Posts Tagged ‘ Progressive Metal ’

Album of the Week 30-2017: Fatima Hill – Aion


Progressive metal is at its best when it is not a vehicle for virtuosity. The bands who favor atomosphere and interesting compositions instead of showing off their instrumental skills are relatively limited in number, but they exist. Fatima Hill from Japan was one of those bands. Compared to other prog bands, their songs are relatively relaxed and their riffs are relatively close to traditional heavy metal and early power metal in style, an approach that, in combination with the powerful alto of Yuko Hirose, results in quite an unusual and refreshing sound. Their sophomore album ‘Aion’ is a mystical, powerful work of art.

For those of you who have never heard of the band before: imagine the brooding heavy metal riffs of Mercyful Fate and the atmospheric blend of them being played high on the guitar neck and being backed by subtle keyboard flourishes like on Warlord’s early work. Throw in the compositional originality of early Fates Warning and Crimson Glory and you’ll get close to Fatima Hill’s core sound. The band has a tendency to throw a few curveballs at the unsuspecting listener, but they do so in a way that makes a surprising amount of sense within the context of the album.

Opening track ‘Ares Dragon’ does a pretty good job introducing that sound. The riff work is complex, but due to the relatively subdued rhythms, it never comes across as busy as many prog bands appear to be. Guitarist and main composer Anjue Yamashiro obviously wants the songs and the atmosphere to reign over the individual skills of the players and as such, ‘Aion’ is a very pleasant album to listen to. On the heavier tracks, the band sounds confident, but not overly so. The Middle-Eastern tinged ‘The Black Bat’, the dramatic ‘Ultimata’ and the relatively propulsive ‘Babel Dune’ all seamlessly blend somewhat traditional heavy metal riffing and ambitious, adventurous songwriting.

The aforementioned curveballs are ‘Other’, the almost title track ‘Aeon’ and the lengthy closer ‘The Song For Beatrice Part 3 (The Seven Songs)’. The latter sounds like it will turn into a big, bombastic prog epic, but remains rather low-key and somewhat folky throughout its nine minutes of playing time, even during its powerful finale, while featuring excellent work by Hayato Asano on the fretless bass and Yamashiro on the acoustic guitar. The folk factor is really dialled up for ‘Aeon’ by prominently featuring Yamashiro’s electric mandolin, making it sound like a mixture of Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Battle Of Evermore’ and the title track from Crimson Glory’s ‘Transcendence’. ‘Other’ is a romantic sounding, almost poppy song in which the simple, yet effective lead guitar and Takamichi Koeda’s baroque keyboards form an excellent backdrop for Hirose’s vocals.

It may take some time to fully grasp the charm of Fatima Hill’s sophomore album. I’ll freely admit that I’m still getting used to Yuko Hirose’s voice, despite her being a fantastic singer. However, due to its exceptional songwriting and pleasant nineties production, ‘Aion’ is a true winner. You have probably noticed me mentioning atmosphere a lot and the only reason for that is that it is an indispensible part of the album’s charm. Yamashiro deserves all the praise he can get for setting all egos aside and letting the songs take center stage. Whenever he does choose to play a solo, it counts and adds something to the song. Fatima Hill may be a somewhat obscure band, but they deserve to find their way to a larger number of ears.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ares Dragon’, ‘Ultimata’, ‘The Song For Beatrice Part 3 (The Seven Songs)’

Advertisements

Album of the Week 26-2017: Ningen Isu – Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros


Ningen Isu is the best seventies power trio that is not actually from the seventies. Despite starting out in 1987, their brand of heavily Black Sabbath-inspired, yet progressively tinged metal would have fit the same bill as Rush and Budgie in the mid-seventies. While the band has recorded some excellent progressive doom metal throughout the last three decades, they had yet to release an album that I enjoyed start to finish. Until ‘Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros’ was released last year. Though instantly recognizable as Ningen Isu, there are some surprises that make the record amazing right down to the last note.

As the band kept progressing, their albums kept getting more consistent and notably heavier, yet there was always a song that went overboard in weirdness or that suffered from the fact that none of the three band members are particularly strong singers. ‘Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros’, however, plays to the band’s strengths. The songs on the album are crushingly heavy and the compositions take a few more left turns than we are used to by the band; the trio no longer builds on the same groove for more than sixteen bars and Nobu Nakajima’s rhythmic patterns are busier than ever.

Opening track ‘Kyofu no Dai Ou’ actually gives a good impression of what the album will sound like. It is built upon a couple of monolithic, Sabbath-like riffs, but is not just about the riffs. It is a dynamic composition with some interesting twists and turns and a good vocal performance by guitarist Shinji Wajima. There’s an excellent interaction between the rhythms and the riffs, which constantly push each other to the front rather than off the record. These characteristics define all the songs, although sometimes they are a bit more straightforward (‘Doro No Ame’) and a little more complex at other times (‘Yomigaeri No Machi’).

In a typical case of saving the best for last, the brooding, doomy epic ‘Madame Edwarda’ is one atmospheric monster of a closing track. Another stand-out track, however, is the delightfully rocking ‘Chou Nouryoku ga Attanara’, which starts out sounding like an AC/DC song and evolves into one of the most catchy, upbeat Ningen Isu songs to date. Nakajima’s vocal performance on the song is surprisingly good as well. The middle section of ‘Yukionna’ cannot be anything else than a tribute to Led Zeppelin classic ‘Achilles Last Stand’, but it is done in good taste and honoring an incredible band, so I will just let that slide.

The mark of a true progressive band that it keeps getting better. By that definition, Ningen Isu is a real progressive metal band, even though the King Crimson-isms were larger in number in their earlier years. In hindsight, it should not be too suprising that the trio outdoes itself on ‘Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros’, as they have been improving from the day they started releasing music. And they were pretty damn good to begin with anyway. Anyone with a taste for seventies progressive rock and traditional doom metal should not be discouraged by the lack of English song and album titles and just give this band a chance.

Recommended tracks: ‘Madame Edwarda’, ‘Chou Nouryoku ga Attanara’, ‘Kyofu no Dai Ou’

Album of the Week 25-2017: Mastodon – Emperor Of Sand


Out of all popular contemporary metal bands, Mastodon is the only one I can get behind. I respect how little they care about genre boundaries or belonging to a certain scene. From day one, they have chosen their own path and there is always a possibility that a new album is not going to sound anything like its predecessor. Curveballs like their 2009 psychedelic metal masterpiece ‘Crack The Skye’ are probably a thing of the past, as every record that followed attempted to combine the best aspects of their discography thus far, but none of them quite succeeds as well as ‘Emperor Of Sand’ does.

‘Emperor Of Sand’ is the record on which Mastodon learned to do all the things they already did a lot better. Their riffs are still heavy and not too fast, there is an abundance of classy twin guitar harmonies, drummer Brann Dailor still lays down some downright incredible fills and yet, it all sounds just a little better than before. The highly melodic hooks that started appearing around the turn of the decade are integrated into the heavy songs a lot better than ever and the increasing classic rock influences mix with the band’s heavy metal and hardcore roots more satisfyingly.

More importantly, the compositions are extremely interesting. Mastodon has clearly made an effort to make every section of the song be a new climax, which is especially beneficial to songs with a lot of drama, such as ‘Roots Remain’ and the epic closer ‘Jaguar God’. As stated before, the melodic choruses are still here, some songs even have several hooks, but they feel less like an attempt to cross over to the pop rock audience. Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds have always been experts at weaving distinct guitar lines through each other and that feature of the band gets all the place it needs on ‘Emperor Of Sand’. Their bombastic sound helps. Hinds’ synth guitar in ‘Clandestiny’ adds an extra dimension to the sound.

In addition, the triple lead vocal assault seems to work better than ever. Dailor is there for the cleans, Hinds switches between a raw snarl and an Ozzy-like voice and bassist Troy Sanders is easily the rawest and most powerful of the three. They feed off each other and complement each other, which adds dynamics to songs like the highly catchy ‘Show Yourself’, dramatic harmonies to ‘Andromeda’ and impressive trade-offs are scattered all over the album. The vocals are not the thing that makes the album though; the guitars and the insane drumming are. As always.

While I will always be partial to ‘Crack The Skye’, Mastodon has really outdone itself on ‘Emperor Of Sand’. They have finally succeeded in combining all of their best qualities in a way that sounds “fluent”, for lack of a better term. I am somewhat reluctant to call the music on this record progressive metal, as the term conjures up images of Dream Theater clones, but it is a fact that this is the work of a metal band that wants to keep moving forward, with their virtuosity helping them rather than getting in the way of the songs. Quite an impressive feat, which makes ‘Emperor Of Sand’ one of the best metal albums released this year.

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

Album of the Week 22-2017: Onmyo-za – Karyo-Binga


Released hot on the heels of the impressive diptych of ‘Fuujin Kaikou’ and ‘Raijin Sousei’, it is something of a miracle that Onmyo-za still had enough inspiration left to write another excellent album. In fact, it is even better than the latter. ‘Karyo-Binga’ sounds manages to sound familiar and fresh at the same time, as its combination of traditional heavy metal and hard rock riffs, J-rock melodicism, prog rock adventurism and subtle hints of Japanese folk is exactly what we have come to expect from Onmyo-za, whilst simultaneously updating the band’s sound, resulting in one of their best albums yet.

Of course, the update is minimal, as the sound of Onmyo-za is still strongly centered around the equally melodic voices of Kuroneko and band leader Matatabi, as well as the strong, but never busy riff work and passionate leads of Maneki and Karukan. However, it is quite obvious that the band was hungry to try out new things this time around, most notably downtuned guitars and a bigger emphasis on keyboards. That does not mean that we are dealing with a watered-down, pseudo-heavy version of Onmyo-za here though. Neither dominate the record and therefore, ‘Karyo-Binga’ feels like nothing more or less than a contemporary Onmyo-za record.

Like the other highlights in Onmyo-za’s discography, ‘Karyo-Binga’ has a very pleasant flow. This flow is somewhat reminiscent of its two predecessors, because ‘Karyo-Binga’ also starts with a relatively calm track which – despite its six minutes of length and song-oriented structure – feels like an overture (the title track) before moving into a powerful, but not too propulsive melodic heavy metal track (‘Ran’). The band is clever enough to keep itself from falling victim to an auto-pilot formula though, so among moments of familiarity, the band has strategically placed a few slightly surprising track to keep you attentive.

The relatively light, yet still powerfully rocking ‘Omae No Hitomi Ni Hajirai No Suna’ is one of them. Due to the subtle Hammond organ, the song has a bit of a seventies rock vibe, but Kuroneko – who, again, outdoes herself here – keeps it firmly within the Japanese rock realm. ‘Ningyo No Ori’ starts out sounding like it could be the big sweeping ballad of the album – which in fact ‘Jorougumo’ come closest to – before developing into a relatively concise epic with a dark, heavy middle section. ‘Susanoo’ and ‘Nijuunihikime Wa Dokuhami’ are the clearest examples of downtuned riffing without forsaking the melody and ‘Hyouga Ninpouchou’ is a passionate heavy metal track with amazing lead guitar work reminiscent of ‘Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku’ from ‘Fuujin Kaikou’.

Onmyo-za’s music is a melting pot of many different influences, as is the case with a large number of Japanese rock and metal bands. But where many Japanese bands end up sounding busy and at times disjointed, Onmyo-za found a way of combining all these influences into an irresistible, powerful sound that is remarkably pleasant to listen to. ‘Karyo-Binga’ is the latest and most contemporary sounding installment, but the consistency of the band’s discography is truly amazing. The record is well worth listening to if you are interested in any of the genres represented in the band’s sound.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hyouga Ninpouchou’, ‘Omae No Hitomi Ni Hajirai No Suna’, ‘Ran’, ‘Ningyo No Ori’

Renewed Noise: Voivod


When BMG Rights Entertainment secured the rights to the legendary German heavy metal label Noise Records, it was celebrated by a bunch of entertaining compilations. “Amazing” would be one step too far, because they contained nothing new for those who followed the label during their glory days – roughly from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties – but good enough to remind us why it was such a good thing that they put bands like Skyclad, Running Wild and Kreator in the market. A compilation of Canada’s immensely creative Voivod made came later, which is now followed by full reissues of their three Noise releases.

Contrary to the compilation albums, the reissues of ‘Rrröööaaarrr’ (I’m not making this up), ‘Killing Technology’ and ‘Dimension Hatröss’ do contain a wealth of bonus material that was previously either not or very limitedly available. All three releases consist of 2 cd’s and one dvd. This often means that the band or label has cleaned the vaults and just threw every poor quality recording they could find on there. While that is true for a majority of the video footage on the dvd’s, the bonus cd’s all feature soundboard recorded concerts with a surprisingly good sound quality.

Most of these live tracks are from demos and fan club releases that the band has released throughout the years and that might explain why they sound so good. Sure, they’re a little rough around the edges – the ‘No Speed Limit Week-End’ live show that comes with ‘Rrröööaarrr’ is almost too raw – but they’re release-worthy. In fact, the live cd that comes with ‘Dimension Hatröss’ – entitled ‘A Flawed Structure?’ – is more or less on par with the official 2011 live album ‘Warriors Of Ice’. Not only is every instrument loud and clear; the mix is quite balanced, though it does favor the late Denis ‘Piggy’ D’Amour’s guitars. But then again: who doesn’t?

So should you be getting these re-releases? I would say that ‘Dimension Hatröss’ is indispensable. Though my favorite is still ‘Nothingface’, ‘Dimension Hatröss’ is the essential Voivod album. It’s where they first stretched their sound well beyond the boundaries of thrash metal, creating a progressive sci-fi metal sound that made them a truly unique band. And the bonus live recordings are a very worthy addition to any metal collection. The live footage on the bonus dvd isn’t as good, but at least the entire album is on it in demo form, as well as some of drummer Michel ‘Away’ Langevin’s cool artworks.

As for the other two: ‘Killing Technology’ is a brilliant progressive thrash record and its bonus live cd ‘Spectrum ’87’ is raw, but very listenable. By all means, get it if it’s not in your collection already, because it’s one of the best thrash albums of its time. That leaves ‘Rrröööarrr’. A record I have to be in the mood for, as it’s basically all fast, all loud, all heavy, all the damn time. It’s good that the album is easily available again, but don’t let it be your introduction to Voivod. If it is, you may not understand what all the praise is really about.

These reissues all come with fairly extensive booklets with essays by UK music journalist Malcolm Dome, decorated with quotes from interviews with all four original members. And while it is a bit awkward to see D’Amour quoted as if he is still alive – he died in 2005 – the booklets do offer a bit of interesting information about the recordings of the albums and the circumstances Voivod found itself in during those years. The band is allegedly planning to record its fourteenth album later this year and if it will be anywhere near as good as their last two releases, that is really good news. Until then, this is a very pleasant way to rediscover the sonic evolution they went through in the mid to late eighties.

Album of the Week 16-2017: Labÿrinth – Architecture Of A God


Despite their distinctly Italian power metal sound, Labÿrinth was a pretty unique band in the country’s mid-nineties metal scene. They shared their countrymen’s melodic sensibilities, tendency towards higher tempos and somewhat symphonic approach, but also had an uncommonly romantic vibe for a metal band. However, not long after founding guitarist Olaf Thörsen left, the band entered an unprecedented identity crisis. Thörsen eventually returned, but band members were shuffled around freely. Luckily, the core of Thörsen, fellow guitarist Andrea Cantarelli and singer Roberto Tiranti is firmly intact on ‘Architecture Of A God’, easily the best Labÿrinth album since their masterpiece ‘Return To Heaven Denied’.

While the last album was good enough, it featured Labÿrinth playing things too safe by trying to create a copy of ‘Return To Heaven Denied’ to the point of self-plagiarism. On ‘Architecture Of A God’, the self-referencing is limited to a brief section on ‘We Belong To Yesterday’ and the atmosphere is more spontaneous. Personally, I was glad to see Thörsen’s former Vision Divine bandmate Oleg Smirnoff vacate the keyboard position. His greater focus on atmospheric texturing than neoclassical virtuosity makes him a unique musician within the genre and gives the album a breath of fresh air at times.

That is all relative though. Because ultimately, ‘Architecture Of A God’ is a typical Labÿrinth record. Speedy, somewhat progressive power metal tracks with highly melodic choruses are alternated with dreamy semi-ballads full of bright, shimmering acoustic guitars and if Tiranti isn’t wailing or crooning passionately on top, Thörsen and Cantarelli are elevating the melodies or shredding their hearts out. ‘Stardust And Ashes’, the surprisingly aggressive ‘Take On My Legacy’, ‘Someone Says’ and especially ‘Still Alive’ are all excellent melodic power metal tracks like we’ve come to expect from Labÿrinth through the years.

For all its class, ‘Architecture Of A God’ does take a slight dip in quality halfway through. While all separate sections of the title track are amazing, the transitions don’t flow as well and the novelty of the following cover ‘Children’ from dream trance legend Robert Miles wears off quickly. But the rest is incredible; ‘A New Dream’ is one of those progressive ballads Labÿrinth excels at and though it mirrors ‘The Night Of Dreams’ somewhat, it certainly improves upon its formula, resulting in an atmospheric work of art. Smirnoff’s compositional contributions ‘Random Logic’ and ‘Diamond’ are the album’s most unconventional moments. The latter – a beautiful, scarce ballad that is highly electronic in nature – closes the album in style.

After hearing the first tracks that surfaced, my expectations of ‘Architecture Of A God’ were sky high and I can gladly say they were exceeded. Everyone who likes their power metal with a healthy dose of melody and romanticism should give the album a spin. The guitars – both electric and acoustic – sound as good as ever and Tiranti hasn’t lost one bit of his emotional power. It may be a bit premature to call the record album of the year material, but I will be very surprised if I hear a better power metal record this year.

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

Album of the Week 15-2017: God Forbid – Earthsblood


God Forbid’s last album with their original line-up – and penultimate altogether – was the record on which they truly outdid themselves. In quite a litteral sense too. Starting out as a musically tight, but not particularly surprising metalcore band, the quintet gradually evolved into an excellent contemporary heavy metal band on ‘IV: Constitution Of Treason’. It’s that album’s follow-up, however, that is a truly unique work. Though most of the separate elements are familiar – hardcore, melodic death metal, thrash metal and progressive metal most prominently – the combination is what makes this a one of the very few modern day metal masterpieces.

So what to call the music on this album then? Well, it’s definitely modern metal in the sense that it contains downtuned guitars, significant hardcore influences and the vocal interaction between frontman Byron Davis’ harsh shouts and guitarist Dallas Coyle’s melodic cleans. ‘Earthsblood’, however, is more ambitious than what even some of God Forbid’s better peers – such as Shadows Fall – were attempting. The band’s mission here seems to be to seamlessly blend all of their influences and while history has proven that approach to often be a recipe for an incoherent disaster, it miraculously works for almost the entire playing time of the album.

Nowhere is the band’s ambition more obvious than during the more progressive moments. ‘The New Clear’, for instance, sounds like nothing God Forbid has ever done before, with its subdued vibe somewhat reminiscent of Opeth and ‘Elegy’ era Amorphis. Closing tracks ‘Earthsblood’ and ‘Gaia’ – the two longest tracks on the record – are more traditionally proggy in their dynamics, alternating between God Forbid’s trademark thick, heavy riffs and more atmospheric passages. Standout moments are the acoustic guitar sections on the former and Dallas Coyle’s mood-defining one-note vocal harmonies with himself on the latter. A final punch delivered in style.

But even the band’s more familiar heavy approach sounds great here. ‘War Of Attrition’ is probably the most typical God Forbid song on here, but more impressive are the surprisingly melodic ‘Walk Alone’ – a 21st century interpretation of traditional heavy metal – the viciously thrashy ‘Shallow’ and the strong, dark opener ‘The Rain’, which has a brilliant build-up in tension. ‘Empire Of The Gun’ has some nice dramatic twin guitar work and an incredible chorus built upon Dallas Coyle’s clean vocals as a perfect juxtaposition to the heavily stomping riffs and Davis’ hardcore barks in the verses. It could have been a successful single on alternative radio.

Ultimately, God Forbid started to fall apart after ‘Earthsblood’. Dallas Coyle left the band, that released one more somewhat underwhelming record and disbanded shortly afterward. Maybe the frustration of not being able to outdo this record may have been a part of that, but whatever the reason, some bands don’t even get to make an album this good. I feel that God Forbid is often dismissed by older metal fans as one of those bands that profited from the hype created by the likes of Lamb Of God and Killswitch Engage, but the truth is that none of those bands ever cared so little about what type of music they were supposed to make and ended up with an album as spontaneous and pleasantly surprising as ‘Earthsblood’.

Recommended tracks: ‘The New Clear’, ‘Gaia’, ‘Empire Of The Gun’