Album of the Week 28-2020: Hedvig Mollestad – Ekhidna

What Hedvig Mollestad does with her own trio – blending Sabbathian stoner rock grooves with jazzy improvisations – is already impressive, but I was not prepared for the genius of ‘Ekhidna’. While the seventies rock riffs are still everywhere, Mollestad and her five companions dial the jazz factor way up, resulting in one of the greatest guitar fusion albums I have heard in a long time. ‘Ekhidna’ is an exciting album full of amazing musical interaction that sounds like it could have been released fifty years ago. It would still have been worthy competition for the likes of Return To Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Probably the main aspect to set ‘Ekhidna’ apart from the Hedvig Mollestad Trio albums is the instrumentation. Instead of a power trio, ‘Ekhidna’ has been recorded by a six-piece band including two keyboard players, a trumpeter, a percussionist, a drummer and no bassist. This provided Mollestad with a completely different sonic palette than usual to work with. Especially the interactions between Mollestad’s guitar and Susana Santos Silva’s trumpet are characteristic and inspired, although the rhythm section creates interesting textures as well. The compositions and arrangements are often quite dense, almost like the instruments are fighting for their space, but not unlistenable so. Far from it.

If you want to hear that particular style in full force, the best track to start with is easily ‘Antilone’.  The track is built upon a busy, jumpy riff that goes through multiple time signature changes, while drummer Torstein Lofthues holds down the tight groove. ‘A Stone’s Throw’ is the most seventies fusion track of the bunch. The main riff sounds like it could have been on a relatively adventurous hardrock record, had it not been doubled by the electric pianos. The unisono lead guitar and trumpet leads and dynamics are amazing as well. And those who like Mollestad’s bluesy exploits may want to start out with the somewhat Hendrixian title track, though the tail-end is full of abstract improvisations.

Brilliant instrumental records cannot be at full force all the time and fortunately, dynamics are very prominent on ‘Ekhidna’. The short ‘Slightly Lighter’ is just that, with Mollestad’s clean guitar evoking the spirit of Bill Frisell. Closing track ‘One Leaf Left’ is another more subdued track and easily the most jazzy moment on the record, though the haunting atmosphere of the track has more in common with psychedelic rock. It does get a little harder-hitting during its latter half, but nowhere near as borderline aggressive as some of the other tracks.

Like the best fusion albums, ‘Ekhidna’ sounds like a hard rock band playing jazz rather than the other way around. The rhythms are complex and playful, but never forget their task of solidifying the foundation. Hard. That is hardly the only reason why ‘Ekhidna’ is such a great album, however. The compositions are great, the jams are inspired and sonically, it creates a world that is hard to escape if you’re into realitvely heavy fusion or relatively adventurous hardrock. It’s easy to understand why Mollestad chose not to release this with her usual trio, but the spirit is equal. One of the greatest releases of the year so far.

Recommended tracks: ‘Antilone’, ‘A Stone’s Throw’, ‘Ekhidna’

Album of the Week 27-2020: Arakain – Jekyll & Hyde

Now this is how you do a modern metal album! Ever since current singer Honza Toužimský joined Arakain, the band has slowly been moving into a slightly more melodic direction. And with an increasing degree of variation in the tempos, something already hinted at on ‘Adrenalinum’ (2014) and ‘Arakadabra’ (2016), the Czech metal masters seem to have reached the second peak of their career. That is no small feat for a band that has been around since the early eighties. ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ is located on the border triangle of groove metal, thrash metal and modern power metal, with the three sub-genres in near perfect balance.

Arakain was one of Czechoslovakia’s earliest heavy metal bands. On their first two albums, the band’s obvious thrash-metal-days-Metallica influences blended perfectly with them leaning towards slightly more traditional heavy metal at times. As the nineties progressed, the Pantera and Machine Head-isms that many former thrash bands succumbed to took a hold of Arakain as well. Not always with dull results, as the likes of ‘Apage Satanas’ (1998) and ‘Farao’ (1999) still possessed enough variation to be interesting. While groove metal is still present on ‘Jekyll & Hyde’, the album isn’t constantly in midtempo mode and sounds notably more melodic than most of Arakain’s non-ballads.

One thing ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ succeeds at is having an opener that makes you feel excited about the album. ‘Dnes Ještě Ne’ is a nice, driven uptempo song with a fantastic chorus that refuses to leave your head. Toužimský is very effective in letting his remarkably melodic sandpaper vocal cords harmonize with themselves and the thick, heavy, yet uncomplicated riffs of Jiří Urban and Mirek Mach are a rock solid foundation. This heavy, upper mid-tempo riffing with memorable melodic touches formula is repeated, though with different atmospheres, in excellent tracks like ‘To Co Chceš Mít’, ‘Signály’ and ‘Znal Bych Rád’, the latter of which features a brief, but delightful tribute to Kiss’ ‘Detroit Rock City’.

Variation is where ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ succeeds better than most of the albums fronted by Aleš Brichta and Petr Kolář. Often, songs on those earlier albums tended to blend together, whereas ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ has a couple of tracks breaking up the flow quite nicely. The incredibly heavy title track that closes the album, for instance. A slow monster of a track is always a nice contrast to a mostly mid-tempo album and bassist Zdeněk Kub is an expert at writing those. Another great surprise is ‘Sny Dávaji Křídla’, which starts out driven by a riff that would not sound out of place on a Tad Morose album, but suddenly shifts to a slower, atmospheric chorus in 3/4 that greatly enhances the attention span. Still craving something faster? Then give the multi-faceted ‘Hřích’ a shot!

While ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ is not perfect – ‘Jen Vaše Ruce’ is not exactly the most inspired duet they recorded with Czech pop diva Lucie Bílá – it is easily the best Arakain album since the late nineties, possibly their best thus far. I admit that I have a weak spot for veteran bands releasing something so inspired and energetic so late in their careers, but by any measure, ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ is simply a very good contemporary metal album. Only the strict old schoolers who gave up on the band after they started slowing down may find some issues here, but I’d argue that even those will find there are plenty of parallels with 1991’s ‘Schizofrenie’. Highly recommend to fans of the latter day works of Sanctuary and Testament.

Recommended tracks: ‘Dnes Ještě Ne’, ‘To Co Chceš Mít’, ‘Jekyll & Hyde’, ‘Sny Dávaji Křídla’

Album of the Week 26-2020: Turbo – Dorosłe Dzieci

While ‘Dorosłe Dzieci’ isn’t necessarily my favorite Turbo album – that would probably be the more thrashy ‘Kawaleria Szatana’ – it is one of the most accomplished debut albums of all time. It largely foregoes the flaws debut albums tend to suffer from, such as still being in search of the style a band feels comfortable with or a subpar sound due to having a limited recording budget or not knowing how to replicate the energetic sound of live performances in a studio environment. ‘Dorosłe Dzieci’ is a powerful, convincing opening statement for one of Poland’s most influential heavy metal bands.

Stylistically, ‘Dorosłe Dzieci’ is notably less thrashy than the sound Turbo would later come to be known for, but still remarkably heavy for 1983. Here, Turbo’s sound is deeply rooted in the NWOBHM tradition, frequently drawing parallels to Iron Maiden’s earliest work, although the slower moments also bring the Scorpions’ heaviest tracks to mind; ‘Mówili Kiedyś’ in particular reminded me of ‘Animal Magnetism’. There are still traces of seventies hardrock to be found on the album, but whenever those influences are most obvious, it is clear that the band added them fully intentionally rather than not yet knowing how to evolve those into an early heavy metal sound.

One thing that sets Turbo apart from their peers are the fantastic vocals of Grzegorz Kupczyk. While he would experiment with various degrees of harshness throughout the eighties and nineties, he is simply a force of nature here. His full cleans sound mature and emotive, but he occasionally brings out a sandpaper edge to drive home the aggression of tracks like the interestingly structured ‘Przegadane Dni’. Wojciech Hoffmann and Andrzej Łysów are fantastic guitar duo, especially shining during the abundant guitar harmonies. And the fairly prominent bass work makes it unfortunate that Piotr Przybylski didn’t record any heavy metal albums after this one.

There is very little to complain about when it comes to the songs on ‘Dorosłe Dzieci’. It kicks off perfectly with the early speed metal of the incredible ‘Szalony Ikar’ and the aforementioned, rhythmically dense ‘Przegadane Dni’ and maintains its momentum throughout most of the album. The title track is a nominee for the best ballad ever recorded by a metal band. It has the resigned melancholy that lots of eastern European ballads of the era had, only with a lot more instrumental and vocal prowess and a perfect build-up of tension. Those craving something heavier are well off with the likes of ‘Toczy Się Po Linie’, ‘Nie Znaczysz Nic’ and ‘Ktoś Zamienił’, despite the hypermelodic chorus of the latter.

If I was forced to pick a flaw on ‘Dorosłe Dzieci’, it would be the sequencing, as I think the atmospheric ‘W Sobie’ appears far too early, despite being a strong instrumental. Apart from that, this is a debut album to be jealous of even for most actual NWOBHM bands – you know, the ones that are actually British. The songs are powerful and for the time monstrously heavy, but the emphasis is still on melody. In fact, I’d say that ‘Dorosłe Dzieci’ is so good that most people digging into obscure seven inch singles by second rate NWOBHM bands while this album is up for grabs are wasting their time. A pinnacle of early eighties European heavy metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Szalony Ikar’, ‘Dorosłe Dzieci’, ‘Przegadane Dni’, ‘Todzy Się Po Linie´

Album of the Week 25-2020: Takenori Shimoyama – The Power Of Redemption

‘The Power Of Redemption’ is the second solo album Saber Tiger singer Takenori Shimoyama has released in less than six months. It is however, significantly different than ‘Way Of Life’, released in November. While Shimoyama’s raw, impassioned vocals worked surprisingly well with the largely acoustic music on that record, ‘The Power Of Redemption’ is his first metallic solo album. It is full of neoclassically tinged hard rock and power metal in the best possible Rainbow tradition, as is still relatively popular in Japan. The stylistic consistency on the album is admirable, as Shimoyama works with a changing cast of Japanese all-star musicians.

Anyone who thinks Double Dealer is the best band Shimoyama has ever been a part of will likely enjoy the hell out of ‘The Power Of Redemption’. In fact, the track ‘Sun Down’ is only keyboard player Toshiyuki Koike short of being a full reunion of the final Double Dealer line-up. Most of the other musicians and composers Shimoyama works with on the album are from the Rainbow meets Malmsteen school of old school power metal as well, however, with the likes of Galneryus’ keyboard player Yuhki, Cerebellar Rondo guitarist Atsushi Mashiro and Blindman’s Tatsuya Nakamura all contributing material.

However, the most successful partnership here appears to be the one with Yutaro Abe. There is a sense of drama and build-up in ‘Beneath The Wave’ that doesn’t sound miles away from Symphony X, while Saber Tiger drummer Yasuhiro Mizuno and bassist Koichi Terasawa of Blizard and Sly fame are an extraordinarily tight rhythm section. Former Anthem drummer Takamasa Ohuchi appears on the other Abe composition ‘The Last Survivor’ instead of Mizuno, which despite its consistently high energy level features surprisingly subdued vocals by Shimoyama during the verses. The instrumentally dense section before the solo is one of the highlights of the record.

Yutaro Abe’s compositions are hardly the only worthwhile tracks on the album though. ‘Chaos Region’, a composition by Earthshaker guitarist Shinichiro Ishihara, is probably the most pleasant surprise on here due to its more modern sound and somewhat unpredictable structure, while Nakamura’s ‘Grace Of My Heart’ is a classy, elegant hardrocker with an excellent chorus. The best lead guitar work on the album may just be provided by Bow Wow frontman Kyoji Yamamoto on the closing ballad ‘Whisper In The Dark’. The other ballad, ‘Life After Life’, has a bit of a weird, semi-jazzy vibe, but also a fantastic bass solo by Terasawa and a great guitar solo by Atsushi Yokozeki. Once it sinks in, it is quite a nice sequence break from all the shredding.

While not necessarily a surprising album, ‘The Power Of Redemption’ is different enough from Saber Tiger to be a worthy release and it is nice to see Shimoyama embracing his seventies rock inspired heavy metal roots again. He is obviously highly skilled at singing this type of music and the musicians he chose to work with really did a great job bringing out the best in his voice. Anyone yearning for a new Double Dealer record or apprehensive about the new Concerto Moon album should definitely give the album a chance. But really, if you like your metal with plenty of neoclassical guitar runs and great, Dio-esque vocals, you cannot go wrong here.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Last Survivor’, ‘Chaos Region’, ‘Beneath The Wave’

Album of the Week 24-2020: Chaos Over Cosmos – The Ultimate Multiverse

A couple of weeks ago, I looked at Sacred Blade and Othyrworld and stated that many science fiction-themed bands opting for a futuristic sound end up sounding horribly dated. Chaos Over Cosmos, the project of Polish multi-instrumentalist Rafał Bowman, however, manages to strike the perfect balance between nostalgic and contemporary by fusing quite modern-sounding progressive metal with a sci-fi atmosphere that is apparent in both the production and the lyrical themes. Their second album ‘The Ultimate Multiverse’ has a slightly more brutal sound than debut album ‘The Unknown Voyage’ and while I tend to prefer the more melodic stuff, it seems more effective.

Compared to the debut album, the biggest change would be the fact that Australian vocalist Joshua Ratcliff has replaced Javier Calderon, who apparently has a background in extreme metal. There are still clean vocals in the choruses, often doubled in a manner that reminds me of how Florian Magnus Maier sounds in Alkaloid, but the majority consists of growls. Musically, the compositions somewhat reflect the change, but the basic ingredients are still the same: complex, contemporary guitar riffs getting their cinematic atmosphere from their surroundings, which are frequently keyboards reminiscent of the retro synth wave movement, though not quite as dominant.

Referring to Chaos Over Cosmos as progressive metal might be a tad misleading though, as there aren’t many time signature changes and very few, if any Dream Theater-isms. Due to the highly complex and unpredictable nature of Bowman’s compositions, however, I still think it is a more fitting description than power metal. Choruses often pop up from out of nowhere and the time feel is prone to change at moments where one would not expect them to. Despite what such a description might suggest, however, ‘The Ultimate Multiverse’ stubbornly refuses to sound disjointed.

Part of that is the clearly defined concept Bowman has going on. This extends to every part of the album. While I have a strong preference for clean vocals, I love how the grunts are produced here. Ratcliff’s grunts really sound like you’re surrounded by some kind of interstellar vortex. The strongest aspect of ‘The Ultimate Multiverse’ is the guitar work though. Despite being composed and largely recorded by a guitarist, the album is not crammed full with solos and lead guitar parts. Instead, Bowman decided to let the riffs tell the story and the album absolutely benefits from that.

In a way, Chaos Over Cosmos is a project that could really only happen in this day and age, with its two members being on opposite sides of the world and their Bandcamp being their main promotional platform. There are people who claim that such a construction can never provide the experience a band can, but personally, I don’t think it’s all that different from a band with one or two people calling all the shots. Especially not if the core concept is as strong as it is with Chaos Over Cosmos. Definitely worth checking out if you would like to hear a somewhat more streamlined take on modern progressive metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Cascading Darkness’, ‘We Will Not Fall’, ‘Asimov’

Album of the Week 23-2020: Heljareyga – Heljareyga

Heljareyga is the solo project of Týr frontman Heri Joensen. And their first – and so far only – album is in my opinion the greatest thing Joensen ever released. ‘Heljareyga’ contains five songs with a combined running time of 48 minutes, but none of the songs feel like they are around ten minutes long. This is largely caused by the epic, deeply melancholic atmosphere on the album, though Joensen proves that he knows how to build tension and suspense in a composition here. Furthermore, ‘Heljareyga’ is full of excellent riffs that are as melodic as they are powerful and some stellar lead guitar work.

The often heard complaint that Heljareyga is nothing more than Týr with longer songs is in my eyes unfair. Sure, Joensen has an unmistakable voice and some recognizable songwriting touches, but the songs are nowhere near as folky as Týr’s songs in Faroese and far more melancholic than their English-language songs. Nothing here sounds as triumphant as the likes of ‘Hold The Heathen Hammer High’. Instead there is an air of resignation, but not without a powerful, upper mid-tempo thrust. The riffs are generally longer than Týr’s, while guitar solos and lead guitar themes are more central to Heljareyga’s sound.

Despite all of this, Heljareyga is not needlessly complex or even all that progressive. Joensen just allows the riffs a lot more time to unfold. During the title track, for example, the band takes a full two minutes to develop multiple variations of the chorus melody before a single note is even sung. This doesn’t go at the expense of the listenability, because the band discovers all the dynamic possibilities of the riff by taking it from a clean guitar context to a more distorted environment with different time feels in Amon Djurhuus’ drums. Also, having three guitarists (Joensen, John Ivar Venned and Ken Johannesen) allows for seemingly endless layering opportunities.

What ‘Heljareyga’ does emphasize is the problem with stylistic labels. None of the existing metal subgenres is quite fitting for the album. The riffing has most characteristics in common with power metal and traditional heavy metal, especially with the frequent guitar harmonies, but always in the minor key and at a relatively subdued tempo. Atmospherically, Viking metal comes to mind, but the music is far too dynamic and riffy for that particular tag. Ultimately, it should not matter in order to enjoy the music. Give the album a spin to see if you enjoy it. The songs are stylistically similar, but all have their own mood. ‘Regnið’ has probably been chosen as the opener due to its relative accessibility, while the spectacular closer ‘Vetrarbreytin’ is fairly complex.

And if that wasn’t enough, the production on ‘Heljareyga’ is nothing short of fantastic. I would not be surprised if the mixing process of ‘Heljareyga’ took a long time, because each of the guitar layers is exactly where it should be, while I also love the natural, yet powerful sound of the drums. The album has the unfortunate premise of being a solo effort by the frontman of a successful band that doesn’t sound a million miles away from that band, but also nowhere near as close as many people claim. Certainly an impressive work by the Faroese singer/guitarist that should be in the collection of any fan of epic-sounding heavy metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Vetrarbreytin’, ‘Heljareyga’

Album of the Week 22-2020: Othyrworld – Beyond Into The Night Of Day

Othyrworld was the continuation of Canadian sci-fi heavy metal band Sacred Blade. Don’t believe me? Their first – and unfortunately only – album ‘Beyond Into The Night Of Day’ contains nine tracks that could also be found on Sacred Blade’s 1986 debut album ‘Of The Sun + Moon’. While that may render the release pointless to some, that album was actually quite ambitious for its time and I’m not sure if the available technology was able to fulfill main man Jeff Ulmer’s vision at the time. Ulmer definitely took control of ‘Beyond Into The Night Of Day’, as he is only helped by drummer Ted Zawadski.

Musically, Sacred Blade and Othyrworld were pretty much on the more progressive end of the US power metal scale, despite not actually being American. Comparisons to Crimson Glory are often made due to the song structures and sci-fi themes, but those comparisons may also be a tad misleading. Jeff Ulmer’s voice is significantly lower than Midnight’s, for instance, and some of his compositions have a notable psychedelic quality that cannot really be heard anywhere else in the power/prog field. Especially not in the mid-eighties, when the majority of the song material on ‘Beyond Into The Night Of Day’ was first constructed.

What is remarkable about Othyrworld’s music is that it somehow retained its futuristic sound through all these years. The futuristic elements of a lot of sci-fi inspired art from the eighties – be it music, movies or even novels – have become horribly outdated through the years, but ‘Beyond Into The Night Of Day’ sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday. Zawadski’s huge, reverberating snare drum hits could be seen as a period piece, but his kit has a very natural sound, making it sound timeless instead. The same goes for Ulmer’s very bright acoustic and surprisingly dry-sounding electric guitars.

‘Beyond Into The Night Of Day’ is best listened to in one sitting. The fact that many tracks segue into each other suggests that it was intended to be experienced as such. It’s quite hard not to be carried away by the spacey atmosphere if you actually feel it. Ulmer isn’t the most powerful singer in the world, but his laid-back tone and multi-tracked harmonies create a rather unique ambience. And even if you’re having trouble adapting to the vocals, the album is full of lengthy instrumental passages. In fact, the last ten minutes of the album – the spectacular ‘Moon’ – are only accompanied by a few spoken stanzas.

Anyone who loved the melodic power/prog metal of the likes of Crimson Glory, Queensrÿche or maybe early Ray Alder-era Fates Warning and doesn’t mind the vocals being a bit lower in pitch should definitely give Sacred Blade and Othyrworld a chance. ‘Of The Sun + Moon’, ‘Fieldz The Sunshrine’ and the relatively straightforward ‘In The Light Of The Moon’ should have been eighties metal classics, while newer material such as ‘Ethereal Skyline’ and ‘The Alginment’ show a truly one-of-a-kind, laid-back blend of eighties prog metal and psychedelic rock that could have opened a lot of new doors for Othyrworld. Unfortunately, both musicians died – Zawadski earlier this year, Ulmer back in 2013 – but they certainly made their presence on Earth count with this release.

Recommended tracks: ‘Moon’, ‘Of The Sun + Moon’, ‘Fieldz The Sunshrine’

Album of the Week 21-2020: Hollow – Between Eternities Of Darkness

Back in the nineties, Sweden had its share of excellent power metal bands that were significantly darker than their German counterparts. But while Morgana Lefay and Tad Morose did manage to build somewhat of a following, there aren’t many people who seem to remember Hollow. Both ‘Modern Cathedral’ and ‘Architect Of The Mind’ were excellent proggy power metal albums in a style comparable to Crimson Glory and early Queensrÿche, with some Nevermore-ish contemporary touches for good measure. The band quietly faded away, but in late 2018, singer/guitarist Andreas Stoltz suddenly returned with ‘Between Eternities Of Darkness’, another excellent power/prog album.

More so than ‘Modern Cathedral’ and ‘Architect Of The Mind’, ‘Between Eternities Of Darkness’ does an admirable job concealing its complexity. There probably would not be a lot of experts willing to label the material progressive, because it’s largely in 4/4 and the album is chock-full of strong melodies. Even when Stoltz plays the verse-chorus structure fairly straight, however, there is often a change in time feel or a variation during repeated sections making the songs far more complex than those of many of Hollow’s peers. Except for maybe Elegy, another sadly forgotten band that Hollow frequently is reminiscent of on ‘Between Eternities Of Darkness’.

The album is really a solo work of Stoltz, as he wrote all the music and performed all the instruments. A drummer is credited in Stalder Zantos, but I’m pretty sure that’s Stoltz himself or it means the drums are programmed; what other duo consists of two people whose names are exact anagrams of each other? But even musically, ‘Between Eternities Of Darkness’ is dominated by Stoltz’s melodic, somewhat intricate riffs and multi-tracked vocals. These vocals – generally high-pitched and emotional – could be a turn-off for some people, but I think they are exactly what the album needed to get its story across.

Oh yeah, there is a story on ‘Between Eternities Of Darkness’, about a family on the run from their past, only to see the kid go down the wrong path anyway. Since Stoltz’s vocals are so upfront, it’s hard to zone out, but I do think he does a great job giving the story a certain gravitas. The saddest moments have bright-sounding acoustic guitars as a basis (‘Shadow World’, ‘Say Farewell’), while the compositions and arrangements get a little more dense during the tenser moments (‘Down’, ‘The Road I’m On’), though always with a highly memorable chorus. Hollow is still best when they combine both extremes. The contrasts in ‘Fate Of The Jester’ open the song up beautifully during its chorus, for example, while ‘Death Of Her Dream’ brilliantly balances melancholy and turbulence.

Returns of bands that never had a large audience to begin with always make me less suspicious than reunions of those who do and ‘Between Eternities Of Darkness’ is a great example of why I think that way. Stoltz obviously recorded this album because he had something to say that he couldn’t express with Binary Creed. In addition, it’s admirable how he created this thing on his own without it sounding like an ego fest. While he proves to have immense skills as both a singer and a guitarist, the melodies are clearly what defines ‘Between Eternities Of Darkness’. Fans of any band mentioned in this review should definitely check this out.

Recommended tracks: ‘Fate Of The Jester’, ‘Down’, ‘Death Of Her Dream’, ‘The Road I’m On’

Album of the Week 20-2020: Triptykon with the Metropole Orkest – Requiem

No announcements, hardly any crowd noise, two thirds of the material never played before or since… Even live albums aren’t done in a conventional way by Triptykon. Of course, a conventional live album was never the set-up of ‘Requiem’. It combines the first and third acts of a requiem released during two completely different stages of Celtic Frost’s career with a brand new second act. Three tracks won’t sound like enough to even fill an EP, but keep in mind that the second act is over half an hour long. The Dutch Metropole Orkest helps add extra depth to the music.

Even more so than studio albums ‘Eparistera Daimones’ and ‘Melana Chasmata’, ‘Requiem’ is a highly inaccessible work. Using an orchestra does nothing to weaken the minimalism that characterizes most of Thomas Gabriel Fischer’s compositions. If anything, the orchestra enhances it. With a band like Triptykon, where you can often make a sandwich between guitar strums, but somehow without ever moving even close to drone territory, the temptation is to have the orchestra fill in the blanks, but the arrangement that Dark Fortress and Alkaloid frontman Florian Magnus Maier made with Fischer and guitarist V. Santura emphasizes space and the low end of the spectrum. An excellent choice.

‘Requiem’ kicks off with the oldest act ‘Rex Irae’, which was originally released on Celtic Frost’s 1987 ‘Into The Pandemonium’ album. On that particular album, the track always seemed a better idea than an actual song to me, but after hearing this live arrangement, the truth was probably that nobody was quite sure how to mix gothic doom metal with an orchestra at the time. The sound is far more balanced and while I initially found Tunisian singer Safa Heraghi to be an odd choice for the female lead vocals, she turns out to be perfect. A singer with a more classical background would probably lack the edge needed for the song. Heraghi is a great singer, but she also appears to have an understanding for Triptykon’s inherent grotesquerie.

The main attraction of ‘Requiem’, however, is the 32 minute second act ‘Grave Eternal’, written in 2018 and 2019 specifically for this performance. At times, it feels like a variation on the final movement of Mahler’s ninth symphony, only with an avantgardist metal band as a part of the orchestra. Huge single-note doom riffs and drums that sound like Hannes Grossmann hits them with sledgehammers, in conjunction with an elegant, but not too bombastic orchestral arrangement and tortured vocals. Most of the track is instrumental, with only a few lines of lyrics, though Heraghi and the choir contribute some otherworldly, wordless melodies. Particularly gorgeous is the fragile minute and a half guitar solo Santura plays around the three-minute mark, but the climax that slowly unfolds from around twenty minutes in is a work of pure genius as well.

Just like any other Triptykon release, ‘Requiem’ isn’t easy to grasp. As a listener, you have to be able to absorb the immense darkness in the compositions, but if you are, chances are ‘Requiem’ will not let you go. It is truly a dark symphony, with an orchestra that emphasizes the bass range and includes a metal band. That is another part of the genius of ‘Requiem’: the Metropole Orkest isn’t just there to provide an extra layer. The orchestra cooperates closely with the band. Even when they are playing in unusual combinations, such as with only Grossmann and Vanja Šlajh’s deep rumbling bass, they have no problem adapting to their musical surroundings. If you can handle ‘Requiem’, it will easily be one of the top releases this year.

Recommended tracks: ‘Grave Eternal’

Album of the Week 19-2020: Stormlord – Far

Maybe I should just start a series of these. Since ‘Hesperia’ didn’t really do anything for me, I initially didn’t pay much attention to Stormlord’s sixth album ‘Far’. Big mistake. ‘Far’ rivals ‘Mare Nostrum’ as the Italians’ best album and is undoubtedly the next step in their evolution from extreme to epic heavy metal. As this transition is so gradual, I doubt if the album would alineate many Stormlord fans, but they may just gain a couple that would usually stay away from extreme metal as a whole. That is the mark of a good band that doesn’t neatly fit any existing categories.

Stylistically, Stormlord has never sounded this close to actual epic heavy metal. Not that they sound anything like Manilla Road or the likes, as the seven-string guitars, David Folchitto’s occasional blastbeats and Cristiano Borchi’s extremely harsh vocal performance keeps the music firmly in a contemporary idiom. But the grand, sweeping orchestrations and the heroic guitar melodies give Stormlord more depth than bands with similar origins. Also, ‘Far’ contains significantly more clean male vocals than any of the band’s earlier works. Initially, I was disappointed that the fantastic deep, gothic voice of guitarist Gianpaolo Caprino was once again severely underutilized, but Marco Palazzi’s semi-operatic guest vocals certainly increase the epic nature of the overall sound.

For those who fear that Stormlord has lost its edge: don’t. While many bands that fit the aforementioned description have the guitars drowned out by the orchestrations, Stormlord is still very much a guitar-driven band on ‘Far’. Keyboard player Riccardo Studer is omnipresent, he even co-mixed the album, but his lush orchestrations primarily take on a supportive role behind the guitars. Even his two solo compositions, ‘Sherden’ and ‘Invictus’, aren’t vehicles for his skills. The former is carried by keyboards melodically, but is also heavy and forceful, while the latter may actually be the perfect song for old school Stormlord fans to start with.

While metal albums of the more epic variety tend to be best listened to in one sitting, ‘Far’ does have its share of stand-out tracks. ‘Crimson’ was an immediate favorite due to its remarkably blunt, aggressive riffing and rhythms, although it does feature some compositional sophistication later on. ‘Mediterranea’ has a brilliant structure that gives its riffs room to breathe, while also featuring Caprino’s vocals prominently, while the almost tranquil opening of the title track has something of a ‘Twilight Of The Gods’-era Bathory feel. ‘Vacuna’ and the somewhat more open ‘Levante’ are an excellent finale. ‘Cimmeria’ is a more ambitious, almost proggy track and definitely one of the crowning achievements of ‘Far’.

So yes, while I would have preferred an album that Gianpaolo Caprino had a more prominent vocal role on, ‘Far’ leaves nothing to be desired stylistically and compositionally. The album shows a band refusing to stand still and make the same album twice in a row. And although that is admirable, I do hope the next Stormlord album has more than a bit in common with ‘Far’ in terms of its compositional approach. The niche that the Italian sextet found for itself suits them perfectly. ‘Far’ is at the very least on par with their previous masterpiece ‘Mare Nostrum’, but it may just be a hair better.

Recommended tracks: ‘Crimson’, ‘Cimmeria’, ‘Mediterranea’, ‘Far’