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
A man in a soggy, stained trenchcoat slams the door of the muggy motel room and strolls across the creaky, wooden floor. The uncomfortably arid air leaks through the thin walls, turning the tolerable room into a prison as light shone from a singular lamp beside the bed. The man slaps his stack of notes below the lamp with a sharp rustle, continuing to ignore the struggling handcuffed man wrestling with his shackles that are entwined around the foot of the bed below him. The sweating captive snaps his neck upward to see the man unzipping a bag on the bed and relaxes a bit as he pulls out what's inside.
"The fuck are these? Tapes? Keepin' some sort of diary?"
"Oh you know, just a personal project. Some music. Had some friends back home that liked all that alternative metal stuff, one of them played the saxophone...Y'ever hear of Mr. Bungle?"
"Ah well, I'm sure you'd come around to it, why don't you put it on until the cops get here?"
"Cops ain't comin' for ya, jackass. I got a nice, warm home for ya under the floorboards next door."
"Well that's a shame, who knows, maybe it'll give the big, tough private eye some of the answers he's looking for."
"Already got all the answers I need. Y'aint the hardest to trail. Found the poor bitch at the hotel, found the mincemeat on Route 25, and I know where all the sand I smacked outta ya came from. Already know how fucked up ya are. But y'know what, call me curious about what a scumbag calls music." The detective loads the tape into the small player on the nightstand and slams the play button.
The theme of the album is instantly set up from note one with its twisted, dark piano and spoken word but quickly fuses with some lighthearted aspects after the transition into the fantastic opener "The Sacrifice of Miss Rose Covington". The detective side-eyes the squirming captive as the foreboding intro gives way to energetic Alternative Metal riffs that complement the slightly strange drum beats, piano and brass interjections, and a varied vocal performance ranging from subtle musings to aggressive yelling. The slow climb in tempo makes for an incredible transition as the album continues to cement its cinematic, film noir style with the craziness of more trumpets and woodwinds. The dead air of the motel feels like it can be cut with a knife as abrupt transitions that somehow still flow together extremely well spell out some truly lunatic thoughts. Although the music coming out of the small player seems completely unhinged, there are still moments of pure catchiness that show that there's some solid songwriting beneath all the madness all while keeping to the overall theme of the album. The prisoner's head bops along with the sweeping chorus of "Sweet Insanity", which would unfortunately be secretly fixed inside of the detective's mind for longer than he would admit.
"The hell is this?" scoffed the private eye as the prisoner shrugged at the jarring transition into the acoustic, country-styled "Desert Grave". The eccentricity of the music was expected at this point, but putting this downtrodden, honky-tonk track in-between the infectious "Sweet Insanity" and the quirky, high-energy "Moonlight City Drive" seemed questionable at best as it screeches the album to a halt. Coupled with an outro that feels like it shouldn't even exist, the detective couldn't wait to get back into the intensity of "Moonlight City Drive" with its bizarre, charming atmosphere.
"Wait, how the fuck did you get my voice?" barks the detective as he closes in on the handcuffed man as the song progresses into some seriously awkward and scandalous recordings. The captive bats his eyelashes and laughs as the detective grasps him by the shirt collar, the recorded gunshot rattling off, signaling the transition into the next song. The detective loosens his grasp as he gets slightly lost in the heavy, up-tempo riffing of "Darkest Days", another admitted highlight of the runtime thus far. He was getting the sense that the music that was playing was a gateway to the mind of his eccentric prisoner, but couldn't exactly place the whole point of it all. His anger and grip on the other man's collar loosens further as his expression changes to that of a perplexing glare when "Dead Virgins Don't Sing" echoed through the motel. The maniacal man mouthed the strange speech from the song, as if it was his manifesto.
"The hell are you a part of?" muttered the detective as he shoves the man to the ground, releasing his grip. The album progresses in the background into the most compelling song so far, "The Hitchhiker". All of the elements of the album thus far are culminated into a track that has everything from a great riff, a great chorus, an out-of-nowhere interlude, a fantastic climax, and great storytelling. The detective's mind swirls as the song is a one-for-one account of the murder on Route 25 he described previously with even more detail than he even could have dreamed of. The next track comes and goes as the detective tries to make sense of what's happening; he comes to as the title track clumsily begins with its signature sax and sultry bass line. He slowly warms up to the groove after the awkward start; it makes him think back to the classic film noir mysteries on the silver screen, but that fantasy is only elevated by the scratchy, funky guitar riff and great songwriting through this erratic section. The private eye knew the man he had thrown on the motel floor was a criminal, but this admittance of vile acts and brutal, murderous intentions and intrigue made him realize he was dealing with much, much worse.
"The hell are you trying to pull?" grunts the detective, pulling his gun from his hip and pointing it with a straight arm directly at his captive's forehead.
"Well Mr. Private Eye, did you enjoy it?"
"...Y'know, it was pretty damn good. Interesting," said the detective, his outstretched right arm not wavering an inch.
"Easily influenced, aren't we?" laughs the man.
The private eye clenches his right hand and doesn't even blink as the shot rings out through the small room. He swiftly pockets the weapon inside his coat, strides to the door and slams it behind him.
Genres: Alternative Metal Avant-Garde Metal
The Final Bastion
Symphonic Metal and I have been having quite the rocky relationship in the past few years and, somehow, I’ve ended up in the timeline where Epica are one of the only traditionalist bands left that are still producing amazing material. It’s a strange switch-up for me, since Epica were once the major band in the genre that I liked the least. I recall trying to listen to The Divine Conspiracy years ago when I was first discovering other Symphonic Metal bands like Nightwish, Kamelot, and Avantasia and it just didn’t grab me whatsoever; not to mention the harsh vocals threw me for a loop back then. Now that the Symphonic Metal scene has settled down over the years, mostly for the worse in my opinion, Epica have been my saving grace in a desolate wasteland of disappointing albums. I was sincerely looking forward to Omega since I got a good amount of playtime out of their 2016 album The Holographic Principle, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Epica have always strayed more towards the slightly more extreme side of Symphonic Metal, with their guitar tone having much more edge to it, their riffs and chugs being overall more aggressive, and of course using harsh vocals as the contrast to their frontwoman. They’re far from being something like Fleshgod Apocalypse, but these slight but meaningful differences have really propelled them into a position all their own as other competitors have been fading away. As the band has been going strong through the years with minimal lineup changes, Omega feels like a culmination of experience in Symphonic Metal songwriting for them. The Divine Conspiracy and Design Your Universe have always been the staples, but they felt a bit too ambitious for their own good, with The Divine Conspiracy always being difficult for me to follow exactly what they are attempting to convey throughout the album. Omega is the first Epica album that plays like a complete package for me from front to back with almost no downtime and only one or two songs that I have issues with. While it’s not the harbinger of a new generation of Symphonic Metal or anything of the sort, it seems to have a knack for doing exactly what I always want out of an album like this.
Epica also turns the Symphonic Metal formula on its head a bit, as their frontwoman Simone Simons isn’t as prevalent throughout Omega as you’d think. She’s still the obvious focal point on a lot of sections, but there are just as many portions where she takes on the role as a background voice to the choir or a complete backseat to harsh vocalist Mark Jansen during extended sections on tracks like “Kingdom of Heaven” or “Gaia”. Not overdoing the operatic themes of Symphonic Metal seems like a misstep considering the history of the genre, but in Epica’s case it more than works out in their favor. Simons’ wonderfully varied performance helps to keep all of the dense songwriting fresh and moving forward as she swaps between her trained and normal singing voice constantly. Omega can be very vocal-focused so it’s great to hear so much tonal variety even during singular lyric lines since Simons has figured out how to use the different parts of her voice to really accent certain parts and words all while fitting into the rest of the band. “Rivers” obviously gives her the spotlight for the inescapable, slightly corny ballad piece, but I can’t even complain too much about it because it serves as a necessary break after the massive “Kingdom of Heaven”.
All the moving parts of Epica pull their weight throughout Omega though, creating some of the best Symphonic Metal tracks I’ve heard in quite some time. The heavy chug riff on the climax of “The Skeleton Key”, the choir chorus of “Seal of Solomon”, the orchestral melody of “Code of Life”, and Simons’ catchy chorus on “Twilight Reverie” are just some of the parts that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since this album dropped. The one thing I’ve learned from listening to quite a bit of mediocre Symphonic Metal is that it’s an arduous task to have all the bombastic moving parts of the genre work together in any sort of harmonious composition, and Epica seem to have found the sweet spot for Omega. There’s enough complexity in the transitions and layered melodies to add a massive amount of re-listenability all while the main themes and choruses are catchy and digestible enough to keep the listener interested. Even though the album’s overarching topic about the human interaction with life and the environment has been done to hell and back (see Nightwish’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful), Epica add their signature, more epic and aggressive edge to the topic which breathes some new life into it. Omega flows incredibly smoothly with almost nothing feeling like it’s out of place, save for the strangely blown-out synth parts on “Synergize-Manic Manifest”. Each riff and idea progresses in an extremely satisfying way, especially on the 13-minute epic “Kingdom Of Heaven”. It’s sort of strange how this song is placed directly in the middle of the album, but I suppose the back half of the album is technically two massive songs broken up by “Rivers”, since the final three songs form a suite or finale of sorts.
It might be because of the Symphonic Metal drought that I’ve found myself in for the past few years, but I think Omega is absolutely fantastic. I’ve been hooked on this album for over a week now and it’s given me the perfect balance of everything I want out of a Symphonic Metal experience. It has the riffs, the melodies, the cohesion, and the satisfying progression all pulled together into the complete package that I’ve always been looking for from Epica. While it still has the overblown bombast that inevitably comes with the territory of throwing a Metal band in amongst a full orchestra, they've seemingly cracked the code of their sound in Omega. I never thought that Epica would be the band to survive the slight downfall of operatic female-fronted Metal, but I guess crazier things have happened.
Genres: Symphonic 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 drums are 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 getting 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. Its 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 1990'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 1990'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 1990'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 a 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
Violence Was The Only Option
It isn’t often that I choose violence. A quick peruse through my ratings at this point shows that I can be exceedingly picky when it comes to the more extreme corners of Metal. At the end of the day a relentless onslaught of aggression is only so interesting to me and I struggle to truly be invested in most of it at the end of the day. Obviously, there are exceptions with bands like Serpent Column, Ulcerate, and Imperial Triumphant having managed to crack into the top 20 of my previous year-end lists, and Frontierer is absolutely going to be the exception this year. Mathcore isn’t normally something I bother with considering most of the classic releases have bounced off me. However, after thoroughly enjoying Botch’s We Are The Romans, I figured I was in the mood for more relentless aggression, but nothing could have prepared me for the crushing weight of Oxidized.
This album is loud. It’s extremely, extremely loud. Despite that, though, I think it’s incredibly balanced considering the myriad of guitar and electronic effects and how far they push the distortion. After a few listens I’ve been able to find some serious depth in what sounds like an undistinguishable wall of sound. Frontierer’s production is all-encompassing; not a single inch of empty space is present when the album kicks into high gear, which admittedly makes up 90% of the album. Normally this would be off-putting for me but Oxidized turns the bombardment of sound into an integral feature of the experience that has kept me gripped for many, many listens. The guitar tone is thick, deep, and bursting at the seams during the multitude of breakdowns and chug riffs and contrasts perfectly with the cutting, electronic bleeps and bloops that Frontierer utilizes to really push their sound over the edge. Tracks like “Disintegrative”, “Stereopticon”, and “Southern Hemorrhage” introduce some hilariously over the top guitar effects that feel oddly cohesive with the album’s overall theme of merciless aggression. The vocals are nothing to scoff at either, with the harshes sitting just right in the mix to create some seriously memorable moments amidst the chaos. The tracks that manage to cram all of these elements together are a bewildering, erratic whirlwind of violence that becomes utterly impressive at times, especially with “Glacial Plasma” being the most crushing track I’ve heard in a very long time.
As overpowering as Oxidized is, it knows exactly how to vary its approach so it doesn’t feel overwhelming. Most of the album is more rhythmic in nature with most of the riffs consisting of dropped chugging and the occasional screech, but there are just enough melodic sections in tracks like “Opaque Horizon”, “This Magnetic Drift”, and “Daydark” to keep the album from feeling flat. The short hints of melody and electronic showcases help to make the violent breakdowns really pop and stand out amongst the admittedly similar structures of the songs. Conversely, the short moments of reprieve and silence are haunting and strange sounding since they stand opposed to the rest of the album. “SVVANS” is the perfect example of this, as the silence and spacey electronics after “Southern Hemorrhage” are honestly unsettling after 22 minutes of white-knuckled Mathcore, making it one of the best interludes I’ve heard in a while. These short sessions of melodic comfort aren’t just filler though, since they serve as memorable anchors through the chaos. The blasting vocal melodies in “Corrosive Wash”, the vocal intro to “Death/” and “Southern Hemorrhage”, and the repeated vocal lines in “LK WX” are just a few portions that satiate my need for something to latch onto in extremely heavy music. The melodic versus the extreme elements in Oxidized are constantly battling for attention but the songwriting feels incredibly smooth after the initial shock factor wears off, apart from the one transition from “Motherboard” into “Daydark” being noticeably weaker than the rest.
Although I’d consider Oxidized to be approachable on a surface level to seasoned extreme music listeners just due to the sheer insanity of it, there’s an incredible amount of balance and structure going on beneath the chaos. Frontierer are able to take some of the most erratic songwriting I’ve heard and shape it into a product that is extremely cohesive and interesting front to back. This erratic theme is instantly set up with “Heirloom” being an opener that gives an overview of what’s to come, complete with the crushing riffs, wild guitar screeching, heavy breakdowns, and commanding vocals. Nothing lingers on Oxidized and if it does, it’s only for long enough to get its point across and make way for the next idea, creating a weird sense of structure from all the chaos. For me, I knew this structure had really resonated with me when I thought more about the closing track “/Hope” and how compelling and thought provoking it is. “/Hope” has one of the heaviest openers on the album, but transitions into the nicest sounding portions in all of Oxidized, complete with an actual drum beat and melody that lasts for more than ten seconds. That peaceful ending gets cut off jarringly and immediately to cap off the album.
Most extreme metal, especially Mathcore, has failed to interest me in the past due to me not connecting with the material in any meaningful way. There are plenty of albums that I adore without having intense emotional attachment, but this genre and others like it seem to thrive off of conveying and pulling out certain feelings. I think that’s why I end up bored out of my skull when listening to most extremely heavy music; it all seems so pointless and contrived to the point where it fails to resonate with me. Oxidized came in and instantly hooked me with its overarching style and theme of merciless and unrelenting force. It feels universal in a way that doesn’t alienate me like other Mathcore releases seem to; it manages to be very familiar and impactful despite not feeling as personal as other, similar albums. Despite this being one of the loudest and most aggressive albums I’ve heard, I’ve been constantly wanting more ever since my first listen. The conclusion of “/Hope” is easily the best way this album could have ended, since Frontierer don’t give you any resolution or satisfying ending. There’s only violence.
Lush Cultural Expression
Atmospheric Black Metal, as shown by the original innovators, is a freezing and bleak world to inhabit. Whether it's Burzum, Blut Aus Nord, or Paysage D'Hiver, themes and thick atmospheres of snow covered forests lit by the beaming moonlight are all too common and somewhat played out by now, considering fans of the genre have been trudging through the same fresh snow for almost 30 years now. Although Burzum is the only act technically from Scandinavia, Atmospheric Black Metal tends to be very rooted in giving the listener a glimpse into the musician's natural surroundings and what they personally draw from that, hence all the nighttime strolls through blizzards and evergreen trees. This style has rubbed off on plenty of modern bands regardless of where they're from, but projects like Kaatayra continue to keep the genre grounded by demonstrating their homes and personal connections to their own distinct surroundings. I think that personal attachment is what makes certain Atmospheric Black Metal albums insanely compelling and Só quem viu o relâmpago à sua direita sabe is a perfect example of what bringing one's own heritage into their music can do.
Kaatayra is a one man project out of Brazil that was able to captivate me with a pair of releases in 2020 that remain as some of the most memorable Atmospheric Black Metal I've heard. The sole member Caio Lemos doesn't have too much information about the project apart from a few interviews as well as no physical merchandise, which is an absolute shame because I'd be preordering a vinyl of this in a heartbeat, but the music itself and what little I do know paints a more than captivating picture. What initially drew me to this album is the fact that it uses exclusively acoustic guitar for its riffing, but stays firmly within the confines of the Atmospheric Black Metal genre with an obviously heavy folk leaning. This album has a sound that I simply haven't heard before and while when explained sounds like a gimmick, the sounds and melodies that accompany the acoustic base are insanely genuine and build an atmosphere that hasn't been explored all that much in the cold, dark realms of Atmospheric Black Metal.
Kaatayra is able to create warm, lavish atmospheres that paint pictures of tropical trees dripping from the steady rainfall of a muggy, humid day. It's able to contrast perfectly with the frozen, grinding howls of more traditional Atmospheric Black Metal in a way where Lemos is able to convey a version of Atmospheric Black Metal that hails from his country, and I think that's incredibly powerful. While only consisting of four songs, Só quem viu o relâmpago à sua direita sabe is able to fully realize its theme and transports the listener to a balmy uneasiness that was incredibly thought provoking for me. The split between monotone clean vocals and pushed-back Black Metal screams is a nice contrast that isn't overdone and while the pacing of the album can be a bit meandering, I find myself getting lost in it every time. Although there are blast beats being the acoustic riffing and synths it never sticks out enough to be harsh, creating a more comfortable atmosphere that gets fully realized in the sometimes lengthy synth excursions or acoustic solos. There's just the right amount of different instruments and sounds to keep the listener surprised, like the horns towards the middle of the closing track "Bom Retorno" or the smooth transitions into more tribal percussion. The layering of the synth behind everything to create a consistent atmosphere is also superb, making this album one of the most consistent I've heard in the Atmospheric Black Metal genre.
Uniqueness can go a long way, but when that uniqueness comes from a genuine place, I think you get something special, and that's absolutely what Kaatayra was able to pull off with his pair of 2020 albums. I still think very highly of Toda História pela Frente and while it shares some atmospheric aspects that make this album so compelling, having an entirely acoustic Atmospheric Black Metal album that is able to work so well is a feat that can't go unnoticed. The riffing feels like it should be warm and comforting, but there are painful roots that stretch beneath. This dichotomy is what makes this release fully its own and I commend Kaatayra for creating an album that wears its heritage proudly but achingly on its sleeve. Atmospheric Black Metal is a genre that, for the most part, is experienced rather than listened to, which makes it difficult to come to any sort of consensus considering each album has the potential to be immensely personal for any listener. However, I think the trademark of fantastic Atmospheric Black Metal is the care and attention taken to make sure that its message is received by as many people as possible. This acoustic journey through the oppressive but beautiful jungle absolutely takes those steps and if you want to hear a more traditional and more metal package definitely check out Toda História pela Frente, but Só quem viu o relâmpago à sua direita sabe continues to be a unique glimpse into a different world of Atmospheric Black Metal.
Genres: Black Metal
Disheartened Longing For Hopefulness
Metal can take many, many forms. It's that particular aspect of the genre that always keeps me coming back for more, with any sort of burnout hardly surfacing whatsoever due to its never ending variety and ability to capture so many different kinds of emotions. However, happy and hopeful aren't two emotions that normally find themselves swimming around in the vast Metal ocean amidst all the death and despair. But that's something that Devin Townsend seemed to want to change when embarking on his solo career, separating himself from Strapping Young Lad's industrial anger. Biomech was released a mere six months after Strapping Young Lad released their breakout and now classic album City, and the two albums couldn't be any less similar despite sharing a few synth settings. City is a white-knuckled, aggressive ball of fire whereas Biomech is a comfy, introspective journey across vast landscapes. Any sort of research about the musician that Devin Townsend is shows how pertinent the distinct differences between these two albums are considering he struggled with bipolar disorder around the time of recording this album. Even though I enjoy City quite a bit, the more progressive and soothing nature of Devin's solo projects have always captivated me more, especially with the release of Empath in 2019. It was only after replaying Empath into the ground that I sought out what Devin was doing at the beginning of his career and I wasn't disappointed in the slightest.
After listening to so much modern Devin Townsend it was jarring to go back to a slightly simpler time when his production and vocal style weren't completely and utterly over the top yet. In many ways it's a primitive version of his subsequent works like Terria, but I think it has more character and is much more compelling since it's still extremely polished in its riffing, layering, and album progression. It lacks a lot of the things that Devin would be known for in his more modern albums like his operatic singing and overly dense walls of sound, but that's mostly for the better. It's more subdued in ways that make the songwriting and riffs more memorable and emotional, rather than being lost within the fifty layers of effects that are all too common in most modern Devin Townsend albums. Biomech feels like a more pure and artistic look into Devin's music rather than the more generic Terria or Addicted.
Devin has gone on quite a few videos saying that he doesn't necessarily write a whole lot of riffs given his predisposition to write heavily layered melodies laced with tons of effects, but Biomech has more than enough heavy hitting ones despite them being relatively simple on the whole. "Regulator" has one of the best transitions from "Greetings" into an insanely heavy Progressive Metal chugfest that I never seem to get tired of. The background synth is interwoven in a way that seriously elevates the simple chug rhythm into an insanely catchy highlight to cap off the front side of the album. The rest of the first half isn't without other highlights though, with "Seventh Wave" having an opening riff that immediately grabs the listener's attention and properly sets up the rest of the album with the airy sounding background effects mixing with the heavy riffing. "Life", "Night", and "Hide Nowhere" each have their own riff hooks that never get lost behind the wall of sound Biomech creates, resulting in big, memorable moments that make some of the slower, more atmospheric parts worth the runtime. Although "Sister", "3 A.M.", and "Greetings" showcase the more experimental side of Biomech with their soothing soundscapes, they're broken up with fantastic riffs from "Voices In The Fan" and "Regulator" without becoming overly long and drawn out. Plus, Biomech is able to maintain a very consistent theme throughout the entire album, which is a massive shift from something like Empath which is absolutely all over the place.
Like many others, I've always enjoyed hearing Devin Townsend perform as a musician since he has such a massive range of skills he's able to employ, so at first it came as a surprise to me that he's fairly subdued overall on Biomech. Nowadays Devin is known for his varied vocals that shift from screaming to operatic in a blink of an eye, but there's very little of that throughout this album. Devin's vocal talents are still on full display, but in a very different way and in a very different range. His vocal performance is more akin to Strapping Young Lad without the full-on harsh vocals he employs on City, being more aggressive and raspy than his later works, but he's pushed back in the mixing so much that he becomes one with the atmosphere of the song rather than completely cutting through, even on songs like "Bastard" where his vocals are the pure focal point. Although Devin's performance doesn't reach the mind boggling heights of some of his more famous vocal performances like "Kingdom" or "Deadhead", it's able to work well within the context of the album regardless of whether he fully flexes his vocal muscles or not.
I'll be the first to admit that "Seventh Wave" through "Regulator" is some of my favorite Progressive Metal of all time, but Biomech starts to lose a bit of its luster when it gets to its second half, consisting of the longer tracks "Funeral", "Bastard", "Death Of Music", and the iffy closer "Things Beyond Things". Whereas the first half of the album is a nice blend of thematical effects, heavy riffs, and memorable choruses, the second half is a bit more drawn out and monotonous while trying to match the same sort of theme. "Funeral" and "Bastard" have a similar premise of having an overly repeated riff with a gradual progression to a massive, layered, heavenly sounding climax towards the end. These tracks are where Devin's vocals carry a ton of weight, considering they're pretty much the only thing moving the compositions forward, especially on "Bastard" with his nicely emotional and aggressive tone during the choruses. While these tracks can get a bit dull compared to the first half of the album, I think they serve their purpose as a progression of the album as a whole very well, since the atmospheric interludes are now included as part of the overall song rather than just being a transitional period. What I do have an issue with, though, is "Death Of Music". No matter how many times I try and get into the idea of this track, it just bounces straight off of me and I end up feeling like I wasted 12 minutes at the end of one of my favorite Progressive Metal releases of all time. The eerie voices and subdued, mechanical drum beats drone on and on until Devin eventually comes on and supplies a fantastic vocal performance that still doesn't save me from the boredom of this track. It makes "Things Beyond Things" especially awkward as a closing track as well, making it sound even more generic than it already is.
Despite the issues with the second half of the album, Biomech has stood the test of time as one of my favorite Progressive Metal releases and is easily one of my top Devin Townsend albums apart from Empath. The more I became acquainted with it the more I became personally attached to it, feeling like the overall atmosphere of the album was beginning to make sense to me. I said in the beginning of this review that Devin Townsend is one of the few artists to try and make Metal happy and uplifting, but to me there's sadness and anger lurking directly beneath the hopefulness. Biomech wants to be optimistic and jovial in its overall delivery, but to me its cynicism peeks out from under the surface, making this a deeply personal album that I've come to resonate with quite a bit. Despite the personal connection, though, Biomech is still a triumph of Progressive Metal that shows hints of the Devin-isms of the future, but keeps everything relatively grounded in a way that creates a hard-hitting Metal album while keeping hold of a thought-provoking overall theme.
Genres: Progressive Metal
Although I find myself checking out quite a few instrumental Djent-y and progressive leaning albums every year, I normally tap out when any sort of Metalcore gets added to the equation. I've become a bit more accepting of the supposedly heavy breakdowns and apparently emotional hooks, but hardly enough for me to want to seek it out. Thankfully when I first threw on this new ERRA self-titled album the two standout tracks "Snowblood" and "Gungrave" started the whole affair on a high enough note to keep me thoroughly interested cover to cover. Since this was my first experience with ERRA I was pretty impressed that a chuggy Metalcore album could hold my interest for longer than a few songs, with each track sporting some truly interesting and more complex songwriting than most other bands in their genre. Maybe I haven't been keeping up with the progression of the more Melodic Metalcore and Djent subgenres, but this feels fresh and somewhat progressive in a more meaningful way than what I'm used to hearing.
That being said, I have to admit that this only applies to half of the album. ERRA is hit or miss in the blandest of ways considering the misses have most of what makes the hits great, but they just aren't executed in a way that makes them compelling. "Snowblood", "Gungrave", House of Glass", "Electric Twilight", "Lunar Halo", and "Eidolon" are fantastic examples of what ERRA's sound can do when written and performed well, but the rest of the album is a middling slog of similar ideas. The riffs just don't hit as hard, the synths and other effects are generally used in boring ways, the choruses are more forgettable, and these tracks just make the album experience become monotonous after a while. For every incredible guitar riff in one of the standout tracks there seems to be more generic ones in tracks like "Divisionary", "Shadow Autonomous", and "Vanish Canvas" that suck a lot of the life from the album. Couple that with the one-note harsh vocals and tracks like "Memory Fiction" having some seriously questionable clean vocals, plus the tedium of the loud as hell kick drum and I can start to understand why this album can be a rough sell for some people, including me at times.
However, I think ERRA is able to create a much more enjoyable album than most of their contemporaries due to the great songwriting, riffs, and interesting ideas on the songs that manage to shine through. The clean vocals provide a powerful contrast to the repetitive harsh vocals that elevate the choruses in "Gungrave" and "Snowblood" in cool ways. Although he gets pretty close to being annoying for me personally, the clean vocalist does a solid job of staying in his lane until songs like "Vanish Canvas" and "Memory Fiction" show up. Other tracks like "Lunar Halo" and "Eidolon" add in an additional layer of synth and guitar effects for amazing impact, so much so that I really wish they would have doubled down on this aspect of their sound for most of their other tracks. I can imagine the intro to "Lunar Halo" may sound cheesy and silly to some, but I think it fits well into the more mechanical aspect of ERRA's sound. However, "Scorpion Hymn" is an obvious example of being careful with what you wish for since the synth adds pretty much nothing to the composition and the 50-second fadeout is way too over the top.
I'm definitely happy for ERRA though as, from what I can tell, this self-titled album is a massive step up from their previous material in a lot of ways. Admittedly I've spent way more time with ERRA than I have with their earlier albums like Augment, but from what I can tell I enjoy the more deeper, more powerful sounding riffs, the slightly less growl intensive harsh vocals, and the more mechanical and technical atmosphere. I was able to catch these guys live this year and I can say that their newer material had a way larger effect on the crowd than their older stuff, so I sincerely hope that they can continue to refine the sound they've settled into here on ERRA. Although it may not be the most consistent album there are some standout songs that will satiate Metalcore fans looking for technical riffing, great vocal contrast, exciting solos, and cool synth ideas. I just really wish that "Memory Fiction" was cut considering it's such a departure from what the rest of the album is trying to do.
Genres: Melodic Metalcore Progressive Metal
Expectation Versus Reality
Born of the Cauldron is a cautionary tale of potential, experimentation, and pushing boundaries. Power Metal, especially US Power Metal, has a tendency to be pretty rigid when it comes to songwriting, riff structure, and overall presentation, leaving smaller, lesser known bands engulfed by the shadows of the classic monoliths like Blind Guardian, Iced Earth, or even groups like Riot. Cauldron Born, hailing from Atlanta, came onto the scene towards the tail end of the initial Power Metal boom with a plan of attempting to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack in a spectacular fashion. In many ways Born of the Cauldron is more Progressive Metal than Power Metal, with some of the only things keeping it within the realms of Power Metal being the vocal style, the overall tone and mixing of the guitar and bass, and the structure of the choruses. The rest of the album is a flurry of technical songwriting that is overly complex in a way that initially grabbed my attention in a very positive way. It's been a long time since I've heard Power Metal that tried something new and different with Cauldron Born's approach to cram as many transitions and convoluted riffs into every square inch of every song. After some initial listens my opinions of Born of the Cauldron were pretty high since the ballsy, overly technical approach was something I respected and was enjoying.
The overall sound of Cauldron Born sits between a more neoclassical, shreddy kind of Metal and the more traditional US Power Metal sound, one of its defining qualities being the very present bass riffs that support the twists and turns of the guitar as it moves from riff to riff. The vocals follow a pretty standard Power Metal shriek that offer a ton of variety in both range and melody as they're pretty independent from the rest of the band. Most of the tracks off of Born of the Cauldron are high octane riff-fests filled with erratic ideas and aspirational transitions that hang on by a thread most of the time. Tracks like "Imprisoned With the Pharaohs" and "Unholy Sanctuary" slow down a bit and present some more standard chug focused rhythms that let the bass shine through. Although Born of the Cauldron is an extremely dense album I found myself enamored with quite a few standout riffs on "The Final Incantation/In the Dreaming City", "Crusader", and "In Fate's Eye a King", not to mention most of these songs having good hooks for the choruses. As I kept going back to Born of the Cauldron and analyzing it more though, cracks in the armor began to really shine through.
Since Cauldron Born obviously tried to prioritize complex songwriting, it became more and more clear that they bit off way more than they could handle for their debut album. As a non-musician it's hard for me to know whether the band members just weren't adept enough to play their material, or if the material they wrote is just that difficult or complicated. After my first few listens I thought that I was just missing the grooves of some of the riffs, but I think it's objectively clear that there are major mistakes in the performances through and through. It's put me in a really strange spot because I still think I genuinely enjoy a lot of these songs, but the versions of them that would get stuck in my head were very different than what was on the album. I'd be humming the chorus of "Crusader" or "The Sword's Lament" randomly all day, but quickly realized that I was removing all the blemishes from the actual recording in my head. Since Cauldron Born litter their songs with as many transitions and melody shifts as they can, having tight and clean performances is imperative, but that just isn't what's there on this album. The kick drum is pushed far forward in the mix and is sharp, clear, and sadly detrimental because it highlights just how rough of a time their drummer has keeping steady, consistent time. Couple that with complex guitar and bass riffs that fall in and out of time due to how strangely their structured and a vocalist that is off doing his own thing, Born of the Cauldron ends up sounding like more and more of a mess the closer you listen.
I truly believe that this debut would be one of my favorite Power Metal releases if the performances weren't so marred because there's some awesome stuff going on here. I respect Cauldron Born for having the gusto to release something that's much above the band's skill level at the time because it was certainly able to grip me at first given its uniqueness. If some tweaks were made and a bit more practice was done I could only imagine how great Born of the Cauldron could have sounded, but I made an initial rating mistake of what I thought the album was rather than what it actually was. In the end I always want bands to aspire to break free from certain formulas that keep certain Metal genres pretty generic, but this one taught me that an immaculate performance isn't always a given for studio albums.
Genres: Heavy Metal
I’ve come to accept that Thrash Metal is one of my weaker metal genres overall since very few modern, or even classic Thrash albums capture my attention for more than a few listens. However, it seems like when a band manages to pull in some other extreme metal influences like Death or Black Metal into the mix, it creates a bubbling, addictive concoction that I just can’t get enough of. Last year it was Witches Hammer with their 2020 debut Damnation Is My Salvation, containing a potent Death and Thrash Metal mixture with hints of Black Metal buried beneath, and this year Steel Bearing Hand offer up something that occupies a similar space while messing with the ratios just enough to create something just as robust. Slay In Hell is a ripping thrash record that comfortably stays in the classic thrash realm longer than any of its contemporaries considering its old-school production style and multitude of furious riffs, but is able to pivot incredibly hard into crushing Death and Death-Doom Metal sections without missing a single stride.
Considering this is only their sophomore album, Steel Bearing Hand show some serious mastery with pulling other extreme metal influences into a Thrash Metal base without anything sounding out of place. Every track save for a few Death Metal sections on “Tombspawn” and “Ensanguined” are absolutely unhinged, with the opening track “Command of the Infernal Exarch” even transitioning flawlessly into a Black Metal blast-beat section that comes out of nowhere and sounds absolutely nasty. The Death Metal influence Slay In Hell demonstrates comes in a variety of forms, from “Lich Gate’s” faster take on a chunkier guitar tone, to the opener of “Tombspawn” showcasing some brutal chugs, and the beginning of “Ensanguined” seeing the band experiment with some extended, atmospheric Death Doom sections before transitioning into the full throttle closer complete with an incredible solo and slow-burn ending. The secondary extreme metal influences don’t overshadow the thrash sections though, as “Per Tenebras Ad Lucem” and “’Til Death and Beyond” have some of my favorite riffs and choruses I’ve heard all year. I’m always a fan of riffs that evolve throughout the song and “Per Tenebras Ad Lucem” illustrates this perfectly with a full 3 and a half minutes being an extended instrumental section that plays around the main riff theme and continuously builds aggression, tension, and excitement through the solo section all the way to the end.
The overall songwriting on Slay In Hell is frankly superb. It’s always a challenge to nail down an overall sound when trying to juggle so many different elements, but Steel Bearing Hand manage to nail it on a track-by-track basis as well as across the album as a whole. The way the tracks increase in length and complexity as the album goes on is very neat and something that I haven’t seen all that often outside of Progressive Metal albums. The pacing between Thrash, Death, and Death-Doom sections makes it so nothing overstays its welcome and manages to keep the listener completely engaged with ever-changing riffs and vocal styles. Lead guitarist Wyatt Burton showcases some incredible range with his vocals, helping to complete each section as it shifts between all three aforementioned genres. He’s pushed into the back of the mix and reverbed to hell and back so he doesn’t exactly steal the show like some other thrash vocalists, but all of his different vocal styles go along with the frantic pacing of the album nicely. He’s able to drop into nice, guttural Death Metal growls when he needs to, but still have the angry, grating thrash vocals that occasionally dip into Black Metal territory here and there.
Slay In Hell has turned into an album that I can’t get enough of this year, and for good reason. Steel Bearing Hand blast straight through the gates of hell with unrelenting force and demonstrating incredible dexterity in fusing some of the best aspects of more extreme metal genres into an aggressively fun package. As Thrash Metal continues to evolve and pull in more and more dark aspects from the likes of Death and Black Metal, I feel that it’s easy to get overzealous and misconstrue how and why all of these genres can work together when well written. Slay In Hell aims high but doesn’t falter under the pressure of everything it wants to cram into its runtime, even when closing with a 12 and a half minute, Death-Doom laced ender. If this is how Thrash Metal with old-school production is going to evolve, then I’m all for it.
Genres: Thrash Metal
A Hallowed Reunion
I’ve been a big fan of Power Metal ever since I started seeking out less mainstream Metal bands, so it’s always awkward having to say that I think Helloween are a bit overrated for me. Granted, it took me a while to get to them amidst all the Avantasia, Edguy, and Blind Guardian I was listening to back then. Hell, I didn’t even know that Michael Kiske and Kai Hansen played major roles in Avantasia’s “Wicked Trilogy” nor did I know that Helloween basically spearheaded the Power Metal movement in the mid-80’s with their self-titled EP before releasing The Walls of Jericho. It felt like their appeal had flown right past me by the time I finally checked out Keeper of the Seven Keys in full. Helloween were fast, raw, and exciting, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it all felt more than a bit dated compared to the rest of my favorite Power Metal acts despite its classic status. It isn’t a secret that Helloween’s quality took a nosedive in the 1990’s, resurfacing for brief gasps of air here and there with new vocalist Andi Deris taking the helm from Kiske. I’ve always had some issues with Kiske’s vocals, but Deris would really become an Achilles heel for me in regards to enjoying Helloween’s more modern content. However, I caught wind of a new self-titled album that promised a full reunion of the band and, upon seeing the painted cover art instead of the tacky 3D renderings, my interest was more than piqued.
That’s a lot to promise, though, considering Helloween is nearing their 40th anniversary as a band. It takes a certain group of musicians and just being in the right place at the right time to recreate the energy needed to produce a fantastic record 30 years after the band’s so-called prime, especially in a genre like Power Metal. I’m glad to say they pulled it off though, since Helloween might be one of the best self-titled returns to form ever spawned. It’s not going to reinvent the Power Metal genre, nor does it necessarily need to, but I can safely say that this album has something for every kind of Power Metal fan, whether they want a classic Helloween experience or a more modern, more Heavy Metal inspired style. Most of the Heavy Metal inspiration comes with Deris’ modern Helloween songwriting, with him being cited as responsible for “Fear of the Fallen”, “Mass Pollution”, “Rise Without Chains”, “Cyanide”, and partially responsible for “Best Time”. Even though these tracks grew on me after a few listens, they feel so much more straightforward than something like “Angels” or “Robot King”, especially “Mass Pollution” with its blatant stadium-anthem portions that make my eyes roll a bit. They’re still higher quality than average, run-of-the-mill Power Metal tracks though, thanks to great harmonies supplied by the three Helloween vocalists and admittedly addictive choruses and riffs. Although I never cared much for Deris’ voice and delivery, his rawer energy pairs well with Kiske when they sing together for extended periods of time in tracks like “Angels”.
In many ways, Helloween is a celebration of old meeting new and is far from a simple publicity stunt made to coast on the fact that Kiske and Hansen are listed in the credits. Kiske, Deris, and Hansen’s vocals intertwine and harmonize with one another in ways that feel fun and creative rather than just having them trade on and off, making this album feel like a real reunion rather than a fabricated one. Right from the start “Out for the Glory” has a very classic Power/Speed Metal with a fast, galloping drum beat behind Kiske’s more freeform vocal melodies which eventually leads to the big reveal of the multiple vocalists present on the album. Deris definitely steals the spotlight a bit more aggressively on his songs but it’s legitimately exciting to hear these two harmonize so well on “Fear of the Fallen” and especially “Skyfall”. The tradeoffs between the two are well written too, which admittedly appeals to me more than most since I’m such a huge Avantasia fan. Helloween does have shades of the metal opera that both Kiske and Hansen have been a part of in the past with its large emphasis on symphonic elements compared to Helloween’s old material. While Helloween may be a bit less shreddy and sadly has less bass presence, they cranked up the epic atmosphere with the help of a ton of choir and orchestration on “Out for the Glory”, “Angels”, and “Skyfall”, as well as a commonly used, heavenly atmosphere on certain choruses like “Robot King” and “Fear of the Fallen”. I can see why fans of 1980’s Helloween may shake their fists at this, but as someone who likes my Power Metal on the more epic side, this album is extremely well proportioned between having those epic elements and remaining sharp and exciting. Even though the album has some pretty generic Heavy Metal riffing on tracks like “Mass Pollution” and “Indestructible” I don’t necessarily find them boring and “Indestructible” has an especially cool solo section given the rest of the track is slightly forgettable. The more classic sounding Power Metal tracks are where the riffing really shines though, with “Out for the Glory” and “Skyfall” having more organic, shred oriented melodies with noticeably punchier bass volume.
“Skyfall” is the easiest way to sell this album, though, since it’s probably the best thing that Helloween has released up to this point. I’ve never been partial to “Halloween” or “Keeper of the Seven Keys” even though I think they’re perfectly fine epics, but “Skyfall” is absolutely fantastic and earns every minute of its 12-minute runtime. So many different riffs are explored, taking the track through a variety of twists and turns through furious Speed Metal riffing, to stripped down storytelling sections, to choir-backed guitar solos all while Deris and Kiske put their own unique flair into their respective vocal sections.
Even though I believe that Helloween is an incredibly solid album, I wouldn’t necessarily call it the savior of modern Power Metal or anything like that. While it’s exciting to hear Helloween return to some of their old songwriting tactics, the riffs and melodies aren’t the most engaging and some tracks could have used some more pop in places, especially during some of the transitions in “Cyanide”. That being said, this is a momentously fun album just to hear old and new Helloween collide head-on, which isn’t something you get to hear from bands too often. Despite parting with the band for assumedly various reasons in the past, these guys obviously still share some creative synergy that allowed them to do the unthinkable; they released a self-titled album that actually lives up to the promises of returning to a form that’s at least somewhat different than their modern material. Considering I can’t say I was a massive fan of modern or classic Helloween, this album is a huge win for the band on top of being immensely fun to listen to in general.
Genres: Power Metal
The Jack Of All Black Metal
Rotting Christ’s debut seems to put them in a strange, in-between spot compared to the rest of the early 1990’s Black Metal landscape. They aren’t as tremolo focused or lo-fi as Darkthrone, nor as riff focused as Samael, nor as chaotic or evil as Mayhem, nor as thematic as Satyricon, so where does that leave them? For me, Thy Mighty Contract tries its best to pull a lot of different Metal influences into a cohesive but varied package, but fails to be very exciting at the end of the day. The album is filled with a smorgasbord of different tones and styles, ranging from classic blast beat tremolo, to mid-tempo Heavy Metal style riffing, to attempts at symphonic elements during tracks like “Dive the Deepest Abyss”, but I can’t say that Rotting Christ mastered any of these yet.
Given that they play so many different kinds of riffs throughout the album, it’s slightly unfortunate that I think Rotting Christ is at their weakest when they’re playing straight up Black Metal. The tremolo sections in “Transform All Suffering into Plagues” and “Coronation of the Serpent” are devoid of any sort of drum fills or flourishes, making them way too repetitive and downright uninteresting for the most part. “Exiled Archangels” does a better job with its more interesting melody and interesting layering of the guitars, but I’m still just waiting for these sections to be over and done with as I make my way through the album. Rotting Christ shines a bit brighter with their mid-tempo Black Metal riffage, with tracks like the aforementioned “Exiled Archangels” and “Dive the Deepest Abyss” becoming much better once they transition out of the tremolo and into the chug portions. While the riffing is good it’s not exactly stellar either, coming up short in comparison to its peers and even some of its contemporaries like Bathory’s mid-tempo tracks. The vocals are also pretty middle-of-the-road for me as well, with vocalist Necromayhem showing he has a decently varied range when it comes to his Black Metal shrieks, but he rarely steals the show.
Thy Mighty Contract lacks some overall aggression and presence and attempts to make up for it with an evil, occult atmosphere with some of the synth work, but ends up sounding fairly half-baked overall. Even though I’ve been pretty harsh on this album, I think it comes down to having the knowledge that other Black Metal albums I really enjoy simply execute all the parts of Rotting Christ’s style in better ways than what they showcase on this album. For someone who is looking to figure out their niche or taste in Black Metal I think Thy Mighty Contract would be a great recommendation, since it does a decent job at covering a lot of the aspects that other Black Metal bands specialize in. While their tremolo riffs drag a bit, their mid-tempo riffs aren’t exactly the hardest hitting ones I’ve ever heard, and their attempts at creating an occult atmosphere are hit or miss, there are still some great moments and transitions hidden in a few tracks like “His Sleeping Majesty”, “Exiled Archangels”, and “The Fourth Knight Of Revelation”. While I don’t think it aged as well or in the same ways as some of the other heavy hitting classics, it’s still a varied and inoffensive debut from yet another well known mid-1990’s Black Metal band.
Genres: Black Metal
Since Black Metal has proven to be one of the most forward-thinking and impressive genres even into the 2020’s, I’ve found myself listening to a lot of it as I search for my favorite albums of the year. The scope of the genre is extremely broad and while most associate Black Metal with lo-fi production, tremolo riffs, and blast beats, it wasn’t even close to the only style of Black Metal to come out of the explosion of classic albums between 1992 and 1995. Ceremony of Opposites is incredibly far removed from the likes of Darkthrone or Emperor but still manages to convey the Black Metal feel through a few but important constants in the raspy vocals and small hints of synth-y orchestra in the background. The rest is a battering mix of heavy chug riffs, almost Industrial Metal sounding drums, and rolling bass riffs that sometimes forgets that it’s a Black Metal album altogether, especially on tracks like “Son of Earth”. I consider Black Metal to normally be a more natural sounding genre, mainly because of Atmospheric Black Metal’s tendency to make every album about walking through some snow-covered forest, but also because of how freeform and messy it can be at times. Samael turns that notion on its head entirely and offers up an almost mechanical sounding riff-fest on Ceremony of Opposites and I’m all for it.
I’ve grown to really enjoy the more complex tremolo progressions or the brutally technical melodies of extreme metal genres over the years, but at the bottom of my heart I’m a simple person; I like a solid, heavy riff. I’m not sure if there’s a riff on this album that I don’t like, with Samael bringing a chunky and poignant production quality that contrasts with the normally thin sounding production of Black Metal at the time. It may not have the heft of Death Metal production, but it almost gets there in the more rhythmic tracks like “To Our Martyrs” and “Flagellation”. Given the more mechanical style of the drums and guitars I’m not sure why the classic Black Metal orchestra synths sound so good and give the tracks a ton of creepy atmosphere, but they pull it off somehow. All of this comes together in short but satisfying tracks that barely reach the 4-minute mark most of the time. Each track revolves around its main riff but certain sections in “’Till We Meet Again”, “Crown”, and closer “Ceremony of Opposites” take interesting detours into a more traditional Black Metal style. “Ceremony of Opposites” especially showcases this with its even slower tempo and ample use of Atmospheric Black Metal style synth, ending the album on a note that feels like it shouldn’t fit the album, but it helps to tie everything together nicely in my opinion.
As much praise as I’m giving this unique take on classic Black Metal, it’s a fairly simple riff-fest at the end of the day. Even though there’s some nuanced and neat additions like the background orchestration and some killer bass grooves hidden beneath the pounding of the kick drum, I doubt this album will be much of a grower for me or most people. I think Ceremony of Opposites caught me at a good point in my listening where I wanted nothing more than to rock out to some gnarly, grooving riffs, but it’s absolutely had enough depth to keep me coming back for more. The riffs of “Black Trip”, “Son of Earth”, “Mask of the Red Death”, “Baphomet’s Throne”, and “Flagellation” show that this less theatrical, stripped down version of Black Metal earns every merit that it gets. It also shows that Black Metal is truly a genre that can be pushed, pulled, or stretched in any direction to create exciting and quality music, depending on what you’re looking for. I can see my opinion of Ceremony of Opposites dropping over time but for now I think it’s a phenomenally fun album that doesn’t miss a single time when it comes to riffs.
Genres: Black Metal
A Bio-Mechanical World
Progressive Metal used to be my genre growing up, but I feel as if I have to go elsewhere nowadays to get the same sorts of twists and turns that used to excite me. Thirty-ish years into the genre’s supposed inception the label itself is becoming a bit disingenuous, leading listeners into a likely trap that promises something new, complex, impressive, or intricate. More often than not I find myself looking to Technical Death and Thrash or the more avant-garde side of Black Metal to provide most of the cutting-edge additions for Metal over something that’s literally named for supposedly progressing the genre. While a good portion of Progressive Metal feels sadly shackled to its predecessors, there’s always going to be a group or two who refuse to remain stagnant and quietly release fresh and exciting content for people lucky enough to stumble upon it. In 2020 that group for me was Lucid Planet, who were a quick and nonchalant recommendation from a coworker that I didn’t exactly rush around to get to at the time. When I finally did it was clear that Lucid Planet II was one of the most unique and impressive albums of 2020, as shown by its top 20 placing on my list, but returning to it with some hindsight shows that this album still has a ton of life left in it.
I’ll only reference Tool once since it’s important, but want to get it out of the way early. Lucid Planet’s 2015 debut, self-titled album showed that they were a band that was heavily influenced by said aforementioned band to a point where it was an obvious crutch for them. Unlike other clones, though, these Australians showed some serious promise since they chose to focus on some of the Tool’s stranger and more atmospheric tendencies more than anything else, allowing them to fully transition into their own with Lucid Planet II. Within the span of one album, they’ve managed to carve out a fantastic spot for themselves by doubling, if not tripling down on the aspects of their music that made them unique in the first place rather than taking the easy path down the weathered road, worn down by the travels of many other Progressive Metal bands. These aspects range anywhere from psychedelia, tribal, or electronica and meld together into a product that is absolutely dripping with character, atmosphere, and expression. I’m a massive fan of consistent theming when it comes to albums and Lucid Planet II delivers a wildly organic but somehow unnatural sounding meshing of concepts using mechanical sounding electronics fused with loose and psychedelic atmospheres. Through tracks like “Organic Hard Drive” and “Digital Ritual” Lucid Planet have really created their own alien landscape filled with slightly familiar qualities warped in a way that makes the listener feel uneasy but still awestruck by what’s around them, like walking aimlessly through a strange sort of forest on another planet.
This consistent natural versus mechanical atmosphere and feel of Lucid Planet II is what drives it forward and what makes the rest of the Progressive Metal riffing and solos have a ton more punch than they otherwise would. This album spends a lot of time on the low end, taking ample amounts of time to build up to each new section and riff introduction. While the album does have some great riffs and metal sections, most of the magic lies in the extended sections between them, combining tribal percussion with sputtering, warbling synths coupled with a clear sense of progression through the songwriting that makes it feel like each section that might sometimes be a bit too drawn out for its own good was worthwhile to sit through. Most of “Anamensis”, “Face the Sun”, and “Zenith” are comprised of these softer, more stripped down sections that explore all of these different tribal and electronic influences rather than hard-hitting riffs, even though they definitely pop up here and there. If anything, the biggest issue I have with Lucid Planet II isn’t necessarily about the atmospheric sections being too long, it’s the climaxes not sticking around for long enough. The buildups and transitions throughout Lucid Planet II are incredible, but it feels like the payoff for all the buildup doesn’t stick around for long enough for it to really make an impact sometimes. “Face the Sun” and the closer “Zenith” are especially guilty of this, even though I can understand the choice for “Zenith” to act as a climactic closer to the album. “Face the Sun” has about two minutes of total payoff over the course of a 12-minute track, plus an extra five minutes of electronic musings from “Digital Ritual” beforehand, and even though I love “Face the Sun’s” surprise Arabic turn I just wish there was more of it.
Even though Lucid Planet may not completely capitalize on their big moments, the smooth as silk transitions and progressions to get to those moments are entrancing. I believe that one of the most important aspects to having compelling atmospheric sections is never losing the groove of the concept you’re trying to convey, and Lucid Planet II showcases how to intricately progress an album through a plethora of styles without ever losing its footing. There’s a natural and freeform flow between everything that Lucid Planet writes that’s established in the first two songs, with “Anamensis” being a fantastic intro that sets the stage for what’s to come and “Entrancement” instantly turning the album on its head with its repetitive tribal chanting and percussion. Most of the tracks offer their own distinct twist though since Lucid Planet II barely repeats itself throughout its hour runtime, even with the more psychedelic and electronic breaks in “Digital Ritual” having a very different vibe than something like “Organic Hard Drive” or “Face the Sun”. The album doesn’t necessarily have a linear progression but it seems to start out more organic and grounded sounding with more tribal influences, but eventually shifts away towards a more spacey or heavenly feel starting at “Digital Ritual” and culminating with “Zenith”. The use of some harmonizing female vocals during certain sections help to add some spice as well, especially since Lucid Planet’s lead vocalist tends to sing to enhance the atmosphere rather than show off his pipes. To my ears there’s even a nod to a Ne Obliviscaris style violin in “Face the Sun”, which is something that I didn’t even pick up on until going to write this.
What’s left for Lucid Planet II is the actual Progressive Metal sections and while I don’t think they would hold up so well on their own, Lucid Planet’s songwriting and use of all their other strange elements highlights the riffs and bass grooves in a stellar way. The beginning of “On the Way” is probably the most traditional Progressive Metal example with its driving layered riffing and seamless transition into the atmospheric second half. The bass also has that satisfyingly poignant and plucky tone that is heavily inspired by that band that I refuse to name more than twice in this review. It’s tough because I think this is where Lucid Planet II falters the most since the big Progressive Metal moments are pretty fleeting given the length of the album, even though there are a ton of other small sections and riffs that are memorable. I still believe that this works in their favor, though, because the selling point of this album is it’s unnerving and alien aura. It’s an album with a lot of weird, earthy, and sometimes squishy sounds and influences that are wrangled up into an organic and cohesive project that has only gotten better with time for me personally. In a time where it feels like it’s difficult for Progressive Metal to progress, Lucid Planet has created an incredibly overlooked experience that is uniquely captivating and sleek through and through, even though it may not be for everyone due to how atmospherically focused it is.
Genres: Progressive Metal
Vampires Have Feelings Too
I’ve slowly been figuring out that the explosion of the Black Metal genre in the early to mid-1990’s isn’t to be underestimated. Within two or three years this raw and evil offshoot of Thrash Metal went from having only a handful of notable bands pushing the genre forward to everyone plus their long lost, distant relatives pulling new sub-genres out of thin air. Whether it was Symphonic, Atmospheric, or Melodic Black Metal, the short span between 1993 and 1995 had an insurmountable number of influential albums being released all over the world. Amidst all these groundbreaking albums that I actually enjoy, Mütiilation hit me with an album that made me scratch my head a bit. Vampires of Black Imperial Blood is influential in a more traditional sense, with the album itself not exactly breaking entirely new ground in the same way as something like Bathory’s Hammerheart, but still having a massive impact and influence on later artists that would refine what this album started. If I'm being honest though, I can't say that I'm a massive fan of what would spawn from this, whether you want to call it Depressive Black Metal or not, and that makes it really difficult to like what Mütiilation did on their debut.
Vampires of Black Imperial Blood is a raw and grating experience, but not in the same way as other lo-fi Black Metal albums. I can be a big fan of classic lo-fi or even modern lo-fi production if it's handled well, but Mütiilation's approach of having zero bottom end on anything mixed with some instantly notable inconsistencies between the tracks just doesn't do it for me. The bass drum for all the blast beats is barely audible and while there are more than a few cool guitar riffs and melodies, the moments where they're able to shine through in any meaningful way are few and far between. The album is split into two distinct production styles, the first being "Eternal Empire", "Under Ardailles Night", "Magical Shadows Of A Tragic Past", and "Black Imperial Blood" having a very foggy and muddled guitar tone that pushes the percussion even farther into the background. "Ravens Of My Funeral", "Transylvania", "Tears Of A Melancholic Vampire", and "Born Under the Master's Spell" are a bit more standard in their lo-fi production as the tremolo riffs are clearer and more audible but still have that grindy and cold quality to them. Throwing these two production styles into one albums definitely makes for a jarring experience and even though the apparent devil-may-care attitude towards the overall quality of the music could be endearing for some, it never gripped me in a meaningful way.
However, I admittedly understand why this album is cited as being so influential. As Black Metal was being refined from its lo-fi beginnings by multitudes of bands, Mütiilation decided to double down on the essence of what separated Black Metal from Thrash Metal in the first place. This album undoubtedly has a lot of passion to it, even though raw passion can be a double-edged sword in cases like this. There are plenty of great riffs in tracks like "Black Imperial Blood" and "Under Ardailles Night" that rival some of the other classic Black Metal albums of the time, but there's so many uninteresting blast beat sections stuffed in-between these moments that just don't keep me captivated whatsoever. The raw and cold energy of this release just bounces off of me, which is strange since I'm normally a pretty big fan of Atmospheric Black Metal for those exact reasons. It's hard to say why, since I agree that there's a ton of dark and grim emotion packed into this release, but I suppose it's not conveyed in a way that's captivating to me.
Genres: Black Metal
The Truly Tenacious Effort
I.N.R.I might be one of the most interesting Black Metal albums to come out of the initial surge of the genre following Bathory's debut and The Return.... given how much it embraces the fundamentals of extreme metal. The songwriting isn't exactly great, the overall production and the volume of the drumming compared to anything else is past the point of lo-fi novelty, and the band members are sometimes teetering over the edge of falling out of sync with each other, but man do they ever go for it. As I've gotten deeper and deeper into extreme metal genres I've come to learn that it's not always what you're playing, but how you're playing it, and Sarcófago have a distinct kind of evil, unhinged energy that really carries this release. Even though Black Metal has now etched its place into the modern metal landscape, releases like this show that its beginnings were similar to most other sub-genres in that other Metal styles just weren't heavy or satanic enough for them. These guys walked into the studio, blasted some nonsense into the tapes, and metalheads looking for the next step in evil, Black Metal aggression ate it up.
What struck me the most with I.N.R.I is the obvious Death Metal influence which, considering Death's debut album Scream Bloody Gore was also released in 1987, seems like some pretty cutting edge genre fusion. I'm not sure how much of it was intentional, but the guttural, deep growls on this record honestly would feel right at home in some of the more Brutal Death Metal records of today. Even though I would hesitate to call them well done, they definitely fit into the unhinged feel of the whole record. Most of I.N.R.I. is a flurry of blast beats and thrashy tremolo riffs that oozes old school Black Metal personality but loses itself in the actual performance aspect of the whole thing. "Satanic Lust" starts out well enough with a decent main riff and a barely audible but cool solo amidst all the yelling and cranked up snare, but Sarcófago never really get back to that same kind of riff focused songwriting, preferring a more chaotic approach to the rest of the album. "Nightmare" is a decent attempt at the slower, more chuggy style of early Black Metal that Bathory was well known for and the ending of "The Last Slaughter" is especially brutal, but the rest of the album is varying shades of the same drumming and riffing with some interesting vocals here and there.
The mixing on the drums absolutely ruins most of the positive things I could say about this album, with the snare and bass combo being five times as loud as anything else. I can see how fans of the extremely raw and brutal kinds of production gravitate towards this, but the incessant pounding of the same patterns under similar riffs doesn't really do much for me. At the same time, I.N.R.I. has way more charm and personality than some of the other early Black Metal albums I've heard. The closing track makes me think that this album isn't meant to be taken that seriously, along with some truly classic lyrics on "I.N.R.I." and "Christ's Death", but at the same time these guys really left nothing on the table as they channeled as many extreme metal influences as they could into one short album. Despite all its flaws I think this classic release has some charm that I wasn't ready to admit when I first heard it. It's raw in a way that didn't exactly age well on the surface, but the possibly unintended passion behind an admittedly less than mediocre album somehow won me over in the end.
Genres: Black Metal Thrash Metal