Posts Tagged ‘ Progressive Metal ’

Album of the Week 24-2020: Chaos Over Cosmos – The Ultimate Multiverse

A couple of weeks ago, I looked at Sacred Blade and Othyrworld and stated that many science fiction-themed bands opting for a futuristic sound end up sounding horribly dated. Chaos Over Cosmos, the project of Polish multi-instrumentalist Rafał Bowman, however, manages to strike the perfect balance between nostalgic and contemporary by fusing quite modern-sounding progressive metal with a sci-fi atmosphere that is apparent in both the production and the lyrical themes. Their second album ‘The Ultimate Multiverse’ has a slightly more brutal sound than debut album ‘The Unknown Voyage’ and while I tend to prefer the more melodic stuff, it seems more effective.

Compared to the debut album, the biggest change would be the fact that Australian vocalist Joshua Ratcliff has replaced Javier Calderon, who apparently has a background in extreme metal. There are still clean vocals in the choruses, often doubled in a manner that reminds me of how Florian Magnus Maier sounds in Alkaloid, but the majority consists of growls. Musically, the compositions somewhat reflect the change, but the basic ingredients are still the same: complex, contemporary guitar riffs getting their cinematic atmosphere from their surroundings, which are frequently keyboards reminiscent of the retro synth wave movement, though not quite as dominant.

Referring to Chaos Over Cosmos as progressive metal might be a tad misleading though, as there aren’t many time signature changes and very few, if any Dream Theater-isms. Due to the highly complex and unpredictable nature of Bowman’s compositions, however, I still think it is a more fitting description than power metal. Choruses often pop up from out of nowhere and the time feel is prone to change at moments where one would not expect them to. Despite what such a description might suggest, however, ‘The Ultimate Multiverse’ stubbornly refuses to sound disjointed.

Part of that is the clearly defined concept Bowman has going on. This extends to every part of the album. While I have a strong preference for clean vocals, I love how the grunts are produced here. Ratcliff’s grunts really sound like you’re surrounded by some kind of interstellar vortex. The strongest aspect of ‘The Ultimate Multiverse’ is the guitar work though. Despite being composed and largely recorded by a guitarist, the album is not crammed full with solos and lead guitar parts. Instead, Bowman decided to let the riffs tell the story and the album absolutely benefits from that.

In a way, Chaos Over Cosmos is a project that could really only happen in this day and age, with its two members being on opposite sides of the world and their Bandcamp being their main promotional platform. There are people who claim that such a construction can never provide the experience a band can, but personally, I don’t think it’s all that different from a band with one or two people calling all the shots. Especially not if the core concept is as strong as it is with Chaos Over Cosmos. Definitely worth checking out if you would like to hear a somewhat more streamlined take on modern progressive metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Cascading Darkness’, ‘We Will Not Fall’, ‘Asimov’

Album of the Week 23-2020: Heljareyga – Heljareyga

Heljareyga is the solo project of Týr frontman Heri Joensen. And their first – and so far only – album is in my opinion the greatest thing Joensen ever released. ‘Heljareyga’ contains five songs with a combined running time of 48 minutes, but none of the songs feel like they are around ten minutes long. This is largely caused by the epic, deeply melancholic atmosphere on the album, though Joensen proves that he knows how to build tension and suspense in a composition here. Furthermore, ‘Heljareyga’ is full of excellent riffs that are as melodic as they are powerful and some stellar lead guitar work.

The often heard complaint that Heljareyga is nothing more than Týr with longer songs is in my eyes unfair. Sure, Joensen has an unmistakable voice and some recognizable songwriting touches, but the songs are nowhere near as folky as Týr’s songs in Faroese and far more melancholic than their English-language songs. Nothing here sounds as triumphant as the likes of ‘Hold The Heathen Hammer High’. Instead there is an air of resignation, but not without a powerful, upper mid-tempo thrust. The riffs are generally longer than Týr’s, while guitar solos and lead guitar themes are more central to Heljareyga’s sound.

Despite all of this, Heljareyga is not needlessly complex or even all that progressive. Joensen just allows the riffs a lot more time to unfold. During the title track, for example, the band takes a full two minutes to develop multiple variations of the chorus melody before a single note is even sung. This doesn’t go at the expense of the listenability, because the band discovers all the dynamic possibilities of the riff by taking it from a clean guitar context to a more distorted environment with different time feels in Amon Djurhuus’ drums. Also, having three guitarists (Joensen, John Ivar Venned and Ken Johannesen) allows for seemingly endless layering opportunities.

What ‘Heljareyga’ does emphasize is the problem with stylistic labels. None of the existing metal subgenres is quite fitting for the album. The riffing has most characteristics in common with power metal and traditional heavy metal, especially with the frequent guitar harmonies, but always in the minor key and at a relatively subdued tempo. Atmospherically, Viking metal comes to mind, but the music is far too dynamic and riffy for that particular tag. Ultimately, it should not matter in order to enjoy the music. Give the album a spin to see if you enjoy it. The songs are stylistically similar, but all have their own mood. ‘Regnið’ has probably been chosen as the opener due to its relative accessibility, while the spectacular closer ‘Vetrarbreytin’ is fairly complex.

And if that wasn’t enough, the production on ‘Heljareyga’ is nothing short of fantastic. I would not be surprised if the mixing process of ‘Heljareyga’ took a long time, because each of the guitar layers is exactly where it should be, while I also love the natural, yet powerful sound of the drums. The album has the unfortunate premise of being a solo effort by the frontman of a successful band that doesn’t sound a million miles away from that band, but also nowhere near as close as many people claim. Certainly an impressive work by the Faroese singer/guitarist that should be in the collection of any fan of epic-sounding heavy metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Vetrarbreytin’, ‘Heljareyga’

Album of the Week 22-2020: Othyrworld – Beyond Into The Night Of Day

Othyrworld was the continuation of Canadian sci-fi heavy metal band Sacred Blade. Don’t believe me? Their first – and unfortunately only – album ‘Beyond Into The Night Of Day’ contains nine tracks that could also be found on Sacred Blade’s 1986 debut album ‘Of The Sun + Moon’. While that may render the release pointless to some, that album was actually quite ambitious for its time and I’m not sure if the available technology was able to fulfill main man Jeff Ulmer’s vision at the time. Ulmer definitely took control of ‘Beyond Into The Night Of Day’, as he is only helped by drummer Ted Zawadski.

Musically, Sacred Blade and Othyrworld were pretty much on the more progressive end of the US power metal scale, despite not actually being American. Comparisons to Crimson Glory are often made due to the song structures and sci-fi themes, but those comparisons may also be a tad misleading. Jeff Ulmer’s voice is significantly lower than Midnight’s, for instance, and some of his compositions have a notable psychedelic quality that cannot really be heard anywhere else in the power/prog field. Especially not in the mid-eighties, when the majority of the song material on ‘Beyond Into The Night Of Day’ was first constructed.

What is remarkable about Othyrworld’s music is that it somehow retained its futuristic sound through all these years. The futuristic elements of a lot of sci-fi inspired art from the eighties – be it music, movies or even novels – have become horribly outdated through the years, but ‘Beyond Into The Night Of Day’ sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday. Zawadski’s huge, reverberating snare drum hits could be seen as a period piece, but his kit has a very natural sound, making it sound timeless instead. The same goes for Ulmer’s very bright acoustic and surprisingly dry-sounding electric guitars.

‘Beyond Into The Night Of Day’ is best listened to in one sitting. The fact that many tracks segue into each other suggests that it was intended to be experienced as such. It’s quite hard not to be carried away by the spacey atmosphere if you actually feel it. Ulmer isn’t the most powerful singer in the world, but his laid-back tone and multi-tracked harmonies create a rather unique ambience. And even if you’re having trouble adapting to the vocals, the album is full of lengthy instrumental passages. In fact, the last ten minutes of the album – the spectacular ‘Moon’ – are only accompanied by a few spoken stanzas.

Anyone who loved the melodic power/prog metal of the likes of Crimson Glory, Queensrÿche or maybe early Ray Alder-era Fates Warning and doesn’t mind the vocals being a bit lower in pitch should definitely give Sacred Blade and Othyrworld a chance. ‘Of The Sun + Moon’, ‘Fieldz The Sunshrine’ and the relatively straightforward ‘In The Light Of The Moon’ should have been eighties metal classics, while newer material such as ‘Ethereal Skyline’ and ‘The Alginment’ show a truly one-of-a-kind, laid-back blend of eighties prog metal and psychedelic rock that could have opened a lot of new doors for Othyrworld. Unfortunately, both musicians died – Zawadski earlier this year, Ulmer back in 2013 – but they certainly made their presence on Earth count with this release.

Recommended tracks: ‘Moon’, ‘Of The Sun + Moon’, ‘Fieldz The Sunshrine’

Album of the Week 21-2020: Hollow – Between Eternities Of Darkness

Back in the nineties, Sweden had its share of excellent power metal bands that were significantly darker than their German counterparts. But while Morgana Lefay and Tad Morose did manage to build somewhat of a following, there aren’t many people who seem to remember Hollow. Both ‘Modern Cathedral’ and ‘Architect Of The Mind’ were excellent proggy power metal albums in a style comparable to Crimson Glory and early Queensrÿche, with some Nevermore-ish contemporary touches for good measure. The band quietly faded away, but in late 2018, singer/guitarist Andreas Stoltz suddenly returned with ‘Between Eternities Of Darkness’, another excellent power/prog album.

More so than ‘Modern Cathedral’ and ‘Architect Of The Mind’, ‘Between Eternities Of Darkness’ does an admirable job concealing its complexity. There probably would not be a lot of experts willing to label the material progressive, because it’s largely in 4/4 and the album is chock-full of strong melodies. Even when Stoltz plays the verse-chorus structure fairly straight, however, there is often a change in time feel or a variation during repeated sections making the songs far more complex than those of many of Hollow’s peers. Except for maybe Elegy, another sadly forgotten band that Hollow frequently is reminiscent of on ‘Between Eternities Of Darkness’.

The album is really a solo work of Stoltz, as he wrote all the music and performed all the instruments. A drummer is credited in Stalder Zantos, but I’m pretty sure that’s Stoltz himself or it means the drums are programmed; what other duo consists of two people whose names are exact anagrams of each other? But even musically, ‘Between Eternities Of Darkness’ is dominated by Stoltz’s melodic, somewhat intricate riffs and multi-tracked vocals. These vocals – generally high-pitched and emotional – could be a turn-off for some people, but I think they are exactly what the album needed to get its story across.

Oh yeah, there is a story on ‘Between Eternities Of Darkness’, about a family on the run from their past, only to see the kid go down the wrong path anyway. Since Stoltz’s vocals are so upfront, it’s hard to zone out, but I do think he does a great job giving the story a certain gravitas. The saddest moments have bright-sounding acoustic guitars as a basis (‘Shadow World’, ‘Say Farewell’), while the compositions and arrangements get a little more dense during the tenser moments (‘Down’, ‘The Road I’m On’), though always with a highly memorable chorus. Hollow is still best when they combine both extremes. The contrasts in ‘Fate Of The Jester’ open the song up beautifully during its chorus, for example, while ‘Death Of Her Dream’ brilliantly balances melancholy and turbulence.

Returns of bands that never had a large audience to begin with always make me less suspicious than reunions of those who do and ‘Between Eternities Of Darkness’ is a great example of why I think that way. Stoltz obviously recorded this album because he had something to say that he couldn’t express with Binary Creed. In addition, it’s admirable how he created this thing on his own without it sounding like an ego fest. While he proves to have immense skills as both a singer and a guitarist, the melodies are clearly what defines ‘Between Eternities Of Darkness’. Fans of any band mentioned in this review should definitely check this out.

Recommended tracks: ‘Fate Of The Jester’, ‘Down’, ‘Death Of Her Dream’, ‘The Road I’m On’

Album of the Week 18-2020: Morgana Lefay – The Secret Doctrine

Possibly topping my list of metal bands that never got the recognition they deserved because the nineties happened is Morgana Lefay. Being mislabelled is part of the problem, as the Swedes were always lumped in with their country’s power metal scene, which doesn’t do them any justice. Morgana Lefay’s music was always darker, generally slower and much more contemporary than that of their peers. Also, Charles Rytkönen is one of the most amazingly expressive lead singers in metal history. While the band would get even better, ‘The Secret Doctrine’ proves they had most of their strengths figured out early in their career.

In a way, I understand the mislabelling issue. Morgana Lefay isn’t the easiest band to categorize. There are vague similarities to Crimson Glory and ‘Into The Mirror Black’-era Sanctuary, but Morgana Lefay isn’t quite as proggy. The riffs of Tony Eriksson and Tommi Karppanen are significantly heavier as well, which combined with the moderate, almost doomy tempos of most of their material makes the music feel like a bit of precursor to the later groove/thrash trend. Those bands never had the degree of theatricality the Swedes have though, with Rytkönen’s clean, but raw vocals often drawing somewhat justified comparisons to Savatage’s Jon Oliva.

Whatever this type of metal is called, however, it’s excellent.  Eriksson and Karpannen kick in your teeth with their thick riffs, which despite their obvious thrash influence get quite a great deal of their power from the slow tempos. Their palm mutes are incredibly punchy, but they don’t overpower the mix. Because of these subdued tempos, the somewhat faster tracks like ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Dying Evolution’ immediately feel like ripping thrashers without interrupting the overal bleak atmosphere. Elsewhere, the steep contrast between bright-sounding acoustic guitars and crushing heaviness justifies the “power” in power ballads ‘The Mirror’, ‘Alley Of Oaks’ and ‘Last Rites’.

Another reason why ‘The Secret Doctrine’ is the best early Morgana Lefay record is the relative lack of filler. Sure, ‘Last Rites’ and the title track are remakes from their (extremely limitedly distributed) debut album ‘Symphony Of The Damned’, but they fit the overall atmosphere here. Only the juvenile ‘State Of Intoxication’ is a bit shallow, but that is abundantly compensated for by excellent mid-tempo crushers like ‘Rooms Of Sleep’, ‘Nowhere Island’, ‘What Am I’, ‘Cold World’ and the vaguely oriental-sounding ‘Soldiers Of The Holy Empire’. Even the unimaginatively-titled ‘Lord Of The Rings’, which literally quotes the opening poem of ‘The Fellowship Of The Ring’, is a surprisingly entertaining stomper.

Though ‘The Sacred Doctrine’ is not quite as good as the band’s 2004 masterpiece ‘Grand Materia’, it is an early highlight in Morgana Lefay’s discography and without a doubt the best album to pick up if you want to know more about the origins of the Swedish band. Ulf Petersson’s (and the band’s) production is a clear product of the early nineties, but not unlike Scott Burns’ Morrisound productions, I actually think that works in the music’s favor. It gives the guitars a claustrophobic, pulsating feel that fits Morgana Lefay’s downtuned riffing perfectly. If you like your metal darker and more aggressive than the average European power metal band without sacrificing any of the theatricality, there are hardly any better options than Morgana Lefay.

Recommended tracks: ‘Rooms Of Sleep’, ‘The Mirror’, ‘Dying Evolution’, ‘What Am I’

Album of the Week 13-2020: Hibiki – Hands Of Providence

Anyone with a more than casual interest in Japanese metal has undoubtedly heard at least one album that hibiki plays on. Ever since his virtuosic playing first rose to prominence in the progressive power metal band Light Bringer, he has become one of the most in-demand bassists of the Japanese rock and metal scene. Possibly due to his fantastic playing, however, his compositional skills don’t quite get the praise they deserve. His first solo album ‘Hands Of Providence’ may just change that. These are all melodic, expertly written songs in which technicality does not go at the expense of memorability.

Despite being written by a bassist, ‘Hands Of Providence’ is not as bass virtuoso-oriented as one might expect. Most of the songs have a distinctly neoclassical vibe that is most clearly carried by the guitars, which are handled by hibiki’s Silex bandmate Masha, NoGoD’s Kyrie and – on three tracks – hibiki himself. It would not be unreasonable to expect something along the lines of Light Bringer’s best album ‘Scenes Of Infinity’, on which hibiki was the main songwriter. But while the albums are stylistically similar, ‘Hands Of Providence’ is more varied and somewhat less vocal-oriented.

‘Hands Of Providence’ seems to be divided into two distinct halves, with the bass-only instrumental fugue ‘Observing Inner Space’ acting as a bit of an act break. The first half contains neoclassical power metal which occasionally brings hibiki’s Light Bringer days to mind, most prominently in the hyper-melodic ‘The Wavering Night’, although it reminded me most of Concerto Moon’s early work. ‘Inside The Scream’ or ‘Traveller In Space’ would not have sounded out of place on any of the Takao Ozaki-fronted Concerto Moon albums, which means they’re full of virtuosic neoclassical playing, but are still memorable. The hopeful ‘Sonic Divine’ is the perfect introduction to the album.

Later on, the album gets somewhat more experimental, most notably on the melodic J-rocker ‘Enter Eternity’. The main riff of the song brings to mind Kiryu’s ‘Kyoka Suigetsu’ and Dir En Grey’s ‘Yokan’, but with a completely different vocal approach – former Saber Tiger singer Yoko Kubota is still in great shape – and some tasteful keyboards added to the mix. ‘Evoke/Emancipate’ is a modern, surprisingly heavy instrumental with mildly dissonant chords and exellent interaction between hibiki, Kyrie and drummer Akira Uehara. After the aching piano-led power ballad ‘Believe And Listen’, hibiki returns to melodic neoclassical hardrock once more with the excellent ‘Children Of The Sun’ before the album is over.

While the cast of musicians on ‘Hands Of Providence’ would already be enough to make me curious about the album, with one of the most interesting visual kei guitarists contributing as well as two musicians from the Saber Tiger family tree – though they never played in the band simultaneously – what really counts is the songs. On ‘Hands Of Providence’, hibiki proves to be something even more important than an incredibly skilled bassist: an excellent songwriter. There are a few moments of virtuosity here and there, but the real stars on the album are hibiki’s melodies. Highly recommended if you like your metal ultra-melodic and neoclassical.

Recommended tracks: ‘Inside The Scream’, ‘Sonic Divine’, ‘Enter Eternity’

Album of the Week 11-2020: Onmyo-za – Hyakki-Ryoran

Only a year had passed between the releases of Onmyo-za’s debut album ‘Kikoku Tensho’ and sophomore record ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from the massive improvement the latter is over the former. Where the debut had promising, but largely underdeveloped material, ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ features some of the best music the band has released to date. While it is significantly more polished than its predecessor, it is also one of the most traditionally metallic albums Onmyo-za put out, if the cover did not give that away already. Likely the best Onmyo-za album for conservative metalheads to start with.

Unlike the album cover, however, ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ isn’t just hellish aggression. In true Onmyo-za fashion, it is in perfect balance with melody, atmosphere and inventive songwriting. Those who have known Onmyo-za from after they broke through with ‘Koga Ninpocho’ might be surprised how the band sounds here. It’s still obviously the same band, with their core sound of traditional heavy metal riffs, subtle Japanese folk touches and the excellent vocal duo of Kuroneko and band leader Matatabi in perfect form. The songs are just slightly longer and notably more complex, while there is somewhat more room for influences from thrash and doom metal.

‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ starts out with my favorite Onmyo-za song. ‘Shiki Wo Karumono’ is largely a fairly conventional speed metal song with incredible guitar riffs, though the ominous semi-spoken – though somehow harmonic – intro and the horror-like mood it sets grant the track a unique atmosphere. Fans of speedy, traditional-sounding heavy metal with subtle progressive touches are relatively well off with ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ anyway, with ‘Gekai Ninpocho’ and ‘Tenkyoin Kuruito Kuruwa’ being on the album as well. ‘Teito Makaitan’ was the band’s most aggressive track up until this album, even featuring growled vocals in the verses, but also a supremely melodic and catchy chorus.

When Onmyo-za slows down on this album, however, the full extent of their class is shown. ‘Ayako’, for example, is a masterpiece. While the track is devoid of tranquil sections and even features a twisted, unsettling middle section, the elegiac melodies that dominate the songs are enough for me to qualify it as the band’s first fanastic ballad. The actual ballad ‘Yagamu Tsuki’ is no slouch either, however, and features some of Kuroneko’s most powerful, emotional vocal work to date. On the other end of the slower spectrum, there is ‘Nurikabe’, the band’s first full-blown doom metal track, which would not have sounded out of place on a Ningen Isu record, had it not been for the mildly dissonant middle section and the superior vocal work.

Since ‘Shiki Wo Karumono’ – along with ‘Nemuri’ from the ‘Mugen Hoyo’ record – was the song that made me fall in love with Onmyo-za, ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ was sort of an introductory Onmyo-za record to me. It may very well be the best album to serve as such for metalheads who are curious about the band, but not that familiar with all the tropes of the Japanese metal scene. ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ could not have come from another country, but has enough metallic characteristics to sound not too alien for western metalheads. It is their first amazing album, from the tightened songwriting the the unbelievable improvement Tora’s drumming went through. A must-hear for anyone.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shiki Wo Karumono’, ‘Teito Makaitan’, ‘Ayako’, ‘Tenkyoin Kuruito Kuruwa’

Album of the Week 08-2020: Demons & Wizards – III

When things went quiet for a decade and a half after the release of their second album ‘Touched By The Crimson King’, I just assumed Demons & Wizards was finished. That would have been understandable, given that Jon Schaffer and Hansi Kürsch are incredibly busy with Iced Earth and Blind Guardian respectively, but then they assembled a tour line-up and announced their third album, simply titled ‘III’. It’s also simply very good. Better than the latest releases by both men’s main bands, while it lacks the consistency issues that plagued its predecessor. Anyone who enjoyed the band before will also enjoy ‘III’.

Stylistically, there is nothing too different from the other two Demons & Wizards albums. It’s still epic heavy metal that combines the hyperspeed palm muting of Iced Earth with the theatricality one might sooner find on a Blind Guardian record. It does seem like Schaffer and Kürsch allowed the songs to unfold a little more slowly and naturally this time around. Not that the songs are much longer than before – despite the presence of three eight plus minute songs – but it feels like Schaffer is less scared of sticking to the same riff for longer than eight bars. Kürsch’s vocal arrangements add plenty of variation anyway.

One could accuse Schaffer and Kürsch of playing things safe here. ‘Diabolic’ does sound like a darker reprise of ‘Heaven Denies’ in structure, the title is even repeated in its chorus, and ‘New Dawn’ has a notable, but passing resemblance to ‘Tear Down The Walls’. Overall, ‘III’ plays around with limited parameters, but manages to squeeze out as much as possible out of them. The album has an overall dark vibe, at least in part due to the relatively subdued tempo of the material – most of the songs are actually mid-paced. Not unlike Iced Earth’s 1995 release ‘Burnt Offerings’, but with much more consistent results.

Remarkably enough, ‘III’ can remain within the mid-tempo realm without boring the listener to death. Schaffer and Kürsch really wanted to give every song its own identity, mostly by creating different atmospheres for the songs. ‘Universal Truth’, for instance, has the feel of a dark ballad, but is too heavy to be classified as such. ‘Timeless Spirit’ and the somewhat overlong ‘Children Of Cain’ would qualify, though both build up to something bigger. The former actually feels like a southern rock epic with crunchier rhythm guitars. ‘Split’ and ‘Wolves In Winter’, on the other hand, represent the more aggressive side of the spectrum. Bombast is not as prominent as on the debut, but ‘Dark Side Of Her Majesty’ and ‘New Dawn’ would certainly appeal to those who loved the debut.

Though ‘III’ is not perfect, it is much better than anyone could have expected for a project that has been dormant for fifteen years. Sure, one could wonder why ‘Final Warning’ – highly enjoyable, but a blatant ‘Dark City’ rewrite – and the particularly Blind Guardian-esque ‘Invincible’ were not saved for Schaffer’s and Kürsch’s main bands respectively, but ‘III’ is strangely one of the least pretentious albums either musician has been involved with in recent years. For dark heavy metal that doesn’t drift too far into evil territory, remaining more traditional instead, ‘III’ should be a no-brainer.

Recommended tracks: ‘Dark Side Of Her Majesty’, ‘Diabolic’, ‘Universal Truth’

Interview Demons & Wizards: “Whatever feels natural”

After nearly a decade and a half, Demons & Wizards broke the silence with an international tour in 2019. Later this week, the project of Iced Earth guitarist Jon Schaffer and Blind Guardian singer Hansi Kürsch will release their third album, simply titled ‘III’. The album is full of the intense, yet theatrical heavy metal the fans have come to expect from Demons & Wizards. Their record label Century Media provided me with an opportunity to speak with Schaffer about the album.

Have you stockpiled any compositions in the years between ‘Touched By The Crimson King’ (2005) and ‘III’?
Three of the songs have been written during the writing sessions for Iced Earth’s ‘Incorruptible’. Those were ‘New Dawn’, ‘Invincible’… And actually, ‘Universal Truth’ was a Sons Of Liberty song which I had already demoed with vocals. Those tracks have all been written around the same time. Once I knew I wasn’t going to use those for Iced Earth, I sent them to Hansi and he came up with some vocal ideas. I was about to go on tour with Iced Earth, but I was definitely interested in getting back to it once I got back.
This was in the summer of 2018, after which I went on a month-long hike through the desert of Arizona. A week after I got back, I flew to Germany, where Hansi and I had a few meetings to plan everything we’re doing now. When I got back, around November 2018, I started writing the rest of the album. The instrumental part of the album was done in my studio in March of 2019. The vocals were done in a studio in Germany.

How important is it for you to make a Demons & Wizards song sound different from Iced Earth?
There is no attempt to make it different, the same or anything in relation to Iced Earth. That’s just not the way I think. It’s just about being in the moment with the music and how it speaks to me. The only thing, from a productional standpoint, that I paid any attention to is how the kick and snare sounds related to the guitar tones. There are four different tunings on the record – standard tuning, my typical Eb tuning, C# and baritone tuning – so there are small, subtle differences when you compare the kick and snare sounds. And that was deliberate, but in terms of ‘I want the production to go this way or that way’… No. I just wanted it to feel good based on what we were doing.
I feel the dynamic range of this album is a little bigger. Every song sounds very different and that gave us the opportunity to not have the same kick and snare sounds on every track. It lends itself well to these types of variables without it ever sounding like anything else but the same album.

Vocal melody

Hansi has different sources of inspiration for lyrics than I have. And that’s the cool thing. If I have a piece of music and I don’t really know what to do with it vocally, I can send it to Hansi to see what he wil do with it. If I’m driven to write lyrics and vocal melodies, if I have a clear vision of what the song is about, I will almost always save it for Iced Earth. Having said that, there are three songs on this album that I wrote the lyrics for. When I have a specific task, like when I go into the studio to write an Iced Earth album, I’ll write an Iced Earth album. But my songs have to move me. And I want them to move other people. Even before the lyrics and vocal melodies are added. The music has to make you feel something when you hear it.
‘New Dawn’, for example, was a song for which I could not hear a vocal melody. After I built the Independence Hall studio and hooked up everything, that was the second song I wrote there. And I liked it, but I just couldn’t hear a vocal melody. I liked the piece of music, but I just couldn’t hear it. I played it to Stu
(Block, Iced Earth’s singer). He wrestled with it for about a day and he didn’t know either. I said: you know what, let’s not force it, I’ll send it to Hansi and I guarantee you he hears something cool in it.
And he did. He came up with something. But it’s a different kind of arrangement. If you mute the vocals and just listen to it instrumentally, it’s pretty difficult to pick out the chorus. It just doesn’t have that kind of structure. And that’s fine. But as I expected, Hansi came up with a bunch of cool parts and I think the song is really cool.
In terms of production, that’s one of my favorite sounding songs on the record, by the way. And it’s also the first song I ever wrote in C# tuning. It more or less came out of left field. I’m really happy with the way it turned out. It’s just a rare example of a piece of music that I could not hear any vocals to. Generally, I do. That’s the reason why I write so many Iced Earth lyrics and vocal melodies: because I hear them. If it’s something I don’t hear, but do like the music, that’s typically the material I co-write with someone else.

Nature of the beast

Does Hansi write anything else than the vocal melodies?
Not really. I write all of that and send it to him. If doesn’t like something, he’ll tell me. But that never happened. He always gets a lot of inspiration from the stuff I send him. The only thing that tends to change is when he interprets a certain section as a chorus and we arrange it differently accordingly. The arrangement can always change based on what he interprets as verses, choruses and bridges. Those are the only changes that ever occur.
Usually, he sends me stuff of which the lyrics aren’t finished. Usually it’s nonsense, but it’s a way of capturing the melody and the cadence. And then we look what will be the big hook. And then it’s: alright, this is the chorus and this is what we build the song around. But generally, the arrangement is pretty close to the finished thing as is. The music almost always tells you what will be the chorus. Usually I instinctively know what it is, but always with the openness of changing the arrangement based on what I hear from Hansi.

Has that ever bled into what Iced Earth does? I always found it interesting that Iced Earth started experimenting with bombast and layering around the time the Demons & Wizards debut was released…
I think that was all part of the growth process. There were a lot of layers on ‘Burnt Offerings’ already. You have to realize that that was our first album with 48 tracks. If you’re given the technology, the temptation for musicians to use more tracks becomes pretty big. Of course you’re going to try and cram more ideas into it. That’s the nature of the beast.
The first two Iced Earth albums were 24-track albums. ‘Burnt Offerings’ was our first 48-track album. ‘Dark Saga’ and ‘Something Wicked’ were both 48-track albums. Then came the first Demons & Wizards album, which was part-analog and part-digital. The drums and rhythm guitars were analog, the rest was recorded digitally. ‘Horror Show’ was part-analog, part-digital as well. The next Iced Earth album was ‘The Glorious Burden’ and that one was fully digital. And that’s when the number of tracks became not an issue anymore. Then it got to: now I have the ability to do 160 tracks, woo!
You know… It can be a trap if you’re not careful, because you can get caught up in it and then you lose sight of the original concept of the song. I know I did. And I think a lot of guys get sucked into that. The fact that the possibilities are there doesn’t mean that you have to use all of it, you know?
I think it’s a natural progression that if you have the technology at your fingertips, the temptation is almost overwhelming. But for me… I’ve reached that point by getting some of those things out of my system with ‘Crucible Of Man’, ‘Framing Armageddon’ and ‘The Glorious Burden’. Those albums have so many parts… On ‘The Glorious Burden’, we had a full orchestra on ‘Gettysburg’ and all that, which was cool, but I got it out of my system. And then with ‘Dystopia’, I decided to go back and make a more straight-up, raw metal album. And then we went a notch back even further with ‘Plagues Of Babylon’, when we got even more raw and back to the roots. And I think with ‘Incorruptible’, I found a balance between the two.
I don’t know what will be next, as I haven’t started working on it yet. But after this Demons album comes out and I take a bit of a break, then I will get back to Iced Earth zone and I will do whatever feels natural at that time.


Speaking of layering: there’s always a lot of it going on in Demons & Wizards’ music. How difficult was it to interpret that music for last year’s tour?
It was a small challenge. At some point, you have to focus on which is the most important part in a certain part. If there’s four different guitar parts and harmonies and what not, you just have to choose which of the parts are the most recognizable for someone who has not heard the songs before. That’s what we did when Jake (Dreyer, Iced Earth’s lead guitarist who also toured with Demons & Wizards as their live guitarist) came over to figure out the live parts. I transferred the old two inch tapes and I found the old hard drives of ‘Touched By The Crimson King’ to analyze every track. I was listening and though: man, I can’t even remember playing this at the time.
You just have to pick which part is the most obvious based on the way it was mixed at the time and which part jumps out. And from there, we move on. That’s how it goes with the vocals as well. Hansi always layers so many vocal parts and different harmonies. That is one of the reasons why we got the backing singers for the likes of Wacken, so we could make it as big as possible and still keep it somewhat realistic in terms of expenses. It was a small challenge, but not as difficult as I thought it would be. Some things of this new album will be a bigger challenge.

Does that mean you are planning new live dates with Demons & Wizards?
There aren’t any plans, no. The plan for 2020 is studio time for Iced Earth and the same for Blind Guardian. Iced Earth and Blind Guardian are both successful, busy bands. The biggest challenge for Hansi and me is to work around those schedules. But even if we did, there’s all these guitar tunings. Eb is the typical Iced Earth tuning and even for Demons & Wizards, but there are exceptions. That could be a challenge if we ever play these songs live with Demons & Wizards. There are four different tunings on this album and a bunch of songs from the past that are in D. If we ever have any fly dates, we’ll lose quite a bit of money on travelling with all these differently-tuned guitars, haha!

Hotel California

Traditionally, Jim Morris plays all the guitar solos on a Demons & Wizards album. Why did you approach Jake Dreyer to do a couple as well this time?
I would have been fine with Jim playing all the guitar solos like on the earlier Demons & Wizards albums, but there were a couple of songs that demanded something else. Jim is 61 and he grew up with Jeff Beck, Clapton and David Gilmour. And that’s great, but a song like ‘Split’ asked for Jake’s style, as it’s an aggressive heavy metal track. On ‘Wolves In Winter’, Jim tried a part and that was pretty cool, but when Jake played the same part, it just worked better.
When I asked Jake to play the Demons & Wizards material live with us, I thought it was cool to let him play some solos on the new album. He would come over to figure out the parts for the live show anyway. And on ‘Timeless Spirit’, I wanted a ‘Hotel California’-like vibe at the end from the moment we started working on it. So one late night, I recorded Jake’s solo which begins right after the heavy part at the end starts. It was just a brilliant take, so we kept it. One or two days later, I sat down with Jim and Jake to guide them through the piece.
Jake has a really cool vibrato and a good sense of melody. He can play all the shred stuff, but also what I call the ‘grown man shit’. And that’s what cool about the dueling guitars near the end of that song. You’ve got the old school dude and the younger guy who has an old soul approach. I think it’s a really nice trade-off. And then you get to the ‘Hotel California’ part where they play in harmony. That was one of the highlights of the recording sessions for me.


Album of the Week 04-2020: Rush – A Farewell To Kings

Late seventies Rush has always had a great reputation among fans of progressive rock and metal. And not without reason. Rush managed to inject all the clever twists and melodic touches that the likes of Genesis and Jethro Tull had into their music without ever losing the heavy, Led Zeppelin-esque force that so many progressive bands sacrificed in the process of making their music less immediate. To me, ‘A Farewell To Kings’ is the Canadian trio’s crowning achievement, because it manages to strike a balance between all the elements that make them the band they are unlike any other of their albums.

After a bunch of great short, punchy songs, but underdeveloped and meandering epics on ‘Caress Of Steel’ and possibly the best side-long song of the seventies followed by a handful of largely unremarkable shorter tracks on ‘2112’, ‘A Farewell To Kings’ finally gets everything right. The long songs are a bit shorter this time around, though there are still two that pass the 10 minute mark, which causes the band to sound a tad more focused than before. Where in the past, the band’s amazing performances pushed some of the less remarkable passages over the edge, ‘A Farewell To Kings’ is tight and powerful all the way through.

On the shorter side of the spectrum, ‘Closer To The Heart’ is probably the first truly radio-friendly song the band ever recorded. It is done on their own terms, however. Built upon twelve string acoustic strumming by Alex Lifeson and containing several changes in dynamics, it is barely believable that the track is under three minutes long. So is ‘Madrigal’, which is more folky in approach and brings to mind ‘A Trick Of The Tail’ era Genesis. ‘Cinderella Man’ is a more typical Rush song somewhat in line with ‘Lakeside Park’ from ‘Caress Of Steel’.

The powerful opening track is the middle ground on ‘A Farewell To Kings’. It is not as concise as the aforementioned songs, but it also is not a big, sweeping epic. There are some powerful riffs in the track and some of Geddy Lee’s most impressive vocal work to date: it’s still high-pitched, but full of passion. One of my favorite Rush songs. The same can be said about the following ‘Xanadu’, which tells the tale of an immortal man descending into madness both musically and lyrically in a highly dynamic 11-minute track. The other long song, closer ‘Cygnus X-1’, is slightly more fragmented, but such a masterpiece of progrock musicianship and massive riffs, that it is easy to forgive the band.

In hindsight, ‘A Farewell To Kings’ can be seen as a transitional effort between Rush’s more proggy early days and their more accessible work that started with ‘Permanent Waves’. But of course, it is not that black and white, if only because ‘Hemispheres’ was released in the intervening years. I do have the feeling that it often gets overlooked due to being sandwiched between ‘2112’ and ‘Hemispheres’, both of which have huge, sprawling epics, but in fact, it is my favorite Rush album. Sadly, Neil Peart’s death three weeks ago means that they will never top it.

Recommended tracks: ‘A Farewell To Kings’, ‘Xanadu’, ‘Cygnus X-1’