Archive for the ‘ Music ’ Category

Album of the Week 48-2019: Avatarium – The Fire I Long For

For a long time, Avatarium was just another Leif Edling project for me. Avatarium stood out due to the charismatic vocals of Jennie-Ann Smith, but a majority of their material still sounded like Candlemass with female vocals. Smith and her husband, veteran guitarist Marcus Jidell, started contributing to the songwriting on the band’s third album ‘Hurricanes And Halos’. ‘The Fire I Long For’ is the first album with a majority of songs written by Smith and Jidell, which turns out to be a big step forward. The album is less doom metal and more dark rock, but undeniably impressive.

Despite all the changes, the overall sound of Avatarium has not changed all that much on ‘The Fire I Long For’. Sure, it’s less upbeat than ‘Hurricanes And Halos’ and certainly less doomy as a whole, but the main ingredients are similar: thick, fuzzy guitar riffs that are generally relatively slow, an organic seventies feel and Smith’s emotional vocals. Unlike many female rock singers, Smith skillfully avoids the pitfalls of oversinging. Likewise, Jidell is perfectly capable of playing neoclassical speed exercises, but instead focuses on bluesy soul. Lars Sköld is one of the most serviceable drummers in heavy rock as well.

Atmosphere is an important part of what makes ‘The Fire I Long For’ the great album it is. Most of the album has a dark, desperate atmosphere, the only true exception being the excellent uptempo rocker ‘Shake That Demon’. First single ‘Rubicon’ has a somewhat hopeful vibe as well. It is a nice slower midtempo rocker with great melodies and an excellent guitar and Hammond arrangement. Truth be told, that track was what made me check out the album at all. The band also made a wise choice easing anyone who already loved the band into their new sound by opening with the relatively doomy ‘Voices’.

What may be most impressive about ‘The Fire I Long For’ is how it explores all the possibilities of Avatarium’s sound without ever sounding like a disjointed mess. The title track and closer ‘Stars They Move’ are heartfelt ballads, the latter being particularly low-key, ‘Great Beyond’ is a climactic, atmospheric monster of a track, while ‘Porcelain Skull’ and particularly ‘Epitaph Of Heroes’ are the doomiest tracks on the album. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Edling wrote those doomsters. The most pleasant surprise is ‘Lay Me Down’, which feels like Nick Cave exploring southern blues and has a mindblowing vocal arrangement. Truly a work of art.

‘The Fire I Long For’ impresses me much more than I expected it would. Jidell and Smith writing most of the songs apparently is exactly what the band needed to develop their own dark and moody rock sound. The band’s influences are quite obvious: Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and The Doors’ darker material – the Uriah Heep-isms of ‘Hurricanes And Halos’ only linger in the background – and yet, Avatarium sounds fresh and unique here. It helps that Smith is not another Janis Joplin clone, but there is a sincerity to the music on ‘The Fire I Long For’ that many contemporary bands lack.

Recommended tracks: ‘Rubicon’, ‘Lay Me Down’, ‘Great Beyond’, ‘Stars They Move’

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’

Album of the Week 43-2019: Ningen Isu – Ogon No Yoake

‘Ogon No Yoake’ is the album on which Ningen Isu matured. That may be a dirty word for some rock bands, but Ningen Isu finally realizes its full potential here. Their debut EP and first two albums contained plenty of excellent songs, but also showed that the band wasn’t quite sure what their strengths were. By contrast, Ningen Isu sounds confident and powerful throughout the full running time of ‘Ogon No Yoake’. It might just still be their best-produced album to date, which helps them sound more professional, while the increased bottom end increases the impact of their riffs and rhythms.

While most Japanese hardrock and metal bands stand out due to spotless songwriting, the musical interaction is what truly elevates Ningen Isu’s songs beyond their compositorical greatness. Ningen Isu is obviously influenced by the heavier end of seventies progressive rock and gladly injects the jam-heavy nature of the likes of Rush into their Sabbathian grooves. Guitarist Shinji Wajima, bassist Kenichi Suzuki and drummer Noriyoshi Kamidate are on fire when they need to be – just listen to the busy rhythms of ‘Wa, Gan De Nebega’ – but also are more than willing to show restraint when the music asks for it.

Ningen Isu is often classified as a doom metal band and while that classification is not unjustified, it fails to properly cover the amount of variation heard on ‘Ogon No Yoake’. There’s short, swift rockers like ‘Dokushaisa Saigo No Yume’ and the relatively accessible ‘Kyofuku No Neji’ and long tracks with extended jams, such as ‘Mugon Denwa’ and ‘Mandragora No Hana’, the latter of which even borrows from Black Sabbath’s namesake song in its middle section. There is even a short acoustic instrumental (‘Subarashiki Nichiyobi’) that works perfectly as a breather right after the middle of the record.

Closing track ‘Kyoku Sanmyaku’ is probably pointed to as the album’s highlight by most of the band’s fans. And for a good reason, as it is a dark, monstrous doom metal track capable of capturing the mood of the Lovecraft story it is based on (‘At The Mountains Of Madness’). It is hardly the only peak on ‘Ogon No Yoake’, however. ‘Shinpan No Hi’ is a surprisingly laid-back and melodic rocker with a thick, driving bottom end and a highly memorable chorus. The opening title track needed some time to make sense to me, but is easily one of the better songs. It builds up slowly, but steadily into a powerful heavy metal epic. I particularly love the semi-gallop underneath Wajima’s guitar solos.

Some hardrock and heavy metal is expertly written, but lifelessly recorded. Ningen Isu’s music always breathes and moves. It is remarkable that the increased focus on streamlining and production on ‘Ogon No Yoake’ has not ironed that out at all. In fact, it made the music all the more powerful and the spirited jams come across even better than on the previous releases. Today, Ningen Isu is still recording fantastic albums. One could even say they entered a new youth, which is what the title of their latest album ‘Shin Seinen’ translates to. Those who don’t know the band would be well off starting with ‘Ogon No Yoake’ or its more compact follow-up ‘Rashomon’ though.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ogon No Yoake’, ‘Shinpan No Hi’, ‘Kyoku Sanmyaku’, ‘Kyofuku No Neji’

Album of the Week 42-2019: Forbidden – Twisted Into Form

Forbidden is rarely named as one of the biggest names in thrash. Part of the problem may be that the relatively late arrival of the band’s fine debut album ‘Forbidden Evil’ made them less influential than some of their peers. Or maybe their music was just too complex for a larger audience. Whatever the reason, Forbidden deserves much more praise than they get. The band made relatively progressive thrash metal at a time when Heathen was pretty much the only American band that even came close to them in terms of complexity. Sophomore album ‘Twisted Into Form’ is the best example of this approach.

Prior to ‘Twisted Into Form’, Forbidden switched lead guitarists. Glen Alvelais’ insane lead guitar was part of the allure of ‘Forbidden Evil’, but ‘Twisted Into Form’ immediately proves that his replacement Tim Calvert is more on the same page with the rest of the band. Not only does he have a songwriting credit for almost every song on the album, Calvert and Craig Locicero are the perfect rhythm guitar duo for this type of thrash metal. Both guitarists and later Slayer drummer Paul Bostaph are all locked in the same groove, which greatly benefits the overall sound of ‘Twisted Into Form’.

While ‘Forbidden Evil’ had the higher peaks, ‘Twisted Into Form’ is a much more consistent record than its predecessor. The criticism that some of the album’s early songs have a tendency to blend together is not entirely unjustified, but that may also be caused by the more measured playing of the band. This degree of control really seems to fit Locicero’s vision. On this album, Forbidden relies less on melodic lead guitars and more on the complexity of the riff department. As a result, the songs are slighly less catchy, but Russ Anderson’s characteristic thrash meets classic metal voice increases the memorability.

‘Infinite’ is the perfect opener for this particular album. Not only does it ease you into the album’s more intricate approach with a song that starts with some riffs that could have been on the debut, it’s also slightly more catchy and aggressive than the rest of the record. The riff work is delightfully dark and eerie-sounding as well. The aggression also shines through on the lengthy ‘R.I.P.’, which combines a pounding main riff with a slowly building middle section. The title track, with the brilliant echo effect on its main riff and Anderson’s best vocal performance on the record, is one of the highlights as well.

‘Twisted Into Form’ leaves very little to complain about. Even the short acoustic pieces, intro ‘Parting Of The Ways’ and the nightmarish ‘Spiral Depression’, are excellent. If I would change anything about the record, I would switch out ‘Step By Step’ with either ‘Tossed Away’ or ‘One Foot In Hell’. The former sounds somewhat similar to the preceding ‘Out Of Body (Out Of Mind)’ and the latter two, despite being quality songs, feel like a bit of an afterthought after the incredible ‘R.I.P.’. Altering the sequencing might have fixed both issues. But ultimately, those issues are only minor. I can see why its excellent, but more modern follow-up ‘Distortion’ could be divisive, but ‘Twisted Into Form’ is a classic that all fans of progressive thrash metal should at the very least give a spin.

Recommended tracks: ‘Infinite’, ‘Twisted Into Form’, ‘R.I.P.’

Album of the Week 41-2019: Despair – Beyond All Reason

Some bands are known as a springboard for their band members’ further succes rather than for their own music. Germany’s Despair is one of those bands. Original vocalist Robert Kampf would go on to start Century Media Records, guitarist Waldemar Sorychta is a renowned producer and known for Grip Inc. rather than Despair, while drummer Markus Freiwald recently played with Sodom. It is unfortunate that Despair is a forgotten name, because their third and thus far final album ‘Beyond All Despair’ in particular is an incredible work of progressive thrash metal. It strikes the perfect balance between melody, aggression and complexity.

Debut album ‘History Of Hate’ was a great example of music that has the unbridled aggression of thrash metal with a greater emphasis on compositorical intricacy. The production and the vocals occasionally were more primitive than necessary, but the material on the album showed great promise. When Kampf departed the band to focus on his record label, the arrival of Andreas Henschel allowed the band to go in a somewhat more melodic direction, as even his barks have a somewhat melodic slant. And where second album ‘Decay Of Humanity’ suffers from monotony, its follow-up does almost everything right.

One notable thing about ‘Beyond All Reason’ is how much it sounds like ‘Nosferatu’-era Helstar at times. ‘Imported Love’ and ‘Son Of The Wild’ in particular would fit that album. The riffs consist of lots of notes and are almost neoclassical in approach, but at the same time, they have a dark, eerie atmosphere that really makes ‘Beyond All Reason’ stand out among Despair’s discography. The semi-ballad ‘In The Deep’ has a more than passing resemblance to ‘The Curse Has Passed Away’, though with a much more engaging second half. It would not be fair to accuse Despair of copying Helstar here, but the influence can clearly be heard.

It is worth noting that despite the more atmospheric and progressive approach – at times enhanced by Sorychta’s tasteful keyboard work – Despair still shows its thrash metal roots here. The riff work in ‘Rage In The Eyes’, for instance, is every bit as classy as on the rest of the album, but a bit more aggressive than on other tracks. The following ‘Burnt Out Souls’ is very aggressive in its rhythms as well. ‘Deaf And Blind’, on the other hand, has the more proggy side of the band on full display without feeling like a disorienting opening track. The dense ‘The Day Of Desperation’ is somewhat slower, but no less complex and inspired.

While ‘History Of Hate’ is often seen as the ultimate Despair album, ‘Beyond All Reason’ is the record where the quality of everyone involved shines through. The compositions are great, the production is a perfect fit for the progressive thrash style on the record and Sorychta and Marek Greschek – interestingly both born in Poland – are an incredible guitar team. There are great riffs and solos from both all over the record and in that regard, instrumental closer ‘Crossed In Sorrow’ is a perfect showpiece for them. Anyone looking for progressive or technical thrash metal with a little something special should look no further.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Day Of Desperation’, ‘Deaf And Blind’, ‘Burnt Out Souls’