Posts Tagged ‘ progressive Power 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)’

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Album of the Week 23-2017: Iced Earth – Incorruptible


Lately, it seems like Iced Earth has been trying to make up for the bombast that characterized their sound during the first decade of this century by proving they are still first and foremost a heavy metal band. ‘Incorruptible’ follows this same general idea, as the guitars are front and center on the record. Sometimes it’s band leader Jon Schaffer’s instantly recognizable riff work, sometimes it’s the triumphant guitar harmonies reminiscent of traditional metal acts like Iron Maiden, but the guitars are always the defining factors of the songs. Combined with the ballsy production, this makes ‘Incorruptible’ one of Iced Earth’s more powerful releases.

The album’s direct predecessor ‘Plagues Of Babylon’ was also relatively guitar-oriented, but that album’s somewhat bland production and samey song ideas made it fall short of their excellent 2011 comeback record ‘Dystopia’. Schaffer made sure that the songs stand out more this time around by switching up atmospheres and melodies without losing track of the powerful foundation of the band. It helps that he has the amazing pipes of Stu Block at his disposal, as Block is perfectly capable of carrying out an anthemic chorus or a highly emotional passage without making it sound artificial.

Ironically, one of the highlights on ‘Incorruptible’ doesn’t even feature Block at all; it’s been a while since Iced Earth attempted an instrumental that wasn’t an intro or interlude, but ‘Ghost Dance (Awaken The Ancestors)’ is a well-constructed track which lets its triumphant twin guitar melodies tell the story instead of the lyrics. That does not mean there aren’t any stories here. In fact, Schaffer’s fascination with American history prompted him to write yet another epic – ‘Clear The Way (December 13th, 1862)’ – this time about the Battle of Fredericksburg. Interestingly, even on this track, the guitars don’t yield for bombastic elements. There’s a few subtle keyboard flourishes, but it’s a riff-driven epic by nature.

While most of ‘Incorruptible’ feels pleasantly familiar, the best moments of the record show the band taking the slightest detour from their normal sound. ‘Brothers’ initially sounds like one of the band’s trademark power ballads, but quickly develops into a highly melodic heavy metal track with an amazing guitar solo by newcomer Jake Dreyer, while the following ‘Defiance’ does an amazing job alternating an angry, crushing verse with a refreshing melancholic chorus. ‘The Relic (Part One)’ has a brooding atmosphere, while the riff work is simple, yet brutally effective, which can also be said about Dreyer’s sparse, but amazing lead work. ‘The Veil’ has an amazing build-up and as a result, it is one of the band’s better power ballads yet.

Of course, that doesn’t meant that typical Iced Earth tracks like ‘Great Heathen Army’, ‘Black Flag’ and the dark, aggressive ‘Seven Headed Whore’ aren’t worth your attention. Those who have followed the band for a long time will definitely like those tracks, but the rest of the album might just convince a few people who have given up on the band around the turn of the century. ‘Incorruptible’ sounds like a deliberate attempt to confirm Iced Earth’s status as the kings of American heavy metal. As fas as I’m concerned, that’s the best decision they could have made at this point in their career.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Relic (Part One)’, ‘Defiance’, ‘Ghost Dance (Awaken The Ancestors)’

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 14-2017: Onmyo-za – Kishibojin


Concept albums can be a tricky affair, but when done right, their atmosphere and continuity lifts everything about the albums in question to a higher level. Take Onmyo-za’s ‘Kishibojin’. It’s one of those albums that leaves very little to be desired and therefore is almost impossible to turn off before it’s over. The band supersizes its unique combination of fairly traditional heavy metal riffs, an atmosphere inspired by Japanese myths and legends, an approach to songwriting that ignores genre boundaries and a duo of (almost) equally amazing singers, resulting in one of the best albums I have ever heard.

On the surface, all the songs having “Kumikyoku ‘Kishibojin'” in their titles – which I will omit from the separate songs for brevity reasons – already betrays that we’re dealing with a concept album, but there’s more subtle hints as well, such as songs transitioning into each other and recurring themes. All songs are great stand-alone tracks too, however. And there’s a consistency, both in terms of style and quality, that surpasses even the rest of Onmyo-za’s strong discography. That also means there’s no upbeat J-Rock songs here – though the aggressively playful ‘Oni Kosae No Uta’ is borderline – but I consider that a plus.

‘Kishibojin’ is a darker affair than the average Onmyo-za record, though songs like ‘Urami No Hate’ and the powerful opener ‘Samayoi’ have a hopeful undertone to them. You don’t have to understand Japanese – I don’t, for instance – to get carried away by the atmosphere. For instance, the middle section of the amazing ‘Kishibojin’ seems to portray insanity – highlighted by subtly shifting rhythms and lead guitar feel – and the ballads ‘Korui’ and ‘Gekko’ suggest a feeling of solitude. The slower, brooding tunes ‘Ubugi’ and ‘Michi’ are masterclasses in building atmosphere, while the brilliant closing track ‘Kikoku’ ties the whole thing together musically and mood-wise.

As far as performances go, ‘Kishibojin’ is as close to perfection as it gets without having its life sucked out. Bassist and band leader Matatabi and his wife Kuroneko are both great singers. The former delivers his best performance thus far on this record, while the latter is – as always – incredible. The guitar duo has perfectly complementary lead guitar syles, with Maneki having a more thematic approach and Karukan being responsible for the faster runs. ‘Kishibojin’ is session drummer Makoto Dobashi’s recording debut with Onmyo-za and his powerful, but not overly aggressive playing proves to be a perfect fit for the band.

While Onmyo-za has yet to release an album that is less than good, every good band has a release where they truly outdo themselves. ‘Kishibojin’ is that release for Onmyo-za. The generally melancholic atmosphere on the record may not be for everyone, but it’s also a very important part of what makes the album such an immersive listening experience. I would like to be critical and point out small mistakes, but the truth is that they are nowhere to be found. This is a near-perfect record, right down to the subtle, but indispensible keyboard flourishes. Go check it out, if you haven’t yet, and don’t blame me for your Onmyo-za addiction.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kikoku’, ‘Kishibojin’, ‘Michi’

Album of the Week 13-2017: Wicked Mystic – Lithium


Sometimes unexpected breakups inadvertently mean that bands go out while they’re at their peaks. Yours truly was thoroughly impressed with Wicked Mystic’s sophomore album ‘Lithium’, but before they could properly promote the record, the band had already broken up. And that means that outside of the Netherlands, not many people could acquaint themselves with this highly interesting hybrid of progressive and power metal. During those days, it wasn’t easy to find a record in the genre with such a perfect balance of melody and variation in the songwriting department. Easily one of the best Dutch metal records of all time.

Compared to its excellent predecessor ‘The Paramount Question’, ‘Lithium’ is more concise and a little more aggressive, but the general sound is similar. Specifically, this means the songs are shorter, but not simpler. Within the songs, quite a lot of things happen, but they never end up sounding disjointed. In addition, some of the album’s best moments are not in the riffs – despite their obvious quality – but in the clean and acoustic guitar passages, that the quintet seems to be quite liberal with. This may cause the album to sound a little busy at times, but that generally is its strength.

Two of the songs are even largely acoustic. ‘The Reverie’ is a beautiful, folky ballad with some excellent fretless bass work by Erik Schut, but the most wonderful acoustic work can be heard on the breathtaking closing track ‘Last Honesty’, which tells the story of a wrongfully convicted death row inmate through an immaculate build-up. Some acoustic guitar solos pop up from time to time, with those near the end of the strong heavy metal track ‘Inborn Jester’ standing out most. The heavier ‘Mournful Rhymes’ and the euphoric ‘Hollow Phrase’ profit from extended clean sections with fantastic lead guitar work by Niels Kuenen and Harald te Grotenhuis.

On the more aggressive side of things, there is the relatively speedy ‘Calm Despair’, which builds from a high-speed twin guitar intro to a song with driving rhythms and great vocals by Remko Roes, who draws parallels to Ronnie James Dio and Tad Morose’s Urban breed. ‘Knight Errant’ is the song that demands most versatility from him – from the more aggressive opening to the harmonies of the chorus. Opening track ‘Toxemia’ is easily the most modern song on the record and while it’s good, it’s probably not the best song to open with, as it’s a bit misleading.

Wicked Mystic recently had a brief reunion with one of their early line-ups, mostly focusing on the more aggressive thrash metal leanings of their early work. While it was a pleasant listen, ‘The Paramount Question’ and ‘Lithium’ were without any doubt the albums that showed the band from their more unique side. To call this progressive metal would give people the wrong impression of what the music sounds like, but it is a fact that Wicked Mystic didn’t let itself be limited by what was expected from contemporary power metal bands at the time. Worth a listen if you are into Iced Earth’s more adventurous material.

Recommended tracks: ‘Last Honesty’, ‘Inborn Jester’, ‘Hollow Phrase’

Album of the Week 09-2017: Onmyo-za – Fuujin Kaikou


With the genre nearing five decades of existence, finding unique sounding metal is becoming increasingly difficult. Onmyo-za somehow succeeds at doing so without attempting anything too far-fetched. Their riffs and twin melodies are generally from the traditional heavy metal and hard rock mold, but their open-minded approach to songwriting allows for a spontaneous sound that contains elements of J-rock, progrock and hints of Japanese folk. Also, singing couple Kuroneko and bass playing band leader Matatabi forsakes the “Beauty and the Beast” approach of most metallic male-female singing duos in favor of something more melodic, further emphasizing their highly original nature.

‘Fuujin Kaikou’ is the wind-themed half of a diptych with the simultaneously released – and thunder-themed – ‘Raijin Sousei’. That doesn’t mean it’s all soft and subdued though; in fact, there are plenty of riff-driven metal anthems like ‘Ichimokuren’, ‘Tsumujikaze’ and the excellent opener ‘Kamikaze’ present. However, it is the more melodic and better – by a hair – of the two. This approach leaves all the room Kuroneko needs to deliver her best vocal performance to date and often lays the guitars of Maneki and Kurakan on an atmospheric, but never overpowering symphonic bed. And even the ballads – there’s quite a few of them – are remarkably powerful.

To start with the latter category: Kuroneko’s composition ‘Kumo Wa Ryuu Ni Mai, Kaze Wa Tori Ni Utau’ is the most beautiful, goosebumps-inducing ballad the band has ever released. It’s the only song on the record where the orchestral tracks take over the guitars, but it fits the beautiful, cinematic atmosphere of the song perfectly. Both guitar solos are simply breathtaking as well. This does not disqualify the other calmer songs though; ‘Manazashi’ and ‘Hebimiko’ are somewhat more traditional, but excellent ballads and ‘Yaobikuni’ brings to mind Dio’s lighter sounding singles from the late eighties.

On the – slightly – heavier side of things, ‘Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku’ is a true highlight. With a great build-up, highly climactic lead guitar themes and a downright spectacular chorus that has Matatabi and Kuroneko duetting beautifully, the song is simply a lesson in how to write a mindblowing melodic metal song. ‘Saredo Itsuwari No Okuribi’ is somewhat more subdued, but still a great metal song with irresistible melodies. ‘Muufuu Ninpocho’ features a godly bass sound courtesy of Matatabi and is a bit more rocky, as is the – almost traditionally – upbeat closing track ‘Haru Ranman Ni Shiki No Mau Nari’. Both of those are songs that could sound horribly out of place on a metal record, but the general atmosphere makes them work here.

Exploring Onmyo-za’s discography can be a bit intimidating for a westerner, due to the fact that every song and album title is in Japanese, but ultimately, it will be a rewarding experience. Their unique sound somehow feels familiar and highly original at the same time, which was exactly what yours truly was looking for at the time he discovered them. Their status as one of the more popular Japanese metal bands is absolutely justified and listening to ‘Fuujin Kaikou’ – or really almost any of their albums – is highly recommended.

Recommended tracks: ‘Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku’, ‘Kumo Wa Ryuu Ni Mai, Kaze Wa Tori Ni Utau’, ‘Kamikaze’

Album of the Week 01-2017: Stygma IV – The Human Twilight Zone


Sometimes bands are so short of the attention they deserve, that they even surprise me pleasantly when I come across them in my own collection. Because really, Stygma IV’s brand of dark, somewhat progressive power metal is nothing short of excellent. And yet, they’re not exactly a household name. Maybe it’s the fact their native Austria didn’t have the infrastructure for metal that their German neigbors had or simply that they were forced to change their name multiple times throughout their early career. ‘The Human Twilight Zone’ is a true grower: it slowly reveals its dark secrets over multiple listens.

It certainly isn’t the musicianship. Günter Maier is an accomplished guitarist with an audible background in progressive metal, but without all the neoclassical clichés of all of his contemporaries, while Alex Hilzensauer is a true bass virtuoso, but wisely chooses to only show that in small, digestible doses. Ritchie Krenmaier’s voice often strongly enhances the atmosphere of oppression or psychological illness in the lyrics; his expressive voice is clean, but with a distinct raw edge and sounds like a lower pitched version of Metal Church’s Mike Howe. Herb Greisberger stands out because in an era of rapid footwork, he chooses for interesting tom and snare drum patterns instead.

The centerpiece of ‘The Human Twilight Zone’ is the 16 minute epic ‘Sleep’, which never actually feels as long as it does. You can hear the song going through multiple movements of varying degrees of intensity. Again: the composition is marvellous, but it’s Krenmaier who really enhances the intensity. It’s hardly the only highlight on the album though. It’s preceded by ‘The Void’, a slow, ridiculously heavy song with massive guitar riffs. The title track starts off sounding like the band is trying to attempt something more melodic, but turns out to be another typical Stygma IV song: dark, atmospheric and really heavy. Excellent fretless work by Hilzensauer as well.

Luckily, there is enough variation to warrant the album’s 70 minute run. ‘My Failure Reveals’ has a somewhat lighter, more traditional heavy metal feel, though I wouldn’t exactly call it upbeat. This is also one of the songs where Maier’s leads, while very well structured, have an almost improvised feel, which is quite rare in the genre. ‘Scars’ also has a more traditional feel, albeit in a more proggy manner. ‘Why’ and closing track ‘The Way To Light’ are the ballads of the album, but they retain the dark vibe of the rest of the album, which – together with Krenmaier’s spirited performance – makes a true highlight out of the former.

Unfortunately however, Greisberger contracted a back injury some time ago, resulting in the band calling it a day. Maier and Hilzensauer went on to form the very similarly styled Crimson Cult, which is also very worthy of your time, but ‘The Human Twilight Zone’ is one of those instances where all the parts are in the right place. Had they toured with Nevermore or Savatage at the time – both of which are similar to the band in style, but not in sound – they could have made it a little bigger. Because this material truly deserves that.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Void’, ‘Sleep’, ‘Why’