Album of the Week 43-2012: Enslaved – Riitiir

Usually I’m not too interested in the Norwegian Black Metal scene. This would have been true for Enslaved as well, had they not adopted a strong progressive take on their music about a decade ago. That’s when at least as many Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath influences crept into the music as there are Immortal references. Also, adding keyboard player Herbrand Larsen to the fold was exactly what the band needed. Not only are his seventies psychedelia inspired keyboards an indispensible part of what makes Enslaved such a good band nowadays, his clean vocals are among the most pleasant to listen to in the business. All this combined led to the downright brilliant ‘Ruun’ in 2006. Their brand new, extremely progressive masterpiece ‘Riitiir’ might just be at least as good.

First things first: Grutle Kjellson’s harsh vocals still irritate the hell out of me. I’m not a fan of this school of singing anyway, but Kjellson’s vocals are even more of a throaty phlegm than usually heard in the genre. His bass playing, however, is very capable and the warm, full sound of his bass is exactly what the low end of this record needs. In fact, everyone involved seems to be interested only in what fits the music best rather than having the urge to shine individually. Ice Dale’s  dreamy, Blues-influenced leads pop up every now and then, but are hardly more dominant than Ivar Bjørnson’s dissonant, atmospheric riffs and Cato Bekkevold’s drumming isn’t the hyperspeed blasting you might expect from a Scandinavian band, but instead among the most powerful in the business.

Though it might be known that Enslaved has been taking a progressive road since ‘Isa’ (2004), ‘Riitiir’ takes the whole thing a step further. The songs are long – none under five minutes, half of the album nearing the ten minute mark, with the fantastic closer ‘Forsaken’ even surpassing it – and the songs take quite some unexpected twists and turns. Don’t expect any nervous, restless Prog with time measures tripping over each other though. Rather think of the spacious sound that bands like Opeth and Porcupine Tree are known for. Bjørnson’s riffs have a mighty, monumental quality to them that invites you to drift away with them. This is exactly why Bekkevold’s drumming fits so well here, though he definitely has the chops to do something uptempo, as evidenced by his brilliant work on the intro to ‘Roots Of The Mountain’ or the near-blasts on ‘Materal’.

In the past, my favorite Enslaved songs have always been the one where there was a lot of room for Herbrand Larsen’s soothing and often multi-layered vocals, something which may explain my strong preference for the title track from ‘Ruun’. However, lead vocals are divided quite evenly among Larsen and Kjellson on ‘Riitiir’. Also, the parts where their vocals work together are very powerful climaxes to the songs. For me, this all adds to the listening pleasure of the album.

Owning the vinyl double album may even be the best way to hear ‘Riitiir’. Not only because the warm and spacious sound screams for vinyl, but the best songs are the ones closing both records. ‘Roots Of The Mountain’ is a dreamy, atmospheric song, containing many different sections flowing over into each other perfectly and ‘Forsaken’ is more like a suite combining many different sections into a musical story. The desolate piano opening and closing the song is just amazing. ‘Storm Of Memories’ is somewhat of a strange beast, starting out extremely psychedelic, but later containing what is probably the most “Black Metal” passage of the album. ‘Death In The Eyes Of Dawn’ ends with a downright beautiful acoustic guitar passage and ‘Veilburner’ is somewhat more accessible and as such, the ideal song to look up if you want to hear what ‘Riitiir’ is about. But really, the entire album deserves attentive listening. Luckily the songs invite you to do so.

With ‘Riitiir’, Enslaved has reached a new highlight in its carreer. I’m sure fans of their early Black Metal days – although the appropriate term is “Viking Metal” if I’m not mistaking – will not agree with me, but if you view ‘Riitiir’ as what it really is, being a progressive work of art, you don’t have to pay any attention to the band’s past. I’d rather look to their future if it contains more stuff like this.

Recommended tracks: ‘Roots Of The Mountain’, ‘Forsaken’, ‘Veilburner’


Please help nominate Orphaned Land for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize

Dear reader,

Usually, I wouldn’t want to use this weblog to express anything even vaguely resembling politics, but it has been brought to my attention that a petition was set up to nominate Israeli Metal band Orphaned Land for next year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Since I fully support Orphaned Land’s meta-political message, I hereby want to ask anyone who also stands behind their cause to sign the petition as well.

Orphaned Land brings together people from cultures that politicians consistently try to keep apart. Their message of world peace and inter-religious harmony is something that lifts this band above the status of just being a band, while the message doesn’t interfere with the music. Their positivity and open mind denies borders and unites people which public opinion doesn’t want us to believe can be united. Orphaned Land is one of the very few institutes that tries to achieve this in a manner that is completely free of violence, threats, oppression and domination whatsoever. Also, their Middle Eastern Metal tours combine Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Atheist musicians without that playing any part, just letting the music speak above any religion or philosophy. Peace through music may be possible and if it ever will happen, Orphaned Land is very likely to be the band to have initiated it.

You can sign the petition by following this link and provide your name and possibly an explanation why you support this. Just remember you have to speak out if you want anyone to hear you.

Album of the Week 42-2012: Myrath – Tales Of The Sands

My first real encounter with Tunisia’s Myrath was when they toured with Orphaned Land last year. I had heard some songs from their debut album ‘Hope’ and dismissed them as a Symphony-X clone with a Middle-Eastern touch. Was I ever wrong. As shown on ‘Tales Of The Sands’, Myrath produces a unique blend of progressive Metal and Oriental music, mostly accented by the downright fantastic Tunisian orchestra conducted by keyboard player Elyes Bouchoucha. In a musical climate where everything has already been tried, it’s hard to be blown off your feet by something completely unique. But that’s exactly where Myrath succeeds.

From the moment I started listening to Metal, something has attracted me to Middle-Eastern touches, but it wasn’t until I discovered the likes of bands from that area, such as Orphaned Land and Pentagram – the Turkish one, naturally – that it truly grew into full-fledged love. Myrath deserves a place amongst those bands, but does something one-of-a-kind with their inspiration from northern African Malouf music, most apparent in the percussion and orchestrations appearing in many songs, and their powerful singer Zoher Zorgati, whose voice is something of a blend of a strong Rock belt and a full-on Arabic holler. The vocal acrobatics of the latter side are impressive. Also, Myrath’s compositions are so surprising and forceful that an open-minded fan of music can’t go wrong here.

Although there is definitely something of a clear Myrath sound, no two songs on ‘Tales Of The Sands’ sound alike. Most of the songs have very strong choruses, which isn’t exactly typical for progressive Metal. The catchiest is probably the Arabic chorus to ‘Beyond The Stars’. I have no idea what Zorgati sings there and the booklet doesn’t help much either, because I can’t read Arabic script, but somehow I always try to sing along, because the melody refuses to leave your head. Malek Ben Arbia’s guitar solo in the song is amazing as well. Another brilliant chorus is spotted in the breathtaking ‘Sour Sigh’; super heavy riffs topped by Zorgati at his strongest. ‘Wide Shut’ gives a lot of space to the majestic orchestrations, ‘Merciless Times’ is another song that makes me sound ridiculous as a western man vainly attempting to sing these Arabic melodies, but I just can’t resist and ‘Under Siege’ is an incredibly strong opener that sums up the album pefectly. The title track spots another dreamy Arabic chorus.

The production by Adagio’s keyboard player Kevin Codfert is nothing short of stainless and gives the album just that little extra push. Everything sounds crisp and clear and there’s even room for Anis Jouini’s incredible bass lines when Ben Arbia’s guitar riffs and the orchestrations are way up front. It’s remarkable how little things get in the way of each other here.

With ‘Tales Of The Sands’, Myrath definitively earned its place amongst the absolute top of Oriental Metal. And mind you, they were far ahead of the pack with its direct predecessor ‘Desert Call’ already. It’s almost sad for all the western bands trying out these Middle-Eastern and north African overtones, because bands like Myrath, Orphaned Land, Melechesh and Pentagram will always be ahead of them due to the fact that they have this music in their blood. One thing is for sure: if you are interested in Oriental sounds, you need to hear ‘Tales Of The Sands’. It’s impossible not to be impressed.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sour Sigh’, ‘Beyond The Stars’, ‘Under Siege’, ‘Wide Shut’

Album of the Week 41-2012: OverKill – Killbox 13

New Jersey Thrashers OverKill became my favorite band almost instantly when I first heard them around about 15 years ago. Since then, I have indulged in every new album they released, but the album with the longest lasting value for me seems to be ‘Killbox 13’, along with ‘Ironbound’. First of all, ‘Killbox’ is probably the best produced album – courtesy of Colin Richardson – and due to the massive amount of variation present on the record, the dynamics give the album an indispensable revisiting quality. And that’s not just because of the dynamic, the songs are extremely well written as well.

Especially the guitars by Dave Linsk and Derek Tailer are much more meaty and powerful than on any other album here. The guitar sound is massive, but also clear. In addition, I don’t know what crawled up Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth’s ass during these sessions, but he delivers the vocal performance of a lifetime here. In itself, it’s already a legacy of his sheer quality as a singer that he has retained that rough-edged, shrill scream for over 30 years, but something here just made him rise above himself. His voice on ‘Killbox 13’ sums up the compositions and the band’s performance quite well: inspired and powerful.

If there is one influence that really stands out on this album, it’s Black Sabbath. That’s not to say that this is earth shattering Doom (although it does contain such a song in the shape of the brutal ‘Crystal Clear’), but the song structures are quite reminiscent of the godfathers of Metal. Especially the way many songs transform into something completely new and exciting somewhere halfway through – look no further than the pounding opener ‘Devil By The Tail’ for the first example – is something shared with Sabbath.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the entire album is that good. A lot of Metal records these days are frontloaded with the good stuff and as a result collapse somewhere in the middle. Even OverKill has fallen into that trap in the past. On ‘Killbox 13’, there are great songs in the beginning (the AC/DC-gone-Metal track ‘Damned’, the unconventionally passionate epic ‘No Lights’), in the middle (the laid-back, almost lazy and experimental ‘Until I Die’, the killer ‘The One’ and the aforementioned monster ‘Crystal Clear’) and finishes with three incredible pieces of ripping Thrash; the Maiden-esque ‘Struck Down’ (featuring a stellar DD Verni), the surprisingly swinging ‘Unholy’ and the downright incredible, mindblowing closer ‘I Rise’.

The seven deadly sins theme – although rage seems ro be rightfully over-represented – gives the album some kind of consistency, but the truth is that even without that common thread, this would have been one of the better titles in OverKill’s extensive discography. Easily their best post ‘W.F.O.’ release, only to be rivaled in that matter by ‘Irounbound’ 8 years later. Every song on here has something of a quality that makes your blood boil and your adrenalin rise through the roof and let’s face it: wasn’t that what Thrash Metal was supposed to do in the first place?

Recommended tracks: ‘I Rise’, ‘Struck Down’, ‘Crystal Clear’, ‘Devil By The Tail’, ‘Until I Die’

Album of the Week 40-2012: Heart – Fanatic

The hiatus between ‘Jupiter’s Darling’ and ‘Red Velvet Car’ was 6 years. Luckily it took Heart only two years to finish ‘Fanatic’ and if that wasn’t enough, it turns out to be one of the band’s better albums. After the relatively folky ‘Red Velvet Car’, the Wilson sisters’ main concern on ‘Fanatic’ seems to show the world they still can rock. Maybe not as bombastically as in their seventies heyday, but the distinct Led Zeppelin vibe present on those albums is the main focus on ‘Fanatic’ as well, combined with a rootsy, American swagger.

The first thing that stood out upon first listen is how amazing Ann Wilson’s voice still is at 62. It has aged remarkably well. Especially the power in her delivery is simply astounding. Many singers – male or female – a third of her age wish they had a voice like that. Also, the ladies seem remarkably comfortable with the music they have written for this record with producer and multi-instrumentalist Ben Mink. Listening to ‘Fanatic’ can lead to only one conclusion: this makes sense. This is the music Ann and Nancy Wilson want to make at this point in time and they do it with all the conviction needed to deliver a great Rock record.

So ‘Fanatic’ rocks, albeit in a semi-psychedelic, yet accessible fashion. Check out my favorite track ‘A Million Miles’, to see what I mean. There’s this laidback, relentlessly infectious groove carrying the song, but it’s decorated by this almost hypnotizing keyboard line that gives the song an atmosphere reminiscent of Robert Plant’s ‘Tin Pan Valley’. The rhythmic delay effects and awesome build-up do the rest of the work. Nancy Wilson and Ben Mink do a great job on the guitars as well; their dirty, fuzzy sound lends this album its distinct vibe and I think Nancy’s dirty, rhythmic guitar work is severely underrated.

Besides ‘A Million Miles’, other highlights of the album include the obvious nod to Led Zeppelin that is ‘Mashallah!’, the heavy stomp of ’59 Crunch’ and the Funky Blues of ‘Skin And Bones. The title track is the ideal opening statement to the album, with its urgent riffs and catchy chorus, ‘Pennsylvania’ is a powerful semi-ballad in the best Heart tradition and closing track ‘Corduroy Road’ is a little work of psychedelic Hardrock art, not unlike the stuff their fellow townsmen of Pearl Jam or prime influence Robert Plant did around the beginning of this century.

While ‘Red Velvet Car’ wasn’t a bad album by any means, to these ears, the folky touches were a bit too dominant on that record. ‘Fanatic’ restores that by rocking deep (yes, that is a reference to one of the song titles). Furthermore, ‘Fanatic’ is just a collection of awesome Rock tunes like only my favorite two women of Rock music could make them. ‘Fanatic’ is the proof that Heart is still relevant almost four decades after their debut on the scene. Let’s just hope a record like this brings them back to the Dutch stages: I need my fill of Heart live!

Recommended tracks: ‘A Million Miles’, ‘Mashallah!’, ‘Corduroy Road’, ’59 Crunch’

Album of the Week 39-2012: Grave Digger – Rheingold

Once upon a time, yours truly disliked German Metal veterans Grave Digger. Part of that was Chris Boltendahl’s raspy voice. And still, despite the great music, I think that what is considered the band’s classic album, 1996’s ‘Tunes Of War’, is marred by Boltendahl attempting to do more than his limited range allows him to. In recent years, he seems to have embraced his shortcomings. On 2003’s ‘Rheingold’, the entire band was on fire. Since the band’s early ninties reunion, they tried to combine their Speed Metal roots with a Power Metal sensibility, with the speedy riffs of the former and the bombast and big choruses of the latter. ‘Rheingold’ is the ultimate marriage of both.

Based on Richard Wagner’s opera adaption of Germany’s legendary ‘Nibelungenlied’, ‘Rheingold’ is one of Grave Digger’s many concept albums. Their most accomplished at that as well. The symphonic elements used much more as a complimentary thing than is usual within the Power Metal framework, especially when it’s used as an interlude accompanied by the band, such as in the awesome ‘Giants’. As for the choirs in the choruses, that’s something Grave Digger has been doing since the reunion, they’re just more present here. And better arranged.

‘Rheingold’ also really profits from having Manni Schmidt on guitar. No disrespect to Uwe Lulis before him or Axel Ritt after him, but Schmidt is by far the band’s best guitarist, with the only true contender being Thilo Hermann, who teamed up with him for ‘Ballads Of A Hangman’ only. His past in Rage already prove he was very proficient riffer and his leads have a certain off-the-cuff looseness to them uncommon to the genre, but still undeniably Metal. And those riffs are just killer. My favorite is the opening riff to the title track. That’s the kind of stuff that gets my blood pumping. I don’t want to take any credit from the impressive drumming of Stefan Arnold and the bass playing of Jens Becker, which is far above German Power Metal average, but Schmidt is on fire here.

Despite the fact that Grave Digger always has had four distinct types of songs – fast songs, midtempo songs, epic stuff and ballads, although nothing on this album fully qualifies as the latter – ‘Rheingold’ displays a surprising amount of variation. The dynamics in ‘Maidens Of War’ and ‘Murderer’ are impressive. The band excels in fast songs (the title track, ‘Valhalla’, ‘Giants’), but also in midtempo stuff (‘Sword’). It gets even better when the band mixes it up (‘Twilight Of The Gods’ – strangely misspelled “Twighlight” in the booklet – and especially ‘Dragon’, listen to that song and you’ll realize that’s why you listen to Metal in the first place!). The band has been accused of being too much of one thing in the past, but that certainly isn’t the case here.

It may have taken me a while to give Grave Digger the fair chance they deserved, but it’s albums like these that just pull me in. ‘Rheingold’ would also serve perfectly as an introduction to the band’s work, together with the excellent ‘Excalibur’ (if only to chuckle at the ridiculous German pronounciation of the title), the speeding frenzy ‘The Reaper’, the inspired ‘Heart Of Darkness’ and ‘Ballads Of A Hangman’. Their recent ‘Clash Of The Gods’ is pretty cool too. The riffs of “good old” Heavy Metal and the choruses of Power Metal. You won’t hear me complain!

Recommended tracks: ‘Rheingold’, ‘Dragon’, ‘Twilight Of The Gods’, ‘Giants’

Baroness and Moke? Check the new issue of Gitarist!

Recently, I interviewed guitarists and singers John Dyer Baizley and Pete Adams of the American “psychedelic Metal” – I know that’s not quite accurate, but it’s close enough – quartet Baroness before their show at De-Affaire in Nijmegen. Obviously, this was before their terrible tour bus crash in the UK which caused Baizley to break both of his left limbs and drummer Allan Blickle and bassist Matt Maggioni to suffer from crushed vertebrae. Before I carry on about the actual publication, I’d like to wish all of the band and crew members, all of whom were very kind and sincere people, a speedy recovery.

As for the interview, I was happy to talk to Baizley and Adams before the accident, because we had a very interesting conversation about their new album ‘Yellow & Green’ and a general sense of guitar nerd-ism. In addition, the guys themselves speak out about where to categorize their hard-to-categorize music (conclusion: they don’t want to be categorized) and you might actually come across some surprises soundwise. In addition, I spoke to Amsterdam quintet Moke about their brand new ‘Collider’ album. The result was an interesting conversation about the recordings in Brussels’ renowned ICP Studios and the production process with Gordon Groothedde. I just love talking to people about the process of recording albums. Anyway, an article based on the conversation can be read in the “Op de plaat” section of this month’s issue.

Furthermore, the Gitarist issue that spots the most beautiful cover since I started writing for them features three small reviews I wrote – on Moke’s ‘Collider’, John Coffey’s incredible ‘Bright Companions’ and BloYaTop’s ‘Why Waltz?’ – and there’s an extended feature on the acoustic guitar. As if that isn’t enough, you can enjoy interviews with Ed Sheeran, John Coffey and the incomparable Robert Cray, as well as countless product tests and workshops. Want to learn how to tap on bass or how to play ‘Vortex Omnivium’ by the downright amazing Obscura. They even recorded an instruction video to accompany the workshop.

Now don’t act like you have any reason to not check this out, because this is one hell of a way to enhance the enjoyment of your commute!