it was planned and had to be cut for some reason and they forget to change the inserts before going to the press, who knows? But you weren't buying this for the bonus features anyway right?

There are several of the Morsefest shows released by the time of writing this review in September 2020 so which one holds the most appeal to each fan will of course be different. 2015 was a no brainer for me due to my particular love of Sola Scriptura. Someone else may think 2014's focus on Testimony (2003) and One (2004) or 2017's Testimony 2 (2011) and The Similitude of a Dream (2016) to be better options for them. Regardless any Neal Morse fan owns it to themselves to pick up at least one of these releases for his most special and exclusive concerts.

AYREON Ayreon Universe - Best of Ayreon Live

Movie · 2018 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 5.00 | 2 ratings
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Ayreon Universe – Best of Ayreon Live (2018) is the second live release by Dutch progressive rock/metal project Ayreon. It follows The Theater Equation (2016), which was a stage adaptation of The Human Equation (2004) in full. Ayreon Universe is presented as more of a traditional live show, featuring a set list covering all of the Ayreon studio albums plus a couple of tracks from Star One's Space Metal (2002) album. There are many reasons why Ayreon has not been performed live until relatively recently (The Theater Equation wasn't even performed as Ayreon though it was released under the name), such as the nature of the project which meant that previously Ayreon songs were only performed on tours for other Arjen Lucassen projects, but there is also the fact that Arjen Lucassen himself isn't a big fan of playing live due to stage fright. He has done it as can be seen on live releases for both Star One and Stream of Passion, but it is something he has often avoided since those tours. So that leads us to the big catch with Ayreon Universe, which might be seen as a deal breaker for some: for the most part, he isn't on stage during this show.

Instead the release is performed by musicians and singers who we might consider the Ayreon extended family. Many of the musicians on stage have been Lucassen's go-to people for some time, mostly notable among these of course is Ed Warby on drums, who has been with Lucassen since Into the Electric Castle (1998), only not drumming on The Dream Sequencer (2000) – that album's Rob Snijders is also performing on Ayreon Universe for a couple of the lighter tracks – and the upcoming Transitus (2020). On keyboards is Joost van den Broek, who has a long history with Lucassen including performing on Star One's Live on Earth (2003) and a regular Ayreon guest since The Human Equation. On bass is Johan van Stratum, who was Lucassen's bandmate in Stream of Passion, while Peter Vink plays on Star One's Intergalactic Space Crusaders. The two guitarists are Marcel Coenen and Ferry Duijsens. Coenen performed a guest solo on The Source (2017) while Duijsens makes his Ayreon debut here, but previously worked on Lucassen's The Gentle Storm project. Elsewhere in the core band are a few names that Ayreon fans will recognise, regular collaborators Ben Mathot, Jeroen Goossens & Maaike Peterse on violin, flues/woodwinds and cello respectively.

Then there are the vocalists. As a project known for its often large casts of different singers on each album, it isn't going to be an Ayreon live show without a while host of talented vocalists getting on board with it. Some of the singers are the same as on album, but elsewhere changes have been made. But the live cast is as good as any studio cast: there are singers who were regulars in Ayreon's early days who may not be as well known in the metal scene in particular, but perhaps are the ones who most deserve to be part of this experience. There are also some of the biggest names in both prog and power metal performing under the Ayreon name on this show. I'm not going to mention them all here: there really are too many to list, so instead I'm going to form this review based around what's taken from each album, so let us go back to the dark ages and The Final Experiment (1995).

The debut Ayreon album is represented by three tracks on Ayreon Universe and fittingly it's the duo of Prologue and Dreamtime that kick off the event. Prologue is altered to instead be in the voice of The Source's TH-1, performed by Mike Mills of Toehider. Mills is a modern Ayreon regular having first appeared on The Theory of Everything (2013). Mills is a standout performer on Ayreon Universe. You can tell that this guy is just so fucking into it as he comes out on stage in full TH-1 costume, bringing a theatrical performance to the stage. We haven't even got into a proper song yet and the man has proved that he is a born entertainer.

Then we get Dreamtime and you can probably see that it's called that and not The Awareness which is what the song is on album. That's because it's edited down for the live show. That is unfortunately a trend with the track selection on the album. Honestly I think that does kinda suck because Ayreon is a prog act and prog is known for it's impressive instrumental work, something Ayreon is no exception to, but I can understand why they've taken this approach on the live show: they're maximising the time for vocalists to be on stage as well as the amount of songs that can get an airing: there is a lot of material that needs to be covered.

Singing Dreamtime is of course none other than Edward Reekers (ex-Kayak), the original vocalist who did the song. Reekers is one of those early Ayreon legends. It's been a long time since Lucassen used him on a studio album (come on you Hippie sort that out!), and this marks his return to the project. For long time fans of Ayreon Edward being here and singing this song must be like nostalgia overload. It certainly is for me and I only discovered Ayreon in 2007.

The other song from The Final Experiment is another classic one: Merlin's Will. On album this was sung by Leon Goewie, the vocalist of one of Lucassen's pre-Ayreon heavy metal bands: Vengeance. Leon is not among the vocalists performing on this show, so instead the song is performed by Floor Jansen (Nightwish), which makes it a unique version. Floor's sister Irene, part of a trio of backing vocalists on this show, previously sang an acoustic version of the song for the special edition of The Final Experiment, but this is the metal version. And Floor rocks on it.

The second Ayreon album Actual Fantasy (1996) is also represented by three songs. One of these is the short title track that on this show leads into Computer Eyes rather than Abbey of Synn, which is the other track performed from the album. Actual Fantasy is the oddball Ayreon album with only three lead vocalists, but two of them are present on the show. One of course is Edward Reekers again and the other is Robert Soeterboek (Wicked Sensation). The latter performs Abbey of Synn on his own and they duet on Computer Eyes. Because the album was structured that differently to most Ayreon albums and was disconnected from the overall concept that The Final Experiment begun, Actual Fantasy is probably the Ayreon album that gets most overlooked by fans, so its good to see that it gets a fair airing.

The third Ayreon album of course was Into the Electric Castle. Into the Electric Castle is my personal favourite album of all time. It would later get the full live show treatment which resulted in the next Ayreon live release Electric Castle Live (And Other Tales) (2020), but on Ayreon Universe it still gets a four track showing, in order of performance: Valley of the Queens, The Two Gates, The Castle Hall and Amazing Flight. The latter two performances are notable for being the two that Arjen Lucassen himself is playing guitar on and singing in the case of Amazing Flight. But first is Valley of the Queens. Initially sung solo by Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering), this version is an alternative one for three voices, with Floor Jansen and Marcela Bovio (ex-Stream of Passion) joining her on stage. It's a really good and haunting rendition.

The Two Gates is used as an opportunity to introduce the musicians on stage with the song itself being sung by Damian Wilson (Headspace), returning to his role of the Knight with the Barbarian performed by John "Jaycee" Cuijpers (Praying Mantis). Cuijpers also went on the play the role on Electric Castle Live later on, but here he's an odd choice considering that the original vocalist Jay ven Feggelen (ex-Bodine, another band Lucassen was a part of though they were never on the same album) is actually there and sings the role later on during Amazing Flight. Neither does he sing the character's parts on The Castle Hall, there handled by Robert Soeterboek. Both men do the part well, but it really does beg the question over why when the man himself is present. Good versions though and rightly chosen as staples of the Ayreon discography.

Then we have The Dream Sequencer (2000) and what is the most under-represented album of the night with just one song played: And the Druids Turn to Stone. Damian Wilson sang it originally and of course performs it here too to perfection, actually raising the song in my personal estimations to be honest. There's really little else to say on that. I've have loved Lucassen to come out to do my personal favour Carried by the Wind though, or for perhaps other personal highlights My House on Mars or The First Man on Earth to be included. But I guess they took the Universal Migrator selection between the two albums, speaking of which...

...Flight of the Migrator (2000), the heavy counterpart to the Dream Sequencer, has two tracks featured and they are obvious choices: Dawn of a Million Souls and Into the Black Hole. However neither of their original vocalists are there on the night, Russell Allen and Bruce Dickinson respectively. Busy men, those guys. John "Jaycee" Cuijpers takes on Allen's song Dawn of a Million Souls and ends up being a highlight of the whole show though. I kid you not by the time the man had walked off stage again my first thought was precisely this: 'Damn, Russell Allen just got handed his arse!'.

Into the Black Hole is an Ayreon classic and not just because of who happened to sing it on the album originally. If anything the song is more known in the fan base these days because of Damian Wilson's renditions on the Star One and Stream of Passion live releases. So it comes as a surprise that he isn't the chosen singer for it on this show. Instead Tommy Karevik (Kamelot & Seventh Wonder) performs it for another good, though like many other tracks, edited down version.

Between Flight of the Migrator and the next Ayreon album The Human Equation came the first Star One album Space Metal. Two tracks are featured in the set list, Intergalactic Space Crusaders and The Eye of Ra. As they decided to feature Star One as well I do find it a shame that the second album Victims of the Modern Age (2010) was ignored, but I can't deny they picked a couple of good ones. As Russell Allen is absent, the former track becomes a vocal battle between Damian Wilson and Maggy Luyten (at that time still Nightmare's vocalist) and it's a damn good take with plenty of vocal interplay between the two. The Eye of Ra is the final song of the show and is used as a celebratory climax: with everyone singing it, including many singers I haven't even had the opportunity to mention yet! So moving on...

...The Human Equation is one of the most popular Ayreon albums so it may come as a surprise that it isn't that represented here, with only two songs, the singles Loser and Love, featured. Perhaps that's because The Theater Equation saw that album performed in full, I don't know. Loser is a highlight of the show. It starts with Jeroen Goossens bringing out a didgeridoo for the I dare say iconic intro before Mike Mills starts to sing. Once again you can tell he's really into this just by looking at him. The song is changed from it's original version by swapping Devin Townsend's original manic harsh screaming at the end for four the female vocalists coming down to stage to reject Mill's character Father. Mills draws out the last high note displaying his incredible vocal ability, before giving a shout out to the late Mike Baker, who originally sang the song, which is enough to get any fan of The Human Equation or Baker's band Shadow Gallery choked up.

The version of love features a number of vocalist changes from the original version. Dream Theater's James LaBrie is not here, so the role of Me is taken over by Edward Reekers. Heather Findlay's role as Love is converted to the voice of Wife (Marcela Bovio). Irene Jansen original appeared on the song and is able to step down from a backing vocalist role, as does Lisette van den Berg, a singer that Arjen hasn't really worked with outside of backing roles yet. Robert Soeterboek also takes part and taking over the lines of Fear, originally Mikael Åkerfeldt's part, is none other than Ed Warby in his first Ayreon vocalist role.

01011001 (2008) is the most represented Ayreon album on Ayreon Universe, with five songs, though very edited from their original versions, in order of performance: River of Time, Waking Dreams, Ride the Comet, Comatose and Age of Shadows. River of Time brings out Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian) with Marco Hietala (Nightwish) subbing for Bob Catley's role. It's a very good version, their voices work well together. Waking Dreams is as on album, with Katatonia's Jonas Renske with Anneke van Giersbergen, though edited to not feature notably the keyboard solo originally played by Tomas Bodin, which ends up being jarring to my ears and actually spoils that track a bit. The same vocal team also handled Comatose, again shortened. Jorn Lande originally sang the song and it is one of my favourite light Ayreon songs. This is a good version, but I do really wish Jorn could have been there to do it.

Ride the Comet originally had several singers delivering short lines in its verses, but here Renkse takes over with Floor Jansen for some reason sitting out her bits in favour of the trio of backing singers, while Maggy Luyten does her chorus. Age of Shadows is just that, not the We are Forever deviation, with the vocals shared between Kürsch, Hietala and Floor Jansen. An iconic more recent Ayreon track it's an obvious pick for the show, though I'd have rather seen in played in full, since the vocalists who did the We Are Forever part were Jonas Renkse and Anneke van Giersbergen, both featured elsewhere on this show.

The Theory of Everything (2013)'s tracks is where things get more theatrical and if there's any other Ayreon album apart from The Human Equation and Into the Electric Castle that could perhaps have the full performance stage show treatment it's that one, as the singers prove on the selection of four tracks featured here, with props used and the vocalists visibly acting the parts, a highly of which is the exchange between Tommy Karevik, Marco Hietala and Anneke van Giersbergen during Magnetism.

Finally we come to The Source, the then latest Ayreon album and surprisingly represented by just two songs: Star of Sirrah and Everybody Dies. You'd think the latest album would have more presence here but then maybe not, this isn't in support of that album and it certainly isn't a show from any kind of normal tour. These songs are all done by singers originally on that album with the addition of Luyten, but with some changes due to absences, notably James LaBrie again. Everybody Dies is a highlight, again seeing Mike Mills in his TH-1 regalia.

Arjen Lucassen himself shows up for the final song of the main set which was The Castle Hall and then gives an over ten minute speech about the event before the first encore. Although he talks about his fear of playing live and public speaking he does a pretty good job of it when he does perform on stage and delivers his speech well, a point he does reference himself as it goes on. On most shows I don't think audiences want a band member to speak for over ten minutes, but this is no normal show or normal musician. The audience is rapt and Lucassen's speech is amusing. He has always struck me as a musician to be a very down to Earth and humble man and it is obvious that he is overwhelmed by what has been done with his music for this show and how many people have turned out to see it performed.

In summary Ayreon Universe as a live release does have a few niggles like tracks being edited down, but ultimately it's a minor issues. The whole thing is damn impressive, especially when you consider how many major bands couldn't possibly have plans for the three nights these shows were performed due to their vocalists being occupied with it for ultimately very little time on stage each. It's a massive undertaking to put Ayreon on stage. It's testament to the quality of the music that Lucassen can get such talented people not just to appear on his albums but on stage as well. And despite it's niggles, Ayreon Universe is a damn entertaining show. It's very possibly the best live release I've seen to date.

PAIN OF SALVATION The Perfect Element, Part 1

Album · 2000 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.18 | 88 ratings
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The Perfect Element, Part I by Pain of Salvation is one of those progressive metal albums with a reputation: if you claim to like progressive music, this is an album you must hear. Well I heard it many years ago and having been completely disenchanted by the band's two prior records, The Perfect Element proved to be the final nail in the coffin in my journey through the work of Pain of Salvation. In fact I disliked the album so much I left the lowest possible rating I could on it, a rating that many have questioned me over since. It's surely getting close to a whole decade later if it hasn't already done so, and regard for the album remains high. People seem to genuinely not believe me when I say I don't like The Perfect Element. And I reached a point where I couldn't even justify the rating, having long reached the point where I couldn't remember a single thing about what it actually sounded like or even why I disliked it so much. Therefore I decided to venture back in to see if this supposed masterpiece could click this time around.

The first song Used starts off and by its conclusion there's only one thought in my mind: that I've made a massive mistake. But not because I was wrong about the album before. The mistake was putting myself through this again. Used may just be the worst song I've heard from a supposed 'progressive' metal band. If this is how the album opened it left me with little hope for the rest of it.

The next track is In the Flesh, which actually has some brief moments of promise and some better showcase of the band as musicians. Unfortunately it's also a very boring track overall, dragged out for over eight and a half minutes. But at least that's preferable to Ashes, which is once again a load of rubbish. Next up, Morning on Earth, is bearable I guess, but not exactly an exciting track. It was at this point in the album that I really considered just switching it off. However I was committed to this review by that point, so I had to solider on, hoping there would be something in the next two thirds to justify even a portion of the album's reputation.

Idioglossia finally started to offer some promise for The Perfect Element with a great progressive metal intro, the first of its kind on the album thus far (when you can only say that about a progressive metal album when you get to its fifth song you know the thing has serious problems). Sadly it's ruined by the time the vocals come in. The vocals aren't the only problem I have with this album, but they really don't help the situation either. Daniel Gildenlöw isn't a bad singer; he would later be part of the cast on Ayreon's 01011001 album and I never had an issue with his voice there, but on The Perfect Element his performance rarely works for me. He even tries rapping in some places, like in Used. I don't like rap in general and can rarely even tolerate it. In an album with a reputation as a progressive metal masterpiece it's the last thing I want or expect to hear. But I don't care for his vocals at all times on this album no matter what he's doing at the time. Idioglossia is, at least, the best song the album has severed up by this point, but even so, I don't feel especially positive about it overall. If anything I feel an irrational anger at the album by this point. Well, perhaps not at the album itself or the band, but certainly at the reputation people have built up around it. Nothing heard so far in any way justifies the kind of regard the album has.

Finally we get Her Voices, which after a shaky start becomes the first really good song on the album. But it feels like a lot of effort to get here after the first five tracks. But it is at least more like the sort of instrumental prowess and creativity that I was always led to expect from the album. Unfortunately this sudden surge of everything finally coming together doesn't last and following track Dedication is just boring and any good will garnered by Her Voices is soon used up. King of Loss isn't much better, dragging its feet for about three minutes before some heavy guitars show up. I don't mind soft music, but I did come here for progressive metal. By this point in that I can't say that much actual progressive metal has been delivered. Some alternative metal (arguably nu metal), absolutely. And some softer stuff which I am completely unconvinced over the band's ability to deliver convincingly.

As we start the album's last chapter, Reconciliation is a decent song. It's shorter, proggy and effective. Not a track that will leave your jaw on the floor in a hurry, but it does prove Pain of Salvation a capable unit when they get their act together and stop pussyfooting around with elements that clearly aren't in their wheelhouse. Song for the Innocent is also of the same calibre, but being the shortest song so far at barely three minutes feels more like an interlude, which is what the penultimate Falling actually is, not even hitting two minutes. It's just some nice, inoffensive lead guitar backed by ambience, clearly setting the stage for what on paper looks geared up to be the album's crowning achievement, it's ten minute title track, The Perfect Element. So is it?

In a word: no. It's not bad either, but it is anticlimactic. A rather drawn out end to a drawn out and disjointed album that over the course of over seventy minutes has never once lived up to its reputation, produced a fair amount of dull material and a couple of bloody awful tracks. The second half is certainly stronger than the first (as would it always have been by virtue of not having Used as a part of it), but it's still not anything special. It at least sounds more maturely delivered, which given that the album is a concept album dealing with childhood and adolescence, is probably by design, but the whole concept idea and delivery really doesn't fly with me. Her Voices remains, by the end, the album's best and only solid track.

And so let's summarise:

The Perfect Element? What an ironically named album. I would really love to know what other people seem to hear in this, because I think it's one of the worst progressive metal albums I've ever heard, also barely deserving of the term being applied to it, at least in its first half. There are a few decent moments, enough that I objectively shouldn't retain my older 0.5 star rating on it (though objectively it is no more than two stars at most), but I feel that I ultimately must because even though The Perfect Element does have its moments, it's never excellent and upon its conclusion the things I dislike about it outweigh the things I didn't mind or liked so much that I'm left with only one feeling for it: I despise this album and while I do try to write the text of my reviews objectively and not come across as a raving lunatic, the score should be my opinion. And my opinion is that The Perfect Element is much less than the sum of its parts and the only good thing I feel to have come out of giving it another chance was the opportunity to write this review to refer people to when they ask why the fuck do I have a 0.5 on The Perfect Element. And in another ten years maybe I'll re-read this and remind myself to next time not to bother revisiting it. And I certainly have no intention of ever intentionally hearing a single note of its sequel Scarsick, or anything else by Pain of Salvation. We are clearly incompatible.

BLIND GUARDIAN Follow the Blind

Album · 1989 · Speed Metal
Cover art 3.33 | 42 ratings
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Germany's Blind Guardian are undisputedly my favourite band. This is mostly because of what I think of as their holy trinity: Tales From the Twilight World (1990), Somewhere Far Beyond (1992) and Imaginations From the Other Side (1995). As far as I'm concerned if anyone claims that a stronger consecutive run of power metal albums (or even metal albums in general) exists then they must have been smoking something potent and highly illegal which left their brain addled beyond repair. But today we aren't here to talk about those albums. Before those came along, we had the original incarnation of Blind Guardian who played speed metal. Follow the Blind (1989) is the second and final album of this sound before they transitioned to power metal and history was made.

It had only been a little over a year since the release of Battalions of Fear (1988), but it's clear on Follow the Blind that Blind Guardian has become a much more polished and professional sounding unit in that time. This may be due at least in part to the band attracting Kai Hansen (Helloween) to guest on the album (and the two that follow it) and I'm sure the soon to be power metal band must have learned some tricks under the wing of one of the guys responsible for creating the genre they went on to play.

The debut Blind Guardian album of course has that special first album charm, that for me at least has always brought me to like it a little more than Follow the Blind. But this isn't an album that should be sold short or overlooked, despite it's quirk of closing with a cover of Barbara Ann originally by The Regents, which admittedly feels completely out of place. I actually stopped the album after the much more logical cover of Demon's Don't Break the Circle for many years and it was only later that I found an appreciate for Barbara Ann and started playing the album in its entirety. In hindsight it seems a rather ballsy thing for a band only on their second album to go ahead and do.

The original tracks on Follow the Blind are where it shines of course. Of particular note is Valhalla where we get guest vocals from Kai Hansen. I remember that as among the first Blind Guardian songs I heard and really loved. It had such a classic sound that screamed at me that this was what metal sound be all about. It remains a favourite Blind Guardian track to this day, with other highlights from the album being Banish from Sanctuary and Damned For All Time. The band's speed metal sound on this album is probably the closest they ever came to having some actual thrash metal material. If they'd been American, that's probably the direction they'd have taken next. Luckily they were German and speed metal over there meant proto-power metal rather than proto-thrash and so a legend was born.

While it's not quite top tier for Blind Guardian, Follow the Blind is an album I absolutely love. Even after listening to the band for over a decade, I'm still blown away by them and hold them up as the standard of what metal should be like.

DREAM THEATER Awake

Album · 1994 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.99 | 151 ratings
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Every artist has at least one album, possibly several, that the majority of their fans will proclaim blasphemy of other fans if they refuse to be sheep and say they don't like it. For US progressive metal band Dream Theater they have three albums this could be said of. They are Images and Words (1992), Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory (1999) and the subject of this review, Awake (1994). The other two are pretty damn fine progressive metal records that are rightly held up as classic examples of their genre. Then there's Awake.

I don't like Awake.

There, I said it, may the God of Prog strike me down for being a heretic.

(The author of this review takes a moment to look around, waiting for a lightning bolt to smite him. Nothing happens, so he continues writing).

It's true, I do not like Awake. I do not hate Awake either, but there's a big difference between not hating something and actually liking it. Awake exists in a void between these two extremes, a void that we could know by various names like 'the middle of the road' or as the kids of today might say; 'meh'. It is an album that does have a few highlights like Lie and the acoustic The Silent Man is also pretty nice, but most of it is fairly average fare for Dream Theater, bland and worse than bland, also pretty soulless. Like the sound of a band who doesn't know quite how they should follow up Images and Words and just went through the motions for a follow-up.

I have owned Awake for a long time now. I don't recall exactly where or when I bought it but I reckon it was in either 2007 or 2008. Over a decade certainly. It was certainly after I'd bought at least Images and Words, Metropolis and Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence (2002) – the latter of which was my first Dream Theater album. I loved all of those releases. Then Awake inevitably came onto my radar. I was aware of it's reputation. I was excited to get a hold of a copy. And then I listened to it.

And it just wasn't very good.

I spent the next couple of years intermittently returning to Awake and hoping that it would click. It never did. And prior to this review I reached a point where I did not feel inclined to play Awake ever again. It has in fact been over ten years since I last played the album in full. This is more than Falling into Infinity (1997), it's follow-up, which I can honestly say I don't think I have ever listened to more than once (though I do intend to revisit that album soon). Today I finally got up the courage to listen to Awake again. And nothing has changed. It's still not very good, has only a few highlight moments that still pale next to those from other Dream Theater albums and it still comes across as soulless pap. It's also still not bad, also still not an album I actively dislike or hate (unlike their The Astonishing (2016)). Awake just...is.

The kindest thing I've ever really felt I could say about it is, as stated, that it's not an actively bad album. But in a twist of fate that's perhaps also the worst thing I can say about it as well. We can have a good laugh at a bad album then write it off and forget about it. Awake instead falls into the worse category of (almost) total mediocrity. At least with an out and out bad album you can pinpoint exactly what's wrong with it. But you'll still remember it, if for the wrong reasons. They say bad publicity is better than no publicity. For me that can also be applied to music: a bad album is still better than a forgettable album. Awake for me is a very forgettable album, yet technically has nothing wrong with it on paper.

I do not think that I will ever be able to understand why Awake remains so highly regarded among Dream Theater's work. I know from when I was first discovering the band that there is a faction of fans out there who remained really hung up on the Kevin Moore era of Dream Theater, so maybe that's why. Who knows? I certainly don't care at this point. For me there is absolutely no way that Awake should be mentioned in the same breath as Images and Words and Metropolis. Except of course, to distance it from them.

TRIVIUM Ascendancy

Album · 2005 · Melodic Metalcore
Cover art 4.32 | 24 ratings
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A Journey Into Metal Part II

The tale of how I first became a metalhead through the most unlikely of sources, Metallica's St. Anger, has now been told. It is advisable that you if haven't read it that you do so now, so that this next chapter of the tale may be taken in context. And if you have read it, possibly read it again as I revised the first part quite considerably before starting this next piece of work, as many memories flooded back to me.

Okay, all caught up?

One can become a metalhead through just the one starting album. But that hardly completes our tale. Much like metal itself was started by Black Sabbath, it later become refined by the likes of Judas Priest and Rainbow with albums like Sad Wings of Destiny and Rising respectively. It was perhaps only by the time of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal that we might consider metal to have been fully formed as a genre. Or at least, the first genre of it, heavy metal itself. An individual metalhead can form much the same way. Although many will probably cringe at the comparison, St. Anger was to me what Black Sabbath was to the formation of the genre. Which means the second chapter of the story into metaldum is the refinement stage. The turning point, if you will, before one can consider themselves the person and metalhead they are today.

But first, it's important to get caught up.

I gradually picked up the rest of the Metallica albums. And my view of Metallica basically went that the first five were excellent. I did not know enough about metal at this point in my life that I even realised that the Black Album was considered a different genre to the first four. I knew all five sounded a lot better than St. Anger though, so I wasn't listening to that album too much. I did not think much of either Load or ReLoad, but I liked the covers album Garage Inc. I thought that was pretty fun. I think I may have listened to S&M once and have not bothered again to this day.

In the wider metal world Dimebag Darrel had been murdered on stage in 2004, which was a rather Earth shattering experience for both my best mate 'C' and myself who'd both got heavily into Pantera in this time. That kind of thing just didn't happen to metal guitar idols in our world. Looking back I believe we took his death quite differently. I seem to recall that 'C' started listening to Pantera more, especially poignant tracks like Cemetery Gates and Hollow. I, on the other hand, found it difficult to listen to Pantera's music with the same enthusiasm for a long time. Every time I put it on I just imagined Dimebag getting gunned down while playing. My young mind could not handle it. And so Pantera never really had the chance to become the stepping stone band that they really could have been for me. They were certainly the most extreme thing I was listening to at the time. They were the spark, at least, but not the true turning point. That was to come soon though.

The year was now 2005, almost two whole years since the release of St. Anger. This was my last year in secondary school. One thing that did happen when that school year came to a close is that a lot of the group mentioned in Part 1 drifted apart. I still see 'C' to this day, but sadly have lost touch with some of the others. I was glad to see the back of 'L' though. 'L' really took things too far in 2005 by taking the piss out of the Dimebag murder. I'd never given a fuck about what 'L' thought of the music I liked but that crossed a line. I like to think that a few others realised what a dick he was by that point, but probably not. 'L' was just one of those people that others gravitated toward and became sycophants to. I have no idea what happened to 'L' after school finished. And I don't much care. Wherever he is I don't expect his taste in music has improved.

Things had changed at home with the arrival of a computer with the Internet the previous year, but I hadn't yet discovered YouTube, which first launched in early 2005. I expect that discovery came in 2006, which I see as the pivotal year as that's when my household first got Sky TV and I found the Scuzz station that led me to many early interests in metal. But in 2005 itself things hadn't improved much. 2006 would also be the year I subscribed to Metal Hammer, so the amount of progress made between St. Anger and then was pitiful. Foo Fighters and Nickelback were still in heavy rotation. The former had released In Your Honour (which I know I'm spelling wrong but sue me I'm English and we invented the language!) and the other had released All the Right Reasons. It had a pretty angry song on it about Dimebag's murder that really resonated. The late guitarist even played on it by virtue of a sampled guitar solo. Both albums were well liked by yours truly at the time, so that's evidence that my taste hadn't really moved on all that much. I look back more fondly on one of those albums today than the other. See if you can guess which one. 2006 would also mark my discovery of Iron Maiden, who at the end of that year became my first proper concert. But for now we're stuck in 2005 and the album that is the ultimate subject of this story was released. Ascendancy by metalcore band Trivium.

Before Metal Hammer, Scuzz and YouTube changed everything, it was actually a guitar magazine, which wasn't supposed to be metal specific but often did seem to focus on it, that provided the much needed resource that my younger self required. 'C' also benefited from this. It is how we found Pantera. We liked the guitar track the magazine had put on the CD for Cemetery Gates so much that I bought Cowboys From Hell without ever hearing Phil Anselmo's vocals. Total Guitar's free CDs though were also notable for sometimes including album tracks and this was how I got my first taste of growling vocals. I don't recall if it was Avenged Sevenfold or Arch Enemy I heard first, but both were among such bands featured. However the first such album I bought was Ascendancy. I do not actually remember when or how I first heard Trivium proper. I suspect they were featured as an album track with Total Guitar, or else maybe I'm misremembering the dates of all this and I didn't discover this album until it had been out a while. It was about fifteen years ago after all. Either way, Total Guitar was certainly how I first became aware of Trivium. There was a lot of Trivium hype going around at the time which carried over into Metal Hammer and online, as those avenues were opened up to me. They got airplay on both Kerrang and Scuzz. An important factor that piqued my interest was their branding as the next Metallica. 'Next Metallica' quickly became apparent as something that people in the media just liked to say. Mastodon got saddled with it as well around the same time.

Ascendancy remains one of only a few metalcore records I ever bought. The others mainly either being also by Trivium or were bought in second hand shops for no other reason than they were that cheap, the best result of such pot luck being the discovery of Protest the Hero. I'm sure there's probably stuff of more worth out there than I've heard, I have in fact in more recent years been drawn to a couple of acts like Converge and Erra. There's something very different about those bands though than the kind of metalcore played by Trivium and other more household metalcore names of the time though like Bullet for my Valentine, Caliban and Killswitch Engage. And in general it became a genre I don't hold much love for. Much like with St. Anger and it's sound that most accept as alternative metal, which was the genre a lot of my early metal bands belonged to, discovered both before and after this album. But although I don't much care for these genres these days and don't actively seek them out, they were both very crucial stepping stones for me. Which is why like with St. Anger I still hold a lot of appreciation for Ascendancy.

There's a big difference with this album to that one though. It is actually really fucking good.

My metal peers of the time, by then not generally people I grew up with but people I was encountering online, on the then very new YouTube (which was a much different website much then with much better community features including groups that served as a minimalist forum (my first experience with such a platform)), heavily disagreed with the hype of Trivium. In fact they were so put out by Trivium (like they'd been personally offended by their existence) that they'd start dedicated hate channels for the band on YouTube and take every opportunity to dish dirt on them, about where they'd stolen this or that riff from and so forth. Yeah, the spirit of metal wasn't doing too well in them days. While the 'experienced' metalheads were bashing bands like Trivium for all they were worth, the kids were starting rap verses metal flame wars and shouting about TR00 Trash Metal (accurate spelling of the day). All in all it was a much more toxic community than was really healthy for the developing metalhead.

Much like with the initial disapproval of my folks and peers over starting to listen to metal with St. Anger, this reaction from the supposedly more in the know metal crowd only fuelled me to stand against them. Hey, I was a teenager, we're supposed to rebel against our elders and their beliefs. Trivium was a band that allowed me to do that. It also in hindsight scratched an itch for more extreme music that proved a catharsis over lingering anger over Dimebag's murder that even Metallica's early thrash couldn't scratch.

But I'm in my thirties now and I have say that I think those 'in the know' metalheads of the time were wrong about Trivium, especially over this album. While it's true that Trivium is not a band I return to often, I still think that Ascendancy is a very accomplished album from the then young band, perhaps even a classic of its era. An album that does possibly show adolescence in its song-writing, but honestly it's more forgivable here considering the age of the band at the time. Matt Heafy was only 19 at the time of the album's release and that was only a couple of years older than I was! Old school metalheads of the time probably thought the kids should be looking up to the same bands as them (and maybe now it's our turn we do the same to the next generation and don't even realise it) and so vehemently rejected Heafy and his band Trivium, but to us who were of that sort age he was a figure to look up to.

Tracks like Rain, A Gunshot to the Head of Trepidation and Like Light to the Flies still find their way into regular random rotation from my PC media player and other tracks less frequently so. Because the YouTube haters of the day I'm afraid I can't listen to Pull Harder on the Strings of Your Martyr with a straight face any more because of a rather infamous misheard lyrics video which last time I checked could still be found on YouTube.

Unfortunately Trivium probably took the whole 'next Metallica' thing to heart, so their next album was The Crusade and it seemed designed to imitate Metallica as much as possible, which ultimately just gave fodder to their haters. But for me personally Ascendancy was the album that opened me up to extreme metal, broadened my horizons and opened the floodgates for all kinds of exciting new genres of metal that I began getting exposed to the following year during my gap between school and college. Like with St. Anger, I'll always hold a special place in my heart and collection for it. If it wasn't for this particular would I have become interested in other metal genres like death metal and black metal? Well probably eventually, but this album sure seemed to speed up the process. I was certainly starting to check those out on that first computer at home soon after this. It was the album that spurred me onward. I found genre after genre from that point on. Progressive metal through Dream Theater. Folk metal through Cruachan (one guy I met on YouTube was so insistent that I listen to Cruachan that he emailed by every song from Folk-Lore track by track - highly illegal of course, but Cruachan remains my favourite folk metal band and I own every album they've made so I think they'll forgive us). Black metal through Immortal. I could list every genre with a key band and it all branches out from Ascendancy, another album that was often maligned, although not to the extent of St. Anger.

This concludes the second chapter of this tale and I think it also has to be the last. The branching out starts here. I began to become fully formed as a metalhead. I'm still living the third chapter of this trilogy. Some probably thought I'd grow out of metal music and that would bring the story to a close.

I don't think it's going to happen.

HAIL SPIRIT NOIR Eden in Reverse

Album · 2020 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.82 | 7 ratings
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After three well received albums mixing black metal with retro psychedelic rock, Greek trio Hail Spirit Noir has entered into a period of change. The most noticeable of these before you hear even a note of their fourth album Eden in Reverse (2020) is that the band line-up has been expanded greatly, with seven musicians now credited as full band members. The changes are not just in extension. Primary vocalist Theoharis has given up that role to regular collaborator Dimitris Dimitrakopoulos and newcomer Cons Marg. Although the former has always been with Hail Spirit Noir providing clean vocals to Theoharis' growls Eden in Reverse marks the first release where he is credited as a full band member. Cons Marg also sings cleanly, which is a good indicator that Eden in Reverse is taking the band in a new path. Vocals are not the only thing the band has doubled up on with this release with synth duties now shared between long time member Haris and newcomer Sakis Bandis. For the first time the band also has a drummer in the main line-up with the addition of Foivos Chatzis. The album features an additional guest vocal appearance by Lars 'Lazare' Nedland of Borknagar, who joins the band for the track Crossroads.

Hail Spirit Noir has since 2012 and their debut album Pneuma been one of the more unique acts on the black metal scene. There have been other bands that get described as psychedelic black metal but no one else ever really captured the fusion like that did, not even Oranssi Pazuzu. Hail Spirit Noir delivered three excellent albums in this style, most recently being Mayhem in Blue (2016), which for my money was their best one yet. It was the one that it was going to be really difficult for them to top. So in that respect it makes a lot of sense for them not to mark sure that too much of a good thing didn't become flogging a dead horse and reinvent themselves. Eden in Reverse in the result of this attempt.

Reinventing yourself as a band must be a tricky business. On the one hand change is the point, but you also surely don't want to alienate too much of your fan base in the process. My personal belief is that most music fans are open to change, when done for the right reasons (meaning anything but selling out), but generally we want a new work to still be recognisable as the same artist, especially when that artist is a rather unique and special one like Hail Spirit Noir.

So here we have Eden in a Reverse, a record which features absolutely none of the black metal sound of Hail Spirit Noir's first three albums. How much does this still seem like the same band then? Actually, pretty damn well, because as far as black metal bands go, Hail Spirit Noir was never afraid to use lots of clean vocals and use lighter sections of music that drew on retro progressive rock and psychedelic rock. And although the black metal and the growling vocals with it are now gone, this other side of Hail Spirit Noir remains intact, still integrated with metal, and has been dialled up to the max. The psychedelic element is also notable for sounding a lot more spacey than on previous records. The term 'retro-futuristic' has been used by the band to describe the new sound and that's pretty accurate I think.

The album is very synth driven and that's to be expected with two guys going at them in the band now. The guitars are still pretty metal when they get going, but Hail Spirit Noir has never been a pure metal band even when they were black metal orientated, so variations in more from metal to rock should be expected by listeners. The main thing that's really changed is that they are now perhaps better described as psychedelic progressive metal opposed to psychedelic black metal. One might even call this a legitimate attempt at the creation of a space metal genre. At least it certainly manages to conjure up vibes of future space exploration (albeit space exploration as it may have been envisioned in the 1980s) with both it's sound and sound titles, which include Alien Lip Reading, The First Ape on New Earth and Automata 1980. I dare say that with Eden in Reverse Hail Spirit Noir have gone from performing one unique take on metal straight into another one. I cannot honestly say I have ever heard another album that sounds quite like this.

But is it any good? Well, it might actually be the band's best album yet and that's not a claim I want to make lightly, because I bloody love their prior work, especially Mayhem in Blue and Pneuma is really not far behind. But this one has knocked me for six and that's just from hearing a single song, that being The First Ape on New Earth, the first released track from the album. Let me assure you, it didn't take long to get over the surprise that they'd dropped the black metal! It's been a while since a song really infected me like that one did so that I was helpless but to keep playing it while waiting for the whole album to be released. Then they also released Crossroads ahead of the full release and then that did the same thing. Perhaps a little more of a grower than The First Ape on New Earth, something that's true of a lot of the songs here, but it doesn't take many listens for the album to have really opened up. Then it's repeat plays of the whole thing on the menu. Any expectations of being served up more black metal get quickly forgotten.

I was already confident in my belief that Hail Spirit Noir was one of the most important black metal bands of the 2010s. Now with Eden in Reverse they're one of the most important progressive metal bands for the 2020s. If people are ignoring this album, then they do so at their own loss, because here we have a special band who in some ways might be accused of wearing certain influences on their sleeves, yet makes everything they do their own, finding a balance between respectful homage to the old school and the expectations of the modern era they exist in. The result is a record that is uniquely the sound of Hail Spirit Noir. The extreme side of the band may have been laid to rest, yet the album still manages to feel like a logical progression from what came before, leaving no doubt in my mind that we can answer the earlier question in the affirmative: Eden in Reverse most certainly still feels like the same band. A evolved band, but with the same soul. And I for one will be using the album as the benchmark for others in beat in 2020.

BEARDFISH The Void

Album · 2012 · Metal Related
Cover art 4.00 | 10 ratings
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The Review Revision Project #1

Introduction: The Review Revision Project is a review series focusing on albums that I have reviewed before, likely many years ago. However even though the older review may have been well written, I have found myself no longer able to stand by its content.

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The Void (2012) is the seventh studio album by Swedish progressive rock act Beardfish. The almost seventy minute long album contains ten tracks including the epic near sixteen minute Note. There is also a bonus track which is a piano version of the song Ludvig & Sverker. The Void is my first and so far only encounter with the music of Beardfish, despite it now being eight years since the album's release and the first time I heard it.

There may be two reasons for that. For one thing, The Void is, from what I'm led to believe, at bit of an oddity in the Beardfish discography, because it's their only release that is significantly influenced by metal music, which is my primary interest and what drew me to the album in the first place eight years ago. The second is the reason why I've selected The Void to be the first (and so far only planned) entry in The Review Revision Project series: it's that much of a grower. The original review I gave this album was positive, but it was hesitant praise. I wasn't wowed by The Void, at the time. There were a couple of tracks I really liked like the metallic Voluntary Slavery and the epic instrumental Seventeen Again, but overall I merely found it solidly crafted and enjoyable, but lacking something that would have given it that extra sparkle of an excellent record.

The problem I assure you readers, was not with the album, but with my ears. Years later, I randomly decided that I would take a fresh listen to The Void. An 'Oh yeah, haven't heard that lately' kind of thing. I couldn't especially recall what I'd specifically written about it at the time of review, but I soon realised that what I was hearing wasn't adding up with the rating I'd given it. At the time, I just left my old review and bumped the score up marginally by half a star.

Yet still, that wasn't doing The Void any kind of justice. Which brings us to today. The proper reappraisal of The Void, having finally bought the CD of it and not just relying on Spotify.

The talk of the time that Beardfish had gone metal was a bit exaggerated, as it did tend to leave one expecting to hear a fully fledged progressive metal record from the Swedes. It did at least turn out to be half true. There's plenty of metal to be found during The Void, though primarily the band remain playing progressive rock. I think some progressive rock bands occasionally sound metallic by fluke rather than design, but that's not the case here. Beardfish clearly knows they're adding metal to their sound. After all, they even put down a couple of brief death growls in the tracks Voluntary Slavery and This Matter of Mine.

However it's a mixed bag of style, not just metal. There's prog rock. There's psych rock. If you've got the bonus track there's a pure piano song too, which incidentally is actually a very good rendition of the track that brings its beautiful melody out all the more than normal. What in 2012 seemed like such a mixed bag of styles that it didn't flow too well to my ears, that were obviously in need of servicing at the time, now seems to be the very reason that The Void is not just a great album, it's one of the best albums of its year. Despite first hearing it eight years ago, it's only today that I really feel blown away by The Void. This album sure played a long game.

It saddens me to see that among the Beardfish discography this tends to be rated lower. I mean, I still haven't heard their other work, but even so, having had it really open up to me over time I can't say that I consider The Void as anything less than a progressive masterpiece, and I don't think it gets recognition as such. I certainly didn't regard it as such, at first. One chance whim to play it again changed a lot. Maybe more people should do that with The Void. They might just be pleasantly surprised.

METALLICA St. Anger

Album · 2003 · Alternative Metal
Cover art 1.81 | 124 ratings
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A Journey Into Metal Part I

The year was 2003. The place, a small town in the United Kingdom. The hero of our story is yours truly, then between fourteen and fifteen years old. His quest? To discover a taste in music that he could claim as his own. It is a strange tale of how he came to find the form of music known as metal thanks to an album that goes by the name of St. Anger, which many will tell you on a dark night, telling ghost stories by firelight, is some kind of monster. In most stories, it would cast as the villain. This is not most stories.

Every metalhead who ever lived has a tale about how they came to metal. Many may start with the band Metallica, but something earlier, more classic like Master of Puppets, Ride the Lightning or the self-titled 'Black Album'. Or perhaps more likely they'll come to metal through one of the classic British heavy metal bands of the 70s or 80s. Like Black Sabbath, where it all began. Or Judas Priest, who then refined it. Or Iron Maiden, the kings of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. But not so for our young protagonist, and so our story starts in that little town in the UK, where if you wanted to buy a CD, your best bet was Woolworths or a supermarket.

I came late to any kind of taste in music perhaps at first because of my parents; a Father who lived and breathed Pink Floyd and was determined to impose that band on his son above all others he listened to (if he'd gotten the Led out this tale might have taken a very different turn) and a Mother who worshipped Bruce Springsteen to the point that all other music was almost entirely irrelevant. Neither of these artists made me sit up and think 'yeah, that's for me!' In fact, I understood music so little that, in a rather cringe-worthy moment that was probably in the late 1990s, I even went as far as asked my old man what the point of music was. I don't recall the answer I got. I think the question stumped him as much as it would me today. Being into music, it really is an unnamed feeling. Fast-forward to 2020 and I, now in my thirties, have just recently purchased my 1000th CD (and counting fast). But how did I get there?

It wasn't an easy journey. Particularly because it's one of those journeys that you don't really know you're even on until you get there. To understand why, we need to take a closer look at our setting. The early 2000s were dark times for any would-be metalhead in the United Kingdom. It wasn't standard in households to have satellite TV, which (at least by the time I did get access to them) had a couple of music stations that specialised in heavier music (the better one being the now defunct Scuzz), just the standard five channels (used to be four and I still recall how much excitement there was over the launch of Channel 5) where the best and only options to hear new music were the likes of Top of the Pops (which has Led Zep's Whole Lotta Love as the theme which I had taken note of) and CD:UK (where teenage me noticed Cat Deeley more than any music). And they only cared about three things: the charts, the charts and the charts again. And I was a little late to pick up on Iron Maiden when they came up with Brave New World and probably got some coverage at least from TOTP. Maiden would be undiscovered by me until 2006, but would eventually become my first proper concert at the end of that year.

The internet wasn't an option either. In those days, even having the internet wasn't a given depending on your situation. Rich Kids (meaning kids who had rich parents, but Rich Kids was the term we used back then due to the way they flaunted the wealth as their own) had PC's and the internet. You, among the plebs in your more humble background, didn't. It wasn't the thing everyone takes for granted now. It certainly wasn't on your phone. The mobile phone may have a history going back much further than 2003, but it would be a while yet before it was normal for every kid to have one and they weren't the iPhone and Androids of today. If you were lucky enough to access to the internet, it was strictly in the home. And it was probably dial-up, whose speed and constant disconnections would likely make the youth of today who are surgically attached to their phones shoot themselves. And then ask someone to shoot them again because they ain't dead yet. And even if you were lucky enough to be online, this was 2003. There was no Spotify. No YouTube. No Bandcamp. None of the websites that in later life I have come to rely on to check music, old and new, out so that I can make an informed purchase of it.

If you were a Brit in those times you either had to hear new music that made the charts, or hear about through word of mouth from someone you knew, or buy a magazine, the ultimate quality of which remains debatable to this day. Metal Hammer did help me in the following years, though Kerrang could fuck right off, and who'd think to buy a Metal Hammer when you haven't yet realised you liked metal? This was thing: how could one find metal, if one didn't know to even look for it?

Like my parents, my circle of friends and peers tried to enforce their taste upon me. Some were trying to be helpful. Others were more aggressive in their belief that everyone should like the same bands as they did. To protect identities, I'll just refer to these people by their first initial.

There were a few bands of the time, all chart reaching types, that were rock bands but not metal bands, that were collectively liked by a few of these people. Blink 182. Feeder. Green Day. Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Not liking the song Can't Stop by RHCP was something that some of my mates, particularly 'D', couldn't get their heads around. I remember vividly one day in the school grounds in 2003, when Can't Stop was a single, how 'D' was so shocked that I did not like the song that he went running round to the group who liked these bands mentioned above about how I didn't like Can't Stop. I'm still not sure what he intended to achieve by that. Validation? Who knows, this was the same person who in the school canteen one day asked me why I always ordered a chicken burger from the stand instead of a turkey burger. The answer of course was that they were made of chicken. I still can't believe that 'D' retorted that they were 'the same fucking bird'. Last I heard of 'D' he was training to be a chef.

Possibly there were other bands to whom I was introduced (either willing or just by being in proximity) by these people, but these were the stand out names that kept being presented to our hero. Well, there was also that one friend, 'R', who was all about Sum 41 and also had a thing for Slipknot's Iowa album at one point, but the less said about him the better. He, after all, completely turned his back on all rock music and started exclusively listening to hip-hop and adopting the culture of that music. A common issue of white kids acting and talking like they're black. These days they'd probably label it cultural appropriation.

While I did get a few (heavy) rock bands that I liked it this time period, which would have been the very early 2000s, the only one I still listen to every so often is Foo Fighters, who were the gem of that era as far as mainstream rock music went. Other bands I found I liked were Nickelback (who I later found out were if anything even more hated than St. Anger not just for one album but as a whole, which I must say was rather a childhood ruining experience) and Muse, but my interest in Muse turned out to be short lived. I even sold the albums I owned of them, which in later years I have begun to wonder if I may have been hasty over. I didn't sell the Nickelback. Not just because of greater nostalgia than Muse, but because no bugger would have bought them anyway. Still, back in the early 2000s I liked these bands, but something still wasn't quite right. I wasn't interested in moving beyond these bands.

One mate, 'C' who to this day is my best friend, was the most useless of the bunch at the time. 'C' joined our school in year 8 and when asked what music he was into I recall him answering one time the exact words of 'black man rap'. These days, excluding myself, he's the biggest rocker/metalhead of the lot of them.

The truth was, I did actually hear metal music before Metallica came up with St. Anger. And I didn't like it. In fact it was some the worst shit that was bothering the charts. Wait...the charts? We have to take an intermission here to give a rather sarcastic round of applause to the following bands, who almost did a damn good job of forever derailing my journey into metal.

Linkin Park. Limp Bizkit. Papa Roach. Korn. Actually, not so much Korn, but they didn't exactly do it for my young mind either and honestly Korn weren't getting the airplay at the time like the likes of Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit were. But these bands were what I first knew of as metal. Again, this was pre-Internet for me, so there was no going on the likes of Encyclopaedia Metallum and seeing how these acts were rejected as metal by those in the know (a stance that would have (and did) swayed my younger self but at this point I can recognise bigoted elitism when I see it).

And because of these bands I thought metal fucking sucked.

Salvation then, come from a source that years later seems a most unlikely one, a much maligned album by Metallica, a band that I was aware of, but had never heard until this, and just assumed sounded like those other shitty metal bands. I'd certainly never heard the term thrash metal before. There was just nu-metal. Other metal presumably being old-metal and redundant. Lord knows there was that one guy 'L' in school who gave his own friend 'K' all kinds of shit for liking Iron Maiden and Nirvana. ''K' only listens to artists who are over 50 or dead', 'L' would say regularly in that 'I'm better than you' way of talking that he had. A showcase of ignorance: Iron Maiden weren't that old in the early 2000s. The oldest member is Nicko McBrain who is only 68 now in 2020, making him the only one who had passed 50 in 2003.

In hindsight I should have gotten to know 'K' better. He probably had the best taste in music of all of us. But I don't recall sharing any classes with 'K' and so we didn't really socialise. He was also really quiet, like an invisible kid. Somehow I ended up getting to know 'L' better, since he seemed to attach himself to as many people as possible. I think he only hung out with us because he didn't like that some of his mates from primary school had befriended some of us who went to different primary schools once we all merged for secondary school. But we weren't friends, 'L' and I. Our relationship ranged from toleration to hostility. 'L' was into all those bands I mentioned earlier. He eventually forced his way into my school years band, since the rest of my mates thought the sun shone out of him, to the result of that band never trying to play together again after one bedroom rehearsal at 'D's' place. Of course we were crap, couldn't string one song together, had no bassist (my mate 'A' would turn his guitar low to try to compensate) or singer (I would try to growl briefly, which was quickly put a stop to by interfering parents), but that wasn't the point. It's because of 'L', more than anyone else who tried to push their taste onto me in these years, that I even today have an irrational hate of bands like Feeder, Green Day and RHCP. One might even say I was madly in anger with them.

Anyway, that Metallica album, before I digress from this story too far:

St. Anger. St. Fucking Anger.

And my mind was blown by music for the first time in my life.

But we do need to rewind slightly to get the full picture of this story, because this wasn't the first time I had heard metal that wasn't the awful nu-metal crap I'd previously been exposed to. I hadn't realised that another album I'd discovered slightly before this in 2003, was actually metal as well, except no one seemed to acknowledge it at the time (or since, really). Yet in hindsight it obviously was. Alternative, yes, but not nu (well maybe one song slightly, but not enough to worry about), and that really made a big difference. But the media just labelled it goth and Christian rock, so we can't really say that this album was my real gateway to metal. Sorry Fallen and Evanescence, but a misunderstanding media make you this story's tragic character who should be more important than you actually are.

When St. Anger first blared out of my speakers, there could be no room for doubt. THIS was metal. Not that nu-metal stuff that was full of rapping and other nonsense. And I somehow knew that this was it. This was my music. It was the heaviest and most aggressive stuff I'd ever come across. And it suited me like nothing else did. From that day forth, I knew one thing for certain: I had to find more metal. This was my world.

This choice wasn't met with much approval. In fact, none at all. My more punk and pop based mates thought I'd lost the plot. 'A' labelled me as having become a 'grunger'. Another show of adolescent ignorance there. This was the first and only time I've been called such or even heard the term. We were of a generation who'd missed the grunge explosion and that term may have been more widely used. 'A' probably knew it because he had a much older brother who was already an adult while we were in school and couldn't tell the difference between Nirvana and what Metallica was doing here. There's actually a lot of debate still about what Metallica was doing here, but it sure as hell isn't grunge. 'L' got something that he could throw in my face for liking even more the the crap he gave 'K'. But I didn't care. I knew I was now onto something that would likely shape the remainder of my musical life. And if 'L' had an issue with that he could respectfully go fuck himself.

My parents were more accepting, especially my Dad, though my Mum, who did her best to make sure her son lived a very sheltered life, disapproved of the swearing in the album, but by that point swearing in my music wasn't anything new. Even an ill fated exploration of techno had had the same 'problem' but the less we say about those times the better! Eventually she came around and has even attended concerts of metal bands herself, including Paradise Lost touring Medusa, growling and all. As an aside, I also found some appreciation for her beloved Springsteen, but as far as Bruce's go, I'm with Dickinson any day. I still can't stand Pink Floyd though. Sorry Dad!

But this disapproval of the time didn't stop me. If anything, it added fuel to my fire. And I found what I desired. More metal. Early Metallica, starting from the beginning with Kill 'Em All, was an early one on my list, which soon made me realise, although I'd played it to death by that point, that maybe St. Anger wasn't actually that great after all. That I'd been looking in through a dirty window but hadn't yet got a clear picture of what was possible with metal. And so I moved on from it. Convinced myself and I didn't like it at all any more for a time, and St. Anger began to gather dust.

But it didn't matter, because St. Anger had done something for me that no other album could claim, something that made me keep remembering it, which leads us to today's story and ultimate reappraisal of the album. It had made me a metalhead. And for that reason alone, I'll always have a special place in my collection for it. It might arguably be the most important album for personal discovery and growth that I own.

It is now 2020 and it's not many years off two decades since the album was released and at this point in time it's easy to acknowledge the problems that St. Anger objectively has. The writing is too drawn out. The lyrics aren't great. Most songs here could comfortably shave some minutes off. The drum sound sucks as much as every says it does and probably has harmed the reputation of Lars Ulrich for life. James Hetfield's vocals aren't what they once were. It's not the thrash metal album that people likely wanted after Load and ReLoad. It's not even a Black Album Part II. And there are no solos.

But you know what it also is? It's the sound of a long running band having the balls to do something different – to go into the studio and have Kirk Hammett not record a single guitar solo. To fuck up the drum sound because Lars Ulrich literally forgot to do something to set up his kit like he was supposed to and just rolling with it and seeing what happens. And to be honest I believe that Metallica played with a level of passion and commitment on this record that rarely comes through on a studio recording. And you know what? It's at least better than Load. Load is just boring. I'll take passionate but faulted any day over boring. I actually find myself really sorry for them that it has been thrown back in their faces so much.

Overall, today I believe St. Anger to be at least a semi-decent album. That will likely prove a controversial opinion to many who may read this. Well, I certainly have gathered quite a few of those in my strange journey into metaldom, such as believing that the idea of the Big Four of thrash is one of the biggest farces in metal. But that is another story. This one must end now and I hope it has proved enlightening in some way (or at least entertaining) and perhaps will give you pause to reconsider St. Anger. It sure as hell isn't perfect, but it could be a lot worse.

It could be Lulu.

PARADISE LOST Obsidian

Album · 2020 · Gothic Metal
Cover art 4.72 | 9 ratings
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The UK's Paradise Lost is a band that is no stranger to change. One might argue they've made their career on it. They went from humble death-doom metal beginnings to gothic metal superstars across their first five albums. Next they descended into gothic rock and electronic territory for One Second (1997) and Host (1999) respectively. Even when metalling it up again with Believe in Nothing (2001), they were now influenced by genres like alternative metal and industrial metal. Then Paradise Lost started to come full circle, shedding these elements by the time of In Requiem (2007), which saw them back in the frame of doomy gothic metal. Then the doom metal started coming to the fore all the more. Then back came the growling vocals of their early days for the first time in years for The Plague Within (2015) and then finally with Medusa (2017), Paradise Lost released their first death-doom metal album since 1991's Gothic. So what could Obsidian (2020), their sixteenth studio album, possibly be?

The answer is an album that could easily be described as a summary of everything that has made Paradise Lost the special band that they are. The most gothic metal they've been since Tragic Idol (2012), yet Obsidian doesn't again retire Nick Holmes' growling vocals with it, instead leaving us with something that may be what classic albums like Icon (1993) and fan favourite Draconian Times (1995) might have sounded like if Nick had never stopped growling in the first place. That alone makes Obsidian another rather unique entry in the Paradise Lost discography. There are certainly also some nods to their more gothic rock based material.

While it's true that some may be disappointed that the return to death-doom metal has already been largely moved on from – the most Medusa-like track featured here is the closing Ravenghast and fans of that album are recommended to get a version of the album with the bonus tracks for more similar material – I find myself impressed by the ability of Paradise Lost to not make direct copies of their previous album's sound very often. Even when two consecutive albums like Icon and Draconian Times are similar in style, it's always just the two albums before the band is changing things up with their influences again and there's very few artists that's true of. And with Obsidian they prove they can still surprise – a band that thirty years on from their debut, remains just as relevant and never derivative of themselves.

The song selection is also strong, not that this is an area that Paradise Lost usually has any trouble with. They've long proven their knack for making the individual track standout from the rest of the album. And once again, they've managed to make a release I know I'll be listening to many times over and will go down as a favourite for 2020.

NEAL MORSE One

Album · 2004 · Metal Related
Cover art 4.86 | 7 ratings
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One (2004) is the second of US musician Neal Morse's progressive rock solo releases following Testimony (2003) and his fourth solo studio album overall. Like with most of Morse's work after his exit from Spock's Beard the album is a Christian themed concept release, I believe being a musical telling of the Bible itself. Morse is joined by a host of guest performers, including a Phil Keaggy who shares lead vocal on Cradle to the Grave, along with a core band of Randy George on bass and Mike Portnoy on drums, who both co-wrote the album with him. The album has been released as both a standard edition single CD and a double CD with extra tracks and cover songs.

The near eighty minute long album sees Neal Morse and company doing what after several releases down the line from One could be said to be them doing what they do best. Symphonic progressive rock music with a host of influences creeping in, perhaps most notably some metal on the track Author of Confusion. This is certainly a highlight of the release, featuring several minutes of some of the heaviest material Neal Morse has ever put out before switching up to some epic symphonic prog and then again to a capella section with counterpoint vocals (previous heard in Spock's Beard with tracks like Thoughts Part 2) and eventually comes round to the metal bit again. A few stabs of metal can also be heard in the albums two main multi-part epics The Creation and The Separated Man, both of which are also highlights of the release. If there's one artist you can rely on to write an epic it's Neal Morse. Whether it's solo, Spock's Beard or Transatlantic, he's on the money every time.

In addition to the progressive rock primary sound of One there are also a couple of instances where Neal descends into more basic balladry and while this isn't as epic as his prog these tracks do serve their purpose in balancing the release, which flows really well through all the different moods and intricacies. The Man's Gone, the second track and a short offering, proves a perfect claim before the storm before Author of Confusion thunders out of your speakers. Despite the long total running time it's really not hard to get through this one (see what I did there?) in a single sitting and there's no temptation to skip the balladry. Morse has wrote some cheesy ballads in his time, but the ones here are among his better ones.

One is certainly one of Neal Morse's best releases. I personally can't believe that it took me so long to secure myself a copy of it. For a long time the only Morse solo album I owned was the equally excellent Sola Scriptura (2007). But having found myself in a prog rock mood of late (especially a symph prog mood) I finally grabbed a copy and have been spinning it a lot the last couple of days. I am also looking forward to receiving a copy of ? (2005) and The Grand Experiment (2015), the first album of his The Neal Morse Band venture.

DARK FOREST Dark Forest

Album · 2009 · Heavy Metal
Cover art 3.38 | 7 ratings
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Dark Forest (2009) is the self-titled debut album by UK heavy metal act Dark Forest. Although the band went on after this to be more familiar as a five piece act, this debut sees them as a four piece with the vocals performed by guitarist Christian Horton. This is a retrospective review written shortly after the release of the group's fifth album Oak, Ash & Thorn (2020).

The songs on Dark Forest number among the best that the band has ever put out. This is a quality heavy metal album with some power and folk references, that really channels the genre history in the UK, specifically the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. If it has been released at that time this debut record might have gone on to put Dark Forest on the same status level as Iron Maiden or Saxon. There's just one problem, which would have applied then just as much as when the album was actually released in 2009.

Christian Horton cannot sing.

This album unfortunately isn't one of those cases where a band had a singer less liked than their classic singer at the start of their career, but who was still pretty good. Horton is just plain poor as a vocalist. Credit where it is due, you can really tell he is trying his best to carry the album, to moderate success in spite of himself, but sadly he's just not cut out for it. It's no surprise that after this Dark Forest managed to recruit Will Lowry-Scott and then Josh Winnard (who remains their vocalist to this day) to take over this duty from Horton. I've seen some voice the opinion that someone, somewhere once told Horton he could sing and he believed it, but I find it more likely that he sang on Dark Forest out of necessity rather than hubris; a young band who couldn't find the right vocalist and wanted to get music out there. Of course, either theory is pure speculation unless Horton himself clears this bit of band history up, but regardless despite the issues regarding his vocals here, the band got it together in time for their next album Dawn of Infinity (2011) which as an aside, remains one of my personal favourite heavy metal releases of the decade just gone.

The album itself is actually quite good even with the vocals because as I stated earlier the songs themselves number among the best Dark Forest ever wrote. One of them, The Wizard of Alderley Edge, was actually re-recorded with Will Lowry-Scott as part of the Defender (2009) EP and alone shows what really might have been with this first album – possibly the best Dark Forest record. It's really surprising that the band has never re-recorded more tracks from it. Not least the self-titled song Dark Forest, which to me at least seems like it should have been a must. With the position of lead vocalist now seemingly stable with John Winnard, one can only hope that the band jumps on the golden opportunity to revive these tracks, if not completely re-record the whole album. If they did that I can't see any situation where the 3.5 star rating it currently gets from me wouldn't morph into a 5.0.

MYRKUR Folkesange

Album · 2020 · Non-Metal
Cover art 4.41 | 2 ratings
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Folkesange (2020) is the third full-length studio album by Danish atmospheric black metal solo act Myrkur (Amalie Bruun). This one is a bit different though: it's a non-metal folk album, embracing else elements from Myrkur's black metal work. Most of the album is not sung in English. This isn't Myrkur's first major non-metal release as the live album Mausoleum (2016) was also folk based.

Myrkur's take on folk music is a blend between Scandinavian folk sounds with some dark folk. Folkesange often reminds me of what the Swedish band Fejd would sound like if they had a female vocalist instead of a male (and before they went metal, obviously). Myrkur has always used folk influences in her black metal sound, so this album doesn't feel like a major step away from what she did before, including vocally, since Myrkur for the most part performed black metal with the unusual take of nearly exclusively using clean singing (to surprisingly good effect).

If you're reading this review as a metal fan who doesn't like non-metallic folk you might not enjoy Folkesange too much. But as a metalhead who's actually very partial to the odd bit of non-metallic folk, I find myself very impressed by the results of Myrkur's Folkesange. If I were to describe it in three words I'd pick gentle, pleasant and beautiful. I especially like that she didn't record it in English bar a couple of tracks. I always think folk music (and I include folk metal in that grouping) sounds more authentic when language is used to directly tie it to the musician's homeland.

I'm not sure if Myrkur intends Folkesange as a one off in between black metal albums or whether this album marks a more permanent shift in direction for the project, but upon conclusion of the release, it actually seems rather irrelevant: Myrkur is adapt at either genre of music so whatever she decided to do next, I'm awaiting it eagerly.

MARE COGNITUM Wanderers: Astrology Of The Nine

Split · 2020 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 5.00 | 3 ratings
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Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine (2020) is a part split and part collaboration album by US solo project Mare Cognitum and Greek solo act Spectral Lore. Both acts belong to the atmospheric black metal genre. Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine is the second release that the two have got together for after Sol (2013), to which Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine can be considered a thematic sequel; with the former being about our Sun, and Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine taking a journey through the planets themselves, openly owing a nod to Gustav Holst's Planets Suite in conception. And yes, the planets do include Pluto, so take that International Astronomical Union. In fact, Pluto gets not one but two tracks to its name here, with both acts collaborating on them.

Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine is a gargantuan release. The pair's prior offering Sol was already a substantial effort – a near seventy minute release spread across just three tracks, but Mare Cognitum and Spectral Lore have really outdone themselves with this one. While no individual track comes close to the 29:10 and 25:53 long beasts that were their individual contributions to Sol respectively, there's a lot more tracks overall. Ten, to be exact. That's four each for each act on their own and the two Pluto tracks working together. It all comes together as a double album that is almost a full two hours long. Even without each other and their collaborations there is more than enough material here apiece for each to have released an individual studio album. Perhaps more than any other split that either has taken part in, including Sol, Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine, really does feel like it could serve as the fifth studio album of each act.

Our journey though the planets isn't told in sequence. We start with Mercury, but then skip to Mars, backtrack to Earth and Venus, before passing the asteroid belt and reaching Jupiter to complete the first disc of the album. Disc two picks up at Saturn, before going ahead to Neptune, back to Uranus and finally to the two part Pluto. Thematically it seems a little odd that they didn't follow the planets in order of distance from Sol, but then Holst didn't follow the traditional order either. I expect this was done for reasons of musical flow, because the order of tracks on the album does present something that feels very natural. I'll have to re-order the album sometime to see how it works by switching the tracks around. The ordering does also mean that the album does not follow a strict baton pass between the two acts, with Mare Cognitum getting two consecutive tracks on disc 1.

The burning question over the release, at least for those who don't make atmospheric black metal or even black metal in general one of their main listening interests, is whether almost two hours is too much for one release even with two artists performing and does it outstay its welcome? After all, it's well known that Mare Cognitum and Spectral Lore are on very close pages with their takes on atmospheric black metal and that's been even more apparent since they first released Sol together. Well, if it was two lesser bands attempting this then the results might be very different. But Mare Cognitum and Spectral Lore both happen to be acts that are among those are the very top of their game in the current scene. Both have released albums of the top tier like Phobos Monolith (2014) and III (2014) respectively. Working together they produce the kind of music that is a clear example of something being better than the sum of its parts. And when the parts were top notch to begin with you're dealing with something really special.

Are both artists evenly matched or does one get an edge over the other? Honestly that will come down to prior personal preferences I think. First impressions told me that Mare Cognitum had a split edge on Spectral Lore here, but the latter closed the gap after several listens to the album and the Spectral Lore tracks proved themselves to be growers. Of the Pluto tracks the first one, subtitled Exodus Through the Frozen Wastes, sees the duo instead performing space ambient music, as they did on Sol's collaborative track Red Giant. Ambient undertones can be found across the whole release, but this is the only time they fully embrace it. For the second part of Pluto, The Astral Bridge, the pair debut their music metal full collaboration together. Perhaps not unexpectedly it's one of the album's very best tracks.

Arguably Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine is the most essential release of either Mare Cognitum or Spectral Lore to date. Quite possibly it is the first masterpiece that the black metal genre has produced in the 2020s, setting the bar that others will have to aim for from this point forward, the acts themselves included when they release new material without the other's support. It's very rare that could be said about something which is primarily a split, a format that for most artists I personally don't pay any attention to. But with Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine it feels like maybe more like-minded artists should get together for releases like this. For my money it may be the greatest split ever released.

SPECTRAL LORE Wanderers: Astrology Of The Nine

Split · 2020 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 5.00 | 3 ratings
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Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine (2020) is a part split and part collaboration album by US solo project Mare Cognitum and Greek solo act Spectral Lore. Both acts belong to the atmospheric black metal genre. Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine is the second release that the two have got together for after Sol (2013), to which Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine can be considered a thematic sequel; with the former being about our Sun, and Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine taking a journey through the planets themselves, openly owing a nod to Gustav Holst's Planets Suite in conception. And yes, the planets do include Pluto, so take that International Astronomical Union. In fact, Pluto gets not one but two tracks to its name here, with both acts collaborating on them.

Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine is a gargantuan release. The pair's prior offering Sol was already a substantial effort – a near seventy minute release spread across just three tracks, but Mare Cognitum and Spectral Lore have really outdone themselves with this one. While no individual track comes close to the 29:10 and 25:53 long beasts that were their individual contributions to Sol respectively, there's a lot more tracks overall. Ten, to be exact. That's four each for each act on their own and the two Pluto tracks working together. It all comes together as a double album that is almost a full two hours long. Even without each other and their collaborations there is more than enough material here apiece for each to have released an individual studio album. Perhaps more than any other split that either has taken part in, including Sol, Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine, really does feel like it could serve as the fifth studio album of each act.

Our journey though the planets isn't told in sequence. We start with Mercury, but then skip to Mars, backtrack to Earth and Venus, before passing the asteroid belt and reaching Jupiter to complete the first disc of the album. Disc two picks up at Saturn, before going ahead to Neptune, back to Uranus and finally to the two part Pluto. Thematically it seems a little odd that they didn't follow the planets in order of distance from Sol, but then Holst didn't follow the traditional order either. I expect this was done for reasons of musical flow, because the order of tracks on the album does present something that feels very natural. I'll have to re-order the album sometime to see how it works by switching the tracks around. The ordering does also mean that the album does not follow a strict baton pass between the two acts, with Mare Cognitum getting two consecutive tracks on disc 1.

The burning question over the release, at least for those who don't make atmospheric black metal or even black metal in general one of their main listening interests, is whether almost two hours is too much for one release even with two artists performing and does it outstay its welcome? After all, it's well known that Mare Cognitum and Spectral Lore are on very close pages with their takes on atmospheric black metal and that's been even more apparent since they first released Sol together. Well, if it was two lesser bands attempting this then the results might be very different. But Mare Cognitum and Spectral Lore both happen to be acts that are among those are the very top of their game in the current scene. Both have released albums of the top tier like Phobos Monolith (2014) and III (2014) respectively. Working together they produce the kind of music that is a clear example of something being better than the sum of its parts. And when the parts were top notch to begin with you're dealing with something really special.

Are both artists evenly matched or does one get an edge over the other? Honestly that will come down to prior personal preferences I think. First impressions told me that Mare Cognitum had a split edge on Spectral Lore here, but the latter closed the gap after several listens to the album and the Spectral Lore tracks proved themselves to be growers. Of the Pluto tracks the first one, subtitled Exodus Through the Frozen Wastes, sees the duo instead performing space ambient music, as they did on Sol's collaborative track Red Giant. Ambient undertones can be found across the whole release, but this is the only time they fully embrace it. For the second part of Pluto, The Astral Bridge, the pair debut their music metal full collaboration together. Perhaps not unexpectedly it's one of the album's very best tracks.

Arguably Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine is the most essential release of either Mare Cognitum or Spectral Lore to date. Quite possibly it is the first masterpiece that the black metal genre has produced in the 2020s, setting the bar that others will have to aim for from this point forward, the acts themselves included when they release new material without the other's support. It's very rare that could be said about something which is primarily a split, a format that for most artists I personally don't pay any attention to. But with Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine it feels like maybe more like-minded artists should get together for releases like this. For my money it may be the greatest split ever released.

AVATARIUM The Fire I Long For

Album · 2019 · Doom Metal
Cover art 4.32 | 7 ratings
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Founded by Leif Edling of Candlemass renown, Avatarium burst onto the doom metal scene in 2013 with their EP Moonhorse and self-titled debut album. Heavy as hell, lyrically poetic, and above all else just damn good, the debut album cemented the band's reputation and proved that they weren't just riding on the name dropping of member's previous work. Second album, 2015's The Girl With the Raven Mask, brought some changes to the band's sound. It wasn't as heavy, though still clearly rooted in doom metal, but more psychedelic influenced. That was exactly what made it so good though: Avatarium did not feel the need to immediately re-hash what worked so well the first time around.

Then Leif Edling left the band. And their sound changed to be much less doom metal based and more firmly rooted in (heavy) psychedelic rock and progressive rock. Yet this was actually quite the paradox, because Edling had still written the majority of third album from 2017, Hurricanes and Halos, even though he didn't play one note on it. So it was obvious that the change in direction away from doom metal hadn't been the result of line-up shifts. Now, Hurricanes and Halos is still pretty fine album, but for this reviewer's money it doesn't get as many revisits as the first two Avatarium records. Which is why I'm happy to say that with fourth full-length The Fire I Long For, Avatarium is back on track. Doom metal is in again.

This could be seen as a double edged sword of course. The first three Avatarium albums, while the general lack of doom metal may have proved a disappointment to many on the last one, had the great benefit that Avatarium had effectively reinvented themselves every time around, but not so much that they alienated fans completely. And while The Fire I Long For brings another change, it's much more of a change back opposed to changing into something new. The album quite comfortably sits alongside The Girl With the Raven Mask in terms of style. Which means that it's pretty psychedelic, with plenty of doom metal riffs, but none that are as crushingly heavy as those found on the debut. As is usual for an Avatarium record, there is also some softer material. Avatarium is one of those rare metal bands that is actually very good at doing softer material though (they are members of a very exclusive club where they keep company with prestigious metal acts like Blind Guardian and err, I can't actually think of another one, that's how exclusive the club is!), so that shouldn't put newcomers off, while returnees will know what to expect.

While we've established that for the first time that a new Avatarium record may not feel as fresh in context of their catalogue, The Fire I Long For does have two things going for it that make it a step up from Hurricanes and Halos. Firstly it's doom metal again as I've pointed out and while Avatarium proved a quite competent heavy psych act on Hurricanes and Halos, they're an exceptional doom metal act. This is the genre they started off in and it's the genre that they shine in. Doom metal, especially the psychedelic influenced kind as Avatarium play, seems to be tailor-made for a singer like Avatarium's Jennie-Ann Smith as well.

That isn't the second reason by the way. The actual second reason is that the song-writing is that much more memorable this time around. There sadly just aren't many details that I can recall about Hurricanes and Halos after some time away from it, except for the excellent opening track Into the Fire / Into the Storm. This isn't true of the first two albums, where hooks flood back without requiring a revisit, no doubt because there's only so long I can go before those albums pull me back. And as for The Fire I Long For, there are already several tracks that have infected me, not least the title track, Voices, and Rubicon. While it is still early days yet, I can't foresee a future where it doesn't go into rotation at least as much as the first two records.

A return to form all round and to be cliché, this was the album I longed for after the last one. Regarding which I have not meant to be disrespectful to in this review despite some comments that even when positive no doubt read as barbed. I quite like Hurricanes and Halos. It's one of those albums I enjoy when I do play it, but I rarely crave it. On the other hand I just love Avatarium, The Girl With the Raven Mask and now The Fire I Long For as well. It's a doom metal highlight for 2019.

BREED 77 In My Blood (En Mi Sangre)

Album · 2006 · Alternative Metal
Cover art 5.00 | 2 ratings
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During your formative years of discovering a genre of music, in this case metal, there are always going to be bands that you really enjoy at first who then get left on the roadside as their genre doesn't become one of your favourites. Years later, we suddenly stumble across that band in our libraries or collections of physical media (those of us who still have them anyway) and for a brief time may listen to them again, looking back in nostalgia for a while until consigning them once again to the oblivion that is the depths of our libraries and shelves that we know we should dust more often than we do.

Once in a while however, you stick one of those forgotten records on and there's only one thing you can say about it. You'd forgotten, to your shame and regret, just how fucking good it was. In this story the band is Breed 77 (pronounced breed seven-seven) and the album is In My Blood (En Mi Sangre) (2006). This is actually one of four albums I own from these guys, but it was my first one and it was always the best to my ears.

I have never come across another band that is quite like Breed 77. They play alternative metal/hard rock mixed with elements, of all things, of flamenco. Of course given that the band originally hails from Gibraltar, the appearance of flamenco in their music shouldn't be all that surprising, except that they're a metal band. Of course if there's anything that over ten years listening to metal has taught me, it's that you can do pretty much anything with metal and make it work.

And yet this unusual fusion of sounds isn't even why Breed 77's In My Blood is so damn good. It's simply a hard rocking, metallic and infectious little album of memorable songs like Petroleo (You Will Be King), Alive, Blind and many others. A big part of this is their incredible vocalist Paul Isola. His accented vocals, which sometimes slip between English and Spanish lines within the same song, suit the flamenco tinged metal and softer parts in equal measure, only briefly relying on some harsh screams in the title word of Blind, which was a departure for the band as even the previous album Cultura (2004), which I didn't hear until later so was never as familiar with, had more extensive use in tracks like La Ultima Hora and The Only Ones. Isola's growls are actually quite effective in Breed 77's music, but the man has one hell of a singing voice, so it shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone to hear him using it more completely on In My Blood.

An album that was a genuine pleasure to rediscover (and will be prompting me to do the same with their other albums I own plus check out the ones that released since they fell off my radar), I'm certainly not planning to forget about In My Blood again in a hurry. Unfortunately it doesn't look like Breed 77 is around any more despite no official word on calling it a day, so this one may have to go down as one of the 2000's hidden and forgotten gems. Well worth checking out for anyone in search of a band with a unique sound.

CULT OF LUNA A Dawn To Fear

Album · 2019 · Atmospheric Sludge Metal
Cover art 4.89 | 5 ratings
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A Dawn to Fear (2019) is the eighth full-length studio album by Swedish atmospheric sludge metal act Cult of Luna. As their last album Mariner (2016) was a collaboration effort with vocalist Julie Christmas (Battle of Mice, Made Out of Babies), A Dawn to Fear marks the first 'pure' Cult of Luna studio album since Vertikal (2013). It is a double album consisting of eight tracks, most of them lengthy, with half passing ten minutes each. The total length just passes 79 minutes, which is actually about what a standard CD can handle at a push, but I guess the decision was made to play it safe from a technical point of view, since I have heard of CDs having playback issues on their final tracks when the maximum duration is reached. Still, it's on the line enough to avoid accusations of passing a single album off as a double, unlike the couple of minutes shorter Hardwired... To Self-Destruct (2016) by Metallica, which really should have been a single CD, not a double with a double's price to go with it.

But even if it would fit on a single disc, we can forgive Cult of Luna more than we can Metallica, because unlike the legendary on/off thrash metal band, Cult of Luna has delivered exactly what any fan of the band would have wanted in A Dawn to Fear. This could possibly be their best album to date, which is coming from someone who was so blown away by Mariner that he had to confess to wishing several times that Cult of Luna + Julie Christmas would become a permanent thing. Then they release this. The kind of album that immediately grabs your attention and drags you down into its atmospheric sludge metal and softer post-rock passages, leaving you submerged in it's sound, which is distinctly that of Cult of Luna even if the only prior album you've heard happens to be Mariner, for its duration and only allowing you to surface upon its conclusion. A conclusion which seems to come around much sooner than it's near eighty minute length would suggest it should.

On a personal level I first heard Cult of Luna's music with Vertikal. That album was very likely also my first taste of the atmospheric sludge metal style. It quickly became an album I enjoyed very much, but it was only with Mariner that I started to really pay attention to how good the band actually was. I've since been back and heard fan favourite albums Salvation (2004) and Somewhere Along the Highway (2006), both of which are also excellent releases that cement Cult of Luna's reputation as the world's premium, not just atmospheric sludge, but sludge metal in general, act. It's to my own detriment that, including A Dawn to Fear, my knowledge of the band's catalogue only extends to just over half the the studio albums.

Mariner has, in the few years since it's release, become one of only a few albums released since that time that is still in a fairly regular rotation for me. It has that indescribable something that keeps pulling me back. While it is still early days, I can't see that A Dawn to Fear is going to be any different in that regard. Mariner was a grower; the kind of album you suddenly realise is one of your favourites. A Dawn to Fear is instant satisfaction. There was never any doubt in my mind that it would be good, but this good? Truth be told, it's single-handed got me out of a slump regarding new music. This is actually the first review I have written since November 2018. That's how good it is.

Saying any more about the album's specifics feels like I would be doing an injustice to the experience that Cult of Luna has created in this album. A Dawn to Fear offers up tracks that are each substantial enough to be taken as individual entities but like with many atmospheric albums it's surely best taken as a whole rather than try to pick it apart as say this song or that song is a highlight. If you've listened to the band before at any point in their now twenty+ year long career, even if you only came to them on Mariner through Julie Christmas, then stop everything and do yourself a solid: buy A Dawn to Fear immediately. For this listener's money, it's quite likely the album of 2019.

IMMORTAL Northern Chaos Gods

Album · 2018 · Black Metal
Cover art 4.17 | 10 ratings
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When Norwegian black metal act Immortal first disbanded back in 2003 after seven studio albums, they left behind a pretty great legacy, ending on career high note Sons of Northern Darkness (2002). Their later reunion in 2006 resulted in a solid if not exceptional comeback album, All Shall Fall (2009), but then the band went another long stretch without a new album. Then, in 2015, something unthinkable happened: the band's two key members, Abbath and Demonaz (who hadn't been able to play with them since 1997 due to severe tendinitis, which was surgically corrected in 2013), had some sort of bust up. This resulted in Abbath going off to start his self-titled project, which released its debut album in 2016, and Demonaz officially restarted Immortal again in 2015, consisting of just him and drummer Horgh. Demonaz returns to his original instrument, guitar, and also takes over the lead vocalist role from Abbath, with bass handled by guest musicians Peter Tägtgren (Hypocrisy).

Now I for one was pretty sceptical about this whole thing, I admit it. Demonaz had previous laid down lead vocals in his self-titled project back in 2011 and didn't give the kind of performance that I personally felt would have fit in with Immortal's more aggressive form of black metal music. That's not to say that they were bad, just different, especially considering that Abbath has one of the most distinctive growling voices in the scene and has always been an aspect of Immortal's music that has set them apart from other black metal acts. Sure enough, on Northern Chaos Gods (2018), Immortal's ninth album and first and only without Abbath, Demonaz doesn't deliver anywhere near as distinctive sounding growls as the former frontman. They also fit in here much better than those on Demonaz's March of the Norse (2011) led me to expect they would. Combined with some really furious black metal riffing, Immortal's Abbath-less comeback may just be the most aggressive album they've ever released.

That's the good part. There's also a problem. And that's that with Abbath or without him, lyricist Demonaz has long written extensively about his own Blashyrkh theme and now that we're nine Immortal albums deep, he's starting to really show signs of scraping the barrel. Throughout Northern Chaos Gods and it's eight tracks, you'll continually hear phrases that have been heard before across Immortal records and even though the music itself provides an absolute beast of an album, it does feel just that bit stale now because of the lyrics. Even the title is taken directly from Immortal's popular track One by One, the opener from Sons of Northern Darkness while closer Mighty Ravendark was actually used before as part of Blashyrkh (Mighty Ravendark) on their third album Battles in the North (1995). Furthermore, there's also Gates to Blashyrkh on this album. It all feels a bit of 'been there, done that'.

In spite of that issue, it's clear that Northern Chaos Gods is a far superior album to Abbath's 2016 self-titled effort, so if nothing else, Demonaz most certainly wins round one of their post-collaboration careers. Immortal just needs a bit more originally in their lyrics in the future though, as for the first for me they prove a distraction when listening to their music, summoning memories of past glories with Abbath up front rather than allowing me to fully invest in this Demonaz fronted new incarnation of the legendary band, without otherwise does a damn fine job of proving itself a viable venture for Demonaz and Horgh. For the music alone, Northern Chaos Gods is still worth a respectable four stars though.

NACHTLIEDER Lynx

Album · 2018 · Black Metal
Cover art 4.86 | 5 ratings
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Back in 2016 I discovered the Swedish female solo black metal artist Nachtlieder through her second album The Female of the Species. I was a bit late to the party at that point, as the album has actually been released the late in the year before, but The Female of the Species is one album that I count among my very best discoveries of 2016. The project of one Dagny Susanne, who does vocals and plays all instruments on her albums bar drums, which are handled by session member Martrum (both previously played together in black/death/thrash metal act Wicked), The Female of the Species was actually something of a sleeper hit with me. When I first heard it I couldn't say with honesty that what I was hearing was the most original take on a black metal sound – it's pretty much impossible to use the terms 'original' and 'straight up black metal' in the same sentence these days though – but it was clear right from the off that Nachtlieder had crafted a decent sound within the genre and that the album really packed a punch. When I reviewed the album, I didn't hesitate to award it a firm four stars.

Something happened then that I wasn't expecting. You see, there are a lot of albums like The Female of the Species that I'd give four stars too for being very solid examples of their genre even if they didn't really bring anything new to the table. For me, there is always room for a good honest example of music that is true to its style's roots and doesn't feel the need to dress it up with fancy frills from outside influences, which in today's black metal scene, often means post-rock or shoegaze elements. That doesn't mean I necessarily want to keep going back to one of them in particular over and over again. Only this time, with The Female of the Species, that's exactly what happened. It turns out that the album was one that had that something special that kept continually drawing me back time after time and during 2017 I eventually got to the point that I realised, although it was a respectable rating I had previously given it, that I had actually judged the release too harshly at four stars. Fast forward to 2018 and The Female of the Species now stands as one of my favourite black metal releases of the last five years.

This of course resulted in a lot of excitement for Nachtlieder's follow-up, Lynx (2018). While undeniably a more of the same release – black metal with none of those modern frills attached – it's quick to assert itself as a work that at worst, is only on the same level as it's predecessor and at best, far exceeds it. And let me just be clear about this, it's at its best far more often than it's at its worst, while that word also feels inappropriate to use when describing the album, though does provide a good emphasis on how much more immediate Lynx is to its predecessor. Eight tracks deliver a sound that captures a good balance between traditional black metal's cold atmosphere and production values that give the music clarity and allow Dagny's riffs to stand out rather than have almost everything lost within a lo-fi haze, an unnecessary way of producing this kind of music that both the founding fathers and countless disciples have for some reason chosen to employ, to continually mixed results that to this day give the black metal genre a poor reputation among fans of other metal genres. Albums like Lynx exist as proof that black metal can still sound cold and raw without being a mass of treble riffs that sound like they were recorded in a tin can.

Lyrically I do struggle with following Dagny's growls, but that's of little consequence when the complete package sounds this great and hits the eardrums this hard. Black metal is often about atmosphere even when it doesn't fit into the atmospheric sub-genre at all (like Lynx), but Nachtlieder manages to weld that with the kind of aggression found in records like Immortal's Sons of Northern Darkness. Rather than coming across like Dagny was unsure what she wanted it to be – cold and atmospheric or faster and riff based – we get treated to a perfect fusion of the two, where riffs will be thumping away, Dagny snarling over them and yet behind there'll be something atmospheric that will raise the level of the composition considerably. Every song on here could be used as an introduction to Nachtlieder's music and serve that purpose well, though for my money Dagny saved the best for last in Moksha, the longest song which is an absolutely furious hard-hitting beast.

Last time I reviewed this project's music, I had to own up to doing it a disservice. This time I'm both already familiar with the artist and have left it a bit longer before publishing a review of the album and I'm very confident that Lynx will continue to stand as one of 2018's black metal gems. It does seem a shame that, so far, not that many people seem have caught onto this project – so as a final word of advice, don't make the mistake that I almost did with the previous album, and make all efforts to change that.

PARADISE LOST Tragic Idol

Album · 2012 · Gothic Metal
Cover art 4.26 | 20 ratings
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After a few more commercial albums, the gothic rock/metal One Second (1997), the completely non-metal Host (1999) and the alternative/industrial influenced Believe in Nothing (2001) and Symbol of Life (2002), Paradise Lost released a self-titled effort in 2005 as their tenth album. It was one of their more shaky records, though still solid gothic metal. After that they began a new incredible run of high quality albums starting with In Requiem (2007), which saw them starting to reintroduce doom metal to their sound, some that only increased on the following Faith Divides Us - Death Unites Us (2009). Most recent they've made their work noteworthy by reintroducing their early death growling style on The Plague Within (2015) and a full return to death-doom metal on Medusa (2017).

Stuck in the middle of these five albums is Tragic Idol (2012), Paradise Lost's thirteenth studio album. While not without a reasonable regard from fans, it does seem that out of the five albums released in the 2007-2017 period that it is the one that gets the least mentions, except perhaps for it's distinction as the last Paradise Lost (to date) to not use any death growling from vocalist Nick Holmes.

It's a shame that Tragic Idol seems so overlooked next to the other modern Paradise Lost albums and more so when putting it up against their earlier classic works like Draconian Times (1995), Icon (1993) and Gothic (1991), since for me this album actually represents one of the band's best works. Much like was with the case with fan favourite (and mine) Draconian Times, Tragic Idol comes equipped with an incredibly solid tracklist (here containing ten songs) where every single song is able to stand out and assert its own identity through memorable lyrics delivered with Holmes' varied and powerful vocal performance.

The album is more pure gothic metal in style that it's doomy predecessor and reaffirms why Paradise Lost are the kings of that sub-genre, though does overall have a different vibe to Draconian Times and Icon. This ability for their albums to stand out from each other is another reason why Paradise Lost must be recognised as one of the truly great metal bands to have ever existed. Very rarely does an album from them have exactly the same vibe as the previous one. What really sells Tragic Idol though is its songs. The excellent title track most of all, but also ones like Solitary One, Crucify, Fear of Impending Hell, Theories From Another World and The Glorious End all make this one of the band's most essential albums. The two prior albums were excellent but neither can claim that every song is as instantly memorable the way Tragic Idol can. I'd even rank this one above Icon for that alone.

Paradise Lost's thirteenth album may forever be known to me as the underrated one and that's the only really tragic thing about it. Fans of the band are advised to pay closer attention to this one.

PARADISE LOST Draconian Times

Album · 1995 · Gothic Metal
Cover art 4.35 | 41 ratings
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With their first four albums representing a clear evolution from their beginnings as a pure death-doom metal act to a gothic metal act, Paradise Lost's fifth full-length album sees them delivering something as close to what could be considered their standard fare. Not that they really have one, as subsequent albums would go on to prove. Titled Draconian Times (1995), the album is probably the UK band's best known and well regarded release as is considered a seminal album of the gothic metal genre.

It's really got hard to hear why. Gothic metal can take a number of different forms and Paradise Lost's style is one that remains closest to its roots in doom and traditional heavy metal. As on Icon (1993), frontman Nick Holmes has now left behind any traces of growling vocals in the band's style and sings cleanly in a style that is actually not that unlike that of Metallica's James Hetfield. I've seen some describe the band as being like a meeting of that band with Black Sabbath. That's kind of accurate but only the bare bones of what they and Draconian Times actually sound like. This album has a quite polished and melodic sound but it's also dark and melancholy. There's still an element of the doom metal roots, but it'll be a long while again before Paradise Lost could be considered an actual doom metal band.

The songs themselves tend toward being catchy, memorable numbers that all easily number among the best that Paradise Lost has ever recorded. There are some clear highlights such as Hallowed Land, which features excellent use of piano and Forever Failure, which includes some spoken word samples from Charles Manson. They've a very good band at making their individual songs stand out as unique entities instead of just being part of a greater whole and Draconian Times is undeniably the best collection they ever put together, each one of them having claims to being a standout in its own right. I think it is maybe fair to say that the songs on the first half of the album have become a bit more well known, but the quality in the second half really isn't that different.

Although I've listened to gothic metal on and off for years and even had a couple of other Paradise Lost albums a bit longer than this one, it was Draconian Times that really sold me on the kind of quality that the genre has to offer when the band is a cut above the rest of the pack. Draconian Times is the kind of album that not only lives up to its hype. But also converted this previously sceptical listener into both a fan of the band and someone who now wants to active investigate other gothic metal bands.

AUGURY Illusive Golden Age

Album · 2018 · Technical Death Metal
Cover art 4.45 | 8 ratings
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It's been a long road for the Canadian technical death metal act Augury to reach their third album, Illusive Golden Age (2018). Band members have come, gone and come back again and nine years have passed them by since the release of Fragmentary Evidence (2009), which itself took five years since their debut album Concealed (2004). The band was formed in 2002 and has never been outright inactive, but three albums in sixteen years isn't the most consistent showing. Augury is forgiven for this of course due to how bloody good those first two albums were. Augury is, as far as this humble reviewer is concerned, the best death metal act to have ever existed. Concealed is the main reason for that belief, but Fragmentary Evidence also goes a long way to strengthen it. Still, making their fans wait almost a whole decade for this follow-up can't have kept them in everyone's good graces. It's been so long that now that the album actually has dropped many may have even forgotten that these guys were in fact still around and who can blame them? But the third Augury album is here now and it's time to find out if it was worth the wait.

Hell. Fucking. Yes. Yes it was.

Illusive Golden Age has the sound of an album that is both familiar if you've heard Augury's earlier work but also with a bit of a different spin on it. The more atmospheric sections of music that they like to use have seen a reduction here compared to Fragmentary Evidence, as have the clean singing vocals from frontman Patrick Loisel, who main sticks to mixing his deep growling and higher pitched screams. His clean voice is still used but don't expect a track like the previous album's Sovereigns Unknown to show up during Illusive Golden Age. After nine years away Augury seem to have made a statement that they're all about the death metal. I'm not sure that anyone ever doubted that about them as they've always had a heavy sound and Loisel's deeper growls have always been brutal as hell, but that's the best description of how this album feels compared to their previous one that I can come up with.

That's not to say that their sound has become lesser by reducing these elements of variation. After all they are still there being used to effect when needed and the level of technical skill on display seems to be higher than ever, if that was even possible, including the audible fretless bass work from Dominic 'Forest' Lapointe. This is so noticeable it's like the bass is being used as the lead instrument. Not to sell what may be some of the best and most intricate technical death metal guitar work ever recorded short here, but fretless bass guitar works so damn well in this genre that it's near impossible not to focus on it as the band's defining feature. Augury and by extension Lapointe's ventures with similar band Beyond Creation have always done this well and it really does feel like he gets to share the centre stage with the two guitarists, Loisel and Mathieu Marcotte. That's very rare for a bass player and for me it's what really makes Augury more than simply technical, but also progressive.

Due to how technical and progressive their music is calling this album straight-forward seems like the start of a bad joke, but the simple fact that matter is that Illusive Golden Age is undeniably a bit less unusual in terms of its song-writing direction, especially if you're comparing it to the often weird Concealed (which for me remains their best album) or the more atmospheric Fragmentary Evidence. I think maybe stripped back would be a more appropriate way to describe it in relation to their previous, but Illusive Golden Age can only be called generic at your own peril. Augury's ability to write coherent and mostly unelongated songs while still being so technical with their riffs should quickly squash any such thoughts you might be having about this release. They did not make their comeback as just another generic tech death act by any means. They've made their comeback with an album that still sounds distinctly like an Augury album that has its own identity from their previous two. I don't know about you readers, but I'll take it.

I haven't mentioned any specific songs from Illusive Golden Age yet and that's because of the eight it's difficult to single out any particular one and then convincingly justify why that one is better. It can't be done. At a total running time of 44:20 Illusive Golden Age is pretty easy to take in during a single listen and let it all in as a singular experience. I will say that Augury made a good choice in Mater Dolorosa as the first song released to promote the album as it is a great one for getting a feel of exactly what to expect from the album. I didn't personally have any doubts that Augury would deliver when they eventually managed to get a third album out, but this song certainly sealed the deal on a CD pre-order from me. Of course there was little doubt that I'd have bought it anyway, but that song was enough to know that I need this in my hands as soon as possible. This is the death metal album to beat in 2018. I have little faith that anyone will come close to what Augury achieved here though. The long wait is forgiven...though try not to leave it another nine years next time lads.

HEAVENS GATE Livin' in Hysteria

Album · 1991 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.43 | 12 ratings
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If it were just that little bit better known I might say that the cover art of Livin' in Hysteria (1991), the second album by German power metal act Heavens Gate, was an iconic one from the nineties metal scene. A blue dragon lounges back on his rock smoking a pipe while his human slave sweeps up what appears to be the (also human) remains of his last meal. For some reason though Heavens Gate isn't a band I see mentioned half as much in relation to the early German power metal scene that they were most certainly a part of, unlike their temporaries including Helloween, Gamma Ray, Blind Guardian and Rage. It was this cover that first drew me to this album. It's definitely a strking one. The CD was a chance find in a used music shop and I had no idea who the band were. The owner of the store (now sadly closed down for some years) allowed me to sample the album. I listened to the first track and then bought the album instantly. As an aside I also got my first albums from Virgin Steele and Chastain in that shop at the same time.

Heavens Gate in 1991 seemed to exist to fill the void that Helloween created by drifting away from the power metal style that they had created with their classic Keeper of the Seven Keys albums. Sure, Kai Hansen had already debuted with Gamma Ray a year earlier than this, but I've always found the sound that Heavens Gate had on Livin' in Hysteria to be a closer representation of the early power metal style that Helloween played on their classic duo, right down to the real old school metal production sound that hasn't yet been able to let go of the eighties.

This album does in fact have quite a lot in common with classic eighties heavy metal, including the vocals from Thomas Rettke, which are old school metal to the bone rather than the very melodic styles that power metal would become known for over the next decade and had in fact already been used by Michael Kiske in Helloween. Likewise their music is not drenched in keyboards or symphonic elements. In fact the biggest reason that Livin' in Hysteria is power metal is the speedy guitar riff style employed by Sascha Paeth and Bonny Bilski, which shows them to be something more than heavy metal or speed metal. It's only 1991 so it would be fair to say the sound is still on stepping stones in becoming what we now think of as power metal.

Within this old school heavy metal meets early power metal sound the best thing about the record is its actual songs, which are quickly infectiously catchy and excellent across the board. The album opens with it's title track and from there they deliver memorable numbers one after the other. There are times where it feels that Heavens Gate were specifically writing with the live environment in mind, due to the sing-along nature of the lyrical hooks in tracks such as Can't Stop Rockin'. Best Days of My Life represents the near obligatory ballad of the album, but it's one of the better ones served up by power metal albums, while the unusually titled Fredless is a short instrumental. The rest is excellent old school heavy/power metal with excellent vocals, which makes Livin' in Hysteria one of the essential early albums of its style. You can't profess to have a decent knowledge of the German power metal scene if you haven't heard this.

LEGEND Death in the Nursery

Album · 1982 · NWoBHM
Cover art 4.77 | 6 ratings
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Discovering this wondrous thing called metal during the 2000's definitely wasn't to be sniffed at. By the time I really started to get invested in heavy music it had already done most of its evolving into the sub-genres we all know these days (and of course it still continues to evolve to this day). This time of discovery meant that the whole nu metal movement was on the decline, which many would say was dodging a bullet. But it also meant that younger metalheads like myself missed out on being there during what is arguably the most important movement that metal ever had or ever will have bar its original genesis in the early seventies: the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWoBHM). Sure, we still get to experience it through the recordings left behind, but while we'll all know of those who made it to become household names like Iron Maiden, Saxon or Angel Witch, many of us will miss those more obscure hidden gems that never got the same kind of attention or later reissues.

One of these gems is Death in the Nursery (1982) by Legend, a band hailing from Jersey. This album actually was reissued in 2012, but only on vinyl, a format that it has never been released beyond. A digital copy does appear on the US Amazon site, but this is not a privilege also accorded to the UK site. Since they are a band out of the NWoBHM I find that something of a kick in the teeth. Luckily, Legend's unsung classic is available for streaming via Spotify. Legend are in fact still going, having reformed in 2002 following an original 1984 split, and have released a further two studio albums, most recently in 2013. Death in the Nursery was their second and until 2003, their last.

What makes this one so good? Well for a start it comes across as pretty heavy for 1982. The riffs from sole guitarist Peter Haworth are full of bite and the band's production has more grit to it than the more polished work of say, Iron Maiden. I can't rightly say that Death in the Nursery was the heaviest heavy metal around back then, though as metal hadn't quite taken the leap forward in aggression that was thrash metal, though a bit of speed metal was about, but it seems to me as it must have been up there with the most metal driven work, lacking any kind of lingering attachment to hard rock. Furthermore, it's played with a passion and conviction that's infectious and often absent in modern heavy metal which comes drenched in so much modern production values that it just doesn't seem to have as much soul as this and other NWoBHM.

Even listening for the first time in 2018 it's impressive and brings a big smile to my face, so I can't even begin to imagine what it would have been like hearing it for the first time when it was new. I mean sure, it's not The Number of the Beast, released the same year and widely considered the finest album of the NWoBHM, but all the same I don't hear a single damn reason why Death in the Nursery should be considered any less essential to the NWoBHM canon as that seminal album. And in its title track they have what could easily be attributed to an early progressive metal song thanks to its complex instrumental break, which definitely sounds like it's before it's time. The earliest release I've heard that I'd describe as progressive metal is Siren's No Place Like Home from 1986, a whole four years after this and even though it's only one song here and only a section of it at that, that one part seems a whole lot more overt that anything else that would appear for a long time.

Legend and Death in the Nursery deserve better than it has been given so far. For starters it should at least be sold digitally all over and not just in America (again I mean come on it's a NWoBHM album and we can't purchase even an mp3 version in the UK? Lame!) and it certainly deserves a physical release beyond the vinyl. After thirty-six years a CD is long overdue. Come on Legend and record labels that specialise in old classics: make it happen! This masterpiece deserves it.

WUTHERING HEIGHTS Far From The Madding Crowd

Album · 2004 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.35 | 21 ratings
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The Danish progressive power metal act Wuthering Heights easily number among my favourite bands. They've a strong discography of five studio albums, but the one that really seals the deal for me is Far From the Madding Crowd (2004), their third full-length effort. It is on this album that they brought in vocalist Nils Patrik Johansson, whose voice, which I think is one of the true great ones from the modern metal and hard rock scene, takes the band's music to the next level. None of this is to belittle their prior efforts or previous vocalist Kristian Andrén, whose two albums with the band I also regard highly, but Far From the Madding Crowd is, for me at least, one of the best power metal albums ever recorded.

The style on Far From the Madding Crowd is basically the same as on the group's first two albums Within (1999) and To Travel for Evermore (2002). Progressive power metal with folk elements. The difference in tone of Nils Patrik Johansson's voice is what clearly sets it apart from it's predecessors though. He is able to shift through so many different styles that it would be easy to think there is actually more than one vocalist on the album. At times he even sounds eerily similar to the late Ronnie James Dio, though at others nothing alike.

Musically Far From the Madding Crowd does seem a little less progressive to my ears and more focussed on power metal than the two previous albums. The band's folk elements appear commonly but as usual aren't a dominating force in their sound, being there for (very effective) flavour. In spite of this it's easy to think of Far From the Madding Crowd as Wuthering Height's most folksy release. Even when the actual folk instrumentation is not there they have a very folksy style to their lyrics. The inclusion of The Bollard, a song originally by obscure Danish folk act The McGalster Clan, further raises the folk feel of the album.

The crowning achievement of the release is certainly the Longing for the Woods trilogy, consisting of tracks 4, 6 & 9. Rather than seeming like an unnecessary repetition, their presence gives Far From the Madding Crowd a kind of unity that many other albums lack. The band's writing is strong across the board though, with The Road Goes Ever On being an excellent track to get listeners hooked once intro Gather Ye Wild is out of the way, which in itself is one of the better intro tracks in existence. The Sensory Records version has a partial reprise of it as a bonus track and I actually highly recommend picking up that version if you can, since it rounds the album off well. I could actually highlight every single song as a highlight on this album, since there isn't a single second where the quality takes a dive.

And that brings me to my summary and to do that we return to something I said at the start of this review: Far From the Madding Crowd is one of the best power metal albums ever recorded. This release is so essential that saying that it is not in bad company with releases such as Somewhere Far Beyond (Blind Guardian), Keeper of the Seven Keys I & II (Helloween), Black Hand Inn (Running Wild) or Land of the Free (Gamma Ray) isn't overstating it's quality. All power metal fans should own this.

EINSAMTOD Einsamtod

Album · 2012 · Depressive Black Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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The self-titled debut album of Slovakian act Einsamtod, released in 2012, clearly doesn't set out to be an easy album to get into. Nor should it, since it belongs to the depressive black metal genre, but even so, this one certainly knows how to throw its listener right in at the deep end, greeting the ears with what initially appears to just be a wall of fuzzy noise and screams. This abrasive assault is surely enough to put off all but the most determined of listeners. But those who get past this, will find an unexpected gem of an album.

This is the opening track, Freezing End, which at 8:46 in length is actually the shortest that the five track album has on offer. Once you get over how incredibly raw Einsamtod have made their sound, you'll be able to start appreciating the atmosphere that the duo, instrumentalist Smrtislav and vocalist Nefastvm, have managed to create. Intricate melodies have been inserted into the lo-fi fuzz, resulting in a dark atmospheric journey that is an quickly compelling to the enthusiast as the initial barrage of fuzz is anathema to others.

Each does does have a tendency to begin in much the same way, but once you get used to what Einsamtod is about the album proves excellent across it's duration. There's just one problem with it, during track four, the dark ambient piece Journey Through a Land Forlorn and it's nothing to do with the composition or performance. It's a technical problem with the release. There's a noticeable glitch where the music jumps that is incredibly jarring. At first I think this was a problem with my personal copy and upon my first listen I was all but ready to get onto the supplier I bought it from to complain when something made me decide to look up the song online. And lo and behold, the exact same glitch occurs, so it's not a problem with my particular press.

This may explain why on the vinyl version, which was released the following year in 2013, has had this track pulled. One has to wonder why such a glitch made it to press on the CD version though. It seems incredibly unprofessional and somewhat spoils what is otherwise clearly an essential release of the depressive black metal genre and even though the track is an ambient one I can't help but think it's removal would be a detraction to the vinyl version, since it adds variety to the release.

That issue aside, I do absolutely consider Einsamtod to be an essential album. One day I hope these guys find it in themselves to do it the justice it deserves and properly fix that botched recording of Journey Through a Land Forlorn rather than just retconning it out of the album. I may even buy it again if they did. That's how good it is.

АРКОНА Храм

Album · 2018 · Pagan Black Metal
Cover art 4.29 | 5 ratings
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Russia's Аркона (A.K.A. Arkona, used herein) must surely be their country's premium folk metal band. They've been releasing albums since 2004's Возрождение (Vozrozhdenie), but become something really special with 2005's Во славу великим! (Vo Slavu Velikim!), actually their third album by that point due to releasing Лепта (Lepta) later in 2004. Most recently, in 2016, they went back and remade their debut album in a much more polished yet faithful to the original version, complete with more authentic folk instrumentation as they were synthesising a lot of stuff when they first started, a treatment that I hope they give Lepta as well. Before that though the band had released Явь (Yav) in 2014, an album that saw them taking different approaches in their music. It's an album that can be seen as, through the kind of hindsight that can only be gained through the release of it's follow-up, Храм (Khram), as the kind of transitional, stepping stone release to the band becoming something different. Arkona may be Russia's premium folk metal act, but in 2018 their genre allegiance has taken a thoroughly more blackened turn.

Of course Arkona was always partially based in the black metal genre, also drawing on power metal in some songs, but here it's like the genre has taken over from folk metal as the band's main focus. Khram is not so much a folk metal album but a pagan black metal album. That means that there's still folk elements to be found, but it's much more about the blackened riff and a primitive sound. Vocalist Masha "Scream" Arkhipova still uses her clean singing abilities, but is dominantly using her growling style on this record. This is not to say that her growl suddenly sounds like the typical necro black metal rasp (it doesn't) or that the guitar tone is suddenly all raw and cold (it isn't), but the overall style and vibe of the band's music has certainly taken a shift. Yet it's still very much recognisable as the work of Arkona.

They've also got noticeably more progressive with this release. Yav had elements of what I would attribute to prog but it's much more overt here and has resulted in some added complexity within the primitive pagan black metal sound Arkona has forged for themselves. This also comes across in the form of some long song structures. Intro and Outro tracks aside the only regular length song can be said to be Шторм (Shtorm) at 5:12. The rest are all at least close to eight minutes long and one, Целуя жизнь (Tseluya zhizn') is over seventeen, making it Arkona's longest song to date.

I have one gripe I need to get off my chest at this point though. It's the intro track and by extension the outro track, both titled Мантра (Mantra). The Outro version only lasts for fifty-five seconds and it's really of any consequence but the Intro version goes on for too long at 3:51 before the first proper song gets underway. I wouldn't mind so much, but the chant-based intro just fails to really click with me on any level and proves a detraction from the release as a whole. It's the kind of thing that makes me want to start the album on track two.

However the rest of the rest is excellent. Khram is definitely more of a grower than Arkona's folk metal work, thanks in no small part to its darker sound, so it may take a few listens before it really starts to feel like it's rewarding its listener for their patience. The extra long track, Tseluya zhizn', certainly stands out as the crowning achievement of the album, but there's some great work to be found right across it, with plenty of variation in the delivery of each track that gives each identity, such as the use of piano on Волчица (Volchitsa), which is actually a cover song, originally by Russian folk group ВеданЪ КолодЪ (Vedan Kolod). Arkona has released covers before, but I believe this is the first one to appear on a main album. Despite the original artist having nothing to do with metal and Arkona's newfound more black metal direction the track fits in well with their original material.

The question is, given their folk metal back catalogue, whether Khram is really the album fans wanted to hear from Arkona? For some it's inevitable that the answer will be no. For others, this will be a breath of fresh air. This band has done several folk metal masterpieces that, frankly, they'd have difficultly in bettering. It's time now for something new. It's time for Khram.

ESOCTRILIHUM Pandaemorthium (Forbidden Formulas To Awaken The Blind Sovereigns Of Nothingness)

Album · 2018 · Death Metal
Cover art 4.67 | 8 ratings
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Although barely half a year has passed since the release of Mystic Echo From a Funeral Dimension (2017), the debut by French atmospheric black metal solo project Esoctrilihum, it's lone musician Asthâghul has certainly wasted no time in getting it's follow-up out there. Entitled with the rather long-winded Pandaemorthium (Forbidden Formulas to Awaken the Blind Sovereigns of Nothingness), this second album sees the project building upon and expanding what was begun on the debut.

I want to make it clear that I personally loved Esoctrilihum's debut and nothing is going to be able to diminish the regard I have for that piece of work. It was a great example of the atmospheric black metal genre that could be considered contemporary to the work of I, Voidhanger Records labelmate Mare Cognitum. It wasn't the most surprising record in that respect, except for one sudden burst of death metal that came out of nowhere during the track BltQb (Black Collapse). Considered most likely to be a fluke by myself at the time, it's clear to me now that Asthâghul must actually be quite interested in what death metal can add to his music, since Pandaemorthium features considerably more death metal elements than Mystic Echo From a Funeral Dimension did, to the point where Pandaemorthium can be considered as much a death metal album as a black metal album.

While various black metal and death metal fusions aren't anything new, what makes Pandaemorthium a more unusual example is that the black metal elements themselves are still very atmospheric in nature, with many similarities to the first album in their underlying ambient, cosmic direction, a prime example being Lord of the Closed Eyes, the first song released for fans to hear. Naturally though the death metal elements greatly change the way that the record impacts upon its listener, becoming something much more aggressive. It is easy sometimes to forget you're listening to an atmospheric black metal record with this album because of them, which I guess is why some people seem to be saying that this album represents a complete stylistic shift for the Esoctrilihum project, but I have to say that I think that's false: if one listens past the death metal elements it's actually quite obvious that this isn't that big of a step away from what Mystic Echo From a Funeral Dimension started.

And that's just one of the things that's good about it! It's one thing to play this style or that style and another entirely to take bits of both and forge them into something that works as well as Pandaemorthium does. Another thing that's good about is the result of this mix. Pandaemorthium is an atmospheric yet intense album that will pummel your eardrums into submission for almost seventy minutes, neither letting up it's relentless assault or letting go of your attention span, not even during rare softer moments such as Breath of the Silent Shape. Expect plenty of black and death metal riffs (and even some thrashy ones in a track like The Holocaust of Fire in the Temple of the Red Oracle) that are full of technicality and complexity, interlaced with spacey atmospheric metal passages and of course Asthâghul's perfectly integrated, malevolent growling. I do find the latter hard to follow in terms of his actual lyrics, but as part of the whole package it works.

Pandaemorthium is undeniably a very satisfying release. It's not quite the album I expected to hear next from Esoctrilihum but maybe that's a good thing. A level of unpredictability makes this project even more exciting than it was already and Mystic Echo From a Funeral Dimension had already given me a lot of hopes for its future. For all we know, Asthâghul's next one for Esoctrilihum could easily be a full on progressive/technical death metal release, full on spacey black metal madness, or even something avant-garde. Or none of the above or maybe a bit of all of them and more. Wherever he takes this project next, it's clearly going to be one hell of a ride to take with him to find out. And for my money, Pandaemorthium is the first true standout album of 2018.

SLAYER Reign in Blood

Album · 1986 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 4.27 | 178 ratings
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First off, just let me say that I'm well aware how highly regarded the US thrash metal band Slayer is, especially this third album from the group, Reign in Blood (1986). Enough people think highly of this band and album that it has to be doing something right. However you are about to read a negative review for it. Given its fame and regard it'll probably be your inclination to write this review off as an attempt at trolling a well liked release. It is not. It would be equally be easy to assume that this review is written by someone who doesn't really like thrash metal. But again, it is not. Thrash metal is not one of my absolute favourite metal genres but I listen to enough of it to comfortable say that I am a fan of the style, one whose interest in it continues to grow in fact. Just today I checked out Kreator for the first time, and loved them.

I don't expect my word on these things will persuade you of course, and I expect you're already gearing up your choice insults in response to this having already seen the score attached to this review. So I will just ask, here and now, that if you're not open to reading an alternative point of view for this beloved album that we part ways here, agreeing to disagree. Nothing I say is going to dissuade you from thinking that Reign in Blood is the best thing since sliced bread. Otherwise read on and I don't know, I guess maybe be prepared to be offended?

Reign in Blood is a very short album despite there being ten tracks. It's not even a full half an hour. Unless something is so overlong that it becomes overwhelming or just outstays its welcome, length doesn't usually factor into the quality of an album, but with Reign in Blood it's actually quite integral to realising what is wrong with it. Slayer writes quite short songs on this album, with most not even reaching the three minute mark. In these short songs they basically do one thing: very fast thrash metal with Tom Araya shouting all over it. It's obvious that Slayer are skilled musicians all around to keep these tempos going and if this is all you want from a thrash metal album, then I'm sure Reign in Blood is basically thrash metal heaven. But for me Slayer forgot one key thing in these songs: a little thing called substance. There's little to none of it across the whole Reign in Blood album. Most of the songs follow the pattern described here, rinse and repeat.

Except of course for the two times when the band do get it right, which actually is the opening and closing songs Angel of Death and the Reign in Blood title track. The first thing that you'll notice about these two songs is that even though they aren't long by any stretch of the imagination they are longer than most on the album, each breaking not three but four minutes. It turns out that this increase in duration makes all the difference in Slayer's music. The songs have more room to develop beyond the band's go-to style and because of that they make an impact on the listener as something more than just being hard and fast. They're that too, of course.

Hard and fast metal is great, as these songs show, but they need good song-writing too. It's just a shame Slayer forgot that after track one and only remembered it when they get to their final song. Without that much needed substance to their song-writing, Reign in Blood just feels like an exercise in 'Hey! Look what we can do!'. Yeah sure, they can play. But what else have they got? Apart from the two songs Reign in Blood is forgettable, insubstantial and quite possibly the contents of one of the most overrated albums I've ever heard. The fact that there are two really good songs even proves a double edged sword as they further highlight both how weak the rest of the album is and what could have been is Slayer had just thought about their song-writing more.

I liken this album to being at a party and being told you can have a really good drink when you get there and another just before you leave, but the rest of the night you've got to drink Budweiser. The really good drinks in this analogy are Angel of Death and the title track, which I have to say easily number among the best thrash metal songs I've heard and the reason I'm scoring this album as high as I am. The rest of this album is metal's answer to Budweiser though. Some people may call Slayer the kings of thrash. Sure, but Budweiser calls itself the king of beers, a tagline that's surely said in irony.

Inflaming comparisons to pissy weak lager aside (actually, Budweiser is not that weak, but it sure don't taste like it!), I will acknowledge again that Slayer must be doing something right on Reign in Blood for it to have achieved this high regard. I will also say, because someone else does, that I just don't 'get it'. You're right, I don't get it. Same way I don't get why Budweiser is so many people's go to beer. I drank one of those once and then said never again. I shall do the same thing in regard to listening to this album.

REBELLION A Tragedy in Steel Part II: Shakespeare's King Lear

Album · 2018 · Power Metal
Cover art 3.58 | 4 ratings
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I'm sure that I can't have been the only one surprised when German heavy/power metal act Rebellion revealed their eighth studio album. It's not that the band was in a situation where a new album was either unexpected or past due; it'd been three years since the release of Wyrd Bið Ful Aræd – The History of the Saxons (2015), their usual length between albums for a few releases now. No, it was the title. The album was revealed as A Tragedy in Steel Part II: Shakespeare's King Lear (2018). Shakespeare's MacBeth - A Tragedy of Steel (2002) was Rebellion's first album and who could have expected that after sixteen years the group would return to the works of Shakespeare?

I for one did not and I have to admit, the move made me a little apprehensive. After all, MacBeth is undoubtedly Rebellion's weakest album; the very textbook definition of a record where the artist is still finding their sound. But not only that, the flow of that record was really disrupted by heavy use of narration elements, which unlike on other albums that make use of such weren't separated into their own tracks but inserted into the actual songs of the album and not always at the beginning or end of a piece. Of course it's obvious given the subject matter why they'd do that – it adds a feel of the theatre to the album, but for me at least, it really didn't work.

As a band Rebellion has obviously come a long way since then, producing an incredible run of albums starting with Born a Rebel (2003), their only non-concept and/or theme album, and going right up to the most recent release Wyrd Bið Ful Aræd. But even so, it seemed a really odd move for them to make. So now comes the burning question: were my concerns justified?

Yes, I think they very much were.

But with that said, positives first: it isn't like King Lear is a total bust for Rebellion. They still have their signature sound intact, with lots of heavy and power metal riff work on display, along with Michael Seifert's distinctive sung yet harsh vocal style. The album even actually breaks the band a bit of unexpected new ground with several tracks, usually the more heavy metal based ones, displaying an undertone of traditional doom metal, something that can be clearly picked up upon as early as opener A Fool's Tale. It's just a bit of flavour rather than a overt change in direction, but it's enough to differentiate the album from the band's others.

But the there's the issues with the album that put a real dampener on anything positive I can say about it. While it's not as extreme, the band did fall into exactly the same trap with the narrative elements on King Lear as they, way back when with a largely different line-up, did with MacBeth. Then there's the songs themselves. They're not bad and there is a few highlights to be had such as Dowerless Daughter, Storm and Tempest, and Battle Song, but there's an inescapable feeling that for the first time in a while Rebellion aren't coming close to knocking one out of the park and that despite those new doomy undertones, the album is very much Rebellion by numbers and that they went through the motions of getting an album out at the time they were expected to. As such it's difficult to really get invested in it as an album or get too excited by it.

It's still a solid enough release to avoid being considered bad, but there's no room for doubt in my mind that King Lear is the band's weakest album since MacBeth itself and I'm actually unsure which really deserves the dubious honour of being considered the actual weakest. I would say it's still worth picking up if you're a fan of the band and already have all their other work (and the price is right), but otherwise there's a choice of six other Rebellion albums out there that are considerably more powerful than this one that deserve your attention first. This one already feels like it's just there, a part of the band's discography that you're aware of and may listen to on occasion along with their other albums, but it won't ever be the one you reach for first.

THRESHOLD Legends Of The Shires

Album · 2017 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.77 | 12 ratings
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Back when I was discovering metal I moved through hearing bands in multiple genres before one genre stood out for me. That genre was progressive metal. That was the first metal genre I could really say I loved. I discovered both big names like Dream Theater, Ayreon and Opeth and lesser known acts such as Anubis Gate and Darkology. One band that I know I became aware of early on in my journey of discovering progressive metal was the UK band Threshold. This would of course have been through the Ayreon connection, as vocalist Damian Wilson guested on multiple releases and other projects of mastermind Arjen Lucassen.

Wilson was fairly recently re-inducted into the band at that time, for his third stint with them, so the then current material I heard from Threshold instead featured vocalist Andrew "Mac" McDermott, who sadly passed away in 2011, and was from their Dead Reckoning (2007) album, at the time their latest release. For some reason, it didn't grab me. I remember one of the songs I heard quite distinctly though. Slipstream. It seemed a far cry from the kind of stuff that I was listening to at the time and didn't inspire me to explore the band much further than that. I therefore remained largely incurious through the release of a further two albums with Wilson, though I did hear the band's third album Extinct Instinct (1997), also a Wilson fronted release, in that time through a friend and enjoyed it without being completed won over by the band.

With Wilson departed from Threshold once again, they've re-inducted another previous vocalist, Glynn Morgan, who to date had only sang on their second album Psychedelicatessen (1994). If that had been the one album I had heard in full by this point, I may have been more curious when this new line-up released Legends of the Shires (2017), their eleventh album. But no, what really made me decided to check this out was a twofold thing: it's a double album and ever since Ayreon I've always been a sucker for a double progressive metal album. But also was how well regarded it was quickly becoming, being ranked higher on 2017 progressive metal lists than even the likes of Ayreon, Anubis Gate and Mastodon. So I checked it out.

Man, am I ever glad that I did! Legends of the Shires is not only a great album, but it also made me realise that for over ten years there's been a Threshold sized hole in my album collection. This one will proudly be the first one, of what I plan to be many, to plug it.

The two disc release spans a total of just over eighty minutes, so it's only just over what a single CD can fit. This will no doubt make it seem a bit less daunting to approach than some double albums that can last for over two hours. Things are kicked off with The Shire (Part 1), a short acoustic introduction, albeit one that does feature vocals, before the first metal song, Small Dark Lines, really gets the album underway. This is a good one, quite catchy but with a real proggy solo section, but if there's a track here that's going to sell you early on, as it did me, it's the epic third one The Man Who Saw Through Time, which at just shy of twelve minutes is the album's longest song. This is a exemplary example of the progressive metal genre, featuring twists and turns, heavy and soft passages, plenty of soloing with both guitar and keyboard, but linked together by a strong vocal and lyric so it still sounds like a song instead of aimless noddling.

Three more excellent tracks take us to the end of the first disc, with some symphonic elements appearing starting with Trust the Process. Disc 2 then kicks off with The Shire (Part 2), which is musically and lyrically a throwback to the first part, though it's over twice the length and more like a full song in its own right this time and unlike Part 1, turns metal after a time. There's another brief recursion of this, The Shire (Part 3), later in the second disc. I do find the second disc to be a bit weaker than the first but there's still plenty of enjoyable material on offer, including another ten minute plus number, Lost in Translation. Despite the eighty-plus minute total length, it's a pretty easy album to take in one sitting, though can just as easily be broken into two chunks with each disc if preferred.

One thing's for sure about the whole thing though, Threshold know their craft, with plenty of riffs, melodies, progressiveness and most importantly memorable songs making up the album. Glynn Morgan, who let's be fair has to be thought of as that guy who sang on one Threshold album over twenty years ago and whose name isn't near as often associated as the voice of the band as much as Damian Wilson or Andrew "Mac" McDermott, proves to be something of a dark horse. His melodic voice is pretty stunning from start to finish, which really helps those lyrical hooks stay with you.

Threshold are old hands at this game now, and they're really showing the young guns how its done with Legends of the Shires (and maybe a certain founding father too after their own still recent double effort). I'm just sorry it took so long for me to catch on to how good they are. Legends of the Shires is undoubtedly deserving of all the praise it can get.

ELVENKING Secrets of the Magick Grimoire

Album · 2017 · Folk Metal
Cover art 4.54 | 6 ratings
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Italy's Elvenking are pretty much a staple band of the folk metal and power metal genres by this point. While for a long time I've considered their peak to actually be their first album Heathenreel (2001), they've remained an incredible consistent band for me. Their fourth record The Scythe (2007) was one that took a while to appreciate, but most of their work has been easy to enjoy, with the primarily acoustic record Two Tragedy Poets (...and a Caravan of Weird Figures) (2008) also ending up a surprise highlight of their discography. They had a brief period where their releases tended to focus on either the folk or power metal aspect of their music more, but with their last album The Pagan Manifesto (2014) they returned to the fused folk-power metal sound that they started with. This reunification of their elements continues on Secrets of the Magick Grimoire (2017), Elvenking's ninth album.

The Pagan Manifesto was a great album. Certainly the best metal album that Elvenking had done since Heathenreel (though for my money I retain a great deal of affection for Two Tragedy Poets). The band have lost none of the momentum that made it so great in the three years since it's release, a recording gap that saw them release their first live album The Night of Nights (2015). It is fair to say that in terms of the elements used that Secrets of the Magick Grimoire is a more of the same kind of release. It's folk-power metal with a dash of symphonic elements, the latter being one of the elements that distinguishes this period of the band from the actual Heathenreel days, as well as it's follow-up Wyrd (2004). While some listeners may prefer a band who are more unpredictable with every release, which could be said of Elvenking for their 2006 – 2012 releases where everything from The Winter Wake (2006) to Era (2012) showcased something a bit different each time, on Secrets of the Magick Grimoire it's actually exactly what the doctor ordered. This album isn't so much a rehash of the previous but a refinement of its sound.

It's difficult to explain in words exactly why that is. The best way to realise it is to listen to the two releases back to back. While nothing can diminish how excellent The Pagan Manifesto was or that it had more than a few of its own nods to the early days, Secrets of the Magick Grimoire just feels even more like a throwback to their roots. Naturally it's better produced and polished being their ninth rather than their first album, but otherwise it would actually be easy to mistake this as an older release of the band, it sits so comfortably with their earlier material, while also being a natural follow-up to The Pagan Manifesto. While not necessarily untrue of the previous as well, the song-writing here really seems tailored to appeal to the old school fan.

The energy of the power metal genre is fully evident, while the folk melodies are very tastefully integrated. Yet the album is no less excellent during those parts where the band do dial things back a bit, such as during The Wolves Will be Howling Your Name. Vocalist Damn is on fine form throughout, his distinctive voice as always acting like the icing on the cake within the band's sound. He's joined here by a few guest vocalists, such as female vocalist Elisabetta Furlanetto. Elvenking have regularly had guest female singers on their albums and some of their best material has come out of those collaborations, which is true here as well. There are also growls, maybe a few less than on The Pagan Manifesto overall, this time performed by Angus Norder of the bands Nekrokraft and Witchery, rather than former band member Jarpen. The most high profile guest though has to be Snowy Shaw, known for acts such as Notre Dame and Mad Architect as well as several guest appearances with Therion, who appears on At the Court of the Wild Hunt.

There's nothing here that won't be able to convince you that Secrets of the Magick Grimoire isn't another excellent album from Elvenking. There are no dull moments, with every track on a par with the rest. There's a couple that stand out early on, for me being A Grain of Truth and 3 Ways to Magick, but repeat listens will assert everything to be on the same level. I'll always admit whenever I review an Elvenking record that my favouritism for Heathenreel has a bit to do with nostalgia – it was through that record that I discovered this wonderful thing called folk metal – but there's a good chance that with continuing exposure I'll come to regard this one even higher. For now though, it's absolutely in the top three albums from the band.

Additionally if you don't mind spending a few extra quid, it's well worth picking up a special edition of Secrets of the Magick Grimoire. This will net you an additional four tracks. The first two of these are Petalstorm and The Open Breach, both of which were previously Japanese bonus tracks on prior albums. The real draw of the bonus material though is the 2010 version Jigsaw Puzzle. This song originally appeared on Wyrd, the only album in Elvenking's back catalogue not to feature the voice of Damna, so it's a window into what might have been had he not had a couple of years out of the band. Finally there's the 2008 version of Skywards, which is an acoustic version of the song originally from Heathenreel, undoubtedly from the Two Tragedy Poets sessions, though it doesn't appear to have been released before as far as I can tell. All are very much worth having.

EVILFEAST Elegies of the Stellar Wind

Album · 2017 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 4.58 | 3 ratings
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It's been quite a while since the release of Wintermoon Enchantment (2011), the last full-length release by Polish atmospheric black metal solo project Evilfeast. Although there's been both an EP and a demo in the meantime, musician GrimSpirit has emerged back in full force at the tail end of 2017 with Elegies of the Stellar Wind, an album that may just upset any established lists of the best black metal releases of the year once you hear it.

Comprised solely of long songs (the shortest is over eight minutes) with no messing around with separate intros, interludes or outros, Elegies of the Stellar Wind is clearly written with being immersive in mind and it's very effective in succeeding at that. This is the kind of atmospheric black metal record where it's almost like a paradox against what metal music is usually about, featuring traditional raw and cold riff work that often merely serves to lay the groundwork for an even colder ambience (actually the first thing you'll hear when the album kicks off with The Second Baptism... Shores in Fire and Ice), to do its thing.

There are plenty of parts where the ambient elements are withdrawn and the focus is purely on the raw riffs and growling vocals of course (which every so often are switched to clean singing, which features prominently when used, especially in the final track Inclinata Resurgit... Rebirth of My Noble Dark Kingdom), such immediately following the ambient introduction of the opener. The album's certainly at its best and most majestic when the two worlds combine though. I'm reminded of a mix of the likes of Striborg and the raw yet atmospheric sound heard on albums such as Autumnal Melancholy (2008) and Midnight Odyssey through the majestic ambient parts such as on the Shards of Silver Fade (2015) album.

While the extremely raw sound of the album may prove a detriment to all but the most fervent of black metal listener, to those among us who appreciate the style that Elegies of the Stellar Wind delivers the record is quick to establish itself as being something special. The mood captures both the winter season that the album was released in while also giving off some dark, medieval vibes. It's enough to be drawn in straight away, then keeps hold of my attention throughout, despite the considerable total length of 67:24 minutes. The first listen can easily be spent just revelling in all the fine details coming off the synths that it's only on the next go around that an appreciation starts to form for the real old school black metal guitar riffs that GrimSpirit has crafted. I usually prefer my black metal to sound a bit less fuzzy than this, but I have to admit that anything more would throw the combine atmosphere of guitars and synths off kilter. It's a delicate thing to balance, but one which is handled to perfection here.

It may not be pretty or polished, yet Elegies of the Stellar Wind resonates high up on the levels of creativity. It's an excellent release and even surprising work that despite it's late year release has quickly cracked my black metal top five for the year. It's because of that late in the year release date that I nearly missed it in time to include it in my annual best of year list. That would have been a shame, so don't make the same mistake I almost did.

NIGHT VIPER Exterminator

Album · 2017 · Heavy Metal
Cover art 4.43 | 5 ratings
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Sweden. As far as metal goes it's probably best known for its death metal, a lot of it of the melodic death variety, especially the Gothenburg scene. It's also got a strong heritage in both black metal and doom metal through acts such as Dissection and Katatonia respectively, among others. What it's less known for it's it's output of classic heavy metal bands, especially in the eighties. There's Heavy Load who are likely the best known band unless one counts the more hard rock chart bothering Europe, the neoclassical metal virtuoso Yngwie J. Malmsteen or the relocated Oz (who are Finnish), Swedish heavy metal in the eighties is mostly made up of lesser known acts who you're most likely to have only heard of if you either A) are Swedish or B) have extensively researched the scene.

In spite of this, Sweden does keep turning out modern bands that fly the flag for traditional metal, old school sound included. So arguably the country actually has a better heavy metal scene now than it ever did, which in times where modern traditional albums continually get overlooked in favour of their eighties counterparts is quite something. Night Viper, a female fronted act who released their self-titled debut album in 2015, is the latest of these to come my attention and they've really got me excited about what their country has to offer the heavy metal genre. Exterminator (2017), is their second full-length effort.

If you've previously heard the Night Viper self-titled effort, then it will be quickly apparent when Exterminator kicks off with No Escape that the band have had a little bit of a shift in sound in the couple of years since the first album's release. They're still playing old school heavy metal with a nice, crisp production sound that really highlights the riffs, but it's been tempered with an often pronounced edge of speed metal or thrash metal, depending on the song. This starts off right away with some speed metal references in No Escape, but is most prominent in the following track, the short but powerful Summon the Dead, which is the closest the album comes to having a full on thrash metal song. These additional influences give Night Viper's material a faster and more aggressive edge than traditional heavy metal usually has, while still being more about classic galloping rhythms.

Starting with Never Win we start to hear some more straight heavy metal from the band like that found on their debut, which while not as hard hitting is still just as satisfying work. Following this we hear the speed/thrash edge again in tracks such as the Exterminator title track, Ashes, Lady Bad Luck and All That Remains, while the rest is more classic old school heavy metal. Regardless of whether the song in question has this or not though, the one thing that's uniform across the album is the band's growth as instrumentalists. They come across as a real tight unit across the board, while vocalist Sofie-Lee Johansson has a strong melodic voice that carries the songs well; making them easy to follow and to keep the choruses going around in your head.

Whether the speed/thrash metal edge heard on and off on Exterminator is an indication that Night Viper is evolving more towards that kind of sound remains to be seen – the kind of thing that will only be answerable with the hindsight of time and another release from the band – but one thing's for sure: they've delivered a heavy metal highlight of 2017 in this one. Exterminator is the kind of release that's fun to listen to and doesn't inflict anything that a metalhead of any taste shouldn't want to hear: if you like heavy metal, you should like this album. And if you don't like this album, then I'll have to presume you don't like heavy metal.

PSYCHEDELIC WITCHCRAFT Sound Of The Wind

Album · 2017 · Heavy Psych
Cover art 4.39 | 5 ratings
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Although their formerly shared their vocalist Virginia Monti with the doom metal band Dead Witches and the remainder of the band are also involved with hard rockers Magnet, Italians Psychedelic Witchcraft haven't up until this point been a particularly heavy band themselves. This is in spite of also being easily grouped with acts such as Blood Ceremony through the retro rock connection. With their second full-length album Sound of the Wind (2017), they're clearly set out to change this. This one's a real hard rocker!

With ten new tracks under their belt, the band, whose first album was mostly a straight psychedelic rock affair with the occasional heavier edge creeping in, have near enough fully embraced heavy psych on Sound of the Wind. There's the odd moment where things are dialled back considerably, including the title track which sounds as if it could be a lost Jefferson Airplane number. I'm very much reminded of that band's famous White Rabbit during it fact. Mostly though, this album is all about rocking hard but with plenty of psychedelic vibes throughout. It's even close to metal at points, in terms of heaviness if not technique, though there's a vague air of traditional doom if you listen closely enough.

An improvement on the decent but ultimately less interesting (especially to the heavy rock and/or metal fan) debut, Sound of the Wind is quick to assert itself as one of the best hard rock albums of 2017. Despite this I have to say that it's that title track that sounds out as it's crowning achievement, but it's a strong record from start to finish. Perhaps more to the point it stands out in the crowd of these female fronted psychedelic heavy rock bands that have been (justifiably) quite popular in recent years, thanks in no small part to the increased heaviness of the guitar riff. Along with this potent riffage, the use of psychedelic melodies really pushes the album up a level, as do the charming vocals from Virginia Monti, whose voice fits perfectly and is a real delight to take in.

Overall I'm very impressed by Psychedelic Witchcraft's change in direction to becoming a heavier band and hope to hear more work in this style from them.

VULTURE The Guillotine

Album · 2017 · Speed Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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There's something about the appearance of Germany band Vulture's debut full-length album The Guillotine (2017) that just screams old school. It's not an empty promise either, since the music is much the same: speed metal straight out of eighties Germany that is so convincingly replicated in all aspects, especially the production, that you'd be forgiven feeling the need to do a double take and check the album's credentials just to make sure this isn't just some unearthed gem that didn't see the light of day way back when, in the dark ages where the Internet didn't allow music to spread like a wildfire. But no, Vulture have only been around since 2015 and have, to date, a preceding demo and single to their name. The guys in the band are hardly strangers to the speed metal style though, with other band credits between them including acts such as Wifebeater and Bulldozing Bastard.

Compared to those other bands who each mix speed metal with something else such as black metal (Bulldozing Bastard) or crust punk (Wifebeater), Vulture represents a much more 'pure' take on the genre, like the band members took the common element between their other ventures and ran with just that, rarely even delving into more full-on thrash metal. This is to say that the record comes over as one dimensional, but speed metal is the kind of genre that can be gotten away with since out of all metal genres it's actually rarely represented in such a pure form as found on The Guillotine.

Things are kicked off though with some keyboards in what on another album may have been a separated intro track but instead takes up a chunk of the opener Vendetta. The Guillotine reminds a little of the way Blind Guardian's Battalions of Fear (1988) opens in this respect, but unlike with Majesty's quirky circus sounds, Vulture's keys sadly sound a bit naff and the band kind of overdo them here too, going on for over a minute before the guitars finally explode into life. From here the band begin a business as usual kind of approach to their music. Fast and loose sounding riffs that are mostly old school and raw, but with plenty of melodic parts that don't quite push them into the territory of closely related genre power metal. The vocals follow a similar pattern, sometimes rapidly barked and hysterical, sometimes more restrained and sometimes semi-harsh and sometimes with the high register let off its leash. It's a varied performance that comes over as delivered with passion, but I have trouble following the lyrics the singer is spurting.

This goes on until Adrian's Cradle (perhaps a reference to their fellow German's Running Wild and their mascot Captain Adrian?), when the synths return briefly, but then it's back to the usual, at least until the following track, (This Night Belongs) To the Dead, which throws in some acoustic guitars instead. There's a pattern here to how the band diverges from their usual and I don't think it would hurt them to vary their formula up a bit in other ways every so often, since calling The Guillotine a formulaic record overall isn't wrong. Being intentionally old school it's not exactly an original sounding album either, though it makes up for what in lacks in that regard by being packed full of riffs and it does indeed have a kind of nostalgic charm surrounding it that makes it an easy listen for anyone who likes their eighties metal and is sure to put some smiles on faces.

What it doesn't do is surpass those that came before it, but Vulture improving as song-writers will no doubt go a long way to help with that, since individual identity proves the biggest detraction while listening to The Guillotine. It's quite a fun album while it lasts, but afterwards little of it sticks with me. The closing Cry for Death is to my ears the best of the eight songs and the only one I can remember any specific thing about upon conclusion aside from those brief track intro diversions, standing out mainly for its lead melody. In summary The Guillotine is a classic case of needing that extra spark to elevate it to noteworthiness.

BLAZE OF PERDITION Conscious Darkness

Album · 2017 · Black Metal
Cover art 3.16 | 3 ratings
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Here's a story about me, your humble reviewer: black metal is my favourite genre of metal music. That means that more than any other genre I spend a lot of time checking out black metal acts, both old and new, to the point where buying used job lots of black metal albums on ebay is a thing that's happened several times now, all of them more or less blind. It's through this habit that I've greatly expanded my experience of the genre. I now believe I can safely say that I've heard most if not all facets of this diverse musical style, everything from the traditional to the melodic, atmospheric to the depressive, symphonic to the pagan and even a bit of the obscure war metal style and stuff that is so avant-garde that is sounds mentally unhinged.

This is not a boast, but the build up to this following statement: through listening to so much black metal music I've discovered it to be the genre of metal that, in my experience at least, is continually showing the most innovation, certainly more than most so called progressive metal bands do, which played a big part in it becoming my favourite. This year (2017) alone has served up the likes of oltreLuna by Progenie Terrestre Pura, which packs all kinds of unusual elements into it, from tribal beats to even dupstep. Then there is Futility Report by White Ward, which melds the blackgaze sub-genre with saxophone led jazz sounds. This is not to mention Ebne Graun by Todesstoß, an exceptionally creepy release that effectively melds depressive black metal, funeral doom metal and dungeon synth into a single 46:23 long song. So when Conscious Darkness, the fourth full-length by Polish black metal act Blaze of Perdition comes along and immediately makes a similar splash in the black metal waters to the above albums it should go without saying that my interest would be piqued and I'd make it a priority to check the release out to see what the fuss is about.

The fairy tale ending to this story would be that Conscious Darkness turned out to be just as much of, if not an even more creative release as those examples I highlighted in the previous paragraph. But this is where we've hit a major plot twist in our tale. In a year with both highly innovative albums such as those listed above and also exceptionally strong if less 'out there' ones like Wode's Servants of the Countercosmos and Fen's Winter, titles it's also mentioned in the same breath as, Conscious Darkness surprises by its sheer mediocrity. Maybe it has simply fallen victim to its own hype train; the phenomenon where an album is talked about by so many or is simply gushed over so much by a more niche audience that by the time you, who are a little late to the party, get to hear it, you subconsciously go into it with high and potentially unrealistic expectations that even the average 'very good' album isn't going to meet.

I have to say I do think that's what has happen here with Blaze of Perdition's Conscious Darkness, since I certainly don't mean to imply that I hear this as a terrible record. Not by any means. It even has some great moments, but they're counterbalanced by equally poor ones. Overall it's more like a listenable record that despite being able to hold my attention ultimately underwhelms by the time I've got through the four track, 43:03 long duration. For a while I couldn't put my finger on why that could be, because listening to it I couldn't honestly say I was hearing the kind of by the numbers generic black metal release that are all too common these days. The band's music though instantly recognisable as black metal doesn't have a typical sound. Their instrumentation sounds more, for want of a better description, chaotic, sometimes to the point of dissonance. It also seems apparent that the guys in the band were influenced by more than a single avenue of music when writing it and it's not hard to imagine that they've put a lot of thought into creating this release. So what exactly is the problem?

After a few listens waiting to see if the album would open up as familiarity set in (which it did to a point), it finally hit me. For all intents and purposes Conscious Darkness actually was a fairly typical black metal record, more so after you've scratched the surface of it. While this isn't a barrier to enjoyment – I noted a couple of fairly typical albums for their styles earlier on in this review that I have personally given high scores this year – there's an inescapable feeling when listening to this one that somewhere in the gears of this well oiled machine someone has left a wrench.

This is less evident in the opening track A Glimpse of God, which I'd say is the best on offer, but it certainly becomes apparent during the next one, Ashes Remain, which is the album's longest song. For a time it serves up much the same as the previous – nothing unusual for a black metal release there – but then the band dial back the metallic parts and throw in an extended softer section – again, nothing unusual for a black metal release there – but this is where that pesky wrench near grinds everything to a halt: this section is really not very good at all and serves to really highlight the problems with the rest of the release. Though softer and more atmospheric, things are still incredibly muddy during this section, not really allowing much detail to stand out. It's easy to backtrack then and realise that the album was much the same before this part kicked in. The real kicker during this soft section though are the vocals. Switched from the usual growl to a clean voice, they're delivered in little more than a drawling spoken word.

Even with this realisation Conscious Darkness does, overall, still manage to be a listenable black metal release. But it never transcends beyond that, it's most memorable parts being memorable for all the wrong reasons. Additionally with the longest two tracks lined up first over half if it is done and dusted by the time you've got through that non-metal section and to say that the album is derailed by that point is an understatement. The next two tracks Weight of the Shadow and Detachment Brings Serenity are better, but even though both are still pretty long it's just not enough time and material for the release to recover much in my regards. Ultimately what's left is an album that is neither worthless nor worthwhile, just something that exists slap-bang in the middle of the road, adrift within the seas of the mundane.

BURNING WITCHES Burning Witches

Album · 2017 · Heavy Metal
Cover art 4.10 | 8 ratings
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Though she already had two albums under her belt with the band Atlas & Axis, Swiss guitarist Romana Kalkuhl still had a dream to fulfil: to be a part of an all female heavy metal band. To that end, Burning Witches were founded in 2015 and have now released their 2017 self-titled debut album. For me it's gone somewhat under the radar since originally dropping in May, but I'm sure glad to have picked up on it now, since what we have here may just be 2017's best hidden gem of traditional heavy metal. The album was co-produced by Schmier of thrash metal band Destruction fame, who also provides some additional vocals on the track Metal Demons.

The sound heard on the album speaks volumes toward what kind of bands have influenced the musicians in Burning Witches. If the Judas Priest cover of Jawbreaker closing the album wasn't a big enough clue, then it's easy to hear the influence of Judas Priest in the sound of the band's original songs too. Though Jawbreaker comes from Defenders of the Faith (1984), I find myself thinking more toward Painkiller (1990) era of Judas Priest when listening to this album. For Judas Priest Painkiller has this really 'next level' feel about it. It was harder and faster than much of what they'd done before. Although this is Burning Witches debut record and the passage of time does make it considerably less revolutionary in 2017 than Painkiller was in 1990, the vibe it gives off is actually quite similar: there's definitely something extra here compared to what the typical heavy metal album in 2017 has. Something that gives Burning Witches a lot more bite.

In many ways the record seems written with a very classic feel to it, but in others its really quite modern, making use of strong production values to make the band's riffs hit as hard as possible and also featuring a pretty hefty dose of power metal, meaning the heaviest end of the genre that brings mind to German bands such as Grave Digger and Rebellion, as well as a few extreme metal elements via the use of some harsh vocals, found most prominently in tracks such as Bloody Rose and The Dark Companion, the latter of which, though it starts soft, is otherwise full of classic heavy metal galloping riffs.

The first two songs on the album do a good job of showcasing how well Burning Witches blend both heavy metal and power metal on the album. The opener Black Widow leans more on power metal, featuring speedy riffs but played in a decidedly aggressive manner, with a rawer sound than power metal is typically known for having. Then there band serves up their self-titled song Burning Witches, which is much more mid-paced but still heavy. This is where the harsh vocals first appear from singer Seraina Telli, but also some more high registered parts interlaced with them, which were also used in the opening scream of Black Widow. There are definitely times during the record where it sounds like Telli is channelling her inner Halford, with Black Widow especially coming across like it wouldn't have been out of place on Painkiller.

The song-writing continues to prove consistent across the album both in terms of quality and style. Burning Witches continually gives the impression that they're not messing around. There's no elongation of any songs (the longest is a little under five and half minutes), no needless progressive or symphonic elements and no bullshit. If the mission was to produce arse-kicking songs, then Burning Witches can consider themselves victorious. There's a lone ballad, Save Me, placed right in the middle of the release (which you can hear an acoustic version of if you have the Japanese release of the album), but even though ballads can often disrupt the flow of heavy and power metal albums that isn't the case here. It's actually just as good as anything else the band has included. Everything about the album says that it's heavy/power metal played with conviction and passion. It's real hard not to be won over by that.

That's what makes it easy to invest many repeat listens in it without getting tired of it. The songs are memorable, especially opener Black Widow, self-titled anthem Burning Witches, extreme edged Bloody Rose, speedy Creatures of the Night, and the playing right into the witch theme We Eat Your Children. All the songs are strong though; there are no low points here. The Jawbreaker cover is also pretty good too; Burning Witches certainly haven't disgraced themselves there. It's just an excellent debut in every aspect.

BELL WITCH Mirror Reaper

Album · 2017 · Funeral Doom Metal
Cover art 3.89 | 10 ratings
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US funeral doom metal duo had released just two full-length albums, Longing (2012) and Four Phantoms (2015), when their line-up was split in two following drummer/vocalist Adrian Guerra's departure. Bands change line-up all the time but this change was tragically made all the more profound when a year later, in 2016, Adrian Guerra passed away. Mirror Reaper (2017) is the group's, which now consists of Dylan Desmond (bass, vocals) and new member Jesse Shreibman (drums, vocals), first new recording since then. The monolithic, eighty-three minute long single song album can be seen as a eulogy to their fallen comrade, whose presence is still felt by the insertion of some vocals recorded before his untimely death at the age of just 35, credited under 'the words of the dead'.

Because Mirror Reaper is so long, physical versions of it have to split the song into multiple parts. The CD version has two discs with the track split into two (titled As Above and So Below) while the vinyl is also a double, with the track split into four parts. It's worth pointing out at this point that at least in the case of the CD version the physical pressing does NOT come with a download code so buyers can also obtain the full uninterrupted version of the album. Without confirmation, I'd assume that the vinyl is the same. This, while I won't allow it to affect my rating in this review, is a considerable omission to make in my view, making Mirror Reaper one of the extremely rare cases where the physical version can be deemed inferior to the digital (more so because the digipak packaging is one of the most shoddily made I've ever encountered).

In any form Mirror Reaper is a daunting journey, one that I'm certain most potential listeners will want to think hard about whether they even want to try taking it. Those that do will definitely need to find themselves in the right frame of mind, and set aside enough time to take the whole composition in during a single sitting regardless of whether you're listening to the seamless digital version or the four part vinyl version. A piece like this loses its impact if you decide to take a break of any length and while at least in the case of the CD version the split between the As Above part and the So Below part does make sense, So Below doesn't work near so well as a stand alone track.

Funeral doom metal is known for its plodding pace and atmosphere of misery and that's exactly what is delivered on Mirror Reaper, via some quite extended length non-metal sections, especially during the So Below part of the song. No idea is treated like a flash in the pan thing, but is drawn out for ages. The vocals range from growling to hypnotic chant to subdued singing. Despite the growls, there's no forays into actual death-doom like the works of Evoken or Esoteric, so it's pretty much a dirge from start to finish. In that sense, Mirror Reaper may just be an example of funeral doom metal at its most pure, though since there are no guitars and it's all done on bass the sound is a little difference to the average band. At least it's a pure funeral doom metal sound until one of the non-metal passages hits, then it's something else, yet still very much funeral and very much doom, just without the metal.

Mirror Reaper is not, understandably, an easy album. I expect that many who give it a go will find it to be too much in one way or another. To many, this will be far too long than any one song has a right to be. For others the length in itself won't be an issue but the snail's pace tempo will be. For more still it will be how it actually sounds. Mirror Reaper is certainly a dreary affair, even depressing at times, but that's hardly surprising given the genre and backstory and the death of Adrian Guerra. It's true that the point, musically speaking, could likely be accomplished in a much shorter yet still lengthy composition and that to some ears it may have been better for it. Those people will be entitled to their opinion, while I will remain steadfast in mine that they just don't get it. All things considered it seems highly appropriate that Bell Witch went all out with Mirror Reaper and produced something that will stand tall as a monumental work of what funeral doom metal is all about. This is their tribute to their fallen bandmate and it's certainly not found wanting. Even being so long there's definitely a coherence to the whole composition so that despite all the pitfalls it could fall into it never actually feels aimless.

Mirror Reaper will not go down as an album that will grace my speakers with any kind of regularity, but it's one I'm pleased to have taken the plunge on for when the mood strikes. Bell Witch have crafted a quality, well thought out work here.

WODE Servants of the Countercosmos

Album · 2017 · Black Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 3 ratings
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Black metal may have got its true start in Norway, but in recent years the United Kingdom, metal's birthplace, has become it's own little hotbed of quality acts making names for themselves. A few notable names being A Forest of Stars, Fen, Wodensthrone (sadly now defunct) and Winterfylleth. The latest band who are set to follow in their footsteps is Wode, who, like A Forest of Stars and Winterfylleth, hail from Manchester. Although their debut album, the self-titled Wode (2016), was released only a little over a year prior, this young act has wasted no time in delivering a follow-up. With their line-up expanded to four members, Servants of the Countercosmos (2017) has been unleashed and with it, Wode really make their mark.

The first thing anyone who picked up on these guys with their debut will notice is, before they've even started the music up, that even though Servants of the Countercosmos features the exact same amount of tracks as its predecessor (six), that the running time of the album is actually considerably shorter. We're talking a total time of 31:24 opposed to Wode's 47:51. The rather more atmospheric influenced debut was mainly made up of mostly long songs while for this second effort, Wode have trimmed up their writing style, leaving only one long track among Servants of the Countercosmos' number, Chaosspell, which is effectively the finale not counting the acoustic outro piece Undoing, which to me sounds as if it's actually part of the same song with an unnecessary track divider.

While the self-titled debut was a very good effort, I have to say that Servants of the Countercosmos makes for a much more instantly compelling release from Wode. The more concise writing certainly helps in that regard, but it's the more aggressive playing style the band has employed that really does it. The music is largely lacking the more atmospheric black metal elements of the debut, favouring the direct approach in every aspect. Far from a one trick pony release despite the fairly traditional style they play, Wode more than make up for the lack of additional influences this time by jam packing the album with hard hitting riffs and songs that use them to quickly establish themselves as distinct compositions. The lead growling vocals are also delivered with a similar power as the riffs, coming across like an oppressive presence that commands the sounds of blackened brutality. Though not exactly polished to melodic black metal standards, the album certainly benefits from a decent production job that avoids the excessively raw and/or cold sounds associated with the style, which really allows the guitar riffs to stand out and make their mark.

It's an experience that is over all too soon of course, but that also makes Servants of the Countercosmos a very easy album to keep going back to, one that also stands out for me as one of 2017's best traditional black metal offerings. I'm definitely looking forward to hearing more from Wode, because if their evolution so far is anything to judge by, album number three will be a real monster.

ARGUS From Fields of Fire

Album · 2017 · Heavy Metal
Cover art 4.27 | 8 ratings
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I'm sure that most metal fans, like myself, when they think of the genre's base sound, traditional heavy metal, their first thoughts are drawn to the classic acts from the seventies and eighties. Black Sabbath. Iron Maiden. Judas Priest. Accept. Motörhead. The list could go on, but I'm sure you get the idea. If you go on music rating websites and call up a chart of traditional heavy metal releases it'll be the rare album that is newer than being from 2000 and most that are will be by the long established groups. Newer traditional metal acts may obtain a small but loyal following, but seem to be doomed to forever sit in the shadow of their forebears. As good as the classics are this is a shame, because there's quite a few bands formed this side of the year 2000 that proudly fly the flag for unmodernised traditional heavy metal and play the style convincingly. The latest of these to make my shortlist for being the 'real deal' is US act Argus, whose fourth album From Fields of Fire (2017) is ready to assert them as one of the contenders to be heir to this classic genre's crown.

I first became aware of Argus with their second album Boldly Stride the Doomed (2011). Back then, they had a sound that was more of a blend of heavy metal and traditional doom metal, leaning more on the latter to my ears. But with their next album Beyond the Martyrs (2013) the group focussed more on their heavy metal side. Rather than being the kind of coincidental writing fluke that can happen with acts who blend two genres more or less equally it looks like the change was intentional, since From Fields of Fire features a similar approach; occasionally doomy traditional heavy metal played with distinctive, meaty guitar riffs and topped by powerful vocals from Brain 'Butch' Balich.

After a brief intro instrumental, the first full song Devils of Your Time starts up and it's an instant winner that sets the tone for the album. Argus must have been recording in these fields they keep harping on about because they really are on fire here! This is classic sounding heavy metal done with such strength and conviction that had Argus been around in the eighties they'd surely have been a major name today alongside the other eighties greats. And it continues through another seven songs, including the eleven minute epic Infinite Lives, Infinite Doors without skipping a beat, finally drawing to a close with a similar instrumental to what it opened with. Though very classic in style, the album does benefit from modern production standards, which makes it sound all that more potent.

While I didn't like the predecessor Beyond the Martyrs quite as much, I have to say that From Fields of Fire certainly represents a step up for Argus and while it hasn't topped Boldly Stride the Doom as the band's best album for me, it certainly provides ample proof that Argus has a future playing this semi-doomy style of heavy metal and also elevates the band in my regards in relation to other newer heavy metal acts such as Dark Forest (the UK band) and A Sound of Thunder. Undoubtedly this album is the best heavy metal album I've heard from 2017 so far or am likely to for the remainder.

NECROMANDUS Necromandus

Album · 2017 · Hard Rock
Cover art 4.00 | 2 ratings
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Although it's become somewhat prevalent for bands of the seventies and eighties who never really made it while they were young to make a comeback years down the line, one group that it probably wouldn't have been expected of is UK hard rockers Necromandus. After all, most of the band's original line-up is now deceased, with only drummer Frank Hall still around. Necromandus were only active between 1970 and 1973 and the lone album they recorded was released posthumously in various forms, originally without the band's permission or even knowledge until after the event. Hall has been quoted as being 'staggered' to discover the recordings on the market (having been told by his mother) and being 'happy and annoyed at the same time'.

It probably shouldn't have been that way. In the early seventies hard rock/heavy metal scene they had just about the best endorsement that a band could get having been taken under the wing of none other than Tony Iommi, who managed them and had them open for Black Sabbath, but things were not meant to be. Guitarist Barry Dunnery quit the band in 1973, which resulted in a rapid downward spiral that saw record label Vertigo drop them and the debut album shelved.

Revived in 2016 by Frank Hall with the aim to record a new album based off of the old material from the seventies, the new Necromandus line-up was born, including the son of late vocalist Bill Branch, John Branch, filling his father's role in the band. Necromandus (2017) is the result of their labours. At least some songs will be familiar to those who heard one of the various versions of the original debut, even if the titles aren't: opener Don't Look Down Frank was Nightjar on those releases (Don't Look Down Frank being the actual title that would have been used had the album been released in the seventies, apparently).

Though newly recorded, the music on Necromandus remains faithful to the seventies style of hard rock and even in some places actual heavy metal, often with a progressive twist. Despite the ties to Iommi and Black Sabbath back in the seventies I'm reminded more of Budgie during the heavier and more metallic parts of the album. The guitar riffs have an excellent sound with plenty of bite, though there are also plenty of softer and melodic parts. There are also heavy psych elements to be found, especially in the parts of the album where the keyboards are more prominent. They never actually had a keyboardist back during their original career, this new line-up being a five-piece rather than a four, but they certainly fit in well and offer up additional variety in the album, of which there is plenty of to begin with: the songs have no issue with individual identity.

The songs themselves are both hard rocking and catchy, with Hymn To Her, The Warriors and the closer And She Smiles in particular sticking in my head for ages after the event, while other highlights are the opening duo of Don't Look Down Frank and Alauna. The vocals from John Branch are crystal clear and his voice is very similar to his father's from what I've heard of older Necromandus recordings. It definitely feels right that he is singing on this record and not someone else and in fact this album is in itself a fitting tribute by Frank Hall to his original bandmates. It's like both the album that should have been finally seeing the light of day (despite those various versions of the original debut) and the beginning of a new chapter. It remains to be seen of course whether this will go down as one last hurrah for the Necromandus name or if, like others before them such as eighties NWoBHM act Hell, they'll continue to produce new material. I hope so, because this one is a keeper.

MONOLORD Rust

Album · 2017 · Doom Metal
Cover art 3.92 | 4 ratings
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Monolord's Rust (2017) has a simple yet eye-catching cover: two up-ended cars against a cloudy sky with, aptly, a great deal of rust in evidence. It looks not unlike like something you might run across when playing post-apocalyptic video game series Fallout (in fact, google Fallout 4's carhenge to see something that could easily be an extension of this album cover). What does that have in common with rust? Decay. Something that's past its prime, left to rot or simply put out to pasture. Despite it's name, Rust, which is this Swedish band's third album, is certainly not music that can be accused of such things and is actually some pretty compelling and heavy doom metal work that nevertheless displays a subdued vibe that fits with such themes.

The music on Rust is built on the simple premise that its listener is going to want to hear fuzzy guitar riffs that are heavy on the bass and then delivers them in abundance. Also containing elements of stoner metal and even a little bit of psychedelic rock, this doom metal record keeps the pace slow and the guitar tones heavy for most of its duration, but doesn't lack for melody either. The record can get a little samey at times, though in a hypnotic kind of manner, but is certainly engrossing at its finest moments such as early highlight Dear Lucifer, which is definitely one that will stick in many heads once they hear it.

Decent through it's first four tracks, Monolord then really hit their stride with a pair of long tracks to close the album, Forgotten Lands and At Niceae, which take up a little over half the running time between them. The band are clearly skilled at making the long track format work, but there is an unfortunate side-effect here where most of what came before, except Dear Lucifer whose title line will still be repeating in your head at that point, is eclipsed by them. It would be wrong to call Rust a patchy release since it's solid work all the way through, but it does feel like one that's clasping at but never grabbing true greatness.

I haven't heard Monolord's earlier albums Empress Rising (2014) and Vænir (2015) to say how well Rust compares, but I do know that despite some minor issues I enjoyed this one quite a lot and any who appreciate the more fuzz-drenched acts of the doom genre will certainly find something to love here.

CALIGULA'S HORSE In Contact

Album · 2017 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.41 | 8 ratings
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Australian band Caligula's Horse are a group I've often heard good things said about, but more from the progressive rock crowd than the metal crowd, despite the group's equal association as a progressive metal act. Indeed, when I recently spotted their latest album (their fourth) In Contact (2017) in a music store, it was filed in the Rock & Pop section. This led me to believe that, much like groups such as Enchant, that they were the kind of band who applied a metal edge to an otherwise progressive rock sound. So upon deciding that I'm in the mood to see what progressive rock can offer me in 2017 and choosing Caligula's Horse's In Contact as the first album to check out, I have to say that I've completely misjudged them. Though the band also offer up plenty of softer sections of music/tracks to provide contrasting sounds more often than not they're as heavy and metallic as non-extreme progressive metal gets. What is the point this introduction is making you ask? Well, it just seems to me that there's been less association between the band and metal, when In Contact is an album that fans of progressive metal shouldn't be overlooking.

The vocals by Jim Grey may be exceptionally melodic (I've very much reminded of Haken's Ross Jennings), but the riffs from Sam Vallen and new member Adrian Goleby are heavy and punchy. Sometimes it's in a classic way à la the Dream Theater school, in others it's in a noticeably modern way, even pushing djent at one point. At another there's even a speedy power metal section. The band's instrumentalists certainly don't skimp on the progressive technicalities and intricacies the way some so called modern progressive metal bands do either. Unlike many which get saddled with this overused label, In Contact actually deserves the description. The album is like the perfect fusion of both the progressive rock and heavy metal worlds, offering up the kind of merger that will hold appeal to fans of both crowds without either feeling that it's made a little more for the other.

For the last few years I've found a lot of progressive metal, especially of the more traditional kind like this, to be completely stale, so it shouldn't be understated how quickly this album manages to impress. I'm hooked long before the opening track Dream the Dead is concluded. There's only one track on In Contact that I really don't care for, which is Inertia and the Weapon of the Wall. This one is a spoken word theatrical piece that serves as little more than an interlude. Though convincingly performed, with it running for almost three minutes I'd ready for Caligula's Horse to start up the music that they're so good at before even a third of it is through. It's a disruption to what is otherwise an album that flows together excellently, with the songs quickly asserting their own identities through use of great riffs and equally strong melodic parts. The opening trio of Dream the Dead, Will's Song (Let the Colours Run) and The Hands are the Hardest are especially good, as is the 15:31 long epic closer Graves.

I'm certainly going to have to backtrack and check out Caligula's Horse's earlier albums now, because if they are half as good as In Contact I've been missing out on one of modern progressive metal's best bands. A highlight for their genre in 2017 without a doubt.

ELDER Reflections of a Floating World

Album · 2017 · Heavy Psych
Cover art 3.19 | 13 ratings
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Active for a little over a decade now and US band Elder have certainly changed along the way. Starting life as a stoner/doom metal band and releasing the self-titled debut album Elder (2008) in this style, they've become increasingly more based in psychedelic and progressive sounds, which is the flavour of the day on the group's fourth full-length album, Reflections of a Floating World (2017).

Much like their last album Lore (2015), Reflections of a Floating World is a lengthy album made up of a short track list. Six tracks, each lasting for extended durations where the shortest offering is 8:39 long, with most surpassing ten minutes. The title track of Lore was longer than any of these here, but overall Reflections of a Floating World stands as Elder's longest record to date. With long running times like these it's obvious that the band wasn't writing with catchy tracks in mind, but something more atmospheric and intricate that requires the teeth to be sunk into and given several listens before it can really be appreciated.

Some elements of the band's earlier metal sound is still in evidence on the album, such as during opener Sanctuary, which starts off in such a way that you'd be forgiven for thinking nothing had changed since the debut, but mostly Elder have moved away from metal at this point and are better described as a heavy psych group with strong progressive rock influences in the structure of their compositions. They're still pretty heavy though. Plenty of vocals are used, but quite often there are extended instrumental sections, which prove to be the most interesting aspect of the band's music. Quite the range of different sounds can be heard within the same song from keyboard parts, clean tone guitars and metallic riffs. When the vocals are featured it's of note that frontman Nicholas DiSalvo's singing style has changed a lot since the band's early days, being much more melodic and in keeping with the more rock based music the band is playing now.

Reflections of a Floating World is certainly the kind of album that is a slow burn. There's a lot going on and a listener may be several listens deep before they've even started to get a grasp on the scope of the work Elder has created. It's pretty grand. The biggest issue facing the release though is that despite being very accomplished there isn't actually all that much to give the tracks identity from each other even after several complete listens. This makes it the kind of album that is best taken in a single sitting to get its full effect, but it's long duration may be a barrier to some listeners. The one track that really stands out as different is the much lighter and hypnotic instrumental Sonntag. Though the album as a whole can be described as an atmospheric work, that song takes it even further. Technically speaking though it's the least interesting of the bunch, slowly building and changing up small ideas in what's otherwise a fairly repetitive pattern. Fortunately it's the shortest song, but as mentioned earlier, that still makes it 8:39 long.

An intriguing album that I have to say does live up to its name in the way it inspires reflective contemplation in me, Reflections of a Floating World is not perfect by any means, but it's clear to me that the trio that make up Elder are a group of talented guys. They seem to still be in the transitional stage from their earlier stoner/doom metal sound though and haven't yet completely honed their new craft. For my part I find this album quite the pleasure while its running and can recognise the number of quality riffs found within, but after the event it's failing to leave too much of a lasting impression, and that's the kind of thing that is going to elevate Elder's music to the next level.

KALMANKANTAJA Routamaa

Album · 2017 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 3.46 | 3 ratings
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Not content with just releasing Demonwoods (2017) earlier in the year, Finland's productive black metallers Kalmankantaja are already back for another dose of their newfound atmospheric sound in the form of Routamaa (2017), their eleventh album. The band was only started in 2011, releasing their debut Kuolonsäkeet (2013) a couple of years later. The band used to play depressive black metal, but have moved over to atmospheric black metal with their recent releases, with Demonwoods completely shedding any depressive vibes that were still prevalent on their two prior albums Waldeinsamkeit (2016) and Tyhjyys (2016).

Where Demonwoods was made up of two long songs with a short interlude between them, Routamaa instead features six tracks of much shorter durations, ranging from the 4:35 long Ikijää to the 7:27 long Varjon ja Tulen Jumala. This actually ends up with the release being a little bit longer overall, despite Demonwoods title track being a near full ten minutes longer than anything here. The change in songwriting approach may be a conscious attempt from Kalmankantaja to not make the same album twice. If so, the band haven't really been successful or unsuccessful in that regard. Shorter compositions are by their nature generally more direct, which these are, but style wise Routamaa is more or less on the exact same page as its predecessor: atmospheric black metal without any atypical elements, stripped back to its base ingredients without excessive reliance on ambient and/or post-rock.

While calling the music a fairly standardised sound for the atmospheric black metal genre was a description that could also be applied to Demonwoods, the former was at least marked by its long format songs, which were made more noteworthy by having twists and turns take place within them. These six found on Routamaa are solid enough and very listenable, with the very melodic Kylmä Ikuinen standing out from the bunch, but all come across as less interesting by comparison. Though still of what I think of as a mid-length in general it does seem as if considerably less happens within these six songs. The production gives the album a tad harsher sound this time around which may appeal more to certain crowds, but at the end of the day, for me, I can't find Routamaa to be anything more than another atmospheric black metal album coming out of what is one of metal's most over-populated sub-genres. Decent supplemental material if you enjoy the band's other work, but if you don't know them yet and are interested in a recent album, get Demonwoods instead.

HAVUKRUUNU Kelle surut soi

Album · 2017 · Pagan Black Metal
Cover art 4.40 | 6 ratings
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Pagan black metal may just be the most loosely defined of the black metal sub-genres, if only by virtue of the fact that's its so often crossed with another black metal genre, usually atmospheric, that scant few artists actually play what could be described as pure pagan black metal. It's often used to add flavour and vibe to what is otherwise music that clearly belongs to the other sub-genre, with the work of acts such as Drudkh, Saor, Wodensthrone and Darkestrah springing to mind. Others simply exist on the fringes of it, otherwise playing fairly traditional black metal. More still amplify the folk element to it and ultimately become actual folk metal. As such, exactly what makes pagan black metal is something that, much like with the semi-related viking metal genre, is often misunderstood and categorised as a pseudo genre. This is not actually true. One band who excels at making pagan black metal as a distinct genre in its own right is Finland's Havukruunu, whose second full-length album Kelle Surut Soi (2017), puts them right up there with their countrymen Wyrd in that regard.

For most genres, describing something as textbook is like another way of saying it's completely generic, but that's not an argument that can really be applied the same way to pagan black metal, for the above reason. So when I say that Havukruunu play textbook pagan black metal on Kelle Surut Soi, I don't say it to be demeaning, but in admiration that these guys manage to capture this elusive genre so whole-heartedly. Folksy and with plenty of acoustic guitars to be heard right from the opening notes of Jo Näkyvi Pohjan Portit, yet with never a shortage of black metal riff work, some of it fast and some of it slower, with vocals that move between traditional growling and heathen chanting, results in songs that display a triumphant, epic character. The music feels tailored to celebrate the band's native Finland and its pagan ancestry.

Not being a Finnish speaker, following the lyrics of Kelle Surut Soi is a no go for me, but as with full-on folk metal I only find that to add to the authenticity of the compositions and the atmosphere the music creates. It's certainly not an issue against enjoying the release immensely, as Havukruunu's sound is quick to ensnare the eardrums. Not only is the black metal aspect satisfying and convincingly delivered, but everything else applied to it is tastefully done, especially the acoustic guitars. It results in an album that, even though it passes the fifty minute mark, is very easy to get so engrossed by that you don't notice the time passing at all. I would say that hands down, as few and far between as they are, that Kelle Surut Soi is the best pagan black metal release I've yet come across. This album represents a real lesson in how it should be done!

WRECHE Wreche

Album · 2017 · Avant-garde Metal
Cover art 3.45 | 2 ratings
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A haunting piano starts up, accompanied by numerous sound effects, especially creaking noises. It's an eerie intro track called Pruning the Spirit on Wreche (2017), the self-titled debut album of of this US duo. It's known that the group is supposed to play black metal, so for the one and a half minutes long track we wait for the inevitable, sudden assault of raw, distorted guitars...

...only it doesn't come. The track changes. This second one is called Angel City and it's indeed the first proper song on the album. Only the guitars don't show up. Why? Because there aren't any on this record at all. The band isn't even one of those bass driven ones, because there's none of those either. Wreche set out to create black metal with just three things. Vocals, drums, and piano. And by piano, they mean proper piano, sans any effects to imitate the distortion of a lead guitar. It would be easy to compare this to the work of Botanist who did a similar thing with hammered dulcimers, but Botanist has used bass and distorted their hammered dulcimers. Another artist this exists close to is Les Chants du Hasard, who applies black metal vocal to classical music. Unlike Wreche though, Les Chants du Hasard doesn't attempt to make its instrumentation actually sound like black metal as well. Wreche take the concept of throwing out the guitars to a whole other level.

It really shouldn't work, yet it does. It may not be heavy in the usual sense, but it's amazing how well traditional black metal rhythms can translate to the piano. The playing by John Steven Morgan is certainly amazing. Can it really be called metal? That's up for debate for sure and if it can count then it's surely better described as avant-garde, despite otherwise capturing the same essence as black metal and vocally even pushing on the boundaries of depressive black metal, especially during Angel City. Those are some really tortured and miserable vocals from John Steven Morgan there. That's actually in real contrast to the lively music heard in the three main songs Angel City, Fata Morgana and Vessel. The other member Barret Baumgart (also of Blood of Martyrs) drums away while all this is going on, but it's clear who the star of the show is here.

But is it really any good or just a novelty? Well, after a little while it does tend to get a bit samey. An ironic criticism I'm sure since such can undoubtedly be said of a lot of pure black metal records, or any genre for that matter, but it does feel as if Wreche has this one trick and once you've heard it you start to wonder what else they've got, because it quickly becomes clear that they've built everything they have upon it. Fortunately the album only runs for 33:32 minutes, so its not excessively long, but it does start to get a bit tedious even so, despite the accomplished piano playing. It would help I think if each track were a little more distinct (Petals is basically an interlude running for over three minutes, featuring slow, regular piano playing, so it doesn't count).

Much like with the aforementioned Les Chants du Hasard, this record ultimately leaves me wishing that instead of this business of basically saying 'hey, listen to what we can do' that the artists would apply these atypical interests to a proper black metal context. The guitar is the backbone of metal. We may enjoy the odd bass driven band such as Völur or Bell Witch, but most of us metalheads like our guitars. We're unlikely to listen to something that purposely throws them away too often. That at least is how I feel at the conclusion of Wreche. It's interesting, good in moderation, but now that I've written this review for it don't intend to revisit it for quite a long time. But if what I've heard here was applied to a normal black metal sound? Now that really sounds intriguing. Sign me right up.

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