Posts Tagged ‘ progressive Power Metal ’

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’

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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’

Album of the Week 43-2018: Witherfall – A Prelude To Sorrow


Fans of dark progressive power metal are having a good few weeks. A week after the final recordings of Warrel Dane came out, Witherfall releases its incredible sophomore album ‘A Prelude To Sorrow’. Despite being aware of the other activities of guitarist Jake Dreyer (Iced Earth) and singer Joseph Michael (filling in for the aforementioned Dane in Sanctuary), this powerful combination of elements from various metal subgenres took me completely by surprise. With equal parts old school epic heavy metal melodicism and contemporary progressive touches, ‘A Prelude To Sorrow’ is a dynamic album that stays engaging all the way through.

Upon first listen, ‘A Prelude To Sorrow’ struck me as a more progressive take on the approach Winters Bane took on ‘Heart Of A Killer’, but that assessment may be influenced by Michael’s voice, which bears a strong resemblance to Tim Owens’ on that record. However, Witherfall is even darker and more adventurous from a songwriting perspective. Most of the songs are quite long, two of them even exceed the eleven minute mark, but they are over before one can realize how long they actually are. The immersive atmosphere certainly helps there, but atmosphere alone only takes you so far.

Musically, Witherfall’s sound is based upon a complex, but not needlessly virtuosic riff and rhythm department, upon which Michael builds some impressive multi-layered vocal mayhem. Keyboards are sometimes added to the mix as a subtle enhancement, but ultimately, Witherfall is really about riffs, rhythms, voices and occasional blazing lead guitar work. None of the elements ever become overbearing, because despite all their progressive leanings, the band knows that the songs and the melodies should prevail, however challenging they may be to execute. The songs generally feature a lot of twists and turns, but not so much that you lose track as a listener.

Naming highlights is not possible without mentioning the massive bookends ‘We Are Nothing’ and ‘Vintage’. The former is a masterpiece that almost feels like a three-part suite due to the acoustic middle section splitting up an otherwise monstrous, almost doom metal-like track, while the latter is a particularly epic power ballad in tribute to the band’s deceased drummer Adam Sagan. The powerful ‘Moment Of Silence’ has an oppressively dark atmosphere and ‘Shadows’ constantly moves from aggressive to mournful and back remarkably effectively. ‘Ode To Despair’ proves that metal bands can do power ballads without immediately sacrificing their power.

Anyone who listens to the likes of Nevermore, Morgana Lefay, ‘In Search Of Truth’-era Evergrey and Sanctuary’s ‘Into The Mirror Black’ should certainly give ‘A Prelude To Sorrow’ a spin. Though the music is highly atmospheric and Michael’s vocal delivery is fairly theatrical, the compositions and performances are so powerful that even those who are generally discouraged by such terms might enjoy this. Although I was aware of the individual skills of the musicians involved, ‘A Prelude To Sorrow’ overwhelmed me upon first listen and has enough interesting details to keep surprising me every time I put it on again. That may end up happening a lot.

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

Album of the Week 42-2018: Warrel Dane – Shadow Work


‘Shadow Work’ is a bittersweet affair. While it is good to have a new album with Warrel Dane’s vocals, he died during the recordings of the album in São Paulo, making this the last time we are treated to new material by Dane, who I consider one of the best metal singers of all time. One thing his fans can rejoice about is the fact that his unexpected farewell album is incredible. It is a dark, twisted record that should please all fans of Nevermore and Sanctuary, save for maybe those who only enjoyed the earliest work of the latter.

Dane’s solo debut ‘Praises To The War Machine’, released ten years ago, sort of felt like “Nevermore light”. While it sounded similar to his main band, it had a simpler, more open sound, with the virtuosic technicality of his main band reduced to a minimum. By contrast, ‘Shadow Work’ is heavy as it gets with some impressive playing by Dane’s Brazilian backing bang. Guitarists Johnny Moraes and Thiago Oliveira must be fans of Jeff Loomis or at least must have studied his work closely. Their heavy riff work and melodic ornamentation certainly would not sound out of place in Nevermore.

Where ‘Shadow Work’ does distinguish itself is its atmosphere. The intense ‘Madame Satan’ and the nearly extreme metal of the intro to ‘The Hanging Garden’ are quite possibly the darkest stuff Dane ever worked on. The guitar work manages to be vicious and atmospheric at the same time, the compositions take a few unexpected turns and Dane’s emotional vocals give this stuff a melodic dignity that many progressive death metal bands can only dream of. ‘Disconnection System’ sounds closest to Nevermore (and even recycles a bit of the lyrics of ‘The Politics Of Ecstacy’) and would therefore be the best track here to sample before diving into the album.

Metal was never Dane’s only ace in the hole though. Much of his increasingly equipped lower register has a strong gothic quality to it, which fits the ethnic sounds of the overture ‘Ethereal Blessing’ perfectly. The closing epic ‘Mother Is The Word For God’ features him snarling, bellowing, begging and whispering into your soul, truly enhancing the constantly shifting moods of the song. The track has echoes of Nevermore’s ‘This Godless Endeavor’, without sounding like a copy. The arena rock vibe of ‘As Fast As The Others’ and the ballad ‘Rain’ are slightly more accessible, but no less gloomy.

It would be tempting to call ‘Shadow Work’ unfinished. It was supposed to be an eighty minute record (instead of slightly over forty) and I’m sure Dane would have polished up a few vocal lines had he lived long enough to do so, but complaining about that would be missing the point entirely. Dane’s band deserves all the praise they can get finishing these recordings as well as they did and the singer’s emotional, dramatic delivery is exactly what makes ‘Shadow Work’ the goosebumps-inducing experience it is. Sure, it’s a little rough around the edges sometimes, but that doesn’t deter from the fact that this is easily the best album with Warrel Dane singing in thirteen years.

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

Album of the Week 40-2018: Saber Tiger – Obscure Diversity


It is difficult for me to be objective about the new Saber Tiger album, having made a minor contribution to its production, but the fact is that ‘Obscure Diversity’ would have excited me regardless. Saber Tiger won me over with their intense combination of traditional heavy metal and contemporary progressive touches a long time ago. ‘Obscure Diversity’ miraculously manages to explore the possibilities of that trademark style more extensively than anything the band released since ‘Timystery’ whilst simultaneously sounding more streamlined than their previous efforts. This makes ‘Obscure Diversity’ an extremely pleasant listen that reveals several secrets over multiple spins.

Once the surprisingly theatrical intro ‘Daguerrotype Of Phineas Gage’ is over, ‘The Crowbar Case’ seems to suggest we are getting a more aggressive take on Saber Tiger’s sound here. The opening riff is thrashy, almost Bay Area-styled in character. When this type of riffing mixes with the band’s tried and tested sense of melody and drama later on, a winning combination is found. This type of high velocity meets supreme sense of melody metal can also be found in the pulsating ‘Permanent Rage’, the dense, stomping and climactic ‘Beat Of The War Drums’ and to a lesser extent the album’s first video ‘The Worst Enemy’.

Uptempo aggression is hardly the only thing the band goes for on ‘Obscure Diversity’, however. After all, its title delivers a promise to live up to. In that respect, the first contribution bassist hibiki made to the Saber Tiger canon is a real winner. ‘Distant Signals’ takes all the melodic and especially progressive influences people may expect from his history with Light Bringer and combines them with all of Saber Tiger’s trademark aspects to create a gorgeous dynamic metal track that truly allows singer Takenori Shimoyama to shine. ‘Distant Signals’ is a unique track, but it makes complete sense within the context of ‘Obscure Diversity’.

Dynamics are also key in ‘The Shade Of Holy Light’ and ‘The Forever Throne’. Technically, both of these tracks would qualify as semi-ballads, but they are much darker and more atmospheric than one would usually predict from that description. This approach provides all the room that guitarists Akihito Kinoshita and Yasuharu Tanaka need to play at their most passionate. Their spectacular guitar work is a main attraction of Saber Tiger anyway. ‘Stain’, for instance, is full of incredible lead guitar work even outside of the solos. Their trade-offs are incredible. The solo spots for hibiki are relatively limited in number, but when he does get them, it does not take long to realize he is one of the best bass players in Japan.

More than 35 years in the music business does not appear to be slowing down Saber Tiger. In fact, this decade has arguably been the most consistent of their career. Relative youngsters hibiki and Yasuhiro Mizuno form an incredible rhythm section that is both intense and complex, upon which Tanaka and Kinoshita can build their timeless riffs. Shimoyama is also as passionate as ever. But how can he not be with such an incredible set of songs to work with? ‘Obscure Diversity’ is a no-brainer for anyone who enjoyed Saber Tiger’s last few releases, but the more adventurous fans of the likes of Nevermore and Iced Earth  should certainly give this a chance as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Distant Signals’, ‘Beat Of The War Drums’, ‘Permanent Rage’

Album of the Week 23-2018: Onmyo-za – Hado Myoo


Heavy, dark, but without forsaking their trademark streamlined melodicism. How they do it is a mystery to me, but Onmyo-za manages to upgrade the formula of their already impressive latter day sound on ‘Hado Myoo’ without the help of a potentially alienating stylistic shift. Despite its fairly heavy use of seven string guitars, its predecessor ‘Karyo-Binga’ had its lighter moments. ‘Hado Myoo’ has not, except for maybe the relatively accessible first single ‘Oka Ninpocho’. And that is a great thing, as this powerful, relatively riff-driven monster of an album truly confirms Onmyo-za’s relevance in the year before its twentieth anniversary.

Being quite a short album by Onmyo-za standards, ‘Hado Myoo’ wastes no time setting the scene and drags the listener into an unsettling, yokai-infested underworld by means of its massive opening track ‘Hao’. The song truly plays to all of the band’s strengths, with especially the contrast between the crushing sections sung by bassist and bandleader Matatabi and the more melancholic introspection of the parts lead by his wife Kuroneko being nothing short of genius. ‘Hao’ is more than a mind-blowing opener though. It is a warning that ‘Hado Myoo’ is not going to be for the faint of heart and it delivers on that promise.

‘Shimobe’ follows a similar structure, albeit on a higher tempo, with its fierce riffing unveiling a distinct melodic death metal influence. The 7/8 intro is vicious and it is quite remarkable how many new things happen in the latter three minutes of the song. Easily the heaviest Onmyo-za song in quite some time. But while the aforementioned songs are peaks in intensity, ‘Hado Myoo’ does not let go until it is over. The songs vary in heaviness – ‘Haja no Fuin’ brings some of that delicious NWOBHM-inspired twin riffing to the fore, while ‘Ippondara’ is a grinding midtempo stomper with a cool bass solo – but none of them will be relegated to background music. Fortunately.

Elsewhere, ‘Tesso No Aza’ teaches many European and American bands a lesson or two on how to do epic heavy metal and ‘Oka Ninpocho’ and ‘Fushoko No O’ feature some tasteful Japanese folk elements as part of their arrangements. ‘Izuna Otoshi’ and ‘Itsumade’ are the typical melodic heavy metal we have come to expect from Onmyo-za, though the latter does feature some borderline thrash riffs. Even the closing track is very powerful. Onmyo-za usually reserves that spot for lighter, upbeat rock tracks, but while ‘Bureiko’ does have a more “rocky” feel than the rest of the album, it is still very much rooted in pounding riff work.

As far as my expectations for ‘Hado Myoo’ went, this was not what I was expecting. Not many metal bands can say that their fourteenth album is one of their heaviest thus far, but Onmyo-za can proudly declare that. It never sounds forced, however. ‘Hado Myoo’ is clearly the work of a band doing something they feel comfortable doing. It is a sonic triumph as well, with the guitars of Maneki and Karukan having the perfect amount of grit and Matatabi’s bass rumbling underneath slightly more prominently than usual. Yours truly for one was stunned and unless you listen to Onmyo-za for their ballads – there aren’t any – most of their fans will too.

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

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