Posts Tagged ‘ Progressive Metal ’

Album of the Week 24-2019: Fates Warning – Inside Out


‘Inside Out’ always gets lost in the shuffle between the hyper-accessible ‘Parallels’ and the ultra-proggy monolith that is ‘A Pleasant Shade Of Gray’. Personally, I consider it superior to either of those. Sure, the flat production and the dull cover art really don’t do the songs any justice, but the classy melodicism that always characterized guitarist Jim Matheos’ songwriting is taken to its logical extreme here. I understand why many consider the album lacking in terms of heaviness and intricacy, but Fates Warning always was more about the songs than displays of virtuosity and ‘Inside Out’ fits that paradigm perfectly.

Stylistically, ‘Inside Out’ is pretty much a continuation of the sound heard on ‘Parallels’ three years prior, albeit with an even bigger emphasis on melancholic melodies. The arrangements are less dense, though the occasional rhythmic complexity is still there – this has Mark Zonder on drums, after all. In terms of songwriting, the material on ‘Inside Out’ is notably more tailored to Ray Alder’s vocal range, who simply delivers the performance of a lifetime here. Adapting the music to his voice rather than the other way around is a large part of why the album sounds the way it does.

‘Monument’ is the only song that has been a consistent live staple since the release of the album and it is not hard to understand why. With an incredible bass riff in 7/4 driving the song and some unexpected elements popping up, such asMatheos’ classical guitar solo, it could be characterized as the most progressive moment on the record. Alder’s impassioned performance is somewhat reminiscent of ‘Parallels’ highlight ‘Point Of View’ and the dynamics strongly enhance the atmosphere of the track. Along with the cool start-stop riffing of opening track ‘Outside Looking In’, it best represents the classic Alder-era Fates Warning sound.

As good as those songs are, however, the overall sound of the album is best portrayed by its more concise moments. ‘Pale Fire’ successfully marries Fates Warning’s accessible side with their progressive roots, while having a chorus that is so powerful that I can even forgive Matheos for rhyming “fire” with “desire”. ‘Face The Fear’ combines Zonder’s busy drum work with Matheos and Frank Aresti weaving a fantastic tapestry of riffs and bright, clean guitar strums and ‘The Strand’ probably would not have worked on any other Fates Warning album, but does here. Its atmosphere brings to mind mid-nineties alternative rock, just with significantly more inventive writing and playing.

Of course, ‘Inside Out’ is not perfect. ‘Down To The Wire’ is a blatant ‘We Only Say Goodbye’ rewrite, ‘Shelter Me’ is a tad too melodramatic and the inoffensive ballad ‘Island In The Stream’ really starts to drag halfway through. But everything else on here is much better than it tends to get credit for. It may not be the most challenging album from a playing viewpoint and the production really could have used some extra punch, but to dismiss Matheos’ songwriting here for not being prog enough would both be unfair and untrue.

Recommended tracks: ‘Monument’, ‘The Strand’, ‘Pale Fire’, ‘Face The Fear’

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Album of the Week 21-2019: Arch/Matheos – Winter Ethereal


With Arch/Matheos being active, there are essentially two Fates Warnings, the one actually called Fates Warning being fronted by Ray Alder. Neither are very prolific; they have a combined grand total of four albums this decade. However, all four are excellent, so that should not be a reason to complain. Jim Matheos found a niche for himself that works, but at the same time provides him with enough opportunities to experiment without straying too far from his core sound. ‘Winter Ethereal’ fits that niche. It’s slightly more streamlined than ‘Sympathetic Resonance’, but similar enough to appeal to the same audience.

Not unlike on their debut album, or even the two-track ‘Twist Of Fate’ EP released under John Arch’s name, ‘Winter Ethereal’ sounds like twenty-first century Fates Warning tailored to Arch’s vocals. For those of you who have never heard them, imagine an esotheric Bruce Dickinson and you’d be close. Unlike their debut, however, Arch and Matheos rotate the cast of backing musicians on the record with several Fates Warning alumni (Frank Aresti, Mark Zonder, Bobby Jarzombek, Joey Vera, Joe DiBiase) and a couple of respected names in the field of progressive rock and metal (Sean Malone, Steve DiGiorgio, Thomas Lang, Matt Lynch).

Maybe it is the close connection that all these musicians have to the history of Arch and Matheos, but ‘Winter Ethereal’ eludes the musical posturing and lack of cohesion that most of these super line-ups have. The men whose names are on the cover are in control here, that much is never in doubt. And despite a couple of fantastic guitar solos on ‘Vermillion Moons’ and ‘Solitary Man’, Matheos is more concerned with getting the riffs and the atmosphere right. He certainly does here. Despite the heaviness and complexity, ‘Winter Ethereal’ always remains a pleasant listen, which has been Matheos’ trademark for all of his recent material.

Easily the most metallic track on here is ‘Wrath Of The Universe’. It’s wild and Matheos enhances the rhythmic violence of Jarzombek and DiGiorgio by often layering two contrasting guitar parts; one aggressive, one creating breathing room. Clever writing. The brilliantly atmospheric ‘Pitch Black Process’ is a more contemporary progressive rock track, though with distinct heavy riffing, somewehere along the lines of a more metallic Porcupine Tree. Closer ‘Kindred Spirits’ is the only 10+ minute song this time around and it is a strong, dynamic track that highlights all that Arch/Matheos has to offer in a surprisingly fluent fashion. The other large epic is the powerful opening track ‘Vermillion Moons’, which “only” clocks nine minutes.

Though ‘Winter Ethereal’ is not perfect – ‘Never In Your Hands’ is a little plain and the ballad ‘Tethered’ is good, but drags a little at several points in the song – it is simply a no-brainer for anyone who loved the debut and even the last two Fates Warning albums. The album is dynamic, powerful and intricate, but never too complex. Such listenable progressive metal is hard enough to come by these days, but Arch and Matheos certainly give a few young bands – as well as a few burnt-out old ones – a lesson or two in prog songwriting here. Highly recommended.

Recommended tracks: ‘Wrath Of The Universe’, ‘Pitch Black Process’, ‘Kindred Spirits’, ‘Vermillion Moons’

Album of the Week 20-2019: Amorphis – Elegy


Perfection is hard to come by in music. More often than not, I refer to a certain aspect of an album being as close to perfection as it gets. In case of Amorphis’ third album ‘Elegy’, its atmosphere is just about as perfect as it gets. ‘Elegy’ was the second album on which Amorphis showed a massive stylistic change and it would not be the last, but it does say something that the signature sound they currently have is not too far removed from what can be heard on ‘Elegy’. It is simply an excellent work of melancholic Finnish metal.

In a way, it is odd that ‘Elegy’ is my favorite Amorphis album, as the band would become much better later on. Current singer Tomi Joutsen is vastly superior to both the throaty grunts of rhythm guitarist Tomi Koivusaari and the Hetfield-esque cleans of Pasi Koskinen, Santeri Kallio has a significantly more melodic style than ‘Elegy’ keyboard player Kim Rantala… Basically the only band member who is already close to the massive heights he would soon reach is lead guitarist Esa Holopainen, one of the most tasteful guitarists in rock and metal. And yet, everything on ‘Elegy’ is as it should be.

First off, the lack of vocal prowess does not hurt the music at all. Koskinen is the right fit for the melancholy expressed in the lyrics – all English translations of the poems in the ‘Kanteletar’, a collection of traditional Finnish songs and poems – and Koivusaari is buried in the mix. Besides, if I had to estimate, less than 25 percent of the album actually has vocals. ‘Elegy’ is the record that most clearly displays the influence that their fellow countrymen Kingston Wall had on Amorphis: it’s extremely jam-heavy, giving Holopainen plenty of room to excel, and the band opts to let the ideas unfold slowly rather than cramming their songs full of them.

Additionally, the eastern mysticism in Kingston Wall’s music is prominent on some of the Holopainen-penned songs, the incredible opener ‘Better Unborn’ in particular. That song deserves an award anyway. It’s easy to come up with something self-pitying for that set of lyrics, but Amorphis made something extremely powerful out of it, kind of like a Scandinavian metal interpretation of Led Zeppelin’s later works. ‘Song Of The Troubled One’ has a similar vibe, though notably more northern European. The twin guitar harmony laden ‘Against Widows’ is more propulsive, as is ‘On Rich And Poor’, which contains some incredible rhythm guitar work. The surprisingly good instrumental ‘Relief’ brings all the elements together.

Even when the band adopts a more laid-back approach, it sounds amazing. The climactic title track and the unbelievably gorgeous album highlight ‘My Kantele’ have some prominent Pink Floyd-isms, albeit with much more powerful rhythm guitar work. But really, only those who prefer Amorphis as a full-on death metal band might not find anything to like on ‘Elegy’, but I sincerely doubt if they ever were. The consistently melancholic tone is what largely makes ‘Elegy’ so amazing, but the unusually large amount of jamming helps too, plus the fact that Holopainen and Koivusaari hardly ever play in unison. A fairly unique album, even within Amorphis’ discography, that still sounds as fresh today as when I first heard it.

Recommended tracks: ‘Better Unborn’, ‘My Kantele’, ‘On Rich And Poor’, ‘Relief’

Album of the Week 15-2019: Catharsis – Imago


Although seen as a genre predominantly from northwestern Europe, some of this century’s most interesting power metal releases are actually from elsewhere and don’t always make it over to the west. Some bands try to make the transition by translating their songs to English, but ‘Imago’, the third full-length of Moscow-based Catharsis, is a rare example of the opposite. It was originally released in 2002 with lyrics entirely in English, just like their first two albums. The next year, a Russian version was released, which despite being musically identical somehow sounds superior. Certainly a must for fans of neoclasscially tinged power metal.

Oleg Zhilyakov’s vocals are an important part of what makes this release so good. That can be said about any Catharsis album, because Zhilyakov has incomparable range, power and drama in his voice, but judging from his performance here, he feels slightly more comfortable singing in his native tongue. Fortunately, the language fits his passionate, semi-operatic delivery perfectly. While Zhilyakov is amazing, a great singer does not necessarily make a great band. Catharsis’ compositions are excellent though. They’re generally uptempo, but not as upbeat as most similarly styled German or Swedish bands. There is always a darkness brooding underneath Catharsis’ songs and the occasional progressive leanings bring Symphony X to mind.

What stands out immediately about ‘Imago’ is how theatrical the songs sound with relatively minimal embellishments. Sure, Julia Red’s keyboards add some layers that the guitars cannot, but even she is not trying to emulate a full orchestra. Catharsis’ music immediately transports you to the darkest chapter of a fairytale. The guitar riffs are melodic and powerful, but not too heavy and the climactic choruses often feature Zhilyakov sounding like he is begging for his life to be spared, which is goosebumps-inducing more than once. Catharsis has a power that many bands in the genre strive for, but only few manage to achieve.

Stylistically, most of the songs on ‘Imago’ are similar, but there are little clever compositional touches that make them stand out. ‘Voin Sveta’ has a more aggressive midtempo grind, the fiery ‘Izbranny Nebom’ has what is probably the most awesome riff on the album, ‘Vzorvi Moi Sny’ has a mind-blowingly exciting build up towards its chorus and ‘Tantsui V Ogne’ has a surprisingly danceable rhythm. Both ‘Zvezdopad’ and ‘Izbranny Nebom’ have a couple of unconventional twists in their amazing choruses as well. There are tracks that deviate from the norm though, most notably the multi-faceted doomy crawler ‘Rassvetny Zver’ and the surprisingly good ballad ‘Dalshe – Tishina…’.

‘Imago’ is not a perfect album – instrumental track ‘Tarantul’ has a lot of interesting ideas, but sounds like it should have been a full band composition rather than a piano instrumental – but it is the perfect album for anyone who wants a slightly different take on their power metal without moving away from the genre’s essence too far. Catharsis is full of great musicians, they know how to set a perfect mood or atmosphere for their music and – I can’t stress this enough – Oleg Zhilyakov is one of the best power metal singers in the world.

Recommended tracks: ‘Izbranny Nebom’, ‘Rassvetny Zver’, ‘Zvorvi Moi Sny’, ‘Zvezdopad’

Album of the Week 50-2018: Control Denied – The Fragile Art Of Existence


Last week marked the seventeenth anniversary of Chuck Schuldiner’s passing. Metal fans everwhere celebrated his genius by playing old Death records, but personally, I think the sole Control Denied album may have been his crowning achievement. ‘The Fragile Art Of Existence’ used to be my all time favorite album for a long time and to this day, I still am in awe by the melodic elegance and the complex, yet accessible nature of the record. Despite the shadow of the disease that would eventually kill Schuldiner inadvertently looming over the album, the album impresses with excellent songwriting and ditto performances.

The cast of musicians on ‘The Fragile Art Of Existence’ looks like an all-star cast of Death musicians with a clean singer. Tim Aymar’s powerful, theatrical voice that is equal parts Ronnie James Dio and Rob Halford is what gives the album its own face, because the music isn’t that much different from the final Death album ‘The Sound Of Perseverance’. That should not be too surprising, given that some of the songs on that record evolved from Control Denied demos. As a whole, Control Denied comes across slightly more streamlined, though the songs still feature all the abrupt changes and glorious melodies that Schuldiner was known for.

It is hard to imagine most of these songs as Death songs though. The guitar riffs and arrangements in tracks like ‘What If…?’ and the incredible ‘Believe’ seem to be set up specifically with the idea of leaving as much room as possible for Aymar’s vocals, making their structure feel somewhat more open than Death’s dense compositions. Of course, those moments of density are still there, as not giving the virtuoso rhythm section of Richard Christy and bass wizard Steve DiGiorgio any room would feel like a waste of talent. What makes these guys good, however, is that they also know when to hold back.

My collection does not feature many other albums with such a consistently high level of songwriting and performance throughout. Only ‘Cut Down’ is merely good. ‘Breaking The Broken’ might be the best transitional track for Death fans, as it retains the aggression along with intelligent songwriting. ‘Consumed’ is a brave opening track, as it changes tempo and mood several times throughout its seven minutes and introduces Aymar remarkably effectively. ‘Believe’ is relatively simple, but brutally effective and the closing title track has to be heard to be believed. It manages to combine traditional heavy metal riffing with an almost ethereal middle section and ending that almost two decades later still gives me goosebumps.

Of course, with a line-up like Control Denied had on this album, it is nearly impossible to go wrong in terms of performances. Shannon Hamm is easily the most Schuldiner-like guitarist Chuck ever worked with and they’re both on fire here. The performances could have easily held the songs hostage though. It is a testament to the brilliance of Chuck Schuldiner that the music holds together so well. He was truly a unique talent and as good as every Death album from ‘Human’ onward is, ‘The Fragile Art Of Existence’ may actually be the most unique album he created.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Fragile Art Of Existence’, ‘Breaking The Broken’, ‘Believe’

Interview: The Asian taste of Sigh


Eccentric is probably the best word to describe Sigh. Their sound is anchored in extreme metal – black metal particularly – but is rife with influences from other genres. Progressive and psychedelic rock, classical music, jazz, electronic music… All of these are elements that have been appearing in their experimental music since the mid-nineties. “Black metal encompasses almost every musical genre“, says singer, multi-instrumentalist and band leader Mirai Kawashima. “All kinds of bands from Blasphemy to Alcest and Deafheaven are often categorized as black metal. Black metal is so non-limiting that it does not describe any musical style at all. Also, obviously, what we play is not thrash or death metal, so we stick to the black metal tag.

November 16th sees the release of Sigh’s twelfth album ‘Heir To Despair’. On it, the extreme metal has almost been put on the background in favor of distinct influences from progressive rock and East-Asian folk. “The seventies prog vibe has always been there, say since ‘Gastly Funeral Theater’ (1997)”, says Kawashima. “I love crazy prog stuff from the seventies and I am a vintage keyboard collector. Also this time, I tried some flute, which must give a more prog feel to the album. Actually, ‘Graveward’ (2015) was supposed to be a very prog album, but during the recording, I got into more orchestral stuff and the direction of the album drastically changed.

As for the Asian feel, I’ve been experimenting a lot with the traditional Japanese way of singing and wanted to incorporate that into Sigh’s music. And this time, most of the lyrics are in Japanese. I can sing much better in Japanese, as I do not have to care about the accurate pronunciation, unlike when I have to sing in English. Also, I thought the Japanese lyrics could give a different atmosphere to the songs. And to be honest, not much is left for me to say in English after ten albums…

Expectation

When Kawashima announced the release of ‘Heir To Despair’ on social media, he said that everyone would hate the album. Allegedly, no one who heard it liked it. Have the reactions been a little better in the meantime? “So far only ‘Homo Homini Lupus’ has been published“, Kawashima explains. “And actually, it’s got a lot of positive reactions. However, the song does not represent the album in any way. The feature of ‘Heir To Despair’ is an Asian taste and the use of flute. ‘Homo Homini Lupus’ does not sound Asian and does not feature the flute. People liking ‘Homo Homini Lupus’ means there’s a bigger possibility that they are going to hate the album.

Not that Kawashima cares: “Especially right after the album release, the audience reaction is rather misleading. When ‘Imaginary Sonicscape’ (2001) came out, more than half of the reviews were more than bad. People were thinking that we were a black metal band and the album did not sound black at all, so they were confused. But seventeen years have passed since then and ‘Imaginare Sonicscape’ must be one of the most popular Sigh albums. When people listen to an album for the first time, they just listen to the gap between their expectation and the actual music.

Objective

‘Heir To Despair’ has a remarkably clean, almost polished sound. The contrast with the raw production of ‘Graveward’ could hardly be greater. This is not the first time that there is such a sizeable difference between the sonic approach of two consecutive Sigh albums. “I believe it pretty much depends on the direction or the theme of the album“, Kawashima explains. “The theme of ‘Scenes From Hell’ is hell, so we wanted a hellish production. The production of ‘Heir To Despair’ was kind of an experiment. ‘Graveward’ was engineered by our own guitarist, which I must say was a big failure. I’m not saying he was a bad engineer or anything, but he was too biased. Obviously he wanted his guitar to be heard more than anything and he knew too much about the songs, which excluded objectivity.

In order to maintain that objectivity, I left it up to our Canadian engineer Phil Anderson this time. Of course I wanted some of my playing or vocals to be more audible, but I didn’t say anything about it, as it was an experiment of objectivity. I guess it worked very well.

Insanity

A thematic approach is Kawashima’s modus operandi anyway: “The concept of this album is about insanity. I’ve been wondering what insanity is these days. Of course, there are some real mad people of whom everyone can tell that they’re mad, but insanity is not always that distinctive. It’s just a matter of where to draw the line between sanity and insanity and it is one hundred percent arbitrary. When you are insane, you cannot tell that you are. I don’t think I am insane. I think that what I am saying in this interview makes perfect sense, but there is no way to assure that. Completely insane people probably think they’re talking completely logical.

The artwork by Eliran Kantor perfectly describes what I wanted to express with the music. The woman looks happy, but everything else on the artwork is wrong. The plant is dead and the room is a mess. As I said, insanity is not always very distinctive. Some people look very normal while having a deep darkness inside their mind. And that is the real horror.

Spontaneous

Since Sigh commenced activity in the late eighties, the band has been centered around Kawahima. More often than not, these kinds of line-ups tend to be highly unstable, but Sigh always maintained a relatively constant line-up. Save for the arrival of guitarist You Oshima in 2014, the band has not had any line-up changes for over a decade. “I’m sure there should be better players“, says Kawashima. “But what makes them peculiar is that they are all crazy in some way, which works good for Sigh maybe. They are all really hard people to work or communicate with. It’s truly frustrating that I have to deal with them, but maybe that is proof that they are artistically unique. At least I hope so.

Yet, it is Kawashima who is pulling the strings. “I write most of the songs and all the lyrics“, he explains. “As for ‘Heir To Despair’, half of ‘In Memories Delusional’ was written by our guitarist You Oshima and I left all the guitar solos up to him, but I can say that’s the only compositional input from the other band members.

My method of composing varies. Sometimes I compose playing piano. Sometimes I just come up with the ideas walking down the street. I usually keep collecting those bits and pieces and assemble them into a song on MIDI. Then I keep listening to the demoes and change or rearrange them until I am a hundred percent satisfied with it. Then I pass it on to the other members. The songs on ‘Heir To Despair’ were composed very spontaneously compared to the past ones. I usually use a lot of musical theories to arrange the songs, but this time I did not think about theories that much. I just kept writing without thinking that much.

Success

Compared to many other Japanese bands, Sigh has a reasonable degree of succes worldwide. “It’s just a matter of how you define success“, Kawashima nuances. “I personally do not think Sigh succeeded at anything. Anyway, I just thank Euronymous (guitarist of the Norwegian black metal band Mayhem, who was murdered in 1993). When we were hunting for a label around 1992, he was the only one who showed interest in us. I am not even exaggerating anything. I sent the demo to every label in the world and nobody but Euronymous wanted to sign us. So without him, Sigh probably would have ended up a demo band. He liked us, then the black metal boom happened. Nobody or nothing else got us that.

Since being signed to Euronymous’ Deathlike Silence Productions, Sigh has been performing all over the world, albeit not that frequently. Not even in Japan. Yet, Kawashima notices a difference in preferences: “Here in Japan, our most popular album is obviously ‘Hangman’s Hymn’ (2007), so when we play here, we play more songs off this album. In Europe and the US, I believe they want to hear earlier, more black metal stuff, so when we play abroad, we play a lot from ‘Scorn Defeat’ (1993). In the coming weeks, we will play some shows with Dimmu Borgir, Gorgoroth, Samael and Sinsaenum and we will play only songs from after 2007 and almost all the songs are fast. That’s what the Japanese audience wants.

Album of the Week 46-2018: Aria – Proklyatiye Morey


Aria was Russia’s first big heavy metal band and still the country’s best. In fact, the band has been experiencing a second youth in recent years, despite a majority of its members being around sixty years old. Bassist Vitaly Dubinin and founding guitarist Vladimir Holstinin have never stopped writing excellent material and with the best Aria singer to date in the shape of Mikhail Zhitnyakov at their disposal, their exciting, often dramatic heavy metal songs are pushed as close to perfection as it gets. ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ is no different, though it does feature Aria treading surprisingly progressive waters at times.

First things first: ‘Gonka Za Slavoy’ is probably the best opening track on any 2018 heavy metal release. With eighties heavy metal oozing out of every pore of the song, from its gorgeous twin guitar intro riff to its uplifting chorus carried by Zhitnyakov’s powerful tenor, the song sends chills down my spine I have not felt since Accept’s ‘Hung, Drawn And Quartered’ six and a half years ago. Sure, Aria has a history of fantastic openers, but ‘Gonka Za Slavoy’ certainly compares favorably to earlier masterpieces like ‘Proshay, Norfolk!’ and ‘Cherny Kvadrat’. Simply the perfect way to open the album.

The rest of the album follows a pattern similar to Iron Maiden’s latter day works. There’s a few shorter, punchy songs alternated with some longer, more progressive tracks. Aria’s songwriting is more consistent, however, and ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ definitely has a better sense of dynamics. Despite lasting an hour and fifteen minutes, the record hardly ever feels that long, because the band never forgets to insert memorable hooks into even the longest songs. In addition, the more concise songs like ‘Era Lucifera’ and the excellent ‘Vsho Nachinaetsya Tam, Gde Konchaetsya Noch’ bristle with strong, catchy melodies and spirited performances.

Picking highlights is difficult, but the nine minute ‘Zhivoy’ is amazing. It starts out like an epic, somewhat hopeful ballad, but then moves through a darker tranquil passage before turning into a defiant heavy metal song. ‘Baryag’ also is epic heavy metal at its finest, bringing to mind the better moments of Maiden’s ‘Brave New World’. ‘Ubit Drakona’, on the other hand, has a more seventies hardrock feel, underlined by some subtle Hammond organ underneath the simple, but brutally effective riff work. ‘Ot Zakata Do Rassveta’ is another delightfully uncomplicated headbanger with a surprisingly aggressive vocal line by Zhinyakov in its chorus.

While it is tempting to call an album this long overlong, the songs speak for themselves. The semi-ballad ‘Dim Bez Ognya’ is slightly longer that it should be, but too good to be dismissed entirely. The title track is even the longest Aria song to date, but is a pretty convincing, doomy Maiden-esque track. What counts is that Aria continues its line of consistent heavy metal albums and plays with the energy of a band half their age. Heavy metal albums this good are pretty hard to come by this day and age and therefore, it is good that Aria is as reliable as ever. Even when they’re taking a few proggy detours that are as surprising as they are enjoyable.

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

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