Album of the Week 26-2015: Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody – Prometheus: Symphonia Ignis Divinus

Three years ago, Luca Turilli released – much to my immense surprise – the best album he’s been involved with since Rhapsody’s breathtaking ‘Symphony Of Enchanted Lands’. His spin-off of Rhapsody proved to bring the focus back to the orchestral side of the band, which Turilli understandably dubbed “cinematic Metal”. Let’s just call this symphonic Power Metal though, as there are enough ridiculous Metal subgenres already. Sophomore record ‘Prometheus: Symphonia Ignis Divinus’ is finally there and although it’s not quite the overwhelming experience ‘Ascending To Infinity’ was, it’s another quality symphonic Metal record on which the orchestral “backing” is quite upfront.

Less than ever, Turilli uses his band as a vehicle for his guitar qualities. If he wants to show off, it’s probably his compositional skills rather than his riffwork or sweeping guitar leads. Of course, the latter are still there, but the guitar often takes back seat to the orchestra, choir and piano. That’s where much of the album’s bombast comes from anyway. Also, there are a few experiments with electronic elements here. None too overpowering, but some of them are featured quite promintently in the progressive ‘Il Tempo Degli Dei’ and overture ‘Nova Genesis’.

What makes ‘Prometheus’ slightly less overwhelming than its predecessor is the fact that the songs are a little less urgent this time around. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any standout moments here though. Especially the latter half of the record features a few diamonds, like the massive epic ‘Of Michael The Archangel And Lucifer’s Fall Part II: Codex Nemesis’ that closes the record, the bombastic title track and the surprisingly catchy ‘Yggdrasil’. Closer to the beginning of the album, ‘Anahata’ builds from a very cinematic intro (think ‘The Never Ending Story’) towards an amazing orchestral “riff” that turns into a fantastic progressive Power Metal track. Truly impressive.

Drummer Alex Landenburg makes his first appearance with the band here and as could be expected based on his unbelievable work on Mekong Delta’s last two albums, he’s amazing. He doesn’t quite get the space to be as creative as he was with Delta, but his playing is fluent and tight. Alessandro Conti is once again a revelation: his powerful voice, enormous range and versatile approach blew me away when I heard ‘Ascending To Infinity’ for the first time and things haven’t changed here. In fact, the increased use of Italian lyrics seems to work in his favor, especially when he goes into full opera mode on ‘Notturno’.

Metal purists will undeniably cringe when they hear the guitars being pushed to the background by all these orchestras and choirs – presumably especially on the “cinematic version” of Riot’s ‘Thundersteel’ – but the fact is that this is a professional release with well-written songs and meticulous arrangements. The songwriting is slightly less consistent than it was on its predecessor, but this is again a bombastic, thrilling ride through several filmic landscapes. If you’re looking for that instead of another predictable Power Metal record: this one is for you.

Recommended tracks: ‘Anahata’, ‘Yggdrasil’, ‘Of Michael The Archangel And Lucifer’s Fall Part II: Codex Nemesis’, ‘Prometheus’

Album of the Week 25-2015: Masterplan – Masterplan

When drummer Uli Kusch and guitarist Roland Grapow were simultaneously fired from Helloween, they wasted no time and started Masterplan. Since their shared tenure in Helloween is my favorite period in the German Power Metal giants’ history, I was eagerly awaiting this debut release at the time. It wasn’t quite as Helloween-like as I expected, but the blend of progressive Hard Rock and Power Metal that is on their self-titled album is nothing less than impressive. A rare instance where the songs lead the album despite the involvement of a number of high-profile musicians.

My first impression upon hearing debut single ‘Enlighten Me’ – and opening track ‘Spirit Never Die’ – was that the song structures sounded a bit messy, but eventually, it starts to make sense and what’s left is respect for the fact that the band has managed to combine so many elements into relatively streamlined songs. Especially because they still leave a lot of room for the powerful vocals of Jørn Lande, who was pretty much the rising star of the Hard Rock and Heavy Metal scene at the time. Kusch, Grapow and Lande somehow managed to combine memorability, versatility and brief displays of virtuosity in an irresistible cocktail.

Despite the presence of something like a common sound – heavy, ultra-melodic and anthemic – the band swings back and forth between those extremes quite effortlessly. ‘Enlighten Me’, ‘King Hearted Light’ and ‘Sail On’ are somewhat poppy Hard Rock songs, there are ballads in the shape of the Zepplin-esque ‘Into The Light’ and the ridiculously Whitesnake-like, but nonetheless fantastic ‘When Love Comes Close’. ‘Crawling From Hell’ shows a heavier side of the band, while the dramatic and bombastic ‘Soulburn’ is as progressive as it gets here. The catchy Power Metal of ‘Heroes’ is most Helloween-like, which seems appropriate, given Michael Kiske’s cameo.

Sometimes, the band gets it just a little more right than the rest of this immensely enjoyable record. ‘Crystal Night’ is a winner with its heavy, stomping midtempo riff, anti-racism lyrics and downright beautiful chorus. ‘Bleeding Eyes’ is another one that kicks down the tempo a little, which fits the atmosphere of Eastern mysticism perfectly. The riffs of the song are incredibly heavy, Lande’s vocal performance is the best on the entire album and Grapow’s noisy guitar solo is easily the craziest shit I’ve ever heard him do. And ‘Spirit Never Die’ is simply the perfect moodsetter here because of its perfect build-up and upbeat message.

It’s too bad that Masterplan never quite reached the heights of their amazing debut album again. The lack of stability in the line-up may be a factor in this, but it’s only natural that a band doesn’t hit this much of a peak in terms of songwriting too often in its career. It’s not often that a record completely transcends the division between Hard Rock and Heavy Metal, but this is one of those records and it should have equal appeal to fans of both genres. Unless you don’t like a well-written and ditto performed song, of course.

Recommended tracks: ‘Bleeding Eyes’, ‘Crystal Night’, ‘Soulburn’

Album of the Week 24-2014: Şebnem Ferah – Can Kırıkları

Turkey’s Rock scene has quite a number of great female singers. Two of the most influential have once played together in an all-female band called Volvox. But while Özlem Tekin has been all over the map stylistically on her solo releases, Şebnem Ferah’s work has always rocked. However poppy it sometimes gets. Especially since she started working with producer – and Pentagram bassist – Tarkan Gözübüyük, who seems to realize that even though Ferah is proficient at all the subtleties of Pop music, her powerhouse vocals work best when she has to push her way to the foreground through loud guitars and string backings.

If it’s Gözübüyük’s influence or just the fact that Ferah wrote heavier songs this time around, I truly can’t tell, but it’s a fact that ‘Can Kırıkları’ has the heaviest guitar work on any Şebnem Ferah album so far. One doesn’t need to look any further than the dark, brooding opening track ‘Okyanus’ to hear that direction in full effect; the unpredictably timed chords by Metin Türkcan – another Pentagram member – add an almost Dream Theater-like feel to the verses and the riff in the middle section is extremely Metal, but Ferah’s keen ear for melody keeps this accessible. That’s why the album works for fans of both Pop and Rock. Possibly even Metal fans.

‘Can Kırıkları’ isn’t chock full of Metal though. Ferah is quite likely the best power ballad singer in Turkey and there’s quite a lot of those here. Some are a little heavier (the title track, with its heavy chorus and awesome orchestration) and some are a little more subdued (closing track ‘Hoşçakal’, although Ferah herself really lets it rip there) and there’s even an acoustic-based Rock song in the shape of the awesome ‘Çakıl Taşları’. Ultimately, it’s those changes in dynamics that make the album enjoyable all the way through.

My favorite Şebnem Ferah song – not just on this album – is ‘Delgeç’. That song alone is a lesson in dynamics; it starts out with a mighty Power Metal melody, turns into Pop Rock for the verses in which Ferah occasionally harmonizes with herself amazingly and then gets back to all the heavy riffing in the chorus, which has a lot of tension and drama to it. Though Ferah wrote a number of amazing songs after this one, it’s still the one I’ll play people to show what she’s about. It’s quite illustrative of how many sides there are to her voice and songwriting.

As with many Turkish releases – especially the ones with Turkish lyrics – it’s quite difficult to find this one outside of Turkey, but I would urge everyone with any interest in good Rock music or powerful female vocals to try and pick ‘Can Kırıkları’ up. If you want to get your money’s worth for shipping, get Ferah’s latest effort ‘Od’ as well. This is an example to all western producers of female Rock singers that you don’t have to castrate the music to make your singer stand out. It’s also a testament to Şebnem Ferah’s unbelievable skills as a singer and a songwriter.

Recommended tracks: ‘Delgeç’, ‘Can Kırıkları’, ‘Çakıl Taşları’, ‘Okyanus’

Album of the Week 23-2015: The Allman Brothers Band – Shades Of Two Worlds

In the history of The Allman Brothers Band, there’s two eras that I truly love. First, there was the raw Blues era when Duane Allman – to this day one of the most incredible talents ever to touch a guitar – was still alive and then, there’s the period that Warren Haynes dialed the Rock factor back up for the band. No disrespect to the legacy of guitarist Dickey Betts and singer/organist Gregg Allman, but the latter was when the band got its songwriting focus back and the extended jams regained their fire. ‘Shades Of Two Worlds’ shows the band’s fearless multi-genre approach as well as their most passionate studio playing since ‘Idlewild South’.

Part of the album’s live energy is due to the fact that the seven-piece band likes to record everything as live as possible. It shows, because the interaction between Haynes and Betts, as well as the shared swing of drummers Butch Trucks and Jaimoe and percussionist Marc Quiñones is at its absolute best. The glossy early nineties production has a bit too much sheen for the raw sound of the band, but that hardly is a disturbing factor here, because the songwriting is absolutely stunning.

While I would blame Betts’ greater involvement after Allman’s tragic early demise for the “countrying down” of the band’s music – remember ‘Ramblin’ Man’? – he does show what a truly great Bluesrock writer he is here. The absolute highlight here, ‘Nobody Knows’, is from his hand completely and contains the greatest riffs of the album as well as an utterly amazing vocal melody and long, spirited jams with fantastic climaxes. His compositions with Haynes are highlights as well: ‘Kind Of Bird’ finally brings back the Jazz influence of ‘At Fillmore East’, ‘Bad Rain’ has an unbelievable swing and ‘Midnight Man’ has this irresistible swampy feel and ditto riffwork.

Gregg Allman, however, did contribute two great songs to this record. Most typical for him is the slow, passionate Blues of ‘Get On With Your Life’. No white man can sing the Blues like Allman does, look no further than here for proof. Opening track ‘End Of The Line’, which he co-wrote, is another masterpiece. A journeyman lyric typical of the Southern Rock tradition – although I would categorize the Allman Brothers Band as Bluesrock rather than Southern Rock – supported by muscular Rock riffs, brilliant vocal work by Allman and passionate solo trade-offs by Haynes and Betts and as such, a true winner.

During the aforementioned eras, The Allman Brothers Band never really released an album that was any less than very good, but ‘Shades Of Two Worlds’ is one of those moments when all the stars are aligned just right. The septet gained their reputation as a live band and it is the stage where their music comes most alive, but as far as collections of songs go, none of them is better than this unusually inspired album. Where many jam bands forget to write an actual song and many normal Rock bands just aren’t good enough to keep a jam entertaining, this album really brings the best of the two worlds it may refer to in its title.

Recommended tracks: ‘Nobody Knows’, ‘End Of The Line’, ‘Kind Of Bird’, ‘Midnight Man’

Album of the Week 22-2015: Forbidden – Forbidden Evil

As much as I love Thrash Metal, the market was saturated in the late eighties. Almost every band sounded like the last one and the scene was too conservative – and still is, in many ways – for “something else”. Yet, something else is what Forbidden was. Sure, all the intensity and aggression of the Bay Area Thrash Metal scene are present in the riffing, but there’s also a distinct classic Heavy Metal vibe going on here. That, the lead guitar insanity and the more interesting nature of the riff work makes ‘Forbidden Evil’ almost a fired up version of Judas Priest.

For what it’s worth, I consider ‘Forbidden Evil’ one of the 10 best Thrash Metal albums ever. Sure, there are a few filler tracks, but even those are quite enjoyable. Fact is that there are five classic tracks of the genre on the record, executed expertly by a bunch of hungry young musicians. The lead guitar duo of Glen Alvelais and Craig Locicero is the best in Thrash Metal history, with Alvelais being a serious rival for Alex Skolnick as ultimate Thrash lead guitarist. Paul Bostaph’s later recruitment by Slayer says enough about his drumming and Russ Anderson is above average as a singer in a genre that’s quite difficult to come up with good vocal lines for.

‘Chalice Of Blood’ opens the album the way it should be opened. It’s fast, it’s heavy and it’s got a chorus to yell along to loudly. “Welcome to the church of lies” may sound like a genre cliché, but it’s ultimately satisfying to the congregation. ‘March Into Fire’, which opens the B-side of the record, is probably even more maniacal in its riff work due to the higher tempo. The band wasn’t without its depth though; ‘Follow Me’ is an epic Heavy Metal track with a lot of light-and-shade workings in the songwriting department. Strong structure too.

Two songs truly stand out though. There’s ‘Through Eyes Of Glass’, which is the finest example of the classic Metal sound of the band due to Anderson’s more melodic vocal delivery, the strong epic riffing and the guitar solos… Oh god, those guitar solos! Alvelais lays down a few mind blowing themes and gives all the competition a run for their money with all the warp-speed notes in between. And then there’s the title track. A masterpiece of dark Thrash Metal. The riffs have a degree of imminent danger to them and the solo trade-off has to be heard to be believed.

Like many Thrash Metal bands, Forbidden faded into obscurity as the nineties reared their ugly heads, though ‘Twisted Into Form’ and ‘Green’ are still quite decent records. Still, not many bands get to record even one album of this impressive nature. Even in times of less dabbling in the genre, this album doesn’t cease to get my blood boiling and my head banging. It’s all a testament (no pun intended) to Forbidden’s songwriting and musicianship, both of which were far above what was the standard in the late eighties. Awesome stuff.

Recommended tracks: ‘Forbidden Evil’, ‘Through Eyes Of Glass’, ‘Follow Me’

Album of the Week 21-2015: Leprous – The Congregation

Bizarre and unique. Those are the only two adjectives that describe Leprous adequately. Sure, it’s progressive Metal, but it’s nothing like the Dream Theater clones that saturate the genre. The Norwegians abandon chugging over constantly changing meters and bouncing a million riffs around in favor of an approach that is high on both atmosphere and melody. Their brand new ‘The Congregation’ is considerably darker than their breakthrough album ‘Bilateral’ was and even darker than ‘Coal’ (no pun intended), but man, this album is an intense and haunting experience. And once again, there’s no one else doing anything that sounds even remotely like this.

In the four years since ‘Bilateral’ was released, the band has learned a lesson or two about space. As much as I loved the more hyperactive sound on ‘Bilateral’, it’s admirable how the band leaves room for the songs to gradually work towards their climaxes and that sometimes means repeating sections a number of times without boring the hell out of the listener. An impressive accomplishment in itself. Singer and keyboard player Einar Solberg is an important factor in this. He has a powerful, dramatic voice, but can also descend into theatrical madness when the music calls for it.

Riff-wise, ‘The Congregation’ is a strong album without ever being flashy. Tor Oddmund Suhrke and Øystein Landsverk leave their mark with oddly timed notes and twisted, jazzy chords. In the occasional ambient-like segment – without the aimless meandering of the genre – their delay effects work miracles. Solberg’s synths push some passages into Electro territory (the first half of ‘Slave’, parts of opening track ‘The Price’, the opening movement of ‘The Flood’) and the majority of the rhythms of new drummer Baard Kolstad is so relaxed, that we’re almost dealing with really dark progressive Rock here, had it not been for the distorted guitars.

Highlights are sort of hard to define, because each of the songs has a face of its own and quality is all around. ‘Rewind’ stands out due to its highly unpredictable structure and the killer bass line by session man Simen Børven, ‘Down’ has an instantly recognizable chorus and is therefore closest to an accessible single and ‘The Flood’ is simply absorbing due to Solberg’s synth work and beautiful vocals. ‘Slave’ combines an almost Arena Rock feel with pitch black darkness and an Enslaved-ish climax and ‘Triumphant’ combines my favorite guitar work on the record with almost tribal drumming. In the end, these are just mere descriptions of an album that should be heard in its entirity.

After the slightly disappointing ‘Coal’, ‘The Congregation’ is another artistic triumph for Leprous. One of the very few actually progressive albums in the genre. The album sounds unlike anything I have ever heard, including previous work by the Norwegians themselves. ‘Bilateral’ is – despite its greater level of complexity – a better choice to start getting acquainted with the band and while I slightly prefer it to this one, this is a masterpiece. An exercise in how layered music should be made. Yes, it’s bizarre, but it’s also listenable, because the songwriting is the only show-off point for Leprous.

Recommended tracks: ‘Slave’, ‘The Flood’, ‘Triumphant’

My douze points for 2015

So there we have it. Sweden’s song ‘Heroes’ won the Eurovision Song Contest 2015, not because it’s such a good song – the first verse sounds promising, but the chorus butchers it – not because it’s sung so well – it’s not – but because it’s been directed as a music video. It’s not often that I get to quote my sister, but she’s right: five years from now, everybody might remember the drawn figures, but I already can’t recall what the song sounds like. It makes me think of Eddie Vedder’s reluctance to do videos, because he wants people to remember the songs instead of the visuals. Israel’s entry is stuck in my mind though.

It’s funny to see that none of my predictions came entirely true. Okay, the first one was statistically likely rather than musically, but I still figured Norway would win. The song had a good climax, it just took too long before it arrived there. However, it’s likely that I judge the songs differently than the majority of the audience does, as my following list of favorites – my sept to douze points, if you will – will show you. Out of these titles, only the first one came close to the number of points it deserved.

Before I move on to my honorable mentions for this year – four instead of five this time – there’s two more things I’d like to say. First of all: thank you Eurovision, for appointing Mirjam Weichselbraun (the blonde one) as one of the moderators. Something about her eyes continued to hypnotize me. Secondly, and this one is aimed at my fellow Dutchmen: couldn’t we, at some point in the discussion about Trijntje Oosterhuis’ dress, have addressed the fact that the song was so shitty? Seriously, how do you get so much repetition into three minutes?

Without further ado: Good evening Vienna, Heerhugowaard calling. Here are the results from the alternative Dutch jury.

Estonia: Elina Born & Stig Rästa – Goodbye To Yesterday

Okay, so maybe Stig Rästa – who wrote the song – shouldn’t have sung it himself, but ‘Goodbye To Yesterday’ is a good song and 20 year old Elina Born has both the voice and the emotional gravitas to carry a song like this one. Especially here, because she was notably less nervous than during the semi-finals on Tuesday. Despite the higher tempo, the song reminded me of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s brilliant ‘Summer Wine’ – I have a weak spot for their beautifully bitter duets – with a a little bit of old James Bond soundtracks thrown in for good measure. It’s got a nice driving rhythm and while the harmonies would have worked better with a better male singer, it’s a passionate and honest entry to this year’s Eurovision. Also, that has to be one of the most perfectly falling tears in television history.

Greece: Maria Elena Kyriakou – One Last Breath

For the second time in three years, Greece surprises me very pleasantly with their Eurovision entry. But where ‘Alcohol Is Free’ was just plain fun two years ago, ‘One Last Breath’ is a classic Eurovision power ballad that I don’t only think deserved to earn much more votes, I actually also more or less expected it to. Maria Elena Kyriakou has an amazing set of pipes and while there are some  parallels to be drawn to Celine Dion, she doesn’t have the irritating “breathy” way of singing the latter has. In fact, Kyriakou has a little more power and a very subtle raw edge sneaking in a few times. I absolutely love the last minute or so of the song. In an ideal world, where songs don’t have a three minute limit, this song would have been longer and taken more time to build toward that fantastic climax.

Spain: Edurne – Amanecer

Seriously, where the hell did this come from? For years now, Spain has submitted decent, but forgettable Pop songs. This is something completely different though. First of all, “little roja riding hood” blew me away with her powerhouse voice and her passionate performance. Secondly, I have a degree of admiration for artists that still use their native tongue, despite the fact that it’s no longer required. But the atmosphere here is the real game winner – besides Edurne’s amazing voice of course. The orchestral arrangement leaves absolutely nothing to be desired and the way the strings blend with the piano is fantastic. The electronic percussion is sparse, but the drama it adds to the way the tension in the song is built-up is indispensible. This is something to envy as a composer, one of which here – interesting to the Metal fans here – is Masquerade guitarist Thomas G:son.

Georgia: Nina Sublatti – Warrior

During the semi-finals on Tuesday, ‘Warrior’ struck me as “quite good”. The more I listened to it, the more I started falling in love with the subdued aggression and dark, defiant character of the song and the strong voice of that strangely beautiful young lady. A true grower apparently, because the level of the competition on Tuesday was truly cringe-worthy. The song sounds a little like a crossbreed between Destiny’s Child’s ‘Survivor’ and the Jim Steinman-produced work by The Sisters Of Mercy. Bonus points for Sublatti for writing and co-producing (with, again, Thomas G:son) the song herself. Still, that wouldn’t mean anything if the actual song – a female empowerment anthem – and her vocal performance weren’t so mind-blowingly marvellous. It does, however, make me curious about an entire album of her material. My prediction that this would be Georgia’s highest charting Eurovision song has – astonishingly – not come true, but here’s what should have happened: twelve points go to Georgia and see you in Tblisi next year.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 74 other followers