Reviews in this issue:
- Fates Warning - Perfect Symmetry (Special Edition)
- Enslaved - Vertebrae
- Shadrane - Temporal
- Moonsorrow – Tulimyrsky [EP]
- Judas Priest - Nostradamus
- Iced Earth – Framing Armageddon (Something Wicked Part 1)
- Iced Earth – The Crucible Of Man (Something Wicked, Part 2)
- Planet Alliance - Planet Alliance
- Pharaoh - Be Gone
- Malpractice - Triangular
- Nation Beyond - The Aftermath Odyssey
- Ansur – Warring Factions
- Uli Jon Roth – Under A Dark Sky
- Metal Church – This Present Wasteland
- Odin's Court - Deathanity
Fates Warning - Perfect Symmetry (Special Edition)
CD 1: Part Of The Machine (6:16), Through Different Eyes (4:22), Static Acts (4:28), A World Apart (5:03), At Fate’s Hands (6:59), The Arena (3:19), Chasing Time (3:38), Nothing Left To Say (8:00)
CD 2: Part Of The Machine [Demo] (7:03), Through Different Eyes [Demo] (4:20), Static Acts [Demo] (4:27), A World Apart [Demo] (5:38), At Fate's Hands [Demo] (6:12), The Arena [Demo] (3:52), Chasing Time [Demo] (4:06), Nothing Left To Say [Demo] (8:06), Part Of The Machine [featuring Steve Zimmerman] (8:03), Nothing Left To Say [featuring Steve Zimmerman] (4:51)
DVD: Allentown, PA ~ 2nd December 1989 - Fata Morgana, Part Of The Machine, Silent Cries, Static Acts, Through Different Eyes; Houston, TX ~ 26th April 1990 - Fata Morgana Static, Acts Anarchy, Divine Silent Cries, Nothing Left To Say, Quietus Damnation; Amsterdam, Netherlands ~ 16th December 1989 - Fata Morgana, Part Of The Machine, Silent Cries, The Apparition, Through Different Eyes, Nothing Left To Say; Philadelphia, PA ~ 27th March 1990 - The Arena New Haven, CT ~ 11th December 1989 - Through Different Eyes, The Apparition, Damnation, Exodus, Drum Solo, Nothing Left To Say, The Ivory Gate Of Dreams; Promotional Video: Through Different Eyes
In a career spanning more than 25 years, few critics will dispute that Fates Warning has been one of the most influential progressive metal bands. Some critics, myself included, would go further. Their ability never to allow their music to stagnate, constantly evolving by embracing innovative additions to their sound, makes them the most influential band in the genre.
In recent years fans have been able to freshly review their earlier works thanks to the band's long-standing label. When their debut album, Night On Brocken, hit the 20-year mark Metal Blade had it remastered and reissued with bonus content. Since then they've done the same thing with each subsequent release as it hit its 20th birthday. Two decades after its creation, Perfect Symmetry gets the opportunity of a very welcome makeover.
This is probably the most significant re-release for two reasons.
Firstly, this is the last Fates’ album which many fans will only possess in the vinyl format, and the last to actually require remastering. The following discs had much better productions. I never bothered with the initial CD version of this record, and I must say that when I put this new disc into my deck the sound was an utter revelation. It has a clarity and depth that was never even hinted at on vinyl, allowing the complex arrangements to blossom in perfect conditions. Considering its age, the production is superb.
Secondly, Perfect Symmetry is the album that many fans cite as their favourite. Whilst you can debate such a statement forever, it is certainly the record which best displays the band’s transition from a metal band with progressive elements, to a progressive band with metal elements – more of which later. It is their most musically explorative and diverse.
This has largely been credited to the change of drummer; an argument that this special edition package goes some considerable way to supporting. More of this later too.
Similarly this album was the last to feature Frank Aresti’s contribution to the song writing. A World Apart and The Arena were both penned by Aresti and feature a different take on the musical theme.
I’ll come to the album itself in a moment but its significance in the band’s career (and of the genre’s development) is clearly noted by Metal Blade - this is the most sumptuous and detailed of the special editions. There’s not just one bonus disc but two; a CD and a DVD housed in a double gatefold sleeve inside a box surround.
Of the pair, it is the CD featuring demo songs of every track which is the most interesting.
As I mentioned earlier, this was the first album to feature Mark Zonder behind the drum kit. The fascination comes with two of the demo songs featuring the work of original drummer Steve Zimmerman. Now whether one is a better drummer than the other, is purely a matter of taste. What is without doubt is that they are very different drummers. As these two demos exhibit, Zonder alone brought a considerable change to the band’s sound, heightening the progressive nature of the songs with his more inventive beats and rhythms. They are raw, but all the demos have a good sound, thus displaying a lot about the band’s process when it comes to writing and developing a song. Most of these demo songs are heavier and more complex, causing them to be even more progressive than they ended-up.
The other bonus disc is a comprehensive 90-minute DVD featuring shows from various places and of varying quality. Everything here is of single, hand-held VHS quality – after all, it was 20 years ago! But the audio is clear and better than most from the period. If like me you were either too young or too distant to see the band at this time, then it is fascinating to see the venues, shows and crowds of the period. Whilst the quality won’t demand too many repeat visits, this will probably be the only live DVD ever issued with the mid-era line-up, and the final time any of the John Arch-era songs were performed. Due to the huge variety in their voices, Ray Alder’s interpretation of the Arch-era material is very different.
So onto the album proper. As this is the first opportunity DPRP has had to review such a ‘classic’ then I will do a detailed analysis. As mentioned earlier many regard Perfect Symmetry as the pinnacle of the band’s career. My own preference alternatives between APSOG and Parallels, but this is certainly Fates’ most progressive album. It is a transitional disc. Perfect Symmetry sees Fates drop the traditional metal influences in favour of a very precise and calculated progressive metal. Around half the tracks echo the band’s metallic roots, the remainder explore new influences which we can now see utilized in the albums which follow.
As an album, whilst it possesses some of the best songs the band has written, it doesn’t quite have that same level of consistency as the two I prefer.
Opener, Part Of The Machine is very much in the band’s early style. Heavy metal with a clear progressive bent, the central melody is subtle and rather dominated by the main riff. Repeat listens unravel the greater complexity of the arrangement.
Different Eyes was chosen as the single (the video made to utilize the MTV generation is also included here). A lovely bluesy guitar opening was a new departure for the band, as was the melodic rock riff and catchy chorus. Alder moves away from the screaming, angry, high pitch he utilised previously on No Exit, sticking largely to the rich mid-range which he’s made his own pretty much ever since. There is a steady rock beat to the drums, with a rare warmth from the bass. This track would be right at home on Parallels.
Static Acts is the transition track, where the older styling of the first song, and the melodic rock influences of the second are combined. It’s not a song I’d ever rated before. With the advantage of retrospect and the enhanced sound, there is a real power and intent shown by the off-beat drumming, superb melodies and some of the best riffs the band has ever created. There's another great bluesy guitar break halfway through, whilst Alder remains in his upper octaves.
The opening of A World Apart takes the transition a stage further – into a totally new sound for the band. This is the first sense of the more introspective, progressive mood of APSOG. It is a work in progress. The lack of melody and the meandering riffage of the second half of the song means it’s not one to feature in any of the live footage.
I’ve similar comments for the next track. The acoustic guitar, violin, exposed voice and heavy use of the snare in the opening provides one of the most beautiful, poetic moments from the Fates’ discography. Again very much the style that dominates APSOG. The heavier, extended instrumental section which makes up the second part of the song is a fantastic riff-fest, if a little too elongated. A return to the initial refrain later in the song would have been a good move. That it still features in the band’s live show, is testimony to the enduring quality of At Fate's Hands.
A return to the older style of music on The Arena is as welcome as seeing an old friend and a nice dose of power. Alder also returns to the higher octaves. The clear, melodic guitar work makes this track an effective metal anthem in the live arena.
Chasing Time is another song I’d never fully appreciated before listening to this new version. Alder's emotive voice dominates this ballad where the acoustic guitar and for the second time a violin carry the delicate melody. Not a million miles away from the style of their most recent album, FWX. Repeat plays uncover more detail to the composition than first appears.
That leaves Nothing Left To Say to draw the album to a rousing ending. It’s one of my favourite Fates’ songs, chiefly because of the innovative yet effortless way it blends three distant elements into one. We open with the metallic riffing of the band’s formative years, before entering a more balladic phase. A real anthemic riff and bounce-along melody leads the song and the album to a climax via a delicate acoustic ending. The work of Zonder on the closing passage, especially his cymbal use, is staggeringly good. Oddly this isn’t a track which features on the live DVD. Maybe it was viewed as too complex for the live show then. Thankfully its quality has endured and it is a regular part of their set today.
It is left to the lyrical themes to tie this slightly disparate album together. As the cover and title suggests there’s a consistent theme of modern technology and fear of conformity and individual isolation. The song Part Of The Machine ably shows how the band tries to match these lyrical ideals with a barrage of cold, technical, precise, anxious arrangements. You have to wait until APSOG until the band truly masters the art of matching musical mood with lyrical expression, but on the whole it is well executed here.
To conclude: The remastered quality of the original should be enough to warrant picking this up. Add the two bonus discs, and for all the reasons mentioned above this becomes essential for any fan of the band, and a fantastic value package for more casual listeners.
Many long-running bands/labels have been issuing such special/remastered editions in recent years. Most have quite rightly been accused of simply cashing-in due to the rudimentary ‘bonus’ offerings they include. Metal Blade and Fates Warning should be roundly applauded for the superior quality of this package. A truly Special Edition of a truly classic album.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Enslaved - Vertebrae
Tracklist: Clouds (6:08), To The Coast (6:27), Ground (6:37), Vertebrae (5:00), New Dawn (5:22), Reflection (7:44), Center (7:32), The Watcher (4:11)
Norwegians Enslaved have never been the easiest band to categorise. Even at the time of their inception at the dawn of the 90’s, where their music was fast, aggressive and heavy, and their contemporaries included the likes of Emperor, Mayhem and Darkthrone, they never really fit the description ‘black metal’ which seemed to be foist upon them; partly this was due to the subject matter which then (as now) tended to focus on Nordic history and mythology rather than the usual satanic worship. Even then, founder members Iva Bjørnson (guitar) and Grutle Kjellson (bass and vocals) had a fondness for seventies progressive music, with this beginning to have an impact on their music from 1997’s Eld album. Since then, they’ve progressed and mutated their sound, incorporating increasing melody and atmospheric walls of sound without sacrificing their extreme metal roots. 2003’s Below The Lights is probably where the essential elements of the band’s current sound first melded together in a truly satisfactory way, with the following releases (2004’s critically lauded Isa – winner of a Norwegian Grammy – and 2006’s epic Ruun) cementing the band’s reputation as leaders of the ‘extreme progressive metal’ scene, along with the likes of Opeth and (the now defunct) Arcturus.
Vertebrae is a logical continuation of the style pretty much perfected on Ruun. Actually describing that style in words is slightly difficult. In a recent magazine interview with the band that I read, Bjørnson himself described the band’s sound rather more succinctly than I ever could as ‘Pink Floyd with bricks. Extreme Metal in 1973’. Certainly the band haven’t completely abandoned their early extreme sound, still retaining some razor-sharp riffs, sparingly-used but effective blastbeats and Kjellson’s glass-gargling, half-screamed half-sung vocals, but these elements are countered by walls of layered, melodic guitar work, atmospheric keyboards, shifting, constantly changing rhythms and keyboardist Herbrand Larsen’s deep, mellow voice, which is certainly being used more often these days than in the past.
As far as prog rock influences go, early to mid 70’s Floyd and late 70’s Rush remain the most prevalent, although there are also nods to space rock, jazz-fusion and psychedelia throughout. A newer element the band have incorporated here is the Isis-patented post-rock squall of melodic guitar noise, no more so than in the first two minutes of the album’s opener Clouds, where you’d have almost have a job actually telling its Enslaved. More typical but no less effective fare is served up on To The Coast, with the song surging forward patiently but effectively, hitting a crescendo on the powerful, roared-out chorus but then cutting back to more tender, melancholic sections featuring sparse but effective acoustic guitar and piano and Larsen’s soothing vocals. Ground’s rhythmic thrust seems to be a distant relation to that employed on Floyd’s seminal Another Brick In The Wall Part 2, and with its shimmering keys and jangling guitars weaves an almost hypnotic spell on the listener. The jagged but highly technical riffing at the outset of Vertebrae can’t help but recall the Rush of A Farewell To Kings and Hemispheres vintage, whilst the slower, multi-layered latter part of the song, with its massed wall of clean vocals recalls the title song of Ruun.
Extreme metal fans longing for something more ferocious will be rewarded with the fast, raging New Dawn, which is heavy on the blastbeats and cutting-edge riffs, although even this manages to incorporate rich keyboard textures and Larsen’s mellower vocals (although these have a darker tone to them here, reflecting the nature of the song). Reflections is enough riff monster, and lead guitarist Ice Dale even gets let off the leash here for an elongated solo spot which is alternatively bluesy and proggy, a more metallic David Gilmour if you will. Center slows things down again, incorporating psychedelic and middle-eastern flavours to proceedings – it even sounds like a sitar is being played at one stage! The album closes out with the suitably raging yet anthemic The Watcher, surely a concert closer in the making.
Anyone at all familiar with the band will not be in the least surprised that all this sounds simply stunning, helped on this occasion by using Joe Baressi (known for his work with Tool) to do the mix. Lyrically, its also a cut above the metal norm, the subject matter this time being the highly relevant topic of the potentially dangerous effects of religion in the modern age, and how these might be countered.
I’ve long thought its’ high time that Enslaved broke out from being a band that appeal solely to those who are into extreme metal and out into the wider metal and progressive rock world, as Opeth have done. Unlike Opeth, Enslaved don’t have the hype machine of a major metal label behind them, but what they do have is an excellent new album in Vertebrae, and in this case you have to hope that the music will do the talking. Make no mistake, if you enjoy adventurous metal, or even (if you will) extreme prog, Enslaved are a band you owe it to yourself to check out ASAP.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Shadrane - Temporal
Tracklist: Temporal (4:20), Madoka (4:04), Requiem For A Rose [instrumental] (1:09), I Remember (4:06), She Writes (4:26), Rainy (3:51), Lanterns Dance (5:02), Betrayal [instrumental] (3:29), Morpheus (4:56), Consider It (4:02), Manzanar (3:45), Babies In The Bath [instrumental] (2:26), Dance Of Solitude (4:07), Gallery 2008* (5:22)
During my seven plus years as a reviewer, I’ve had rather an on/off love affair with the Finish record label Lion Music. The first few dates with an endless parade of guitar albums and low-grade euro power metal, rarely got past the pleasantries. However a few years ago my passion was inflamed after an enjoyable bit of foreplay with Minds Eye, Sun Caged and SectionA. This developed into regular dating with the likes of Speaking To Stones, Awake, Lord of Mushrooms, Tears Of Anger, and Venturia. Sadly in the past year this passion has waned with a dip in the quality of aural pleasure. Then, just as I was about to move onto a new mistress, along comes not one, not two or three, but four beauties in one month. Damn the credit crunch!
New discs from Venturia and Seventh Wonder are on order. My credit card has been spared by having received promo CDs from Germany’s Tomorrow’s Eve (reviewed here) and this little gem. Using his surname, French song-writer and keyboard player Vivien Lalu released his debut album Oniric Metal three years ago. Despite a couple of great songs, it lacked enough melodic hooks and power, and was another Lion release which passed me by. Shadrane is Lalu by another name. Temporal is the end result of a ProgMetal project that seems to have been in the pipeline for years. It is thankfully well worth the wait.
Oniric Metal featured the unexciting vocals of Martin LeMar – now with Tomorrow’s Eve! The chief reason for the step-up in class with his second album, is that this time Lalu has chosen three of this genre's top singers. Main vocal duties lie with Goran Edman (Ex Yngwie, Street Talk, Karmakanic). Henrik Båth, of the fantastic Darkwater, and Bjorn Jansson (Tears Of Anger) front two songs apiece.
We also have the brothers Bissonette (Matt and Gregg), guitarists Joop Wolters and Marco Sfogli (who played guitar on James LaBrie's Elements Of Persuasion), and additional keys from Gary Wehrkamp of Shadow Gallery, and Alex Argento.
Temporal is a fantastic mesh of different styles. Some tracks can be labelled ProgPower (She Writes/Temporal), others ProgMetal (Morpheus/Dance Of Solitude), whilst some verge into pop rock territory (Consider It/Madoka).
Reference points are numerous but often fleeting. Take a bit of Pain Of Salvation, some Darkwater, Beyond Daylight, Cannata, Hubi Meisel, and at the more progressive end, ARK with Jorn Lande at his best.
The one fault I will put with the album as a whole, is that all of the songs are just too short. All but three struggle to even make the four minute mark. The closing song is the longest at just over five minutes.
With most songs containing two or three musical themes, it can be a rather frustrating listen. A feeling of a job not properly finished. Take Lanterns Dance as an example. It opens with a lovely, groovy pop rock melody that reminds me of the last album by Cannata. A few minutes in, it steps up the intensity with a nod to Pain Of Salvation, a nasty guitar riff, a blistering solo by Sfogli and a hint of reflective Wolverine and at least three other instrumental refrains. Bang on five minutes it ends. I’d have loved to have listened to some more – a return to the original refrain or a further development of at least one of the short instrumental ideas. This happens on almost every track. Now I’m often complaining that albums go on for too long and songs are taken well past their sell-by date. But there are so many good musical moments on this disc. Why not show them off to full effect? If they had been, I'd be adding at least another point to the score below.
What is consistent is that every song showcases great playing, great hooks, intricate arrangements and some fantastic vocal performances. The guitar playing of Joop Walters is also consistent - consistently stellar. This is the best I’ve ever heard him perform.
A brief mention that this is a concept album: the story of a Navy commander in charge of a U.S. submarine. There is a full description of the concept at this page on the Lion Music website. As Lion only provides promo CDRs, with no lyrics or imagery to work from, I’ve so far only been able to scratch the surface of this tale.
Also worth noting is that the music really benefits from a fantastic production. Although a lot of the music is heavy, the dynamics are clear and bright.
So, who should buy this? For lovers of progressive metal in all its forms, this is a wholly enjoyable album with tonnes of intricate details for listeners to discover. For those who prefer a ProgMetal album to stick solely to either the lighter or heavier side, then be prepared to find a track or two that you don't love.
Now, if they can just keep putting out albums of this quality, my love affair with Lion Music will continue to blossom!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Moonsorrow – Tulimyrsky [EP]
Tracklist: Tulimsyrsky (29:45), For Whom The Bell Tolls (7:43), Taistelu Pohjolasta (8:10), Hyergelmir (9:30), Back To North (13:08)
Moonsorrow describe their music on their MySpace site as ‘black metal/ progressive/ folk’ – a good summary, I’d say, although if the term hadn’t been so derided, I’d say ‘viking metal’ would be a better moniker. Forget comedy bands like Turisas who are all about frolicking around in war paint and drinking from plastic ‘battle horns’, this is the real deal; taking the epic ‘valhalla trilogy’ of the late 80’s/ early 90’s by the legendary Swedish act Bathory as a starting point, over the course of five full-length albums this Finnish quintet have created a stirring, epic sound all of their own, blending the aggression of the Scandinavian black metal scene, the pomp and bombast of seventies progressive rock and elements of folk music from their native land and melding them together to create a unique sound that perhaps reached its zenith on their last album, V: Haivetty, which featured just two (lengthy) epics yet kept the listener engrossed throughout its length.
It almost seems to defy the trades description act to call this new 68 minute effort an ‘EP’ – the term is probably only used here because it’s something of an ‘odds and sods collection’. But that shouldn’t put potentially interested parties off – with an almost thirty minute new epic, two well chosen covers and a couple of completely re-recorded versions of tracks from their earliest days, this gives as broad an introduction to the band’s sound as you could wish, whilst it also offers value for money for the existing fans.
The title track of Tulimyrsky is one of Moonsorrow’s finest works to date. Translating as ‘The Firestorm’, the subject matter is the perhaps-obvious one of Viking raids and the requisite tit-for-tat plundering and burning of rival settlements, but its told in a far more literate way than is the norm (as with most of the band’s material, the lyrics are in their native tongue, but translations are available on their website). Musically, the opening segment – a kaleidoscope of sounds featuring creaking boats, the cawing of gulls, crackling fire, the far-away chanting of a ghostly Valhalla choir and sombre narration – immediately and effectively sets the scene for an epic piece which effortlessly segues between blastbeat-lead full throttle black metal to walls of dense yet melodic guitar noise in the vein of Opeth and Enslaved; from strident, anthemic chanting to gentle, folk influenced reflective refrains featuring mandolin, mouth harp and twelve string acoustic guitars. Through all this, the central unifying feel of the song is never lost, and you’ll be surprised how quickly the thirty minutes of this epic flies by.
Frankly, the album – sorry, EP – would be worth getting if the rest of the material was rubbish, but its far from it. Of the two covers, the more familiar will be Metallica’s classic For Whom The Bell Tolls, which Moonsorrow succeed in making their own whilst retaining the anthemic feel of the original – not an easy feat. Less well known is Back To North, originally recorded in the early nineties by Swedish death metallers Merciless. A slower, churning riff-fest, which has I assume been ‘Moonsorrow-ed’ by the addition of numerous fiddle-led jigs and traditional instrumentation, this is a cracking piece which plays to all the band’s strengths – if it hadn’t been for the fact that the vocals are in English I could have believed this was an original composition.
The two re-recorded demo tracks unsurprisingly show a rawer, more aggressive side to the band, although there’s still plenty of melody, and even here the band had enough ideas for the songs to run to eight or nine minutes without feeling padded out. Here, the icy keyboard work gives proceedings a gothic edge, on occasions reminding the listener of contemporary Cradle Of Filth.
As with much of this type of material from the more extreme end of the metal spectrum, the main thing that will take some getting used to for prog fans will be the frequently growled and screamed vocals, but as with the aforementioned Opeth and Enslaved, its worth persevering, as this style vocals fit in well with the nature of the material.
Overall, this is a high quality release by this talented band which should be snapped up by those who enjoy a mix of extreme progressive metal and more traditional folk music.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Judas Priest - Nostradamus
CD 1: Dawn Of Creation (2:31), Prophecy (5:26), Awakening (0:52), Revelations (7:04), The Four Horsemen (1:34), War (5:04), Sands Of Time (2:36), Pestilence And Plague (5:08), Death (7:33), Peace (2:21), Conquest (4:41), Lost Love (4:27), Persecution (6:33)
CD 2: Solitude (1:22), Exiled (6:32), Alone (7:49), Shadows In The Flame (1:09), Visions (5:23), Hope (2:08), New Beginnings (4:56), Calm Before The Storm (2:04), Nostradamus (6:42), Future Of Mankind (8:29)
A progressive concept album from Judas Priest, could it be true? When I was fourteen years old I watched Monsters Of Rock on MTV and saw five guys in tight leather outfits singing Johnny B. Goode. This was pure metal in the loudest form known to me. At that time they were already a legendary band and living the life during the high times of the NWOBHM. Judas Priest reformed in 2003 with their original, and legendary, frontman Rob Halford and in 2005 released the album Angel Of Retribution. This was a true metal album, an album for the die-hard Priest fans, but now Judas Priest surprised me with a concept album about Nostradamus. According to the booklet they used synthesized-guitars which resulted in a change of sound, very surprising for a band that made heavy metal for more than thirty years.
Will the use of synthesizer sounds and the implementation of a story be enough to turn Judas Priest into a progressive rock band? The answers is neither yes nor no. Judas Priest used to be a band with standard songs, of standard composition and all of standard length. On this album this has changed, small pieces of music glue the larger songs together. These short songs also feature a very fragile side of singer Rob Halford, usually known for his high screams. The Dawn Of Creation is a instrumental intro that nicely transits into Prophecy. This is where the familiar heavy metal kicks in, a catchy sing-a-long chorus, pure headbanging heavy metal of Judas Priest. Revolutions turns the sound a bit bombastic but still also a very powerful metal song. War is very dramatic, a galloping rhythm and a fearful chorus that breaths the threatening feeling of war. Sands Of Time again shows the fragile part of Rob Halford. At the end it transcends into the heavy pounding Pestilence And Plague - an Iron Maiden-like galloping rhythm and a chorus in Italian. Death is even more pounding and bombastic, the end has a fast metal solo which reveals a bit of the old Judas Priest. This song is still in line with the general trend on this album, it started very old fashion Priest metal but slowly the songs become more and more bombastic and dramatic. Of course it is what expected when singing about the life of Nostradamus. Conquest reminds me a lot of Manowar, chanting war cries about victory and fire. Lost Love is in the style of the shorter pieces on this album but grew out to be a bit of a ballad. Persecution starts with the melody that opens the album and suddenly this song erupts into a fast heavy metal song. Fans of the old Judas Priest will like this song, fast guitars and a frantic screaming Rob Halford.
Solitude is the instrumental opener of the second disc, however Exiled does not take off like the first disc but is mellow with a dramatic sounding Rob Halford. Not counting the last heavy song on the first disc this is a continuance of the more dramatic type of music more fitting to a progressive rock album rather than a heavy metal album. And this style continues but slightly heavier in Alone. At places acoustic guitars are used where you might expect heavy power chords. Shadows In The Flame is a short acoustic piece with a campfire feel to it, whereas Visions turns more towards heavy metal with a nice chorus and a swinging sound make this a very accessible song. Hope is the intro to New Beginnings, it's a ballad with at the beginning a strange sound supporting the music. This part will be the breaking point for some die hard heavy metal Priest fans, if not bailed out already. Calm Before The Storm is exactly as the title states. Nostradamus starts very dramatic but rapidly fires of like a rocket with a screaming Rob Halford. Heavy guitar riffs, flying solos, old fashion Priest at the end of this second disc. Future Of Mankind is a bombastic heavy pounding piece, nice song for some old fashion headbanging action. A distorted voice preaches the future of mankind and closes this remarkable album.
Judas Priest have taken an unexpected turn in their music. Old-fashion metal heads could be disappointed, this is not the music like on Angel Of Retribution. Die-hard progressive rock fans might find it too heavy, Judas Priest with some synthesizer sounds and a story does not automatically mean a killer progressive album. This album is for people like me who started listening to heavy metal in their teens and slightly turned to the not so heavy progressive rock and still have warm feelings for those old bands. A lot of people will like this album and a lot of people will hate this album. Check out for yourself in which group you belong, I certainly enjoyed this album a lot.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Iced Earth – Framing Armageddon (Something Wicked ~ Part 1)
Tracklist: Overture (2:24), Something Wicked [Part 1] (5:02), Invasion (1:00), Motivation Of Man (1:34), Setian Massacre (3:48), A Charge To Keep (4:24), Reflections (1:50), Ten Thousand Strong (3:56), Execution (1:27), Order Of The Rose (4:51), Cataclysm (1:30), The Clouding (9:18), Infiltrate And Assimilate (3:48), Retribution Through The Ages (4:32), Something Wicked [Part 2] (2:59), The Domino Decree (6:36), Framing Armageddon (3:40), When Stars Collide [Born Is He] (4:17), The Awakening (2:01)
Iced Earth – The Crucible Of Man (Something Wicked ~ Part 2)
Tracklist: In Sacred Flames (1:28), Behold The Wicked Child (5:37), Minions Of The Watch (2:06), The Revealing (2:40), A Gift Or A Curse (5:34), Crown Of The Fallen (2:48), The Dimension Gauntlet (3:12), I Walk Alone (4:00), Harbinger Of Fate (4:42), Crucify The King (5:36), Sacrificial Kingdoms (3:57), Something Wicked [Part 3] (4:31), Divide And Devour (3:15), Come What May (7:23), Epilogue (2:20)
You can say many things about Jon Schaffer, undisputed band leader of leading US metallers Iced Earth, but one thing that can’t be levelled at him is that he doesn’t do what he wants, when he wants. Whilst some may say that Schaffer’s decision to go back to the concept running through the closing trilogy of 1998’s heralded Something Wicked This Way Comes and draw it out to two full length albums might be both the sign of a lack of new ideas and an attempt to appease fans following decidedly mixed responses to Iced Earth’s last two albums (2001’s Horror Show and 2004’s The Glorious Burden, the latter the first to feature ex-Judas Priest screamer Tim Owens as replacement for fan favourite Matt Barlow), Schaffer would level that the original trilogy only scratched the surface of the story, and that to realise the concept much more fully appealed to his sense of adventure. Schaffer also has the form to prove this – as far back as the second album, 1992’s excellent Night Of The Stormrider, Schaffer was knocking out fantasy-themed concept albums, and 1996’s The Dark Saga, based on the graphic novel Spawn, shows that he may well be true to his word of wanting to take this saga further, possibly in visual form.
In many cases I can take or leave the storyline in metal concept albums, but here its’ important, as predominately the narrative leads the music, rather than the other way round. The album(s) tell the story of the Setians, original inhabitants of earth, a race descended from the ‘great architect’ of omniscient knowledge. Humans invade the earth in a bid for power and ultimate knowledge, killing all but 10,000 Setians. The Setian council plans for revenge, unleashing ‘the clouding’, a plan to brainwash the human race to forget where they came from. Once this is complete, they create various different religions to further divide mankind. After 10,000 years, and with humans deeply divided, the Setians await the birth of the antichrist, Set Abominae, who it is decreed will execute revenge on the humans by destroying them. This takes us to the end of Framing Armageddon, part one of the saga. Part two, The Crucible Of Man, tells Set’s story, starting in the era of Jesus Christ and working forward, with Set crushing greed-filled kingdoms and controlling the weak through the manipulation of religion, eventually declaring his own godhood. As the ages pass, Set realises that humans have potential, and spares them annihilation, but warns them they must overcome their flaws.
Its’ certainly a potent storyline, and fits the bill for a metal album, having the requisite slaughter and annihilation than is often the lyrical lifeblood of the genre, whilst it also raises some interesting questions, such as the role of religion in the development of the human race. Whether there is enough story to fill two albums, however, is perhaps a moot point.
Prior to Framing Armageddon, Schaffer served to whet fans’ appetites with the Overture Of The Wicked EP, featuring a powerful new track, Ten Thousand Strong, and a re-recording of the original trilogy, this time with Owens on vocals – typically Iced Earth fans were divided on whether this was a good or bad thing. The trilogy does serve as a good taster to the material on these two new albums, however, with many musical and lyrical themes revisited and expanded on.
Framing Armageddon was released in mid 2007. Again featuring Owens on vocals, and with Schaffer on pretty much everything else, bar drums (played by Brent Smedley), the album (as seems to be the case with IE in the 21st century) has its strengths and weaknesses. To start with the latter, disappointingly the rather cold, sterile and anaemic sound found on the EP remains here, with the thin, brittle guitar tone being a particular bugbear. Schaffer stuffs in far too many linking passages – cod-symphonic, B-movie horror soundtrack-alike stuff that doesn’t really add much to the story and just serves to break the albums flow – and goes over the top with the orchestral embellishments, often serving to smother Owens’ vocals – the guy can clearly sing, so why does Schaffer feel the need to constantly press the ‘massed choirs’ button every time he opens his mouth? In addition, some of the ‘proper’ songs – such as the up-tempo Setian Massacre and repetitive Order Of The Rose – sound like the band are going through the motions.
Yet despite these criticisms, there’s enough strong material here to push the album into the ‘decent’ category. Following the inevitable Overture, Something Wicked [Part 1] kicks things off strongly, a ‘typical’ (in a good way) Iced Earth thrasher, with Schaffer pumping out some good riffs and letting Owens really use his range, not least on the majestic chorus. A Charge To Keep is an anthemic power ballad, with the big, multi-tracked vocals on the chorus actually working in the song’s favour this time. The aforementioned Ten Thousand Strong has already become a live favourite, whilst the album closes strongly – the galloping, darkly atmospheric title track has a bravura performance from Owens (at his most Priest-like), When Stars Collide is a moody mid-pacer whilst the closing Awakening is one of the few ‘filler’ pieces which really work, all middle eastern scales and chanting temptresses.
Schaffer also springs some surprises, which turn out to work pretty well. The album’s centrepiece (both musically and narrative-wise), The Clouding, starts as a subdued, almost Americana-influenced ballad, with moody lead vocals and tasteful slide guitar work, before the inevitable (and satisfying) morphing into a huge, early Black Sabbath-sounding stomper, with some good churning riffs. The Domino Decree, meanwhile, sees Schaffer indulging his prog rock side, with some decidedly ELP-esque stabbing Hammond work sitting alongside those patented Schaffer riffs unexpectedly well. Overall, Framing Armageddon is no classic, but certainly showed Schaffer still had plenty of ideas.
The intervening period between albums was an eventful one. Following a tour supporting Heaven And Hell (a.k.a. Dio-led Black Sabbath), and having consistently said that Owens was the vocalist for Iced Earth from now on and Barlow was never coming back, the typically contradictory Schaffer then went and got Barlow back into the fold, after he learnt Barlow was making a comeback to metal music with Danish outfit Pyramaze.
This obviously lead to some continuity problems; as the albums are supposed to compliment each other, then surely having different vocalists on each one (with different styles) was going to lead to each album having a different feel? There was also the problem, ironically also faced by Owens when recording The Glorious Burden, of a vocalist having to sing songs very much written for their predecessor. That said, many fans were prepared to overlook this, as to them Barlow was very much the voice of Iced Earth.
It is true that its’ good to hear Barlow’s warm, deep and emotive tones (he’s often compared to Kiss’s Paul Stanley) on record again, and it does feel more like Iced Earth with him back behind the microphone. Unfortunately, The Crucible Of Man doesn’t really prove itself a worthy album on which to make his comeback. In its favour is the fact that the sound appears to be fuller and more powerful, and the number of unnecessary interludes has been reduced. It is, however, hard to dispel the thought that Schaffer got rid of his best material on Framing Armageddon, and is here just coming up with a hodge-podge of recycled riffs in order to accompany the narrative.
That’s not to say that this is particularly bad – it isn’t, just rather uninspired. The likes of Behold The Wicked Child, Crown Of The Fallen and Sacrificial Kingdoms are all efficient enough head-banging material, but simply don’t seem to get out of a low gear, and its difficult to recall them once the album has stopped spinning.
Whilst there’s nothing as varied or interesting as The Clouding on here, it is the moments when Schaffer writes material that breaks free from the mid-paced semi-thrash shackles that stand out. A Gift Or A Curse is an interesting ballad that manages to transcend the hokey eighties drum machine effects through mellow guitar work and a soulful and impassioned vocal performance. The raging Divide And Devour, whilst not a classic, at least brings some bite and aggression into proceedings, whilst the closing Come What May is a good way to wrap things up, a nicely epic piece replete with an anthemic chorus and enough stylistic variety to keep the listener interested over its relatively lengthy running time. Ultimately however, the album does feel a little flat, as if having started the concept ball rolling with Framing Armageddon, Schaffer felt compelled to finish it, but without much enthusiasm.
In the end, these albums will (and have) find their fans, but to me don’t really represent Iced Earth at their best. Having proved over the last year or so (both with Owens and Barlow fronting) that Iced Earth are still a great live act, hopefully Schaffer will have got the whole Something Wicked… concept out of his system now, and will be able to concentrate more on writing some excellent actual songs, free of the need to fit a pre-existing narrative, next time around.
Framing Armageddon: 7 out of 10
The Crucible Of Man: 6 out of 10
Planet Alliance - Planet Alliance
Tracklist: The Real You (6:06), Remember Me (4:04), Ain't No Pleasin' You (3:52), Calling My Name (5:01), A Taste Of Paradise (4:27), The Quickening (4:17), Divided We Stay (3:11), It's Your Cross To Bear (4:27), The Great Unknown (4:10), Where To Go (4:33), Digging Your Own Grave (4:24)
I came across this album during a vacation in Sweden and was drawn to it by the impressive list of musicians. The majority of the work is done by Mike Anderson (Cloudscape), who sings on all the songs and on the majority of the songs plays all the keyboard parts. The next and most appealing name to me is Magnus Karlsson (Last Tribe, Allen ~ Lande), who plays guitar on the majority of the songs and some occasional keyboards. Among the other players are Bob Daisley (Ozzy, Gary Moore) and Jaime Salazar (Flower Kings, The Tangent). The other musicians play for various heavy metal bands like Hammerfall, Fate and Yngwie J. Malmsteen. These names show that we are dealing with a heavy metal company of high quality.
The songs are written by various members and are placed in an orderly fashion. A song written by Mike Anderson is followed by a song written by Magnus Karlsson. A song written by Magnus Karlsson is followed by a song that is not written by Mike Anderson nor Magnus Karlsson and those songs are followed by a song written by Mike Anderson. Ain't No Pleasin' You and The Quickening are written by Bob Daisley and Dennis Wilson, an old friend of Bob, the namesake of the founding member of the Beach Boys. Ain't No Pleasin' You sounds a lot like a song from Ozzy's album Ozzmosis, whilst The Quickening is a power ballad and my favourite song on this album. The Great Unknown is written by Janne Stark and this song blends in nicely with the rest of the compositions.
Magnus Karlsson for me is mainly known as the man behind the collaboration between Russell Allen and Jørn Lande. His compositions on Planet Alliance are of the same style but it's also clear he saved the best songs for his own project. Remember Me, A Taste Of Paradise, It's Your Cross To Bear and Digging Your Own Grave are all powerful melodic metal songs. Compared to his Allen ~ Lande project, the choruses are more cheesy, especially on It's Your Cross To Bear. The song writing of Mike Anderson is of the same style. The Real You, Calling My Name, Divided We Stay and Where To Go are all very good melodic metal songs, standard ingredients like fast solos, smashing rhythms and sing-a-long choruses are all present.
Planet Alliance seems to be a one time collaboration, a super group with top of the notch heavy metal musicians. The music on this album is very good, perfect performances and a perfect sound quality. The songs are written by different people but not one seems to be misplaced, this is also a problem with this album. The songs sound a bit pre-fabricated and there are not really any daring experiments on this album. Especially the songs from Magnus Karlsson which are very much on the safe side, with standard metal compositions we have heard so much of including the pleasant sing-a-long choruses. If you are a fan of melodic metal that takes the familiar paths this album is a good addition to your collection. I would however suggest you first try the Allen ~ Lande albums, starting with The Revenge.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Pharaoh - Be Gone
Tracklist: Speak To Me (4:42), Dark New Life (5:10), No Remains (4:40), Red Honor (5:24), Buried At Sea (7:03), Rats And Rope (4:39), Cover Your Eyes And Pray (5:08), Telepath (4:37), Be Gone (5:37)
US power metallers Pharaoh first emerged in the late nineties, finally releasing their debut After The Fire in 2003. Whilst the band have hardly blazed a trail through the metal world since then, they are none the less a respected act in the power metal scene (not hurt by being on the influential underground record label Cruz Del Sur) and Be Gone (their third outing) is unlikely to change that.
In contrast to some of their European counterparts, Pharaoh eschew the rather cheesy, keyboard-laden, widdly-diddly route and instead go for a more muscular, full-throttle approach, majoring on duelling guitars, wailing solos, strident rhythms and Tim Aymar’s throaty, powerful delivery (he sounds a little like a gruffer Russell Allen). Iron Maiden are clearly a major influence, although there are also nods to classic Dio (circa Holy Diver), early Iced Earth and (perhaps because of the vocal similarity mentioned earlier) Symphony X in their heavier, more straightforward moments.
Highlights include the rousing Dark New Life and the anthemic, strident Red Honor, whilst the pace is slowed a little for the sea shanty-flavoured Buried At Sea and the mid paced Cover Your Eyes And Pray (which bears a passing resemblance to Maiden’s Stranger In A Strange Land). In truth though there’s no real weak points here, with the sheer energy and enthusiasm of the playing getting the band through even the less noteworthy material. Special mention should be made to guitarist Matt Johnsen, whose ferocious yet melodic playing, from crisp riffing to intertwining, melodic solos, really lifts the band a cut above the competition.
Overall, whilst hardly an earth shattering release, Be Gone is a more than solid offering which should appeal to those who like the more traditional side of the prog-power metal genre.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Malpractice - Triangular
Tracklist: Maze Of Inequity (7:35), Symmetry (4:11), Deception (4:31), Deadline (5:52), Platform (4:36), Triangular (8:37), Waves (4:02), Fragments (10:43)
This album has been out since the start of the year but the inability of the record label to provide us with any promo copies (or even have the common decency to reply to my requests) has meant I’ve only just tracked down a copy. I could be vindictive and not bother to do a review, but I've enjoyed this so much it'd be churlish not to give it a quick mention.
I first discovered this surprisingly obscure Finnish band thanks to a glowing DPRP review of their last album Deviation From The Flow. The review opened with the plea that ‘If you buy one Progressive metal album this year, buy this!’. I did and the album, the band’s fourth, has had regular listens ever since.
Whilst Deviation .. stood out for its mix of ProgMetal inventiveness, modern alt-rock melodies and an excellent non-metal singer, Triangular sees the band returning to its roots as a Thrash Metal-inspired outfit. There remains a strong ProgMetal undertone to all the arrangements. Mid-period Fates Warning is an ever-present reference point. If you like Perfect Symmetry, you could love this. It is a distinct, if not too radical departure from the sound of their last album, and it is one that has endeared me to the band even more.
The other change is a new singer in Aleksi Parviainen. I must admit, it took a few listens to get into his mid-range melodic metal style but again I must say I’ve ended up enjoying the vocals more than those on Deviation...
Whist the songs are definitely heavier and more metallically aggressive, the band's ability to create an ever-changing soundscape of different moods and intensity has not changed. The mix of long and short songs allows the band to extend a few ideas while keeping others more focused. The production is sharp. The blend of the twin guitars is spot on.
A hard band to categorise and so one that will appeal to many progressive metalish tastes. With two superb albums in a row, I’m surprised they haven’t won a higher profile – maybe a more progressive orientated label should take note.
Waves is a great ballad which allows the singer to show off his full range. Deception really does stand out from the crowd being a pretty straight Metallica rip-off. (I rather like it, but as it’s one of the two samples on their MySpace page, please note it is far from representative). This record is packed with great hooks and I just love this band’s ability to create an abundance of clever little changes in groove and mood across almost every song. For those reasons Maze Of Iniquity (the other MySpace sample) and Fragments are currently easy winners in my Most Played Tracks of the Year competition. As a result Triangular will easily slot into my Top10 Albums of the year.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Nation Beyond - The Aftermath Odyssey
Tracklist: The End; A Rainy Day In Hell; In The Ashes; The Wanderer; New Eden City; The Council; Soulmates; Last Deceiver; Confessions; War Of The Wastelands; Aftermath; Point Zero; Soulmates (Radio Edit)
The latest in the endless series of bands from Sweden able to create albums packed with great melodies, great riffs and just enough originality to attract the attention of a discerning listener.
Labelling themselves as dark, progressive metal, Nation Beyond have more than a passing resemblance to the Kings of Morose metal, Evergrey. Their debut album The Aftermath Odyssey is a collection of dramatic and powerful songs which will hold interest to any lover of ProgPower metal. It could also dig into a Gothic and Prog audience as well. Add to that a strong element of symphonics and you have a nicely-rounded product.
Formed by Debase guitarist/keyboard player Jonas Karlgren and Face Down bassist Joakim Hedestedt, Nation Beyond also features the talents of singer Nielz Lindstrom, guitarist Micro Twedberg, drummer Johan Helgresson.
I mentioned a touch of originality, and for me that is encapsulated by the inclusion of a second vocalist in the shape of Sara Heurlin. No beauty and the beast exploits here, both are superb clean vocalists whose subtle differences in style complement each other and the band’s sound perfectly. Not too many bands have managed to pull off such a combination so well. Lindstrom is an enormous talent - at times I had to check the liner notes to see whether Tom S Englund had added guest vocals.
Highlights? Try the opening pairing of A Rainy Day In Hell and In The Ashes – really one song in two parts. It reminds me of Pyramaze in many places with an effective Evergrey-esque choral section. New Eden City would give Kamelot a good run for their money in terms of its crushing riffs and orchestral keyboards.
The layers of melancholic keyboards which characterise The Council add a clever twist of pace, whilst the female vocals on The Last Deceiver echo the impact that Pamela Moore has on Operation Mindcrime. Actually, the whole futuristic story around which the 12 tracks are woven, bears more than a passing resemblance to Queensryche’s classic. There are some death growls on War of the Wastelands, whilst Aftermath will also please those with a heavier bent - Karlgren and Twedberg are let loose to create some truly thunderous riffs.
The absolute gem is the CD single, Soulmates, which is possibly the best power ballad I’ve heard in the last decade. A massive, melodic duet between Lindstrom and Heurlin, the inclusion of the ‘radio edit’ allows me to hear it twice on each play! I really hear Evergrey on this one. The Aftermath Odyssey does take a few listens to fully appreciate. The first couple of casual spins left me rather non-plussed. But when I actually sat down and listened to it properly it unveiled a good depth, which means I will go back to it pretty regularly.
Housed in a lovely digipack, it’s a well thought-out package. The smartly-designed booklet contains lyrics, artwork, and photographs which detail the story.
One of the best ProgPower, male/female vocal albums of the year.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Ansur – Warring Factions
Tracklist: The Tunguska Incident (8:44), Sierra Day (5:53), Phobos Anomaly (6:19), An Exercise In Depth Of Field (12:15), At His Wit’s End (7:59), Cloudscaper (7:42), Prime Warning Eschatologist (12:38)
Young Norwegian extreme prog metal band Ansur are not short of a few ideas. Now on to their second full-length release, the band have channelled influences from the likes of seventies Rush, pioneering 80’s sci-fi metallers Voivod, re-activated tech-metallers Cynic and the (almost obligatory) Swedish extreme prog kings Opeth, as well as chucking in elements of genres as diverse as bluegrass and jazz fusion to create the almost head-spinningly varied Warring Factions – undoubtedly not an album for the close-minded!
Opener The Tunguska Incident gives a good indication of what to expect – from the solo jazz guitar intro (more reminiscent of Pat Metheny than anything else), through sweeping metallic soundscapes evoking Blackwater Park-era Opeth via a saxophone solo, some sweet Hammond work and long heroic guitar solo’s from mainman Torstein Nipe, this song never really stands still.
Elsewhere, its clear that Rush are perhaps the band’s prime influence – Sierra Day sounds like a metalled-up 80’s version of the band (and also manages to recall Don Henley’s eighties hit The Boys Of Summer!), Phobos Anomaly nods in the direction of Xanadu whilst Cloudscaper (as well as referencing the James Bond song Diamonds Are Forever) could be a modern take on the classic Jacob’s Ladder. At His Wit’s End, one of the more mundane numbers, is enlivened by an extended Nipe solo that matches Steve Rothery at his emotive best, whilst the finale Prime Warning Eschatologist (the rather pompous title establishing their ‘thinking man’s metal’ credentials) has a definite Cynic vibe, as well as incorporating some grand piano work that could have come from a classical recital. For full-blown oddity, however, nothing beats An Exercise In Depth Of Field, which seems to be mainlining the adventurous spirit of early Dream Theater before transforming into a middle section which even those Prog Metal titans would probably see as a step too far, a hillbilly hoedown complete with shouted ‘woo hoo’s which sounds as if someone accidentally tacked on an off-take from Hayseed Dixie’s latest album! If that wasn’t enough, this section morphs into what sounds like the band’s take on an eighties hair metal anthem, before things (relatively speaking) settle down again.
As you might be able to tell, I think there are occasions where the band try to shoehorn a bit too much experimentation into their sound, especially when the production isn’t quite up to the task of making all these elements gel as they might. The very dry drum sound is a bit of an annoyance, and Espen Aulie’s gruff vocals are rather one-dimensional given the variety of the music, but ultimately there are plenty of things to like about Warring Factions. I’d far rather be talking about a band having too many ideas than too few, and the songs generally have a stirring, epic air to them which transcends any sonic limitations. Definitely worthy of further investigation, particularly if you’re an Opeth or Cynic fan.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Metal Church – This Present Wasteland
Tracklist: The Company Of Sorrow (6:38), The Perfect Crime (4:38), Deeds Of A Dead Soul (8:27), Meet Your Maker (5:35), Monster (6:25), Crawling To Extinction (4:11), A War Never Won (5:33), Mass Hysteria (4:42), Breathe Again (5:23), Congregation (5:52)
Metal Church, a classic metal band, was founded in the early eighties in Seattle and I have to say that their new album sounds like it was recorded and written in the eighties. This is real, old-fashioned metal and I think that Metal Church have got stuck in the past. Just listen to the opening track The Company Of Sorrow and you will hear those typical classic metal riffs and the voice of singer Ronny Munroe even adds to this eighties feeling. In the typical mid tempo power ballad like Deeds Of A Dead Soul he even sounds a lot like Bruce Dickinson of good old Iron Maiden.
This album is definitely no food for proggies as there is nothing progressive about this music whatsoever. So if you like metal from the eighties, then maybe you could give this album an chance, if not then you should probably best ignore it. I was always liked Metal Church, but albums like The Dark, Hanging In The Balance or more recently The Weight Of The World were far much better than this rather predictable release. Furthermore the sound of this CD are not really that great, especially the drums are very hollow as if they were recorded in a garage…
Conclusion: 5.5 out of 10
Uli Jon Roth – Under A Dark Sky
Tracklist: S.O.S (4:09), Tempus Fugit (2:32), Land Of Dawn (11:09), The Magic Word (6:11), Inquisition (1:08), Letter Of The Law (3:03), Stay In The Light (6:30), Benediction (3:45), Light & Shadows (6:13), Tanz in Die Dämmerung (18:55)
Uli Jon Roth is still probably best known as a founding member of German hard rockers Scorpions, despite the fact that he left the band thirty or so years ago, before their commercial breakthrough. Since then, he’s released a number of solo albums, utilising his own invention, the 6-octave Sky guitar. In recent times he’s concentrated primarily on composing and producing classical works, as well as extra-curricular activities such as painting, poetry and, according to SPV’s bio, even writing philosophical treaties. Under A Dark Sky can hardly be called a return to the hard rock arena, as a quick look at the credit list reveals – as well as using his band of musicians, Sky Of Avalon, Roth also has a ‘Sky Orchestra’ and ‘Sky Choir’ in tow – instead, it is an album that fits under the banner of symphonic or even at a stretch progressive rock, so merits a review on this site.
As might be indicated from such a line-up, there is a lot of orchestral, cod-operatic padding between the actual songs here, and the symphonic style is often incorporated into the songs themselves, but as you’d expect from a seasoned practitioner like Roth, these sections are generally well executed with the classical instrumentation integrating fairly seamlessly with the more traditional guitar-bass-drums set-up. As for the songs themselves, these will probably seem lightweight to those used to the heavier approach of more modern symphonic metal outfits such as After Forever and Epica, generally being a mix of mid-tempo, light pomp/ symphonic rockers, often with a seventies flavour (the three-part Land Of Dawn, Letter Of The Law) or tasteful, lighters-in-the-air power balladry (Stay In The Light, Light & Shadows). As you might expect, Roth’s neo-classical guitar work is to the fore – albeit not as over-the-top and obtrusive as, say, Yngwie Malmsteen (thankfully); his wah-wah drenched work on The Magic Word is particularly worthy of mention, as is his fine, soaring solo, one which gradually picks up pace and aggression, towards the end of the otherwise rather meandering twelve-part epic Tanz In Die Dammerung.
The main (non-choral) vocal duties are taken by Mark Boals (Royal Hunt) and Liz Vandall, whose performances I would describe as pleasant but unremarkable, a phrase which would really describe my attitude to the whole album. Its one of those records which makes for adequate enough background music, but hardly sets the pulse racing and it’s difficult to recall too much once the disc has stopped spinning. For confirmed fans of Roth’s guitar playing style, this will no doubt still be a must-buy, but others may wish to approach with more caution.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10
Odin's Court - Deathanity
Tracklist: Terracide (4:43), Volatilestial (7:30), Manifest Destiny (5:14), Oceanica Toxica (5:55), Mammonific (5:14), Animualic (7:49), Esoterica (6:06), Crownet (5:01), Obesite (6:18), Ode To Joy (3:46), Cosmosera (6:12), Vastificant (2:46)
Odin’s Court are not, as their name might imply, the latest Scandinavian Viking metal sensation, although these US prog metallers seem to try their hand at every other style going on Deathanity, their third full length album. Within the blink of an eye the album moves from tasteful David Gilmour-esque soloing to Yngwie J Malmsteen-like neo-classical shredding; from complex, turn-on-a-dime technical prog metal in the vein of Dream Theater to bone-headed, shouty nu metal; from sax-drenched AOR balladry to crunching, riff led power metal.
Whilst variety is the spice of life, the songs suffer from the fact that so many styles are attempted in the space of just a single track, and the changes are often so abrupt, that the listener frequently suffers from overload. Add to this the fact that the playing is at times slightly amateurish and not up to the technical level required for the material, the production is rather muddy and unbalanced, the vocals rather strained and the distraction of the seemingly omnipresent snatches of dialogue inserted in order to ram home the album’s theme of environmental destruction at the hands of man, and you have an album that I must admit I found difficult to listen to all the way through more than once.
Main songwriter Matt Brookins is clearly a creative guy with plenty of ideas, but I feel he needs a better forum to express these than through his current outfit, whilst the use of an experienced outside producer next time around might help to shape the many musical ideas hinted at here into something more palatable and appealing.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10