A Viking Among The Giants
The early 1990's was a turning point in the story of Black Metal, with throngs of second wave artists crawling out from under the frozen ground of Scandinavia. Norway spearheaded most of this new revolution in Black Metal sound with material from bands like Mayhem, Darkthrone, Burzum, Emperor, and in this case, Enslaved. Personally, Enslaved was always overshadowed in my exploration of classic Black Metal in favor of Emperor, leading me to only check out their 17th studio album E released in 2017 until now. I hadn't realized how close and connected the second wave Black Metal scene was, at least in Norway, until doing my due diligence in figuring out what kind of climate this album was released under in 1994. Vikingligr Veldi comes after a 1993 split with Emperor, which explains the many similarities in sound, and directly in the middle of an absolute bombardment of insane Norwegian classic Black Metal releases. Emperor released their famous In The Nightside Eclipse merely one day before Vikingligr Veldi's February 22nd release, Darkthrone continued their reign over the scene with Transilvanian Hunger which released 5 days before, Burzum's pioneering Hvis lyset tar oss was released in April, and Mayhem's pinnacle release De mysteriis dom Sathanas followed in May of the same year. Since all of these groups are Black Metal titans, Enslaved is probably the least assuming and less known of the bunch, so how does Vikingligr Veldi hold up amidst the gargantuan competition?
The short answer is pretty damn well. The longer answer is that Enslaved's take on a more bombastic and theatrical style of Black Metal falls short of Emperor's signature atmosphere and complexity, but makes up some ground in terms of clarity and accessibility. While many other early 1990's Black Metal bands were recording their masterpieces on various root vegetables in abandoned, freezing cellars, Enslaved decided early on that the lo-fi style just wasn't for them. Vinkingligr Veldi has a loud and clear sound to it all while keeping the grinding Black Metal guitar tone mostly intact. Enslaved don't break any speed records on this album, with many riffs opting for a slower Black Metal chug, especially on the closing instrumental "Norvegr". Instead of trying to capitalize on chaos, each riff can be precisely heard above the blast beats of the drumming and uses slower but just as effective chord progression within the tremolo to create dramatic moments with the help of synths, acoustic guitar, and other symphonic elements peppered in throughout the album. These elements usually have more melody to them and serve as a stark contrast to the furious Black Metal tremolo picking that's going on in the background and while it can get a bit hokey on occasion, it's what gives Enslaved their signature sound.
While Vikingligr Veldi does a fantastic job of being a more theatrical and clear Black Metal experience, it definitely falls short on the songwriting aspect due to the four, 11-minute epics that make up most of the album. While there are a ton of good ideas in here, 11 minutes is a very long time to drag out the same tremolo picked chords with short, low quality symphonic intermissions before blasting back into the action. The album definitely has a flow to it, with there being enough slower and more impactful sections with less furious drumming to balance out the blast beats and enough memorable main riffs like on "Lifandi Lif Under Hamri" to connect the compositions in some way, but too much of it feels erratic and useless for what they were going for. For example, I personally don't think that "Vetrarnott" needed to be 11 minutes long, since the entire second half of the song is just a refrain of the first half with a few differences in the synth. For an album of this scale to function the time investment in the longer songs needs to feel like it's worth it, and even though the riffs and layering sounds fantastic, Enslaved don't do a whole lot past repeating the same ideas on most of these songs.
The Viking and mythological theme is still very well done though, with the album sounding less like a frozen wasteland and more like a communal or battle of the Gods. The higher production values obviously assisted with that, but Vikingligr Veldi still succeeds in merging a more theatrical and dramatic sound into the turmoil of Black Metal in a unique way compared to Emperor. The album slows down and gives some breathing room to these elements, allowing them to be more memorable rather than just part of the chaos. "Midgards Elder" has one of the more effective intermissions with its crushing chug riff, pounding drums, and strange but memorable warbly synth six minutes in before transitioning smoothly back into one of the previously used riffs. While each of the riffs they use are fantastic, they are just repeated and returned to way too much with too few modifications.
Enslaved succeeded in creating yet another unique and ripping Black Metal album that came out of 1994's Norwegian scene. Although a bit overblown, the production is crystal clear and easy to listen to, with even the bass getting some serious love in "Heimdallr". Vikingligr Veldi is simply a more appealing package at first glance with its fast, but not too fast, drumming and Black Metal riffs, suitably howled vocals used somewhat sparingly, and more epic sense of scale. It takes its Viking themes and spins them in a different direction than Bathory's Hammerheart did, trying to be a bit more subtle and stick to Black Metal's roots a bit more. Although this left them with songs that were a bit too long, I still really enjoyed Vikingligr Veldi and regret skipping over Enslaved when I first started to find out about Black Metal, since they absolutely deserve more time in the spotlight for a release that helped to diversify the early 1990's environment even more. It may not be as chaotically brilliant as In The Nightside Eclipse or as crushingly atmospheric as Hvis lyset tar oss to deserve its own genre, but I think Vikingligr Veldi can hold its head high against these titans as its accessibility and mix of influences creates an undoubtedly solid package that doesn't quite reach classic status, but deserves praise nonetheless.
Genres: Black Metal
The Next Link
The first half of the 80's was a massive and hellish explosion for heavy metal, with the inspiration for all types of satanic and evil music burning, swirling, and forming all kinds of interesting variations around the world that would shape how many metal sub-genres would be played today. Some inspirations burn a little slower and more sinister than others, and that's where Italy's Paul Chain drew his inspiration for this short classic of Traditional Doom Metal. Sluggy Sabbath-esque riffs combined with the driving drums and vocal style of NWOBM and more emphasis on atmosphere thanks to some lo-fi synths and sound effects give this experimental album a strangely passionate but slightly confusing impression.
Paul Chain's vocals take the spotlight for most of the album, with his range being strained more often than not as he goes for an abundance of high notes and wails on the first two tracks, with "Occultism" closing out with some fitting low, guttural barks. I actually enjoyed Chain's performance most of the time but the effects and overall production are what kill any enthusiasm I had, with the echo/reverb on "Armageddon" cutting in and out at different volumes and the low spoken word effects on "17 Day" not really hitting their mark. What does hit the mark is the riffs and overall guitar performance of this album, which have that tried and true mixture of old-school chug with Sabbath-like accents. Each track showcases a differing and well done style of riff from the slow and accented "Occultism", the driving and chuggy "Armageddon", the more progressive shred-fest of "Voyage to Hell", and finally the classic Doom style of "17 Day". It's a real shame that the production on some of these tracks, especially "17 Day", buries the guitar performance under overblown vocal effects and synth. Even the drums, which seem a bit more poignant on "Occultism", really hide the guitar which, for me, is the standout part of this album.
What's most fascinating for me travelling back to the beginnings of Doom Metal is how much more extreme the genre has gotten from these humble beginnings. As someone who mostly listens to newer metal releases, Detaching From Satan doesn't even resemble a Doom Metal album until "17 Day" because my expectations of a Doom release are aligned with the likes of Bell Witch and Runemagick. Nowadays the evilness of Doom releases are cranked up to epic proportions, since Paul Chain's first EP hardly even scratches the surface of the atmospheres of hatred and misery modern Doom albums can achieve. The only sections that gave Detaching From Satan that signature Doom Metal vibe were clunky and gratingly low quality, and most ended up not fitting the style of the rest of the song to begin with.
For a beginning EP at the infancy of a genre there is some great guitar work and "17 Day" is a fantastic example of how the Doom Metal package can all come together, but the rest is too rough either in production or ideas for me. There are a ton of influences packed into this initial attempt showing that regions other than England have what it takes to take Sabbath's fundamental Heavy Metal style and take it in a different, but effective direction.
Genres: Doom Metal
The Void Of Purgatory
I can't think of another band that has managed to have this massive of a redemption arc as Esoctrilium has had this year for me. Asthâghul, Esoctrilihum's sole member, has made quite the name for himself in the depths of the more surreal Death and Black Metal world, but something didn't click for me at first. I first heard of this project in the middle of 2019 and after checking out The Telluric Ashes of the Ö Vrth Immemorial Gods, I can't say it grabbed me in any sort of meaningful way. I wasn't sure what I was missing at the time; maybe it was a bit too drawn out? Maybe I wasn't paying enough attention? In any case, I can't say that I was clamoring for another Esoctrilihum release in 2020, so I wasn't exactly thrilled when I saw Eternity of Shaog pop up around the same time of year as his 2019 release. How much could have possibly changed within one short year?
A whole lot, turns out, because I obviously wrote off Esoctrilihum way too soon back in 2019. Eternity of Shaog is a massive, cavernous, dismal, and truly epic album that incorporates the chunky riffing of Death Metal with insanely bleak Black Metal elements interwoven to create a sort of complexity that blew my mind the more I listened to it. As Black Metal has evolved over the years it's gotten more and more intricate with what these talented solo artists are able to create, but I always feel like they lose some of the evil energy that some of the 1990's classics seemed to have. Eternity of Shaog resummons that evilness with no holds barred, delivering a set of tracks that sound genuinely emotionally painful and full of despair while maintaining an epic aggression through the use of well-written riffs and properly utilized orchestral elements. As the crunchy Death and Black Metal riffs and precise, forceful drumming push each of these tracks ahead, the winding, sometimes delicate touch of violins and synths weave effortlessly into the melodies. The melody and riff progressions on the album are incredibly gripping, with the "2nd Passage" having violin melodies that come out of nowhere and completely take over the track in the best possible way. The synths in the "5th Passage" have the same sort of effect, providing especially memorable melodies and moments amidst all the muck and chaos Eternity of Shaog is veiled in. I still can't believe how much of this album I can recall from memory at random times throughout my day, and that's a huge accomplishment when it comes to complex extreme metal like this. Even the vile vocals on the "7th Passage" got ingrained in my mind, showing that Asthâghul provides some seriously strong songwriting all while having some of the most disgusting riffs I've heard this year.
Esoctrilihum plays full and thick riffs that swap between having the punchy chug of Death Metal and the full-out aggression and structure of Black Metal without sacrificing any of the heft. The riff after the first transition in "Eternity Of Shaog" may be my favorite Black Metal riff and the beefy chug riffs towards the end of the "1st Passage" and the entirety of the "7th Passage" may be some of my favorite Death Metal riffs from this year. The fact that these two types of riffs can coexist in a style that doesn't take anything away from either of them shows how much Eternity of Shaog succeeds at its hybrid style. The transitions between these styles area so smooth since each riff and section is just that good, whether it's the chug or the tremolo taking the spotlight. Even though this album can be pretty dense at times, I think it's structured in a way that gives it just enough breathing room, with the "4th Passage" giving the listener a much needed break with a beautifully evil and echo-y piano section that eventually transitions into some remarkably poignant spoken word that really captures the essence of what this album conveys, at least for me. The last few tracks slowly become more and more heavy as the album progresses, eventually culminating with the almost Death Doom Metal like closing track, with Asthâghul intensifying the despairing atmosphere even more as the album comes to a close.
Eternity of Shaog is one of the most complete album experiences of 2020 since it takes advantage of its concept so well. Even without looking at the album notes about what the story is supposed to outline, I could tell that there was some serious stuff happening in here given the names of the songs and the way the album structured itself. After looking at the lyrics I assumed that it was depicting a man's fall into an eternal purgatory as he is faced with the horrors of endless torment for acts he committed before his death. After doing a bit more research I wasn't too far off, but it gets even stranger than that, with each passage being some sort of demonic possession by Shaog, a Lovecraftian style god who seeks to break free from his infinite existence in a void of nothingness. Cool. I just find it crazy that the music is actually evil and dark enough to support that kind of crazy plotline, which is probably why this album grew on me so much throughout the year. There's so much unpack here that I never got tired of listening to it.
My favorite part about Eternity of Shaog is how it manages to be so epic in scale thanks to the smallest of flourishes here and there by other instruments. The riffs are fantastic, sure, but how those riffs interact with the violins and other strings is incredibly cohesive, making the album feel grand and epic in scale despite the pounding of the drums and the aggression of the riffs. Asthâghul even makes his vocals fit into the performance extremely well, switching between deeper, clearer growls and painful sounding Black Metal shrieks. He even switches it up and goes for some background spoken word here and there too, even though I think that these parts are the weakest of his performance.
Esoctrilihum proved me so, so wrong this year as Eternity of Shaog is a massive accomplishment for the solitary Asthâghul. The riffs hit hard, the scale is immense, the concept is portrayed magnificently, and it's catchy in all the ways extreme metal should be. The progression from the beginning of the album to the end feels deserving at almost every step, with there only being one or two sections that feel drawn out or unnecessary, like the string melody in the "3rd Passage" not exactly stacking up to the others and the "6th Passage" not offering anything spectacular until the synth melody at the very end. That being said, I have nothing but praise for this epic slab of blackened Death Metal that excels at stepping outside the boxes of its genres and I can't wait to hear more about this strange, void chained horror.
Genres: Black Metal Death Metal
Frogs Use Electrical Tuning To Discriminate Sounds.
There comes a time when musical explorations lead you into swamps and mires that you're just not ready for. People I've talked to in the past point to artists like Merzbow (a Japanese Noise artist) when it comes to pushing the boundaries as to what can or should be considered music or musical in nature. Having not listened to Merzbow yet, I feel like Phyllomedusa has been my initiation into a world filled with experimentation and extremely, incredibly loud noises. I want to say that I respect the artistic vision that "Big Frog" has given his captivation with slimy amphibians, but I'm not sure that even disrupts the surface of the pond that is Phyllomedusa. As of writing this review he has released 249 albums, but his production has slowed significantly in 2020 with only three albums being released this year. Perhaps an uptick in the heron or stork population has caused increased predation for our slippery friends. Maybe climate change has finally caused drastic pond ecosystem shifts that are leaving our neighborhood amphibians homeless. Maybe he's just out of ideas after two hundred and fifty albums plus another forty EP's. The world may never know.
On the surface, this 10 minute wall of noise is murkier than the bottom of the Everglades. In each of the 30 to 10 second tracks instruments are being played, noise is being created, but I can't for the life of me distinguish between anything other than the percussion and, well, everything else. Everything just blends together into a singular mass of noise, similar to how the harlequin tree frog camouflages itself against the backdrop of dead leaves. Apart from the occasional ping of the snare and the general erratic rumbling there's no sense of tempo, melody, or very much of anything. The vocals are hilariously frog-like, with Big Frog making me realize how close growling can come to the croaking songs of our frog brethren as they communicate across darkened lakes and streams. Given song titles like "Prolapsed Agalychnis Bowl Repair" and "Fragrant Flectonotus Purulence" I doubt I want to know what our amphibious overlord is attempting to croak out during any of these songs, but I'm sure the true frog fanatics out there will be able to dissect some juicy factoids. At the very least, I think I added at least 20 words to my vocabulary by just staring at the track titles as they flew past, so who knew that the murky clutches of frog Gorenoise could be so educational.
For as indecipherable as Desiccation in Progress (Version II) is, it definitely gets its theme across in hilariously obvious ways. Whether it's the ribbit samples, the small frog related monologue, or just the frog-like vocals in general, Big Frog undoubtedly gets his point across even if this is your first frog rodeo. The sound effects and samples have a disgusting and slimy quality to them as the listener digs through the muck of the drums and other noise, adding some much needed clarity to this strangely captivating amphibious experience. The only track extending past 1 minute is the closer, which seems to somehow take all of the short tracks and combine them with actual transitions, which is something I wasn't expecting. The more I listened to what I can only describe as the roar of one million bullfrogs assaulting my ears constantly for ten minutes, I only had more and more questions. Which, in hindsight, is probably the point.
Even though us humans argue about what constitutes as music or not, Big Frog decided to take his caecilian ideals to the extreme and release a massive string of albums that don't care about your labels or analysis. And I think that's where I consider Gorenoise to fall within the realm of music, something that can be understood, but is it really meant to? There's no melody, no balance, no structure, nothing that I look for when I listen to music, but that's kind of the point, isn't it? The common tree frog doesn't care about time signatures or instrumentation, so what right do we bipedal humans have to expect more out of the likes of Big Frog? Through this album I've witnessed the metamorphosis of my small tadpole mind from believing that I didn't to listen to ten minutes of blaring, amphibious noise to knowing that I never want to listen to ten more minutes of blaring, amphibious noise ever again. In all seriousness, this album was incredibly painful to listen to even though it has its moments of hilarity. There's almost no point to it, but at the same time there is a point to be made about it, which feels like the basis of all experimental noise music. In any case, with his output slowing down, maybe it's time for Big Frog to enter his much deserved torpor state after assaulting the world with hours of frog based etymology and taxonomy. I'm not sure how Gorenoise became the medium of choice for these admittedly cute, big eyed pond dwellers, but now I'll be woefully reminded of the onslaught on my eardrums if I ever see another frog gracefully break the shimmering surface of the water as it leaps in.
The Malevolent Aura
De mysteriis dom Sathanas is undoubtedly one of the most important Black Metal albums from a historical standpoint, but for me it marks the turning point for the genre where it came out of the obscure, lo-fi shadows and paved the way for the modern style Black Metal I'm familiar with today. The stories about Mayhem during this period of Black Metal are legendary as well, and I urge you to go and read up on it as it's an incredibly interesting piece of music history, but as of right now I'm sticking to the actual music itself, which is a beast to tackle in of itself. While I consider Bathory's Under the Sign of the Black Mark to be the rawest and purest expression of classic Black Metal, De mysteriis dom Sathanas serves as a necessary evolution to the sound, becoming even more complex, furious, and sinister. The songs are longer and have a more developed structure with a larger variety of riffs and tremolo chord progressions compared to the thrashy beginnings of the genre, and I'm a big fan of the approach. Even though Mayhem doesn't fully ditch the grinding and slightly thin Black Metal style production, many of the common lo-fi recording elements some have come to expect out of their classic Black Metal are nowhere to be found, leading to way more clarity in the guitar riffs and a better, echo-y punch from the drums. There's tons of by-the-books, mid-90's Black Metal out there though, so what sets this album so far apart from the rest?
From the drumming, to the riffing, to the vile and off-the-cuff vocals, everything in De mysteriis dom Sathanas fits together and compliments each other in a way that stands out from other Black Metal at the time. Hellhammer lives up to his name and delivers an absolutely insane performance on every single track on this album, with blisteringly tight blast beats and a fantastic sense of accents to add just the right amount of emphasis onto the furious riffing. Black Metal drumming has a tendency to sound a bit deranged and unorganized sometimes, but it feels like not a single kick or cymbal is missed on this entire album, which is impressive in of itself. The percussion is constantly pushing every song forward at a mile a minute with every square inch being filled with something interesting. Mayhem had a knack for Black Metal riffs as well, with almost every single riff on this album being some of the best that the genre has to offer with their intricate approach to the normal tremolo riffing you'd expect. Each riff feels like it has so much progression to it without losing any of the aggression, thanks in part to the drum accents. "Funeral Fog" wastes no time and gives a taste of how sinister tremolo chord progressions can be right at the start, "Freezing Moon's" slower section showcases their adept takes at slower Black Metal chugs, and "From the Dark Past's" off-kilter groove shows that there's some much needed variety hidden behind all the tremolo and double bass. The bass is also given some time to shine through in "Pagan Fears" and "Life Eternal", even though it's pretty easy to miss the first time through.
As much as Mayhem nails the Black Metal riffing with stellar transitions, the vocals are where my patience can start to run thin on this album. I've grown to really enjoy Attila's vile delivery since it's so unique, but there are still some areas where I wish that he'd gone for a slightly different approach, especially on the closing title track. For the uninitiated, Attila's performance is one of the most random and dramatic I've ever heard, with him not so much growling or screaming as he is vomiting words out of his throat. Given Black Metal's evil nature, I think it fits wonderfully well on most of the tracks in here, with the spoken word-like delivery being especially chilling on "Freezing Moon" and "Pagan Fears". However, he definitely goes overboard with what I can only presume to be his attempt at throat singing on "From the Dark Past" and some extremely awkward sections in "Funeral Fog" and "De mysteriis dom Sathanas". Even though it can feel incredibly aimless at times, the vocals are what cap off this album as a one of a kind Black Metal experience that still sounds as malevolent and sinister as ever.
I very much regard this album as a classic, even though it's not technically perfect in my eyes. The album still wears itself thin for me by the time I get to "Buried by Time and Dust" due to slight sameness of the riffs getting a little old, but that doesn't take away from the fact that all 8 tracks are extremely high quality classic Black Metal. Mayhem were able to turn Black Metal up a notch with extremely precise drumming and a whirlwind of riffing as Attila croaks at you, sounding like he's from beyond the grave. There's a ton of complexity hidden beneath the fast, technical performances that honestly rewarded me for getting so invested in this album in an attempt to understand Black Metal's evolution. While I enjoy other classic Black Metal offerings a bit more overall, De mysteriis dom Sathanas will always have a unique and evil aura to it that other albums fail to fully capture.
Genres: Black Metal
A Sinister Resurrection
The story of Canadian Extreme Thrash Metal band Witches Hammer is one that's not only interesting, but also very inspiring. Thrash Metal took the metal world by storm in the early 80's and by 1985 bands playing more and more extreme versions of Heavy Metal were popping up everywhere, including British Columbia where a couple of teenagers would form Witches Hammer. Although most metalheads aren't too aware of the band they definitely should be. They were the ground-breakers and pioneers of the Extreme Metal scene in that area, with having the honor of bestowing one of, if not the first Extreme Metal recordings in a Canadian studio in 1985 with their self-titled demo. After releasing two more demos, then a self-titled EP in 1987, then a obscure compilation album in 2003, it felt strange that band that was able to get the Extreme Metal wheels turning was never able to come together for a complete album. Fast forward to 2020 and I'm somehow listening to their first full length record, 35 years after Witches Hammer's first demo, with lead guitarist Marco Banco turning 51. I don't know how, because who can foresee a band who never released an LP coming back 30 years later and recording a ripping, 80's inspired Extreme Thrash record, but apparently this is the world I'm living in right now.
And I'm seriously glad they returned because this is an amazing and violent slab of Extreme Thrash that invokes the feel of classic Thrash in ways I haven't heard for quite some time. The production is slightly muted and pushed back but has so much power in the drums and guitar tone that you hardly even realize. It feels like Witches Hammer picked up where they left off when they released their EP back in 1987, which is just fantastic to experience. Classic Thrash done well is hard to come by nowadays and they're able to subtlety and strategically insert the aggression of Death Metal and the viciousness of Black Metal within the speed of Thrash Metal to create something that's incredibly balanced for having so many influences. Damnation Is My Salvation isn't some crazy hybrid that uses transitions to move between those genres though; it's constantly cranking out riff after riff, weaving in and out of different extreme ideas and influences throughout the entire 30 minutes.
Every riff is blistering and unhinged, with Witches Hammer able to create some impressive and effortless sounding transitions as this album barrels forward. They're able to cover so much ground in such a short time, with "Across Azeroth" coming in with some seriously Blackened Thrash to start the album off, "Witches Hammer" adding a classic Speed Metal feel with a killer Thrash chorus, and "Nine Pillars" delving deep into the realms of Death Metal with its slower chug riffs and extended song structure. There's seriously something for every Extreme Metal fan in here, complete with crazy precise drumming and an extremely evil sounding vocalist that has quite the range of growls and screams.
Damnation Is My Salvation comes close to being an absolutely stellar comeback in every possible way and die-hard fans of Extreme Thrash owe it to themselves to check this out. For me, however, there were just some aspects that failed to completely win me over. While it undoubtedly goes incredibly hard, the more basic Thrash parts all blend together for me after a while with "Deadly Mantis" dragging a bit and "Frozen God" feeling like a slight rehash of the front side tracks. Even though the vocals are nestled sinisterly towards the back of the mix in a way that sounds really good, I do wish they had a bit more punch during some moments.
Damnation Is My Salvation still wildly succeeds as a classic but forward thinking Extreme Thrash release that's able to incorporate so many elements in such a smooth and cohesive way. Sure it can get a little repetitive here and there, but the album is only a half an hour long, and it never loses a single bit of energy the entire way. If anything I'm just ecstatic that this album even exists, since it has every single right not to. It definitely scratched the Extreme Thrash itch for 2020 in a way I wasn't expecting and undeniably shows that there's still room for the classic Thrash sound in the modern era.
Genres: Thrash Metal
The Exalted Bridge To The Forlorn Mire
When someone starts seriously to dig into listening and discussing music there are always certain albums that occupy a certain place that can never really be replaced or revised. Most of these albums come early in the discovery process, with an arbitrary encounter with something that sounds new and exciting making the person's ears perk up and challenge what they think music is or can be. These sorts of albums cause peoples' tastes in music to manifest and mold around the ideas the music presents, giving them an understanding of what they themselves value and enjoy about music. While Opeth may not be on the same level of revolutionary musical accomplishment as Renaissance composers or Jazz legends, within my own musical bubble they are second to none and Blackwater Park was the album that genuinely sparked my curiosity in all things music, specifically Metal. That being said, if you're looking for an unbiased analysis of Opeth, turn away now since I honestly can't provide that, at least for this album in particular. What I can hopefully provide is some amount of reliable insight on why Blackwater Park has been able to maintain such a high amount of reverence to me for over ten years and in the face of over a thousand other Metal releases.
The world of Death Metal can be a gruesome one, with each iteration of the style seemingly becoming more extreme and guttural than the last in order to prove that the final realms of extremity have not yet been achieved. The deep, growled vocals reached inhuman and demonic levels, the guitar tones and chug rhythms extended to abysmal levels, and the overall performances became absolutely crushing in the most disgusting of ways. For some this seems like the natural progression of the genre, but bands like Opeth decided to veer off this course and do something a bit more dynamic when they released their debut album Orchid in 1995. Opeth's initial songwriting relied on very few traditional Death Metal qualities, with growled vocals, double-bass forward drumming, erratic transitions, and certain guitar tones being the few aspects that made them still technically fall into the realm of Death Metal. Orchid challenged these Death Metal ideals of ever-increasing aggressiveness by adding in many different Progressive Metal, Rock, and Folk influences with their use of acoustic guitar, cleaner vocals, extended track lengths, and more complex songwriting overall. Orchid's release in 1995 alongside Death's Symbolic represented a fork in the road for Death Metal with both of these albums leaning towards a more technical and progressive performance rather than banking on raw aggression. Opeth were still plenty heavy on Orchid, with their dueling, layered guitars that threw down some serious riffing, which would become a staple of their sound for years to come. After going much more progressive on their followup Morningrise in 1996, Opeth settled into a groove with 1998's My Arms, Your Hearse and, more importantly in regards to Blackwater Park, 1999's Still Life. Still Life saw Opeth begin to master the layered and atmospheric sound that's so prevalent on Blackwater Park, fulling committing to their trademark 6/8 versus 4/4 time signatures and smooth but dark Progressive Death Metal style. The making of Still Life is an interesting one, with Mikael Åkerfeldt and the band recording the entire album with little to no preparation or prior songwriting apart from a few riffs over the course of a few weeks. Since the band enjoyed Still Life so much, they decided to try and replicate the magic by putting themselves through similar working conditions for their next album, which they would title Blackwater Park.
In many ways Blackwater Park is a virtuosic continuation of Still Life's formula which, while legendary in the realm of Progressive Death Metal, was admittedly somewhat bland after a while. Still Life's riffs and ideas throughout the album were extremely similar to one another, with each song having only minor differences as the concept album unfolded. Blackwater Park decided to up the ante and take the use of the smooth 6/8 riffing with acoustic flairs and give it more depth, variety, and substance comparatively. Tracks like the opening "The Leper Affinity" and the closer "Blackwater Park" have digging, hefty riffs with more aggressive attacks while "The Drapery Falls" is slower, more repetitive and mesmerizing. "Harvest" and "Patterns In the Ivy" round out and complete the album with their fully acoustic soundscapes to create a varied but still cohesive album thanks to the reoccurring, ever-present themes in the album like the long drones of the lead guitar, the acoustic flourishes, and the constant 6/8 and 4/4 time signature shifts. All of these aspects come together to create Blackwater Park's signature atmosphere, which is a marvelous mix of despondency and pain layered with hints of beauty and reflection. Åkerfeldt's dual-natured vocals also help to solidify this atmosphere, with him swapping between his aggressive but insanely melodic growls and superbly clean singing on almost every song. Growling, harsh vocals in Metal are often used to keep up with the aggressiveness of the rest of the band and while Opeth does utilize them, they are some of the clearest and most pleasing I’ve ever heard. Åkerfeldt shows that he is a competent vocalist on “Harvest” and he is able to carry that over into his growls, performing them with incredible range, diversity, and articulateness.
This atmosphere is augmented and stretched in a variety of ways throughout the album, with each piece contributing its own distinct layer to the whole package. The way that Opeth layers its melodies and instrumentation is unrivaled, with riffs and flourishes coming and going constantly in the background as the main riff pounds away. The verse after the guitar solo in "The Leper Affinity" sets up this use of layering perfectly in the beginning of the album, with acoustic plucking giving way to huge chords with a dual guitar solo which eventually transitions into yet another layered riff with the lead guitar playing those signature hold notes. The entire Blackwater Park package comes together in such a unique and complex way while still keeping the heaviness to an acceptable degree. There are so many different parts and small, distinct melodies to pick out of tracks like "Bleak" and "Blackwater Park" that the album, even after all these years, hasn't gotten stagnant or dull. Each layer that Opeth creates has its place in the mix of this album, with the hammering double bass never overpowering other sections and the bass having an incredible amount of clarity as it takes the lead during the acoustic sections but is never missing during the heavy sections. These two elements have such a full and resonant sound which help to maintain the forlorn atmosphere during the softer parts of "Harvest" and "The Funeral Portrait", especially since the bass melodies are, for the most part, completely separate from the guitar melodies, creating that very progressive feel that just adds another layer of everything else. It peeks out of the mix just enough in parts like the repetitive end of "The Drapery Falls" to create some awesome sounding moments that are just so clean compared to other bands that attempt to use a more prominent bass. The drums follow suit in being written in a very smart and comprehensive way, incorporating all sorts of different 6/8 and 4/4 elements to keep the listener guessing as Opeth moves from one riff or idea to the next. The way the drum is able to accent these two different time signatures in slightly different ways with the use of different snare and cymbal rhythms throughout all the tracks is how Blackwater Park is able to have so many amazingly distinct grooves and riffs that never seem to grow old. "Bleak" and "Blackwater Park" are the only two songs that attempt to have a straight 4/4 time signature for their entire runtime and they only slightly succeed because of the various and offbeat song structures Opeth uses.
What really makes Blackwater Park stand out for me in the face of earlier Opeth releases are the many, many riffs that the album has, with tracks like "The Leper Affinity" and "Blackwater Park" having three or more main riffs that they end up transitioning or building up to. Song length is normally a huge problem with heavier Progressive Metal, with songs becoming tiresome to listen to because of either repetitiveness or detached from themselves, especially when they reach the ten minute mark. Opeth are masters of maintaining the listener's interest on Blackwater Park thanks to its inherent dual nature between progressive acoustic musings and aggressive metal riffing. Although there is quite a bit of repetition throughout the album, especially on tracks like "The Drapery Falls" and "Dirge For November", it's never repetitive enough for the listener to not want to come back for more afterwards. Each section, new idea, or riff hangs around for just long enough for it to run its course, just to transition into the next section. There's always something new happening on Blackwater Park, whether its a brand new riff, an abrupt transition into an acoustic section, a subtle shift into a double bass pedal rhythm like at the end of "The Drapery Falls", or something layered so far behind everything else that you were only able to catch it after years of listening. Packing so many different riffs and concepts into each song allows them to have consistent forward momentum and to spotlight so many different aspects of their performance all in one album. The way Opeth are able to set up each riff or transition feels so natural and complete, nothing feels like it manifests from nothing as they let you get acquainted with each of the ideas they choose to use before blowing you away with how they expand upon that idea.
With as many ideas as Opeth crammed into Blackwater Park, the transitions between them all has to be immaculately tenacious for the tracks to hold up. Thankfully the transitions in here are some of the smoothest and most thought out that I've heard, with each song swapping from riff to riff, from acoustic section to metal section, and from harsh to clean vocals effortlessly. The transitions help to foreshadow and set up what's to come and then they fully deliver on those promises beautifully and sleekly. Waves of emotion and atmosphere swell in and out as solemn acoustic gives way to waves of distortion like on the opening of "The Drapery Falls", with that track being one of the finest examples of Opeth's atmosphere on Blackwater Park. Each transition offers something completely new and memorable while still keeping to the same themes that persist throughout the album. Even though "Blackwater Park" and "The Leper Affinity" have some of the most jarring transitions, Opeth still eases the listener into them with the use of drum fills, slow removal of certain aspects like double bass or lead guitar, or slow but powerful fades.
The use of acoustic guitar that is ever-present in Blackwater Park is the aspect that, to me, adds the most life and atmosphere to this release. Opeth don't shy away from using it, with each song having some form of it whether there is a folky acoustic break section or, like in "The Funeral Portrait", it is interwoven into the main riff. Although it seems like heresy to have so much acoustic guitar using in a frankly non-metal way in a Progressive Death Metal album, it all works in Blackwater Park's advantage since it helps to build so much of that forlorn, despondent atmosphere that I keep referring to. "Harvest" is the perfect example of this, which is a 6/8 ballad piece with entirely clean vocals placed after "The Leper Affinity" and "Bleak". It offers a respite from the aggression, much like the short "Patterns in the Ivy" does, but it exemplifies why the acoustic approach works so well for the album. The tone is sweet but sad, beautiful but solemn, and I think "Harvest" is why I've grown to love the duality between beauty and aggression in Metal so much. "Harvest" also shows incredible pacing knowledge, with the downward spiral from "The Leper Affinity", to "Bleak", to "Harvest", then back to the heavy but somber groove of "The Drapery Falls". Åkerfeldt's singing voice is on full display in "Harvest", showing he has the perfect voice for the style they've chosen to display. Although Opeth's lyrics can get a bit wordy and overblown, they manage to still feel sophisticated thanks to the longer, more complex words and sentence structure that Åkerfeldt chooses to use. Couple that with the fact that his growling is extremely comprehensible compared to other Death Metal vocalists and you have a formula that ends up working out in their favor. Most lyrics in Death or Progressive Metal can be word salad at times, and even though Opeth does tend to get a little too deep for their own good with their lyrics, they really do sell the emotional side of Blackwater Park. Even though it can be difficult to decipher the strange poetry on tracks like "The Drapery Falls" or "Blackwater Park", it still has a powerful and passionate aura to it that is inescapable for me.
The final piece of the puzzle that is Blackwater Park is the lead guitar, with its persistent, drawn out notes that litter the album in every single track. Even back in Orchid, Opeth had been using two guitars to incredible potential, and that full potential is realized on Blackwater Park. The way the lead guitar sings above the pounding riffs and drums in its dismal and bitter tone is one of my favorite sounds that I've ever heard in music, period. It's the element that is able to tie everything together and create the unparalleled sound and feeling that only Blackwater Park has been able to give me even after all these years. The way Opeth is able to use all of the aforementioned elements allows it to be a flawless culmination of everything I love about Metal and music in general still to this day. The incredible variety of riffs and transitions in "The Leper Affinity", the layered acoustic elements, groove, and clean vocal transition of "Bleak", the dismal allure of "Harvest", the memorizing monotony of "The Drapery Falls", the slow build and use of mellow lead guitar on "Dirge for November", the incredible heavy riff alongside the layered acoustic melodies on "The Funeral Portrait", the short but delicate interlude of "Patterns in the Ivy", and the culmination of "Blackwater Park" just makes this the perfect album for me. Every track has its place, every transition has its place, every note has its place. The variety and uniqueness that its able to achieve is rivaled but not matched by the rest of their discography.
Although my endless analysis of why Blackwater Park will always hold a special place in my musical experience seems to have had many important points, I think the most important is where this album sits in the history of Metal. While there have been countless attempts to make Heavy and Extreme Metal more accessible to the masses while not losing any sort of edge of complexity, not many have been able to achieve that. To me, Blackwater Park constructs the most structurally sound bridge possible between Metal and non-Metal without pandering or selling out to anyone. When I first listened to Blackwater Park I definitely wasn't a Metal fan, I even disliked it at the time because I didn't understand the concept of growled, harsh vocals. I remember going back and given it multiple chances until I finally came around to it, which marked the beginning of my descent into the depths of more disgusting Metal genres. It's combination of complex songwriting, crystal clean production, heavy but not too heavy riffing, use of incredible clean vocals, and addicting atmosphere allows it to incorporate the best of both worlds in a way that is both accessible for the uninitiated and rewarding existing fans. There's so much that this album and its composition choices did and is still doing to my listening habits and music bias to this day and while I could go on and on, there's only so much that can be said. Believe me when I say that I've tried to dethrone Blackwater Park at every turn, constantly challenging myself to think critically about whether I really enjoy it more than any other album I've heard thus far. It's stood the test of time and remains the album that I can sing the most praise about, which is obviously extremely evident. No other album that I've found is able to utilize so many Metal and non-Metal elements in a way that just makes sense and is immediately approachable and intelligible no matter what kind of prior musical experience the listener has, making it a despondent but stunning gateway into the muck and mire. It's just the best.
Genres: Progressive Metal
The Puerto Rican Coquí Is The Loudest Frog In The World
Maryland based Frog Metal master Phyllomedusa is back yet again for their 22nd full length and slimy release which strays away from the Gorenoise they're known for and opts for a sludgier, but just as abrasively loud experience. I'm not exactly sure if there are any amount of different notes happening in this 33 minute amphibious journey, but there are some sort of rhythms that kind of resemble riffs played behind an extremely compressed and loud drum kit. Even though the loudness causes some serious production issues of sounds getting cut out from compression I can't deny that the chug is real on this album. The same note that chugs repeatedly over the course of the album hits much like the 7 pound Goliath Bullfrog crushing the soil beneath its webbed feet. The only variation in this slippery offering comes from tempo changes, the occasional ending fake-out, and a surprising bass solo with almost normal sounding drums at the end of "Inhabiting This Breadth Where Others Are Abscent, Where the Avoidance Is Grand", which leaves much to be desired from this viscous assortment of tracks, even though the heft is undeniable. The vocals are fittingly croaky however, with Phyllomedusa paying homage their amphibious overlords by using frog croaks akin to the mighty American Bullfrog on a warm summer's night, perched on a strong lily pad amidst the algae covered pond. These coupled with normally growled vocals, sometimes in harmony, offer a slightly awful but fitting sound to go along with the riffing.
Due to the less than stellar production and overall loudness its honestly hard to tell where the drums, bass, and guitar start or end, which turns out to be part of the overall experience of Beast of the East. Even though nothing in this album is particularly good, it has a certain charm to it just from the caecilian backstory behind all this. Being more sludgy and almost Doom Metal-like, it shows some serious growth from Phyllomedusa's normal Gorenoise output. Although he has been releasing all sorts of small projects and albums for seven years before Beast of the East, Phyllomedusa seemed to still be lacking many of the larval stage features such as rhythm, song structure, or melody. Although the ear shattering loudness destroys much of the ability to see growth, it's clear that the development of the midbrain and forebrain have began to catch up to the current stage of metamorphosis Phyllomedusa finds himself at.
It's incredible to see the dedication that this Maryland amphibian has for this bizarre subsection of noise and metal that only he himself is currently populating. By rigorously producing 267 albums dedicated to our slippery and slimy friends he is slowly but surely working his way towards having a similar amount of albums compared to the 8,000 or more eggs the common toad lays in one clutch. Since frogs lay thousands of eggs in order to ensure a few survive, Phyllomedusa is working under a similar mantra by releasing tens of albums and EP's a year to ensure that not all of his hard work will be gobbled up violently by curious and angry music critics. So even though Beast of the East is just a distorted and fuzzy mess of croaks and other assorted guitar noises, I have to give credit where credit is due for dedication to the amphibian craft and attempting something slightly out of his comfort zone. It will be interesting to see where his music will evolve to next with so many frog related tidbits yet to be explored. Personally I'll be patiently waiting for the Gorenoise ballad piece honoring the Egyptian frog-goddess of fertility.
Genres: Doom Metal Sludge Metal
Sadly, Today Is Not The Day.
The Battle of Los Angeles was my introduction to Rage Against The Machine back when I was young enough that I didn't understand the entire premise behind the music they made. It didn't stop me from enjoying it though, as I would blast "Guerrilla Radio", "Born of a Broken Man", "Testify", and sometimes the entire album through my IPod on bus or car rides. Tom Morello's signature wonky guitar work plus Zack de la Rocha's aggressive vocal delivery coupled with redundant but effective songwriting was something that was exciting for younger me and not much has changed over the years, with The Battle of Los Angeles hitting just as hard as I remember. Intentionally dating reviews is normally a frowned upon tactic as the writer normally wants it to be timeless, but I think everyone can agree that Rage Against The Machine deserves some special treatment, since it's nigh impossible to accurately discuss the band without offering some sort of background on what the world's political and social climate is like. If you take a glance at the date that this review was written...what a time to go back to a Rage Against The Machine album, huh? How in the hell is this album 20 years old and every single one of these tracks still rings truer than ever?
After going back and properly listening to Rage's debut album, it gave me so much more perspective on this album I enjoyed so much years ago, to the point where I started using adjectives that I never thought I'd use to describe Rage Against The Machine. The Battle of Los Angeles is much more refined and mature than their debut, all while maintaining much of the raw power they had back in 1992. They're also much more tactful and profound in the lyrics that de la Rocha chooses to use, with obvious references and statements being replaced with more poetic and interpretive lines. Their stance is still obvious, don't get me wrong, but very few songs are as straight shooting as something like "Killing In The Name" off of their debut album. Refined, mature, tactful, and even restrained in some cases are words I never thought I'd use to describe Rage, but it works wonderfully to create a powerful but distinctive experience that expands on and goes beyond what the band is known for. They take on a multitude of different topics ranging from slavery, poverty, war crimes, and overall corruption that provides a chilling portrait of all the injustices and toxic beliefs that are still rampant today. While their debut was more of a call to action against unjust practices in the United States, The Battle of Los Angeles seems to focus on raising awareness that certain injustices are still occurring even though people in power try their best to convince us that they aren't. Which is still all too true.
Even though Rage are a bit more restrained in this album, it doesn't stop them from pounding out some of the best riffs in the band's history, ranging from "Guerrilla Radio's" main riff, the powerful bass riff of "Calm Like a Bomb", and my personal favorite riff from "Born of a Broken Man". While the drums aren't quite as punchy and the bass is pushed a little farther back in the mix, the way the entire production comes together still hits incredibly hard and is the most balanced their sound has ever been. It also has the most variety the band has ever had, which is a huge plus as Rage's song structure remained largely the same for their entire career. Morello's crazy guitar sounds are utilized more than ever, with incredibly unique sounds being used on "Mic Check", "Maria", and "Ashes in the Fall" to give each their own distinct identity. De la Rocha's delivery has also gotten more consistent and has more emotion and dynamics to it, which makes his repetitive choruses have more punch to them, especially on tracks like "Voice of the Voiceless" and "Born as Ghosts".
Even though Rage better mastered their craft on The Battle of Los Angeles, I think they lost some of the edge that really made them originally stand out. Even though tracks like "Mic Check" and "War Within a Breath" have more layers of songwriting, there's something to be said about an aggressively straightforward approach. Even though the big moments like the end of "Ashes in the Fall" and "Testify" go incredibly hard, I can't help but want something even more impactful than what they gave. The Battle of Los Angeles shows that Rage still had a ton of ideas of how to augment their winning formula without straying too far like they did on Evil Empire, but it's so focused that it burns itself out on repeated listens or even by the second half of the album. While there is still a ton of raw emotion and passion about their cause in here, there's an unhinged quality that I feel like it's missing in certain sections like its bass and drum lines. There's so much on this record that outshines their debut, but the small elements that are missing or slightly weak keep it from being their paramount release.
However, it can't be understated how much this band was able to say about the state of the world and the struggles of so many in twelve short tracks. Rage Against the Machine obviously had a ton to say, and they say it in the most poetic way they were able to here on The Battle of Los Angeles. It's incredibly easy to have a whining, juvenile tone when attempting to proclaim these topics in a genre like Alternative/Rap Metal, so I'm glad the world got a band like Rage to show everyone how it's done. Sadly there will always be problems like they outline in this album and one of the only hopes I can have is that music like this can raise awareness and create more empathy in the world. Maybe someday new listeners can come and review this album in the future and not have to date their reviews to affirm that the world is indeed still a terrible place for those who are wrongfully deemed less worthy by those in power. Sadly, today is not the day that I can look out my window and say that the world has moved on or changed in the slightest.
Genres: Alternative Metal
Italian Symphonic Death Metallers Fleshgod Apocalypse are a fascinating metal band to discuss and analyze for a multitude of reasons. They occupy an almost solitary niche sub-genre and have gained worldwide notoriety without necessarily gaining glowing fame within the metal world. Apart from Septicflesh, another Symphonic Death Metal band from just across the Ionian Sea in Greece, there haven't been too many other acts that rival the technical speed and prowess as well as the massive visions that Fleshgod has had since Oracles and Agony back in 2009 and 2011 respectively. To some degree they've turned into a party or magic trick, with the live performance of "The Violation" from Agony being something you show uninitiated friends to show them how far one man can push a drum kit. The raw speed and over the top song composition can be wowing at first, but very few seem to take the dive into exploring the band further than hearing how fast the double bass is and calling it a day. This is most likely because Fleshgod and their earlier brand of Brutal Death Metal mixed with imposing and theatrical orchestral sections wasn't all that accessible past showing off "The Violation" or "The Deceit", with most of Oracles and Agony using the same formulas and ideas for their entire run times. Labyrinth saw the band ease away from the brutality a bit, but King is really where a new version of Fleshgod is seen, focusing less on raw speed and more on grand songwriting that fixates on the orchestra more than the Death Metal.
King finally fully reigns in the craziness that they had on Agony and Labyrinth, with the drums pushed back much farther in the mix so it's easier to focus on everything else going on. Which is a necessity since there's a lot to keep track of on this album, whether it's the furious Death Metal drumming and guitar riffs, the soaring orchestra, classical piano, or backing choirs. Fleshgod's claim to fame has always been an overstuffed wall of brutal but opulent sound and it's fantastic to hear that they finally found a production style that is able to tone down the Metal elements enough that everything else is very clear, as it makes the compositions much more interesting on the whole. They even begin to use actual riffs on tracks like "Cold As Perfection" and "Gravity" that hit pretty hard, which is a much needed update from the constant Death Metal 16th note hyper-speed strumming. This presents a new problem for Fleshgod though, since even though they are evolving out of their Brutal Death roots they've replaced it with something that feels like it should be engaging, but it falls short in many ways.
"Too much of a good thing" is a phrase that gets thrown around quite liberally and it's the very foundation that Fleshgod Apocalypse is built on. Their opulent and massive musical style is meant to wow you with its technicality, but after the initial sheen wears off, what's really left? For King, it's a plodding mix of orchestra and Metal coming together to form a generally confused product. They tried very hard to put the orchestra and opera influences in the forefront, especially by including the four minute opera piece "Paramour (Die Leidenschaft Bringt Leiden)" in the middle of the album. The problem is that at the end of the day Fleshgod are still backing up all the interesting orchestration with the same shallow Death Metal riffing and technical but incessant drumming that Francesco Paoli is known for, making most songs sound generally similar and taking any sort of dynamics or open space out of the equation. Funny enough, I think Agony actually succeeded at being too much of a good thing because it was unabashedly and cohesively brutal through its entire runtime, whereas by dialing it back King sits in this strange middle ground of doing too much but also doing too little.
Even though King does so much that amounts to so little, I can't deny there are some fantastic moments in here. The main riff of "Gravity" goes in hard, the slower tempo and added opera parts is "Syphilis" is a great bonus, and "The Fool" really showcases what Fleshgod can do if they try something completely fresh, but the rest of the album falls into this strange realm of exciting monotony. It's an assault on the senses with all the different layers of composition going on, but much of it is the same double-kick with hammering riffs and some orchestra flairs going on in the background. I'm still glad that Fleshgod decided to go down this route though, since there's no point to making another Agony, and this album paved the way for their latest release Veleno, which continues to expand on the more symphonic and less brutal ideas shown here.
I've always enjoyed over the top metal, but sometimes I have to look past the shiny showmanship and seemingly complex compositions and ask if I'm seriously interested or entertained by what's going on, and King is, confusingly, both a yes and a no. By dialing back on the drum volume they created room for more expressive and interesting songs, but ended up creating a dichotomy between the Death Metal and more operatic or symphonic sections, with only a few moments in certain songs having a true and interesting union between the two. If Agony or Oracles was too much Fleshgod for you but you enjoyed the concept though, King may be the album for you since it definitely shows a shift in how the band viewed its songwriting.
Genres: Death Metal Symphonic Metal
The Guardian's King
The prince gazed out at the charred landscape, not a blade of grass to diversify the rolling hills. "Hath been years, my friend, and I still find ye here," said the old bard as he grasped the prince's shoulder. "Reminiscing of our grand journey?" The prince sighed, his eyes fixated on the horizon. "I've changed, haven't I?" said the prince in a monotone, low voice. The old bard dropped his hand from the prince's shoulder and joined him on the balcony overlooking the wasteland. "Nay, we are indeed not the spry young gaggle anymore," murmured the bard. "But those days are behind you, much as many more days are behind me." The prince finally averted his gaze to eye the old bard to his side. "Don't you long for them, though?" The bard quietly chuckled much in the way he did in the tavern many, many years ago. "There are journeys of all kinds, my friend, you know this," said the bard. "All journeys are not equal," the prince said shortly, and the bard acknowledged him with a smile. "Ye shall make a mighty fine king," said the bard gently, and the prince's stare immediately shot back to the horizon. "We've conquered much. Strolled through the gilded halls. Fought the hoards. Sat atop the throne. I doubt the life of a king will ever suit me. I plan to write of our adventure then look for others, my friend," said the prince in the same monotone voice. The bard cracked another smile and grasped his friend's shoulder again. "Our journey shall make a fine tale, my prince." A slight smile finally escaped the prince's emotionless face as he wrapped his arm around his friend's shoulders. "Not just a tale. A swan song."
Blind Guardian had a legendary run in the 90's, beginning with the rough around the edges Tales From the Twilight World, evolving into the experimental and aggressive Somewhere Far Beyond, and culminating with the epic Imaginations From the Other Side. These three albums showcased Power Metal's ability to create blisteringly heavy and fast riffs while still maintaining a fun and fantastical atmosphere with incredible vocals, guitar passages, and overall great songwriting. Blind Guardian weren't finished though, since Imaginations From the Other Side showed a transition to a fuller and more epic sound with less and less Speed Metal influence. They wanted to follow up their epic sounding 1995 album with something bigger, with more fantasy influences, an actual plot of sorts, and have it be just as heavy and compelling as their previous works. Nightfall In Middle-Earth was Blind Guardian's attempt to go bigger in all of these categories and while succeeding in some, they left a bit of what made them phenomenal behind.
It's no secret that a lot of Power Metal bands are fantasy fans, with most of their music being centered around epic journeys with dragons and magical swords or some sort of intergalactic hijinks. Blind Guardian are massive proponents of these themes, with many of their previous songs and albums containing many, many explicit references to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, but they never went all the way with any sort of storytelling aspect or concept album. Nightfall in Middle-Earth, as the title itself suggests, is Blind Guardian's attempt to finally go the extra mile and introduce a full story into one of their albums complete with many small plot-centric interludes and a sort of cohesive story. Thankfully they break the mold from the very beginning, giving the listener a story centered on an evil villain king rather than the over-utilized chosen hero of destiny. It gives the album a darker and more twisted feel, which fits Blind Guardian's overall style much better than the alternative, not to mention the album claims the evil king does end up taking over during the conclusion. Each of the short interludes after most of the full length songs are rather dark, giving a bit more insight on the evil king's rise to power as he makes his way across the lands. Some are certainly better than others, with "The Minstrel" and "Out On the Water" being two of the most out of place, but it's a very interesting concept to use that's still pretty unique to this day. It gets confusing when one of the interludes leads into an intro within the next song, like the transition between "Lammoth" and "Nightfall" as well as between "Face the Truth" and "Noldor (Dead Winter Reigns)", but most of the transitions end up hitting their mark well enough.
Nightfall In Middle-Earth tries its hardest to one-up Imaginations From the Other Side in terms of bombast, adding even more choirs, more orchestra, and an overall more theatrical performance from vocalist Hansi Kürsch. Kürsch has always been the cornerstone of Blind Guardian's music, with his distinct and powerful Power Metal voice able to tackle all kinds of different ranges and styles. Thanks to Nightfall In Middle-Earth's slower tempos and more progressive tendencies, Kürsch's cleaner style gets more time to shine in tracks like "Thorn" and "The Eldar", a style which was normally only shown in the shorter ballad pieces in previous albums. "The Curse of Feanor" and "Mirror Mirror" show that Kürsch still has the aggression in his voice as well, making this album his most varied and impressive performance to date. Sadly in order to highlight the vocals the rest of the band takes a bit too much of a backseat, with the guitar and drums being pushed back further in the mix, which marks the shift into a less accented but more cohesive production style. Kürsch's vocals and choirs are very much the focal point of most of these songs and thankfully Blind Guardian's lyricism and vocal songwriting continued to improve as to eliminate most of the awkward and overly simple lines the band had in previous albums.
Nightfall In Middle-Earth was certainly Blind Guardian's most ambitious project to date with wanting to combine more epic orchestral and story-telling elements, so it's not surprising that something had to suffer in order to move forward. Somewhere Far Beyond and Imaginations From the Other Side garnered their monumental sounds from speed, a bit of aggression, and very intelligently written parts that accented one another in ways that gave the tracks this torridly heavy feeling. Nightfall In Middle-Earth tries to gain this same grand sound by adding more moving parts, whether it's more choir, more orchestra, or more synth effects in the background, and while it does create a full and huge sound, it never strikes me in the same way that their two previous albums did. The guitar and drum rhythms are a bit more muddied together and while Kürsch sounds fantastic, the rest of the band sounds like it's just going through the motions sometimes and it's harder to pick out the cool little flourishes that were all over Imaginations From the Other Side. "Mirror Mirror", "Time Stands Still (At The Iron Hill)", and "When Sorrow Sang" are still great standouts from the instrumental side of Blind Guardian as they attempt to bring that energy and tight performance they're known for, but the album as a whole lacks a lot of the impact the band had before.
This is easily the most different and diverse album from Blind Guardian's 90's run and although the changes that they made to their sound to facilitate the new fantasy story elements were necessary, I think it was a slight step down in quality. Nightfall In Middle-Earth is a perfect example of classic power metal that can strive to be epic but not completely overblown like much of today's Power Metal, with Twilight Force being one of the few bands to have any sort of monumental success in my opinion. Once a certain threshold of cheesiness is passed there's no going back, and thankfully Nightfall In Middle-Earth is very good at not really getting close to that line. Some of the interludes and lyrics are still pretty silly, but the darker themes and Kürsch's delivery keeps the album in the "cool Tolkien references" side of Power Metal. However the music itself is a bit less memorable and while the album functions amazingly as a cohesive whole, standout moments are few and far between. The choruses of "Nightfall", "Mirror Mirror", and some of the well done interlude voices are infectious, but much of the album starts to bleed together after a while. Everything that made Blind Guardian great is still here, it's just diluted and a bit simplified in order to make room for their grand fantasy vision.
I think this was a fantastic album for classic Blind Guardian to go out on, since A Night at the Opera and A Twist in the Myth would begin to compound on some of the slight problems that were present in this album. They returned to form in 2010's At the Edge of Time but proceeded to stray farther from what originally made them great in 2015's Beyond the Red Mirror. Tales From the Twilight World, Somewhere Far Beyond, and Imaginations From the Other Side really helped to lay the groundwork for Blind Guardian to attempt their swan song concept album, and for all intents and purposes they nailed it. The story isn't exactly coherent, some of the interludes are worthless or strange, and the band feels a little tired and less accented, but the full package is still utterly fantastic. The songwriting is complex and interesting, Kürsch absolutely kills the vocal performance, and they finally got to fully indulge in their fantasy worshiping tenancies. Nightfall In Middle-Earth is still a Power Metal classic in my book, and while it's a shame that Blind Guardian couldn't keep up with the sort of quality they had in the 90's, it's awesome that they were able to create a truly epic sounding album while not falling into the traps that so many other Power Metal bands fall into.
Genres: Power Metal
The Towers Of The Blind
The company walked along flaking and gilded, cold pillars as torches flickered against the deafening silence, casting familiar shadows reminiscent of the beginning of their journey. The empty halls were awe-inspiring, dignified, and soundlessly conveyed their grandness to the party. "You've become stronger, my prince," proclaimed a company member while catching his breath. "We all have, my friend, this journey has been a perilous one. One that still shapes our very beings," said the prince, slumping slowly down the pillar, armor and sword clanging on the cracked stone floor. "What a marvelous place," exclaimed the old bard, angling his lantern to the ceiling, casting beams of light that glinted and danced against the elegantly carved but worn designs. "Come and take a rest old man, we continue soon," sighed another company member. "Nay, we will rest for a while in these safe halls of the mountain. We've come too far to be hasty," argued the prince, the rest of his company complying."Imagine the wonders this hall contained in an age other than ours," said the bard, finally resting on another pillar across from the prince, who chuckled at his statement. "Imagination was always your forte, old friend. Even with our story far from over your head is still in the clouds," said the prince, catching a glimpse of the bard grinning, stroking his silver beard. "I hath seen many a sight, but no sight as efficaciously splendid as what lies within my own mind, my prince," stated the bard, slowly closing his eyes and resting his head. The prince slightly scoffed at the bard, but eventually followed suit and let his eyes close and his mind wander. The dark and frozen blackness of sleep was instantly set ablaze with a golden orange glow, rays of light dancing off all the polished gold one could imagine. Ornate rugs blanketed the stone floor and colorful tapestries hung from the shining pillars, depicting kings and dragons of olde. Throngs of dwarves packed the hall, guzzling ale and greeting their brethren. Slowly but surely the echoing performance of songs began to resonate across the halls, the melodies as grand as the halls themselves.
Imaginations From the Other Side is a tale of refinement, with Blind Guardian beginning the 1990's with the rough around the edges but filled with potential release of Tales From The Twilight World. The galloping riffs and furious drumming were still reminiscent of their Speed Metal beginnings two years prior, but a fuller and grander sound was beginning to take shape. That sound would be better realized in Somewhere Far Beyond, with vocalist Hansi Kürsch improving immensely to settle into his legendary Power Metal range. Certain portions of Somewhere Far Beyond had a full and epic sound, created by more mature songwriting and each band member executing their parts with powerful precision, however there was still some experimentation with their Speed and Thrash Metal roots plus some theatrical elements on tracks like "Black Chamber". Blind Guardian followed up this time of exploration with the best decision they could have made, which was not really experimenting at all.
It's apparent from the self-titled, opening track "Imaginations From The Other Side" that Blind Guardian finally embraced their fantastical tendencies and have fully crossed into the realm of boisterous and aggressive Power Metal. By not abandoning their complex songwriting and turning the epic knob up to 11, Blind Guardian roar to life with blistering guitar riffs, pounding drums, and a powerfully creative vocal performance from Kürsch. Imaginations From The Other Side sounds so much larger and full than its predecessors, with Kürsch's overlapping choir harmonies being even more pronounced and each drum beat being written to smartly accent important downbeats in the guitar riffs while not losing a bit of energy. The overall speed of the album took a dive when compared to Somewhere Far Beyond since there is less Speed Metal drumming influence, but even that ends up playing to the strengths of Blind Guardian's newly refined and larger sound. There's still plenty of ripping sections in tracks like "I'm Alive" and "Born in a Mourning Hall" to keep the album forceful and heavy, but they're more contained in-between slower and more epic choruses.
Imaginations From The Other Side balances the use of seemingly silly Power Metal effects extremely well, to keep each song sounding vigorous but never ludicrous, which is a feat in of itself considering the chorus section in "Bright Eyes" plus the overall cheesiness of "A Past and Future Secret" and "Mordred's Song". There's just enough acoustic and fantasy elements stuffed in between the guitar riffs and Kürsch's bellows to really sell the Power Metal theme without being overblown. The guitar solos and riffs as well as the drum fills and accents are top notch, with so many different variations in galloping Power/Speed Metal riffs that eventually transition seamlessly into slower and robust choruses. Blind Guardian always had a knack for keeping the listener on their toes, and songs like "Another Holy War" with its insane amount of guitar and vocal melodies show off that talent like no other. There's so many layers and hidden elements that make each song exciting to come back to time and time again just to find as many hidden gems as possible. It's incredible how much they were able to pack into an already complex and fast style of music without anything feeling out of place.
As said before, Imaginations From The Other Side is a masterclass in refinement of their style, with Blind Guardian sounding even more confident than they were on Somewhere Far Beyond. It helps that the lyricism is much tighter and more natural than their previous records, with Kürsch's vocals never sounding awkward or out of place, which was a slight problem in Somewhere Far Beyond and even more so in their older releases. The use of slower and more epic choruses also help Kürsch to seriously flex his vocal muscles throughout the entire album, with his performances on "Imaginations From The Other Side", "Another Holy War", and "And The Story Ends" being some of his best material ever. The vocals and guitar never vie for the spotlight either, with each being written to compliment each other at every turn. Kürsch even goes for a few more grisly notes that he never touched on Somewhere Far Beyond, showing that he really went all out to try and match the epic scale this album conveys. The harmonized choir is also used more often to create some necessary variety, even though I'm sure some Blind Guardian fans could listen to Kürsch screech his high notes out all day long.
While Somewhere Far Beyond was Blind Guardian's outset, Imaginations From The Other Side shows their maturity and consistency, even though they lost a bit of that bright eyed creativity along the way. This doesn't hinder the album from being an opulent pillar in Power Metal's history, but it remains true that most of the songs on here follow some repetitive songwriting choices. These choices make the album absolutely superb, but somewhat less memorable to me than Somewhere Far Beyond. Blind Guardian had found the golden center of their signature epic and full sound and didn't want to let go, and frankly I don't blame them, since Imaginations From The Other Side gave us nine of the most blistering, complex, but still fantastically grand Power Metal songs it could muster. It really goes to show how much heft and energy Power Metal can have with smart writing choices, without all the crazy additions now seen in modern Power Metal like a full orchestra or crazy synth effects. They're able to build and keep the energy up during the fast verses and bridges to finally release all the built up tension in a massive chorus in a way that few bands are able to do, and it shows on every single song. Blind Guardian's story doesn't end just yet, as the closing track exclaims, but for now I have no shame in basking in the gilded halls of dragons and kings for as long as I care to.
Genres: Power Metal
The Guardian Fellowship
The proud prince cracked a grin at his guest across the table among the clatter and chatter of silverware and frivolous conversation. "So, I suppose you've come to deliver me some sort of poetry of our fate to come?" the prince said between a gulp of his mug. The friend chuckled as his gaze turned from the jolly patrons cackling and howling around them to the prince. "Dost thou believe all fates are spun as part of the same web, my good friend?" The prince cracked a smile as well, the flicker of the candles and torches casting an ominous shadow over his friend's words as they left his mouth. "Well, my old bard friend, I have to say there are many spiders out in the forest, and I am a fan of none of them." The bard leaned forward, his silver beard glistening and glowing in the room's supple light. "Then we haven't much time to spin our own before the rainy season comes, my prince." "Spoken as cryptically but clear as always," exclaimed the prince before finishing his ale, with his smile remaining as he continued to eye the bard with eagerness. "So, will there be a glorious song to begin our final sojourn?" The bard threw his body back in a bellowing laugh before resting his thin gaze on the prince once more. "Nay, my friend, not a song," he said, raising from his seat and turning around to greet the rest of the company who had just arrived into the flickering room with open arms. "We shall give ye a full concerto."
Blind Guardian during the 1990's with the trilogy of Somewhere Far Beyond, Imaginations From The Other Side, and Nightfall In Middle-Earth cemented themselves as visionaries and the pinnacle of fantasy-inspired Power and Speed metal, with each album bringing its own blend of experiments and refinements that still hold up to this day. Before Somewhere Far Beyond Blind Guardian was attempting to find their footing on Tales From the Twilight World, which showcased their shift from a more aggressive and Speed Metal influence to the bombastic and fantastical brand of Power Metal they are now known for. The Speed Metal drumming and riffing is still prevalent behind Hansi Kürsch's now cleaner vocals, but it still felt like something was missing with how the guitar parts fit together with the vocals and drums. There was something about the repetitiveness and slight awkwardness in the transitions and solos that left me wanting more out of Tales From The Twilight World, and that's where Somewhere Far Beyond explodes onto the scene two years later, unveiling a refined but surprisingly experimental Blind Guardian that managed to solve all the problems that their previous release had.
Somewhere Far Beyond still holds onto Blind Guardian's Speed Metal roots in the chorus of "Time What Is Time" and the solos in "Journey Through The Dark", but adds so much more through Kürsch's improved vocals and better use of Power Metal elements in "Theatre of Pain" and "The Quest For Tanelorn". The drums and guitar riffs are so much more varied than the normal Speed Metal gallops, making great use of the rhythm and lead guitar to make even the most mundane of guitar riffs interesting and exciting. The drums do a better job at accenting Kürsch's vocal lines and work alongside the guitar in a much tighter and even more furious manner than usual, which keeps the album remarkably aggressive through most of the songs. It's very easy to go overboard in Power Metal, since bombastic and over the top melodies and effects are part of the genre itself, but Blind Guardian are able to keep a tight grip on reality and make sure that all of the excitement comes from the riffs and melodies themselves instead of adding extra elements to try to artificially inflate the heaviness of the songs. Imaginations From The Other Side would see Blind Guardian move towards a more full and bombastic sound, but for Somewhere Far Beyond they still have a very classic sounding mix with the heaviness coming from each instrument complimenting each other extremely well to have each fast chug riff feel like it's constantly moving forward with purpose. The guitar solos and runs are some of the best they've written as well, with most of the albums' instrumental sections having the best guitar work I've heard from them.
As for the Power Metal aspects of Somewhere Far Beyond, they're right in the middle of Imaginations From The Other Side and Nightfall In Middle-Earth, with enough fantastical elements to keep the listener on their toes, but not have it be so overbearing that it takes over as the main attraction on the album. The obvious offenders are "Black Chamber", "The Bard's Song - In The Forest", and "The Piper's Calling", with one possible argument claiming them to be a waste of time or too overblown for their own good to fit into an album like this. For me, I think it's a matter of perspective and looking at the album as a whole instead of calling out certain songs as worthless, as each interlude is followed up by a track that gives purpose to these seemingly out of place songs. "Black Chamber" not only showcases Kürsch's voice but transitions into "Theatre of Pain's" more pompous and slow groove of keyboards and a distinct shift in tone and attack from Kürsch, as he takes his time more with his lines and sounds more controlled overall. "The Bard's Song - In The Forest" is obviously a classic since every single fan in Blind Guardian's crowds knows how to belt out every last word during live performances, but the real magic comes in the second part, with "The Bard's Song - The Hobbit". The slightly boring and possibly uninspired acoustic tune gets an immediate makeover as similar melodies are used for a roaring Power Metal rendition. The same thing occurs with "The Piper's Calling", with the minute of bagpipes and choir seemingly coming out of nowhere and exiting just as fast. "Somewhere Far Beyond" picks up where this leaves off though, with flutes and bagpipes returning four minutes into the song, tying up the last of the loose ends.
It can't be overstated how much Kürsch's performance improved between Tales From The Twilight World and Somewhere Far Beyond, with him now sounding extremely comfortable with his range and delivery of aggressive sections. In earlier Blind Guardian works like Follow The Blind he constantly strained his voice to get that cracking and harsh tinge, which worked somewhat for the more Speed Metal focused material they started out with, but there was always something off about it. This is the start of Kürsch maturing into the vocalist everyone knows now, and his 1990's material is even more exciting since he still has a bit of that aggression in him. Lyrically the album can come across as a bit weak, but the way that Kürsch delivers the lines never fails to disappoint. Coupled with the choir that perfectly complements him, this is an amazing vocal performance from the legend through and through, especially since it's so varied compared to any of their other releases.
As an album experience, I have to say that this is my favorite piece of work that Blind Guardian has released. While Imaginations From The Other Side may be more consistent in its approach and Nightfall In Middle-Earth is more ambitious, Somewhere Far Beyond never bores me and always captivates me every time I come back to it. It has the right balance of blistering guitar riffs, fantasy themes that sit on the fine line between awesome and silly, and experimentation that gives the album a very unique flavor. It's the beginning of Blind Guardian's amazing legacy of releasing some of the best Power Metal ever written, and that's definitely something to sing about.
Genres: Power Metal
Every now and again a band comes around that consistently exists on the cutting edge of creativity, and for Extreme Metal in the late 80's, that band was Bathory. Although Venom and Hellhammer began coining the term Black Metal one or two years before the release of their self-titled album, Bathory exploded onto the scene with three of the rawest and most evil albums that early Black Metal would conjure. Their thrashy Black Metal sound would peak with Under The Sign Of The Black Mark, but there was still a sense of growth from the band. Most of the tracks had Bathory's normal pounding drums, messy but aggressive guitar riffing, and Quorthon's incessant howling, but "Enter The Eternal Fire" always stood out to me as Bathory starting to realize their next vision. The double bass and eighth-note snare is replaced by a slower and heavier 4/4 rhythm with a powerful crash cymbal, the Black Metal insanity is replaced by slower, more discernible , more epic riffing, and Quorthon's vocals are a bit more reigned in and musical compared to his normal barking. "Call From The Grave" and "13 Candles" also exhibit these qualities, but "Enter The Eternal Fire" has that larger than life feeling that would carry over into their turning point album, Blood Fire Death. While Blood Fire Death is still very much a classic Black Metal album, the intro of " Oden's Ride Over Nordland" into "A Fine Day to Die" and the closing "Blood Fire Death" shows Bathory leaning into the tendencies shown on "Enter The Eternal Fire" even more by adding even cleaner production to the riffs, adding atmospheric sound effects and choir, and having a more extended song structure with both songs clocking in at over 8 minutes. These two songs would serve as the foundation for Quorthon's next project released a year later, Hammerheart.
Hammerheart wasn't even Quorthon's first dive into a new sound for Bathory, with Blood On Ice (1996) being initially written before Hammerheart. It was obvious that Quorthon wanted to double down on the epic fantasy elements he touched on in Blood Fire Death, but couldn't fully decide on what would be the best path would be for Bathory as a band for this new vision. Rumors are that Quorthon believed that Blood On Ice would not be well received as it was such a drastic shift in sound after Blood Fire Death, and after listening to Blood On Ice I'd say that's a fair assessment. Instead the world got Hammerheart, the first true Viking Metal release from the same band that created one of the first true Black Metal releases, which is an achievement in of itself. The grinding production of the Black Metal-esque riffs are still prevalent in Hammerheart, but everything has been slowed down to a powerful march rather than a blistering sprint, which lets the raw production settle a bit more comfortably than you would think. "Shores In Flames" wastes no time showing that this new riff style works incredibly well alongside the rest of the album's signature features like the Viking choirs and softer sections that are filled with natural sound effects. While the choir can be a bit overused at times, it does a great job of selling the larger than life style that Hammerheart tries to convey. "Baptised In Fire And Ice" has the most recognizable choir section with the trade-off between it and Quorthon during the chorus, which is very well written despite being horribly mixed in terms of volume and impact. The pounding and echoing drums took me a while to get used to since they sound like they're so far away from the rest of the band, but in the end they still have the impact to carry the epic feel, especially on tracks like "Home Of Once Brave".
The main attraction to Hammerheart lies in its epic scale while still being as raw and dirty as something like Blood Fire Death. Good and clean production is obviously an important part of music in general, but as early Black and Death Metal has shown, sometimes impurity can give an album like this the edge it needs. Although Hammerheart is not as aggressive as Bathory's other works, the familiar grinding sound keeps the slower riffs from sounding dull or uninspiring. The whole album is meant to sound larger than life, with heavenly choirs and extended guitar solos that really go the extra mile on tracks like "One Rode To Asa Bay". Quorthon himself tries to be as epic as the music he wrote as well, with his ragged voice extending way past its limits sometimes. While working perfectly on tracks like "Baptised In Fire And Ice", plus "Shores In Flames" showing he's still willing to do the slightly deeper Black Metal bark, a lot of the lyrical delivery comes off as wacky and amateurish on "Father To Son", and "Home Of Once Brave". Quorthon can be an initial hurdle for any new Bathory listener, but sometimes he just misses the mark completely on Hammerheart, which is a shame because the riffs and drums behind his singing are still huge and fantastic.
It's still incredible to me that Hammerheart is the first of its kind, since it nails so many aspects of what we consider the epic and theatrical Viking Metal genre to be. The massive riffs, the pounding drums, the atmospheric sections to try to transport the listener to the album's world, and the overall lyrical topics and feel are spot on for what a layman would consider Viking Metal to be upon first glance. Hammerheart does fall flat in some regards though, since the album does start to drag after a while due to its similar tempos and repeated use of similar ideas. The main riff on each song is fantastic, but the rest of the package fails to come together on tracks like "Valhalla" and "Home Of Once Brave" for me. Although the entire album is a wonderland of epic Nordic feeling and atmosphere of rowing across freezing oceans and burning villages in combat, its aforementioned shortcomings bring the experience down from being an absolute masterpiece to a gold but flawed standard of Viking Metal.
As someone who knows Viking Metal from bands like Ensiferum or Månegarm, I really wish that this style of Viking Metal would make a modern comeback, since anything that sounds close to this has been incredibly disappointing in recent years. Modern Viking Metal bands have evolved Hammerheart's style into something that is much more Folk oriented and, in Ensiferum's case, Power Metal oriented. They achieve that grand and epic scale through orchestral elements and higher, driving tempos, which is quite different than Hammerheart's slow and heavy style. This shows that, despite its flaws, Hammerheart is a wildly influential album in this space of Metal and one that still holds up and still has ideas that can be expanded upon in the future. I don't know if a revitalization of Viking Metal is coming anytime soon, but if it does, I really hope whoever spearheads it looks to the classics and captures that epic scale that Hammerheart is known for.
Genres: Viking Metal
Before the Theatrics
As is probably pretty common among metal listeners, Images and Words and Dream Theater in general is an immensely important band that guided the Progressive Metal scene for many, many years. Dream Theater dominated my old Ipod with Octavarium, Change of Seasons, and Metropolis Pt. 2 with those introductory albums eventually giving way to Train of Thought, Systematic Chaos, and Dramatic Turn of Events. I was enthralled with the idea of amazing musicians playing music that obviously sounded technically difficult. It was no longer about catchy classic rock riffs or singalong pop songs, it was about creating music that showed off how creative and impressive a band can sound, and that forged my initial love for Progressive Metal of all kinds. Images and Words may not have been the first Progressive Metal album, but it was one of the first to really gain the street cred that allowed Dream Theater to spread their influence to many, many other bands and people.
After listening to so much modern Dream Theater going back to Images and Words fully for the first time was a serious treat. This 1992 Dream Theater is more bare bones and straightforward than their later content but it's far from watered down; it represents a simpler time in their career before they felt the need to go extremely theatrical with their compositions. Although Images and Words has three pretty forgettable power ballads with "Another Day", "Surrounded", and "Wait For Sleep", the other 40 minutes of the album are well produced and mixed classic Dream Theater that are accessible but impressive. LaBrie is thankfully pushed down far enough into the mix that he blends into the band's sound rather than cutting through it and each instrument gets its own spotlight on all of the extended tracks, especially in "Metropolis, Pt. 1". Images and Words stays true to being a legitimate Metal album with crunchy chugs and memorable riffs in "Pull Me Under" and "Metropolis, Pt. 1" while still inserting their signature time signature changes, syncopated rhythms, and notable but slightly out of place solos. Each member of the band is obviously very skilled which is what makes Dream Theater so exciting to listen to.
However, after all this time and hundreds of albums and bands later, Dream Theater have definitely lost their charm for me. Years ago I would have probably given this album full marks, but Progressive Metal is a genre that is only as impressive as the listener's knowledge if the band's goal is simply to thrill the listener through solos and complex rhythms. Of course I thought that Dream Theater was the craziest band on the planet because they were the only Progressive Metal band I listened to at the time besides Tool. Now that I've broadened my horizons Images and Words is still a great album with some of the most iconic Progressive Metal songs ever created, but it doesn't blow my mind anymore. "Pull Me Under", "Metropolis Pt. 1", and "Under a Glass Moon" are still some of my favorite tracks that showcase how Heavy Metal can be augmented through simple but effective use of music theory and creative rhythms, but Dream Theater's flaws of song structure, transitions, and the obviously questionable vocals really shine through even at the beginning of their career. These flaws will be multiplied as their career goes on and even though I still enjoy these earlier releases it's hard to say that this holds a candle to some of my other Progressive Metal favorites.
Genres: Progressive Metal
Frozen Under Bergen
It's a strange feeling not being a massive Burzum fan, since Vikernes seems to have a knack for releasing quite a few thought provoking albums for people who are willing to dig through the cold Norwegian snow. Those who do survive the winter emerge with novels outlining the intricacies and experiences they had listening to such emotional gripping releases. Sadly, for me, Burzum remains a project that I can say is undoubtedly one of the best of its kind, but it doesn't go emotionally deeper than that. So, let's try a bit of different approach when talking about Mr. Varg Vikernes this time around.
The most important aspect of Hvis Iyset tar oss, as well as the other early Burzum releases, is the creation and sustaining of a certain atmosphere. The common atmosphere for most of these early Atmospheric Black Metal bands was freezing, unrelenting, and wintry cold, which is almost a cop-out explanation at this point. The raw and almost metallic production coupled with simple but bleak sounding synths creates an atmosphere no one has really been able to recreate as effectively, which shows just how important these early albums are for the entire genre. As important as atmosphere is for a genre named after it, no one else can quite capture the raw but reflective nature of Burzum, where each piece of the composition always feels like it's part of the big picture.
The paramount ingredient for Burzum's winning formula is repetition. Repetition. Repetition. Hvis lyset tar oss isn't afraid to bore the listener by repeating the same rhythm or passage over and over again for 7 or even 15 minutes straight. This repetition is presented as a challenge to the listener in a way, since the music itself isn't necessarily boring, it's just extended way past when the listener thinks it should end. "Tomhet" is the obvious example of this formula, as it is a precursor to "Rundgang um die transzendentale Säule der Singularität" off of Filosofem. It creates a trance-like rhythm that has very subtle changes and causes the listener to fill in a lot of the blanks in the music, which I think is one of the most intelligent ways to really sell an atmospheric album.
This review may go hand-in-hand with Filosofem eventually, so I'll cap it off by saying that Hvis lyset tar oss is definitely a separate experience than Filosofem is. The guitars and distortion are pushed back more, Vikernes' voice is just as ragged but more clear, there are more riffs and melodies overall, and the type of atmosphere that is created is much different. It still has some of the darkest and rawest Black Metal riffs out there, but it doesn't relish in its atmosphere as much as Filosofem does. If Filosofem isn't for you but you still want to give Burzum a chance, this is a more musical and normal Atmospheric Black Metal release that still serves as a gold standard for what Atmospheric Black Metal can be, along with Burzum's other early albums.
Genres: Black Metal
A Runic Triumph
With the "fantasy Dungeons & Dragons" style of Power Metal having always been a dime a dozen, it takes quite a bit of pizzazz to stand out among the countless other bands attempting a similar style. Italy's Elvenking is no stranger to the challenge, as this is their tenth studio album since forming in 2001, using folk music as their defining factor. Reader of the Runes - Divination, hopefully the first of future albums using the same concept, follows 8 different characters as their fates are manipulated by the Reader of the Runes as the listener is taken across a magical and fantastical world. While bands like Rhapsody and Twilight Force use mainly neo-classical influences to achieve this atmosphere, Elevenking veers off down the Folk Metal path, merging insanely catchy melodies with all kinds of different metal riffing, ranging from Speed Metal chug to Black Metal tremolo.
The use of so much Folk Metal with relatively normal Power Metal ideas is where Reader of the Runes - Divination shines, creating so many catchy melodies without feeling overpowering or bloated. All of the Power Metal riffs are driving and huge, but don't overwhelm the folk or vocal melodies in the mix. It's a treat to hear something this folky and symphonic, especially in the first half of the album, performed so well because many other bands have tried and definitely have failed. "Heathen Divine", "Silverseal", and "Eternal Eleanor" are relentlessly catchy, with acoustic and violin melodies being played alongside addictive Power Metal riffs with well written choruses. The album changes into more of a straight up Power Metal album in the second half, forgoing folk melodies for some Black Metal and classic Power Metal influences for "Malefica Doctrine", "Sic Smper Tyrannis", and "Warden of the Bane". The 10 minute epic "Reader of the Runes - Book I" acts as a worthy climax of the album, drawing influence from the prior tracks, reviving riffs and melodies used earlier in the album but putting a new twist on them. The obvious fantasy Power Metal cheese is still there, of course, but it's softened by a vocalist who stays in his comfortable range and by having a ton of variety as the album plays out.
Reader of the Runes - Divination is just too catchy and likable, pulling out all the stops for an epic Power Metal performance without going too off the deep end. It's an addictive and cohesive album, with the final track pulling the entire project together at its conclusion, making it feel like an actual story rather than just a collection of tracks. I think Elvenking have found their niche with this release, since this album is much cleaner and creative than Secrets of the Magick Grimoire, which suffered from the common Symphonic Metal problem of having too much going on and ending up with a muddy final product. Reader of the Runes - Divination is a sleek Folk/Power Metal experience with less fluff but more memorable and epic moments, and that's exactly what I look for in these albums. I really hope they continue with this concept, because I personally can't wait.
Genres: Folk Metal Power Metal
Arckanum is the occultist brainchild of Johan "Shamaatae" Lahger who, at least for this first release, was able to keep a 3 piece band together long enough to release Fran Marder, a native and organic sounding Black Metal album that allowed him to express certain interests of his. Those interests being mostly occult literature as well as chaos and cosmic worship, but hey as long as it's not hurting anyone I'm cool with it. These influences are presented front and center on the introduction of the album as it takes you to a fantastical forest landscape with hooting owls and sleeping trolls or demons. This serene landscape then erupts into torrid tremolo picking, echo-laden vocals, and constant Black Metal blast beats. The production is fairly clean, with the tremolo picking being very audible as it creates most of the riffs and chords throughout the album. Fran Marder even throws some unexpected twists into the back half of the album, with "Trulmaeldr" and "Baeghet" showcasing another vocalist with more melodic and slower riffing than the rest of the album. The atmosphere that was established at the very beginning of the album does come back on tracks like "Kolin Vaeruld" and "Svinna", but the album as a whole lacks a bit of cohesiveness to really tie these ideas together.
Sadly I walked away from this rather deep cut feeling more bored than anything, with seven out of the nine tracks feeling like I just listened to the same song. "Gava Fran Trulen" and "Trulmaeldr" are welcome shifts in song style which help to break up the album, but it wasn't enough for me. I can only handle so much Black Metal tremolo and aggressive blast beats where the snare sounds like it's an inch from my eardrum, and this album certainly has quite the amount of both of those. The attempts at incorporating atmospheric sections are commendable, but I walked away feeling unsure about what I was supposed to experience through them. The transitions from serene and divine forests straight into blistering Black Metal didn't work for me since it felt like I heard it all before after the first two tracks. The echo effect on all the vocals really got on my nerves after a while as well, which is a shame because there are definitely a few good tracks in here.
If you're a massive Black Metal fan who loves tremolo and blast beats with a cleaner production and a few bells and whistles thrown in, Fran Marder is certainly the album for you, but it didn't click for me.
Genres: Black Metal
Emperor Of All
For me, In the Nightside Eclipse is how I want my grandiose and symphonic Black Metal to sound, plain and simple. The mix and production can be challenging to decode since there is so much going on, but the end result is all too worth it. The marrying of strings, synths, and blistering Black Metal riffs holds up extremely well even by today's standards, and the atmosphere of the album is unparalleled. This album really does take me somewhere desolate and despondent, which for me is a pretty rare occurrence. The fact that I prefer the cold and raw sound of this album compared to Anthems of the Welkin At Dusk is definitely subjective, but this release simply left more of an impact on me overall and I'm consistently impressed whenever I come back to it. Emperor have created one of, if not the quintessential union of beautiful symphonic and classical music with the wicked and malicious chaos of Black Metal.
Genres: Black Metal
Gazes From the Cold, Stone Window
Nachthymnen is a remarkably mature release for sophomore Black Metal album in the mid-90's, being as elegant as it is crushing and evil. Resonating medieval bass drums, acoustic guitars, and female vocals are woven into to Black Metal melodies to form something that almost sounds fully symphonic, especially in the middle portion of the album, but then reverts back to classic Black Metal to keep the album driving. Since this was released in 1995, I can only imagine Abigor was quite the fan of Emperor and wanted to try their hand at incorporating as many symphonic elements as possible. While they can sometimes feel thrown in just for the hell of it, they're used so often that they become a big part of the album's overall feel and character, which I really enjoyed in the end.
From the very beginning the symphonic elements are front and center, with a synth-like trumpet fanfare proclaiming the album's beginning, giving the listener the sense that Nachthymnen is going to be a bit more than just a blistering Black Metal album. It creates a great contrast between melody and riffing that all sticks to the same cold and medieval theme. The production and mixing isn't nearly as rough as I figured it would be either, with the symphonic elements being just as powerful as the metal ones, especially the big resonating and theatrical bass drum in tracks like "The Dark Kiss". The Black Metal drums are pushed back a little too far as per usual, which is a shame because their drummer puts on a pretty amazing performance throughout the album. I really feel there's no end to amazing Black Metal drummers even in the earlier years of the genre.
"Scars in the Landscape of Gods" and "Dornen" really up the ante for the symphonic and theatrical performance and this sort of style really kept me engaged through this somewhat repetitive album. I do enjoy Black Metal riffs, but there has to be something else supporting them for me to really feel attached to them. The two songs listed above, as well as the album as a whole, do a great job of having memorable sweeping melodies to go along with all of the chaos. While I wouldn't call Nachthymnen an all-time great, this is definitely a gem that has a distinct atmosphere and style that I particularly enjoy in Black Metal.
Genres: Black Metal
A Molten Foundation
Bestial Devastation shows the remarkable beginnings of a young Sepultura as they recorded this fiery but disheveled EP in just two days. While obviously messy and laden with performance issues, the amount of ideas and concepts for an even darker and more aggressive take on Thrash Metal is ambitious and impressive. I think their ambition got the best of them as they struggle to keep up with the intense tempos and compositions that require the band to play perfectly on time together, but the messiness on an already lower quality EP adds that classic grime that early Death Metal thrives on. It's raw, furious, and somewhat exciting even by today's standards. Certain parts and melodies sometimes just end out of nowhere and could have been written better and expanded more, but for what Sepultura had to work with at the time the riffs and solos that come out of Bestial Devastation are more than sufficient. Not to mention the drummer goes absolutely nuts on the entire album, showing that Thrash style drumming can be expanded upon to hit even harder than it already did. A fun but definitely dirty EP that shouldn't be skipped over when looking at the classics of Death Metal.
Genres: Death Metal Thrash Metal
Saviors From The Twilight Kingdoms
2019 has been a diverse and exciting landscape for the usually derivative genre of Power Metal, with releases from Ancient Bards, Beast in Black, Avantasia, Týr, Iron Savior, Steel Prophet, and many others putting their best foot forward. In terms of more classic Power Metal, though, I was certain that nothing would top Gloryhammer's Legends From Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex in terms of bombastic and fun absurdity. Especially since Rhapsody of Fire's newest installment The Eighth Mountain was extremely disappointing, I was ready to leave the neoclassical fantasy Power Metal behind this year and submit to the sci-fi overlords. Then, from the clouds, swoops a mighty dragon, signalling the entrance of the Twilight Force to lead me back to the fantastical lands of old filled with mythical beasts, kings and queens, and completely redundant quests to find yet another sacred weapon. Dawn of the Dragonstar throws down the Power Metal gauntlet and dares any other band to challenge their craft.
It's almost unfair how good Twilight Force are at their genre, combining shredding neoclassical guitar wankery with gorgeous orchestral arrangements that don't let up for a second on any track. Dawn of the Dragonstar is energetic, bold, and pretentiously accepting of the absurdity that is Power Metal. It helps that Twilight Force is made up of fantasy characters that are created by the band members in the world of The Twilight Kingdoms with names like Blackwald, Aerendir, and De'Azsh. I'm of the opinion that Power Metal is a go big or go home genre, and Twilight Force absolutely goes big, with each band member cosplaying their character complete with costumes on stage for live performances. By embracing the ridiculousness, they set themselves up perfectly to just go wild with whatever fantastical tropes they want accompanied by their massive orchestration.
The original vocalist who was responsible for the shrieking high notes on Twilight Force's first two albums sadly didn't make it to Dawn of the Dragonstar, which may be concerning for longtime fans since he gave the band a very original sound thanks to his upper register. It was a somewhat necessary casualty though, as his replacement is none other than Alessandro Conti, under the alias of Allyon, who was the vocalist for Luca Turilli's Rhapsody. After adding another piece of red string to my cork board tracking all the Power Metal bands that somehow trace back to Rhapsody, it's safe to say that this change was controversial, even for a newer fan like myself. The previous vocalist, Christian "Chrileon" Eriksson, had a unique, exciting, but somewhat grating style that helped Tales of Ancient Prophecies reach a diamond-in-the-rough status. As Twilight Force's scope of production widened and they became more bombastic on Heroes of Mighty Magic, his effectiveness began to wane as he was drowned out by the rest of the orchestration. Conti's voice is overall more experienced, powerful, and is a welcome change although it's less original overall as he's been in many other Power Metal projects. He even has the pipes to hit some impressive and staple high notes without going into Eriksson's shrieking dog whistle territory.
The instrumentation and composition of the orchestra is masterful throughout the album with a few amusing bits thrown in the mix, like the banjo and violin section in "Thundersword". It has a massive and adventurous feel without sounding too blown out and busy, with interesting melodies around every turn for your ear to latch onto. Every track is energetic, engaging, and somehow able to push the pace for its entire run-time, even through the twelve and a half minute Asian-inspired "Blade Of Immortal Steel". These slight shifts in style that each track has keeps the album twisting and turning, as if travelling through The Twilight Kingdoms. The climaxes and solos are insanely fun as well, which is exceedingly difficult to pull off since bands like Rhapsody have been writing these same sort of solos for decades at this point. They just have so much life and energy put into them that it all feels genuinely powerful rather than pretentiously overblown.
Dawn of the Dragonstar has this energy that is infectious and breathes life into the neoclassical and purely fantasy style of Power Metal. It's the same formula as many other bands, but it is written and performed with such an awesome amount of musical talent that it's difficult not to get engrossed in this world they've created. Take note upcoming fantasy Power Metal bands, because if you're going to go big, go Twilight Force amounts of big.
Genres: Power Metal Symphonic Metal
Tobias Sammet and his gang of all-star heavy metal friends are back and better than ever with another installment of the Symphonic Power Metal project Avantasia. What started out as a classical and overblown metal opera production has forged its own identity with its impressive but somewhat generic Power Metal base, drawn out and epic songwriting, colossal amounts of orchestration and symphonic elements, and use of multiple prestigious metal vocalists. This new style created an abrupt divide in their discography as well as their fan base, with The Metal Opera Pt. I & II left behind as relics of their previous sound. With the release of The Scarecrow, The Wicked Symphony, and Angel of Babylon forming The Wicked Trilogy Avantasia have been steadily maintaining their aforementioned style for the past ten years, with ups and downs in terms of success. I'm a huge fan of the new style much more than their old one, but with the release of Ghostlights it felt like they were beginning to run out of steam with no real alternative, since the project at this point is cemented to inevitably contain the same ideas fans have come to expect. I was apprehensive but excited coming into Moonglow and it turned out to be the increase in quality that Avantasia has desperately needed.
Moonglow is the most complete package Avantasia has ever released and while it treads on mostly familiar ground it is performed in superior fashion in every way. Although the similarities to The Wicked Trilogy and Ghostlights are there, Moonglow is much more theatrical and varied, barely using any blatant Avantasia or Power Metal clichés that have dragged down their albums in the past. Each song is memorable in its own unique way and sometimes are straight up better versions of past songs. Some tracks, namely "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn", "Requiem for a Dream", and "Starlight", do employ the overused and generic Power Metal riff that's impossible to get away from, but these tracks have so many other interesting aspects that the dull guitar work sometimes aids in providing a solid backing to these other parts. The impressive composition work that Sammet has done in this album for tracks like "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" and "The Raven Child" use these sometimes generic rhythms to build to meaningful climaxes, creating some of the most powerful moments Avantasia has to offer. Even the "filler" tracks have exciting and unique elements like the infectious synth rhythm in "Starlight" and the string-forward and hook-laden chorus of "Lavender". Either through maturity with the project or through pure chance, Moonglow is able to take everything that was successful about Avantasia and perfect it. The continuity of the project also shines through with Moonglow continuing many themes and topics from The Wicked Trilogy as well as using many of the same characters. Although the story may not be entirely coherent, I still think it adds just enough flair to the lyrics to go along with the larger than life Avantasia production.
Much of the Avantasia experience, at least for me, is enjoying some of the best vocalists in metal performing together under one roof. Although the lineup has gone through some changes from Ghostlights, Moonglow is still absolutely star-studded with Geoff Tate (Queensrÿche), Ronnie Atkins (Pretty Maids), Mille Petrozza (Kreator), Michael Kiske (Helloween), Bob Cately (Magnum), Candice Night (Blackmore's Night), Eric Martin, Jorn Lande, and my personal favorite, Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian). Each vocalist is used very well and the tracks that feature multiple of them such as "Book of Shallows" and "The Raven Child" have some of the strongest vocal performances in Avantasia's history. Candice Night's duet with Sammet in "Moonglow" provides some necessary diversity and becomes extremely catchy even though it's one of the weaker tracks on the album. Even though most of these guest vocalists sing in similar styles, it's still very difficult to use all of them effectively without songs feeling bloated or pandering and Sammet has finally found the sweet spot with controlling the talent that he brings into the studio. Hansi's performance on "The Raven Child" is one I won't soon forget and is made more special in that he is only used in a few select parts throughout the album, making his appearances very effective.
The worst part about Moonglow is that it was so, so close to being a flawless Avantasia release. If the bonus track "Heart" is included (personally for it is), the fact that the second to last track is a cover of Michael Sembello's "Maniac" is jarring and overall confusing. Sammet had said in an interview that choosing to close Moonglow with "Maniac" was out of pure love for the song, but I don't think he should have let that cloud his judgement. Although it would have easily been the weakest track on the album, "Heart" serves as a better closer following "Requiem for a Dream" than the "Maniac" cover does. Besides, if there was going to be a bonus track from the beginning, "Maniac" would have fit that bill perfectly as an awesome extra track for the other editions of the album. But alas, even though "Maniac" is a perfectly fine cover by itself, I can't agree with the decision to have it be the finale of an otherwise tremendous album.
Genres: Power Metal Symphonic Metal
Halfheartedly Entering Hel
Týr's Hel is my first introduction to the Faroese Progressive Folk Metal band, and while certainly more unique than most Folk Metal bands that are rooted more in Death/Black Metal, they lack a bit of character and spice to keep Hel's 70 minute run time interesting.
Týr forgoes the common warlike, aggressive, and guttural style of most viking/folk metals bands like Ensiferum, Månegarm, and Skálmöld for a cleaner and more melodic sound more focused on composition rather than straight chug or death/black metal riffing. It even sounds symphonic at certain points due to the folk influences, but I wouldn't really call Hel a Folk Metal album; those moments are very few and far between. Being more Progressive Metal focused, the instrumental sections are extremely tight and great sounding, with a more fantastical, celebratory, and victorious sound throughout the album. They use harmonized vocals a lot, almost in every single track, which is a neat touch that sounds good for their style, but it gets tiring after a while especially since the opening track, "Gates of Hel", shows that their lead singer has the pipes to carry some of these sections on his own in an awesome way.
And that's the biggest issue with Hel for me: the length. I love how this band sounds, but after 30 minutes in nothing really stood out to me other than the opening track. They have some good melodies here and there, some memorable riffs and choruses, but nothing exceptional. After a while I forgot that I was technically listening to a Folk Metal album, which is a shame because it felt like they could have cashed out on that feel way more. "Gates of Hel" is the obvious standout, and "Sunset Shore" is the only ballad-like song to break up the recurring tempos and song style. Hel loses its spirit halfway in for me, even though I'll be going back to it to get my Progressive Viking Metal fix. I'll have to check out some of their earlier works, which are apparently more story/theme focused.
Genres: Power Metal
I've always thought that Power Metal is one of the most important genres in metal. Amidst the brutal, death laden, austere compositions of various genres of metal, Power Metal showcases the simpler things in life: pirates drinking rum, countless references to Lord of the Rings and other fantasy landmarks, and, in Gloryhammer's case, over the top science fiction. I'm of the belief that metal as a whole takes itself a little too seriously sometimes, so albums like Legends From Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex help to balance out that seriousness with their tales of inter-dimensional travel, galactic conquest, and jet-packs made of "cosmic steel". Power Metal can a silly, over the top, cheesy as hell genre for sure, but learning to wield that cheese like an all-powerful enchanted hammer can lead to something that's extremely enjoyable and entertaining.
The music itself is standard power metal fare with extra steps taken to ensure a lofty, more cheese filled experience, but Gloryhammer hits all the clichés boldly and with confidence. The tempos are high, the drums are driving, the guitar lines are assuredly similar to every other power metal album you've heard, and the orchestra and synths add that comical final layer to the epic space fantasy. Gloryhammer's vocalist does a great job with what he's given, and manages to make even the silliest of lines sound sincere. That being said, the names they've decided to go with are still hilarious, with Angus McFife being part of the Hootsforce (Hail Hoots) fighting the evil Zargothrax. Whether that adds or takes away from the album is up to you, but Gloryhammer pulls it off better than other similar bands.
As silly as it is, what makes Legends From Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex stand out is the story. In my experience, a lot of these sort of albums like to pretend their telling a story but most of the album is nonsensical and not cohesive in the slightest. Gloryhammer does a fantastic job of actually telling a story that has a beginning, middle, and end, and follows normal storytelling metrics. Amazing what happens when you put a little bit of effort into world-building and have your songs outline events in chronological order. The story is also easily understood with the very first listen, which is another huge plus. Legends From Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex isn't a marvel of storytelling and most of these ideas have been done before, I still have to give it credit for successfully building a compelling world with somewhat compelling plot elements. Listening to this has really made me want to go and listen to their first two albums to get the full story.
This is just an incredibly fun album through and through. If you can get past the cheese and nerdiness, there's great Power Metal songwriting and performances on pretty much every track. Although I have nothing but praise for this album, it's still another formulaic Power Metal album that is a little too silly for its own good. So, as a critic, I have to give it a lower score than what it's probably worth. As a metal music listener, though, I'm going to be recommending this for quite a while.
Genres: Power Metal
Drop Into The Deep
When I saw Evergrey came out with The Atlantic, I knew I had listened to them before, but I couldn't for the life of me remember what they sounded like. I pretty much threw them to the side as "just another power/prog metal band" until I checked out this album.
The Atlantic is absolutely stellar. Evergrey opts for more drop tuning and heavier, hammering riffs rather than the normal thrashy/power metal fare and it works very well to paint the picture that The Atlantic tries to portray; a merciless and deadly ocean. While I'm not much for looking up lyrics to get the entire story told by the album, I can say that The Atlantic is very cohesive in its musical elements and styles that persist throughout the album. It sounds like a complete, well thought out package.
Every riff on The Atlantic is very well done, being memorable but still engaging. This was my first time really critiquing Evergrey's vocalist, but he hits that sweet spot between a progressive and power metal vocalist, having the power to really drive the melody but still having enough range to properly pivot to the ballad-like "All I Have". The heaviness of the guitar, the better-than-average bass lines, the strong vocalist, and the fair mix of progressive elements like piano, synth, and other sound effects give The Atlantic a sound I can't get enough of. Especially the piano flourishes on "Weightless".
The album is broken up with a few slower ballads like "All I Have" and "Departure", but these are still very engaging. These short breaks keep the rest of the album driving forward without growing dull. The prog solos leave something to be desired for sure, but even weak songs like "Departure" have something unique about them (the opening bass line). Extremely solid release from these guys, they never deviate from the theme of the album and bring plenty of memorable riffs and tracks to the table.
Genres: Progressive Metal
The Awkward Stage
As I've been continuing to parse through my classic Black Metal homework, the stretch between Bathory's Blood Fire Death (1988) and the explosion of Black Metal starting around 1994 has become more and more strange to me. While I find I consistently enjoy the heavily Thrash-adjacent material of the late 80's and the more modern style of Black Metal of the mid-90's, this experimental phase that groups like Master's Hammer were a part of seems to rub me the wrong way. Albums that are right smack in the middle of an evolution between multiple influences have frequently won me over in big ways, but it seems like the initial evolution of Black Metal misses that mark for me. Even though Ritual has a ton of interesting and unique sounds and ideas, I can't help but think the whole thing comes across as awkward no matter how many chances I give it.
Ritual's defining aspect is easily the vocals, as they're some of the most inhuman and chilling wails I've heard. While I can appreciate some seriously raw Black Metal, the novelty of Štorm's performance wears pretty thin by the time I get to "Jáma pekel" despite the impressive effects he's able to achieve on "Každý z nás...!". Considering how ghoulish his vocals sounds its incredible how Master's Hammer is able to compose any sort of instrumental melody around him, but they manage to do so with varying results. Ritual is an early Black Metal medley that hints at ideas that would become staples for the genre in the years to come, but miss the mark here. "Géniové..." is the most obvious with the creepy, atmospheric choir and slower melodic riffs giving the whole thing a more gothic and theatrical feel even though Master's Hammer stumbles through the strange syncopated rhythms that don't exactly pan out.
The rest of Ritual falls somewhere in-between the experimental "Géniové..." and the blast-beat ridden "Jáma pekel", with the self-titled track "Ritual" being a pretty solid instrumental addition. I can't complain at all about the riffs since each track has a nice balance of chaotic versus melodic passages that keep the transitions fresh and interesting. The solos are also quite good, with "Černá svatozář" having a very notable one. They sometimes bite off more than they can chew with some of the more precise interactions between the riffs, drumming, and vocal melodies though, leading to something that sounds admittedly evil and unchained but a bit clumsy in places.
I can absolutely appreciate what these guys were going for at the time and it's exciting to hear the beginning of theatrical elements like a more expansive background choir and classical instruments like the occasional timpani. These small but meaningful additions really help to move Ritual away from the fiery and thrashy lo-fi beginnings of Black Metal into a slightly more refined product that is still suitably chaotic. Even though I listened to Ritual enough to come around to hearing the interesting genre progressions it offers, I still can't shake the feeling that it comes across as just plain awkward as a whole. The vocals have some impressive shock factor but really grate against the rest of the production, especially on tracks like "Géniové...". Even though Master's Hammer were able to further the Black Metal sound in their own individual fashion, the middle ground they created lacks the experience of later Black Metal but doesn't have the same unbridled aggression of genre's origins.
Genres: Black Metal
Ever since I first heard Lykaia a few years ago, Soen have been one of my personal favorite bands in the more accessible realm of Progressive / Alternative Metal, with their obvious hybridization of Opeth and Tool tendencies not bothering me whatsoever. Obviously ex-Opeth drummer Martin Lopez had a lot to do with this, but I still thought they brought something new and exciting with their instrumental formula and powerful vocalist. While Imperial is very much more of the same, it shows an important continuation from their 2019 album Lotus with Soen fully settling into their preferred sound style. I've personally been waiting for these guys to find their own niche ever since I first heard them, so I thought that Imperial would be incredibly exciting for me, but the direction that they decided to press on in left me a bit disappointed.
Imperial starts out incredibly strong and had me very excited since "Lumerian" is exactly the kind of material I want out of Soen. An amazing opening riff followed by some solid transitions with punchy double-kicks and a more aggressive than usual vocal performance from Joel Eckelöf, with someone even adding some harshes in the background for a great effect before a nice chug riff. If this was only the first song I couldn't wait for what else Soen had in store given the newfound clarity in their direction. Sadly after the by-the-numbers "Deceiver" and the strong single "Monarch" they don't offer much that comes close to the opener. The mix becomes very modern Alternative Metal-like, with the drums having less punch as they fade back into the guitars to create a pretty boring and uniform sound that takes way too much of a backseat for my tastes. While I think it works wonderfully on "Monarch", it leaves much to be desired from other songs like "Antagonist" and "Modesty", with "Modesty" being especially rough around the edges.
The slightly lifeless instrumentals during verses and choruses means that Eckelöf is thrust into the spotlight for most of the album and while he does a great job with his powerful and slightly somber tone, the writing and repetitiveness of his lines wears thin after a while. He definitely pours his soul into it as Imperial might be his most varied performance to date, but the album leans on him way too much for my liking, even though I really like his performances on "Lumerian" and "Monarch". "Illusion" and "Fortune", the slower ballads of the album, don't hold up in any capacity for me, as much as Eckelöf tries. "Illusion" especially sounds like a B-Side rehash of tracks like "Lotus" or the slow parts of "God's Acre" from Lykaia. They add in some strings here and there to decent effect, so that's one progression of their sound that I'm looking forward to in the future, especially since Soen as a whole has been moving in a less heavy and aggressive direction.
It's hard to be upset at Imperial though, since it's far from being a bad record and Soen have been giving fans what they expect for 3 straight albums now. All the riffs are still great, even though they lose some spice during the vocal verses and choruses. It's becoming apparent that every Soen song is just a slight permutation of another one, and while it works for me because I like their overall sound, it's starting to wear a bit thin since by moving away from the more progressive and complex tendencies they had on their previous albums the formula becomes less engaging. "Monarch" is the highlight for what Soen's new style can do with its anthemic feel while retaining slightly more complex songwriting and heavy hitting riffs, even though I prefer the "Lumerian" style. In the end Imperial is another solid offering that will undoubtedly appeal to a wide audience thanks to its accessibility, but it's beginning to alienate the listeners who loved the more progressive side of Soen's earlier material.
Genres: Progressive Metal
I don’t often find myself returning to this breed of grindy Technical Death Metal after what’s normally an interesting but swift perusal, but it looks like 2021 is already full of surprises. One-person Black Metal productions are something I’m all too used to, but I can’t say I’ve heard of too many singular-member Tech Death projects. That alone is pretty impressive to me since most of Dark Arms Reach Skyward With Bone White Fingers is relentless Tech Death with furious drumming and an array of different styles of harsh vocals throughout. Normally this sort of style rolls right off of me; I’ve found I prefer the thrashier side of Technical Extreme Metal rather than the grindier Deathcore side, but Anna Pest is able to bring a certain brand of likeable absurdity to an already admittedly absurd meshing of extreme metal genres.
Due to my general distaste towards the exorbitantly heavy realms of extreme metal where melodies and song progressions are afterthoughts, there’s plenty of sections that make my eyes roll a bit. The more brutal Death Metal inspired vocals in “If You’re Going to Do It, Do It Now” and the short stretch of songs towards the end, consisting of “Reaping the Flesh of Zeruel” to “Love is Destructive” are definitely not my thing, but Anna Pest never exactly goes over the edge in terms of brutality, with these sections coming and going extremely quickly thanks to the shorter song lengths. Instead, they sit right on a strange edge between blistering, unpredictably intense riffing and curious, melodically technical parts that have much more to them than just heavy chugging. That being said, the constant swapping between these ideas lead to some of the most absurd sections I’ve heard in a while.
While Anna Pest dips into insanely heavy riffing in tracks like “Despoiled by the Light of God” and “Thundering Angel”, I can’t say that these sorts of riffs do much for me overall. “Swordmaiden”, however, is a different story. It has a slightly more Deathcore styled edge and the fleeting but absolutely massive breakdown chug riff halfway through the track always makes me crack a smile every single time I hear it. It’s so down-tuned, so heavy, and so absurdly ridiculous that I can’t help but love it. These small but noticeable moments are peppered in throughout Dark Arms Reach Skyward… and help to give the album a unique and noticeable identity, especially on the whiplash-inducing “Skyward” and the 11-minute closer. The clean vocals and complete tonal shift of “Skyward” come utterly out of nowhere after 9 minutes of aggressive Tech Death and remind me of some sort of anime closing theme, for better or worse. It makes some sort of sense since this album seems to be influenced by anime in some way, considering the art for "Swordmaiden" and I presume some nods to Evangelion after doing a bit of research. The clean vocals and even a sax make an appearance in the back half of “Of the Black Moon and the Red Earth”, which adds an atmospheric and laid back layer to the many other styles on this album.
Dark Arms Reach Skyward… is an interesting case for me, since it’s varied enough that it keeps my interest but still has plenty of sections that I can’t really condone. There’s a great dynamic between the chopped up, short tracks that flow seamlessly from one to the next and the 11-minute epic that relies on actual song progression rather than jumping from one idea to the next. It really does help pull the album’s scattered concepts into a cohesive finale, although I’m still not sure why “How Disgusting” was tacked on at the end. Some of the spoken word sections and vocal effects and styles come off as unnecessary, but I was never a huge fan of vomiting, guttural growls to begin with. All that being said, I do think this album has a ton of creativity and leans into the absurdity of its variety in a really fun way. The riffs and transitions are solid, there’s a huge assortment of harsh vocal styles for extreme metal fans to dig their teeth into, and while the Tech Deathgrind chug can get to be a bit much at times, the end of the album pulls it all together better than I anticipated.
Genres: Death Metal Grindcore Metalcore
Opus Nocturne is a ripping but unexpectedly controlled and slightly atmospheric album from second wave Swedish Black Metal band Marduk that left me with some mixed feelings at the end of it all. As a band who eased themselves into Black Metal through their previous two records Dark Endless and Those of the Unlight, they decided to fully unleash the aggression and grime on this one, pushing new drummer Fredrik Andersson to the absolute edge and forgoing a more balanced old school mix for one that has less pronounced guitars but a more sinister and epic feel. Even though Opus Nocturne tries to balance itself out with chuggier, more plodding tracks like "Materialized in Stone", the appeal inevitably comes from the unrelenting torrents of blast beats and classic Black Metal chord progressions that sometimes feel a bit too watered down for their own good. So even though the slower and more atmospheric sections are few and far between, they make up most of the highlights for me on Opus Nocturne thanks to incredibly well written transitions and slower, chunky riffing.
Marduk does manage to forge a connection between cleaner, slower parts and raging tremolo riffing that feels much more natural than other epic Black Metal albums at the time, with the transitions in "Sulphur Souls" and "Untrodden Paths" being brilliant and satisfying. Even though some of their repeating riffs put me to sleep after a while, especially since most of the rhythms and melodies felt recycled towards the end of the record. Andersson's drumming tends to accent the same sort of rhythm throughout Opus Nocturne's entirety, so it's not too surprising that the whole affair starts to blend together by the time I reach "The Sun Has Failed". All of that considered, though, I came around to the pernicious wickedness that this album tries to convey, with vocalist Jaokim Af Gravf giving a harrowing performance that refuses to ease up for any amount of time.
The monotony of this album really wore me down, with big, epic build-ups and crescendos ending in the same old riff over and over again. Marduk certainly know how to structure their songs in interesting ways that keeps the evil atmosphere intact, but I was never wowed by any of the riffs themselves. Most of them are only one bar in length and while there's enough variance and subtle progressions as each song goes along, I can't help but go numb to it all after a while. The drumming also doesn't help this case, as impressive and well-placed as it is. I actually really like how all the percussion is tonally placed, with the bass drum sounding solid and slightly cutting through the rest of the mix without letting the blast beats not completely take over each track. Even still, Andersson's relentless performance alongside the sometimes elementary riffing wore me down to a point where I somewhat dreaded every transition back into aggressive Black Metal riffing. It's a shame because he has a hell of a performance on this album, with every crash cymbal being expertly placed and his fills to transition out of slower sections being incredibly addicting.
Opus Nocturne may be considered a forgotten gem in the midst of 90's Black Metal revival, but it's not necessarily a forgone classic for me. Marduk has some great ideas and a killer, classic feel, but they fall a bit flat on staying interesting through the entire runtime of the album. I'm sure that diehard fans of the classic Black Metal sound will be returning to this release as Marduk's standout alongside Those of the Unlight, but it doesn't leave me with many standout impressions compared to other Black Metal releases at the time. Still a welcome and sinister addition to multitude of fantastic and relentlessly aggressive classic Black Metal albums.
Genres: Black Metal
Power Metal was suspiciously absent during most of 2020, with almost no big or upcoming names dropping any sort of outstanding albums. Falconer and DGM had albums that thoroughly impressed me, but I'd consider their styles to be Power Metal adjacent instead of what you'd come to expect from the genre. So as the year wound down, I stumble upon a rather suggestive US Power Metal sophomore offering from Texas' Eternal Champion, a band that showed they are determined to keep 80's Power Metal alive and kicking. From the punchy, gallant galloping riffs to the uniquely controlled vocal performance, and not to forget the well-oiled abs of the cover art, their 2016 debut The Armor of Ire showed immense promise and gave classic Power Metal fans something to sink their teeth into since it was so traditional. While The Armor of Ire is a good album in its own right, 80's Power Metal worship isn't exactly my preferred kind of classic metal, so I was pleased to hear that Ravening Iron wasn't just a repeat of their debut, but a full on evolution of their sound into something that fits my tastes much, much better.
Much of that taste is centered around riffs, and Ravening Iron delivers more than anyone could ask for. A few tracks like "War at the Edge of the End" and "Worms of the Earth" reproduce some of the more classic, galloping triplets that were so prevalent in their previous album, but the rest of the album is just one killer riff after another. Eternal Champion lean into a fuller, louder, and more vigorous production style that really helps to drive home the amazing riff writing in this album. Gone are the faster paced gallops, replaced with chunky, mid-tempo chug riffs that have more extended melodies than the usual Power Metal fare. "A Face in the Glare" immediately gives the listener a taste of the kind of riff style you'll expect throughout the album alongside driving drums and a very warm and rich bass foundation. As I'm sure most metal fans know, there's some sort of intrinsic instinct that lets any listener know how hard a riff goes, even though they couldn't begin to explain the music theory behind why one riff hits harder than another. I sometimes wish I took more music theory to mathematically deduce what makes some riffs rock harder than others, but on the other hand there's something pure about being a fan of music and hearing something that you just know goes extremely hard. For me, I instantly got that feeling on almost every riff in this album, whether it was the scratchy "Ravening Iron", the chug of "Skullseeker", or the epic downtempo "Coward's Keep". This album hits me just right when it comes to chuggy Power Metal riffing thanks to the cleaner and more pushed forward mixing.
Eternal Champion stands out in more than just riffing though, with a unique vocal performance that treads a line between spoken shouts and epic Power Metal delivery that I haven’t really heard before. Jason Tarpey’s higher pitched but rock-solid vocal timbre at first sounds extremely unenthused and not the greatest for something like Power Metal, but as the album progresses it becomes clear that the band knows how to use his vocal style to amazing effect. Even though his delivery can seem lackadaisical during certain sections like the chorus of “Ravening Iron” and portions of “Worms of the Earth”, there’s something about how the reverbed vocal lines work together with the riffs that elevate them away from simple spoken word territory. Once I got more acquainted with the album it became clearer how much personality Tarpey is able to put into his voice, especially with the background screams and flourishes that are hidden behind the riffs. I think Eternal Champion’s formula and vocal choices are some of the best that I’ve heard out of US Power Metal, fitting the more gritty and barbaric fantasy that the subgenre tends to focus on. That classic, more “realistic” fantasy atmosphere is well conveyed too, with small synth flourishes and more dramatic moments like the beginning and end of “Coward’s Keep” thrown in there.
Since I’m not the biggest fan of classic US Power Metal, Ravening Iron impressed me so much more than The Armor of Ire thanks to its chuggy tendencies, improved songwriting, and better album structure. Ravening Iron has the perfect mix of quick, galloping riffs to offset the relentless chug and does a better job placing its instrumental break, with “The Godblade” being a neat atmospheric intro to “Banners of Arhai”. As someone who has always preferred the European style of Power Metal for many, many years, Eternal Champion have managed to win me over with their more classic and down to earth approach. The replay value on this record has been insane, with the progressions and payoffs of each riff never getting old since everything is so well written. Even the solos are concise but memorable and exciting. If anything, Ravening Iron is a bit too short coming in at only 7 tracks and 1 interlude, but at the same time having a filler track or two may have ruined the experience. I can’t imagine what their third album is going to be like if they continue to improve their craft, since I’m going to be returning to Ravening Iron anytime I need my classic Power Metal riff fix.
Genres: Heavy Metal
DGM is a band that's been having quite the run over the past 15 years after a pretty rocky history. Although the band is named after the three founding members (Diego, Gianfranco, and Maurizio), it turns out none of them are a part of the group anymore, with Maurizio Pariotti being the last to leave in 2003. I always found it strange how the DGM name continued to live on through the initial exodus, but the band has been tightly knit since, sporting the same lineup since their 2009 release Frame. Although they're far from a household name in Progressive Metal, their consistently solid output since Frame caught my attention and they eventually made me into a fan with their 2016 album The Passage. It goes to show that having a consistent lineup can really do wonders for a band's output, considering DGM's 1990's and early 2000's material was considerably rough. Tragic Separation shows that the band wasn't done with what they started in The Passage, with it mostly being a direct continuation of similar sounds and ideas from 4 years ago.
Even though I'd consider DGM to be a Progressive Metal act, their last two albums have shown them opting for an energetic, Power Metal-esque backdrop to all of their technical playing. Even though the tracks have more extended song structures and more complex riffing than your average Power Metal fare, their music stays grounded enough to not feel randomly disjointed. This straightforward approach works wonders for someone like me who, even though I enjoy a great deal of Progressive Metal, got tired of the tangential and aimless transitions that can plague the genre. Tragic Separation gets straight to the point with fast and precise riffing, great vocals and hooks, and impressive features from the band as a whole. They've really perfected The Passage's style on this one, making each song sound so aggressive in a lively way rather than a dark way. It was seriously apparent how much better their songwriting has gotten after I went back to The Passage after enjoying this album so much. Even though I still really enjoy their previous release, it's obvious how much more comfortable they are in Tragic Separation as the song lengths are more drawn out without losing any amount of energy or spice.
In many ways DGM fill a niche of Progressive Metal that has been getting lost over the years with bands like Symphony X and modern Fates Warning slowing down in recent years or losing some of their quality. Full steam ahead songwriting without any of the progressive fluff is something that I keep coming back to about this band, but it can't be overstated how well I think it works for them. Vocalist Mark Basile is able to belt out some seriously catchy melodies that keep up with the rest of the intricate playing but never overshadows what's going on in the background. While the instruments have some heft to their tone, everything feels light, precise, and feel-good, which is pretty unique for this kind of style. The solos are well performed too, being impressive but never drag on for too long. The shorter orchestral interludes like in the beginning of "Tragic Separation" are a welcome addition to add some much needed variety and sound great, fitting right in place with the overall feel of the album.
As much as I enjoyed this album, I have to admit that that you really have to like DGM's style to get the most out of Tragic Separation. In many ways the album is ten renditions of the same track, with their formula not deviating all too much. That being said, I dig their formula so this time around that it didn't matter much for me, but I can see it being a bit of a slog if this isn't the exact style that you're looking for. DGM are a talented group of musicians that struck gold with their repetitive ideas this time around, with great riff after great riff and a multitude of catchy choruses to choose from, but if you're looking for something challenging or overly complex, you'll probably have to look elsewhere. For me, though, Tragic Separation is an insanely fun album with its free-wheeling melodies and never-ending energy.
Genres: Progressive Metal
The Penmanship of Permanence, Scrawled With the Colour of Imperialist Rome Within Thee 97rd Page of Melodious Splendour
I wasn't really sure what to think when I saw this album title flash by as I scrolled through the pages and pages of Metal albums I had missed this year. One thing was for certain; I just had to listen to it. Much to my surprise, this might be one of the most charming Black Metal releases to come out of 2020. With a name like The Night of the Ambush and the Pillage by the Queen Ann Styl'd Furniture, Animated by One of the Dozen or So Spells That Thee Eastern Vampyre Has Studied I wasn't expecting too serious of a project from the mysterious Old Nick, and while I was right to assume that, I can't lie and say this isn't some genuine lo-fi Black Metal. Old Nick have come out of nowhere in 2020, releasing a ton of demos and EP's starting in the spring of 2020 and eventually releasing their first full album Forest of Grief at the end of April. Forest of Grief sets up many of the elements shown on this release, but the feel and production is completely different, with the latter going for an extremely pushed back lo-fi Black Metal experience with some killer riffs and cool dungeon synth integration. While I enjoyed Forest of Grief their second album, released about 6 months later is...something else entirely.
The Night of the Ambush... is inconsiderately loud in comparison to Forest of Grief and much, much stranger. Old Nick's first album planted itself firmly within normal lo-fi Black Metal worship, but this album bursts out of its confines and runs completely wild. Honestly, I sometimes don't even know what's happening in some of these tracks. And that's what makes it pretty fantastic. The Dungeon Synth element is extremely pronounced in this one compared to Forest of Grief, creating a bizarre but sinister Victorian-era impression that I can't say I've heard before. It creates such a demented contrast since most of these effects are happy and triumphant sounding. All kinds of different distorted synths, strings, what I can only imagine is some kind of harpsichord, and an assortment of other noises that I can't even discern come out of nowhere to push their own melodies on top of the ripping Black Metal riffs behind them. The riffing is satisfyingly low quality and aggressive and, somehow, it feels right at home beside all the crazy effects happening all around it. The drums carry on the standard Black Metal blast beat but never overdo it, helping to somehow keep everything grounded. The riff writing is also pretty fantastic, even if it may be a bit simple. These are some of the grimmest and most blistering lo-fi Black Metal riffs I've heard in quite some time, even when they're being played behind whatever strange waltz of instruments decides to pop up. The vocals also sit successfully right in the middle of the mix, filling in any possible empty spaces with reverbed howls that sound suitably painful.
It's just incredible how flat out strange this album is. One moment there's an intense Black Metal riff taking over the stage, the next moment a marching band passes through while the vocalist is still howling away in the background. The whole album is just an unhinged mess of insane things happening in some sort of sequence that eventually just ends, leaving the listener in the dust trying to make heads or tails of what just happened. After the initial shock wore off, I came back to this album impressed with how well this idea was executed compared to Forest of Grief, with this album having way more variety in a more concise but crazy package. It also makes me happy that bands are still trying to work within the Dungeon Synth angle of Black Metal because, for some reason, it works incredibly well when done right. Old Nick have burst into the scene with an incredible amount of lo-fi content that feels astonishingly fresh given its inherently dated nature. Plus, it's just a hell of a lot of fun.
Genres: Black Metal
Rips (But Does Not Tear)
Videogame Original Sound Tracks (OST's) have always been a sticking point for me for multiple reasons, the paramount one being OST's are meant to be experienced alongside the act of playing the game that it accompanies. When you create music or sounds for a game it can't overpower what your character or the enemies are doing, since that would lead to confusing and frustrating gameplay. Trying to rate and talk about one of the most revered and ripping modern OST's feels incomplete without controlling the Doom Slayer himself, but despite being two hours long Mick Gordon's collection of 31 tracks with a few excerpts from codec entries holds up rather well by itself. Just to be clear, the 4.5 out of 5 rating refers to this OST as part of the DOOM 2016 package, which is no doubt phenomenal, but this review will look at the music as if the game never existed, which is a tough sell but it's something I wanted to try.
At it's core the DOOM OST has two different styles, a Djent-y heavy metal style and a dark industrial electronic style. Fitting, since DOOM definitely only has two speeds, maiming demons or walking to the next area where you're maiming demons. The Djent-Industrial Metal is heavy and well done, with the chugging rhythms taking the spotlight rather than notes or melodies. "Rip & Tear", "BFG Division", and "SkullHacker" pound into your head with the brutal aggressiveness that DOOM is known for with down-tuned guitar, blasting bass drum, and white noise cymbals. The cymbal sound effects are especially interesting because the the constant white noise during the chug riffs make the silence in-between other riffs way more impactful, giving certain sections that weighted heaviness that DOOM requires. The syncopation of the riffs is also an extremely important concept that Gordon is able to nail, with the second half of "Rust, Dust and Guts" exemplifying this. The album as a whole is obviously very loud and in your face, but does a great job of volume control and is mixed very well so that everything is audible even in the loudest of sections in "BFG Division" and "Mastermind". Since a lot of the sounds are heavily doctored by Gordon in post the drums and guitar have the exact amount of impact they need, with the drums especially having just the right amount of echo and sustain to keep the chug riffs driving. The atmospheric sections are a blend of story-driven monologues behind sweeping synths or long, drawn out orchestral sections. These atmospheric sections serve as the calm before the storm and are surprisingly varied in their use of unique sound effects to keep it somewhat interesting. Most of the time, though, these tracks serve as a waiting room until the next heavy, riff based track hits.
In terms of video game OST's DOOM is easily one of the most cohesive and tailored to the experience that DOOM provides, but as a 2 hour album experience it's just too much. After multiple listens many of the tracks are throwaways, especially the more atmospheric ones. "Rip & Tear" serves as the first and best looks at the industrial heaviness of DOOM, but it does such a good job of cramming everything the rest of the album is going to do into one 4 minute track that everything proceeding it sounds a bit redundant. For the heavy tracks; "Rip & Tear", "BFG Division", "Cyberdemon", "Skullhacker", and "Mastermind" will give you everything you could want out of this album, with the rest being quite redundant or drawn out. "Hellwalker", "Transistor Fist", "Vega Core", and "Flesh & Metal" don't hold up comparatively with their more electronic-focused and less groove-based riffs. Between these highlights are the atmospheric sections, which get really old really fast considering there are so many of them. Even though I knew that DOOM takes place on Mars and in Hell and is all about fighting off the demon horde, I can't say I ever got "Hell" or "Demons" from the feel of all these atmospheric tracks. Most of the time I was thinking "Space" or "Extraterrestrial", which is absolutely part of the game but not necessarily what DOOM's focus is, which is ripping demons in half. The monologues of "Dogma", "Demigod", "Dakhma", and "Doom" help to reorient the mental picture a bit and are great uses of the game's lore to provide some background as to what the OST is trying to portray, but they are few and far between on this 2 hour excursion. I would have preferred either a few more of them or the existing ones to be chopped up into smaller sections so they could pop up more often throughout the album to help keep the listener engaged and help to tell the story.
Overall, Mick Gordon's DOOM OST is just filled with too much DOOM. While viciously aggressive and industrially heavy it turns out to be too much of a good thing, with certain tracks feeling redundant and dragging on for too long with repetitive ideas. Each slow buildup into another chugging, almost one-note riff feels the same, each slow atmospheric calm feels the same, and after becoming familiar with all 2 hours of the OST there are so many tracks that just aren't needed. Even the closer, "Mastermind", is kind of outclassed by "Rip & Tear" and "SkullHacker" with its use of actual game sounds of the assault rifle. Not the best way to end an album of this length if one of the first songs is better than the very last one. If this OST had released with a few less atmospheric songs, maybe shortened some of the longer more repetitive tracks, and had taken out some of the less necessary portions, it maybe would have been a bit more bearable at a 1 hour length. As I said before, the 4.5 out of 5 is for DOOM being one of the most complete and immersive OST's that really feels tailored exactly to the game's experience. But as a standalone product it's extremely redundant and long-winded, and the two well executed styles of dark atmospheric electronic and industrial metal start to lose a bit of their sheen after the hour mark of this demon murdering symphony.
Genres: Industrial Metal
Beauty Through Redemption
Thunder in the Mountains was one of the first albums that made it onto my 2020 listening rotation when it released almost a year ago now, much to my surprise. I had randomly stumbled upon Dzö-nga a few years ago, hearing their 2017 album The Sachem's Tales and feeling extremely unimpressed. Their new offering is like night and day though, taking the faint ideas that I can barely remember from The Sachem's Tales and creating a compelling and gorgeous set of songs that exist in a unique middle ground between being folky but atmospheric. While there are atmospheric ideas and choices present throughout the album, like during the female-fronted verses and instrumental sections of "The Death of Minnehaha" and "The Song of Hiawatha", the album on the whole is still very riff, melody, and chorus focused. Even though all the elements of Thunder in the Mountains seem to point to the expectation of the listener getting lost in a folky, Native American themed landscape, that's not exactly what it accomplishes, and I think that's part of the charm.
With Atmospheric Black Metal and a lot of Folk Metal being dominated by a few select styles from a few select regions of the world, it's been a breath of fresh air to hear different styles of sound and instrument choice surfacing a bit more in 2020. With Kataayra's two 2020 albums showcasing a more temperate, muggy atmosphere with tribal influences, Dzö-nga follows suit with a less cold and despair-ridden sound in favor of a warm, inviting, but still heavy sound that utilizes a ton of plucky acoustic guitars, smooth strings, and high pitched flutes. The flutes and the occasional piano carry the brunt of the melodies during the instrumental sections, showcased instantly during the chorus of the opener "The Song of Hiawatha". Even though the guitar and drums are more often than not playing rather generic Black Metal background fare, there's still a plethora of great riffs and solos that come and go as the songs progress. The pinnacle riff towards the middle of "The Death Of Minnehaha" is a fantastic and memorable way to close out the album, showing that this album has more tricks up its sleeve than just pure atmosphere. I found the songwriting and overall flow of the longer tracks to be great as well, with "The Death Of Minnehaha" pulling a clever reprise of the original acoustic riff that was used on "The Song Of Hiawatha". The way each of these longer songs progress is incredibly satisfying to me, bouncing between airy female and harsh male vocals as well as Folk-carried atmospheric sections and hard-hitting Metal sections.
The middle of the album is much more forgettable than the two bookends, unfortunately. "Heart Of Coal" reuses the same elements in a slightly more condensed package and has an interesting instrumental ending but just feels less potent than the rest of the album. "Flames in the Sky" and "A Soul To Burn" are remarkably chorus-focused, being borderline catchy with noteworthy melodies from the vocals and the flutes or violins after the choruses. "Starlight, Moonlight, Firelight" mostly serves as an intro to "The Death Of Minnehaha" but I still really enjoyed seeing how pretty Dzö-nga can make their formula. Thunder in the Mountains just hits that sweet spot of catchy folk instrumentation with well written percussion and background riffs that occasionally hit extremely hard. The vocals hold it back though, with the harsh vocals sounding a bit tight and out of place, and the female vocals sounding a little one-note and possibly even too relaxed at times. Some of the more generic sections go on for a bit too long too, especially in the middle portion of the album, with "Heart Of Coal" and "Flames in the Sky" just existing for the most part.
Faults aside, Thunder in the Mountains is a unique take on a folky and slightly atmospheric Black Metal album that centers loosely around Native American culture. I think that warmer sounding Black Metal has its place in the genre moving forward and even though I'm sure that there have been other bands with this style before 2020 (Saor being one of them), it was neat to discover multiple groups this year pushing for this kind of sound. The opener and closer are very well written and deserve their extended length and even though the middle falls a bit flat it never stopped me from coming back to it. Plus, it's insane how much of an improvement this album is over their 2017 release that I'm really hoping that Dzö-nga can ride this creative wave and continue to hone and experiment with their sound in the coming years.
Genres: Black Metal
Let Me Out
The Oubliette may go down in history as my highest regarded album that I don't have the will to listen to ever again. Even as someone who hasn't had to cope with any of their loved ones having dementia or anything like it, this album hit me extremely hard. If anything, that proves just how well The Reticent wrote and performed this concept of following the mental struggles of someone at the edge of their mental stability and overall life. It was a bit odd sounding at first to have the dementia be portrayed through Progressive Metal, with it tending to have a few too many unexpected twists and turns here and there, but after a while the themes really started to fall into place as the album progressed. The Oubliette doesn't shy away from the sheer amount of fear and despair that this condition can cause, leaving one trapped and screaming inside of their own mind, heard horrifically at the end of "Stage 6". So, in many ways, The Reticent were undeniably successful in creating a substantial and worthwhile look into something that a lot of families struggle with. But, in doing so, the experience they crafted doesn't give a lot of room for replay value, especially when you have a vivid imagination like me. I let myself get completely enveloped by the lyrics and story and it got me good; so good that I don't think I have it in me to come back, so take that as you will.
Genres: Progressive Metal
Unlocking The Blizzard
Although I've learned to relish the blurry realms of Atmospheric Black Metal over the past few years, I can't say that the genre impacted me in the way I've seen from others. From the cold anger of Burzum, to the folk inspired Soar, I've come to appreciate the monotonously discordant but rewarding style of the genre, but deep down I knew I never exactly got the full experience of what some of these albums can offer. Classic Atmospheric Black Metal albums have a knack for transporting listeners to icy, snow covered mountains as the freezing wind rips across the landscape, slowly draining the life and color out of the frigid atmosphere. The grinding, nondescript guitar riffing over pounding drums echoing from miles away as haggard, shrieking vocals pierce through the turbulence has been the tried and true formula since the subgenre's debut in the mid-1990's and, in a lot of ways, it hasn't changed much. Strides have been made to take Atmospheric Black Metal out of the snow covered hills and into other locales, even the farthest reaches of space with acts like Mare Cognitum, but if anyone wants an unadulterated experience of the subgenre, it's hard to stay away from the raw, wintery ambience that artists like Paysage D'Hiver pride themselves on. So, for the first time, an Atmospheric Black Metal album fully transported me to the blizzardy wilderness that it fiercely attempts to convey. And that album is Im Wald.
Even though I've been listening to albums like this for a few years now, Paysage D'Hiver had gone completely under my radar, with me forgoing late 1990's and early 2000's releases in favor of the mid 1990's classics and the more modern, 2010's releases. In many ways Wintherr, the man behind Paysage D'Hiver, has been carrying the torch of classic Atmospheric Black Metal by keeping the production quality on the low side and keeping his projects as a one person operation. There's something nostalgic about the way he continues to create this type of Metal in the way he does, even though I wasn't around and listening to this kind of stuff when it was first making waves in the Metal scenes. Although Wintherr has been producing albums that can clock in at over 50 minutes in length for the better part of 20 years now, it's only with the release of Im Wald that he says he's released his first true album. Although I scratched my head at this notion at first considering his self-titled "demo" is very much a full-fledged album in my eyes, I can see where he's coming from, given the structure and production quality for Im Wald is vastly different from the likes of Paysage D'Hiver or Winterkaelte. The absurdly low quality production that these earlier albums had is all but gone in Im Wald, and for some that's a deal breaker considering the history that Atmospheric Black Metal has. For me, I much prefer the more resonant and full sound that Im Wald has, allowing me to become fully engrossed in the cold wall of sound but still able to pick out memorable riffs and parts on every song. It's still not immediately approachable since most of the riffing is extremely similar throughout its gargantuan 2 hour runtime, but the more I listened to this record throughout the year the hidden details began to surface more and more.
It's not entirely wrong to say that this album doesn't cover any new ground whatsoever, with the basis of every long, drawn out track being a flurry of almost indiscernible tremolo picking that carries some sort of chord progression across its entirety. However, Im Wald feels like the most completely Atmospheric Black Metal package I've ever heard, with it transporting me into the cold, dark, snow covered forests right from the beginning. "Im Winterwald" showcases most of this albums' elements wonderfully, with a haunting tremolo chord progression, indiscernible vocals, a strangely satisfying kick and snare drum sound, and a mystifying synth towards the middle of the song. This type of song structure will be repeated throughout the rest of the album but in distinctly different ways, keeping the album consistent and cohesive but not too stagnant. I'd be lying if I didn't think that tracks like "Flug" have a progression that goes on for a bit too long and something like "Kälteschauer" feels a little redundant after an hour and a half of music, but I never really mind when I listen to the album cover to cover. Im Wald was able to grip me so tightly that I began to not really think about how long it was or how repetitive it could be, but to focus on what was happening in the moment and appreciate the satisfyingly sluggish progression of the riffs. "Über den Bäumen" and "Le rêve lucide" have incredible main riffs that hit incredibly hard despite not being very accented in the mix and always have suitable build up for maximum effect. These riffs aren't even the crowning jewel of Paysage D'Hiver's work though, since I found myself incredibly drawn to the extra little effects that he puts into certain songs that turn them into some of the best Atmospheric Black Metal I've ever heard. The transition from "Wurzel" to "Stimmen im Wald" with the male choir is easily one of the best transitions I've heard, and the faint but chilling vocals of "Weiter, immer weiter" to go along with the main riff is stunning. These small but substantial additions to the perfectly executed generic formula that Wintherr creates elevate these songs in a way that I can't really believe.
Among all the chaos and sometimes indistinguishable riffing, Im Wald is blanketed by a layer of atmospheric powder, with most of the intros and outros to the lengthy tracks being a mix of poorly recorded wind, swaying trees, and what I presume to be footsteps through the snow. There are even interludes to showcase these recordings, with "Schneeglitzern", "Wurzel", "Eulengesang", and "Verweilen" serving as short interludes to build atmosphere and to add a bit of ominous synth into the mix to set up the next track. There's a point to be made about these feeling like filler sometimes, but I personally think they serve as adequately spaced breaks in-between the rest of the chilling chaos. While most of the recordings themselves sound extremely similar, I'm assuming to keep the album grounded with a cohesive baseline, the small flourishes each one uses to distinguish themselves is satisfying and keeps the album moving after growing accustomed to how it progresses.
All in all, I think that Im Wald marks the first album that made me truly understand this kind of music on a deeper level than just throwing on Atmospheric Black Metal for some background noise. It challenged me with its seemingly reprehensible runtime and supposed monotony, only to have me wanting even more after two hours of it. I can understand why diehard fans of Atmospheric Black Metal would prefer Wintherr's self-titled release, since that one is so much more raw and really leans into the classic style, but Im Wald is able to bring that classic style into the modern era in a massive way. The riffs are crushing, the atmosphere is frigid and dark, the production is haphazard but rewarding, and it produced some of my favorite moments that I heard in all of 2020. I was finally able to walk through the blizzards in the snow covered forests whenever I decided to embark on the journey of this album this year, and it never disappointed.
Genres: Black Metal
The Rewarding, Slow Burn
It's almost poetic how From a Dying Ember slowly but surely won me over in the second half of 2020, given the circumstances surrounding it. After nine albums and an assortment of lineup changes, the band members have announced that this will be Falconer's final offering, leaving a solid cult following behind them. I'll admit that I didn't hear of Falconer before checking out this album, especially since their debut self-titled is apparently highly regarded, but after hearing this one I'm definitely going to have to fix that. While this album resides in the realm of Power Metal, they manage to have a folk leaning that is wholly unique to me, with their songwriting and inimitable vocalist impressing me to the point where I couldn't stop coming back for more.
From a Dying Ember honestly doesn't leave a very good first impression, initially sounding fairly generic and forgettable with its somewhat strange song structures and unassuming riffing. I thought it was good at first, but it wasn't until I came back to it for a few more listens that it really started to click with me. The choruses slowly started to settle themselves in my memory more and more, with "Fool's Crusade", "In Regal Attire", and "Testify" becoming tunes that I would hum completely out of the blue. Upon further inspection, this album really does have everything one would want out of a band like Falconer. Mathias Blad's silky smooth, mid-range vocals have so much character and are extremely well written, giving them such a unique flow that winds its way around the rest of the instrumentation. The Folk elements are neatly incorporated without taking over the entire sound, with the fiddles and pianos firmly playing a supportive role to the rest of the composition. Falconer also pull from their earlier, more extreme metal roots in a few tracks, with surprisingly aggressive double-bass in "Desert Dreams" and some quick but noticeable tremolo riffs in "Kings and Queens" and a full-on Black Metal-esque section in "Rapture" as a final farewell to their old band Mithotyn.
It helps that Falconer uses 3/4 and 6/8 for a good portion of tracks, with most of them having a waltz or swing feel to them. This small change really helps their songwriting to be more folky and fantastical without necessarily feeling generic. Although there are some unexpectedly heavy sections, the playful waltz feel really helps to keep the album grounded in the fantastical and folky world that Falconer excel at. Even when they find themselves in a common 4/4 time signature, the guitars or drums keep the folky, swing feel going with melodies that begin with an off-beat 8th note into an accented downbeat, which is something I began to notice more and more as I gave the album more and more listens. There are a myriad of rather hidden and layered melodies that got more and more satisfying as the months have gone on, leaving From a Dying Ember as one of the albums that has grown on me the most in quite a while.
Even though this marks the end of Falconer, I can't imagine a better album for a band in their genre to go out on. There's so much surface-level Power Metal out there, so it was a delight having these songs eventually worm their way into my memory to keep me coming back for more. The balance of heavy riffing, slow ballads, solos, and folk interludes is fantastic as well, with "Garnets and a Gilded Rose" being a great instrumental and "Rejoice the Adorned" beautifully showcasing Blad's sultry vocals. Even without prior knowledge of Falconer I can tell that these guys covered all their bases considering how many different styles there were able to cram into this album. Considering I've only given glowing praise to From a Dying Ember, I still think that it's far from a classic or anything like that, but it's undoubtedly solid through and through. It's a bit repetitive in its ideas but it builds and works around them in intelligent ways, especially with its use of slower tempo vocal and guitar melodies to go along with some strangely furious drumming. Although I have zero history with Falconer, this is a fantastic swan song that exemplifies all of their crowning characteristics as a group in an extremely rewarding collection of songs. Cheers, fellas.
Genres: Power Metal
The Frustrations Of Potential
Unleash the Archers have been ceaselessly scaling the mountain of improvement since their beginnings in 2009, with album after album slowly but surely being better and cleaner than the last. That all changed once they reached the summit on the aptly named Apex in 2017, delivering one of the best Power Metal performances I've heard that's only gotten better with a bit of age. Apex is so jam packed with energy from every single member of the band for its entire runtime that I knew it was going to be a tough act to follow up on, especially since it catapulted them into a more mainstream spotlight. As I was checking out Abyss I decided to go back and really analyze Apex even more than I had before and, much to my surprise, it was the album that kept on giving. Lyrics normally aren't my strong suit so I had completely missed the awesome story that Apex had laid out leading up to Abyss. Even though this album had almost no chance of topping Apex for me, it's way rougher around the edges than I anticipated.
To get anyone caught up with what Unleash the Archers had created with Apex, here's a short rundown of the story:
The Immortal, the protagonist, is called from his endless slumber to serve an evil woman called The Matriarch to go bring her four sons back so she can sacrifice them and become some sort of all powerful deity. The Immortal must comply and goes to face off against the four brothers, The Immortal not feeling remorse because they each have their own vices. The fourth brother goes willingly and shows The Immortal kindness, which leaves him conflicted. In the end The Matriarch completes the ritual and sends The Immortal back to his mountain prison and basically takes over the world.
This story accompanied by Apex's music made me really hopeful for the success of Abyss, since it's a direct continuation, but alas, it just doesn't measure up for me in the end. I'll get the ending of the story out of the way first, attempting to not sugarcoat it:
The Immortal wakes up hundreds of years later and searches through space for a new purpose until he comes across a familiar man, who is the son of the fourth son who was kind to him in Apex. He swears to set The Immortal free from his slavery if he defeats The Matriarch who rules over the universe, but he is still in servitude to The Matriarch who enters his mind every now and again, so he goes to find her. He fights the ghosts of the four sacrificed brothers in an extremely non-descript way and finally faces off against The Matriarch. He runs away for some reason but finally decides to face his problems and fights The Matriarch, using something called The Spark to vanquish The Matriarch in pretty anticlimactic fashion. The Immortal is then set free and chooses to roam the galaxies as a protector rather than choosing death or servitude.
What made Apex's story so gripping was that it was straight to the point and well defined, each song moving the plot forward at a reasonable pace. There were almost no moments of ambiguous meandering, which created a compelling and easy to follow story once someone paid attention to the lyrics. Abyss fails to keep it simple and falls into some of the same traps as other Power Metal concept albums, with some difficult to follow perspective changes and songs that don't really move the story forward in any meaningful way. There are so many awesome moments that they set up in Apex that just fall flat in Abyss, like the fight with the spirits of the four sacrificed brothers, the final confrontation of The Matriarch, as well as the conflicted morality issues that The Immortal seemed like he would have to face. The overall setting and travelling is also much more confusing, with The Immortal seemingly spending a huge amount of time just travelling the universe in very unclear and anticlimactic ways. While I can deal with almost every Power Metal album having a weak story, the fact that Abyss was supposed to be the gigantic climax to Apex left me wanting much, much more out of it.
The music itself isn't that much more impressive either, with obvious differences in mixing and production showing up right out of the gate in "Abyss". Abyss feels so much flatter with everything feeling more pushed back and less accented in order to make space for the new use of synths. Even Brittney Slayes' performance feels lacking in places, with the songwriting seemingly pulling her back during certain choruses and a few lyrics that stumble on delivery. The harsh vocals from one of their guitarists still fill the role of speaking from The Matriarch's point of view, showing up in four of the ten tracks but still being pretty sparse, leaving me wanting a bit more of them considering this album was about the final fight with her. The addition of the synths was a somewhat necessary evolution in order to try and distinguish and elevate Abyss from Apex, especially considering the space and future setting, but I found myself never really noticing the synth all that much in the end. While it helps to create a different sounding atmosphere, I don't think it necessarily adds much of anything in the end, even in synth dominated tracks like "Abyss" and "Through Stars".
Abyss is still an Unleash the Archers album though, so there's some great guitar soloing and shredding to go along with the many great riffs and transitions that they pull off extremely well. Almost every track has some sort of solo, with "Soulbound", "Faster Than Light", and "The Wind That Shapes the Land" having some of the best ones. A lot of the riffs are great as well, but because of the new production style it lacks that punch and raw power that I want out of Unleash the Archers. They still write some incredibly satisfying and technical stuff, but it doesn't come together in a way that works across the album as a whole. While "The Wind That Shapes the Land" and "Afterlife" are epic in their own right, I can't help but think the latter is just too drawn out at the end and the climax of the former just completely misses the mark. All these small, tiny things added up to Abyss just missing for me, even though there are some moments that still hit me pretty hard.
Hopefully I'll be able to come back to Abyss without the cloudiness of what I think this album could have been, because revisiting Apex only helped to seal this album's fate as a large step down. They had the musical style and story set up perfectly for this album to be a massive climax to a pretty great Power Metal plot and made a few mistakes that removed so much of the raw energy and excitement from their sound. Musically, songs like "Abyss", "Soulbound", and "The Wind That Shapes the Land" give me hope for the future but I'll have to see, especially since I've become overly critical of their work after putting in so much time to Apex.
Genres: Power Metal
Confinement Conjures Creativity
I've found myself being quite fickle with the instrumental Djent-y, Math-y, Post-y Metal world quite a bit in the past few years, with my interest in the genre coming and going every few months or so. Due to my history with Buckethead, I've continued to be a fan of the instrumental Metal experience, through all of its changes over the years. Old shred albums from like the likes of Satriani and Malmsteen are still fun for me and bands like Animals As Leaders, Polyphia, and Plini have brought instrumentals into the modern era with their complex and precise melodies and insane technical skill. As a fan of a lot of these acts I tend not to concern myself with what may be noodling or over-the-top progressive wankery since, in all honesty, that's kind of what I think the subgenre is all about at the end of the day. These modern instrumental Metal bands do have one major thing in common though, and that's their strange fascination and attraction to the Djent sound. The dropped chugging admittedly contrasts well with the rest of the complex playing, but it's strange to see some of the most involved and intricate melodies always have a rather simplistic Djent backdrop to them. Cloudkicker, however, has been embracing the drop tuning for 10 years now and in a way that distinguishes himself from other bands, especially on Solitude.
Beacons may be Cloudkicker's most artsy and ambitious project as he projects his own career as a pilot into a fantastic concept album, but Solitude is easily the fullest and heaviest I've ever heard him be. Rather than skirt around the overly criticized Djent chugs, he leans into them hard and delivers crushing riff after crushing riff with a desolate Post Rock atmosphere that very much encapsulates the atmosphere I've been feeling as 2020 has dragged on. "What They Do Is Not Art" immediately makes these two elements apparent with a fantastic and slightly off kilter Djent riff that leads into a lonesome atmospheric section that captures the essence of this album perfectly. Most of the other tracks follow this same formula with a ton of great riffs and Post Metal inspired rhythmic sections, but I'm never bored or tired of the relentless chugging. There's so much variety in this album for me that it's hard to really tire of it, whether it's the layered guitars in "Ashtabula", the somber but hopeful melodies of "94 Days" and "Off His Way", or the fiercely heavy riffs of "Code Language" and "Sandö".
Instrumental albums live and die by their riffs and atmosphere, and Solitude hits me in a way that I can't fully explain. All of the riffs have a simplistic complexity to them, with nothing feeling overplayed or sluggish. Cloudkicker has always known how to write a great chug riff, and since Solitude is his heaviest and darkest album to date, I'd say he's gotten even better at it over the years. Even on some of the longer tracks like "Banqiao" and "Sandö", his riff and chord progressions allow the songs to be a bit repetitive here and there but never monotonous. They're able to lull you into a groove before finally exploding into flurries of tight and elaborate riffing that keeps your full attention for every single second. The atmosphere is top notch as well, with droning sustained notes and interesting rhythm melodies popping in here and there to add to the composition. Solitude isn't afraid to slow down either, with "...I Wouldn't If I Were You" acting as an interlude and "Crawl Spaces" acting as a surprise acoustic finale.
The lonesome, desolate, and slightly angry edge that this album exudes is something that resonated with me as 2020 draws to a close and I can only guess that this messed up year is part of the reason Cloudkicker's Ben Sharp decided to take off the limiters in terms of heaviness. The title, Solitude, resonates for an obvious reason, but there's a good chance that this album was conceived due to the drastic drop in air travel in 2020 and Sharp possibly even getting furloughed or laid off, leaving him with a good chunk of time to devote to the Cloudkicker project. While I'm not insinuating that's a positive circumstance, it definitely paints a passionate and relatable picture of this depressing year with an instrumental album that is able to say so much more than an album with thousands of words in it. Solitude turned out to be a phenomenal jump in quality from his similar sounding 2019 album Unending and takes modern Djent riffing to a level I haven't heard in a very long time, all while balancing it with a lonely but hopeful blanket of atmosphere.
Genres: Progressive Metal