Best of 2017: The Albums

After a number of great releases in January, I thought 2017 was going to be an amazing year for rock and metal. In that respect, the year in music had been a little disappointing. There was no consistent stream of good releases, though there were a few clear peaks in the release schedule. Aside from January, March was a small peak release-wise, September a large one, with the last two months of the year having a handful of interesting albums. My top 10 more or less made itself, but I had even more trouble filling the last couple of positions than last year.

Having said that, I was overwhelmed by the number of quality releases from my own country. Being a Dutchman, I am sometimes overly critical of Dutch bands and sometimes unjustly so. Speaking as a music journalist, I would certainly say that 2017 was the year of pleasant surprises from Dutch guitar bands. There were two clear winners for me this year and neither of them is Dutch, but with four Dutch releases in the top ten and seven in the top twenty, I’d say that last year was surprisingly pleasant for a journalist of a couple of Dutch guitar magazines.

1. Firewind – Immortals

Some of the best power metal I have heard in a long, long time. I have always enjoyed Firewind, but the addition of singer extraordinaire Henning Basse to the line-up and Dennis Ward to the production and songwriting team was just the boost that the (largely) Greek power metal band needed. ‘Immortals’ is full off exuberant power metal with anthemic, yet not too cliché-ridden choruses and surprisingly aggressive riffing courtesy of Gus G. The epic feel that the concept about the Battle of Thermopylae requires is prominently present, but never at the expense of the songs, which would not lose any of their power when played “out of context”. Though the Greeks did not win the battle, Firewind did. ‘Immortals’ still makes me grin like an idiot when I play it today.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ode To Leonidas’, ‘Hands Of Time’, ‘Rise From The Ashes’

2. Lovebites – Awakening From Abyss

Lovebites was the only serious competition for Firewind this year. I was ready to dismiss the quintet as another hyped-up girly J-metal band, but both the EP and the album they released this year were jaw-dropping. There’s nothing cutesy about Lovebites: their music has balls. ‘Awakening From Abyss’ is chock-full of high octane riffs, mad lead guitars and excellent heavy metal songwriting. Lovebites combines the best elements of traditional metal and contemporary power metal into a catchy, delicious cocktail with a healthy dash of aggression. Singer Asami, who I had never heard of prior to the EP, is the icing on the cake. Her flexible range and immense power make this an incredible album instead of just a great one.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Hammer Of Wrath’, ‘Shadowmaker’, ‘Liar’

3. Dool – Here Now, There Then

Gloomy, dark, depressive, but always with very distinct melodies. Though ‘Here Now, There Then’ is only Dool’s first album, they already hits all the right buttons. Their immersive sound features equal parts doom metal riffing, psychedelic rock soundscapes and general post-punk nihilism. Listening to Dool is like being surrounded by huge walls of guitars that alternate between weaving intricate patterns and crushing your soul with brutally effective riffs played in unison. Though many bands playing a similar style are marred by subpar vocals, ‘Here Now, There Then’ features some of the best vocal work I have heard Ryanne van Dorst do thus far. She sounds great on her own, but the harmonies are even better. Not for the faint of heart, but an incredible experience.

Recommended tracks: ‘Vantablack’, ‘Oweynagat’, ‘The Alpha’

4. Steve Hackett – The Night Siren

In a way, it is ridiculous that an almost supernaturally talented guitarist like Steve Hackett needs to revisit his Genesis legacy to get the attention he deserves, but if it gives him the means to write and perform a record like ‘The Night Siren’, it has all been worth it. Here, Hackett explores his influences from all over the world and combines them with his own English rock, pop and blues roots. World fusion in the best possible way. The real class of ‘The Night Siren’, however, lies in the fact that Hackett blends these worldwide influences with his own music in a way that does not sound like he is trying to be clever, it just enhances the mood. Again, the atmosphere is immersive and unsurprisingly, Hackett’s playing is nothing short of stellar.

Recommended tracks: ‘Behind The Smoke’, ‘El Niño’, ‘Fifty Miles From The North Pole’

5. Adagio – Life

This was a grower for me. It took some time to do so, but once it did, it was very difficult to stop playing ‘Life’. Adagio really does something new here, which may not be too surprising, since their last album was released more than eight years ago. The tempo is considerably lower and Stéphan Forté’s downtuned rhythm guitars are sometimes reminiscent of the djent-sound, but with Kevin Codfert’s mind-blowing orchestrations and Kelly Sundown Carpenter’s mighty voice, the music has so much more to offer melodically and harmonically. The songwriting is bombastic, complex and melodically strong simultaneously and the record is full of subtleties that reveal themselves over repeated spins. I never was a big Adagio fan, but now I will certainly keep my eye on them.

Recommended tracks: ‘Subrahmanya’, ‘Torn’, ‘Life’

6. Navarone – Oscillation

On the surface, every element that made Navarone’s prior albums so great are in full force on ‘Oscillation’: the great seventies and nineties rock riffs, Merijn van Haren’s massive voice and a rather unpredictable approach to songwriting. Yet, something has changed. The songs are more concise and the band really explores the sonic opportunities of the studio here. And with that comes new possibilities. The surprisingly cinematic ending of ‘Snake’, the contemporary pop sensibilities of ‘Soon I’ll Be Home’ and the progressive splendor of ‘Chrome’ are born from this altered approach. As soon as the initial awkwardness wore off, ‘Oscillation’ turned out to be a very satisfying album by what is arguably Europe’s best rock band at the moment.

Recommended tracks: ‘Days Of Yore’, ‘Chrome’, ‘Soon I’ll Be Home’

7. Jeangu Macrooy – High On You

Before I ever even heard a note of his music, Jeangu Macrooy already impressed me with his moving, powerful voice, which has distinct traces of Bill Withers in it. His music is just about as good. ‘High And You’ is a melting pot of styles which really bring out the best in each other. Large doses of soul, of course, but also pop, jazz, folk and hints of rock and Carribean music. And while many artists who attempt something similar get lost in the maze of their own influences, Macrooy’s warm, almost spiritual voice ties the whole thing together convincingly. What truly helps is that Macrooy’s basic compositions are essentially all excellent pop songs. The profound, yet uplifting ‘Step Into The Water’ would be my choice for the single of the year.

Recommended tracks: ‘Step Into The Water’, ‘Fire Raging’, ‘Head Over Heels’

8. Galneryus – Ultimate Sacrifice

Always highly anticipated: a new Galneryus album. Especially because ‘Ultimate Sacrifice’ was announced as a sequel to ‘Under The Force Of Courage’, one of their better records. ‘Ultimate Sacrifice’ is a bit more consistent and really finds the band firing on all cylinders. The songwriting leans a tad more towards progressive metal than usual, but not without sacrificing – no pun intended – any of their euphroric, strongly European-tinged power metal sound. One of Galneryus’ best traits has always been their display of virtuosity: it is always there, but not before the song has been clearly outlined. Sure, it is fast and reasonably complex, but ‘Ultimate Sacrifice’ is also full of accomplished melodies and it has a remarkable dynamic range for the style.

Recommended tracks: ‘Rising Infuriation’, ‘Heavenly Punishment’, ‘Brutal Spiral Of Emotions’

9. Merry – M-Ology

For years, I have been wanting Merry to make an album like ‘M-Ology’. Not that I did not like their previous albums – ‘Nonsense Market’ is awesome – but the great thing about this one is the fact that the retro feel that made early albums like ‘Modern Garde’ and ‘Peep Show’ so good is finally as prominent as it should be again. Sometimes it feels like a particularly loud jazz band deciding to play a mix of alternative rock, punk, rock ‘n’ roll and traces of metal and blues. I am aware that such description sounds like a mess, but that is where Merry shines: songwriting. All these songs are based around memorable hooks and rhythms that are as energetic as they are danceable. As a result, I did not play anything else for days after ‘M-Ology’ came out.

Recommended tracks: ‘Inugata Shinsei Masochist’, ‘Kasa To Ame’, ‘M-Ology’, ‘Happy Life’

10. Robin Borneman – Folklore II: The Phantom Wail

Navarone made me aware of this great Dutch singer/songwriter. More than half of that band contributed to ‘Folklore II: The Phantom Wail’, but it is still very much Borneman’s record. One that is kind of hard to define, as it sounds cinematic and rootsy at the same time. This is the kind of stuff that takes you on a journey. Just close your eyes and it will come immediately. Sometimes it’s folky blues, but there are also times when it sounds like a spaghetti western contained in a psychedelic rock song, there are hints of country & western… The only true way to describe this is emotional, atmospheric and unpredictable music. No single instrument outshines the bigger picture and the production job is the best I have heard in a long, long time.

Recommended tracks: ‘Woebegone Blues’, ‘O Faithful World’, ‘The Reckoning / Dawn’

11. Galactic Cowboys – Long Way Back To The Moon

If you like heavy metal riffs and vocal harmonies reminiscent of The Beatles simultaneously, King’s X and Galactic Cowboys are basically the only bands you can count on. However, the former’s last studio album is almost a decade old and the latter broke up around the turn of the century. Fortunately, they are back and their new album is their best since their incredible debut. On the surface, Galactic Cowboys may be focusing on their heavy side here, but really, every part of their charm can be heard here. The harmonies, of course, but also their cross-genre approach, their loose jam feel and their ability to let the music breathe when it needs to. To show their fans that they are serious about rekindling their fire, the album even starts with Galactic Cowboys’ oldest song.

Recommended tracks: ‘Amisarewas’, ‘Drama’, ‘In The Clouds’

12. Labÿrinth – Architecture Of A God

When ‘Architecture Of A God’ was just released, I was sure it was going to make my top five. It is, after all, the Italians’ best record since career highlight ‘Return To Heaven Denied’ and almost every song on here is pure gold. Singer Roberto Tiranti is in top shape and as such, he is the perfect fit for the progressive, yet romantic power metal of the sextet. At times, new keyboard player Oleg Smirnoff even pushes the band to different terrain sonically with his unconventional keyboard sounds. And then there are Olaf Thörsen and Andrea Cantarelli, providing all the dreamy melodies and shimmering acoustic guitars you could wish for. It drags a little near the end, but with some of its fat trimmed, ‘Architecture Of A God’ would have definitely made the top five.

Recommended tracks: ‘Still Alive’, ‘A New Dream’, ‘Someone Says’, ‘Diamond’

13. Drive Like Maria – Creator Preserver Destroyer

‘Sonny’ alone is enough reason to get ‘Creator Preserver Destroyer’. Seriously, that little mix of melancholic melodies and poppy rock sensibilities is one of the best songs on an album released this year. The rest of the album is equally strong though. ‘Creator Preserver Destroyer’ does sound a little different than Drive Like Maria’s earlier albums, as the beautifully soulful, but not too loud vocals of Bjorn Awouters suddenly get all the room they need to excel. Underneath them, there is enough variation to make this material, which was originally released as three EP’s, interesting for an entire album. Sexy grooves, extended seventies rock jams, monolithic stoner riffs and the occasional ballad… Whatever you need, you will probably find it here.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sonny’, ‘Tiny Terror’, ‘Keeps Me Going’

14. For All We Know – Take Me Home

Within Temptation guitarist Ruud Jolie released an incredible solo album under the For All We Know moniker in 2011. That album was full of atmospheric, surprisingly emotional progressive rock and I am very glad that he got the whole band that recorded the debut back together. Especially the partnership between Jolie and singer Wudstik is pure magic. Together, they create complex, richly layered songs that are accessible at the same time. This concept is taken to the extreme on ‘Take Me Home’; the poppy aspects are catchier, the ballads are softer, the heavy riffs are heavier and the complexity is turned up at strategic moments as well. Listening to For All We Know is truly an immersive experience and though it is a pity we had to wait for it for over six years, it is a great thing that Jolie had the time to write, record and release yet another great record.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Big Wheel’, ‘They’ll Win’, ‘Fade Away’

15. Mastodon – Emperor Of Sand

Mastodon is quite likely the only modern metal band I am consistently interested in. Their sludgy guitar sound is offset by Brann Dailor’s busy rhythms and the overall progressive songwriting. Those who thought the band took its melodicism too far on recent albums will be in for a treat. Though ‘Emperor Of Sand’ still contains its fair share of highly melodic choruses, the riff work and the lead guitar sections are more complex than they have been for a long time. The record is full of triumphant guitar harmonies and the three lead singers (Dailor, guitarist Brent Hinds and bassist Troy Sanders) work together better than ever. On ‘Emperor Of Sand’, Mastodon proves that there is such a thing as a metal band aging gracefully without becoming a caricature of itself.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ancient Kingdom’, ‘Jaguar God’, ‘Steambreather’

16. Sven Hammond – Rapture

Notably less polished than their other recent efforts, but no less enjoyable. ‘Rapture’ finds Sven Hammond returning to the raw, almost garage-y soul sound of their earliest records – if those three instrumentals are no nod to Booker T and the M.G.’s, I don’t know what is – but this time, they combine that with their knack for writing accessible songs, as showcased on their previous records. ‘Rapture’ feels like a groovy late night jam session, during which the presence of Sven Hammond’s amazing singer Ivan Peroti requires some sense of structure. The rhythms are driving, Sven Figee’s Hammond organ is nice and dirty and Tim Eijmaal’s guitar alternates between bouncy riffs and subtle coloring. This sounds way more American than a Dutch band has any right to sound.

Recommended tracks: ‘Choosy Lover’, ‘A Right Pickle’, ‘Lazarus’

17. The Magpie Salute – The Magpie Salute

Sad as it is that The Black Crowes are no longer around, The Magpie Salute really is the next best thing. Sure, there is only one original song on this album – I’ve been told an album full of original material is coming in the new year – but what really makes this album is the musical interaction. It is more than obvious that every musician involved has a maximum of respect for the other musicians and the songs they are playing. Jam rock bands have a tendency to stick to the same groove for too long, but every second on The Magpie Salute’s self-titled debut album made me hungry for more music. The album is full of exciting musicianship and the lack of a truly charismatic lead singer like Chris Robinson is cleverly compensated for by harmonies.

Recommended tracks: ‘War Drums’, ‘Omission’, ‘Goin’ Down South’

18. Septicflesh – Codex Omega

If there is death metal in my list, it has to be something special. And it is. Septicflesh has always attracted my attention due to their sophisticated orchestrations, but their songs never appealed to me quite as much as on ‘Codex Omega’. This time around, the orchestra does not just add power to the songs, the songs themselves are already powerful, allowing the orchestra to take them to their logical extremes. There is also a lot of toying around with rhythms, which can probably be attributed to the arrival of new drummer Kerim ‘Krimh’ Lechner, whose rhythms try to find their strength in unconventional accents rather than complexity. Jens Bogren’s immense production job is incredible. Hell, I don’t even mind Seth Siro Anton’s grunts. They enhance the atmosphere.

Recommended tracks: ‘3rd Testament (Codex Omega)’, ‘Trinity’, ‘Dante’s Inferno’

19. Cloven Hoof – Who Mourns For The Mourning Star?

It would be easy to dismiss Cloven Hoof as a mere shadow of its former self on account of the ridiculous number of lineup changes they have had to endure in recent years. But ‘Who Mourns For The Mourning Star?’ is such a euphoric, energetic slab of traditional heavy metal that it is easy to forget all of that. A mix between US Power Metal and the NWOBHM scene they are often associated with, the album is treat for old schoolers. And as many credits as bassist Lee Payne deserves for writing these incredible songs, it is really singer George Call – also known as “gruff Bruce Dickinson” in my circles – who pushes these songs beyond how good they would have been otherwise. New material from an old band that does not sound like a weak rehash. Refreshing!

Recommended tracks: ‘Star Rider’, ‘Time To Burn’, ‘I Talk To The Dead’

20. Black Country Communion – BCC IV

Glenn Hughes, never a poster child for subtlety, was very bitter about Joe Bonamassa walking out of Black Country Communion. So it was all the more surprising that they recorded a comeback album together. And that it was good. Not as memorable as their first two albums, but with a songwriter as strong as Hughes, there are bound to be some winners. Most of it is pure classic rock gold, but there are some folky, bluesy and surprisingly poppy moments as well. Of course, with four musicians this good – and most of them experienced in session work – the interaction is simply excellent. As a result, the longer songs work best. I am not as big a fan of Bonamassa as most people seem to be, but in this context, his playing just works. And Hughes’ voice defies physics.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Cove’, ‘Wanderlust’, ‘Awake’

Advertisements

Album of the Week 52-2017: Matenrou Opera – Avalon


By the time Matenrou Opera signed to King Records subsidiary Bellwood, they had dropped almost all of their metalcore influences and most of their J-rock leanings, becoming pretty much a full-on symphonic power metal band. A style the band obviously feels very comfortable with, as evidenced by their ‘Avalon’ album. Fans of the band’s early work may complain about the relatively limited number of stylistic detours, but the truth is that Matenrou Opera specializes in what they are best at anyway on the album: highly melodic power metal songs which are uncomplicated and kind of progressive at the same time.

One of the most notable symphonic elements in Matenrou Opera’s music is the string sound of keyboard player Ayame. On ‘Avalon’, we can hear a real choir and synthesized string sounds, whereas most bands would select the opposite. That threw me off initially, but ultimately, it contributes to Matenrou Opera’s fairly unique sound. The chorus of power ballad ‘3Jikan’ may not have sounded quite as dark and powerful with actual strings. Furthermore, the synthesized horns lend a nice, triumphant atmosphere to ‘Kagayaki Wa Senkou No You Ni’, of which the chord progression in the chorus is somewhat reminiscent of Loudness’ ‘Soldier Of Fortune’.

Sonics aside, ‘Avalon’ is a compositional triumph. Opening track ‘Tengoku no Tobira’ may be the best song the band as ever released. The way it builds from the subdued aggression of the intro towards the hopeful melancholy of its chorus is nothing short of amazing. It is hardly the only highlight on ‘Avalon’ though. ‘Jolly Roger Ni Sukazuki Wo’ contains some of the most intense riffing and busiest rhythms in the band’s oeuvre, ‘Tomo Ni Sasagu Requiem’ is an exercise in dynamics, ‘Tonari Ni Suwaru Taiyou’ is breezy, yet defiant and closer ‘Tengoko No Aru Basho’ is the perfect climax in both atmosphere and instrumentation.

As far as personal performances go, I have always had a weak spot for guitarist Anzi. He is influenced by the same neoclassical school of guitar playing that many Japanese guitarists seem to take their inspiration from, but his tone is cleaner and his approach is more song-oriented. Even the neoclassical instrumental he penned, ‘Stained Glass’, is not a hyperspeed shredfest, but a melodically strong composition. Sono’s ubiquitous vibrato is a matter of taste, but it is a fact that he has more character than most Japanese singers. The drum work of Yu definitely deserves a mention too. His fills can be busy, but he never lets the music collapse.

Those assuming that Matenrou Opera is still just another J-rock band should certainly give the band another chance. There are a few traces of that in ‘Orb’, but as a whole, ‘Avalon’ is a very well-written and expertly performed power metal record which is typically Japanese in its catchy, symphonic nature, but exuberant and aggressive enough to please fans of European power metal. It is also the most consistent set of songs the quintet has released thus far, giving them the confidence to establish themselves as a power metal band for good.

Recommended tracks: ‘Tengoku no Tobira’, ‘Jolly Roger Ni Sukazuki Wo’, ‘Kagayaki Wa Senkou No You Ni’

Album of the Week 51-2017: Septicflesh – Codex Omega


While the orchestral death metal of Septicflesh should have a decent amount of appeal to me, their albums always felt just short of interesting to me. Admittedly, 2011’s ‘The Great Mass’ came close, but this year’s ‘Codex Omega’ was the first Septicflesh album I pretty much enjoy start to finish. In essence, the elements that defined their last few albums are the same as those defining ‘Codex Omega’, but something has changed for the better. It is sort of hard to put my finger on what that is exactly, but let’s make this review an analysis of the album’s immense qualities.

First off, let’s focus on what has changed since the somewhat lackluster predecessor ‘Titan’. Most obviously, Septicflesh changed drummers. Former Decapitated drummer Kerim ‘Krimh’ Lechner is now on the stool and the band certainly profits from his approach to extreme metal drumming. His style seems to be a little looser and somewhat less predictable than that of most of his peers. Though I don’t know big his role in the songwriting process was, the unconventional placement of his accents must have influenced the dynamics of segments like the intro of ‘3rd Testament (Codex Omega)’ and the chorus of ‘The Faceless Queen’.

In addition, Septicflesh worked with in-demand producer Jens Bogren for the first time, who did an incredible job. Mixing a Septicflesh album cannot be an easy task: there are bottom-heavy riffs that give the music its balls, but there are also huge orchestral parts that define Septicflesh’ music. He managed to find a perfect balance between these two seemingly contrasting elements though, creating a surprisingly natural drum sound for Lechner in the process. The drums on many contemporary extreme metal records sound computerized to a fault. On ‘Codex Omega’, you can actually hear that a person is hitting them. Hard. Look no further than the intro to ‘Dark Art’ for proof.

Quite simply, the songwriting had a bit of a boost as well. ‘Our Church, Below The Sea’ could have easily been a dime a dozen extreme symphonic metal song, but the way the two guitar parts are interwoven creates an almost baroque guitar pattern. Opening track toys with expectations of tempo in a really powerful way, best expressed in the start-stop riff that occurs repeatedly throughout the song, while ‘The Gospels Of Fear’ is composed in an almost lineair way that makes it feel like it is coming over you in waves. Closing track ‘Trinity’ is a masterpiece due to its relatively simple, yet extremely powerful rhythms and its effective use of dynamics and acoustic instruments, which lend an almost gothic-like feel to the track.

‘Codex Omega’ is the album on which Septicflesh finally makes use of its full potential. While the excellent work by the choir and the FILMharmonic Orchestra of Prague add an irresistible layer of bombast to the music, the album would not have worked nearly as good if the basic compositions were an less good than this. Even the most standard extreme metal riffs have been arranged in a way that it sounds just a little different. Easily the best death metal album released this year, symphonic or not.

Recommended tracks: ‘3rd Testament (Codex Omega)’, ‘Trinity’, ‘Dante’s Inferno’

Album of the Week 50-2017: Adagio – Life


Adagio has always been a band I should love, but didn’t. Kevin Codfert’s orchestrations are amazing, Stéphan Forté is one of the few highly skilled guitarists that found a middle ground between virtuosity and melodicism and none of their past singers was worse than good. Yet, something was missing for me. Initially, this was the case with their new album ‘Life’ – their first in no less than eight years – as well. Forté’s djenty rhythm guitar that occasionally pops up was a bit of a turn-off for me. And yet, ‘Life’ has slowly grown to be one of my favorite albums of the year.

Part of the reason for my returning interest was the presence of singer Kelly Sundown Carpenter, whose huge, raw-edged range never ceases to amaze me. Still, this may just be his best performance yet. His voice is extremely spirited and he frequently reminds me of late Gotthard frontman Steve Lee in his best days. Even a great vocal performance would not be relevant if the songs aren’t any good though and luckily, the French band succeeded at writing a highly dynamic and pleasantly polished record, on which Forté’s violent riffs and Codfert’s orchestral grandeur are constantly in perfect balance.

One of the most notable differences with the band’s past is that the tempo of the songs on ‘Life’ is considerably lower. And while an album full of mid-tempo songs may sound discouraging to the power metal audience: don’t let it. The subdued tempo of the songs allows Carpenter’s vocals and the ethnic, often Middle-Eastern flavor of the orchestrations to flourish, resulting in bombastic masterpieces, such as the cinematic ‘Subrahmanya’, more traditionally progressive moments such as ‘The Grand Spirit Voyage’ and ‘The Ladder’ and the massive, epic grandiosity of the lengthy opener that carries the same title as the album.

Remarkably, Adagio chose to place the more accessible material on the latter half of the album. That was probably beneficial to the album, as it has a very pleasant flow. Songs like the dramatic ‘I’ll Possess You’ and ‘Secluded Within Myself’ and the almost uptempo, yet equally dark closer ‘Torn’ are no less good than the songs opening the album though. The only near-miss is the ballad ‘Trippin’ Away’. The first half of the song and the performances by both Forté and Carpenter are too good to completely dismiss it, but while I don’t doubt Forté’s sincerity, the lyrics of this love song are too mawkish and awkward to enjoy.

The rest of the album is really good at worst and downright incredible at best. On ‘Life’, Adagio shows that it is perfectly possible to have everyone playing on top of their game without actually getting in the way of the music and that in itself already makes the album a great success. For me, this is the first time Adagio really profits from all the qualities within the band. And that has resulted in quite a unique sound; I have never heard these elements combined in a way even remotely close to how ‘Life’ sounds. A must for fans of progressive or orchestral metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Subrahmanya’, ‘Torn’, ‘Life’

In Memoriam Warrel Dane 1961-2017


Less than an hour before writing this post, word had reached me that former Nevermore and Sanctuary singer Warrel Dane has died in the middle of the recordings for what was to be his second solo album. Since Dane was one of the biggest influences on how I used to sing – if not the biggest – this news came as a shock to me, despite his history of health issues and addictions. Ever since hearing his voice on Nevermore’s ‘Dead Heart In A Dead World’, I was grabbed by his sense of drama and the operatic nature of his voice. It was an inspirational experience.

Many acquaintances of mine claim that they would have liked Nevermore if they had a grunter instead of a clean vocalist, but Dane was a significant part of Nevermore’s charm for me. Without him, Nevermore would have been just another technical groove metal band with a remarkably good guitarist. Due to the voice of Dane, Nevermore became the band that brought traditional metal and more contemporary sounds together. I have lost track of how many times I have listened to ‘Dead Heart In A Dead World’ and ‘This Godless Endeavor’, but it is likely that it will be more than a thousand times each.

Originally, Dane was the type of singer that so many metal bands in the eighties had, only even higher. His rise to prominence was Sanctuary’s Dave Mustaine produced debut album ‘Refuge Denied’, on which he occasionally went so high that I suspected helium may have been involved. Despite his obvious skills, it was apparently too much for Dane as well, as he sings significantly lower on the album’s follow-up, the delightfully dark near-masterpiece ‘Into The Mirror Black’.

After Sanctuary folded the way many eighties metal bands did – a silent break-up after disagreements over musical direction after grunge took over the guitar landscape – Dane formed Nevermore with Sanctuary’s bassist Jim Sheppard and live guitarist Jeff Loomis. Nevermore was notably different. Slower, down-tuned and more technical. A dark, heavy band that outdid the grunge of their shared native of Seattle in terms of sheer cynicism and dreariness. With a highly skilled guitar player, an extremely passionate singer and bass drums that pounded like there was no tomorrow.

Nearly a decade ago, Dane released his first solo album ‘Praises To The War Machine’, which I at the time described as Nevermore light with a larger number of introspective moments. Though it lacked the consistency of Nevermore’s best works, I loved the album’s goth-ish feel – its cover of ‘Lucretia, My Reflection’ introduced me to the music of The Sisters Of Mercy – and personal themes. The ballads ‘Brother’ and ‘This Old Man’ still stand as the best ballads Dane has ever recorded for me, together with the title track of Nevermore’s ‘Dreaming Neon Black’.

Of course, criticism of Dane is justified. He didn’t always take proper care of his voice and his live performances varied wildly in quality. I have seen Nevermore live at least four times and he was only truly good at half of them. The last time I saw Dane perform was two and a half years ago when a reformed Sanctuary opened for OverKill in Zwolle, promoting their excellent comeback record ‘The Year The Sun Died’. There, he actually showed that he could work with his diminished range, resulting in a good, if somewhat restrained performance.

Ultimately, I will always remember Warrel Dane for how unashamedly emotional his vocal performance was in a time when tough guy posturing seemed to be the norm in contemporary metal. He left behind a legacy of excellent metal. I’m just sad that this is it.

Album of the Week 49-2017: Fates Warning – Theories Of Flight

Initially, Fates Warning’s twelfth studio album ‘Theories Of Flight’ failed to excite me the way its predecessor ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ did. I dismissed it as the prog metal giants trying to repeat the same formula. Then suddenly, it clicked. And I realized that ‘Theories Of Flight’ is one of Fates Warning’s best albums thus far. Yes, it roughly follows a similar formula as ‘Darkness…’ did, but Fates Warning succeeds at blending their traditional progressive metal roots with contemporary prog rock elements in the vein of Porcupine Tree and Tool and more catchy moments better than ever here.

The guitar work of sole remaining original member Jim Matheos are an important part of the aforementioned formula. It is incredibly varied. Within the same song, it often flows from traditional heavy metal riffs to typical prog chops and atmospheric clean strums in a very fluent and pleasant manner. It would be unreasonable to ignore the contributions of Bobby Jarzombek though. While his predecessor Mark Zonder was an incredible drummer in his own right, Jarzombek plays with a comparable level of technicality, just with a style that feels somewhat looser and more driving than Zonder’s. A very solid foundation for compositions that often feel fluid.

Progressive metal has a bit of a bad rap for lacking a focus on songwriting. Enter Fates Warning. Even in their early days, they combined hooks and recognizable melodies with all the odd meters and unpredictable compositions you could wish for. Virtuosity does take a back seat on most of their albums and ‘Theories Of Flight’ is no exception. Sure, there are some great leads to be found here – remarkably, the majority recorded by former guitarist Frank Aresti and live guitarist Mike Abdow – but Matheos mainly seems interested in using his guitar for dependable melodic work.

Fortunately, this approach works very well. At time incredibly so. ‘SOS’, for instance, is a highly dynamic track with lots of fantastic twists, but its incredible chorus – performed expertly by Ray Alder – is the highlight of the song. Opening track ‘From The Rooftops’ feels like a bit of a mini-suite and as such, it is the most traditionally progressive song on the album, while ‘White Flag’ is so metallic that it would not have sounded out of place on one of the band’s late eighties records. The 10 minute songs ‘The Light And Shade Of Things’ and ‘The Ghosts Of Home’ are not crammed full of ideas, but instead given room to slowly develop into multi-faceted, atmospheric masterpieces with multiple mood changes. Very impressive.

And as if the fact that ‘Theories Of Flight’ does not have a single weak moment wasn’t yet enough, Jens Bogren’s fantastic production makes the listening experience even more pleasant. Sonically, the album is as far away from the overly compressed standard for contemporary prog metal releases as it gets. ‘Theories Of Flight’ sounds organic and lively, even giving the extremely effective bass work of Joey Vera the space it deserves without becoming intrusive. This album is what happens if you put a group of incredible musicians who only care about having the music sound as good as it possibly can in one studio. Absolutely essential for fans of progressive music.

Recommended tracks: ‘SOS’, ‘White Flag’, ‘The Ghosts Of Home’

Album of the Week 48-2017: Dream Theater – Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory


Dream Theater is often accused of favoring a display of musical virtuosity over songwriting and lacking in the quality control department. All true, but when they are good, they are really good, which is what makes them one of the flagships of progressive metal. Despite experimenting with conceptual pieces since their debut album, it took them until the late nineties to come up with a full-blown concept album. And whether it is a result of its conceptual nature or not, it would take them close to another decade before they released another album as consistently good as ‘Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory’.

‘Scenes From A Memory’ is such an enjoyable listen, because it avoids most of the pitfalls that many modern progressive bands imitating Dream Theater – and sometimes the Americans themselves – suffer from. Especially the overly compressed production with the genre is nowhere to be found. Both sonically and in the songwriting department, the album is dynamic and organic, making listening through the entire album a particularly pleasant experience. There are never any solos that get in the way of the songs. If anything, John Petrucci’s solo is what saves the particularly sappy ballad ‘The Spirit Carries On’.

When I first heard the album in my early teens, I did not get it. It was too complex for me and I thought some songs needed too much time to get to the point. In those days, ‘Beyond This Life’ was the only song that made some impact on me through its deceptively simple, crushing main riff in 5/4 and its general dark atmosphere. While I still love that song to this day, the brooding, almost doomy ‘Home’ is easily the most moving song on ‘Scenes From A Memory’. The dark, downtempo riffs have a vaguely Middle-Eastern flair that really enhances the tension in this part of the story.

Instrumental track ‘The Dance Of Eternity’ is a fan favorite and it is not difficult to hear why, as it really puts the musical skills of Petrucci, drummer Mike Portnoy, bassist John Myung and then new keyboard player Jordan Rudess to the fore, not unlike ‘Overture 1928’. Personally, I am quite fond of ‘One Last Time’, which it morphs into. It is easily the best of the album’s more introspective moments, because it has a distinct early Genesis vibe; the inspiration of ‘Broadway Melody of 1974’ is quite obvious. ‘Strange Deja Vu’ and ‘Fatal Tragedy’ are nice, dynamic tracks that interestingly feature equal measures of progressive rock and metal.

The ballads are a matter of taste. Whether or not you will like them depends largely on how much you like James LaBrie’s dramatic delivery, though it is worth noting that ‘Finally Free’ surpasses ‘Through Her Eyes’ and ‘The Spirit Carries On’ in sheer dynamism and atmosphere. As a whole, ‘Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory’ is an album that has a really pleasant flow, which is never outshone by the musicianship. Concept albums can certainly be a bit of a slippery slope, but Dream Theater’s progressive music seems to be tailor-made for the situation and it has resulted in one of their more consistent outings thus far.

Recommended tracks: ‘Home’, ‘Beyond This Life’, ‘One Last Time’

Advertisements