Archive for the ‘ Music ’ Category

Album of the Week 07-2018: Angra – Ømni


Change does not appear to affect Angra. They survived a massive schism around the turn of the century and now Dave Mustaine has hijacked longtime guitarist Kiko Loureiro for Megadeth, they still manage to put together another great album. Most of the current line-up already proved that the (largely) Brazilian band could still pump out great progressive power metal, as ‘Secret Garden’ was the best metal album of 2015. Now that ‘Secret Garden’ has put Angra back on the map, ‘Ømni’ shows the band stretching their boundaries a little. The results are slightly less memorable, but a very rewarding listen nonetheless.

Much to my surprise, Loureiro’s replacement Marcelo Barbosa is an integral part of the album, having contributed significantly to the songwriting. Sole founding member Rafael Bittencourt gratefully profits from the possibilities his guitar partnership with Barbosa provides as well. As a result, ‘Ømni’ ends up sounding less European-tinged power metal and more like a progressive metal album with very distinct world fusion overtones. Angra never shied away from putting their South American roots on display, but it seems like partnering with Barbosa gave Bittencourt the courage to dive deep into crossover opportunities, providing the basis of the most interesting moments of ‘Ømni’.

That does not mean that there is no place for power metal on ‘Ømni’. In fact, the album starts out with two fairly traditional, euphoric power metal numbers, with ‘Travelers Of Time’ being the more contemporary take on the genre and ‘Light Of Transcendence’ the more old school one. Even these tracks sound fresh though, as Angra always had a way of rubbing up against clichés, but never fully engaging. On the metallic side of the album, ‘Magic Mirror’ is great, but ‘War Horns’ is the true winner. Darker and heavier than Angra usually sounds, it is an intense listening experience, on which Loureiro guests.

Despite all this familiarity, ‘Ømni’ is best when it surprises. The semi-ballad ‘The Bottom Of My Soul’ has a very folky basis and some beautifully heartfelt vocals by Bittencourt, while ‘Caveman’ has some chants in Portuguese and Latin-flavored drums and percussion alternating with the stomping riff work and Fabio Lione’s mighty voice. The complete fusion of all styles can be heard in ‘Ømni – Silence Inside’, in which we can hear everything from subtle bossa nova touches to virtuosic progmetal without ever sounding disjointed. If anything, the song has a supreme build-up. ‘Black Widow’s Web’ may come across as messy, but is too enjoyable a dark progster to complain. ‘Insania’ contains some of Felipe Andreoli’s best bass work yet.

All in all, ‘Ømni’ presents quite a unique mixture of styles which leaves you wondering why this combination is not attempted more often. It is a great progressive metal album that may not be as easy to digest as ‘Secret Garden’ was, but will probably prove to be more durable throughout. ‘Ømni’ is one of those albums that slowly reveals its small secrets over repeated listens. In addition, it is the ultimate evidence that Angra still has its artistic merits more than two and a half decades into their career. Anyone who wishes to hear how versatile the guitar can be in a metal context, should give ‘Ømni’ a spin.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ømni – Silence Inside’, ‘War Horns’, ‘The Bottom Of My Soul’

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Album of the Week 06-2018: Onmyo-za – Chimimoryo


Out of all Onmyo-za albums, ‘Chimimoryo’ is proabably the one with the broadest appeal. That does not mean it isn’t metal. Quite the contrary. The riff work on the album is still as rooted in traditional heavy metal as it always has been, but the polish of the production and the melodic sensibilities really opens the door for J-rock fans, while the dynamic and subtly adventurous nature of the record invites progressive rockers to have a listen. No matter what side of Onmyo-za you like best, it is represented on ‘Chimimoryo’, which – as a result – is one of the band’s best.

What really makes ‘Chimimoryo’ as near perfect as it gets is the fact that it has a very pleasant flow. It would not surprise me if multiple track orders were tested before release in order to find the one that is just right. This is not the type of album where you’d get tired of too many songs of the same tempo or style after each other, neither does it boggle your mind with illogical genre-hopping. The powerful voice of bassist and band leader Matatabi and the expressive (mezzo-)soprano of Kuroneko are very much in balance here as well.

As great as ‘Chimimoryo’ is all the way through, the more epic tracks really raise the album’s status. And that already starts when you put on the album, as ‘Shutendoji’ is a monumental midtempo hardrock track of late Zeppelin proportions, only with some brilliant guitar harmonies and a metallic rhythm section more reminiscent of Iron Maiden. Later on, ‘Dojoji Kuchinawa No Goku’ takes you through multiple climaxes during its eleven and a half minutes. Huge, doomy riffs, balladesque sections and one of the more awesome speed metal riffs in the band’s discography, it’s all there and each section is even better than the last.

These songs alone don’t make a good album though. The hypermelodic single ‘Kureha’ is reminiscent of ‘Yoka Ninpocho’ in how the clean and distorted guitars interact, the strong melodic metal stomper ‘Araragi’ feels like a sequel to ‘Shutendoji’ with its powerful lead guitar themes and broad chords and if it’s fast riffs you want, ‘Hiderigami’ and ‘Oni Hitokuchi’ will serve you all the energetic speed metal you need. Kuroneko’s composition ‘Tamashizume no Uta’ is the lone ballad on the album, but her amazing voice and the rather atypical marching rhythms and percussion really turn it into something unique.

Unless you are a wool-dyed old-schooler, ‘Chimimoryo’ would be the perfect album to get acquainted with Onmyo-za’s unique sound. Matatabi’s compositions evidence that the guitars of Maneki and Karukan do not have to play power chords the whole time in order to sound metallic and the vocals prove that there are more options than the overused beauty and the beast tactic for male-female vocal duos. Onmyo-za would later top ‘Chimimoryo’ with ‘Kishibojin’, but only barely. This is one of the very few albums that is of consistently high quality from start to finish and deserves to be heard because of that.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shutendoji’, ‘Dojoji Kuchinawa No Goku’, ‘Araragi’, ‘Oni Hitokuchi’

Album of the Week 05-2018: Onmyo-za – Kongo Kyubi


Due to its polished, almost glossy production and the relatively mellow nature of its songs, ‘Kongo Kyubi’ initially was one of my least favorite Onmyo-za albums. After letting the album – and, presumably, myself – mature for a while, my appreciation for the album increased rapidly. It is quite unique in the Onmyo-za canon in that there is an abundance of clean and twelve string guitars, but only three of the songs qualify as a ballad. Instead, ‘Kongo Kyubi’ channels all the band’s melodic sensibilities and puts them on the crossroads of traditional heavy metal, eighties hardrock, mildly progressive rock and J-rock.

Had Onmyo-za continued down a softer road following ‘Kongo Kyubi’, it would have been seen as a transitional album, but since it was followed by one of the darkest records the band ever made, it can probably be considered a melodic experiment that works surprisingly well. That does not mean the album feels like a stylistic detour; songs like ‘Aoki Dokugan’ and ‘Sokoku’ contain everything Onmyo-za fans would want; NWOBHM inspired riffs, melodic lead guitar themes, highly memorable melodies and – always a defining feature of the band – the excellent dual lead vocals of bassist Matatabi and his wife Kuroneko.

Still, ‘Kongo Kyubi’ has a few amazing songs that would have sounded out of place on other Onmyo-za albums. ‘Banka’, for instance, is the most bluesy track the band ever released, albeit in an eighties Gary Moore blues ballad kind of way. Furthermore, ‘Baku’ sets the mood for the album very effectively. It is based on some shimmering twelve string parts courtesy of guitarist Maneki, but also has a few pulsating riffs, a notably upbeat chorus and some of Matatabi’s busiest bass work to date. ‘Izayoi No Ame’ does a brilliant job combining Onmyo-za’s trademark melodic J-metal with melodic hard rock.

That does not mean that ‘Kongo Kyubi’ is without its heavy moments. ‘Kuzaku Ninpocho’ is a masterpiece of a speed metal track, while the three-song suite ‘Kumikyoku Kyubi’ is remarkable in being the only Onmyo-za suite so far that does not contain a distinct ballad-esque track. Sure, its first part ‘Tamamo-No-Mae’ has a bouncy, almost disco-like rhythm as its foundation, but the epic Iron Maiden vibe of ‘Shomakyo’ and the riff-fest ‘Sessho-Seki’ keep it firmly within the metal realm. In addition, ‘Kuraiau’ – yes, I also first thought it was “cry out” – is the best of Onmyo-za’s upbeat closers, which often are a little lightweight. By contrast, ‘Kuraiau’ has a powerful seventies hardrock feel.

Once ‘Kongo Kyubi’ clicked with me, I learned to appreciate it for what it is: an extremely well-written, perfectly arranged and flawlessly produced album. Onmyo-za found a way to perfectly balance their sense of melodicism with some surprisingly inventive riff work which sounds standard enough, but really isn’t once you find out the chord structures. As for myself, I am glad I love this band enough to give this album a few extra chances, after which it proved that it is not a watered down version of Onmyo-za, but instead a very successful attempt at highlighting the band’s more romantic side. The latter half of the album is surprisingly metallic though.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kuzaku Ninpocho’, ‘Izayoi No Ame’, ‘Kumikyoku “Kyubi” ~ Shomakyo’, ‘Kuraiau’

Album of the Week 04-2018: Loudness – Rise To Glory


There was a time when a new Loudness album was something I was passionately looking forward to. With the previous album ‘The Sun Will Rise Again’ being quite lackluster, this was not necessarily the case with ‘Rise To Glory’, but the results of the latter seem to point out that its predecessor was an accidental misstep. ‘Rise To Glory’ is the most spontaneous and traditional sounding Loudness album in a long time. While the Pantera-ish contemporary leanings have not disappeared entirely, the second half of the album in particular is very likely to please fans of what Loudness did in the eighties.

My main criticisms of ‘The Sun Will Rise Again’ were aimed at the predictable and tired songwriting. It seemed like the band was running on autopilot at the time. That certainly is not the case on ‘Rise To Glory’. There are definitely more than two types of riffs in the arsenal of guitar wizard Akira Takasaki this time around. The stomping modern metal riffs have largely been replaced by old school hard rock and tradtional heavy metal riffs and there is even some acoustic guitar work on the record. This increase in dynamics is one of the album’s greatest assets.

Variation is also greater than before in the tempo department. Recent Loudness albums tend to contain two or three faster songs and a large number of modern midtempo tracks. Though ‘Rise To Glory’ is not filled with speed monsters – ‘Massive Tornado’ and the more melodic ‘I’m Still Alive’ have obviously been designed as such – there is a lot more material in the faster end of the midtempo spectrum to be heard here. The title track, with its classic speed metal main riff, is one of the best examples of this, as is the galloping album highlight ‘Why And For Whom’.

While Takasaki is always riffing creatively and soloing impressively and bassist Masayoshi Yamashita is more present than he has been in a while, Minoru Niihara’s deteriorating vocals were a factor that dragged ‘The Sun Will Rise Again’ down. Although his voice is still a clear victim of aging here, he actually sounds surprisingly good on the album’s two semi-ballads ‘The Voice’ and ‘Rain’, the latter an atmospheric, almost doomy track that I feel Takasaki had been wanting to write for ages. The latter could also be true for the somewhat psychedelic ‘Kama Sutra’, which would not have sounded out of place on ‘Heavy Metal Hippies’, but somehow also doesn’t here.

Sure, people who are no fans of the genre could criticize songs like ‘No Limit’, the upbeat opener ‘Soul On Fire’ and the midtempo stomper ‘Go For Broke’ for being old man’s metal or more of the same, but the fact of the matter is that Loudness is really good at this creative take on traditional heavy metal. Apart from Niihara’s voice, nothing on ‘Rise To Glory’ seems to signal that Loudness’ members – except for drummer Masayuki Suzuki, who is in his mid-forties – are approaching sixty. In fact, ‘Rise To Glory’ is the first post-reunion Loudness album of which I can safely say that fans of the band’s classic material can blindly buy it.

Recommended tracks: ‘Why And For Whom’, ‘Rise To Glory’, ‘Rain’

Album of the Week 03-2018: Kayak – Seventeen


Kayak is one of the few bands who can keep changing musicians and still sound like Kayak. ‘Seventeen’ is the ultimate proof. Only founding keyboard player Ton Scherpenzeel remains from the last album, yet it is the most inspired set of songs Kayak has released in at least ten years, possibly even as much as three and a half decades. In a time when progressive rock fans have to count on affectionate retro bands, Scherpenzeel is one of the originators of the genre still laying down some amazing, symphonically tinged progrock compositions with a passion that is nothing less than admirable.

Despite being the sole composer of these songs, Scherpenzeel is not the only one who deserves credit for how good ‘Seventeen’ is. The eighties inspired guitar heroics of Marcel Singor – along his gorgeous tone – really make this material come to life and give it the rock edge that some of the band’s most popular songs lack. The difference on the vocal front is notable too; Kayak no longer has a male-female vocal duo. Instead, Bart Schwertmann has a passionate, almost theatrical vibe that fits Scherpenzeel’s compositions really well. Some may miss Edward Reekers’ warm delivery, but as far as prog rock singers go, this is excellent.

With ‘Seventeen’ being a progressive rock album, there are some long songs that move through several moods and atmospheres without sounding incoherent. ‘Walk Through Fire’ is one of those moments, which starts out almost intimate before entering a highly memorable section with fairly obvious Celtic influences and builds from a dark middle section to a bombastic finale. Another one of the epic suites, ‘La Peregrina’, has an almost classical elegance, while the shortest of the three, ‘Cracks’ feels like a more traditional progressive rock song with some amazing fretless bass work courtesy of Kristoffer Gildenlöw (ex-Pain Of Salvation).

If Kayak has proven anything through the years, however, it’s that their shorter, more concise song are no less interesting than the longer ones. And that doesn’t just concern the short instrumentals, like ‘Ripples On The Water’, which features some beautiful lead guitar work by Camel’s Andy Latimer. Opening track ‘Somebody’ has a Queen-like feel to it and some really strong melodies, while ‘Feathers And Tar’ has a great chorus an some of the most propulsive rhythms on the album. ‘All That I Want’ is a flawless pop song and the appropriately titled ‘To An End’ is a beautiful, heartfelt ballad like only Kayak can do them.

Though Kayak’s compositions are never less than good, I tend to prefer the material on which the guitars and the keyboards are in perfect balance. In addition, the fact that ‘Seventeen’ was conceived with the idea that a band should play it rather than being a studio project, the material just sounds a little more “alive” than usual. Everyone involved obviously plays their heart out and it is that simple fact that makes these compositions, which were already good to begin with, just a little bit better. Highly recommended for progressive rock fans, both traditional and contemporary.

Recommended tracks: ‘Feathers And Tar’, ‘Somebody’, ‘La Peregrina’

Album of the Week 02-2018: Eternity’s End – The Fire Within


Everything Christian Muenzner touches turns to gold, or so it seems. Obscura was one of the very few modern technical death metal bands I loved, Alkaloid was one of the most unique progressive metal bands in recent years and ‘The Fire Within’, the debut album from his progressive power metal band Eternity’s End, contains some of the best contemporary power metal I have heard in years. Muenzner appears to be the melodic conscience of most of his bands and it is that side that of his songwriting personality that is on full display here. No song here is less than good.

Being a progressive power metal album, ‘The Fire Within’ contains all of the guitar harmonies, whirlwind guitar solos, memorable choruses, fantasy lyrics and Symphony X-isms you could wish for, but Eternity’s End adds a much larger dose of intensity and aggression to the mix. As a result, the riffs set the record on fire and the choruses sound proud and strong rather than tepid invitations to sing along. It helps that Ian Parry sings these songs, as these are his best performances since his early Elegy days. His clean-but-raw approach is perfect for Muenzner’s songs and he sometimes reaches heights I didn’t realize he was capable of reaching.

As good as Parry, keyboard player Jimmy Pitts and the rock solid rhythm section of Muenzner’s former Obscura buddies Linus Klausenitzer and drummer extraordinaire Hannes Grossmann are, Muenzner’s riffs are really what make the record. They have a fat, beefy bottom end, which gives them a propulsive quality that many modern power metal bands lack. They are often fast, but Muenzner knows how to apply dynamics do his songs, often opening up an otherwise dense song with a strong chorus or a remarkable melodic passage, which is the case in songs like the excellent ‘Eagle Divine’ or the incredible ‘The Hourglass’.

Songwriting-wise, there is literally nothing to complain about here. The album has a really pleasant flow, moving back and forth between gripping, catchy power metal songs like ‘Demonblade’, ‘Moonstruck’ and the title track and more epic tracks like the monumental closer ‘The Fall Of The House Of Usher’. The latter feels significantly shorter than the eight minutes it actually takes to finish and the instrumentals are nothing short of breathtaking. Halfway through, the relatively midtempo, eighties hardrock inspired ‘White Lies’ manages to function as a breather without even getting close to ballad territory.

There is almost too much talent in Eternity’s End, but fortunately, all of the musicians involved are aware of the fact that the songs are more important than displays of virtuosity. Sure, there is some incredible musicianship going on, by Grossmann and Muenzner himself most prominently, but no single solo triumphs over the immense melodic qualities of this masterpiece of an album. Anyone whose heart beats faster upon hearing energetic, yet classy power metal should at least give Eternity’s End a chance. I can assure you more “chances” will follow. Here’s to hoping this will be more than a one-off.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Fall Of The House Of Usher’, ‘The Hourglass’, ‘Eagle Divine’

Album of the Week 01-2018: Iron Maiden – Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son


‘Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son’ was the final album Iron Maiden made with its classic line-up and in a sense, the album takes them as far as that line-up logically could go. It is quite progressive by late eighties metal standards, the synth experiments that were only partially successful on ‘Somewhere In Time’ are incorporated into the music much better here and the songwriting has a dramatic flair that Iron Maiden has not had before or since. In their quest to make their music interesting for themselves, yet accessible enough to sing along, this is the ultimate Iron Maiden album.

Technically, ‘Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son’ this is a flawed concept album. There are themes of clairvoyance and second sight sprinkled throughout the album, but the narrative traditionally associated with concept records is nowhere to be found. Yet somehow, that does not diminish the album’s quality one bit. The theme gives the album some consistency that ‘Somewhere In Time’ was lacking, while the songwriting and the production reflect the lyrics rather splendidly. Another notable feature here is that the tempo changes, which were usually reserved for the longer tracks, are all over the songs, including the short, punchy ones.

It is hard for me to be objective about ‘Moonchild’, the first heavy metal track I have ever heard. But even now, more than two decades later, the song sounds incredible. It manages to combine Maiden’s melodic class with an aggressive drive in both the rhythms and Bruce Dickinson’s amazing vocals. The massive title track is the one that profits the most from the presence of keyboards, as they adorn the middle section with a theatrical layer it would not have had with guitars exclusively. And for progressive majesty, look no further than ‘Infinite Dreams’, in which tempo changes, subtle synths and incredible melodies blend into one atmospheric masterpiece.

Besides ‘Infinite Dreams’, the album contained three other top ten singles, of which only the lightweight ‘Can I Play With Madness’ misses the mark. ‘The Evil That Men Do’ is powerful and uncomplicated, while ‘The Clairvoyant’ is such a work of art that it’s easy to forgive the first melody’s resemblance to the verses of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’. On the other end of the spectrum is ‘The Prophecy’, which due to its lack of an actual chorus often goes by unnoticed, but is a guitar harmony tour de force.

Following the tour for ‘Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son’, guitarist Adrian Smith – Maiden’s melodic conscience – would leave and the band would head in a somewhat more aggressive direction. And though he would return for a run of decent to really good albums, Iron Maiden was never the same again. Along with ‘Powerslave’, ‘Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son’ stands as the best work by the best Iron Maiden line-up and a blue print for many heavy metal bands to follow. It is one of those rare instances where everybody involved outdoes himself, creating something that is both musically interesting and highly listenable in the process.

Recommended tracks: ‘Moonchild’, ‘Infinite Dreams’, ‘The Clairvoyant’

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