Posts Tagged ‘ Angra ’

Best of 2018: The Albums

In terms of music releases, 2018 was one of the strangest years in recent history. Save for a few notable peaks – in June and September most notably – there have not really been extended periods with lots of great releases. In fact, some of the trusted names have released quite disappointing albums. Record companies seem to slowly shift their focus towards reissues and live releases, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but I would have been happy if there was some more previously unheard material that blew me away during the year.

Nevertheless, there were two amazing albums this year that make an equal claim to the number one spot, both of them Japanese. In the end, I literally flipped a coin to decide the order of the first two records. Not unlike other recent years, many of the western artists in the lists are either relatively new bands that took me by considerable surprise or long-running bands that suddenly released a career highlight. That should be enough to still remain hopeful about the future of international heavy metal.

1. Onmyo-za – Hado Myoo

Despite all of Onmyo-za’s albums being of excellent quality, nothing could have prepared me for ‘Hado Myoo’. The album was darker and heavier than anyone could have expected – especially after the relatively lightweight single ‘Oka Ninpocho’ – but it still features the trademark melodic elegance that Onmyo-za is known for. During the album’s best moments, the contrast between Matatabi’s forceful sections and Kuroneko’s melancholic introspection really brings out the best of all sides of the band. Onmyo-za is one of the very few contemporary metal bands that scores 10/10 on riffs, melodies, structure, memorability and vocals simultaneously and ‘Hado Myoo’ is one of the brightest examples of that.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shimobe’, ‘Hao’, ‘Haja No Fuin’

2. Saber Tiger – Obscure Diversity

Since around 2011, Saber Tiger has truly been on a roll. Their current line-up is probably the strongest they have ever had and their song material is nothing short of excellence, combining the powerful melodies and overall feel of eighties heavy metal with the impressive intricacy of contemporary progressive metal. With these elements, Saber Tiger has crafted a sound that is completely unique and ‘Obscure Diversity’ expands on that by being more complex and more accessible at the same time. There’s a perfect balance between aggression, musical craftsmanship and memorability on the album. While many modern metal albums sound clinical and soulless, Saber Tiger retains the passion that is so important to the genre.

Recommended tracks: ‘Distant Signals’, ‘Beat Of The War Drums’, ‘The Worst Enemy’

3. Witherfall – A Prelude To Sorrow

Despite being familiar with Jake Dreyer through Iced Earth and White Wizzard, his own band Witherfall really blew me away from out of nowhere. ‘A Prelude To Sorrow’ was the most pleasant surprise of the year. Dark, but not self-pitying. Complex, but not impenetrable. Melodic, but not powerless. Witherfall does just about everything right here. Joseph Michael’s vocal performance is the cherry on the cake. He has the subtle rasp of a young Halford, the drama of Bruce Dickinson and a higher register eerily similar to Crimson Glory’s Midnight. There’s so much to this album that I can see myself listening to it for many years to come. In a way, Witherfall fills the void left after the definitive end of Nevermore with their expertly composed, dark progressive metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘We Are Nothing’, ‘Moment Of Silence’, ‘Vintage’

4. The Magpie Salute – High Water I

Although The Black Crowes have always impressed me with their engaging combination of typically American music styles, the country influences got a little too prominent on their last few albums for my taste. Apparently guitarist and main songwriter Rich Robinson also thought so, because while the rootsy sounds are still there on ‘High Water I’, the debut studio album of his new band The Magpie Salute, the songs are mainly rooted in bluesy hardrock, while the acoustic songs are more folky in nature. Singer John Hogg is a revelation. His passionate voice is what really lifts the album above the level of its already impressive songwriting. The melodies and atmospheres are captivating. At this point, I honestly hope the rise of The Magpie Salute will not be stopped by a Crowes reunion.

Recommended tracks: ‘High Water’, ‘Open Up’, ‘For The Wind’

5. Warrel Dane – Shadow Work

Sure, Warrel Dane was in my top three favorite metal singers of all time, so it should not be too surprising that ‘Shadow Work’ is so good. But given the fact that he died during the recordings, it is remarkable how accomplished and well-arranged it sounds. It is essentially an unfinished record, but hardly does it ever sound like one. There’s a few moments where Warrel’s vocal lines are a little rough around the edges, but they give the album character rather than being distracting. The songs sound really good; they mainly display an even darker take on Nevermore’s formula. And one can hear that this has become a true labor of love for Dane’s Brazilian backing band. They play their hearts out below what is unfortunately Dane’s final farewell. It is a powerful one though!

Recommended tracks: ‘Madame Satan’, ‘Shadow Work’, ‘Mother Is The Word For God’

6. Voivod – The Wake

For years, the late Denis ‘Piggy’ D’Amour was deemed irreplacable. Martyr’s Daniel ‘Chewy’ Mongrain proved that nothing is impossible on the fantastic ‘Target Earth’ (2013) and now, ‘The Wake’ proves that was not just a fluke. The album steers slightly away from the technical thrash of ‘Killing Technology’ (1987) and more towards the futuristic, surprisingly relaxed progressive metal of ‘Nothingface’ (1989). ‘The Wake’ is an adventurous record that is likely to please any fan of mid-period Voivod, but is not simply copying the formula of those years. The songwriting on the album is simply too inventive and spontaneous for that. Many sections on the album even sound like improvised jams, which is highly unusual for a metal band. Then again, highly unusual is Voivod’s bread and butter!

Recommended tracks: ‘Always Moving’, ‘Sonic Mycelium’, ‘Spherical Perspective’

7. Asagi – Madara

While D is easily one of the better bands in the visual kei scene, I was not too sure if a solo album of their frontman Asagi was what I was waiting for. It turns out that he took the elements from what I consider D’s best songs – the ones that are more Asian folk-oriented – and turned that into the style for his full album. On a majority of the album, traditional instruments like the shamisen, the koto and several percussion instruments are enhanced by the distorted guitars rather than the overused other way around, resulting in an album that may be even better than D’s already consistently great discography. In addition, it is admirable how Asagi managed to make ‘Madara’ sound like a uniformous album despite the numerous contributions of high profile guest musicians.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hakumenkonmo Kyubi No Kitsune Hidama’, ‘Komo Sakura’, ‘Ooyama Inudake ~Tsukuyo Ni Hoeyu~’

8. Aria – Proklyatiye Morey

‘Gonka Za Slavoy’ is the single greatest song released last year. The rest of ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ is really good as well. In fact, ever since current (and best) singer Mikhail Zhitnyakov joined the band, Aria has been experiencing a bit of a rebirth. ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ is the third installment in a series of studio albums that is easily their best since their late eighties and early nineties heyday. In fact, ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ even finds the band branching out by treading their most progressive waters yet. Unlike some of the recent albums of their prime influence Iron Maiden, Aria manages to sound fresh and energetic throughout the album, however. The short, punchy songs are as good as the longer, proggy ones. If highly melodic old school heavy metal is your thing, ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ is an album you cannot afford to miss.

Recommended tracks: ‘Gonka Za Slavoy’, ‘Ot Zakata Do Rassveta’, ‘Zhivoy’, ‘Era Lucifera’

9. Angra – Ømni

Angra continues to release amazing records. And in true Angra fashion, ‘Ømni’ is different than anything they have ever done before. It is probably the album with the most pronounced Afro-Brazilian influences since their classic ‘Holy Land’ album. The best aspect about ‘Ømni’ is its versatility though. It is a progressive metal album with many different shades and faces. In fact, this is one of the few albums where I think “world metal” is a pretty good genre tag for it. Power metal is slightly less prominent than on ‘Secret Garden’ (2015), but that is hardly an issue here. Also, it is admirable how little of a difference the loss of long-time guitarist Kiko Loureiro makes. Marcelo Barbosa is an excellent replacement. I am fairly confident about Angra’s future at this point.

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

10. Alice In Chains – Rainier Fog

‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’ (2013) made me fear that Alice In Chains had gotten too comfortable with its own sound, but fortunately, ‘Rainier Fog’ proved me wrong. Sure, the twisted anguish of ‘Dirt’ (1992) has gone, although traces of it can still be heard occasionally. Naturally, the elements that make Alice In Chains the band people know and love are featured prominently on ‘Rainier Fog’. The dual lead vocal harmonies, the crushingly heavy riffs, the haunting minor key melodies and the melancholic ballads are all there. There is just a more spontaneous “let’s throw this against the wall and see if it sticks” vibe than before. Ultimately, what makes ‘Rainier Fog’ an above average Alice In Chains album is that the album contains some of the most memorable songs the Seattleites have written in a long time.

Recommended tracks: ‘All I Am’, ‘Rainier Fog’, ‘Deaf Ears Blind Eyes’, ‘Red Giant’

11. Myles Kennedy – Year Of The Tiger

Easily the greatest rock singer of his generation, the sound of Myles Kennedy’s solo album was surprising, to say the least. ‘Year Of The Tiger’ is an album rooted in acoustic guitars, but not in the pretentious singer-songwriter way of most rock singers. Instead, a large portion of the album has been written on resonator guitars, adding a sort of a country blues flavor to many of the songs. Of course, there is still the folky stuff such an acoustic approach tends to result in, but there is even some more powerful stuff here that would have been hardrock if the instrumentation had been different. The interaction between acoustic and electric instruments accounts for an album that is much more dynamic than one would expect. One of the surprise winners of 2018.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Great Beyond’, ‘Nothing But A Name’, ‘Blind Faith’

12. Amorphis – Queen Of Time

Without wanting to sound too petty in my clean vocal fundamentalism, ‘Queen Of Time’ may have been higher on my list if it didn’t feature so much grunting from Tomi Joutsen. Musically, ‘Queen Of Time’ is probably the most interesting, layered album Amorphis has released so far. The songs aren’t radically different from what they did before, but the songs are significantly enhanced by the use of several traditional instruments, which gives the songs a depth beyond the quality we have come to expect from the Finns. Some of the choruses just beg for Joutsen’s excellent clean vocals and get his – admittedly good – grunts instead. If that does not bother you, you could do a lot worse than the equally progressive and melodic as heavy and brutal stuff on ‘Queen Of Time’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Daughter Of Hate’, ‘Heart Of The Giant’, ‘The Golden Elk’

13. Lovebites – Clockwork Immortality

‘Awakening From Abyss’ was one of the two albums in last year’s coin toss. ‘Clockwork Immortality’ did not impress me quite as much upon first spin. After some time, the album sunk in though. I still think it lacks something the debut did have, but there are too many good songs on the album to dismiss it easily. Overall, ‘Clockwork Immortality’ is slightly more streamlined than the previous Lovebites releases, but there is still an abundance of excellent guitar work by Midori and Miyako and singer Asami is still one of the best female rock singers in Japan. After some spins, my idea is that better sequencing could have improved ‘Clockwork Immortality’, but that doesn’t take away the fact that there are some excellent power metal and hardrock songs on the record.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Final Collision’, ‘Addicted’, ‘M.D.O.’, ‘Pledge Of The Savior’

14. Navarone – Salvo

After the carefully arranged ‘Oscillation’, ‘Salvo’ finds Navarone aiming for the live energy that made them so good in the first place again. Stylistically, ‘Salvo’ combines some of the best rock music from the seventies and nineties, ending up sounding not too dissimilar to what Slash does with Myles Kennedy. Fresh, punchy songs with catchy choruses that don’t overstay their respective welcomes are all over ‘Salvo’. As always, the album proves that Navarone excels in writing smartly arranged rock songs that don’t sound like they have been labored over and the fantastic voice of Merijn van Haren ties it all together. Anyone who has once said that rock music is not what it used to be should certainly give ‘Salvo’ a spin. Unless you don’t like to be proven wrong of course.

Recommended tracks: ‘Mind’s Eye’, ‘Søreal’, ‘The Strong Survive’, ‘Another Way’

15. White Wizzard – Infernal Overdrive

Another one of those albums I was not expecting to like so much. To me, White Wizzard was always one of those retro bands that rightfully had to settle for opening act status. Occasionally fun, but ultimately lacking in the songwriting department. ‘Infernal Overdrive’ prove me wrong. Gone are the days of blindly aping influences – though closing track ‘The Illusion’s Tears’ has its moments – and in its place, we have a bunch of excellent contemporary heavy metal songs with some delicious guitar work. Even singer Wyatt Anderson has improved significantly. Most of the longer songs feature a ton of engaging stuff as well. I had hoped for this to be the start of a bright future, but unfortunately, White Wizzard called it quits a few months after the album’s release.

Recommended tracks: ‘Metamorphosis’, ‘Pretty May’, ‘Chasing Dragons’

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Interview: The third era of Angra

Some bands are irreparably damaged by change. Angra seems immune to that. In fact, through the years, line-up changes have only made the Brazilian quintet stronger. Losing their longtime guitarist Kiko Loureiro to Megadeth could have been disastrous, but their brand new album ‘Ømni‘ proves that Angra is still as inspired as ever. With influences from progressive metal, power metal and Brazilian music, the album is a masterclass in how versatile heavy metal guitar playing can be. The two guitarists responsible for this, bandleader Rafael Bittencourt and newcomer Marcelo Barbosa, guide us through the creation of the album.

After Kiko left, I was a bit worried“, admits Bittencourt. “Kiko was not only an exceptional guitar player, but also my songwriting partner. I wanted someone to fill that spot. Because of that, everyone got involved with the songwriting. This album started from zero, with conversations of what the direction of the band should be. When we were touring with Tarja Turunen two years ago, we started jamming and exchanging ideas with small amps in the dressing room and backstage.
At the time, we were touring for the anniversary of our ‘Holy Land’ album, which allowed us to do a lot of research on that album together. Marcelo lives two hours away from where I live by plane and Fabio
(Lione, singer) lives in Europe, so I was meeting with Felipe (Andreoli, bassist) and Bruno (Valverde, drummer) more often, but whenever we could, we would get together out in the woods for a couple of days. Just resting, chatting and exchanging ideas. Marcelo was showing me new bands and artists that I hadn’t really listened to, like Alter Bridge and Jeff Buckley, so we kind of exchanged influences as well. All of this has made ‘Ømni’ a very collective work.
I think that every time we changed members, the music changed a little bit. As a guitar player, Marcelo has a similar background to Kiko. They are both very technical and influenced by fusion players. Musically, however, it was a big difference, because Marcelo has a different way of doing things. The biggest difference was his energy, the way his personality balances with the group. He was the missing link that we needed to complete a very solid line-up.

A lot of soul

It is an honor and a pleasure for me to be in a band like Angra“, says Barbosa. “Not only because everybody respects the band around the world, but also because the atmosphere within the band is really good. Fabio, Bruno and I were encouraged to bring in some ideas and we also had the chance to give our opinions about the ideas the other guys came up with. Because of that, I felt really free and respected by the other guys, which is of course a perfect situation for me.
I was familiar with some of the writing that Marcello has done in the past, especially what he did with Almah“, continues Bittencourt. “So I knew we would get the whole package from him. I wanted Marcelo to be a part of the songwriting process, but I didn’t know how his input would sound in the overall result. We had some structures and parts for solos, but I would only know what he had in mind when he was actually recording it. During the recording sessions, I was getting more and more impressed with him. Every time he would record a solo, he would do something different. He used a whole variety of phrases and sounds.
My first concern was to bring in someone very technical, so the audience would not miss Kiko. In the end, Marcelo did not only bring technique, but also a lot of soul. The stuff he plays is alive. I can feel it moving. This time, we were learning how to work together. Next time, everything will be different when we start the writing process, because now we know what to expect from each other. I can’t wait to create more guitar parts together. I think the guitar parts will be even richer next time.

Fresh ideas

For me, ‘Ømni’ represents a new era for the band“, explains Bittencourt. “Our third. This time, three of the guys are relatively new to the band, so they’re helping to create a new sound with new ideas. Bruno, for instance, is only 27 years old, the same age as the band. He is very excited to be in Angra, because here in Brazil, Angra represents pride, as we are one of the few Brazilian bands that are successful abroad. This excitement, combined with the experience that Felipe and I have in the band, brings a lot of fresh ideas to the table.

What we wanted ‘Ømni’ to do is to combine these fresh ideas with the long history of Angra. We wanted to wrap up our history style-wise, so we brought a little bit of power metal, a little bit of melodic metal, symphonic metal, progressive metal, Afro-Brazilian stuff, orchestral stufff with percussion… Everything that we have ever done in a fresh, new sound. And I think we really succeeded.
This is the best time I have experienced with the band. In the past, it has sometimes been very stressful and painful to record and release a new record. This time, it was smooth, easy, natural and organic. Ideas were flowing. We would be talking, laughing, stopping for coffee, come back and more ideas would flow. Before the album came out, we didn’t know if people would like it, but I knew it was our best work. Everyone was so talented and so creative. I love it when our problem is that we have two or three choruses in the same song. Not because we don’t have a chorus, but because we have two or three really good melodies. In that case, deciding which one is out is not stressful, it makes me happy.

We actually had almost an entire album of other songs“, smiles Barbosa. “We wrote about eight songs more than we have on the album. Sometimes you already have two prog songs and it would be too much if you add a third one to the albums. The same goes for ballads, we already had two.
There is a whole soft song that was already prepared for the album“, agrees Bittencourt. “A really good song, but we already had a ballad and our producer Jens Bogren, who is a genius, did not want the album to become too soft. He wanted the record to be a little more aggressive, so it would make more of an impact. The whole song was out, so we can put it on our next one. There are also many ideas for songs; choruses, verses, riffs, instrumental parts… We don’t have to start from scratch next time.

Nothing to lose

I always write songs having the melody as a guideline“, Bittencourt shares. “Many times I start singing a melody, I add some rhythms to the melody and I won’t start adding the chords until the third stage. Therefore, singing is a natural thing for me. I like singing. Still, I think guitar players usually don’t sing as good as the lead singer, simply because of the position of the microphone. When you play, you want to watch the neck and you start worrying about what you’re doing. And worrying is never good, regardless of if you’re singing or playing.
During the ‘Angels Cry’ anniversary, we had nothing to lose. Some people complained that we didn’t have Edu or André
(Falaschi and Matos, former singers) with us, but when Fabio joined the band, we started researching new ways of interpreting our music. The audience knew that something different than what was previously done was coming up. That was a good moment for me to start singing, because everything would be new to the ears of the audience.
However, I was not going to be the lead singer, because that is a very hard task. We have very difficult guitar parts and difficult vocal melodies. And communicating with a crowd is also a big responsibility. I did not want to quit focusing on being the guitar player. I wanted to sing once in a while, when the songs are meaningful to me. Like ‘The Bottom Of My Soul’ on the new album. It’s a very personal song, so I decided with Fabio that I was going to sing it.

Guitar scientist

We started working with Jens Bogren with our last album ‘Secret Garden’“, says Bittencourt. “He brought a new concept for the guitar sounds. That was when I started to research new sounds and new equipment. In fact, it was Marcelo who made me aware of the fact that Kemper if very practical to work with. If I want to try an amp, I don’t need to buy it first. It really gave us the option to try out what is best for us with everything in the same box.
Our friends and us are always exchanging Kemper profiles, we literally have thousands“, explains Barbosa. “That’s why it’s always changing. Rafael and I extensively talked about guitar tone and exchanged sounds and ideas about our sound. We needed a really good set-up that was small and light to travel with and that we could use directly into the PA. Using the Kempers on stage is great for us, because we have tons of different sounds that we love. And we also have the option to not use a cabinet.

Marcelo is a guitar scientist“, admits Bittencourt. “He spends a lot of time on researching guitar sounds and learning different techniques, styles and phrases. He is a real perfectionist with every detail of playing guitar. I am a guitar lunatic. I’m much more intuitive. A part of the reason why I don’t spend the same amount of time on such things, is that I’m involved with every step of the production in Angra: the schedule, what we have for lunch when we are rehearsing and recording, hiring keyboard players, the orchestra and the percussionists. So when it comes to creating the guitar parts, my main resource is my intuition. However, I think this is very complementary. As a player, Marcelo is very intuitive as well.
My task in Angra productions is to capture everyone’s ideas and glue them together in a concept that makes sense. There’s classical parts, acoustic guitar sections, thrash metal riffs, a piano part, percussions… How to glue that together in a way that doesn’t feel like too many atmospheres into 50 minutes of music, that is my job. This time, it was a very easy task.

Diversity

Both of us started listening to Brazilian music before we even started playing the guitar“, says Bittencourt about the strong Brazilian influences on ‘Ømni’. “It’s our background, it’s in our veins. I think that all power metal bands should feel free to add some more diversity to their music, because the crowd is losing interest in power metal. It got so stiff and conservative that it is hard to create something engaging. Many power metal bands got so framed into a certain set of rules, that they all started to sound the same. Some of them sound as if they’re just following some rules instead of being creative. Kids grow up and get smarter. If you dumb their music down, they will lose interest at some point.

Angra is currently on tour.

Listen to ‘Ømni’ on Spotify.

Surprisingly metallic contributions to this month’s Gitarist


My contributions to this month’s issue of Gitarist have been surprisingly metallic. Balance is delivered by other authors’ pieces this month. First off, I had an interview with Rafael Bittencourt and Marcelo from Angra about their fantastic new album ‘Ømni‘. We talked about more interesting stuff than the article allowed room for, so please stay tuned: everything else we talked about will be published about in English on this very weblog later this week. Furthermore, the interview I had with Spoil Engine guitarists Steven ‘Gaze’ Sanders and Bart Vandeportaele is published with two live photos I took in his month’s guitarist.

And most relaxingly, I have taken the time to talk with Merel Bechtold, my friend of many years, about the recording of Purest Of Pain’s album ‘Solipsis’. Many years ago, we gigged together a couple of times, so it already seems like Purest Of Pain has been around forever, but due to her busy gigging schedule with Delain and Mayan, she finally found the time to finish the album. It sounds good; everyone who likes modern, Scandinavian style melodic death metal should certainly give the album a spin. You will not regret it.

Moreover, Michael Landau talks with us about his thoroughly enjoyable new album ‘Rock Bottom’ and there are loads and loads of gear reviews and background articles. If guitars and guitarists interest you and you can read Dutch, I can’t advise you enough to check this thing out. It is in stores now.

Album of the Week 12-2018: Bittencourt Project – Brainworms I


With Angra’s music being as varied as it is, what more could guitarist and chief songwriter Rafael Bittencourt want to express? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Debut album ‘Brainworms I’ of his own Bittencourt Project is full of music that, while not completely sounding out of place amongst Angra’s oeuvre, would not fit on the albums of his main band. There certainly is more room to experiment with genres outside of power metal and progressive metal. Each and every one of these deeply personal compositions is performed with a passion that is rare among contemporary rock and metal albums. Very impressive.

Bittencourt is the lead singer on this album and although he has taken on some of the lead vocals on recent Angra albums, his heartfelt voice has a completely different range than the higher pitched singers he usually works with. Obviously, that requires a somewhat different approach in songwriting. And though ‘Brainworms I’ is still progressive metal to an extent, the hard rock, folk and even South American pop music influences make this a unique piece of work. Bittencourt is an amazing songwriter, but it also sounds like he gave the musicians he works with some space to be spontaneous, accounting for a very lively album.

Sequencing-wise, ‘Brainworms I’ is set up very cleverly, as opening track ‘Dedicate My Soul’ could have been an Angra track if it had a different arrangement. Due to its propulsive riffs and amazing chorus, it sort of eases its listener into the more “different” stuff. ‘The Underworld’ is another relatively heavy track, but quite dark compared to Angra’s quite upbeat take on metal. The interaction between Bittencourt and violinist Amon Lima in those tracks is incredible. The cover of Madredeus’ ‘O Pastor’ is surprisingly heavy as well. Definitely one of the most exciting moments on the album.

However, the softer moments are what make this album so interesting. ‘Holding Back The Fire’ is a stripped-down, Brazilian take on AOR, ‘Faded’ is a gorgeous dark ballad with a hopeful climax, while the twelve string guitar on ‘Santa Teresa’ gives the song an almost Led Zeppelin-like folk edge. ‘Nightfly’ is one of the highlights of the album, moving back and forth between tranquil passages, funky rock riffs and parts with a strong Brazilian influence. If anyone does not want to choose between folky and heavy; the amazing ‘Torment Of Fate’ has a tango intro, quiet verses and thick prog riffs. And a spine-chilling chorus.

Those expecting a shred album from the guitarist in a fairly virtuoso band will probably be shocked, as the only thing that comes (somewhat) close to that is the spirited instrumental ‘Comendo Melancia’. Yours truly has always had tremendous respect for Bittencourt as a songwriter and whoever else does, will likely be impressed by this spontaneous, lively album full of amazing songs. In addition, Bittencourt’s passionate vocals really lift these songs to a magnificent level. This is an honest, personal work of art that has the potential to appeal to a much wider group of listeners than Angra’s progressive power metal audience.

Recommended tracks: ‘Nightfly’, ‘Torment Of Fate’, ‘Dedicate My Soul’

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’

Best of 2015: The Albums

Halfway through 2015, I suddenly realized the new profit model of record labels is more in effect than ever. Not unlike last year, most of the releases I was looking forward to were either live records or re-releases, while less and less effort is put into giving promising young artists a chance. Of course, there’s still labels that offer opportunities for artists that are potentially less attractive commercially, but that’s more common in genres where independent labels get a little room to manoeuver; progressive Rock and Hip Hop come to mind.

That doesn’t mean there was nothing to enjoy this year, it just means that I’ve had less of a hard time compiling this list than two years ago, when I struggled on the last few titles quite some time. In fact, most of the titles I predicted would be “end of year list material” ended up here, while quite a lot of surprises popped up in previous years. The inclusions are based on their European physical release dates, so that closes the discussion on two of these, including the number one. These albums are definitely obligated listens for fans of the genre. I may request some open-mindedness for a few, but more on that later…

Trivial, but interesting enough to mention: with this album of the year, Asia and Australia are the only continents left to provide an album of the year, though Asia has had a DVD of the year.

1. Angra – Secret Garden

No one knew what to expect from Angra’s first record with Fabio Lione on vocals. I sure as hell didn’t expect anything this good. ‘Secret Garden’ is almost as good as ‘Rebirth’ and ‘Aurora Consurgens’ and the slightly more progressive sound has a pleasantly dark vibe. Also, the surprisingly large number of appearances by guitarist Rafael Bittencourt as a singer – an amazing one to boot! – makes the transition to a different frontman somewhat more fluent. New drummer Bruno Valverde is good enough to forget about his predecessors and I love his big, more natural drum sound. Every fan of both Power- and progressive Metal should own ‘Secret Garden’, it’s very well worth your time.

Recommended tracks: ‘Storm Of Emotions’, ‘Perfect Symmetry’, ‘Newborn Me’

2. Thunder – Wonder Days

Talk about an amazing comeback… Shortly after Thunder called it quits with ‘Bang!’, they were already gigging again. That wasn’t the first time in their career, so a new album was only a matter of time. But that it’s their best since ‘Behind Closed Doors’ was a very pleasant surprise. All the Thunder elements are firmly in place here: Bluesy Hardrock riffs, beefy drums, big and catchy choruses, strong melodies and Danny Bowes’ vocals are still as clean and powerful as they were on ‘Backstreet Symphony’. Luke Morley is one of the best songwriters in Rock history and ‘Wonder Days’ is another chapter in his Great British Songbook. Also, ‘The Thing I Want’ is probably my favorite song of the year.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Thing I Want’, ‘When The Music Played’, ‘Serpentine’

3. Jupiter – The History Of Genesis

Although Jupiter’s second record isn’t as consistent as its brilliant debut ‘Classical Element’, which totally reawakened my love for symphonic Power Metal, it is once again a thoroughly enjoyable record. It does show the band branching out a little more by incorporating more aggressive elements – ‘Darkness’ is technically Melodeath – and Zin streches his voice a little more, but the J-Rock aspect is a little stronger on a few songs as well. Hizaki and Teru deliver some delicious guitar work both in the riff and the solo department. Versailles, the former band of every band member except Zin, recently booked a reunion gig and I hope that will be a one-off thing, because Jupiter is a better band. Much better.

Recommended tracks: ‘Zetsubou Labyrinth’, ‘Red Carnation’, ‘Last Moment’

4. Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Today’s progressive Rock hero is without any doubt the Brit Steven Wilson and there’s a good reason for that: he’s one of the few contemporary progressive musicians who writes great songs. Having said that, I wasn’t too fond of his solo work, until recently, when he started combining his obvious early Genesis influences with a pop sensibility that Genesis themselves didn’t discover until they weren’t all that Prog anymore. Also, Wilson has gathered a fantastic bunch of musicians around him, with guitarist Guthrie Govan and drummer Marco Minnemann especially shining here. ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase.’ is a brilliant progressive Rock record that “regular” Rock fans with more patience than average should at least give a chance.

Recommended tracks: ‘Regret #9’, ‘Ancestral’, ‘3 Years Older’

5. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

Hip Hop seems to be the only genre in popular music that shows any progress these last years. Even with that in mind, Kendrick Lamar is a revelation. Conceptually, Lamar is miles ahead of anyone in any genre, including people much older than his 28 years. ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ takes all the rebellion of old school Hip Hop and elevates it to an art form with a background of Jazz and Funk with extensive spoken word sections. The results offer a great deal of variation and although I prefer Lamar at his most angry and militant, his clever observations and productional choices are worthwhile throughout the record. This is a logical progression from what Prince and D’Angelo do, just with a smarter, broader world view than either of them.

Recommended: ‘King Kunta’, ‘The Blacker The Berry’, ‘u’

6. Queensrÿche – Condition Hüman

Sometimes losing a legendary frontman is a blessing. Case in point: Queensrÿche. Geoff Tate was recently replaced by Todd LaTorre, who captures the classic Tate vibe better than the man himself does these days. Musically as well, ‘Condition Hüman’ is the best Queensrÿche record since the criminally underrated ‘Promised Land’. Michael Wilton injects a lot of traditional Heavy Metal into the band’s sound again and the combination of that and contemporary progressive Rock makes the album sound like the most old school record the band has made since the legendary ‘Operation: Mindcrime’. It’s not quite as good, but it’s much, much closer than you’d expect it to be at this point in their career.

Recommended tracks: ‘All There Was’, ‘Toxic Remedy’, ‘Hourglass’

7. Stryper – Fallen

Two years ago, I praised ‘No More Hell To Pay’ for toning Stryper’s christian message down a little. ‘Fallen’ is less subtle in that matter, but it is the better album of the two. In fact, I might like this even more than the band’s classic material from the eighties, because there’s just a little more variation at play here and the ballad isn’t quite as syrupy as…let’s say ‘Honestly’. There’s simply not much to not like on this album: the guitars are everywhere, Michael Sweet’s voice is still one of the best in the business and it’s got the best production job on a Stryper album yet. There’s nothing as good as the perfect melodic Rocker ‘Sympathy’ here, but that doesn’t make this record any less of a triumph in Rock and Metal songwriting.

Recommended tracks: ‘Pride’, ‘Till I Get What I Need’, ‘Yahweh’

8. Gary Clark Jr. – The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim

Often portrayed as a Blues musician, Gary Clark Jr. rather combines all his influences into a rich, contemporary blend of Blues, Rock and especially large amounts of R&B. Where I considered predecessor ‘Blak And Blu’ a messy, incoherent affair with – admittedly – some great guitar work, ‘The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim’ is a more consistent effort. In fact, it’s an excellent R&B record with Clark playing most of the instruments, including a lot of fiery, passionate lead guitar work. While I must admit that I prefer his chest voice to his frequently appearing head voice, I grew rapidly and unexpectedly fond of this album and I think it should be heard by anyone who appreciates the likes of Lenny Kravitz,  D’Angelo and Prince.

Recommended tracks: ‘Grinder’, ‘The Healing’, ‘Stay’

9. Iron Maiden – The Book Of Souls

Let’s focus on the negative first: ‘The Book Of Souls’ should have been two songs shorter, so that it could fit on one disc. Having said that, this is a surprisingly fresh and energetic latter day Iron Maiden record. ‘If Eternity Should Fail’ is the band’s best opening track since ‘Moonchild’, Bruce Dickinson’s voice is better than it should be in his late fifties and ironically, the 18-minute ‘Empire Of The Clouds’ sounds nowhere near as overlong and bloated as some of the other recent “epics”. The presence of Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith is felt stronger than before and that is part of what makes ‘The Book Of Souls’ a pleasant surprise. If this turns out to be the band’s last record, it would end their career on a relatively high note.

Recommended tracks: ‘If Eternity Should Fail’, ‘Tears Of A Clown’, ‘Empire Of The Clouds’

10. The Gentle Storm – The Diary

Prog wizard Arjen Lucassen and Holland’s finest singer Anneke van Giersbergen had worked together before, but this full collaboration still caught me by surprise. It’s a very Dutch project too, given the maritime theme of the lyrics. The album offers the same songs twice: one disc of folky, largely acoustic versions (‘Gentle’) and one disc of full blown symphonic Progmetal interpretations of the songs (‘Storm’). I have to admit that I generally play the ‘Storm’ disc, not in the last place due to the supreme orchestration. Van Giersbergen is amazing – as per usual – and though there are plenty of Lucassen-isms in the compositions, it does sound different enough from his other projects to warrant a different name.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shores Of India’, ‘The Storm’, ‘Heart Of Amsterdam’

11. Walter Trout – Battle Scars

If the cliché that suffering brings forth great Blues music is true, ‘Battle Scars’ is the epitome of that statement. Two years ago, Walter Trout was nearly dead, only barely saved by a liver transplant and now, he has channeled all of this misery into his best album yet. It’s not just that his suffering has brought forth great, passionate Blues, it’s that his songwriting is better than it ever was. So is his voice, by the way. ‘Battle Scars’ is a musical diary of a man who has looked death in the eye on a daily basis, but delivered so joyously, that it hardly ever gets too dark. Also, there’s a nice variation of electric Blues, Rock, ballads and an excellent Country Blues finale. This album belongs in any Blues and Bluesrock collection.

Recommended tracks: ‘Omaha’, ‘Haunted By The Night’, ‘Playin’ Hideaway’

12. Leprous – The Congregation

Norway’s Leprous was already one of the more interesting progressive Metal bands these days with 2011’s manic ‘Bilateral’ album, but the more spacious sound on ‘The Congregation’ really puts them into a league of their own. I really can’t think of any other band that quite sounds like their unique and bizarre mixture of twisted, jazzy chords, Electro-influenced synths and Einar Solberg’s hyper-theatrical vocals. ‘The Congregation’ definitely transcends the Metal tag, making way for something that is at times more unsettling than what the average Norwegian Black Metal band does, but it’s truly beautiful. Also, I somehow really, really like Jens Bogren’s production job for this record.

Recommended tracks: ‘Slave’, ‘The Flood’, ‘Triumphant’

13. Killing Joke – Pylon

Initially, I approached ‘Pylon’ with caution, because its predecessor ‘MMXII’ was a bit of a letdown. I shouldn’t have: ‘Pylon’ is a fantastic album that offers everything one could be looking for in a Killing Joke record. The major improvement in Geordie Walker’s guitar sound is part of the great first impression, but the song material is really strong as well. Once again, the song that is something of a departure is my favorite (‘European Super State’ on ‘Absolute Dissent’, ‘Euphoria’ this time around), but almost all the songs show Killing Joke what they do best: gradually building upon a simple riff and slowly turning up the rhythmic intensity. ‘Pylon’ is a bleak effort, but that’s exactly how Killing Joke should sound.

Recommended tracks: ‘Euphoria’, ‘New Jerusalem’, ‘Into The Unknown’, ‘War On Freedom’

14. Kenn Nardi – Dancing With The Past

Essentially Anacrusis’ fifth studio, because Kenn Nardi was definitely planning to use this material for the band. It sounds a lot like the band’s progressive Metal sound with Thrash Metal and New Wave flourishes, although Nardi’s typical voice has some influence on that as well. He’s not technically a great singer in the sense that he doesn’t have a wide range, but he is able to wring so much emotion out of it, that it’s an absorbing listen. And with 28 good songs, Nardi could have easily spread this out over two, maybe even three albums, but somehow the sequencing and flow makes a lot of sense here. Obligated for anyone who likes Anacrusis, but also for anyone who agrees with me that Thrash Metal is getting a little rusty lately.

Recommended tracks: ‘Submerged’, ‘Creve Coeur’, ‘The Scarlet Letter’

15. Galneryus – Under The Force Of Courage

Allegedly, ‘Under The Force Of Courage’ is Galneryus’ first concept album. It does explain the large doses of theatricality, but I’m not complaining about that at all. It does take Galneryus back to the sound of ‘Angel Of Salvation’, though it falls short of that amazing record. Ironically, the tracks that sound least like that album – the darker sounding ‘Rain Of Tears’ and especially ‘Reward For Betrayal’ – are among the better moments of the album. As for the rest, it’s anything a Galneryus fan can wish for: high tempos, blazing solos by both Syu (guitars) and Yuhki (keyboards), passionate vocals by Masatoshi Ono and highly catchy choruses. Better than most European Power Metal, slightly above average for Galneryus.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Force Of Courage’, ‘Reward For Betrayal’, ‘Soul Of The Field’

16. Enslaved – In Times

Seriously, I would have loved this band so much if it wasn’t for Grutle Kjellson’s guttural rasp. Enslaved have taken their Black Metal roots and mixed them up with an increasing amount of progressive Rock influences since the beginning of this century, which luckily also means that the absolutely beautiful clean voice of keyboard player Herbrand Larsen gets a bigger role with each album. ‘In Times’ contains six songs with a combined running time of 53 minutes and shows the band at their most free and adventurous. This leads to occasional pleasantly surprising musical choices and interestingly constructed songs. Hell, in ‘Building With Fire’, even Kjellson’s growl sounds good. Also, I just realized that both Norwegian bands in this list don’t sound like anyone else.

Recommended tracks: ‘Building With Fire’, ‘In Times’, ‘One Thousand Years Of Rain’

17. Dew-Scented – Intermination

Ever since Dew-Scented became more Dutch than German, things have been looking better for them. In fact, the band now has three amazing songwriters who all contribute something different to the band: guitarist Marvin Vriesde contributes the more in-your-face material, his fellow axeman Rory Hansen brings some modern Death Metal influences to the table and bassist Joost van der Graaf’s takes care of an amazingly dark atmosphere. It all still sounds like Dew-Scented though and Jensen’s trademark Thrash bark isn’t the only factor in that. ‘Intermination’ just shows the band stretching the boundaries of what is possible within the Dew-Scented framework. And the result is a more than admirable job.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ode To Extinction’, ‘Means To An End’, ‘On A Collision Course’

18. Mother’s Finest – Goody 2 Shoes & The Filthy Beasts

More than a decade after ‘Meta-Funk’n Physical’, there’s finally a new Mother’s Finest album. And it rocks quite hard! Some of the modern production techniques equipped on its predecessor have remained, but ‘Goody 2 Shoes & The Filthy Beasts’ is heavier and more energetic than you’d expect from a band made up largely of members in their late sixties. It’s always been all about the guitars and the grooves for Mother’s Finest and it’s no different here. In a couple of Funky Hard Rock tracks, the band proves why they’re still relevant and I’m surprised how much power Joyce Kennedy still has in her voice. And they still blow everyone off the stage. Another album like their inimitable debut is off the table, but this is as close as it gets.

Recommended tracks: ‘All Of My Life’, ‘Another Day’, ‘She Ready’

19. Mojo Man – Mojo Man

Sometimes I get something new on my desk for the review section in Gitarist and it completely blows me away. That’s what Mojo Man’s self titled debut did. First of all: how is it possible to resist a band that has “Balls & Horns” as its motto? That means they’re playing nice beefy Bluesrock riffs with the proper brass backing to give it a soulful edge. And if that wasn’t all, the catchy songs are very well written and Theo van Niel Jr. lays down some fantastic lead guitar work. Imagine The Rolling Stones around ‘Exile On Main Street’, Aerosmith in the late seventies and early The Black Crowes and you’ll get close to the sound on the album, although Mojo Man has a slightly more traditional Blues approach. If that’s your thing, you shouldn’t miss out on this.

Recommended tracks: ‘It’s A Crime’, ‘Searching Man’, ‘The Ship Is Sinking’

20. Faith No More – Sol Invictus

As far as reunions go, ‘Sol Invictus’ is just fine. Faith No More once again are their quirky, obstinate selves. Which means that this album contains traces of Pop, Rock, Metal, Funk, Western, faux-Jazz and even Hip Hop. The songs are generally really good, much better even than on their 1997 effort ‘Album Of The Year’, which was recorded with the same lineup. The songs just don’t flow quite as well as they should have, especially during the first half of the album. It’s a risk of Faith No More’s genre-hopping approach. By themselves, most of the songs are awesome though. And while voice artist Mike Patton doesn’t quite reach as high as in the past, his lows are ominous and sometimes downright scary.

Recommended tracks: ‘Separation Anxiety’, ‘Rise Of The Fall’, ‘Superhero’

Album of the Week 52-2015: Angra – Rebirth


For a country that has such passionate Power Metal fans, it’s remarkable that Brazil doesn’t have more bands of the caliber of Angra. Then again, not many bands in the genre worldwide are as good as Angra is. They have all the melodic qualities of European Power Metal bands, combined with the interesting songwriting of many Progmetal bands and something uniquely Brazilian – more on that later. Though ‘Aurora Consurgens’ might be my favorite due to the inclusion of some favorite songs, ‘Rebirth’ is every bit as good and probably the best representation of all aspects of Angra’s sound.

‘Rebirth’, as a title, shouldn’t be taken lightly. After original singer André Matos left the band, taking the rhythm section with him, many fans were afraid of Angra’s future. Matos’ replacement Edu Falaschi is a revelation though: his voice is much more powerful than the somewhat feminine tone of Matos and adds a little grit to the mix. Also, guitarists Rafael Bittencourt and Kiko Loureiro took care of most of the songwriting and that’s probably why the Angra sound is still very much intact, while openings to other musical opportunities are all around, especially in the progressive tinges that seem to be Bittencourt’s doing.

Opening track ‘Nova Era’ is like a second coming of the band’s classic track ‘Carry On’: an uptempo and upbeat Power Metal track with positive lyrics to set the mood for the record. That doesn’t mean the whole album is filled with happy-go-lucky tunes. In fact, a lot of the songs have a darker tone or at least alternate between brooding sections and more hopeful segments, like ‘Millennium Sun’ and ‘Acid Rain’ do. The latter even has distinct Brazilian percussion in its awesome middle section, something that is expanded on ‘Unholy Wars’, which has an intro akin to Brazil’s beloved MPB and moves between a pulsating verse and middle section and a very positive chorus.

Many Power Metal are on the receiving end of quite some ridicule because of their ballads, but it has to be said: Angra is really good at them. ‘Heroes Of Sand’ is a pretty standard power ballad, though executed well enough to be quite enjoyable, but the album’s title track builds amazingly well from a pure power ballad to a strong progressive Metal section and back, while ‘Millennium Sun’ also qualifies due to its somber segment for piano and vocals in the beginning. Falaschi’s slightly raw edge contributes greatly to the quality of those songs as well.

Even though this could be said for most Angra albums, ‘Rebirth’ really deserves to be in any serious Power Metal collection. ‘Angels Cry’ is generally considered their classic album, but since I prefer Bittencourt’s songwriting to Matos’, I have to vote for this one. Also, while the neoclassical elements are still there, the increased progressive sound also means that ‘Rebirth’ is slightly less predictable. Regardless, if you like expertly written and quite likely even better played Power Metal, this is the way to go. Many European bands could listen to this album in envy.

Recommended tracks: ‘Unholy Wars’, ‘Rebirth’, ‘Acid Rain’, ‘Nova Era’

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