Saxy S's Reviews
Now that my schedule has cleared up for the next couple of days, I can finally get to reviewing that new Protest the Hero album, but that will have to wait until tomorrow. Ever since joining Metal Academy, I have made it a goal of mine to listen to more metal in 2020 than I did in 2019, which should not be all that hard considering how much metal I actually ended up listening to during the year, minus my retrospective binge in January.
Another goal of mine was to listen to different subsections of the metal tag that I normally would not give the time of day. And this feels appropriate. Colosseum were a Finnish Funeral Doom metal band of the late 2000s most prominent remembered for their principal members being apart of the band Yearning. I chose this album because our good friend Sonny92's review was selected to the front page of RYM and I figured it was a good a time as any to cross something different off of my list (don't worry, the PTH album review will come tomorrow).
My distaste of this particular subgenre is the lack of melodic focus. On the opposite side of the spectrum, technical death metal has many of the same compositional tropes of funeral doom metal, in which melody is scorned at in favour of tempo, depending on the genre. With Colosseum, their is melody, quite a lot of it actually. And some of the individual songs on this album are quite impressive in scale. Since many of the tunes are relatively shorter to other funeral doom metal groups, Colosseum use the time they have been given effectively, giving these songs some much needed staying power.
The first half of this record is very well executed. "Towards the Infinite" and "The River" are two excellent standouts that exemplify the shorter songwriting's benefits to a tea. The string and synth embellishments throughout the record, but most prominently on the first half of "Prosperity" sound great. They have their own unique melodic flare at times have a very good overall sound, never feeling compromised by the thick guitars. As for the guitars, they are pretty good as well. I wish that they could have had some more melodic importance rather than serving as an extension of the rhythm section. As for the rhythm section, they sound decent enough; but then again, what did I expect from funeral doom metal. At least they sound good and carry these tunes forward.
Unfortunately the second half of this record drags on for far too long. I've already spoken about the excellent first half of "Prosperity" and that carries over into "Narcosis" as well, but the end of these songs just sort of...fizzle out and they spend their time simmering in whatever resido they can find. And the "Outro" sounds like a pretentious sound collage. It sounds nice from a production standpoint, but really leaves the album ending on a not so good foot.
If there is anything I can gather from this record, it is that Colosseum had potential. Their shorter song structures and focus on melody were big stepping stones that could actually make this music sound memorable. Unfortunately that never happened, and one of the members of this group would give in and commit suicide in 2010. If there were more artists creating funeral doom like this, I would be more intrigued in the genre. But for now, I'll take what I can get and this album is pretty solid.
Genres: Doom Metal
I’m a little surprised I haven’t talked about Wolves In The Throne Room proper yet. Many of my black metal preferences (Agalloch, Saor, Blut Aus Nord, etc.) have similar fan bases with this band. They are a long running atmo-black band out of Washington and are mostly known for their 2007 record Two Hunters, which is mostly known for its focus on nature through the soaring riffage and melodies, to go along with some long song structures and forms.
The newest album, Primordial Arcana, has more tracks than previous WITTR albums, but compliments it by having typically shorter runtimes. Already I can tell that this album is an easier sell as shorter runtimes mean less opportunity for the band to fall into meandering interludes, and that is certainly the case here. Songs like “Mountain Magick” and “Through Eternal Fields” sound massive and do not feel like they are getting stuck behind a proverbial wall as they wait for the next section to commence.
And while Wolves In The Throne Room continue their run of adding more ambience and perhaps dungeon synth into their work, the sections that can fully described as “black metal” are trimmed down further than ever before. I feel like “Primal Chasm (Gift of Fire)” does most of this records “heavy” lifting, but the rest of it feels ethereal in a way and the blast beats that conclude “Through Eternal Fields” are more complimentary to the main guitar riffs that bring that song to its conclusion.
Beyond that, I don’t think that Primordial Arcana is a bad album; it has everything that you could ever want from a shorter, more concise WITTR album. The problem? I have heard this same formula echoed by many other atmo-black bands in recent years with shorter runtimes, while still explosive black metal passages. Whether that be the old guard with Blut Aus Nord, or newer bands like The Great Old Ones. This sound should not be unfamiliar with those who are well diverse in the atmospheric black metal scene in 2021.
Genres: Black Metal
It's time to have the BTBAM conversation.
My exploration of technical death metal during the mid 2000s led me through a lot of shit. Most of it is music that I would only listen to in the abyss of the mosh pit. And even then, I was also listening to plenty of melodic metalcore during this time as well, which I would argue at least has the benefit of being recognizable as a fully developed song with melodies and grooves so that I could recognize it outside of those pits.
Which leads us to BTBAM specifically. My introduction to this band was through a longtime friend of mine who was far more engulfed in the metalcore scene of the time. And knowing full well about my preference towards the melodic side of the genre, as well as my prog snob status, I was told to at least give these guys a chance, even though it might take some time to adjust. And so, they let me borrow their copy of 2007 Colors and...it took me a long time to part with that record and buy a copy of my own!
I think that it is important to understand that prior to Colors, Between The Buried And Me were a technical death metal band first. The debut is a gritty album, and The Silent Circus was quite similar, even despite some attempts at melodic songwriting. And while Alaska had more positive steps in the right direction, it felt a lot more disjointed than the bands follow-up Colors; a marvel in conceptual progressive music. The technical moments are still on dramatic display, but a lot of these elements are blended together with melodic passages on "Informal Gluttony" and "White Walls". "Sun of Nothing" may be one of the best things that this band has ever recorded in the way it juggles these sound palettes together.
And the strange part about it all is that I'm just as surprised to this day that it works as well as it does at all! The compositions are all quite disjointed as they alternate back and forth between progressive and technical, but very rarely repeating a musical motif. I think that "Prequel To The Sequel" is a superb example of how, even though motifs may not have direct correlations to one another, the interconnectivity through similar tempos as they modulate through time signatures and key changes is outstanding. Songs like "Informal Gluttony", the intro and outro of "Prequel To The Sequel", and how the bridge of "White Walls" directly references the previous track "Viridian" is refreshing for a concept album.
As for the albums sound, I still have yet to hear a technical death metal album that has the same level of precision and Colors. First and foremost, Dan Briggs sounds phenomenal on this record. This album does have plenty of chugging guitar riffage, but it never compromises this albums low end. As for those guitars, I love how this band flawlessly balances the lead and rhythm parts at all times; this is more so important for Tommy Rogers vocals, synths and Blake Richadson's drum work. Starting with vocals, Tommy's vocals have never sounded better than they do on this album. Too many times on recent BTBAM albums, the harsh vocals feel compromised and almost feel like a cop out in order to maintain favour with old fans of the band. I harken it to what Opeth did with Heritage in 2011, but never fully letting go. With this album however, the prominent harsh vocals and occasional sung vocals (which do feel more like chants) on "Ant Of The Sky" and "Informal Gluttony" serve Rogers well instead of trying to be a Geoff Tate. As for Richardson, the drums are very intense, but don't become overbearing as he balances the metalcore/tech death passages remarkably well as both are delivered with incredible precision.
Nothing Between The Buried And Me have done before or since has been able to live up to the monumental achievement that is Colors. The blending of melodic metal/mathcore with technical death metal is spot on. Furthermore, the balancing act of technical death and progressive metal may truly be lightning in a bottle. I've reviewed quite a few albums in recent months that have attempted this balancing act, but none have been able to find anything close to the balance that is found here. If you're like me, and you ever find yourself struggling trying to appreciate progressive metal that is heavy on the technical side, Colors is the album that shines the brightest. I only hope that this album is as vibrant for you as it was for me.
Genres: Metalcore Progressive Metal
Ever since I discovered La Dispute almost ten years ago, I have become far more willing to accept the artsy brand of poetry in music as it can be done remarkably well if given the time and preparation. From post-hardcore, this sound could also be co-opted by post-metal, which brings us to Amenra, the Belgian output responsible for the Mass series of albums throughout the 2000-2010s.
The new record is removed from that series and has a unique flare to it, while still maintaining all of the tropes that are frequent in this pummeling brand of atmospheric sludge metal. Dynamic's are key and while each track on this album spans at least eight minutes a piece, they all manage to tell a cohesive story. The hauntingly somber intros to "Ogentroost" and "Voor Immer" are paired with huge guitar chords, emphatic low ends and a vocalist that sounds like they are just moments away from bursting into tears. The soft spoken word and occasional sung vocals (male/female) sound very calming by comparison. My favourite moment on the record occurs on "De Evenmens", where the bridge builds up in tempo ever so slowly that you probably wouldn't even notice it, but not before the outro hits and the tempo drastically drops back down to the way it was at the start. And I would be remised if I didn't mention the excellent placement of "De Dood In Bloei", flowing the first three tracks together.
Beyond that, it is just another atmo-sludge/post metal album; never really living up to the heights this genre has to offer from Cult of Luna or Rosetta. That said, it is still a very fascinating and close to great album. It sounds powerful and brooding, while also being very open in its time of weakness. The whiplash adds to its storytelling that is very disturbing. De doorn is a captivating album for the post-metal fan and should be heard by anyone who likes Cult of Luna.
Genres: Sludge Metal Post-Metal
I've been familiar with Leprous for a long time now. I caught on to this band after their very successful 2013 album Coal and got to see this band meteoric rise to fame from the ground up with 2015's The Congregation. That being said, while I really did enjoy those albums, I only recently went back to listen to Leprous' older discography and, most notably, Tall Poppy Syndrome. Unfortunately for what was a relatively new progressive metal band at the time, Leprous never caught my attention in the same year veterans like BTBAM released The Great Misdirect, Amorphis' Skyforger, and Mastodon's bid for progressive album of the decade, Crack the Skye.
The first thing that I noticed was how much heavier this album is than the groups later efforts. The songwriting is much more sporadic and technical and it also features many more crunchy rhythm guitars. But it all sounds so smooth. While some of the transitions between different phrases can have a heavy whiplash factor, I am super impressed by how Leprous pulls these phrases/themes together and makes fully explored songs instead of a random grab bag of pieces thrown together. Each section is incorporated more than once in each song and in some cases, in polyphony. "He Will Kill Again" has an excellent build while still maintaining a fairly straightforward form, while songs like "Phantom Pain" and "Not Even A Name" sound humongous thanks to some killer bass grooves. And the closer "White" does not overstay its welcome despite an eleven-and-a-half minute performance.
But Leprous has always stood out for me because of the vocals from Einar Solberg. The natural charisma that is used as he alternates between stupendous melodic singing and the harsh screams is commendable. There are countless metal bands who wish they had a vocalist that could pull off both as wonderful as this! Speaking of those harsh vocals, this is something that has become far less prominent on subsequent records. So hearing them as frequently as they are on Tall Poppy Syndrome took a little bit of adjusting to get used to. But over multiple listens, I think I like them even more!
The two biggest faults this album has going for it are the length and some of the synth choices. The former is pretty obvious; songs like "Dare You" sound really good and have some fantastic hooks/grooves, but some of the middle sections feel like they meander and could have been cut, and the outro of "Not Even A Name" is played out as well. As for the synths, they sound incredibly late 2000s; most notably on the bridge of "Phantom Pain". I didn't like it when bands like TDWP and other adjacent Warped Tour metalcore bands used it and I'm not going to let it slide here!
Overall, I did enjoy going back to this older, heavier version of Leprous, it still maintains many of the integral songwriting techniques that are present on later records, but pulls them off with more gravitas, and the great production to back it up. I'm not sure it will ever eclipse Coal in my mind, but it does make quite the intriguing case.
Genres: Progressive Metal
After Mestarin kynsi won pretty much all of the critics 2020 best metal albums award, it was only a matter of time before those of us who caught on to Oranssi Pazuzu late would have to take the deep dive into the bands 2016 album, Värähtelijä. This album was equally as well received, if not more so, by critics at the time and as an outside looking in, I can only imagine why Oranssi Pazuzu were given such a loose second opportunity.
That's not to say that I do not like Värähtelijä, I absolutely do! But I've heard many atmospheric and psychedelic black metal albums in the years since this album was released and can only see it as a stepping stone towards greater things for Oranssi Pazuzu, including Mestarin kynsi!
First and foremost, I see Värähtelijä as an experimental project by comparison to its later sequel being the more refined mending of ideas together. This album contains a similar number of tracks as its follow up, but the tunes feel less impressive. The obvious outlier here is "Vasemman käden hierarkia", which sounds more like an extended jam session rather than a collection of ideas formulated together into something spectacular. At the very least, Ornassi Pazuzu are smart enough to make each of the tracks distinguishable from one another; a problem that many psychedelic albums face. After "Lahja" and the title track leave lots of space for post-rock elements, "Hypnotisoitu viharukous" drastically ramps up the intensity and is further explored on "Havuluu". And ending the album on the relatively laid back "Valveavaruus" gives this record a truly unsettling conclusion to a mostly unsettling project.
And even though the production on this album is very muddy, it does play into its benefit slightly. Psychedelic rock does not need to be riff-centric when it is the wall of sound technique that has been imported from atmospheric black metal that creates the comfortable, yet unsettling environment. I found that the fewer synthetic sounds did not help matters in making this nearly as unsettling as Ornassi Pazuzu may have thought, but these advances were made on later albums, so once again, I feel like this was an experiment for the band to see what would stick and then develop that sound further on subsequent releases.
But in the end, I know why people enjoy this record so much and while it may not be my personal cup of tea, I certainly appreciate its quality. For me, I prefer my atmo-black metal with sweeping melodic phrases and epic hooks and tales of folklore. Bit for an unsettling taste of psychedelic rock meets atmospheric black metal, you can never go wrong with Oranssi Pazuzu, even though I feel Mestarin kynsi is the culmination of this sound.
Genres: Black Metal
There comes a time in every prog snob's lifetime where they have to separate the technicality of the music from the actual quality. For far too long, I have found myself being overly favorable to progressive rock/metal albums for the sole purpose of "yep, this doesn't sound anything like what you hear on the radio!" despite the fact that in the lexicon of progressive music, an album may sound formulaic. With that being said, I can honestly say that I have never heard ANYTHING that sounds remotely close to Lucid Planet in my lifetime. The closest comparison that I can make is if you took the psychedelic's and post-metal of early 2000s Tool and combined it with some Orphaned Land and perhaps some of the modern electronic trends that have been plaguing a lot of alternative metal bands in recent years; most notably Bring Me The Horizon, Architects and Bullet For My Valentine. And even then that still does not even scratch the surface!
Lucid Planet II is an intoxicating album which sees the band mess around the spectrum of psychedelic music with a record that never feels like it is confined to the label of "Metal". How appropriate since Tool feels very much the same way. They use sitar, tabla, strings, digeridoo and various other horns throughout the mix. While certain interlude passages incorporate electronic percussion in addition to acoustic parts. The electric guitars are sparse and do not play a super important role as they would on say an early 2000s Opeth record. It all comes together into a nicely fit package that defies the laws of progressive metal, emphasis on the word "metal".
Because unlike many of Lucid Planet's contemporaries, this is a band that cares about their interludes, if you can even call them that. In comparison to songs like "Organic Hard Drive" and "Face the Sun", "Entrancement" "Offer" and "Digital Ritual" are significantly shorter and contain very little of the metal tones that exist on the albums longer tracks. And I'll be damned if they aren't some of the best interludes I've heard on any album in quite some time! "Entrancement" lives up to its title by starting very ambient and peaceful, but gradually building up intensity through dynamics, but also adding significant percussion and vocals to the mix and growing as a whole and never becoming stale. I also really dig "Digital Ritual": while the first half is very ritualistic, the flip of glitchy percussion and bombastic synths on the second half sounds incredible!
But outside of the interludes, the rest of the album is very solid as well. The opener "Anamnesis" splits the difference between Lateralus era Tool and Katatonia, which carries into "Organic Hard Drive". While "Face the Sun" and "Zenith" end the album on a trance induced high note that is quite stunning in its follow through of all of the ideas put forth up to this point, and flowing one into the next without feeling chopped up and poorly balanced together. Another thing that Lucid Planet are able to pull off incredibly well on this album is seamless transitions. Like with a lot of progressive/technical albums with so many uncommon time signatures, it can become very difficult to make moving between themes sound fluent. This album has plenty of moments that will make you wonder "how the hell did we get from point A to point B and I didn't even notice!" The one that I picked up on was the flawless transition from triplets to sixteenth notes on "On the Way".
Where I will knock a couple of points back from Lucid Planet II is that some of the longer songs do not feel as memorable as even some of Tool's longer songs. But where Lucid Planet makes up for that is in the incredible interludes and simple repetitive motifs that persist throughout songs and in some cases, throughout the entire album.
At the beginning, I mentioned how prog snobs need to get over the fact that their music sounds nothing like radio friendly rock/metal and that the technicality does not automatically make an album a classic. With that being said, Lucid Planet's sophomore album is one in which I feel its unique charm plays into its benefit. Nothing else sounds like this and I highly doubt that anything will ever sound like this. It borrows from all over the spectrum of psychedelia and creates a new entity that is just as intoxicating as the sum of its parts. If any of that descriptor interests you, then let Lucid Planet II take you on a journey unlike any other.
Genres: Progressive Metal
To those who are familiar with my heavy metal journey over the last ten years may be surprised to know that I have a fondness for the French based progressive groove metal band, Gojira. They tend to write very simplistic melodies to their songs, but they never feel as if they have the same amount of importance to the existence of a song as much as the strong groove elements. In a way, Gojira could be viewed as the true gateway into djent, or more specifically, Meshuggah. And I do not make that comparison lightly.
Their album’s have improved over time, with L’Enfant Sauvage being my personal favourite, and now with Fortitude, we can hear the band further commercializing their progressive sound; such is necessary if you want to gain more clicks/streams/ticket sales. The melodies on this new record are solid enough, but still very much fall into a groove first mentality, meaning that songs like “Sphinx” and “Amazonia” are not as good overall as the sum of their parts.
Furthermore, Gojira’s biggest issue with all of their album’s has been the production. For as powerful as the grooves are on Fortitude, a lot of the main guitar and percussion can become overbearing during the melodic sections, drowning out some of the vocal leads. Granted these are not as common as you might think; the main vocals from Joe Duplantier feel secondary to the instrumentals on a compositional level, so much so that “The Chant” features the fewest vocals on the record...and I kind of like it better than anything else.
As a progressive metal album, Gojira have been going down this path for quite a while now, and only expedited by transferring over to Roadrunner Records with Magma in 2016. And it has further alienated fans who came up with From Mars to Sirius and The Way of all Flesh with each subsequent album. I don’t find Fortitude to be that much of a downgrade from Magma; in fact I would probably call it the better of the two albums. But I do not expect myself to give djent another try, despite Gojira’s best efforts to the contrary.
Genres: Groove Metal Progressive Metal
Perhaps it is the benefactor of lowered expectations, but I had very little motivation to check out Grip Inc.'s sophomore album Nemesis. For me, I have had such bad luck with thrash metal in recent years that I've almost begun to start doubting the quality of any thrash metal record released beyond 1990. As we found ourselves moving further and further away from that era, it became increasingly clear that thrash metal bands were less than willing to push the genre forward instead of relishing its golden years of the 1980s.
Someone didn't tell Grip Inc. that. This is probably some of the most fun I've had with a thrash metal album since Vektor. Imagine if Kreator and Pantera had an offspring and you pretty much get the idea as to what this record is all about. There are some faster thrash grooves, but most of this album feels like slower Kreator tracks, complimented by some very obvious Pantera songwriting tips, such as pinch harmonics in the guitar, sung/scream vocals, and strong hooks. Unfortunately, the band were unable to take the great production of those albums with them, most notably in the bass; it is there, but heavily muted due to an overabundance of rhythm guitar.
The sound of this album does feel like a hybrid of those two bands mentioned earlier, but never feeling like a direct ripoff. Grip Inc. know what they want to do with their influences and thankfully transform them into a unique sound that is fresh, even by today's standards. This is probably the most noticeable during the second half of this album from around "Scream at the Sky" into "The Summoning" and carrying on subtly through the album closer "Code of Silence". And that is the Tool influence, which I was not expecting. I was getting a lot of Ænima vibes on these tracks, only heavier to fit in with the thrash/groove vibe of the album. The harsher vocal delivery has throwbacks to Opiate era Tool, but also shares a lot of similarities to Kreator's Mike Petrozza, which I appreciated.
It's a bit of a shame that this band broke up in 2006 because their approach to Thrash/Groove metal through the 1990s into the 2000s was heavily underappreciated. While so many acts were contempt with playing straightforward thrash metal and were unashamed to their blatant idolization of giants like Megadeth and Slayer, Grip Inc. were expanding the genre far beyond simple riffs and solos. This was a treat to hear and a very welcome surprise.
Genres: Groove Metal Thrash Metal
I've had this record sitting on my review bench for a couple of months now and I'm still perplexed by it and trying to put this review together has been a struggle. Anyone who knows what I appreciate out of a good album will know that I have no time for extended technical, musical wankery that is unjustified within the greater context of its composition. Ad Nauseam really took their time with this new album to test my patience as to how much musical nothingness they can place into a single album before I have to either skip to the next track, or turn off the album entirely.
Imperative Imperceptible Impulse might be an appropriate title for an album like this because it it's impulse is to frenetically whiplash transition between short musical ideas that have no connection to one another, and are never developed throughout this album's excessive runtime. Take a song like "Horror Vacui"; this track begins with arguably the album's best hook, all before aborting that idea about a third of the way through, and transforms itself into a deathly slow doom passage for the next third of the track, and then ending with frenetic tech-death again, but incorporating new ideas and themes that have not been properly developed of referenced previously. It takes the song that I initially liked at the beginning and turns it into something that is painfully forgettable, since none of the ideas are given the appropriate amount of time to breathe. Instead, Ad Nauseam quickly transitions away from that really good opening idea, and then never references it again.
As a result, this album suffers in many of the same ways that almost all technical death metal albums do for me. While the technical proficiency is on full display and typically very impressive, because Ad Nauseam are so scatterbrained and cannot have a consistent through line in their music, it all sounds the same. Many tunes have likable portions, but are surrounded by so much fat and bloat that its a chore to find them. The band immediately references Stravinsky (presumably Rite of Spring and beyond), Penderecki and Ligeti in the Bandcamp bio for this album, and it's so obvious.
And it is a damn shame because the production is top notch. Whoever produced this album needs to be recognized for how they are able to make everything sound so brilliant through the hectic song structures. Percussion has always been a swollen thumb for technical music, but here it has no overbearing presence at all! The guitar leads sound full and emphatic, while the bass lines are thorough and independent from the chugging rhythm guitar, adding for a new layer of polyphony that sounds excellent. As for the vocals, when I can hear them, they have so much gravitas in the guttural howls that allows for the themes of suicide and annihilation that much more impeccable. The only problem is that, as I briefly mentioned before, they can be drowned out by the instrumentals on occasion.
Even now I still don't know what to think of Imperative Imperceptible Impulse by Ad Nauseam. Never have I heard a technical death metal record that has sounded so precise and clean, and yet so flailing and rough. This album gives me the same impression as Liturgy's Origin of the Alimonies did late last year; an album that is fully aware of its technical proficiency and uses that as an excuse to create something that is as anti-pop as possible. As a result, this album will not be for everyone. If it is, then you are a much stronger soul than I will ever be.
Genres: Avant-Garde Metal Death Metal
Is it any surprise that Evergrey have been left behind by so many in the progressive metal/power metal scene's within the last ten years? As this band gets older, their power metal has become much slower and has been incorporating more prominent djent elements, meanwhile the bands very plainspoken progressive metal focus has become very tired over the years, and many have moved on to something that is more showoff-y and technically impressive.
But for those of us in the loop, Evergrey have been making some remarkably consistent albums over the past few years, even despite a brief hiccup with The Storm Within back in 2016. They did progressive pirate metal with The Atlantic in 2019 that almost made me forget that Alestorm existed. And following the bands thematic rain period, the ashes are now given their chance to burn brightly.
The question is how brightly do they light up the night sky? I would say about the same as the bands last album. This album is more brooding without going full on post-metal; many slower tracks that use gradual building through dynamics and melodic growth. You won't find much in the way of modulating time signatures or wank guitar solos. But the songwriting and the development of the melodic phrases and ideas from the band are well executed and never feel stale. Even on the albums worst moments, which I would argue are "Eternal Nocturnal" and "Run", they happen to feature unique song structures that still make them standout on their own. But most importantly, these tracks all sound like they belong together. There is no dramatic whiplash effect from one track to the next on this album. For a band to be able to pull that off with such efficiency is commendable.
The albums weakest moments are less so full songs, but rather moments within each song. Some songs feature extended djent breakdowns which I was never a fan of on The Atlantic, the synth leads on this album sound like they have gotten worse since the last album, fortunately they only end up serving as minor speedbumps on songs like "In The Absence Of Sun" and "Stories". And while the bass/fundamentals on this album are very solid, it still suffers from the progressive metal/djent "problem" of having an overmixed kick bass drum.
But overall I do like Escape of the Phoenix. I think that Evergrey have fully recovered from their misstep of 2016 and have found themselves a very nice solid ground of easily accessible progressive metal, especially for those approaching this from a power metal background. The songs are nice and fluent, they never feel like they are overstaying their welcome, the album does not run out of interesting ideas, and it all fits together into a very nice package. It's a bit of a shame that this band has been so overlooked throughout the years. Perhaps we can help this Phoenix rise again.
Genres: Progressive Metal
After having to deal with two disappointing comeback albums from two of symphonic metal’s giants (Within Temptation and Nightwish) over the last couple of years, I was starting to get worried about Epica. This Dutch group has been among the most consistent over a near two decade career and it felt like we were long overdue for a followup to 2016’s The Holographic Principle.
Well here’s the thing: I am not opposed to long wait times between albums, as long as the end result is well worth the wait. And man did Epica deliver! Omega is Epica’s best album to date and does almost everything right when it comes to not only symphonic metal, but also developing the Epica sound to astronomical heights.
Now I will say this; Omega is not without its flaws. The trigger bass drum is still persistent in portions of this album, due to the albums high concept, it tends to run long, and you start to feel like Epica is running out of steam near the end of the record, even as they try to incorporate heavier death metal tendencies on “Twilight Reverie - The Hypnagogic State” and “Omega - Sovereign of the Sun Spheres”. But these are issues that have persisted not just in Epica’s music, but also throughout all of symphonic metal.
So if you can overlook the overplayed, bad trends of symphonic metal, what you will find is a splendid album. Simone Simons sounds better than ever and it’s the rest of the band that assists her immensely. I was floored by the opening three numbers: “Abyss of Time - Countdown to Singularity” through “Seal of Solomon” has excellent pacing of the guitar, bass, synth, orchestral and percussive elements, and Mark Jansen’s death metal screams are just an added bonus. The breakdown on “Abyss of Time - Countdown to Singularity” is ridiculous and hits like a Brock Lesnar F5. But it’s the ballad “Rivers” that really got to me. Simone’s transitions between conventional pop and operatic vibrato is impeccable, and the swelling instrumental is gorgeous.
The songwriting has made a huge level up by having some instantly catchy hooks whether from the guitar leads or the vocals. The further elaborations of the symphonic death metal sounds are rewarding, and they even throw in a couple of middle eastern folk touches that would fit right into an Orphaned Land record with “Seal of Solomon” and “Code of Life”. These divergences do not feel forced or cheap; they are well produced, well executed, and make up some of Omega’s top moments.
I had heightened expectations for Omega; in fact I would say that this was likely my most anticipated early release of 2021, and did Epica come through in a big way! Symphonic metal has had a mostly lackluster handful of recent years, but no one told Epica that! This album feels fresh and original, while still maintaining the points of interest that keep fanboys of symphonic metal like myself coming back for more. This better not be Epica’s “Omega” because they still have plenty left in the tank to deliver.
Genres: Symphonic Metal
If I could describe Trivium's two decade career into a single word, if would have to be "eclectic". This band always seems to be pushing the buttons of what the members are capable of. This melodic metalcore group has spent the last two decades dabbling in thrash, progressive and alternative metal. And each subsequent album seems to improve on what the last got wrong, which is something that you don't see very often, let alone this frequently. Seriously, Trivium sometimes sound more progressive than the actual progressive metal bands like Dream Theater.
Which takes us to 2011's In Waves, easily the bands most successful album and the one that catapulted them to the front of the line when it came to the new flagbearers of metal throughout the 2010s alongside Mastodon. And what we end up getting is a return to form for Trivium; far more traditional in its melodic metalcore roots, but also implying many of the thrash and progressive traits fairly regularly. It is a very comfortable space for the band and it has some really good hooks. And man I wish I liked it more!
The major problem is the production, and it is a recurring problem throughout all of Trivium's albums. The lack of bass independence from the rhythm guitar, combined with the fact that the bass is hardly audible in the first place, make the tunes slog on for so long! It makes some really infectious hooks and grooves on "In Waves", "Watch the World Burn" and especially "A Skyline's Severance" and "Forsake not the Dream" feel bloated without any growth. And when the songs are composed in this way with heavy emphasis on the breakdowns, a full low end is key. None of the breakdowns feel justified, even with the drop tuned guitars.
It's a damn shame because once again, Trivium are at the top of their game when it comes to songwriting. Matt Heafy is a very good and frankly underrated singer. The way in which he is able to switch back and forth between clean singing and harsh screaming is impressive, combined with the fact that he does a lot of the guitar solos on this album as well. The background vocals provide a little bit more of a gravitas from both Corey and Paulo and even Matt himself. The guitar riffs are humongous and almost instantly recognizable and catchy on "In Waves", "Built to Fall", "Black" and "Forsake not the Dream". The songwriting has taken a significant step up from album like Ascendancy after the bands progressive pivot on their last album Shogun. In fact, some songs like "A Skyline's Severance" and "Caustic Are the Ties That Bind" have riffs that sound like they were leftover from the Shogun recordings, and reworked to fit into a more traditional melodic metalcore frame.
But as always, good songwriting can only help you so much when the sound of the album is this... formless. Without a sense of direction or a drive towards the end goal, In Waves just kind of treads water (pun intended) after a while. Paulo needs some independence in the tracks and has to be turned up, but unfortunately, that still hasn't happened almost ten years later. When they did, it was on the bands most contentious album, Silence in the Snow. Still, the riffs are iconic and a must for anyone looking for the quintessential melodic metalcore sound, or just the sound of the 2010s.
Genres: Melodic Metalcore
...I mean, it's a little bit too easy of a sell for me don't you think? The university music graduate, who is also a devoted metalhead, would fall head over heels for The Metal Opera; not just this album, but also the entire concept of what that phrase entails. I mean, my favourite albums by The Who are Tommy and Quadrophenia. It was only a matter of time before someone came along and gave the rock opera genre a much needed crunch. It's even European power metal for god sakes! How can this fail? And it was Tobias Sammet making one of the first moves behind the legendary Arjen Lucassen.
Unlike Ayreon however, Tobias was going to use his new supergroup, Avantasia, in a far more conventional power metal strain; a sound that is certainly not unfamiliar to tales of mythical folklore, and over-the-top dramatism. The symphonic elements that engulf this album in atmosphere make you feel as if the stories being described are as epic as the music that accompanies it.
And it really pains me to say that I didn't like this more. Let's get one thing straight: The Metal Opera is not a bad album. In fact, when compared to the rest of Avantasia's discography, this is probably the ensembles most consistent record, with the only exception being 2016's Ghostlights. But it does have it's issues that need addressing.
First and foremost, the framing of this album feels very lackluster. When it comes to rock opera's, you typically end up with two potential outcomes: an album that is imperative to the hypothetical musical's success, or you end up with what is usually called "Incidental music"; basically it's music that fits with the themes, but is insubstantial for performances purposes. The Metal Opera is clearly made out to be incidental music, however Tobias cannot help but to include these out of place interludes that attempt to break across to the other side and it makes for a confusing tale. Part of this is the lack of guest vocalists. Oh sure, you have appearances from Michael Kiske, Sharon del Adel and even Oliver Hartmann, but their roles feels insubstantial, unless they are not. I just find it all so strange.
It's also not really helped by the fact that Tobias takes far greater vocal leads on this album than later efforts. Look, I have said in previous Avantasia album reviews that Tobias is typically the ensemble's weakest singer. And even though I find his performance here to be far more enjoyable than other records, it still doesn't compare to Kiske's guest features or Sharon del Adel on "Farewell". Sometimes I wish Tobias would sit out on occasion, like how Lucassen does on Ayreon albums, just to let these records breathe a little more. It would also certainly help for story purposes.
As for the music itself, I could just say "European power/symphonic metal' and you would already know exactly what you're getting into. It has lots of symphonic elements, plenty of extensive vocal ranges by both Tobias and Kiske, and grand anthemic choruses made even larger by a full ensemble. And they do sound quite wonderful. "Reach out for the Light" gets the album moving on a hot start, before allowing the room to breathe a bit for "Serpents in Paradise", while still maintaining the desired atmosphere. "Farewell" serves as a wonderful ballad, and the tracks "Avantasia" and "Sign of the Cross" stay varied enough to make the almost ten minute closer "The Tower" feel justified, as well as a pretty good outro; an outro that is slightly reminiscent of the opening track.
The way in which in the album is mixed is splendid: guitars are chunky and the solos never feel over-indulgent. Bass lines are fluent throughout the entire album, making for a very easy, digestible listen, even with the album's almost hour long runtime. The vocals are mixed very well; from the solo mixing of Tobias and the rest of the ensemble, to the full ensemble choruses, everyone has grit and power when they need it, even despite my issues with Tobias as a singer. The symphonic elements are pretty pedestrian minus the folk-esque touches on "Farewell". The only thing that really threw me off was the wild wind gusts that persist throughout "The Glory of Rome"; they really mess around with the mix as they are far too loud and drowns everything out. A bit of a shame because that could have been an album standout without them.
Avantasia were just getting their feet wet in the rock opera category with The Metal Opera and would see even greater success later on, most notably during the late 2010s. But despite this record being as good as it is, I find it hard to call it great. Because this album is sandwiched in between two of the great "metal opera" album's by Ayreon: Into The Electric Castle and The Human Equation. Even despite the rock opera tag, I do not see this as a starting point for people getting into power metal; definitely a deeper cut, but one worth checking out.
Genres: Power Metal
I've been around this website for enough time now that I feel comfortable skipping over my usual preamble surrounding genres that I have never really cared for that much, or in the case of thrash metal, genre's that have continuously disappointed in the years following their hay-day. But I pride myself on willing to give it another opportunity to impress and find that sticky x-factor that will keep me coming back. Which leads us to Hexecutor, a French based thrash metal act who are experimenting ever so slightly into the technical side, and far more prominently in the blackened variety.
The debut album, Poison, Lust and Damnation, showed the band some promise and the sophomore record is pretty decent as well, but flawed. It gets a bunch of brownie points right out of the gate for trying something...maybe not original, but certainly breaking the mold of nostalgia for the 1980s that thrash metal has been perpetually trapped in for a few years. However, I didn't really feel this album in the same way that I did for a Vektor album.
And I think the main reason why is in the compositions. There are some decent moments that stand out on "Ker Ys", "Tiger of the Seven Seas" and "Danse Macabre" that really resonate and sound great. The problem is that Hexecutor does not let these ideas and themes develop and grow. Instead, they will introduce a melodic theme such as the main one on the second half of "Brecheliant", then modulate time/key signatures into something unrelated to that original idea, only to later return to it on the outro, almost as an afterthought. It was almost like: "well we are at the end, what do we do now? I know, let's bring the original hook back just because! That will justify the six minute runtime!"
And this a problem surrounding the whole album. "Eternal Impenitence", "Belzebuth's Apocryphal Mark" and "Kroez Er Vossen" are all trying to balance a thrash and black metal hybrid that is not all that well combined. They feel like they were composed separately by two different writers. And when the time came to put them together, it was decided that they would just Gorilla Glue them together. The end result is something that absolutely could have worked if it had more interwoven phrases.
It's really a shame that these tracks do not flow that well because the instrumentation is tight. This record sounds a lot more refined than the debut; all of the instruments are fully flushed out including the bass, and the swapping between chugging thrash riffs and open tremolo picking does not sound abrasive or feel all that disconnected. The percussion is fairly solid and reminds me all too much of the title track from that recent Bütcher album 666 Goats Carry My Chariot. The vocals...are not good. Thrash metal is supposed to be abrasive and aggressive, meanwhile the vocals on this record feel very hushed and laid back. I mean if it wasn't for those chugging riffs, I would have a hard time calling this a thrash metal record at all! The vocals are certainly much more in tune with black metal howls, but even then, they are not the bellowing roars of Panopticon, Saor or Dzö-nga that I really enjoy.
I can see the potential in this album, and Hexecutor are making positive strides in their sound since the debut so props for that. This album is trying to separate itself from the traditional 1980s thrash metal sound and it does pay off with its black metal hybrid. But the songwriting is underwhelming, the vocals are painfully mixed/performed, and the album honestly runs too long for its own sake. I would still give it a listen, especially for those who are looking for some more progressive (not technical) thrash. Hopefully this band can improve on some of these quibbles and great things will arise in the future. And hopefully start a new wave of what thrash metal can become.
Genres: Thrash Metal
So it's the last week of November, which means that the most stressful month of the year for a music critic is almost here; where we have to start compiling our best of the year lists, while still listening to any leftover projects from the year that we may have missed, as well as keeping our ear to the ground for a surprise December list breaker. I'm using this opportunity to catch up before becoming overwhelmed in the coming weeks.
So this record from Brazilian Atmo-Black metal band Kaatayra has been looming around my recommended playlist for a good while and has been making some sizeable waves since its release in April. Out of curiosity I gave it a spin and what I found was a very fresh and great interpretation of folkened black metal.
I was not ready for acoustic guitars to carry the majority of the riffing weight. It was immensely satisfying and it opened the gateway for prominent synth background and a fruitful bass, even if it does lack independence. It almost reminded me of the softer moments from Agalloch records like The Mantle and Ashes Against The Grain, which is the highest of compliments. The alternating clean/harsh vocals sound wonderful and it all comes together to create song structures and forms that sound wonderful. The opening track "Chama Terra, Chama Chuva" sounds gorgeous, while the closer, "Bom Retorno (De Volta às Origens)" ends the album with slow, melancholic synths, building intensity into the harsher screams and blast beats, before coming back down for a very sultry, yet uncomfortable conclusion.
The two middle songs are very good as well, but they do seem to meander a bit too long for my liking. As a result, the journey from start to finish of this album is immensely pleasant, but it is easy to lose track of time. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but many of the melodic ideas do tend to blend together. So it isn't the good kind of time wasting. But even that still doesn't hold this album back from being really great. Apparently this is Kaatayra's first of two albums they released this year? I'm going to have to check out Toda História pela Frente as well.
Genres: Black Metal
A few months ago, when I shared my opinions on ISIS' 2004 record Panopticon, I brought up the fact that record and Mastodon's Leviathan were released in the same year, played to the same crowd, and were both quality records adored by critics, but only one became household names in the new generation of heavy metal. Whereas Panopticon played into a very deliberate progressive sludge metal sound, Mastodon's Leviathan was straight to the point, aggressive and a lot of fun. But if you dug a little deeper, you would find that this group was far more intelligent than any mainstream outlet would make you believe.
So it's been just over fifteen years since this record was released, how does it sound today? Well it has been a few years (three) since I've listened to Leviathan in its entirety and man does it make me wish for the days of yore when this band have seemingly endless potential. I still have a lot of fun whenever I hear this record. Mastodon's attention to creating memorable songs is impeccable and rightfully deserved their position as flag-bearers of the heavy metal genre for a time.
Now Mastodon would have already have been at a disadvantage at the time since their general sound is that of sludge metal; very dank guitar tones exemplified by additional distortion and sparring tunes with bass-y drop tunings. But the songs are very short and are delivered with faster tempos, plenty of virtuoso drum work and excellent vocal work from Troy Sanders. I will admit, Troy's vocals do take some getting used to as they sound like literal screams, but it adds to the bands character.
Again, the songs and compositions on this album are very short and precise, meaning there is no room for jerking around; tunes have to have their hook, groove and themes all present and modulated in usually less than four minutes. Songs such as "Blood and Thunder" have achieved legendary status (and for good reason), while "Seabeast", "Megalodon" and "Aqua Dementia" are all heavily underrated. The obvious outlier to this is "Hearts Alive", which ends the album on a nearly fourteen minute journey. And while I might not personally be a fan of its long form delivery, its place within the records story is well deserved.
You see, Mastodon have created a loosely based concept album, around the epic tale of Moby Dick. And the first eight tracks on this record all see Captain Ahab preparing his ship, crew, and himself for the journey to catch the legendary beast; the Leviathan. Many of the minor key harmonies seem like par for the course in heavy metal for the time, and I feel like a couple of major harmony tunes would have helped make the turn on "Hearts Alive", when Ahab's ship has been sunken and all of the crew (with the exception of Ishmael) have drowned, hit with more of a gut punch. The ending reminds me heavily of the band Ahab's 2015 record The Boats of the Glen Carrig and how it uses its long form song structure to create the drowning atmosphere that the band, and source material, want you to feel.
All of this could not be done without some stellar production. And while this album does scuffle a little bit in the mixing when the guitars are in their low end, most of the record is solid. The bass sounds pretty solid throughout, but gets some genuinely awesome features during clean guitar runs on "Megalodon" and "Hearts Alive". The percussion is mixed very well for what sounds like a very demanding job for all of the time signature/tempo changes that Brann Dailor has to contend with. And Troy's vocals are, once again, tentative screams for most of the record, and they do give the band a portion of the their uniqueness, but he does bring out his best Ozzy impression on "Seabeast" as well.
For a band as eclectic as Mastodon is/was, it is almost amazing to see how far they have come, both commercially and critically. I probably would have discovered this album anyway, but let's have storytime. Back in 2005, before the "saxy" part of saxystephens was even a thought in my mind, I bought Need For Speed: Most Wanted and I vividly remember "Blood and Thunder" playing during my first ever free-roam. I could not believe how good of a driving song it was. I immediately bought Leviathan at a local record store and while it did take some time to get used to, the payoff was worth it.
Genres: Progressive Metal Sludge Metal
Opeth Achieved Legendary Status, But It Could Have Been Reached Sooner
It has recently come to my attention that I have never given my opinion on Opeth on this website before, even though I have rated all of the bands studio albums and are considered to be the godfathers of progressive metal during the 1990's and 2000's. So allow me to gush for a minute: I really love this group (big surprise). Since my heavy metal upbringing was primarily through progressive metal, Opeth were the first discography that I ventured into when I was ready to start exploring the extreme metal genres like death and black metal. They are a band that have no blemishes in their discography either. Even when the band decided to remove much of their "metal" sound in favour of a more mainstream rock sound during the 2010s, I found very few issues with it. Even the albums that I don't enjoy as much still have plenty of great moments to keep them afloat.
So with that out of the way, I was introduced to Blackwater Park only after the release of the bands 2005 album, Ghost Reveries. So I will say that I had some heightened expectations going into this record, whereas those who heard this album in 2001 did not. And man did they deliver! In what can only be described as one of the greatest album runs of any group, Blackwater Park sits right in the middle and in the eyes of many, the crowning achievement of the genre.
Now for me personally, this album might sit at a solid three or four depending on the day. So long as Tool's Lateralus exists (as well as one other record, wait till the end), Opeth will probably never reach that plateau. But my god did they come close! If there is anything that Opeth excel at, it's the use of space. This album has plenty of extended songs: "The Leper Affinity", "The Drapery Falls", "Bleak" and the title track. But none of them feel like it. Each of these tunes flow effortlessly and it's hard to feel like these tunes are overindulgent.
This album also has plenty of inter-connectivity within its walls. I love it when an album can refer to older moments on an album, not just lyrically, to keep a concept alive. These themes are easily recognizable, but modulated in such a way that it does not feel like a straight re-tread of the theme. The vocal performance is phenomenal as Mikael Åkerfeldt is able to weave in and out of clean singing and destructive low guttural howls. The guitar melodies are fantastic as they stay reasonable and don't modulate into elongated wankery.
I wouldn't necessarily say that any of the songs on this album fall into the category of "bad", but "Dirge for November" is probably my least favourite, with its formulaic sound, but not in the good way as described earlier, and also the extended outro not contributing all that much to the main ideas.
In summary...look, there isn't much for me to say about this record that hasn't been said before. It's near the top of most lists of the greatest prog metal albums ever recorded, every prog snob knows the name Opeth and the album Blackwater Park and if you don't, well you should have changed that yesterday. But for me, it isn't my favourite Opeth record. While Ghost Reveries does have a special place in my heart as my gateway into this band, Still Life is a flawless record. It set the framework for this record and did it better. It is a record that seems to be far more of a mystery than this one, so if I may suggest anything with this recommendation, make sure to check out Still Life as well as Blackwater Park.
But this review is about Blackwater Park so let me just say this. Their place in history is rightfully deserved and my gushing is only one sentiment of many. Never before has a record this dark felt so warm and uplifting, and with the exception of Agalloch's The Mantle/Ashes Against the Grain, we may never hear anything like that again.
Genres: Progressive Metal
I had actually heard this record a very long time ago before writing this review. I know! Saxystephens, the one who is always preaching about the importance of groove and melody in metal, listening to a drone metal album? Well it kind of came into prominence when I was feeling my way through the genre and I did appreciate the album, even if I didn't necessarily like it.
Over a decade has passed since that initial reaction and...not much has changed. I will say that for a drone project such as this, it is nice to hear some actual grooves and I do enjoy hearing this group trying to create anything that will be memorable for those who bother to give it a listen.
Only one problem with that thought process: the jarring production choices are what make it memorable, and not the songwriting, which I will admit is pretty decent. The tonal quality however is very scattered through its loud/soft dynamics. When the album is soft, and the guitars are given clean tones, the album sounds really good to go alongside some vocal performances from Monica. When the album wants to get a little heavier, the guitars are given the most jarring, blown out mixing I've heard on a metal record! It does not sound good in the slightest.
The whiplash continues into the actual songwriting as well. This album lacks a lot of subtlety. Instead of allowing a new idea to transform from calm and clean towards tense and abrasive, the duo kind of just said "screw it" and plopped them together side by side. It is not a welcoming sound for newcomers and it does not leave me feeling rewarded.
The more I listened to this record, the more I thought of the similarities between it and Lingua Ignota. Many of the song structures feel the same, it has a lot of similar production choices, and Monica's transitions from clean singing to harsh screams is nearly identical. But where this album fails to live up to the expectations of Lignua Ignota (at least for me) is that those harsh screams and distorted hellscapes feel...deserved. They are built toward over slow and brooding song structures and you feel like you have earned that release. This album does not feel that way, and for me, I am just left here wondering what could have been if the hourglass had not emptied out so quickly.
Genres: Drone Metal Post-Metal
...And Oceans seem to have really found their groove once again after reuniting. Well that's not entirely true, this band have been together even during the nearly fifteen year gap between disbandment and the release of their newest LP, Cosmic World Mother. Most recently, as a death metal band in 2019 under the name Festerday.
But the black metal tones are back under the the name ...And Oceans and what a fine project we have here. This is the epitome of modern melodic black metal and how to make it sound both feverish, brutal and remarkably catchy.
The first thing that I noticed about this record was the track lengths. Normally song lengths don't bother me (I am a prog snob after all), but I found it strange to see song lengths that barely eclipsed the five minute mark on symphonic/atmospheric black metal album such as this. Most groups use the elongated song structures to create atmosphere and use slow, brooding tempos to really grip my attention. And some groups can do it well (Saor, Fen, Panopticon, etc.), but ...And Oceans use a different compositional form that is unique to me and it makes for some very gorgeous sounding pices.
The sound of this album is ferocious. ...And Oceans uses a ton of very fast tremolo picking guitar melodies to go along with technically demanding percussion work. The vocals are produced very well and are delivered with a ton of precision in the annunciation of the words. Meanwhile, the symphonic elements are incorporated extremely well into the huge black metal sections, rather than feeling like an afterthought and left for the softer interlude sections. I would say that it is the bass that suffers the most from this huge mix, but it never feels compromised and I do appreciate a strong bass line giving these songs forward momentum.
The songwriting is where I have to take off a couple of points from my score, but first, let me gush for a minute. I really enjoy the compositions of these songs. They sound fresh and innovative, the melodies are fluid and memorable and the counter-melodies compliment the lead exceptionally well. ...And Oceans use the shorter song structures as a barrier to make sure that every single track on this album is a complete entity and to allow for the compositional growth to sound completed. And given that the song lengths are relatively shorter, the band has to do all of this in lesser time. The one thing that holds this album back from being a classic is that, while all of the songs are unique in melody, chord structure and concept, they do seem to follow a very similar formula.
But that can prove to be a very small quibble on an album such as this. ...And Oceans return project is an excellent display of pummeling extreme tendencies, complimented with some fantastic melodic songwriting as well. Yes, it is possible to have both!
Genres: Black Metal
In all my years of listening to and reviewing music, I can recall very few instances in which an artist has made a drastic pivot in the way of sound and timbre than that of Celtic Frost and their album Monotheist. I can find even fewer artists who were able to pull it off as brilliantly as Celtic Frost did! I really love how this album creates an atmosphere that is gripping and uncomfortable, and refuses to let go of the listener for the entire sixty-eight minute runtime. All of this considering that it had been over a decade since the last Celtic Frost album.
And part of that is how it diverts the listeners expectations. The album starts pretty pedestrian enough by Celtic Frost standards; "Progeny" is a fairly heavy tune by comparison, but as the tune progresses, you can hear the deliberately slow breakdowns and melodic passages in the guitar. "A Dying God Coming into Human Flesh" is where the album takes a dark turn. This song is slow, brooding, uncomfortable, and aching for some release. We do eventually get it near the end, but the way in which this group were able to build the track from small beginnings to, relatively, hellacious conclusions, it shows how excellent this group was at creating atmosphere, even during their peak thrash metal days during the mid eighties.
When this album does get heavier beyond the first two tracks, it always feels less mosh-like than before. These sections are brooding as well, highlighted by some of the bands most introspective lyricism. Sure, the band always had a knack for speaking of the occult, but their first albums were all about mythology and epic tales. Whereas here? This poetry is nihilistic, pessimistic, lethargic. Quite fitting on an album like this. Where the music is slow, almost to the point of dirges at some points, the anti-religious sentiments hit much harder.
And of course, those lyrical themes would prove meaningless if you couldn't hear them, but rest assured, this album sounds top notch. The guitars and bass are echoing each other throughout a majority of this project, but the bass does have a strong presence in the overall mix. The percussion work is stellar; building at just the right moments, and then slowing down to a snails pace during the doom-y, breakdown sections. And of course, Thomas Gabriel Fischer's vocal work is stunning. He delivers these words exactly the way that were meant to be sung, whether that be slow, monotone dirges, hushed whispers, or confused screams. The screams are probably my favourite part, since they are easily audible.
Then you have "Triptych". It starts off with a piece that, by today's standards, would have no problem fitting into a Lingua Ignota record. The second act is the culmination of this sound that Celtic Frost have displayed throughout the album. And while the track is still pretty decent, I do find it drags a little too long. And the closing moments are soft and warm strings that bring this journey to a peaceful end, whatever end that may have meant. The "Triptych" suite is not really a great piece altogether and it does diminish the quality of the entire album for me.
Perhaps fittingly, after the bands most introspective, nihilistic and thematic on death, Celtic Frost would disband in 2008, with Monotheist being their last major release. Maybe a fitting conclusion that Fischer knew was inevitable during the album's composition process. But I can't think of a much better way to go out. Celtic Frost revitalized their careers, if only for a moment, with not just one of their best records, and not just one of the best doom metal records, but one of the most important (and best) records of the 2000s.
Genres: Doom Metal
Doom Metal with a Side of Misty Eyes
Cancer sucks. Trust me, I've been there. I have seen this diseases effects on people and how it affects their everyday activities in life. For me, hearing this album and knowing the fate of Aleah Starbridge is devastating.
Hour of the Nightingale is a posthumous release by the band Trees of Eternity, which does give it some unique qualities over the other big musician to pass away from cancer in 2016: David Bowie's Blackstar. In both cases, these albums seem like they are foreshadowing there undeniable end. However, Blackstar was released before David Bowie's untimely passing.
But both albums are very similar to one another from a compositional standpoint. This album starts off quite well with "My Requiem" and "Eye of Night" and as the album progresses, you can almost see Aleah's life flashing before her eyes as the album slows down almost painfully, to depict how one must feel while in a state of fear. And then, for the album to end with a simple acoustic guitar and voice passage is haunting. The guitar work found within this album is magnificent. It employs many of the greatest elements of albums by a band such as Swallow the Sun. Its melodies are soaring and beautiful, but complimented by some palm muted chugging riffs, mostly during the albums strong introduction, as if to invoke a sense of anger about what is going on around the group.
And the poetry found within this project is superb. I have always felt that doom metal as a collective genre felt more like a gimmick rather than a lifestyle. I mean, I guess that I could, perhaps, say the same thing about death metal also, but doom metal has always felt dreadful and agonizing, but without any of the stakes. This album is about as high of stakes that I could possibly envision in one single album! These lyrics, which are delivered with haunting, whispered vocals from Aleah. These vocals compliment the dreadfully slow tempos that are commonplace in doom metal, as if they are tired and fearful of whats to come. It's something that I wished I heard more out of in doom metal.
I think that my initial opinions on this record were skewed by relatable lyricism and hitting a little too close to home. So going back to this record a few years later, my opinion has soured slightly. But this is still a monumental achievement in metal in the 2010s. This album has an emotional grip that will not let go throughout its duration. And its effects are still being felt throughout the doom metal world even today. That is a testament to its cultural impact. Is it better than Blackstar? It's hard to say, given David Bowie's further reaching namesake than Aleah Starbridge. But don't let that sway you in the wrong direction. It may not be pretty, but this is a glorious final hour.
Genres: Doom Metal
It’s been three years since Tobias Sammet has gotten the project Avantasia back into the studio. And the last time he did it, he created Ghostlights, an album that I still go back with regularity to this day, and an album that I would consider to be one of the best albums overall during 2016. Of course Tobias has never not failed to impress me with his songwriting and calling on big name collaborators, but I’m still waiting for that one album to really push me over the bar on this project; one that make me put Avantasia in the same category as Ayreon. And given the massive disappointment that was Within Temptation’s last album, I was in some desperate need for some hard hitting power metal. Did Tobias get there with Moonglow?
Well, yes and no. At points on this album, Avantasia may have made some of their best individual tracks. And that’s hard to do considering how excellent the title track from Ghostlights is. However I do feel like this album has a lot of filler material; not necessarily bad, again I don’t think Tobias could make something outright bad, but not memorable in the slightest. So yeah it’s a good album, not a great one.
So let’s start off with the performances on this album. Because a part of what will sell this album for you will be the cast members and how they are used. And this album does have a few returnees, including Jorn Lande, Michael Kiske of Helloween, Geoff Tate from Queensryche, Bob Catley and Ronnie Atkins. The new voices are Eric Martin from Mr. Big, Candice Night from Blackmore’s Night, Hansi Kürsch from Blind Guardian and Mille Petrozza from Kreator.
The last of those names was obviously the most intriguing one. How is Tobias going to incorporate a thrash metal vocalist into Avantasia? Well, look no further than the second track, “Book of Shallows”. Lots of minor harmonies and down tuned guitars make it one of this groups darkest tracks to date, but when that bridge comes in, it sounds like it was composed specifically for Mille to sing over. And the subject matter is matches his growling tone as well.
Other notable features include Candice Night providing a beautiful counterpoint to Tobias on “Moonglow”, Michael Kiske on “Requiem for a Dream” and Hansi Kürsch and Jorn Lande on “The Raven Child”, an epic track that uses dynamics and swells all throughout the first half of the track leaving you wondering when the heaviness will come back, and it leads to one of the best outros on this album.
Now the one thing that I will say about the production of the album is that too many of the singers have very similar timbres to one another and it makes it difficult to recognize one from the other unless you have a lyric sheet open in front of you. Take Geoff Tate for example. While I did enjoy the piano interlude “Invincible”, “Alchemy” had the two voices sounding almost identical to each other. Even Ronnie and Jorn sound pretty similar on “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” or “Starlight”.
The other thing is the synthesizer choices. All of these retro, 8-bit sounding synth choices don’t make sense on an album that is supposed to be a futuristic space opera. A personal pet peeve of mine was the clicking that occured during “Moonglow”, but the stuttering synths on “Starlight” and the aforementioned faze synth “Lavender” is a big misstep.
The rest of the instrumentals hold together quite well. I like the minor harmonies and down tuned guitars on tracks like “Book of Shallows” and “Requiem for a Dream”, they seem like the thing that Tobias wanted to do on Ghostlights but never got the chance to do. The dynamics on “The Raven Child” give a feeling of epicness that I really dug. “The Piper and the Gates of Dawn” is also pretty epic in scale. And I even dig “Starlight”, despite those problems with the synths, a short and straightforward but still great sounding power metal track.
Then there’s “Maniac”, a cover of the Michael Sembello track from the movie Flashdance that was thrown onto the end of this album. In the context of the albums themes, it seems ridiculous that Tobias would include this, but at the risk of losing validity to what I’m saying, I really like this cover as a single. Tobias and Eric Martin have some decent chemistry and there harmonies flush the tune out.
Now onto the lyrics and themes. And there are a lot of passing references to Ghostlights, like on the opening track “Ghost in the Moon”. But now the protagonist is trying to escape the earthly realm that they are trapped in and wish to escape to the moon; the reasoning is that the protagonist is fearful of the light and the people who ridicule him.
This album contains a lot of references to older literature, no track more prominent of this than “The Raven Child”, which references both Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem “The Raven” and “Karbat” by Preußler. Since the protagonist is trapped in this world, they must first learn how to fly before they can be free. And this carries on through to “Lavender”, when the protagonist is told that you will ascend to the moon like flames.
But then the stakes are brought to a screeching halt on “Requiem for a Dream”, a track which Tobias has not mentioned if it has anything to do with the movie/novel of the same name. But it brings up an interesting concept. You see, in that novel, the characters have their dreams taken away from them because of their substance abuse. And the protagonists eyes are opened to the reality that is in front of him: there is no black magic that will give him wings to escape from this world. He is trapped, permanently, in this prison until the end of days.
It’s a lot to unpack here, but Tobias manages to create this story through the words, but also the instrumentals as well. Not surprisingly, this story requires some knowledge of the works that it’s cross referencing, otherwise the concept is going to be lost in the translation, which I do appreciate, but it means that the people listening who don’t know the referenced material will be lost. I think it would be like a Coheed and Cambria album, but not trapped in its own universe.
So as a whole, look I don’t want to come on here and say that Avantasia made a dud. Because they didn’t. This is some very good, sometimes even great, power metal and Tobias always manages to pull off hiring a murderer’s row of talent. But something about this just didn’t feel right. The moments of downtime felt really down and less engaging than those of other Avantasia albums. Perhaps that’s just a result of having higher expectations. But it’s still a good album, “Book of Shallows” will probably make a best songs of 2019 list come years end, so yeah check this out.
Genres: Power Metal Symphonic Metal
When people think of progressive metal, one of the first names that most people think of is Dream Theater. And that should come as no surprise. During the 1990s when prog metal was becoming prominent, Dream Theater were at the front of the revolution. Countless numbers of imitators have tried to copy Dream Theater's sound over the years; most of which failed. And it also doesn't help matters that Dream Theater are still around today, making very similar music as well.
I mentioned previously in my review for the bands most recent album, Distance Over Time that I have had a very difficult relationship with this group. This is lead by the fact that, being the prototypical progressive metal band, it's very difficult to find any originality from them in the modern day. Certainly a respectable band, but hardly memorable.
So going back and listening to Images and Words gives me the opportunity to see where Dream Theater began and what's changed since their humble beginnings. And not much has changed since 1992; part of the reason why my relationship with Dream Theater has been so convoluted.
That being said, I can still appreciate what this album was able to accomplish. It truly is a trend setter of the most obvious variety. And it would only set the benchmark for what would become the bands superior albums later on in the decade. This album paints its "images through words" and does a wonderful job of connecting these images from one track into the next. Whether that be the use of similar harmonic themes in the ensemble all throughout "Learning to Live" such as the opening riff from "Pull Me Under", the percussion patterns from "Metropolis - Part 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper", to outright copying the main theme from "Wait For Sleep" and using it as a coda on "Learning To Live". Or perhaps cross referencing other lyrics from previous tracks later on in the albums runtime.
The production on this album has aged like a fine wine. How the band is able to have each instrumental passage sound so crisp and precise; how each instrument is an important member of the collective whole. Even during Petrucci ridiculous solo passages, John Myung's bass lines never become swamped underneath the keyboard harmonies, or Mike Portnoy's percussion.
My least favourite part of the album comes from James LaBrie. I think he is a fantastic singer and one of the best pure vocalists in metal, period. But on this album, he sounds like he is just trying to get his feet wet. As a result, there are a couple of questionable passages where LaBrie's vocals are given a swath of pitch correction. These happen primarily during the extended highs on songs like "Take the Time" and "Learning to Live". The band would eventually iron out these issues on later records, but it was a stylistic decision made by the band at the time, so I do have to point it out.
By today's standards, Dream Theater's Images and Words is, by enlarge, an unoriginal progressive metal album that lacks any unique qualities compared to... everyone else in the genre! But for a time, it was game changing. The fact that you can still hear its influence in progressive metal today is a testament to its longevity. But what I like about this album the most is the planting of the seed. This album could have been good enough if it hadn't included "The Miracle and the Sleeper" with its long form composition and performance. But they did include it. And it formed the basis for what I consider to be Dream Theater's superior records, Scenes From A Memory and Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. Images and Words is the lesser of the three grand Dream Theater albums, but one still worth revisiting to see where Dream Theater, and progressive metal in general, got their start.
Genres: Progressive Metal
You might be surprised to see a Full Of Hell album review coming from me considering how well Weeping Choir went during my 2019 catchup. But since discovering the bands collaborations with The Body, as well as appearing on HEALTH’s 2020 album DISCO4, I was at the very least, intrigued to see if Full Of Hell could take some of those experiences and incorporate them into a full grindcore album.
And, while that unfortunately did not happen, I can see signs of improvement. For one, the obtrusive production and continued use of power electronics make these tunes unbearable, but in a good way. The relentless percussion work is well layered in the mix and the guitar riffs are filthy. The vocals are shredded beyond recognition most of the time, but contribute well to the cacophonous mess. And the electronics take center stage as the real discomforting factor in how they blow through everything else. I do wish it was a little more balanced however.
Which is weird for me to say because the album has two “cleaner” songs near the conclusion in “Reeking Tunnels” and “Celestial Hierarch”. And I would consider them to be lesser cuts as they sound more refined and don’t contribute very much overall, especially the former. Grindcore is a genre that I will never fully understand, but where Full Of Hell got it right on Garden of Burning Apparitions is the sheer brutality of it all. I just wish I could appreciate it more through all of the compression.
Genres: Death Metal Grindcore
The newest album from Sleep Token is not worth the large amounts of attention that it has received, but I understand why it is as popular as it has become. For starters, this is an anonymous group with a lot of secrecy surrounding not only its members, but also the overarching concept of devoted worship to the god of their fantasy world. For the mainstream, this is quite uncommon, but for someone who listens to lots of extreme metal (let alone Ghost) knows that this concept has been toyed around with many times before.
The major difference here is that Sleep Token are doing it in a quasi-pop template with enough heavily distorted guitars and djent breakdowns to classify this as metal. And I wish I liked it more. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy the blending of these genres together to create something that can be seen not only as a branching point for fans of pop music to try and understand heavy metal music, but also metal fans stepping outside of their comfort zone. The heavier sections feel sparse, and are supposed to make you feel like jumping out of your seat when you hear them.
This unfortunately does not happen because the synth choices on songs like “The Love You Want” make it sound like the groove is about to fall apart at any moment, while the cleaner keyboard of “Distraction” are really block-y and do not fit well at all. They give off the feeling of the worst of Between The Buried And Me’s worst keys/synth choices over their career.
Speaking of BTBAM, the vocalist does bear a closer resemblance to Tommy Rogers than you might expect. And “Fall For Me” serves as one of the albums better tracks as a mostly a cappella, including vocoder effects making it remarkably similar to Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek”. Beyond this, most of the limited guitar work is passable, but the tunes do lose most of their edge when the down tuned guitars provide most of the bass lines during the djent passages.
I rarely consider an album’s lore as culturally significant when rating in order to determine its value. It’s the main reason why most of Coheed and Cambria’s material following The Color Before The Sun has flown over my head. For Sleep Token, the lore surrounding the group and This Place Will Become Your Tomb feels very pedestrian and has been explored many times before in various ways by other metal acts. And while the balance of pop and metal does feel quite fortified, this does not feel that far removed from the worst of the bands consumed by the “Imagine Dragon” like Bullet For My Valentine or Bring Me The Horizon.
Genres: Alternative Metal
This debut is long overdue. Considering how many friends I have in metalcore spaces who have been singing the praises of Spiritbox seemingly since the self-titled EP from 2017, it was only going to be a matter of time before I would have to get to them properly. And they’re a Canadian band too! What has taken me this long to get on board?
Anyways, I recently checked out the debut EP in preparation for this review and…what I ended up discovering was a band that was trying to share its appeal among multiple styles and formats of metalcore. The debut LP, Eternal Blue, is slightly more focused, but still suffers a lot from tonal whiplash as they try to be alternative metal, then metalcore, then djent, then deathcore of all things. Add the fact that the opener “Sun Killer” sounds unfinished, it makes for an unfufilling listen overall.
Where this band's roots are is in alternative metal. It’s clear to me that the clean vocals of Courtney LaPlante are expected to give a heightened sense of accessibility, in the same way that Cristina Scabbia and Maria Brink did for Lacuna Coil and In This Moment respectfully. For Spiritbox, the vocals are the standout as they provide most of this album's melodic flare. In addition, LaPlante’s vocals alternating between clean singing and hardcore screams/death metal howls are both pulled off very well. Not only do the screams feel relevant to the rest of the songs, but also provide their own melodic drives, which I found impressive.
That is where the melodic drive stops however. While the hooks are impressive and sticky, the instrumentals do nothing to complement it with the exception of the melo-hardcore tracks such as “The Summit” and “Eternal Blue”, and even those are limited. Instead, the instrumentals play into a very formulaic djent formula of staccato riffage with the percussion during the breakdowns, and Periphery style pinching during the choruses. I wish that Spiritbox would attempt to merge these ideas together, because the breakdown sections feel like musical nothingness; a consistent problem that I have with metalcore/djent.
The production is solid as it works its way through some softer, electronic focused verses such as “Eternal Blue” and “Constance”, while the heavier sections are given lots of gravitas thanks to a prominent bass line and LaPlante’s vocals. The percussion is not forced or overly technical, and the only thing that really keeps this album from sounding any better is the compression, probably to better prepare it for accessibility through radio and streaming playlists.
Eternal Blue by Spiritbox is the kind of debut album that may seem like it's breaking boundaries, but ends up feeling very surface level in comparison to other djent and alternative metalcore bands. I think if the band could refine more and focus on giving us the Spiritbox sound instead of giving us a grab bag of popular metalcore trends, we could be in line for something special.
Genres: Alternative Metal
I’m not sure if the current political climate has anything to do with this, but something about the new Unreqvited album, Beautiful Ghosts is so hauntingly relatable, which may seem odd since Unreqvited don’t have any lyrics to their music at all! For those unaware, Unreqvited are an Ottawa based blackgaze band and have been steadily releasing music for the last five years. In fact, I quickly reviewed one of the group's 2020 albums, entitled Empathica and I found it quite enjoyable. But to say that this new record is a significant change in the sound would be a stretch.
In fact, I do not think that this album has all that much that distinguishes it from the last album. Beautiful Ghosts has a simple timbre with heavy tremolo rhythm guitar, a warm bass tone and the occasional black metal howl. The percussion on this record is impressive when it has to be, however most of the fundamentals are quite straightforward, allowing the string arrangements to take center stage. I will say that the symphonic elements are implemented more effectively this time around; the string arrangements on “Autumn & Everley” and “Funeral Pyre” are breathtaking, and the way this album ends with “All is Found”, with its gradual swelling, but never fully realizing its black metal timbre is really special.
For an artist that treats the vocals as an instrument rather than as a type of musical expression, it will become difficult for one to find objective meaning within the music. But for those who are willing to take the journey and find their own meaning, it can be a rewarding experience. I mentioned off the top that the current political climate influenced my journey, as this album sounds absolutely gorgeous! It is almost as if Unreqvited knows how our world is almost constantly at a point of disaster, and uses these sounds to remind us of the sheer beauty that still exists, however fading that may seem. And their music serves as a temporary escape from the everyday routine. And the black metal howls serve as the subtle reminders of that less than perfect world we have to return to once the album has finished. It’s an album that wants to take on the next challenge without hesitation, but the screams tell us something completely different.
This album review does feel a little bit more personal than many others, but it becomes almost necessary to create meaning out of something when it is not explained to you at the start. And Unreqvited brought that out of me in a big way with Beautiful Ghosts. It probably will not maintain its staying power, but it is a marvelous record and one worth exploring yourself.
Genres: Black Metal Post-Metal
OK, it isn't very often when I give a debut album this much of an expectation before I've even heard it. And in this circumstance, I had no understanding of what kind of music they played. Only a name: Ne Obliviscaris. That sounds fucking brutal! And oh my god is it an experience! Portal of I might be one of the best debut's of any genre within the last decade and laid down the path in solid gold in terms of potential.
For starters, let's talk about what this album's appeal is, because even I was taken aback at first. The opening connection that I got was a heavier version of Opeth with the remarkable sense of pace and flow. The spacing is brilliant and this band makes excellent use of its instrumentals; lead guitars, harsh and clean vocals, and violin solos. The counterpoint between the violin and lead guitar during the third act of "Tapestry of the Starless Abstract" is breathtaking. Furthermore, I am in love with the atmospheric tremolo picking of the rhythm guitar that is reminiscent of epic sounding black metal like Panopticon that I am a mark for. This makes it familiar to the Opeth sound of the 2000s, but varied enough to not sound like a blatant copy.
I think for an album that is as bold as Portal of I is that we ask whether or not the progressive elements serve as wanking material instead of telling a thoughtful story through the music. And I will admit, throughout the years and in the playthroughs for writing this review, I pondered this very question. Was I more interested in the sound instead of the tunes themselves? Because my issues with modern progressive metal are not completely missing from this album; whiplash transitions on the opener as well as "And Plague Flowers the Kaleidoscope", in addition to passages that feel elongated for their own sake. Ne Obliviscaris also have a problem with the transitions that they pull off well; and that issue is that they all follow the same pattern. I am not opposed to this by any stretch since having recurring ideas or motifs make your sound distinctive. I just wish that this band had more than just two or three. In addition, nearly every song seems to fall into the same tempo range, which can be a detriment to most, but is saved by drastic key flips and extremely memorable leads and rhythmic passages.
It's also helped by the fantastic production. Again, this album is incredibly influenced by Opeth and you can tell through the mixing. The bass lines are among some of the best that you may hear in this brand of progressive metal, the rhythm guitar is loud and forceful, but always steps back and serves as accompaniment to the leads provided by the violin, lead guitar and vocals. The percussion is spectacular. For an album where the bass is drum is performing at a blistering pace for basically the entire record, the fact that it never interferes with the melodic passages is remarkable. It's the kind of precision that I wish more extreme metal bands would follow, even more so when it comes to the brutal side.
When it comes to debut albums, there is Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Pretty Hate Machine. I think it is safe to say that we can include Portal of I in that mix of groundbreaking opening remarks. The way in which Ne Obliviscaris build their world and bring us for the tour is refreshing and straight up awesome. They struck gold with this album and almost no one has been able to keep up. Or to put it another way: Portal of I is the spiritual successor to Watershed if Opeth had not reverted to progressive rock. I hope that alone is enough of an incentive to travel this unprecedented world.
Genres: Progressive Metal
I'm not sure if it is my exit from heavy metal for a handful of years during the 2010s, but I remember vividly not enjoying Linkin Park's The Hunting Party back in 2014. And over the years since, I have developed myself a fond memory of the bands far more contentious 2010 album, A Thousand Suns more often. Now, you may feel free to take away my metal pass for this heinous cold take, but as a piece of music, that album had some really great Linkin Park songs, including "The Catalyst", and most importantly, it still sounded like a Linkin Park album, despite the drastic tonal flip.
Meanwhile, The Hunting Party is an album that is supposed to invoke a sense of nostalgia as the band brings back a heavier sound from their past, most notably on albums like Hybrid Theory and Meteora. But where The Hunting Party falls short is that it does not sound like a Linkin Park album. For god sake's, Daron Malakian appears as a guest on "Rebellion", which sounds like a rejected System of a Down song! This isn't so much a nostalgia album and more so a superstar mash up.
Giving this album a few listens there is more to appreciate than just being a heavier project: I really enjoyed the punk edge on "War" and songs like "Until It's Gone" and "Mark the Graves" are catchy as hell grooves, which also include some sweet grooves that at least sound like they belong in the Linkin Park discography. But far too often, I found the tracks "Wastelands", "Final Masquerades" and "Guilty All the Same" to just sound formulaic. If anything, these songs may be the closest thing that metal has ever experienced to butt rock.
LP grooves are supposed to be lush and warm, while these ones feel far more cold and detached. I don't necessarily think that this on its own makes The Hunting Party a bad album, as Linkin Park do know there way around a very solid hook. But it's the Death Magnetic trap all over again; a band wants to experiment with new sounds that may sound alien to longtime fans (St. Anger and A Thousand Suns respectfully), the fans hate it, and then the band ret-con the experimental phase. But for Linkin Park specifically, we know that they didn't make The Hunting Party for the fans because their next album, One More Light, is an electropop album.
I know who Linkin Park were trying to appeal to with this album and according to aggregate RYM scores, it worked. The Hunting Party is LP's highest rated album since Meteora. And if an adrenaline filled project is what you want, then this album will serve its purpose. But it is not a Linkin Park album and the band knew it too.
Genres: Alternative Metal
I remember quite vividly the night when one of my college roommates introduced me to Panopticon in November of 2015. As I was still quite a noob to extreme/black metal at the time, I recall listening to Autumn Eternal a good three times consecutively as I was sucked in to the impeccable pacing, songwriting and production. I almost instantly went back and checked out their back catalog; most notably, 2014's Roads to the North and 2012's Kentucky.
What I was so impressed by was Austin Lunn's pacing. While this is certainly in the mold of atmospheric black metal, and technically that genre tag incorporates at least half of this album, Kentucky is far more elaborate than other black metal albums. The album has numerous interludes and full tracks of bluegrass inspired tones that would be very familiar to someone living in the state of Kentucky. Songs like "Come All Ye Coal Miners" and "Which Side Are You On" are interpolated from American folk/protest songs and serve as beautiful changes of pace and refrains before the blast beats, tremolo picking guitars and howling vocals return. Furthermore, the black metal tracks each have their own unique Americana interludes on "Bodies Under the Falls" and "Black Soot and Red Blood". And while they do sound gorgeous on their own, they do feel more like asides rather than a continuation of an idea.
And this has been one of Austin Lunn's biggest issues as a musician since I discovered them. At first it never bothered me, but as time passed, and I was introduced to Saor, I found that the folk elements were far less developed. Not only is the folk instrumentation of the lap steel guitar not incorporated into a black metal framework, but from a songwriting point of view, the way in which songs will drastically change tempo's and styles without preparation make the track "Killing the Giants as They Sleep" feel less rewarding of its extended runtime. I would have loved to hear Austin Lunn create a soundscape that uses both and have them take place simultaneously. And this is still something that I would love to hear to this day.
The production of this album is splendid. Can we all take the time to appreciate how full the bass lines are here? "Black Soot and Red Blood" is such a driving track where the tremolo guitars are not doubling as bass notes, giving it more gravitas. Carrying off of that, the lead guitars are where this album does most of its heavy lifting as they provide most of melodic leads, which can be quite sticky in the case of "Bodies Under the Falls". I am not the biggest fan of the out of tunes flutes that appear on some of the black metal tracks. The vocals are some of Austin Lunn's most pronounced in all of Panopticon's discography...and yet they still feel muted. Of course, this is really that big of a deal as this album contains a number of spoken word interludes that help tell its tale. Even without the words, you can tell this severity of the content just by how aggressive the music sounds. As for that content, I'm not going to go into too much detail, but while me and Austin Lunn have very, VERY different opinions on the topics of unions, I commend Panopticon for standing up for a group of people who have been disproportionately affected by poor wages, especially given their unsafe work environment...kind of like nurses in hospitals right now.
What a treat this record is! It is so dense on multiple levels that me trying to explain it all will take a few hours. I can only hope that this short little diatribe is enough of a recommendation to check out Kentucky. It is a marvelous album that feels progressive, but still firmly in its roots. It sounds amazing, and the content is superb. In hindsight, I would still hold this album back from the great Saor albums like Aura and Guardians, but among Austin Lunn's work, it is some of the best.
Genres: Black Metal
It feels like ages ago since I discovered Panopticon with their 2015 album Autumn Eternal and how in my early days of exploring the world of black metal, I finally found my niche; this branch of atmospherics to go alongside some gorgeous songwriting, well placed nature interludes and production that is as dark and gritty as the cold as the OG’s of the genre. However, in the years following, I have kind of developed a musical crush for Andy Marshall and Saor and how well that group is able to take its folk roots and implement them effortlessly into the black metal timbre, as opposed to Austin Lunn, who keeps these touches separated.
When I listened to this band's 2018 album The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness, I was a little bit surprised to see Panopticon attempt a full on folk record with its second half. It would be intriguing if those lessons were brought forth on this new album. And part of me wants to say that it is, but another half says that ...And Again Into the Light is more comfortable trying to recreate what made Autumn Eternal so great. And believe me, this album is great, but I do not put it amongst the best that Saor has to offer, or even other Panopticon albums.
And the folk elements are where this album has problems. I already mentioned how most of these elements feel reserved for cooldowns and moments of reprieve before more blast beats, tremolo picking and the vocals. But I personally feel like this album does not fully grasp the Americana sound. Songs like “Moth Eaten Soul” and “Know Hope” have the soaring string sections that hover over the atmo-black passages, but they sound far more European centric than anything American. The lap and pedal steel guitars are always welcome during the albums title intro as well as the interlude “Her Golden Laughter Echoes”, and I wish that Panopticon could have incorporated it more frequently.
Beyond the songwriting, iit does have the distinctive feel of a Panopticon record. It takes a while to find its groove on the second track “Dead Loons”, but once it’s moving, there are no bathroom breaks the rest of the road trip. And like with most Panopticon records, the vocals are so reserved in the mixing that you would be forgiven as to why there were even vocals at all. But like with the last album, Panopticon have gotten on board with the heavy environmentalist dialogue that plenty of metal bands (i.e. Gojira, Wolves in the Throne Room, Between the Buried and Me, etc.) have been espousing recently.
And if there is one thing that Austtin Lunn has been strong at for years now, it has been this. And while the vocals are severely lacking in punch and gravitas in the mix, the heaviness of the instrumentals implies all you need to know. I just wish that Panopticon would take their love of folk and americana music and incorporate it more liberally into their music. I know it can be done and Lunn is one of a handful of individuals that I can think of that could pull this off.
Genres: Black Metal
I don't want to come on here and hate on funeral doom. It makes a lot of sense given the crushing atmosphere that is implied by the subject matter that it sounds like a dirge and gives you the crushing feeling of being lowered six feet underground. But holy shit is it boring! And this is not just a criticism of Monolithe, but many of this genre's most influential figures, like Bell Witch and Esoteric.
This album took me three attempts to finally get through it in a single sitting. And trust me when I say this: it was almost a fourth attempt because I was so drowsy and uninvolved in the music that was on display, but I forced myself to continue listening through to its deathly conclusion. I am not opposed to single track albums; Light of Day, Day of Darkness is one of my favourite records of all time. But Green Carnation had something that Monolithe desperately lack, and that is a sense of growth, or in the case of funeral doom, decay. It took this album nearly half and hour before it decided to modulate out of its main theme. Leading up to this, Monolithe waste time by having moments that seem like a divergence from the original theme, but only serve as temporary bridges from theme A to... theme A again. There is so much obvious room for refinement and cutting of the fat that this could have worked, but instead, Monolithe are convinced that long, unchanging atmosphere can win me over, when it actually makes me want to go to bed!
I feel horrible for the drummer in this band who does the bare minimum when it comes to tempo support, and is only able to add some occasional double bass and drum fills whenever its time to feed the cat... and the cat died five years ago. The guitar work is okay I guess; most of the record has a rhythm guitar who just chugs away with the lowest power chords, while the lead guitar sounds more like a continuous solo instead of a melodic lead to compliment the synth and vocals. And while I did enjoy the synths on this album, the vocals are so far back in the overall mix that you would be hard pressed to hear them if you weren't using headphones. And the low end of this album is severely lacking; the rhythm guitar is so prominent in the mix with its power chords that the bass has nowhere to breathe. It makes an album that is supposed to be dense and concaving feel remarkably timid.
For the death doom sound specifically, I am reminded of records like The Call of the Wretched Sea by Ahab and Songs From the North by Swallow the Sun. These albums are long, brooding and atmospheric as well, but these records both had the songwriting presence to lead you down the dark and terrifying path and bring you somewhere that is colder and more isolated than where you started. The Monolithe albums hear the starting gun go off, trip before the first hurdle, and then don't even attempt to get back up and try to finish the race; they stay in place. I'm generally not one to criticize an album that typically receives glowing praise, regardless of genre, but I just cannot tolerate this. If you ever wanted to know why my ventures into funeral doom metal are tepid, I present exhibit A.
Genres: Doom Metal
It's time to have the BTBAM conversa... wait I did that review already!
Okay, all joking aside, when I posted my review of Between The Buried And Me’s 2007 album Colors only a week ago, I figured that it was important for me to air out what I thought about that album, as well as how it helped shape an entire new subgenre of music that I previously actively avoided in technical death metal.
But when BTBAM started to drop more and more of its tech-death edge with Coma Ecliptic and the Automata album from 2018, the albums became more hook heavy, but lost more of the bands identity from the 2000s. And I was shocked when the band announced Colors II, which implied a return to their technical and metalcore roots.
And for a band that knows how excellent Colors is, is it not surprising that many of that album's most iconic elements are not here? The guitars are not as sprawling, the songwriting feels less developed, and from an overall sound design perspective, Colors II has a lot of empty passages that feel hollow and pad this album’s already inflated runtime.
This album absolutely sounds like fan service; Tommy Rogers has more harsh vocals on this album than anything BTBAM have released since Parallax II: Future Sequence, Blake Richardson is back doing Blake Richardson things behind the drum kit, and the songwriting has a significantly greater emphasis on time modulation and rapid changes through musical motifs. But this time around, this band has the benefit of a pool of lighter sounding progressive metal albums to build from. While the first Colors album was a refinement of the band's progressive/technical sound, this album feels like the band is trying to refine and hybridize their old technical sound alongside their melodic progressive metal of the 2010s.
The only problem is that this album feels too avant-garde and obtuse to be a sequel to Colors. For a band that knows how great an album that is, so much so that they have toured that album in its entirety multiple times, why would they bother with rasta horns on “The Double Helix of Extinction”, or the saturday morning cartoon sound effects on the bridge of “Prehistory”? And on “Bad Habits”, the use of obviously synthetic choirs is alienating and off putting to me. These feel more quirky than thoughtful inclusions (although in the case of “The Double Helix of Extinction” I do not know how rasta horns can be used seriously).
This might be an overly harsh review of Colors II, but I still do like this record. I don’t know if I enjoy it as much as Coma Ecliptic, but it is nice to hear a band that has continued to lighten up in recent years give us a nice throwback and reminder that they might not be completely done with that sound yet. However, I would be lying if I didn’t say that Between The Buried And Me have lost some of their vibrance in the years since Colors.
Genres: Metalcore Progressive Metal
Meantime by Helmet is an album of two tales. On one hand you have the more ruckus songwriting of "Iron Head" and "Turned Out", and on the other you have the more accessible version of alternative metal that gave us songs like "Role Model" and of course the big promo single "Unsung". In both cases, these songs are mixed very well with a clear emphasis on the grunge aspect. Guitar parts are muddy, even though the bass lines are well developed. And the percussion has a distinct punk sound to it that had me reckoning back to Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime. Page Hamilton's vocals range anywhere from Zach de la Rocha screams to a cooled out Ozzy Osbourne impersonation on "Unsung".
The sounds are impressive and still sound fresh almost thirty years later. I think that this album's biggest flaw is how often it flip flops between the two styles mentioned previously, and while that doesn't bother me as much as it does some other reviewers, I can admit that it does get irritating at times when it is clear that Helmet want to go for broke with a full hardcore punk/metal sound, but feel restrained by record label requirements and promotional singles. This album has more reference points to a band such as Big Black than anything that RATM, Alice in Chains or Tool were doing around the same time. And while I do like this sound, I feel like Meantime could have shot higher.
Genres: Alternative Metal
A couple of weeks ago, I briefly spoke about the new Ophidian I album and described it as a fairly decent blending of melodic and technical death metal, even if for me personally, the technical portion exhibited far too much of the foreground. Ænigmatum's album now asks what would this sound like it the focus was reversed?
I find Deconsecrate to be engaging in its technicality, but not holding onto the wankery prominent in technical death for very long phrases. "Disenthralled" and "Fracturing Proclivity" have very good balancing acts and the group does a solid job of making these tracks feel connected. Themes are sparse, but are developed throughout the track runtimes. Furthermore, themes are not kept divided based on which side of the melo-tech see-saw you're on; in fact, themes are regularly transformed between the two sections, and not making the opposing sections feel like glorified interludes.
The mixing is very good. The vocals reminded me heavily of Dying Fetus' John Gallagher. The guitars are heavy and melodic, and provide some much needed counterpoint to the fruitful and progressive bass that has plenty of room to breathe for melodies as well as some solo breaks. Percussion is top notch; there is a lot of double bass on this album, so it becomes very important that it won't become overbearing. Beyond that, the technical wizardry of Pierce Williams is wonderful as they make huge blast beats and extended drum fills.
Unfortunately for this album, it has two major flaws. The first is because of the loss of a true rhythm guitar, sections of this record fall flat. In all honesty, it feels more like a "you win some, you lose some" scenario; depends on the track. The other big issue is that in comparison to other prominent progressive death metal bands (Rivers of Nihil, Rannoch, An Abstract Illusion), there isn't very much that makes this record stand out by comparison. Whether that be the use of soaring melodic passages, or an uncommon musical instrument, this feels a little too predictable. I do like the tones on display here, but what really makes this record a cut above the progressive death metal albums from Alkaloid or The Faceless?
For me, I can see where Ænigmatum are coming from and I did enjoy Deconsecrate. While the melodic and technical sides of death metal are meshed well together, the record is mostly propped up by some excellent songwriting and production. However, without a truly distinguishing feature, I fear that Ænigmatum may get left behind in the annals of progressive death metal.
Genres: Progressive Metal
If death metal can be written on a spectrum and on one end you have the most filthy, brutal death metal of Cryptopsy, Nile, and Dying Fetus, and on the other side of the aisle is the slower, melodic grooves of In Flames, Insomnium and Dark Tranquility (where I comfortably reside), then Ophidian I is the band trying to bring these variations in style a little bit closer together. The melodic stylings of the guitars highlighting a monstrous fundamental with blast beats galore and palm muted rhythm guitars, and a riveting vocal performance from John Olgeirsson. The album sounds nice and the bass presence is brimming with intensity. But I have to admit: this album goes a little bit too hard for my personal preference. Many of the melodic phrases sound more like scale warmups rather than a cohesive idea. It almost reminds me of when I was in school and every single student thought that they could write a tune, but instead of creating a melody that was memorable for the listener, they rather focused on how many notes you could fit into a short period of time. There are a lot of similarities between Ophidian I and the band Rings of Saturn. I would presume that those who appreciate the more technical side of death metal will find more to like out of this than me.
Genres: Death Metal
As I prepare to enter into my fourth decade on this planet, I'm continually asking myself whether or not I have gotten soft in recent years? As the years go by, thrash metal has become a dead genre to me; what used to be full of life and nonstop energy, now I view it as a black hole of empty chugging and solos, lacking in grooves and melodies and bands devoid of originality and would rather just copy the golden era of thrash of the 1980s. Even more so, my favour with those bands (i.e. Megadeth, Slayer, Metallica) has also faded as they have become tiresome and boring. And as I have grown into extreme metal genres like death/black metal, most of my favourite albums are of the melodic and atmospheric variety. For as epic as Saor and Panopticon albums sound, they won't be winning any "most brutal breakdown of all time" awards anytime soon.
With that being said, I recently gave The Dreaming I by American duo Akhlys a spin and... well I think it is safe to say that my suspicions might be true, but goddamn does Akhlys make the realm of Hades sound like a pretty awesome vacation spot! This is a marvelous record that takes the atmospheric and melodic side of black metal and combines it with some filthy grooves and riffs for one of the most impressive hybrids that I have heard in quite some time.
Whereas most of my black metal is of the open, soaring variety, Akhlys use the atmo-black sound to create a soundscape that resembles the floor opening up below your feet as you are dragged down into the abyss. The extended ambient intro of "Breath and Leviathan" sets the ominous mood right out of the gate, before what can only be compared to a B-list horror movie jumpscare, the serial killer pops up around the corner wielding their perfectly sharpened machete ready to murder you. The wall of sound black metal is sudden and shocking, and may increase your heart rate!
And if that doesn't scare you enough, the chase scene will. This black metal sound is relentless and is complimented by some fantastic sounding lead guitars and a dazzling vocal performance. The way in which this duo is able to effortlessly match their ambient interludes and atmo-black passages is both technically impressive and compositionally sound as they play off one another to create wonderful dichotomy's for cooldowns and making the wall of sound hit that much harder.
While this album is impressive, it does have a little bit of a length problem, in which some songs sound like they begin to lose momentum and would rather fade out to their conclusion, rather than with a full stop, perhaps signaling the end of the road. But perhaps the lack of an ending shows a group that would have you believe that their is no end to this path; it persists far beyond the end of a single song. However, "Consumation" has a definitive ending, but then proceeds to go on another two/three minute ambient outro and it feels out of place.
But forget the minor issues surrounding the length and how songs end! The intros and body are exquisite and the production is spectacular; the bass lines are very prominent adding to the depth. In the end, Akhlys' album The Dreaming I helps to restore my faith (however slightly) in the most extreme metal to still invoke a positive reaction out of me.
Genres: Black Metal
Trance Music, but not Transcendent
Year of No Light founded a diamond in the rough in 2010 with Ausserwelt as they managed to win over a lot of folks with its crushing atmosphere. I was unfortunately not apart of that group, but I could, at the very least, recognize its quality in both its performance as well as the execution. But Year of No Light have always proven to be more of a texture first, everything else second band and this new album, Consolamentum is no different. These grooves are slow and brooding with a lot of comparisons to the heaviest side of doom metal. But without anything that resembles a theme or idea, it all just blends together. There are some cool moments on "Alètheia" and "Réalgar", but they do not serve a purpose much beyond that. Furthermore, the instrumentals have grown dull; I found myself losing interest during the wall of sound outro of "Came", meanwhile, the lack of a true bass presence really bothers me since it brings tracks like "Objuration" to a screeching halt. By comparison to Amenera that I just reviewed yesterday, I cannot see myself returning to this Year of No Light album very often. Not that I would want to return to the cold and dark world in the first place...
There is something that must be said about bands like Thy Catafalque. nearing twenty-five years into their musical endeavors and answering the call to raise the bar with every subsequent release. Many people believe that Rengeteg is the culmination of what this band is capable of, but I would like to challenge that claim with the bands newest album, Vadak.
Calling Thy Catafalque black metal in 2021 is grossly misleading as their is not a lot that would imply such a sound. Sure, the band begun making symphonic and avant-garde black metal, but those tones have been replaced by progressive songwriting in addition to all of the folk touches. However, in comparison to the bands excellent 2020 album, Naiv, Thy Catafalque brought back some heavier tones that are far more in line with thrash metal and sometimes groove metal. The stellar combo of "Gömböc" and "Az energiamegmaradás törvénye" is brimming with life and energy; the main riffs are filthy and the vocals and lead soar as complimentary pieces that mesh remarkably well.
Of course, this album is still progressive in nature, so thrash adjacent grooves aren't the only thing on display. "Móló" and the title track are slow burners with some ethereal moments. I got a huge kick out of the main synth ostinato during the second half of "Móló" and the prominent use of horns as melodic instruments during "A kupolaváros titka" and the title track are spectacular.
When I look back on progressive music in twenty years from now, and I think of about the essence of what it means to be progressive, Thy Catafalque will most likely be the first name that comes to mind. Their forward thinking approach to songwriting is intoxicating, but never feels overindulgent. Whereas Naiv had a tendency to get a little same-y at times, Vadak suffers none of that. The sound of this album is stellar for as much that is going on sonically, and the band balances it all with such precision. And this may be the best sounding thrash metal that I've heard in almost ten years! This is the one to beat in 2021 folks.
Genres: Avant-Garde Metal Progressive Metal