Archive for November, 2019

Album of the Week 47-2019: Crystal Viper – Tales Of Fire And Ice

While I will forever love the NWOBHM vibe of Crystal Viper’s debut album ‘The Curse Of Crystal Viper’, I also think the band sorely needed a change of pace, as they got stuck in a rut somewhat lately. ‘Tales Of Fire And Ice’ is the change the Polish band needed. Whether or not it is a change for the better depends on your taste, but for what it’s worth, I think it’s the finest Crystal Viper album since the debut. This time, the band dares to take their heavy/power metal roots in a slightly different direction. The results are quite refreshing.

One thing that stands out about ‘Tales Of Fire And Ice’ is its production, which is notably more polished than on the last few Crystal Viper albums. This increases the accessibilty of the material. And while that could be an issue for the old schoolers among Crystal Viper’s audience, they needed this step forward. ‘Tales Of Fire And Ice’ has a somewhat darker, more contemporary vibe than other recent Crystal Viper albums and the songs appear to be built around Marta Gabriel’s vocals more than ever. The change is notable, but not so much that Crystal Viper feels like a completely different band.

Every song on ‘Tales Of Fire And Ice’ has its own identity and that might just be the album’s biggest asset. In the past, the uptempo tracks in particular followed a similar formula, but they are all distinguishable here. From the Nocturnal Rites-isms of ‘Bright Lights’ to the borderline speed metal of ‘One Question’ and the epic grandeur of ‘Tomorrow Never Comes (Dyatlov Pass)’, you will not have any trouble telling them apart. Opening track ‘Still Alive’ even reminded me of Onmyo-za’s brilliant ‘Samayoi’, both in its main riff and in the hopeful melancholy of its atmosphere.

The song that convinced me the direction on ‘Tales Of Fire And Ice’ is the right one was ‘Crystal Sphere’. Though unmistakably a power metal song, the song breaks with some of the songwriting tropes of the genre. A very climactic track with some delightfully dramatic guitar arrangements. As a whole, the guitar arrangements seem to be more thought-out this time around anyway. ‘Under Ice’ an ‘Neverending Fire’ are fine mid-tempo tracks, but if you want to hear the best mid-tempo track of the album, get the CD version. That is my preferred format anyway, but the Accept meets eighties Heart sound of ‘Dream Warriors’ is nothing short of excellent.

In the metal scene, maturing musically is often feared or frowned upon. ‘Tales Of Fire And Ice’ is not an album for people who look at music that way, but the songwriting on the album is better than on any Crystal Viper record since the debut and Marta Gabriel sounds more varied than she ever has. The sophistication and subtlety of the songwriting will likely contribute to the longevity of the record, though it is too early to say for sure. Whether ‘Tales Of Fire And Ice’ is the start of a new chapter for Crystal Viper or a one-off experiment also remains to be seen, but it’s good. And in the end, that’s what counts.

Recommended tracks: ‘Crystal Sphere’, ‘Still Alive’, ‘Tomorrow Never Comes (Dyatlov Pass)’

Album of the Week 46-2019: Kinniku Shojo Tai – Love

Very few bands can claim a second peak so long after their heyday the way Kinniku Shojo Tai does. Ever since reuniting, Kinniku Shojo Tai has been pumping out quality album after quality album, the best of them worthy of being mentioned among their classic work. ‘Love’ is another one of those. While the band sounds as odd as always – the cover may have given that away already – ‘Love’ is one of the more consistent albums they released in recent years. Where ‘Za Shisa’ was a little more laid-back than usual, ‘Love’ is fairly energetic and full of unexpected detours.

Kinniku Shojo Tai’s style can barely be described. Funk rock riffs, classy power metal melodies, proggy weirdness, Queen-ish bombast, punky aggression… It’s all there and often, several of those come together in the same song. Recently, much of the band’s focus went to making optimal use of the strengths of both guitarists, which could not be more different. Toshiaki Honjo excels in funky rhythm guitars and choppy rock riffs, Fumihiko Kitsutaka is likely the best neoclassical hardrock and power metal guitarist in Japan. Instead of the styles getting in each other’s way, they enhance each other better than ever on ‘Love’.

Opening track ‘Ai Wa Kagero’ almost sounds like a mission statement in the sense that after the relatively relaxed vibe on ‘Za Shisa’, ‘Love’ kicks off with an uptempo power metal track full of Kitsutaka’s magic. The triumphant lead guitar parts and fast, precise riffing set the mood for the record effectively. The way the blaring keyboards and guitars work together on ‘Hollywood Star’ would not have sounded out of place on the band’s debut album, while ‘Sacrifice’ is borderline speed metal with its punishing riffs. ‘Chokugeki Kamakiri Ken! Ningen Bakuhatsu’ combines an almost surf-esque main riff with a powerful hardrock vibe and as such, is one of the album’s most pleasant surprises.

However, Kinniku Shojo Tai’s rockers and metal tracks are almost always worth hearing. What really makes their better albums above average is the quality of the lighter material. And that’s where the increased number of songwriting contributions from Uchida really shines through. ‘Moso Boei Gun’, for instance, is one of the best Kinniku Shojo Tai ballads to date. Its unconventional structure and the post-rock-ish dissonant chords in the chorus really make it stand out from any other softer J-rock songs. The jazzy ‘Donmai Sakaba’ is another Uchida masterpiece, elevated by its loose, café-like atmosphere. And of course, the delightfully weird interlude ‘Venice Ni Shisu ~ Love’ could not have come from anyone else.

‘Love’ is good. Very good even. I thought Kinniku Shojo Tai had outdone itself with ‘Omake No Ichinichi (Tatakai No Hibi)’ four years ago, but their new album is almost as good. While it is relatively light on funk rock, it plays to all of the band’s other strengths. And while the lighter songs are clustered as much as they were on ‘Za Shisa’, ‘Love’ is notably more dynamic. Because of this, it feels less like blocks of songs and the flow of the album as a whole is improved. Not many bands can release an album this good almost four decades into their career, but then again, that’s hardly the only strange thing about Kinniku Shojo Tai.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ai Wa Kagero’, ‘Donmai Sakaba’, ‘Chokugeki Kamakiri Ken! Ningen Bakuhatsu’, ‘Moso Boei Gun’

Album of the Week 45-2019: Tomorrow’s Outlook – A Voice Unheard

Metal-wise, I feel like Norway has always been known for the wrong bands. Mention the country to any metalhead and the extreme metal scene is usually the first thing that comes to mind, while there is a fairly healthy progressive metal scene in Norway as well. Tomorrow’s Outlook also has some proggy leanings, but appears to be mainly influenced by traditional heavy metal and US power metal. Their sophomore album ‘A Voice Unheard’ is at risk of drawing attention solely for the presence of Primal Fear singer Ralf Scheepers, but the music here is too good to rely on just that.

Stylistically, ‘A Voice Unheard’ strongly reminds me of ‘The Warning’ era Queensrÿche, though Tomorrow’s Outlook is rooted in traditional metal even more. It is the combination of classy melodies, the subdued tempos and the overall dystopian atmosphere that brings this comparison to mind. In addition, once second main singer Tony Johannessen hits his higher registers, he has a very Geoff Tate-ish delivery, though his lower registers are quite unique and characteristic. Overall, ‘A Voice Unheard’ is a pleasant listening experience that is neither too modern nor so old school that it appears to appeal solely by nostalgia.

Opening the album is ‘Within The World Of Dreams’, which does a great job of easing you into Tomorrow’s Outlook’s proggy power metal style even if you hear it for the first time. The song is melodic and extremely catchy. Another thing that stands out in this track and the others Scheepers appears on – dark power ballad ‘The Enemy’ most prominently – is how much more variation there is in his voice than he is allowed to display in Primal Fear. Employing different singers is often a recipe for inconsistency, but ‘A Voice Unheard’ is so stylistically consistent, that it almost doesn’t matter if Scheepers, Johannessen or Scott Oliva (on ‘Outlaw’) sings any given track.

This stylistic consistency also means the album flies by before you notice it. ‘One Final Prayer’ and the somewhat more melancholic ‘Fly Away’ will be a blast for everyone who enjoyed the title track, while ‘Times Of War’ has a darker, slightly more progressive vibe and convinces with its semi-oriental riffing. The epic ‘Nothing Shall Remain’ feels like a slower, more measured version of Queensrÿche’s ‘En Force’. The Johannessen-lead songs appear to be the more proggy ones, such as the dynamic ‘Descent’. Longtime readers will probably not be surprised that I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Slave To The Evil Force’, an English-language cover of Aria’s masterpiece ‘Na Sluzhbe Sily Zla’. It even features Aria drummer Maxim Udalov, who also appears (alongside Aria bassist and main songwriter Vitaly Dubinin) on a cover of Bruce Dickinson’s ‘Darkside Of Aquarius’.

If there is anything to complain about on ‘A Voice Unheard’, it would be that I think it could benefit from a little more variation in tempos. The songwriting is good enough for it to not bother me, but it sticks pretty safely to midtempo terrain. It’s not much of a dealbreaker, however, as ‘A Voice Unheard’ is a great slab of progressive power metal that should at least have some appeal to fans of every band mentioned in this review. Currently, the band is working on their third album. ‘A Voice Unheard’ definitely is good enough to be looking forward to that one.

Recommended tracks: ‘Times Of War’, ‘A Voice Unheard’, ‘Within The World Of Dreams’

Album of the Week 44-2019: Teatr Teney – Zver’

Dark power metal is not easy to pull off. Many European bands attempting the style have choruses that are a tad too sing-along-oriented to really nail the atmosphere. Russia’s Teatr Teney does a better job and their second official album ‘Zver” goes a long way of showing the power metal crowd why they should not be discouraged by the language barrier. Even more impressive is how Teatr Teney achieves this darkness without excessive use of keyboards or other atmospheric elements. All this band needs in order to create an immersive listening experience is a bunch of minor key riffs and a theatrical singer.

To start with the latter, Denis Masharov is an important part of why Teatr Teney sounds like they do. His range is not the largest in the scene, but he manages to wring a lot of different colors out of his voice. On ‘Zver”, you can mainly hear his agressive rasp and his powerful cleans, depending on what the song needs. Yevgeny Isayev’s guitar work is excellent as well, however, as is his thick, pulsating rhythm guitar sound. It often sounds like Masharov, Isayev and drummer Dmitry Mozonov are trying to push each other off the record in the best way possible.

All these elements come together in a way that doesn’t sound unlike Germany’s Brainstorm, but with a more consistently ominous vibe. Even the aggressive uptempo tracks like ‘Vsadnik’ and the semi-thrashy closing track ‘Voron’ have a melancholic undercurrent. Likewise, even the more melodic mid-tempo tracks like ‘Oryol’ and ‘Al Enquentro!’ have a bit of an aggressive bite. This allows the band to adopt different approaches for each track without ever straying too far from their core sound. The biggest departure would probably be Isayev’s neoclassical workout ‘Zelyoniye Rukava / Shtorm / Koda’ and even that one fits the album well.

Standout tracks include the doomy stomper ‘Zmeya’, quite possibly the darkest moment on the album, the powerful opener ‘Belaya Volchitsa’ and the somewhat similar-sounding speedy track ‘Volki’. ‘Mobi Dik’ starts out sounding like it will be a more contemporary-sounding midtempo metal track, but despite a few borderline modern prog riffs, it ends up sounding more like an epic heavy metal track with an increased emphasis on dynamics than anything else. These tracks do stand out, but overall, ‘Zver” is a very consistent record that does have a few highs, but doesn’t really contain any lows.

While I like power metal, the twenty-first century power metal scene has suffered a lot from bands that either try to prove their traditionalist nature by sticking as closely as possible to established characteristics or try to infuse it with as many modernisms as possible, forgetting to write good songs in the process. Teatr Teney does just that on ‘Zver”. The album – as well as the excellent EP ‘Tvoya Ten” that was released the following year – doesn’t try to be anything else than the best music they could possibly come up with at the time. As a result, this should appeal to any fan of the darker side of power metal, though it is intense enough to appeal to thrash metal fans as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Belaya Volchitsa’, ‘Volki’, ‘Zmeya’