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
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
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
Moonsorrow are among an elite group of artists across any genre of music that I can honestly say have shown great maturity into their later years. This group around the mid 1990s as a fairly decent pagan black metal band who occasionally delved deep into soaring song construction associated with the atmospheric side of black metal. Of course, it was only a matter of time before Moonsorrow refined their sound and gave it more progressive elements and would essentially place themselves firmly in my wheelhouse when it comes to my favourite styles of black metal. What I am basically saying is...my very unique appreciation for black metal is attributed in large part thanks to Moonsorrow.
I discovered them in 2011 with the record Varjoina kuljemme kuolleiden maassa which I view as the culmination of their sound, and one of the best albums in all of that year. Most of the general consensus among fans is that Verisäkeet is the tops, but very few people talk about V: Hävitetty. This record is a daunting one; only two tracks, but both eclipse twenty-five minute runtimes. Of course, most Moonsorrow fans should not be surprised by this since they have always engaged in ten minute plus endeavours. And with this? I feel like Hävitetty is more of an experimental project rather than one that Moonsorrow would continue down. A very good experiment mind you, but not one that I see as the pinnacle of Moonsorrow's discography.
So to start, let's talk about these song forms. The first track is actually broken up into two distinct sections: "Jäästä syntynyt / Varjojen virta" breaks right around the twelve minute mark. The first is slow and drawn out for quite some time, only truly growing into a black metal mold around the seven minute mark. The buildup is tremendous and each of the following transformations hit like a freight train! The soaring melodies in the guitar complimented by some very prominent bass allow for this track to become a true "epic"; you will not even notice where all the time has gone.
The second track, "Tuleen ajettu maa" is far more straightforward and may be seen as the lesser of the two tracks. With it being only one continuous idea, it can become repetitive if you are not listening in the right places. The main melodic passage is passed around the ensemble and is transformed through a number of different time signatures and stylistic changes; it's actually quite impressive. There are some classical composers who cannot hold onto a melodic theme for that long! And just like the opening of the first track, the gradual cool down from the massive cataclysm of sound ends the album the same way that it began and it helps bring these two separate ideas together without ever having to cross reference each other.
There are a couple of problems. First and foremost, the mixing of the percussion is quite lackluster. Most notably during any softer portions when Marko starts incorporating more lower toms and kick drum, they seem to pierce through the mix and clip over any clean guitars or synths that might be playing at the time. The only other big issue that I have is the incorporation of these folk elements. First and foremost, this is a black metal record with folk elements, rather than a unification of the two. Perhaps a little bit ironic since one of my favourite records of all time is Ashes Against the Grain, but it has been dealt with by groups such as Saor later on, and I can't help but feel a little underwhelmed.
That being said, if you want an album that has stood the test of time by combining the elements of atmospheric black metal, progressive metal and folk together, then Hävitetty might be the album for you. The sounds on display here are some of black metal's finest. This truly feels like the warm embrace of a fire while the rest of the world around you is entrenched in the coldness of winter. It might not be as mature as Varjoina kuljemme kuolleiden maassa, but a step in the right direction nonetheless.
Genres: Folk Metal
Pain of Salvation are one of progressive music's most consistent groups of the 21st century. My introduction to this group was in 2010 with Road Salt One and while I certainly have been given no reason to dislike it, it is a project that I don't return to all that much. It's a pleasant experience in which the progressive elements are prominent and robust, but it is severely lacking in connectivity.
That changed quite recently with the release of their 2017 album In the Passing Light of Day, which saw the band reach their fullest potential during the 2010s and create something that made sense given the timbre of this music, as well as each members musical proficiency.
Now why bring all of this up? Well, in going back and listening to most of Pain of Salvation's older discography, I found that not a lot of it stands out. They have always been a 6 to a 7 our of 10 in which albums had excellent moments, but failed to keep me engaged for a full album runtime. This is especially prominent when most of these albums run at least an hour.
And so, Remedy Lane is the bands most commercially successful and praised album and I understand why. The band has a sound that is heavy, but still restrained enough that it could be accepted by a progressive rock crowd as well; since I am Tool fan, this is a selling point for me. As for the music itself? Songs like "Ending Theme", "Undertow" and "Second Love" are subtle with their progressive output and can be quite beautiful, while the tunes "A Trace of Blood" and "Rope Ends" are far more direct. The interweaving of ideas on "A Trace of Blood" are composed well as the listener is allowed to engage with the themes that are on display.
It is also noticeable that Pain of Salvation have not truly evolved over the last twenty years. Many of Pain of Salvation's tried and true -isms from this album are still on display even with records today like PANTHER; three over two (or vice versa) rhythms, some awkward vocal harmonies and a very lackluster scream that just manages to creep its way in on the closing track "Beyond the Pale". They also know how to craft hooks as prominent as "Meaningless" and "Full Throttle Tribe" would become later. The songs "A Trace of Blood", and "Undertow" show what this band is capable of and that it would be possible for them to make a truly great record if they stopped writing songs like "Rope Ends" and "Chain Sling".
My final piece surrounding this album (and all of Pain of Salvation's discography for that matter) is that they paved the way, not intentionally towards Djent music. The herky-jerk nature of these rhythmic instrumentals is unmistakable by today's standards and can be heard in groups such as Animals As Leaders today. Having never been a big fan of Djent in the first place, I will admit that at least this record still has some decent songwriting capability associated with it. I assume that this record would have been received more fondly in 2002 as opposed to twenty years later. But since I can only review based on personal experience, I found Remedy Lane to be a very good progressive rock/metal album with significant cultural impact, but the impact that it did make is not my cup of tea.
Genres: Progressive Metal
Power Metal is a genre that I hold in high regard given it's significance within my lifetime and my growth and appreciation of heavy metal as a whole. Considering the NWOBHM is one of my favourite era's in the entire genre, and they way that it helped pave the way for bands like Helloween and Blind Guardian to advance it to new heights is very important to me. And Blind Guardian is one of my favourite acts of all time in this genre.
Now why do I bring this all up? Well, all of those acts come from Europe. For some reason, when power metal started to become prominent in the western hemisphere, much of the appeal that fascinated me with the genre was diminished or outright gone. The bombast and intensity were reduced to fragments and most of it felt like a skeleton of a power metal song. And having been given this opportunity to explore US Power Metal in a little bit more detail than ever before, I have found very little that has changed my mind.
Of course, this brings us to Riot, New York's finest arbiters of the genre and their 1988 album ThunderSteel. And I can credit the group for at least attempting to maintain more elements from the European strain of Power Metal than their contemporaries. The vocals are powerful and have influences from Bruce Dickinson, King Diamond and Michael Kiske. And the riffs are strong as well on the tunes "Sign Of The Crimson Stone" and "Run For Your Life".
So why don't I like this more? Well, to be completely honest, it's quite simple: Riot have no identity of their own on ThunderSteel. While "Sign Of The Crimson Stone" and "Run For Your Life" are the best tunes on the record, they are also blatant flips of Van Halen's "Runnin' With The Devil" and Iron Maiden's "Two Minutes To Midnight" respectively. And outside of that, the rest of the albums just feels like a prototypical US Power Metal album once again; lacking the dynamic punch/force that the European strain can obtain without effort.
The guitar riffs are not all that impressive. They feel gutted and are only a quick tempo change away from being thrash epics. And without a significant fundamental bass line, "Fight Or Fall" and "Flight Of The Warrior" just don't go anywhere. The vocals, while technically impressive at times, falter from being too reliant on Tony Moore's low register. If we are being completely honest, these vocals are not that dissimilar to Tom Araya's vocals on Slayer's debut album from 1983; usually restrained and lacking in intensity, and only occasionally letting it all out with a howl. These vocals don't even hold a candle to Rob Halford or Bruce Dickinson even today as they both approach their mid to late 60s (Halford turns 70 this August!).
Of course, it also doesn't help that the sound of this record is very uneven. Sometimes, you'll have a full, uncompressed guitar line to kick off the album ("Thundersteel"), but then "Flight Of The Warrior" will divert that tone to something that is more compressed and tinny. This compression does not help the lead guitar either as they become quite muted.
Perhaps US Power Metal is a change of pace within the Power Metal scene that I just can't comprehend. I have listened to plenty of Iced Earth, Manilla Road, Metal Church and Riot within the past year that I cannot fathom how anyone would listen to this over the European juggernauts. Maybe my upbringing has tainted my opinion on an album such as this. At least groups like Manilla Road maintained a consistent sound through their most successful albums like Mystification. This sounds forced, and trying to be too many things all at once. And with ThunderSteel being the bands first album in this style, following a five year absence, the best way I can describe Riot is "trend-hoppers".
Genres: Heavy Metal
Allow me to bring you back, if only for a moment, to the year of 2017. I was just beginning my long, tumultuous journey into the depths of despair, death and cults with Black Metal. My original sentiment was that it was a genre just not meant for me, but their will always be exceptions and groups willing to bend the rules. One such group was Panopticon, with their marvelous blend of uniquely Americana folk music with soaring atmospheric black metal. And considering how much of a mark I have always been for folk tinged metal, this was something I had to explore further.
So a couple years into this endeavor, I discovered the English based Atmospheric Black Metal, tinkering on Blackgaze, group Fen and this album Winter in March of that year (that is important, trust me). Initial expectations were low, as this was one of those albums that lacked much of the folk tinged "epicness" that surrounded Saor and Panopticon among others. But then I kept coming back to this record, over and over again, even more so than those albums by artists previously mentioned. Let me be clear: Winter is the greatest achievement in black metal of the traditional variety; one that invokes the death, despair and suffering better than any record I can recall, all laced within the unmistakable coldness that is implied by this genre's OGs like Burzum, Mayhem and Darkthrone.
This is a complicated album to discuss. Mostly due to the fact that this is an incredibly daunting listen! For an album that contains only six tracks and clocking it at nearly eighty minutes, I can see why a lot of people, including those who are much bigger fans of black metal than me, might turn a blind eye to an album like this. But let me clear: Fen's Winter is one of the most compelling albums I have ever listened to across any genre. This album is magnificent!
For starters, Fen managed to peak my interest almost instantly with the inclusion of a seventeen minute opener "I (Pathway) that might just be the greatest display of pacing I have ever heard! The tune starts as almost a whisper before more instruments gradually fill out the mix, followed by drone chanting vocals, all in the span of about three minutes. Then the dynamics explode drastically as the black metal screeches of The Watcher enter. The theme develops further, modulating throughout numerous key centers and variations on a theme before the album creeps back down to a softer passage that borrows heavily from shoegaze. The main theme returns once again and builds as the opening did, but this time with even more ferocity than before. The way it ends and effortlessly transitions into "II (Penance)" is absolutely brilliant.
While most of the tracks on this record do follow a very similar compositional formula, there is more than enough structural differences between the tracks that make each moment feel like it belongs. And that is incredibly difficult to do on a forty minute LP; this one is almost eighty! Whether that be the painful descent into the abyss that closes out "IV (Internment)", the full frontal assault that persists on "V (Death)" and the gradual rebirth that occurs on "VI (Sight)". There is not a single moment here that is out of place, or arbitrarily thrown in to make it sound more progressive.
A similar feeling can be said about the lyrical content as well. The more listens I give this album, the more I keep thinking about the parallels between this and Agalloch's epic masterpiece The Mantle. But where that album felt like a fresh coat of snow that had just fallen and created a beautiful landscape across the countryside, Winter feels more like a freezing rain storm. While the thought of everything being covered in a layer of ice seems really cool and does create some incredible photo opportunities, most people only remember the aftermath of those photos; when the branches of the trees have all given in under the additional weight of the ice, and what you are left with is a hellscape that looks like the aftermath of a natural disaster like a tornado or a hurricane.
And the way in which Fen are able to make that come across in the music in addition to the words is spectacular. The cold is chilling on this record, as if the ice storm is concaving right on top of you. The way in which the protagonist comes to grips with their own inevitable fate is genuinely haunting in a way that I have never experienced before. The movements of this album are nearly flawless in the their execution and the emotional weight that is implied as the titles of each movement would suggest. Unlike those atmospheric black metal albums by Saor and Panopticon, this album builds into a cold rot that reminds me a little too much of the story of Ariandel in the Dark Souls franchise. However, unlike in the Dark Souls universe, this album ends with our protagonist laying themselves down at the altar of an undefiled statue as they accept their fate ("V (Death)") and are cleansed of the rot that has built within oneself throughout their lives, even before the start of this record. The post-rock section that consumes the first half of "VI (Sight)" represents the acceptance of death and the return of the blast beats, tremolo picking guitars and howled vocals is almost foreshadowing that, the cycle will resume again.
I consider myself to be a fairly harsh critic in comparison to many of my contemporaries, and even more so here on Metal Academy. So let me stress that I do not hand out perfect scores very often. These are reserved for the special albums that resonate with me in ways that are almost impossible to describe. This is the bands most ambitious album they have ever released and it paid off in spectacular fashion. The cold of the titular season is on full display on this Fen album; highlighted most of all by the depression that one gets from a season that carries on for far too long, just as this album does. But this album breeds life, probably not what the band intended, that I have not heard on a metal album since Ashes Against the Grain. This is certainly an ambitious listen and most likely too daunting for some. But I can assure you, if you are willing to take the plunge, you may be surprised by what secrets you may discover. Maybe, at the end of this journey, to return to the Dark Souls reference from before, we can finally find our cold, dark and gentle world.
Genres: Black Metal
Despondent Moon is a solo black metal project from the U.K. who has been working on a very niche brand of atmospheric black metal. While clearly taking some lessons from Burzum in the use of softer, ambient portions and Dungeon synth interludes, this is far more in line with straightforward, ruthless black metal.
And I can already imagine that many folks who are already enamored by this brand of black metal are flocking to a record such as this one...and I wish I could be a part of them. Look, despite the fact that the black metal sections are pretty cool and have some great deviances throughout the project, not much outside of a few moments really stuck with me. And those moments were typically comparisons to other artists.
The sound and timbre of this album reminded me quite a bit of Fen, and not the progressive metal Fen, but the Winter Fen. However, Despondent Moon’s production is far too bright for this kind of black metal. The bass presence is completely missing during much of the albums louder, enforced moments (“The Howling of the Hallowed Hands”, “Apparition of the Countess Descending the Spiral Staircase”, etc.), while the vocals are so compressed in the mix that it sounds meaningless. Toss on top of that what sounds like wah effects on the vocals, and good luck understanding any of it, even for the most well developed ear to death/black metal vocals.
Some of the slower passages have an Enslaved vibe going on, especially on “Apparition of the Countess Descending the Spiral Staircase”, but the overall vibe of this album is just pure chaos. The overabundance of noise going on at any one moment does not make me feel the way the album wants me to, and the dungeon synth passages don’t make me feel release either; rather an interlude with no purpose or connectivity to the black metal songs. I can see why some would adore this kind of black metal, but it isn’t doing it for me.
Genres: Black Metal
I have brought up the name Daughters on several occasions here on this website; in both album reviews as well as in forums. They are an industrial rock band whose 2018 album You Won't Get What You Want is by far one of the finest displays of apocalyptic imagery through noisy and alien production, and surely one of the best albums to be released in all of the 2010s. That was the feeling that I got when I listened to Shame, the newest album from this industrial metal band.
And I did enjoy this album a fair bit, I do have to admit that the messy production is both a benefit and a flaw in the overall scheme of things. For starters, Shame is a much slower moving album than You Won't Get What You Want is. The grooves that incorporate "Delco", "The Shadow of God's Hand" and "All We've Ever Wanted" are far more in tune with something doom or sludgy. While songs like "Life in Remission" and "Dispatches from the Gutter" are much more aggressive and leaning towards hardcore punk. Everything here is mixed really muddy and distorted to create an uncomfortable atmosphere; one that is brimming with pessimism and self-loathing. But the vocals are paramount to the atmosphere and they have quite a drastic change of cleanliness to them throughout the record. While "This Won't End Well" and "The Shadow of God's Hand" are pretty good, the opener "Delco", as well as "Life in Remission" don't feel as pronounced.
While this may be a part of the point with the instrumentals sounding as slapdash and rough as they do, I still feel like the vocals should have served of greater importance than they ended up doing. Meanwhile, the heavier sections that incorporate blast beats on "Life in Remission" and "I Am the Cancer" are meshed so close together that it sounds like proverbial nothing. As a result, the bass becomes lost, but I'm not sure it needs to be as fruitful and progressive as I typically like. When the distortion of the mix is so important to a record's appeal, and for it to work as well as it does here, you almost wish for it to stay in the vein more frequently, rather than returning to relatively cleaner tones during the pure punk sections.
I like this. I like this a fair bit actually. The low quality production is something that is very reminiscent of some of my favourite hardcore punk albums by Black Flag, Rites of Spring or even Hüsker Dü. But I am also aware of what hardcore punk is capable of in the 2010s and beyond, and Daughters have proven that you can have clean production and yet make it sound so alien. Uniform are close to that, and should not bow their heads with this project.
Genres: Industrial Metal
Serpent Column have been experimenting in the last five years with what is possible within the realms of black metal by bringing in the relentless, unconventional nature of mathcore for a hybrid that I am not sure why more bands haven't done it yet. The percussion element is absolutely absurd, complimented by heavy tremolo picking guitars and punishing screeches from the vocals.
And here is the thing: I can see this working in some circles. Most of the early reviews for this record praise it for its unfiltered aggressiveness as well as the moshing mentality, a trait that fans of early Converge records will enjoy, even with its black metal personality. The songs are short and to the point, which for a record such as this is a very good thing. And at some moments, such as both parts of "Wars Waged in Private" as well as the following tune "Antihelical", they actually have some decent (if a little underplayed) tunes to follow.
But let's be real here, I was never going to be apart of this album's primary audience. Something about pure moshing music has never sat well with me because it gives me no reason to return to it unless I am in a mosh pit! And since concerts are on hiatus at the moment, I cannot see much of a lasting impact from this EP, or Serpent Column in general, in the not so distant future. But mosh music has its audience and for what it's worth, it is good moshing music. So have fun everyone!
Genres: Black Metal Metalcore
Having never really cared for Katatonia, I was a little nervous about giving one of their records the fullest of my attention. This is a band that has modulated their sound considerably since the humble beginnings as a death doom metal band, spanning alternative metal, gothic metal, and even progressive metal in later years. It makes checking out a bands discography a daunting task. And if you never grew up with this group, these pivots may not resonate in the same way as they did around the albums initial release window.
Anyways, The Great Cold Distance is perhaps the culmination of the bands first major pivot from death doom metal to more accessible alternative doom. And for what it is worth, I do not think that The Great Cold Distance is a bad album. Certainly if we are comparing this to albums with similar timbres, Katatonia are far more advanced, but I feel like much of the drama is diminished.
Now the comparisons that I am making are to the specific brand of post-grunge revival that came out of the mid 2000s that included groups like Breaking Benjamin, Seether & Shinedown. Breaking Benjamin were always the closest comparison, but Katatonia's compositions and song structures are far more developed than anything from the groups mentioned previously. The typical slower tempos that are reminiscent of Swallow the Sun and (more likely) Trees of Eternity that are complimented with slow double bass percussion and complimentary guitar riffage present a more energetic side of doom metal that is commendable, especially when the vocalist follows suit. Otherwise the mismatch in timbre is unsettling, which may be part of the point.
In addition, the compositions of individual songs is very good. The modulation of ideas through time signature and rhythmic changes is pulled off with proficiency. Whether that be "Consternation" or "The Itch", they do sound quite wonderful together. But even on this record, these sounds were not going to last on their own. You can already start to hear elements of progressive/post-metal creep in during the albums closing moments; almost as if a teaser as to what the next era of Katatonia will bring. Very reminiscent of the post-metal sounds that Tool were experimenting with during the 2000s. And, once again, the mixing of these sounds is executed with precision and grandeur.
But let's talk about drama. Not so far back as Last Fair Deal Gone Down is the band allowed to let their songs resonate and reach the desired conclusion. This album feels rushed, as if some of its main ideas are not allowed to finish. And the album clocks in at a brisk fifty minutes so their would have been plenty of wiggle room to allow "Soil's Song", "The Itch" and especially the closer "Journey Through Pressure" to reach some finality. Instead, the album just....fades away; perhaps reminiscent of the band on their next great journey. If you believe that, then this album will serve you well. For me however, I see it as a cop out. Doom metal inherently implies some sense of completion, whereas this implies that this journey is just beginning. I can appreciate the diversion of expectations, but I have heard it done better.
As someone who never grew up with Katatonia, my opinions may be skewed, so take my conclusion on The Great Cold Distance with a grain of salt. For a time, Katatonia expanded the possibilities of what post-grunge could sound like and arguably did it better than any of their influences or contemporaries. But I have heard many of the sounds on display within this record done better in the years following, including from Katatonia themselves, which makes this an album that I respect, but do not love. The journey that Katatonia speaks of on this record is long and bitter, and that is okay. It's what you find at the end of your adventure that counts.
Genres: Alternative Metal
It is extremely difficult for an artist or band to be as eclectic from the word go as Rosetta were in 2005, and not be seen as pretentious. Most artists wait until they are at least three or four records in before saying "you know what? Fuck it, let's break some rules!" The problem with Rosetta is that were not intending on breaking any rules around the time of The Galileans Satellites. In fact, the band actually seems quite contempt with hanging out with the big boys like Cult of Luna and Neurosis in the post-metal mold (or the more dubious title of "atmospheric sludge metal") in creating a heavy, claustrophobic environment that focuses on instrumental texture as opposed to riffage and solos.
And from the word go, you can tell that Rosetta are not changing any rules. In fact, I would say that The Galilean Satellites is one of post-metal's least influential of the genre's most important albums. I had only just recently listened to this record, while bands like Neurosis, ISIS, Cult of Luna, and even The Ocean Collective had already released their first LPs, and Rosetta borrows heavily from all of them. Most notably, The Ocean and Cult of Luna's intense songwriting. These grooves are pummeling and there is very little room for a breather. When you do receive a moment of reprieve, enjoy it for as long as it lasts because that cacophony of sound will be back soon.
Which brings me to a very interesting point about this record's songwriting. It is remarkably simplistic, but immensely captivating by its gargantuan forms, which allow for ideas to develop slowly and methodically. The gradual crescendo that takes place on the track "Absent" is one of the best displays of dynamic development I have ever heard on a metal album. The reason it is "simplistic" is that the main motif rarely changes. It almost reminds me of a minimalist classical piece from a Steve Reich or a John Adams, where the texture builds intensity and emotional drama.
Of course there is a catch, and that is if the tunes don't develop in a reasonable manner, they get very monotonous very quickly. "Itinerant" is the albums longest track and yet it does nothing. I think Rosetta were aware of this as well because right around the ten minute mark, you begin to hear the tune fade away ever so slowly into an ambient feedback loop with quiet sampled vocals overlayed in the mix. If this was the case, why not make the first section shorter? You would not even need to cut down the second half of the track, which would still make the triumphant return of percussion on the closer of disc 1 "Au Pays Natal" hit with dynamic force.
Since this is a metal album, I would feel inclined to stop here, but i would be remised if I didn't at least mention disc 2. This record consists of ambient/drone tracks that are incredibly synth heavy, minimal leads, and lots of distorted feedback as the closing of "Itinerant" did on the first disc. There lone vocals that appear on this disc are on "Beta Aquilae", and those are heavily distorted and compressed as well. It is kind of interesting at least to hear Rosetta use the second disc as an opportunity to flex their atmospheric muscles in a different environment than executed on disc one.
But that brings me to the elephant in the room that I can no longer ignore: The Galilean Satellites is meant to be listened to simultaneously. Both discs contain five tracks that mirror each other in duration and compliment their sister songs. And while this is a cool idea in concept, the execution is lackluster. The ambient synths and distorted feedback loops of disc two are absolutely caved in on themselves when both discs are played at the same time. Disc one is overwhelming and chaotic at its heaviest, and even during its quieter passages, whatever growth/texture that disc two added is immediately shot down. Here is a question: if disc two was so important to the narrative of The Galilean Satellites, why not just overlay disc two from the start? It might have sounded like pure audio hell, but it couldn't sound much worse than listening to two albums simultaneously!
As it stands, The Galilean Satellites is a very good, bordering on great, dose of post-metal that splits the difference very well between claustrophobic and ethereal. And the way Rosetta shows off their chops from a heavier doom/sludge side, to a more meditative ambient/drone side is commendable. But combined, these two ideas do not work together as well as the band may have initially thought. It isn't the best record in this style, and does not resonate with me personally as much as Panopticon or A Dawn to Fear do, but it does show a band using space efficiently and created a new world from it.
Genres: Sludge Metal Post-Metal
Say what you will about Overkill, there is no denying that group are some fast learners! After what I consider a very poorly executed debut record Feel the Fire in 1985, Overkill quickly made some adjustments on their follow up LP, Taking Over, and have been releasing some very solid thrash metal for the better part of over three decades. Of course, Overkill were at their best right around the time the big four "sold out" and is best remembered for albums like The Years of Decay and Horrorscope.
First and foremost, the production of the band's subsequent records has greatly improved. I have been very critical of some well regraded thrash metal debuts in the past for focusing more on the garage jam session, DIY approach as opposed to the ruthlessness of the grooves, tempos, blistering solos and soaring vocals. With Horrorscope, Overkill give us some of the cleanest sounding thrash metal at this time, and I could see why some metal purists may scold at the idea. Rest assured. the guitar riffage on "Infections", "Blood Money", "New Machine" and "Live Young, Die Free" is still crunchy, and Blitz's vocals are refined to an extent; very few shrieks that plagued the debut, but more attention to diction and flow. I will say that the lack of a dominant bass presence is a little disappointing, mostly near the final third of the album, but there is still a low end which gives the song the needed drive.
Of course, tight production as well as an overall tighter band can only get you so far. The real challenge is in the hooks and how well does this record linger after its conclusion. Well Overkill have always had a knack for some impressive thrash metal songwriting, even as far back as the debut LP, and Horrorscope is no exception. The traditional speed metal cuts like "Blood Money" and "Live Young, Die Free" still have great foundations to build off, while "Thanx for Nothin'" and "Bare Bones" are a very good one two punch before the album takes a breather for the title track. To go along with the final two songs on the album "Nice Day...For a Funeral" and "Solitude", the album has a good variety of styles; tempos, keys, modulation, as well as overall song formats, which keeps the album fresh and never feeling too long.
To be completely honest, I do not have much else to say about Horrorscope. In terms of the thrash metal aesthetic, Overkill managed to make something that was fun, heavy, mosh worthy, and recognizable; a feat very seldom achieved in thrash metal, even today. Unfortunately, Overkill seemed to milk this routine for the next thirty years and they have done very little to innovate. And at this point, I'm not sure they need to! Overkill deserve a seat at the table with Testament as one of thrash metal's most consistent outlet's, even if the music has become rather stale in recent years. For me, I still have to go with The Years of Decay as being a slightly more polished record, but Horrorscope is no slouch.
Genres: Thrash Metal
A lot of my close friends have lost a lot of favour with Dark Tranquillity over the past decade or so. This Swedish band has been heralded along with bands like At The Gates as being integral members of the Gothenburg melodic death metal of the 1990s. And for the most part, I agree with them. And it isn’t entirely their fault; for a band that has been together for as long as they have, it is difficult to stay relevant as what is essentially a legacy act.
I also noticed that a lot of people still really like this group through their 2010s output like 2016’s Atoma. And I expected more of the same out of Moment.
Boy was that a mistake! Dark Tranquillity have made a drastic change in their sound entering their fourth decade; one that incorporates more elements of doom than ever before. And strangely enough, I think this may be one of the band’s best albums since their classic output of the 1990s, although I have more suspicions as to how it will be treated by more traditional Dark Tranquillity fans.
For the first time in their careers, Dark Tranquillity lives up to their name and creates a very meditative project that is calming and soothing. Not a moment or instrumental feels out of place on this record. Sure there may be some odd production blemishes, mostly in the synth leads on songs like “Ego Deception”, but they do not hurt the songs appeal. The tunes stay melodic and have some sticky hooks on “Transient”, “The Dark Unbroken” and “In Truth Divided”. And, like with many other melo death bands in the Gothenburg school, instrumental wankery is miniscule and serves more as a framing device and has some soul built into them.
However, like with a lot of Gothenburg melo death albums, it does seem to get pretty pedestrian about halfway through. Songs do run together and lack much in the way of diversity fundamentally. Many tunes are structured around the same key centers and the bass and percussion elements don’t have much room to elaborate.
For as selfish as metalheads are, hoping their favourite acts will never change their sound and continue to make the same album forever, I am not sure how they will react to Dark Tranquillity making these stylistic changes on Moment. I enjoy it, and I feel like it fits their character very well, even if the record does feel pedestrian at times. It does not go toe to toe with the best of death doom metal in the past five years, but for a moment, it is quite enjoyable.
Genres: Death Metal
What do you get when you form a heavy metal supergroup consisting of members of the bands Mastodon, Dillinger Escape Plan, Converge and Soulfly? If you guessed a marvelous experience that combines elements of all of the members past endeavours and meshes them well into a great album...well you’ve probably come to the wrong place.
I’m not sure where to start with Reluctant Hero. The overall sound of this record is very jarring and unconventional, especially considering the rep sheet mentioned earlier. Surely someone out of this group of upper echelon names within their respective metal subgenres would have mentioned somewhere during the recording process that it needs more of Troy Sanders bass. Considering how much of this album is borrowing from more recent Mastodon output, this would be one of the more important elements to have on full display. However, Josh Wilbur did produce it so I am not surprised.
As a result, many of these songs lack groove and forward momentum; kind of a problem on a groove metal album such as this. You will be hard pressed to find any semblance of a bass line on this album outside of its two slower tunes: “From a Crowded Wound” and the title track “Reluctant Hero”. And it’s not like the guitar leads are doing anything to help. These guitar riffs sound incredibly redundant in the alternative metal vein and mostly resort to palm muted chugging and it gets tiresome very quickly. In addition, the album isn’t very expansive. As I said off the top, for a band consisting of members spanning progressive/sludge metal, mathcore, as well as groove/thrash metal, you would think this record would be a little bit more diverse in its sound. Instead, what we get is an almost mainstream accessible type of alternative metal with hints of Deftones, and a lot of retro Sepultura and Mastodon nostalgia.
I will say on the positive side that the percussion provided by Ben Koller sounds excellent, and I did really enjoy the trio of voices alternating throughout the album to keep it somewhat fresh. But in the end, Reluctant Hero is an album by a band looking to suck people in on namesake alone, and then proceeds to do nothing with it. It’s passable and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it on rock/metal radio stations, but I’ll forget it exists without it.
Genres: Alternative Metal Groove Metal
The Definition of Pretentious "High Art"
On the surface, Liturgy’s conglomerate sound that comprises classical instruments, relentless black metal tremolo picking guitars and punishing blast beats, indistinguishable howling screams, and glitchy industrial tendencies sounds like an interesting concept. And I can see how and why a lot of people are flocking to Liturgy, especially following their H.A.Q.Q. LP from 2019. I’m not one of those people, and 2020 sees the band follow up that album alarmingly quickly with much of the same that turned me away from the group in the first place.
The songwriting on this record is incredibly misguided. When you are given all of these labels and are now forced to manage all of them simultaneously, the juggling task at hand is nearly impossible. Using them to create uncomfortable environments, while still making memorable music is extremely challenging. The problem with Origin of the Alimonies? There is no memorability! Hunt-Hendrix sounds like they just discovered classical music the other day, and the first piece they listened to was Karl Stockhausen’s Kreuzspiel. Having polyphony between two or more instruments with zero connectivity between the parts make the opening moments of this album abhorrent. Rather than create an unsettling melody or motif, what we end up with is more minor seconds and tritones that would make the devil himself blush. Listen to composer's like Messiaen, Bartok, or Hindemith for proof that melodic dissonance can be done well.
Honestly, when the album is at its best is during the fourteen minute tune “Apparition of the Eternal Church”. This minimalist piece actually has some recurring themes, particularly in the tremolo guitars, but the transitions in and out of those themes are well developed and create something that is somewhat memorable. And those themes are developed further by the glitchy production and acoustic instrumentals. I also didn’t mind the slow buildup into pure chaos on the song “The Fall of SIHEYMN”. At least that tune had an end goal.
The rest of the album feels like a meandering mess. Atonality does not immediately make a song/album bad. It’s how well the dissonance is used to create a claustrophobic environment and makes you want to return to that place once again. Origin of the Alimonies is the sort of avant-garde project that will wow you with its hodgepodge of sounds, but delivers nothing else of intrinsic value. And it ends up feeling more forgettable because of it.
EDIT: pronouns in the second paragraph. I was not aware that Hunt-Hendrix came out as transexual in May of 2020.
Genres: Avant-Garde Metal Black Metal
With the rise of prominent rappers such as the late XXXTentacion, it was only a matter of time before Trap Metal became a prominent subgenre. Well, we've reached that point, and Ghostmane has been pretty popular in his niche clique.
ANIT-ICON is the sort of hardcore hip-hop that gives off the vibe of reaching edgelord status, but dig between the lines and you will find that Ghostmane is far more conscious of his place in the world and shows a very accepting form of nihilism that is hushed and relaxed than his "public face". You can hear that in the song qualities as the album shifts from heavy distortion guitar with industrial tones and vocal howling, to the more subdued sections with synths, clean singing and a more relaxed environment.
As for the album as a whole...I dig it in patches. Many of my issues with industrial metal are still intact, where the mixing of the instrumentals is all over the place. Usually it's in the industrial tinges of percussion, but you do occasionally hear overblown guitars and shredded vocals that aren't appealing to me in the slightest. When the album is trying to be more like a heavier Nine Inch Nails song circa Broken or The Downward Spiral, the songs actually coalesce well. When it goes more Marilyn Manson, you start to hear discrepancies in the mixing and it doesn't flatter the compositions at all.
And unfortunately, most of this album would rather mimic the Manson comparison. The album ends comfortably from "Hellrap" through to the album closer "Falling Down", but everything before that is disposable.
Genres: Industrial Metal
This debut album from a solo performer is creating nature inspired atmospheric black metal in the vein of a Panopticon or Saor, but the music itself pays more of an influence to post-metal in the style of Agalloch. When you throw those three names together in the same sentence, my expectations should be unfathomably high. This should be epic.
But it doesn’t sound like it. Instead, I’m left wondering what happened to the guitars. Unlike the names mentioned previously, this album compresses its guitars and actively butchers the expansive sound that Aleevok is trying to pay homage to. In fact, the guitars serve very little purpose on this record other than to outline chordal progression; they almost seem like they have the role of a blackgaze album, which are typical not very melodically active.
The synthesizers are pretty weak here as well. I don’t know what preset they chose for the horns on “The Bewitching Horns”, but they sound horrible! The “wah-wah’s” are inauthentic and drastically take away from the natural feel of this album.
The best thing I can say about this record are the song structures are nice, I like some of the more acoustic sections, such as the outro “The Serenity of Steel” (although, if we are being honest, we can do away with these acoustic outros anytime now. I didn’t give Saor a free pass last year, you know I’m going to point it out here), and the singer has a pretty strong, if slightly inaudible, vocal timbre. But there is so much better in this field. I hope that Aleevok is just scratching the surface with this album and the future has more mountains than valleys.
Genres: Black Metal
2020 has been one of the strangest years that most of us have ever (and most likely, WILL) ever see. In a year in which everything that we knew and loved had been taken away from us because of a novel disease, we have all had to adjust to this brand new lifestyle. And for me, part of that lifestyle has been new music. As of writing this review, I have listened to over 300 new albums that were released in the year 2020, which is the highest number I have accumulated since 2016. Part of this is due to the lockdowns; much of my time has been trapped indoors so why not listen to a new album?
I have also managed to get my number so high because of my intention of listening to albums from genres that I do not have the most experience in. Which leads us to Undeath, a Rochester based death metal band who are doing a lot of mid to late 1990s worship of bands such as Immolation. And Lesions of a Different Kind is their debut record. And while I will certainly be the first to admit that this is not my cup of tea, I can see the appeal in it and can see why it is being flocked to by so many in the underground.
So what makes Undeath stand out amongst their contemporaries? Not much actually. The compositions on this record are very slapdash and held together with silly string. The transitions that we get from brooding slam portions to the more vicious tech death side is alarming and on multiple occasions, disorienting. Not for the band fortunately as the group is able to make the transitions in synchronicity, which is welcome in my ears. It's one of the many issues from those Immolation/Cannibal Corpse records that has been resolved, but these were issues that should have been fixed years ago. Credit where it do for sure, but when the issues involve basic editing and redubbing, these are things that all records should have.
Speaking of which, let's talk briefly about production, because many of my issues from the compositions are here as well. Mid to late 90s tech death has some very poor mixing in general, but Undeath were quick to realize that and really barrel in on what sounds are important at any particular moment. The guitar is usually in the forefront yes, but the percussion sounds very good and is not plagued by over-compressed cymbals or trigger bass drum. The bass is fairly irrelevant throughout (typical for this brand of death metal), but it does exist and it does not sound like it's being left in the dust by the guitars. All in all, it is one of the better tech death records from a sonic perspective. That being said, it is still a tech death record and it does have problems. The guitars are perpetually trapped in their two lowest strings, which means that there is no bass/guitar independence. I would say that "Phantasmal Festering" and "Lord of the Grave" have the closest thing to a divergence between the two parts.
Like I said, this is not a branch of metal that I typically don't delve into all that much. Before I would look at a record like this and simply turn away. But I am welcoming of this now and I can see the appeal of this, even though I won't listen to this very much. It is a better version of that Immolation/Cannibal Corpse sound from the 90s, but it does not do much else than that. For me, Tomb Mold are changing the game. I would rather stick with that.
Genres: Death Metal
I typically avoid Depressive Suicidal Black Metal (DSBM) as most of it typically wallows in its own sadness, while being drenched in a cloud that is more representative of Funeral Doom Metal than anything "Black". That being said, I did have some previous exposure to Shining with their 2018 album X Varg Utan Flock, which was a mostly enjoyable album due to its sonic palette being more in the vein of the genre that they are usually tagged under. However, it was an album that faded from my memory, even within a year where my metal exposure was greatly limited.
So going back in time, I checked back in with this band and their 2007 classic, V . Halmstad. And I can truthfully say that I was less than impressed by this. Now in some regards, I can see this record being unique. For starters, V . Halmstad is more in line with what you might expect to hear out of the black 'n' roll scene, highlighted by later groups such as Kvelertak. The riffage is far more conventional and leaning towards hard rock as well as some doom metal from time to time. The vocals are really what make it stand out though. Niklas Kvarforth does not have the presence behind the microphone that one would expect from a black metal album. Instead, the vocals sound half baked as if he cannot even be bothered to say them. Now, this may be apart of the appeal of a DSBM record such as this; a general sense of tiredness from the anger is dependent to make you feel like the depression is weighing him down so heavy that he cannot even be bothered to get out of bed in the morning. And I can respect that attention to detail.
That being said, I would like it a lot more if it didn't sound unfinished and really cheap. Kvarforth's vocals constantly switch back and forth between a tired wail of contempt, and emphatic cries of agony, emphasized by the OOF's that you hear that are reminiscent of James Hetfield on the song "Fuel". Because these two emotions rarely make sense simultaneously, it creates a weird dichotomy throughout the entire album. It's also not helped by the instrumentals and the overall production. Overall, the instrumentals sound clean and focused and make transitions between sections of a song very well. I was thoroughly by the acoustic guitar timbre than filled out the second track on the album. Very reminiscent of some really potent death/funeral doom metal such as Swallow The Sun.
Now I realize that my underwhelming reaction to this album could be in large part due to the language barrier. As it stands, I do not know Swedish, nor will I ever learn Swedish to understand this record on a base level. But I have never been a big fan of DSBM as I mentioned at the beginning of my review. It feels wrong to listen to an album where you know the artist in question is in a state such as this; a large part as to why I cannot stand Korn albums. But with this? I just don't buy it. It just isn't personal enough for Kvarforth or myself to resonate with any of the self-loathing of nihilism.
As a whole album however, I think I would like it more if it was playing to a different audience. If it leaned towards the more nihilistic side of Doom Metal, I might have been more charitable. As a Black Metal album, it feels less developed than it should, production is not the greatest, and the stakes feel less urgent. For an album that is as close to the brink of destruction as it implies, Halmstad is very safe.
Genres: Black Metal
I have made pretty clear in the past that I don't "get" math/grindcore. Coming from a background in which melodic development is essential, it really bothers me that this entire genre is devoted to play these crazy ass rhythms that are relentless as fuck, but have zero melody or compositional growth.
Now I know that some of you might hear this and say: "you're just mad because of all of the eclectic guitar tones and gross vocals". Well, not really; I've listened to enough Dillinger Escape Plan, Converge, Every Time I Die, and Daughters albums to know that you can have melodic songwriting that is musically dissonant and alienating. So with Gaza, I have to admit that I didn't want to review this album, because all of my requirements are missing and leave me at a huge disadvantage.
With I Don't Care Where I Go When I Die, the frameworks that we do get are incredibly simplistic. The first two tracks on the album are the closest to representing mathcore with their short song structures. But on "Hospital Fat Bags" and beyond, each song starts like a mathcore song, which goes on way too long, and transforms into a slow, brooding sludge/doom/slowcore groove that is not given enough time to develop into something truly remarkable.
It also gets incredibly tiring when the tracks on this record are painstakingly long! These mathcore passages go on for far too long, so nothing is ever given enough time to simmer and grow on me. The grooves are so frantic in changing pace and tempos, it is easy to forget everything you just listened to, especially after the extended sludge metal outros. Now part of this may be part of the process, as this album is nihilistic as all hell. And it can work; as I already mentioned, Daughters' album You Won't Get What You Want from 2018 was nihilistic, uncomfortable, and consistent. The instrumentation of this album may imply chaos, but the rapid changing of styles are more scatterbrained than anything else.
Let this review be the framework for all math/grindcore albums that I review from here on out. If a mathcore band wants to break this trend and create more melodic sounding, nihilistic shit like this like Daughters, I would be down to listen to more of that. But it seems like more and more mathcore bands are taking more influence from the stylings of early Converge and Gaza. For a certain individual, this will be your cup of tea. But it isn't for me.
Genres: Grindcore Metalcore
Enslaved have fallen very comfortably into the same categorization that I would include a band such as Dream Theater. That is to say that they have been very respectable progressive metal for the better part of thirty years, with some occasional standouts that will keep the group recognizable enough as industry legends. At the same time however, their approach to songwriting has become remarkably safe in recent years. After the bands pivot from atmospheric black metal to a more progressive black metal in the early 2000s, albums such as Below The Lights and Axioma Ethica Odini have kept this band relevant, but the rest of it feels very underdeveloped by comparison.
And even though I did enjoy 2017’s E, I was worried for Utgard. And my worries were fully realized within the first two tracks of this album. There really isn’t all that much to say about this record that hasn’t been said about the band's entire discography the past ten/twenty years. The music is really well produced, the compositions are quite tuneful for this brand of progressive metal, and everyone within the band plays an important role in letting these songs build in dynamics and presence.
But does anything resonate in the same way that “As Fire Swept Clean the Earth” does? Hell, does anything resonate greater than “The River's Mouth” from the last album? “Homebound’ comes the closest, while songs like “Sequence” and “Urjotun” are just slogs to get through. I was quite comfortable with the more dreamlike nature of the closer “Distant Seasons”.
At this point, I’m not sure that Enslaved needs to innovate further to stay relevant. They are legends amongst the blackened folk metal and progressive communities, and records such as Axioma Ethica Odini and RIITTIIR are legendary in my books. I can see Enslaved as a legacy act in the same way that I did with Deep Purple’s most recent album Whoosh! If you like the stuff you’ve heard already, then Utgard is more of that. Otherwise, you will have to find your progressive blackened folk metal somewhere else.
Genres: Progressive Metal
I hate reviewing albums like this. I hate when I have to talk harshly about an album that I can tell is good, and has received mountains of critical acclaim, and yet I cannot remember a single thing about it. Nothing about Back to Times of Splendor resonates with me beyond my initial impression of "wow, this is a progressive metal album alright!"
When I gave Disillusion's 2019 comeback album, The Liberation, a review, I critiqued the album for being far too long for its own sake, really bad production, and a really bad tendency to resort to a death metal tone that does not flatter the group well. With Back to Times of Splendor, the band prove to me that at least two of those criticisms were later additions. This album is produced much more favourably for a progressive death metal album and the death metal portions that hindered the bands most recent album are diminished in quantity. This helps with the production as well.
Unfortunately the compositions have not improved. I've seen this album compared to Toxicity by System of a Down, but SOAD knew how to write a hook and make it stick. Disillusion meanwhile, write a hook (a decent hook mind you), then they abort it half way through as if it is a different song entirely. The structural compositions are so disjointed, especially on its second half with songs like "Back to Times of Splendor" and "The Sleep of Restless Hours". As for the overall sound, I hear less SOAD and more Arch Enemy during the heavier portions. On its own, this isn't a bad thing, but Arch Enemy songs are shorter and more focused with a melodic idea rather than progressive wankery. This album just feels like noise that goes in one ear and out the other.
I mean nothing within Back to Times of Splendor is outright infuriating or grossly offensive. But this record (and Disillusion's entire discography for that matter) has left me with almost nothing to talk about. Even as I write this, I still cannot remember what a single tack on this record sounds like. If I wanted progressive metal from the mid 2000s with a melodic death tinge, and the occasional folk/oriental flare, I would rather stick with Orphaned Land or Enslaved.
Genres: Progressive Metal
When Bring Me the Horizon released amo early in 2019, I was wondering what direction the band would take their sound next. The band has made subsequent changes over their fifteen years worth of music from deathcore to alternative/pop-rock. With POST HUMAN: SURVIVAL HORROR, the crew have adapted a newer, heavier sound that reminds me a lot of early 2000s nu-metal. If you just threw up in your mouth a little bit, I don’t blame you.
Oli’s screams are back and they do help pronounce and enunciate the breakdown passages that are implemented well into the compositions. As a whole, I would consider the composition of this record to be much more focused than amo was, but the group seem to have lost many of their hooks. Sure, you have songs like “Obey”, “Teardrops” and “Parasite Eve”, but I do not remember very much about them beyond that. I do remember the BABYMETAL feature on “Kingslayer” and it made for a pleasant surprise and an album standout. I can hear plenty of Linkin Park worship going on here.
Unfortunately, the sound of this record is lacking. The percussion is janky, the guitars are drenched in modifiers to make them far more processed than they really need to be, and the flipping between sung and screaming vocals is not pulled off with the most graceful detail. Those howls are very strong and peak in the mix. As for the electronics/synths, they are pretty adequate, but do fall victim to the crunchy rhythm guitars that drown them out unless it is one of those high pitched wails.
This record reminded me sonically of the debut album The Sickness by Disturbed; an album that has some hooks that do not stick, very timely nu-metal riffage that has not aged well, and production that would rather just have everything cranked up to eleven to see what might resonate through. If they had added a couple of jockey disc scratches then I wouldn’t be able to tell if this album came out in 2020 or 2001. As a metal album, this has the potential to suffice those depraved fans waiting for the return to records like Sempiternal. But this album feels uninterested in being much more than that.
Genres: Alternative Metal
I have a history with this band and talking about it puts me in a very odd position. See I’ve known about this band, for better or worse, since their debut album Count Your Blessings in 2006. They were a deathcore band trying to cash in on the phase of the time. As time passed, Bring Me The Horizon changed their sound by ditching the death metal on Suicide Season in 2008 as well as on the follow-up in 2010.
Now all of those records are awful. They were awful back then and they are still awful to this day. I’ve never been a fan of metal/deathcore because of its insistence on not writing melodies, but rather writing breakdowns. That all changed in 2012 with Sempiternal, the first album of theirs that I actually liked. Make no mistake, that album was still a breakdown fest, but at least the group wrote some decent hooks to make the tracks distinguishable from one another. And by the time That’s The Spirit came out, Bring Me The Horizon had all but abandoned their heavy metal tendencies for more mainstream accessible hard rock or alternative metal.
So as a Bring Me The Horizon pleb, I was surprised to hear that a lot of Bring Me The Horizon fans were upset with frontman Oli Sykes for suggesting that this new album, amo, would be even more mainstream accessible than That’s The Spirit. Guys, the band have done this for every album since their inception. This shouldn’t surprise you!
As for the record itself, props to the band for at least trying to do something different. Unlike many of their contemporaries who have pulled the same gimmick, Bring Me The Horizon at least go all out with incorporation of synth melodies, EDM tracks, and even a trap song. It’s just unfortunate that this group can’t really keep it all together. In short, this album is a mess.
To expand, we have to look in further detail about the styles this group is trying to incorporate. You’ve got your heavier tracks like “MANTRA”, “wonderful life”, “sugar honey ice & tea” and “heavy metal”; a reminder of what this band once was. And I dig the tones on “wonderful life” and the inclusion of The Roots beatboxer Rahzel of all people on “heavy metal”, but songs like “MANTRA” and “sugar honey ice & tea” have these buzzing guitars sounds that remind me of all the things I didn’t like about Three Days Grace’s last album. And isn’t the point of a beatboxer that they don’t need percussion? So why is there any percussion at all during the break on “heavy metal”?
Then you have the some pop-rock influence in “mother tongue” and “medicine”, the latter being as generic of a pop-rock song as you can get, seriously, give this song to Imagine Dragons and see if you can tell the difference. Or take the more EDM influence on “nihilist blues” featuring Grimes as well as “in the dark”, which brings me to one of the bigger problems with the production as a whole, and that is the use of acoustic versus electronic percussion. During the build on “nihilist blues”, you can hear some acoustic drums helping the track to build up to something huge, and then nothing happens. Synthesizers and electronic drums take over during the chorus and it feels like a wasted opportunity.
Then you have the closing track “i don’t know what to say”, which may be influenced by a concert by the band with the Parallax Orchestra in 2016. The use of strings and horns is very nice and the guitar solo following the bridge is a nice touch, mostly because it’s the only one on the entire album, but hey, baby steps.
The other big problem with Bring Me The Horizon behind the soundboard is their dynamics. Let me clear this up; even on Bring Me The Horizon’s best albums, they paid very little, if any at all, attention to dynamics and that shows here as well. “MANTRA” is the most glaring example. But you could say the same for “medicine” and “mother tongue” as well.
But then their is “why you gotta kick me when i’m down?” where the band tries their hand at their best trap impersonation, while mimicking the vocal styles of Twenty One Pilots. It’s actually not that bad of a song except for the percussion.
And that leaves me here wondering what Bring Me The Horizon are actually trying to be. At least on an album like Count Your Blessings, you knew that each track was going to match well with the previous.
But then their are the lyrics and themes. And this album seems to be broken up into three parts. The first part from “i apoligise if you feel something” until “wonderful life” are nihilist pieces that range from cult leaders taking advantage of young minds on “MANTRA”, to a re-telling of Everything’s Fine by Jean Grae on “wonderful life”. The second part marks the relationship struggle between Oli Sykes and Hannah Snowdon. “medicine” is about her receiving the same poor treatment than Oli got from her. “why you gotta kick me when i’m down?” is about the negative news that Oli got after the relationship had ended. And the final part is the revelation; a looking ahead rather than regretting the past. “native tongue” is the love song dedicated to Oli’s new partner, and “heavy metal” is Oli accepting the fact that some of their older fans are not going to like this new material.
I do have one major concern with the structuring of this album however. And that is the inclusion of the interlude “fresh bruises” before “native tongue”. “fresh bruises” on its own doesn’t say much, but when you read into the language and the repetition of “Don't you try to fuck with me”, it makes Oli sound incredibly demanding of his new partner. Then to immediately follow that up with the love song felt really weird.
So in terms of the content, I can see some potential. The face value of the story leads me to believe that there is a level of subtext that has to do with depression and anxiety. But as a whole, the music is all over the place. If you’re a fan of this band, I can only see most of you enjoying a handful of tracks and that depends on whether you’re a “hipster” fan who only enjoys the heavy stuff or if you are more willing to give their pop adventure a chance.
Back in the day, I used to be a huge fan of any and all Mike Patton projects. I used to think that everything that this man touched turned to pure gold. And his greatest work came with Faith No More and this album. I can honestly say that much of my praise may have been through rose tinted glasses because, with the exception of the self titled Mr. Bungle record, not much of it stands out to me. And when it did, I found to be be excruciatingly cringe. I'm surprised how little of The Real Thing actually stands up today.
This album however, was not the victim of that. In fact, I would argue that Angel Dust was a better gateway towards nu-metal than even the S/T debut from Rage Against the Machine. Is it cheesy? Of course it is. But it feels more refined and as if their is some actual weight to go along with the grandioseness of this album's second half.
The first half of this album is pure fun with some of the best sounding funk metal ever. "Land of Sunshine" is the best thing that Mike Patton has ever recorded; the bass sounds phenomenal in the mix, while the main guitar and synth lines have some great simmer backing up one heck of a vocal performance from Patton. Surely you cannot top it right? Well Faith No More sure are going to try with "Caffeine" and the major single "Midlife Crisis". But then the album starts venturing into that extra gouda with "RV". The cabaret--esque piano is playful, yet also eerie. The same can be said for "Everything's Ruined".
The swiss gets turned up to eleven with the shout chorus of "Be Aggressive" and the Phantom of the Opera-esque organ that sound incredible. "Crack Hitler" brings back some faster funk grooves that are welcome on a song that's literally about a drug dealer who compares himself to Hitler! "Jizzlobber" returns to some of the heavy, spookier grooves from earlier, before ending on a choral with booming pipe organ. And the album ends with "Midnight Cowboy (Theme From)" and I cannot think of a better instrumental that has ever ended an album than this. I just love the main melody on what sounds like a harmonica(?) as the album ends with a soft waltz. When it's over, you almost have to ask yourself "how the hell did I get here?"
But the astonishing part about it all is that the answer you get will be "guess I have to go back and find out!" This is one of those albums that is so easy to go back and listen to just for the experience alone. Are their some lesser cuts? yes. I'm not the biggest fan of the shouting vocals that occur on "Smaller and Smaller". And while I do think that "Crack Hitler" has one of the best funk grooves on the entire album, the stop and start nature of the transitions became very distracting. But they are minor speedbumps on the Monterey Jack highway headed straight for the local grocery (okay, record) store. Faith No More may have fallen out of my good graces in recent years, but they still have this historic landmark.
Genres: Alternative Metal
Every so often, you come across an album that is so emotionally exhausting that you almost wish you never had to listen to it again, even if the album’s quality is above average. Last year, I witnessed this first hand with Lingua Ignota’s CALIGULA, an album that made me physically ill while listening to it, and a record that required multiple breaks for me to finally get through the whole thing. For most albums, this would be a detriment, but instead, Lingua Ignota’s bleak discussions on sexual abuse and “gross” production were the only way one could possibly deliver such a concept in the most direct way possible.
With The Reticent, they use progressive metal tendencies not that dissimilar to Opeth to show the emotional and cognitive decline of an individual (Henry) suffering from Alzhimer’s. And trust me, this album is dark with a capital bleak. But there are some major structural problems with it. Most notably about whose perspective this album is taken from. These songs constantly revert back and forth referring to Henry in either the first or third person, making the drama far less engaging on a full album.
The album also contains many spoken word interludes not from the perspective of Henry. The most notable of which occurs on “Stage 6: The Oubliette”, where Henry’s daughter begins the track contemplating what course of action should be taken next, and by the end, the desperation in the vocals as they cry “let me out!” are clearly not from the daughter. Speaking of spoken word interludes, this album has a problem with its breakdowns. As these tunes build up momentum towards a gigantic explosion of sound, vocal breaks are included that are not that dissimilar to the worst of metalcore breakdowns of the late 2000s.
As the album progresses, songs start to become longer, more deliberate, and lose their tuneful nature that was found on “The Palliative Breath” and “His Name Is Henry”. And perhaps that is a part of the appeal of this record; the worst parts of cognitive decline is the point where nothing is recognizable by its victim and to an onlooker, it can feel like an eternity for them to finally reach peace. This is further explored on “The Oubliette” which has an almost doom metal approach to the songwriting. The final track has the feeling of a funeral, followed by a PSA about Alzhimer’s, which should have been left out.
I can respect the effort from The Reticent to create something that is as bleak and cold as the subject matter. But key structural issues in the songwriting keep it from ascending to the higher echelons of progressive metal. And as I mentioned off the top, since this album falls into the category of “emotionally draining” as it is, the fact that I will not return to this album all that much is a major concern.
Genres: Progressive Metal