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
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
I was fortunate enough to get on board with VOLA right out of the gate in 2015 with their debut LP Inmazes. That was an album that displayed a new group attempting to blend the technical prowess of Djent and combine it with fairly accessible alternative metal tones and hooks that really fascinated me. Unfortunately this momentum may have been short lived, and even though the follow-up record, Applause Of A Distant Cloud and the new LP Witness are still quite solid albums, it does tend to fall into some very tired trends in modern progressive metal.
The synth work is jittery throughout the album, alternating between being very frontal and tinny on “These Black Claws” and “Head Mounted Sideways”, to being implemented quite well on “24 Light-Years” amongst the open chordal guitar accompaniment. The bass work is not revolutionary, but its presence does make the tracks feel a little more full, especially on the mid album ballad “Freak”, but on other instances, most notably “These Black Claws” once again as well as “Stone Leader Falling Down”, the bass lines seem like an afterthought and are not balanced as well with the down tuned guitars.
The hooks on this record are quite pretty, continuing a trend that VOLA have had since their debut. “Straight Lines”, “24 Light-Years” and especially “Napalm” have simple but very effective melodic motifs and are complimented well by some progressive compositions; not so much with whipping between time signatures but rather less emphasis on the strong beats in a traditional common time.
If anything I can give credit to VOLA for consistency and having a very good idea and rolling with it...and that has worked out for them up to this point. But those of us who have heard this sound before know that it is getting tiresome at this point, and VOLA are going to need to experiment further in order to maintain relevance on subsequent releases.
Genres: Progressive Metal
The Uroboros (or as it is typically referred to in the English language as "Ouroboros") is the image of a snake swallowing its own tail as a symbol of the infinite; an object with no discernable start or end point. I think that from a completely compositional standpoint, Dir en Grey's classic 2008 album has a significant problem where it tries to swallow more than it can physically chew. This band who began as an alternative rock/metal band with elements of nu-metal decided to go off the rails with this album and create something that has influences from so many different places: thrash metal, visual kei, death metal, industrial music, and compositions that borrow a lot from progressive and avant-garde music. That alone might make one question whether or not this belongs under the alternative metal tag at all!
While there may be some elements that resemble funk and post-hardcore, this album feels nothing like any of those genre representations. They feel more like temporary passing elements on what I can only assume the band perceives as a conceptual musical journey. And it all felt so jarring to me! What it reminded me of the most was last years album I Let It In And It Took Everything by English based Loathe, even if to a lesser extent. With that album, it tried to split the difference between pummeling metalcore and Deftones-esque shoegaze. And the strangest part of all is that I enjoyed that shoegaze/alternative metal sound more than the hardcore stuff! I think Uroboros falls into a lot of the same jurisdictions for me. Songs like "Toguro" and "Bugaboo" are wonderful displays of how progressive music can be made "accessible". The later of those being quite significant since it has a riff that is almost a blatant flip of Dirt era Alice In Chains!
But the rest of it? I could care less! The album starts off on terrible footing with the extended "Vinushka", an extended wank fest with no direction. That carried into "Red Soil" and "Doukoku To Sarinu" before collecting themselves and actually creating a decent hook/groove for "Toguro". "Gaika, Chinmoku Ga Nemurukoro" is a straight up death metal song before "Dozing Green" and "Inconvenient Ideal" brings back some of that visual kei and gothic trends. If that sounds like a lot to digest...it's because it is. And while most of it is produced well, the significantly heavier stuff does have a big problem of highlighting the percussion bass drum rather than the fundamental bass parts.
I would assume that if you appreciate progressive/avant-garde music as much as I do, this constant genre swapping might not bother you as much as many others. But for those approaching this as another Dir En Grey album are going to be alarmed by the balancing act. But that still isn't going to keep me from pointing out all of the inconsistencies in both the songwriting as well as production throughout. This will certainly serve as a "find the songs you like" album for most, but the good stuff is of such top quality that it still sees Uroboros sinking further between the teeth.
Genres: Alternative Metal Avant-Garde Metal Progressive Metal
Where do I start when talking about The Gathering? In terms of gothic metal coming out of the mid to late 1990s, they are one of the groups frequently left behind in a slew of male fronted bands like My Dying Bride, Type O Negative and Paradise Lost. It certainly shouldn't be the case when you consider Anneke van Giersbergen is a truly magnificent voice in gothic metal, as well as the many guest appearances throughout the years in both power metal and progressive metal. And the sound of this album helped influence some of my favourite gothic/doom metal albums of all time, such as Swallow the Sun and Trees of Eternity with its heavy use of darkwave.
And what we end up with on Mandylion is a solid display of control. Anneke could have easily played the "I'm a woman in metal" card and gone for the bombastic, symphonic vocals of Within Temptation's Sharon den Adel that were used two years later on Enter, but rather we have a plainspoken delivery that sounds blunt and bleak, while still allowing for copious amounts of technical proficiency. And what's backing her up? A well balanced, heavily focused doom metal palette that does go heavy on the texture and atmospherics rather than hook or melody, but they are produced with convincing presence and a forward thinking bass line that prevents these sections from becoming played out and uninteresting.
In addition, the songwriting helps with memorability as well. Mandylion is one of the most forward thinking, progressive doom metal albums of the 1990s that I can recall. And yet it features some of the most infectious melodic drives of any of the great 90s doom/gothic metal albums. Anneke's plainspoken delivery makes these songs feel down to earth, as opposed to the bombast of Within Temptation. The drives are simple and match the lyrical content quite well, and many of these songs have a well constructed form making them feel well worth their extended runtimes, especially "Leaves" and "In Motion #2".
In the end, The Gathering are more of a band that I respect more than I like. I will not deny that the quality of Mandylion is very good with its great production and forward thinking songwriting, but I have heard plenty of 2000s and beyond gothic/doom metal that takes the quality of this record and expands upon it. For me, I see this more as a redemption after reviewing (and not very much liking mind you) Within Temptation's debut gothic metal album a couple of years later. I do like this sound and it can be done well. And The Gathering are one of the early influencers of a sound that I really enjoy and respect tremendously.
Genres: Gothic Metal
Being a fan of progressive metal was a incredibly weird time during the early 2010s. As djent was beginning to be popularized by bands like Animals As Leaders, After the Burial, and Born of Osiris, I found a lot of it to be less engaging. On one hand, you ended up with highly technical music that lacked memorable structures like hooks and melody, and on the other was something that was closer resembling metalcore/deathcore, which... lacked memorable structures like hooks and melody.
I became aware of this new wave of progressive djent in 2010 after discovering what was, for the time, my new favourite band: Periphery. The key here is the record label; Sumerian Records were about to hit on all cylinders to fire out as many metalcore/deathcore and progressive djent bands that they could in a relatively short period of time. Born of Osiris had already established themselves with The New Reign and were about to take the next step in making their sound more progressive. And the end result was something of value, but could have been refined.
For starters, Born of Osiris are clearly influencing Rings of Saturn with some of the technical passages complimented by dissonant guitar leads with pinch harmonics, as well as the spatial passages on songs like "Singularity". As a result, this brand of deathcore is just as technically proficient as the kind of tech-death giants that Rings of Saturn are, while the breakdown passages split the difference between just regular metalcore breakdowns, and the sort of tonal dissonance that one expects from deathcore. Personally, I prefer the passages in which the breakdowns are complimented by some sort of synth lead that is overlaid on top of the metalcore breakdown, which is reminiscent of a band like August Burns Red. However, most of the time, the breakdown is the feature and while they can be quite heavy, they lack substance beyond "breakdown".
As I said before, the songwriting is very reminiscent of early Rings of Saturn with the technical proficiency in the guitars (as well as some percussion). And while the mixing is quite nice, it does fall into many of the same traps that Sumerian albums continuously fell into during the early 2010s. Most notably, the overabundance of guitar in the mix absolutely diminishes the bass, with the lone exception being the mini solo break on the closer "Behold". And while I feel it would be stupid to mention such a thing, given this is what all of this kind of metalcore sounds like, I cannot help but feel let down when the guitar breakdowns are a lot less bass-y than you would expect.
It all makes for a messy album that still has some good moments, but are bogged down by bad production, and my general displeasure for this type of metalcore music. The album runs far too long and does not have nearly enough memorable moments throughout the track listing to make The Discovery anything more than a blip of the radar. It's influence would be significant however, so I can at least be thankful for that.
I was surprised by this new Spectral Lore album at first. When I listened to their collaboration with Mare Cognitum last year with Wanderers, Spectral Lore were clearly going for a more spatial and comforting style of atmospheric black metal that was complementary to Mare Cognitum’s contributions that were heavier and faster. Imagine how I felt right out of the gate with all of these heavier blast beat percussion parts and strong tremolo picking guitars.
And this is a sound that would persist throughout the rest of the album. I will admit it does feel a little safe around the start of “Apocalypse”, but it does compliment well with some solid production. The songwriting is top notch; the way in which Spectral Lore is able to craft songs that are elongated and yet still retain a strong level of interconnectivity throughout is commendable. The opener “Ατραπός” starts off with the aformentioned heavier sounds of blast beats and tremolo picking guitars, then after a short break, the tremolo picking returns with slower percussion, followed by more soaring guitar leads. This all works together to create something that works well and warrants its twelve-and-a-half minute runtime. I also like the subtle key change that takes place on “The Sorcerer Above The Clouds”.
Sonically, Spectral Lore borrows clean guitar tones straight out of the more post-metal elements of recent Tool records, the more distorted elements hit with authority, but are also restrained enough as to not hinder the excellent low end and the independence of the bass lines. Much like a Mare Cognitum album, the vocals do feel like an afterthought in the mix, as they seem to be left towards the back behind the guitar leads. When this album is at its worst is when the steady percussion starts to fall off the tracks with the rhythm and lead guitars; at points this record will start to go off kilter and the tempos won’t match up. This is most notable throughout “The Golden Armor” when even the vocals cannot find beat one.
The atmospheric closer “Terean” is a nice touch following the high intensity of six tracks that precede it. It allows for the listener to reflect on the great atmospheric black metal they just experienced and perhaps work up the strength to go another round.
Genres: Black Metal
Some more black metal, this time from a group from Montreal, QC and playing into some of the more melodic traits of the genre, while still maintaining a high level of aggression and intensity throughout these six songs. And while I do find some of the melodies on this record to sound very nice, they don't vary too much from other songs throughout the rest of the album. Many of them maintain the same tempo, use the same tremolo picking patterns in the guitar (usually in the same octave as well), nonstop blast beat percussion and some solid vocals all around. Outside of a handful of moments, most notably on the closer "Diabolic Immanence", a lot of this record feels like comfortable melodic death metal; good melodic death metal mind you, just very pedestrian. I get the same feeling whenever I listen to a Mgła album. Take that for what it's worth.
Genres: Black Metal
There is a lot to like coming out of this new wave of technical death metal during the 2020s. It's nice to hear that artists have finally decided to start writing full songs rather than just limited fragments half heartedly spliced together for dramatic whiplash effect. I like how bands have begun incorporating more avant-garde songwriting structures to their music as an additional layer of technical demand. And I really appreciate how much more important bass lines have become, and how independence from the chugging guitar riffs opens up the music to many more possibilities as to where it can go in the future.
And so, this new tech-death duo, Turris Eburnea, are doing what they can do to continue the legacy that has been left behind by bands like Gorguts and Dead Congregation. And I rather enjoy this sludgier, almost post-metal hybrid of extreme technical death metal that sees the band using more guitar leads and well established bass lines, complimenting the chugging rhythm guitars and moving percussion parts. Some of this album resonates in the same way as Ulcerate did last year with Stare Into Death and Be Still. So much so that I could have sworn some of the atmospheric parts of the instrumental "Syncretism Incarnate" were taken directly out of that playbook. The vocals feel a lot less developed and further alienated to the back of the mix on these songs though.
Compositions are quite solid. The opener "Unified Fields" has a unique blend of interconnectivity between its moving parts and doesn't feel like it's being overstuffed with ideas. This carries further into "Cotard Delusion" and the instrumental "Syncretism Incarnate". The closer, "Malachite Mountains" is the the closest to a traditional tech-death song this EP gets and it sounds fine with many of the elements discussed earlier. I just found it to be a little less memorable.
But overall, if I were to call this technical death metal, I feel like I would be being disingenuous. Some might see that comparison and make unfair comparisons. This is avant-garde tech death with an apparent attention to melody that should be commended. I don't know how much more of this I would have been able to tolerate, so the fact that it is a relatively short EP, it gets some bonus points for that as well.
Genres: Death Metal
There comes a time in every musicians career where they hit a proverbial brick wall in their compositions and their fans begin to turn on them before they become a legacy act. It happened to Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Anthrax, and even more so recently with a band like Mastodon. In many cases, the pivot happens when a band begins to commercialize their sound for a wider audience. Never has this been more true than the undeserved levels of vitriol that Metallica received with the self titled album from 1991 and the rest of their 90s work.
The same can be said for Dream Theater. The legendary progressive metal act is responsible for three of the genres most essential albums, even if they are not among the best in the subgenre. Following the bands great 2002 album Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, the band quickly returned to the studio to record the follow-up, Train of Thought, which was released within the next calendar year! And at this point, I already had my suspicions about this album: the rollout for this album was far too short and abbreviated for it to possibly be as good (or better) than last years Six Degrees right?
Well, this is the album that led me on the path towards despising this band for quite a few years during the 2000s. As I mentioned briefly in my review for the bands 2019 album Distance Over Time, when this band became "the" progressive metal band, they stopped trying to bend the rules, and this album is exhibit A.
And here's the thing: Dream Theater were at the very least trying to fit in with the cool kids during the early 2000s, without digging into the absolute doldrums that was nu-metal at the time. But to be honest, the nu-metal elements don't even feel that significant! There might be an occasional faux rap verse on "This Dying Soul" or "Endless Sacrifice", but these are mostly in passing and only help break up the monotony that is, not just some of Dream Theater's least interesting songwriting of their careers, but also some of the most generic sounding progressive metal of the time.
This is certainly not helped by the production sounding really cheesy. Much of Mike Portnoy's drums sound thin, the guitar leads are nowhere near as memorable as the highlights from Six Degrees, and James LaBrie's vocals sound a lot less polished and generally flat throughout this record, an issue that has plagued even recent DT albums. Obviously you can't expect LaBrie to continue to sing the belting lines that existed on Images and Words as well as Awake, but even by those standards, I don't feel like their is a lot of heart going into these melodies. The album's lone saving grace is the bass work from John Myung; while the aforementioned drums feel thin, the bass does a lot of heavy lifting in carrying a lot of John Petrucci's lead guitar parts. Oh yeah, and Jordan Rudess decided to pick the absolute worst sounding synthesizers for his keyboard throughout the bands entire discography!
And where did the hooks go? "Stream of Consciousness" might have decent guitar lead as well as "This Dying Soul", but so much of this album is just not as sticky as what DT are capable of! Like who the fuck wanted to hear DT play "In the Name of God", a watered down progressive groove metal song? It feels lifeless and empty despite the fact that it is probably one of this albums least technical songs. Oh, did I mention that "Stream of Consciousness" is also a straight instrumental? Yeah, the best song on a Dream Theater album is the instrumental!
All of this is based on the assumption that Dream Theater are the quintessential progressive metal band; there is an entire branch of progressive metal that sole purpose is to try and recreate Images and Words. As the name suggests, these guys should be pushing boundaries within heavy metal music, not maintaining status quo for almost a decade. Train of Thought feels like a watered down version of Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and what's even worse is that even Dream Theater knows it, so much so that they released Six Degrees again in 2005 under the pseudonym Octavarium.
And with all of that being said, I still can't call this DT's worst album. That honour belongs to Systematic Chaos from 2007, as it shows us a band that does not give a shit about their own music and created something that was formulaic and generic; quite the task for a progressive metal album! I give Train of Thought at least a little bit of credit for trying to do something creative and unique on the surface, but it is literally just surface level changes. St. Anger might be the equivalent of a musical dookie, but it is Death Magnetic that wreaks of non-effort. Let me know when DT are back to making soulful music again.
Genres: Progressive Metal
Why do I get the feeling that Total Annihilation are Kreator marks? One only needs to look at the cover art for the bands 2020 album ...on Chains of Doom and they will find immediate callbacks to the great Kreator output of the 2010s (Phantom Antichrist and Gods of Violence). And then the album starts and the comparisons continue into the music itself. And I've never been opposed to worship like this, as long as the artist in question does enough to separate themselves from their influences.
Total Annihilation have a much heavier sound in general with huge riffage and pure harsh vocals instead of the hybrid vocals of Mike Petrozza. They are also not as strong songwriters as Kreator. It has its moments for sure; songs like "Dead Souls", "...On Chains of Doom" and the closer "Black Blood" are well constructed with more than enough unique ideas that keep each track interesting, as well as making the pure thrash sections more efficient. Beyond that though, I did not find that much that separated "Reborn in Flesh" from "Iron Coffin" to "Tunnelratten".
The album sounds nice. Production is fairly solid throughout even if the bass/rhythm guitar independence is lacking. Bass drum is not overproduced, guitar solos are sparse, but have a significant impact when they appear, the vocals are pummeling with force and while this is still a thrash album, the riffing is not the main focus of those tracks. The rhythm guitar does sound a little tinny at times, but the bass gives it life.
Overall, I think that ...on Chains of Doom is a respectable thrash metal album in the 2020s. It has some positive moments that make it stand out from its influences, the production is mostly solid, and the intensity is there. But beyond that, too often do I listen to this and think "Wow, this is something that Kreator would have left on the cutting room floor five years ago!" And while I'm sure this is inevitably my negative bias towards modern thrash metal, it still does not excuse the fact that I can't tell this album apart from Phantom Antichrist at least half of the time.
Genres: Thrash Metal
As I sure is prominent by my listening history as well as my reviews of atmospheric black metal in the past, I am typically drawn in towards the more nature and folk inspired stylings of a Panopticon or Saor. But I was thoroughly impressed by Mare Cognitum last year when I reviewed their Wanderers collaboration with Spectral Lore, which focused more on the spatial part of the ABM tag. So I made a concerted effort to listen to more from Mare Cognitum in the future.
And what I found was some very solid atmospheric black metal, which includes this, the newest album. Much of the time I have found that most of my extreme metal preferences have been towards the slower side, allowing for the melodies to take center stage. Mare Cognitum has some technically impressive foundations, but the melodies and grooves are still heavily prominent; a feat very seldom achieved in extreme metal.
The sound of this album is very pretty as well. Even though all of these songs start with a very distorted guitar which do not sound pleasant, the bass entrance fixes the guitar mixing and the rest of these songs can proceed splendidly. The album's obvious standout is “Luminous Accretion” in the way in which the song is able to grow (subtly), the vocals and guitar leads are balanced and the stickiness of the guitar lead is not that far removed from a Saor project.
Unfortunately, the rest of the album does not have the same infectiousness. While songs like “Antaresian” and “Frozen Star Divinization” sound massive and epic, they do tend to run on a little too long, and in the case of the former, has to fade out because even Jacob Buczarski does not know how to finish it! I would say that the album’s weakest moment is “Terra Requiem”, not because it is bad; I quite enjoyed the change of pace placed right in the middle of this record, but because the return of the blast beats and change of pace during its second half do not feel rewarding or well prepared.
So while I did enjoy this quite a bit, I would be hard pressed to call this excellent. With the exception of one great track, much of this record just runs together for me. Still, this is high quality atmospheric black metal that balances the extremity with the melodic very well.
Genres: Black Metal
I have never paid very much attention to bands like Architects, even if the majority of people that I know in metalcore spaces absolutely adore this band. I cannot truthfully say that anything I have heard from Architects to be abhorrent, but most of it just never stuck with me by comparison. That said, when I listened to their 2018 album Holy Hell, I was struck by how much passion was put into the music after the death of one of their integral songwriters. It really felt like this group could have written that album as a swansong and I’m not sure many of my friends would have complained.
That being said, when I heard the backlash from those same people surrounding their newest album, For Those That Wish To Exist, I was surprised to say the least. So I gave it a listen and… I don’t get it.
Oh I get where the anger comes from. For a band that has developed such a devoted fanbase, for them to go full on Bring Me The Horizon with their alternative, electronic leaning timbre that is not entirely devoid, but certainly limited metalcore roots, it would be a slap in the face to some. But as someone who was never a big fan of Architects in the first place, this is an entirely serviceable alternative metal pivot for the band, with many of the issues that similar bands have faced for decades.
Production wise, while the kick is far less prominent in the songwriting, the mixing has been blown up almost as compensation for slower moving parts. Many of the choruses on this album feel like they are about to fade out, but are followed by a typical melo-core breakdown. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it at first, but after the third time hearing it, it must have been added on purpose and it sounds disorienting.
While some of the songs sound decent, most notably “Giving Blood”, “Demi God” and probably “Dead Butterflies”, the lack of a bass independence from the rhythm guitar continues to infuriate me. And Sam Carter’s vocals are far less passionate than the last record as well. I guess I cannot count on the singer to have the same voice they did four/five years ago, but they still feel unpolished. Oli Sykes sounded better on That’s The Spirit and neither of these performances live up to the heights of Chester Bennington on Meteora.
On the surface, Architects are taking the steps to make their sound not only more accessible, but also sustainable. Sam Carter is not going to be able to record “Doomsday” for every song for the rest of their life. And while there may be glimmers of quality here, it is still relaxed enthusiasm from me. This is getting dangerously close to sounding like generic hard rock/heavy metal music, and I hope Architects can get off that path before it’s too late.
Genres: Alternative Metal
Not being the biggest fan of this style of metalcore, let’s breeze through this one really quick: For Your Health pulls upon the brashness of Converge’s mathcore leanings while using really short song structures to create a hellacious atmosphere that closes in on you in record time. There is practically no room to breathe on this LP and plays into its benefit among its emo and hyperviolence themes. But the guitars and vocals lack presence and are cascaded beneath the drums. To be honest, when my personal favourite track is the instrumental “If Anybody Asks We’re Already Fucked”, I think it just goes to show how much of this sound I can tolerate.
On the surface, I understand why bands like Ignited take the safe route and write music that is indebted to traditional heavy metal bands like Judas Priest and Overkill. These are legendary acts with legendary albums; Painkiller and The Years of Decay respectfully, are not just great heavy metal albums, but also some of the best albums of their respective years. And so, it becomes an easy sell for those who grew up with that music, or the younger generation who were educated on the history of metal through these iconic acts.
Steelbound is that with almost no development whatsoever. Most of this album sounds like it could have been written for a late era album by one those bands like Ironbound or Firepower. I don't understand why Ignited play this plainspoken without any development of the sound in question, in order to make it their own. Heavy metal in the most traditional sense of the word has become remarkably stagnant in the last decade, and it's albums like this that prove it.
The songwriting feel formulaic and everything involved in that songwriting is paint by numbers: Denis Lima's belting vocals, the riffing in the guitar feel played out, and the song structures follow very static verse/chorus/bridge/solo formulas. The riffs are okay, the vocals and guitar solos are impressive without becoming over-indulgent, and some of the choruses are fairly catchy. That being said, I once again hear too many similarities to a band like Judas Priest instead of a sound that takes influence and transforms it into something unqiue.
And you know what? All of that could be forgiven if the production was decent. But what we end up with is a lifeless mix in which I wonder if the bass player (Sama Benedet) even had their amplifier turned on. I'm sorry, I cannot forgive "Living in the Dark" for giving the guitar a modest lead, only to find out that there is nothing anchoring that guitar lead in place. Meanwhile, "Roaring Gears" has a rhythm guitar chugging riff that is doubled by the bass boosted kick drum, which is usually my biggest issue with death metal records! The riffs on "Steelbound" and "Ignition" feel like they have been taken right out of a groove metal handbook from fifteen years ago. And the overall tinny guitar tone just puts it over the edge for me. No amount of Rob Halford pipes will save this one!
To me, Steelbound feels like an album that was created by a bunch of dads who could never get into the new trends of traditional heavy metal. So they decided to make an album under the guise of "hey fellow dads! Are you sick of all of these new popular trends in metal? You want something that is old school?" Their description for this album on Bandcamp reads "...straightforward with captivating and powerful songs!" It's straightforward alright! To the point of unrecognizable. Even Judas Priest's worst albums never got this far. You'll be better off sticking to the OG's.
Genres: Heavy Metal
One of my most surprising releases of 2016 was from Swedish death metal noobs An Abstract Illusion's debut album Illuminate The Path. A band who gave themselves unlimited potential right out of the gate with their blend of progressive death metal meets post-metal/doom/shoegaze. What makes this album stand out just based on those descriptors alone is its uniqueness compared to anything else I've ever heard; it makes comparison points nearly impossible. I would say the closest are bands like early Opeth and Ne Obliviscaris. The way in which this band is able to incorporate complex songwriting while still incorporating a heavily dominant melodic aspect is what you might expect from progressive metal giants. "Abode of a God", "Drop This Planet of Dust" and especially "Vakuum" are wonderful compositions that use elongated song structures and uncommon time signatures to build upon the melodic themes presented as they grow into something truly marvelous.
Like with many of my favourite acts in the blackgaze genre, the use of space and atmospheric shoegaze portions give space and genuine cool down before the death metal guttural screams and blast beats return and they genuinely hit with remarkable impact. All you have to do is listen to the incredible intro "Breathe Create Beauty" to experience this euphoria in such a short amount of time, in comparison to the rest of the album. Some of the synth tone choices I'm not the biggest fan of, and from a pure production standpoint, the drums are quite loud overall and it does take away in portions from the excellent bass lines that are flowing through this record.
I remember hearing this album for the first time and being blown away by the pure musicianship on display. Illuminate The Path sounds like an album that was written by decade long veterans in death metal; quite impressive considering this is the bands debut LP! This branch of progressive metal should not be surprising to anyone following the impressive rise of post-metal/blackgaze of the 2010s and being able to witness it used over the stylings of melodic death metal is is very cool.
Genres: Death Metal Progressive Metal
I was not surprised in the slightest when Animals as Leaders' name was mentioned by fellow students when I was in post-secondary school back in 2010/2011. This was a group that were about to break out in a big way during the 2010s and their blend of progressive metal meets jazz fusion, complete with complex song structures was something that not only made sense, but also fit right in with the type of jazz music that was becoming popular at the time, and would later be force-fed into the learning program in later years.
Now let me start off this review by saying this: I never really cared for Animals as Leaders self-titled debut album after albums like Weightless and The Joy of Motion were released. My initial thoughts on this album were that it was too soulless and far more interested in showing off Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes' technical proficiency rather than writing good songs that thoroughly incorporated the technical wankery. This was developed and improved upon further on later releases, in addition to far better production that doesn't sound like it was recorded through a laptop webcam microphone!
I've also never been a huge fan of Djent as a genre. Continuing down the path of technical wankery as opposed to decent songwriting, Djent is more interested in rhythmic proficiency and breakdowns. And while I do respect that to a far greater extent than wankery, it still leaves me with not a lot to talk about. Djent is very much derived from metalcore and my issues with breakdown-centric music is well documented, but Animals as Leaders were at least able to make it fit in places, which is a step up from a band like Meshuggah.
Going back to the self titled debut, many of my issues stand, but I did find it to be more enjoyable than I remember. Tunes like "On Impulse", "Behaving Badly" and "The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing" are well constructed tunes with actual melodic frameworks connecting it all together. "Behaving Badly" and "Cafo" both carry the distinction of using technical wankery as a point of reference to craft good songs that might not have a singable hook per se, but they are certainly recognizable. Unfortunately, these seem to be in the minority on this record, as "Tempting Time", "Tessitura" and "Inamorata" act more as a collaboration of multiple ideas mixed together with no sense of dynamic growth, and feel like they are here for the showmanship. This was fortunately ratified on later albums.
When I look back and I think about some of my favourite progressive metal albums: Blackwater Park, Lateralus, Portal of I, Light of Day, Day of Darkness, I think about how effortless the individual tracks sound on those albums, even though it is obvious that they are far from easy. But from a performance standpoint, the best songs on those albums always feel as if the performers are putting their heart into the music, rather than reading it off of a piece of paper. And it takes a lot of practice to get to that place! To me, Animals as Leaders has always sounded like an album which lacked soul, and was more interested in the technical proficiency in order to wow the audience. Upon revisiting this album, I can safely say that this was not entirely the case because if I didn't revisit this, I probably would have pissed a lot of people off with my score! Like with so many debut albums, this was only for the band to get their feet wet, and the more refined music would come later.
Genres: Progressive Metal
Say what you will about what Entombed would become later on during the 1990s with the innovation of Death 'n' Roll, it was clear from the very beginning that death metal could be made accessible. The bands first two albums were very strong releases in the early stages of the death metal genre. Perhaps a little repetitive in comparison to many of their contemporaries at the time, but Entombed were a band with promise and direction. Songs like the title track, "Revel in Flesh", "But Life Goes On" and the closer "The Truth Beyond" showed us that you could in fact write an infectious death metal riff/hook and not have be relegated to a particular vocal line. As a result, these songs have some well established merit, allowing them to stand outside of the mosh pits where they would no doubt have served a dynamic purpose.
Sure the production does sound quite muddy at times, some of the melodic ideas are repeated throughout the album but not in a conceptual way, and the album does have its moments (i.e. "Morbid Devourment") in which the drastic whiplash effect of time changes invokes my knee-jerk reaction of over-indulgent technicality. But for an early deviation from Slayer and other adjacent thrash metal bands into the early stages of death, Entombed were on the cusp of something great, and were fortunate enough to have other Swedish bands pick up the slack when they diverged into something drastically different.
RIP L-G Petrov
Genres: Death Metal
It would be impossible to talk about the history of death metal without talking about the band in which the genre is practically named for. Death rewrote the death metal playbook before anyone even knew what a "death metal playbook" looked like back in 1991 and nothing was ever the same. Ever since, we have seen the death metal genre get heavier, more technical and frankly, orgasmic to those who like getting their face melted by blistering riffage and destructive vocals. And it helped pave the way for bands like Cryptopsy, Gorguts and Immolation.
But beneath all of that, there was a melodic side to death metal. Mostly hailing from Scandinavia, groups like Dark Tranquility, Edge of Sanity and At The Gates were doing things to the genre making it more accessible to a wider audience. Unfortunately, those artists and their albums are almost never given the same respect that they deserve for their contributions to the death metal genre. And this is mostly due to extreme metal having a superiority complex and how any sort of commercial success is considered "selling out" and those groups are immediately exiled from the club. It is no surprise that fanbases are becoming smaller and more niche seemingly by the day.
So why do I bring all of this up? Well I think it's important in understanding the sound that Mefitis are attempting to placate to on this album. This album is taking a lot of influence from those early death metal albums by Death and Atheist, but focusing on different aspects of the music that have never truly been explored before to create a new type of progressive death metal; one that is free from the clutches of tech death. An album that doesn't care about face melting blast beats, guttural belches and shredding guitar solos.
I have made the argument many times that technical death metal is not equivalent to progressive death metal. No one listens to Opeth's Blackwater Park or Cynic's Focus and thinks "yeah this is really good technical death metal!" And what we have here with Offscourings is a band taking us back in time to the early nineties, but with the knowledge that we have today that was unknown to us thirty years ago. This is not Tomb Mold OSDM; this is a sound that is all their own.
So what does it look like? Well for starters, it's slow. The lead guitars are not far removed from the tremolo picking you get out of a black metal album, but with plenty of that darkened flair. The riffs are seemingly not that dissimilar to an album by bands as recent as Contrarian. I was quite contempt with the lack of a prominent rhythm guitar for huge chugging rhythmic passages and allowing for an independent bass line to carry through, and while it certainly does have its moments, I do find the bass to be a little lackluster in points, most notably during some of the bridge's on songs like "Casting the Sediment". Percussion is hardly booming, and it doesn't have to be. The prominent kick drum and lesser snare may be alarming to some, but it does give it a nostalgic flare for sure.
The vocals may not sound very death metal, but Chuck Schuldiner never had a true low guttural growl during Death's best albums either. They usually persist around the mid register, but occasionally drop down on the closer "Sonstead Blight", almost as if a nod to the future of the subgenre and where death metal vocals would inevitably go in the future.
I read a review on RateYourMusic comparing Mefitis to the romantic pivot of classical music during the 19th century like Franz Liszt or Richard Wagner. But I found this to be more in line with Johannes Brahms. Brahms was a composer who was not comfortable with creating these huge, bombastic pieces that were the continuation of the late Beethoven sound of the 1810-20s. He would not be writing for twelve horns, thirteen percussion instruments and four choruses. Instead, Brahms chose to take Beethoven's "blueprint" and push romanticism with smaller ensembles, while still playing many of the new trends in classical music that were being implemented at the time. Mefitis' Offscourings is the modern equivalent of Johannes Brahms. A death metal album that is in debt to its influences, but is not concerned with the wankery of technical death metal that it spawned. It is very unlikely that this sound will persist long-term, and even less likely to pick up mainstream or underground traction. If you want some truly great progressive death metal in 2021, this is a very good place to start.
Genres: Death Metal
Here we have some atmospheric black metal from Russia. I found it mostly enjoyable, but much like with Trivium albums, it was a lot harder to enjoy than I would have liked. And it has to do with the lack of independence in the bass lines, or perhaps just poorly mixed all together. While the riffs sound super lush and warm, and the acoustic interludes like “Old Oak” provide the much needed reprieve to some, unfortunately samey black metal, the accordion passages do add some unique flavour, allowing it to stand out during the albums best moments. But because of the lack of bass, I cannot really get into the dynamic swells and hugeness of the soaring black metal passages.
Genres: Black Metal
I wish that I could enjoy Asphyx more than I do. There blend of Death Doom Metal is very different from the stuff that I typically find enjoyable from bands like Swallow The Sun and My Dying Bride; where they use traditional death metal riffage and instrumentation, albeit with slower tempos, fewer thrash adjacent passages and less sweeping melodic phrases. The problem that I have with Asphyx is their consistent use of messy, DIY production and it makes them sound very amateurish. If the band could fix this up, I would have no problem vibing out to them unironically and one of the better displays of "true" Death Doom Metal.
With Necroceros, I have the sneaking suspicion that this group is in the legacy portion of their career, even if I'm not quite sure that they deserve it. I stand by with many of the other reviewers on this website claiming that Asphyx's first two albums: The Rack and Last One on Earth are not as classic as others review base websites claim them to be. They are decent and Necroceros is decent as well, but it falls flat in many of the same ways that previous efforts from this band have for me.
And it's the production, as usual, keeping me from liking this more. Buy a metronome for God's sake! The percussion on this album sounds atrocious! There are countless examples of fading in and out of time, or simply not playing the right time at all! "The Sole Cure is Death" and "Botox Implosion" both have the percussion unable to keep up with the groove during the thrash passages, while songs like "Yield or Die" see the drummer playing in a duple rhythm while the guitar riffing is in triple time. It sounds lazy and disjointed beyond comprehension, and it ruins one of the albums better riffs. I know that some listeners will tell me that this is a death metal record and this is part of the greater appeal, but not like this.
Beyond that, the vocals sound shredded. Look... Martin van Drunen is doing death metal growls into his fifties and that is super impressive, if only for the dedication to the craft. But they do not sound good at all. The raspy vocal timbre does not fit in with the rest of the bands discography, and especially those first two "classic" albums.
Asphyx are at the very least, capable of writing a decent melody and sticking with it. "Molten Black Earth" is an early album standout, while "Three Years of Famine" has the group return to longer song structures, and doing a fairly good job of building and developing themes and connecting them together. I already mentioned the guitar riff on "Yield or Die", and "The Nameless Elite" has one of the better executed Doom to Death connectors that I have heard on a record in recent memory.
What it all boils down to is another Asphyx record. Probably not a great place to step on board if you are new to this group. Go back and check out The Rack and Last One on Earth first, then if you like what you hear, make your way through the discography to Necroceros. But given what I think of those albums already, my opinion is quite jaded. I wanted to like this more.
Genres: Death Metal
The continued critical success for the duo of The Body is utterly perplexing at this point. This group has been delivering punishing drone metal at a speedy pace for the last ten years and here we have yet another new album from the group, released at the beginning of the year 2021 and I did enjoy this, although I can certainly tell that this record is not tailored for everyone.
For starters, this is not a metal album. I think that the tag of this being metal is more indicative of where the band has been; deriving many of its sounds from industrial and sludge metal. This album is far more electronic, perhaps further exemplifying the industrial tag, but fewer guitars than ever before. Chip King's absurd vocals are still present to the point of inaudibility as the rest of the instrumentals collapse around you in a blown out mix of (and this is a compliment) disgusting plunderphonics and mix clipping. Now, under most circumstances, this would be a net negative, but it is quite obvious that The Body made this album sound this way intentionally. It almost compares almost too well to an album from Lingua Ignota.
Unlike Lingua Ignota, the lyrics and themes don't take very much precedent, but they serve the same purpose. They are shredded beyond repair and feel as if you are being pulled down into the depths of Hell itself. The instrumentals are obtrusive and gross, layered in an almost ridiculous amount of feedback and wub effects and together, they create a homogenized mess that is as hard to pin down as you might expect, but it is immense and brimming with atmosphere.
Now on the downside, I have never been the biggest fan of Drone music even on its best days, so while the album is quite brisk for a drone album (around thirty-eight minutes), I still cannot deny that the constant repetition of ideas from track to track can become redundant, especially when you get to those five minute tracks like "A Pain of Knowing", "The City Is Shelled" and "Path of Failure". In addition, while I do appreciate the atmosphere that is on display, the blown out electronics in the mix is a little overwhelming for my taste. I liken it to the kind of shit you get out of a Bubblegum Bass record, but at least they have the decency to toss in a cleaner passage every once in a while.
But that would be taking away from the overall appeal of an album like this. So while The Body have found a sound that speaks to them, and they can do it without collaborators, they can make this obtrusive mix work. However, having never been a big fan of these sounds in the first place, I do have to be a little bit tentative in my recommendation. It really isn't for me, but it does sound good for what it's worth, and that's all I need to see.
Genres: Drone Metal