Posts Tagged ‘ progressive Power Metal ’

Album of the Week 07-2018: Angra – Ømni


Change does not appear to affect Angra. They survived a massive schism around the turn of the century and now Dave Mustaine has hijacked longtime guitarist Kiko Loureiro for Megadeth, they still manage to put together another great album. Most of the current line-up already proved that the (largely) Brazilian band could still pump out great progressive power metal, as ‘Secret Garden’ was the best metal album of 2015. Now that ‘Secret Garden’ has put Angra back on the map, ‘Ømni’ shows the band stretching their boundaries a little. The results are slightly less memorable, but a very rewarding listen nonetheless.

Much to my surprise, Loureiro’s replacement Marcelo Barbosa is an integral part of the album, having contributed significantly to the songwriting. Sole founding member Rafael Bittencourt gratefully profits from the possibilities his guitar partnership with Barbosa provides as well. As a result, ‘Ømni’ ends up sounding less European-tinged power metal and more like a progressive metal album with very distinct world fusion overtones. Angra never shied away from putting their South American roots on display, but it seems like partnering with Barbosa gave Bittencourt the courage to dive deep into crossover opportunities, providing the basis of the most interesting moments of ‘Ømni’.

That does not mean that there is no place for power metal on ‘Ømni’. In fact, the album starts out with two fairly traditional, euphoric power metal numbers, with ‘Travelers Of Time’ being the more contemporary take on the genre and ‘Light Of Transcendence’ the more old school one. Even these tracks sound fresh though, as Angra always had a way of rubbing up against clichés, but never fully engaging. On the metallic side of the album, ‘Magic Mirror’ is great, but ‘War Horns’ is the true winner. Darker and heavier than Angra usually sounds, it is an intense listening experience, on which Loureiro guests.

Despite all this familiarity, ‘Ømni’ is best when it surprises. The semi-ballad ‘The Bottom Of My Soul’ has a very folky basis and some beautifully heartfelt vocals by Bittencourt, while ‘Caveman’ has some chants in Portuguese and Latin-flavored drums and percussion alternating with the stomping riff work and Fabio Lione’s mighty voice. The complete fusion of all styles can be heard in ‘Ømni – Silence Inside’, in which we can hear everything from subtle bossa nova touches to virtuosic progmetal without ever sounding disjointed. If anything, the song has a supreme build-up. ‘Black Widow’s Web’ may come across as messy, but is too enjoyable a dark progster to complain. ‘Insania’ contains some of Felipe Andreoli’s best bass work yet.

All in all, ‘Ømni’ presents quite a unique mixture of styles which leaves you wondering why this combination is not attempted more often. It is a great progressive metal album that may not be as easy to digest as ‘Secret Garden’ was, but will probably prove to be more durable throughout. ‘Ømni’ is one of those albums that slowly reveals its small secrets over repeated listens. In addition, it is the ultimate evidence that Angra still has its artistic merits more than two and a half decades into their career. Anyone who wishes to hear how versatile the guitar can be in a metal context, should give ‘Ømni’ a spin.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ømni – Silence Inside’, ‘War Horns’, ‘The Bottom Of My Soul’

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Album of the Week 06-2018: Onmyo-za – Chimimoryo


Out of all Onmyo-za albums, ‘Chimimoryo’ is proabably the one with the broadest appeal. That does not mean it isn’t metal. Quite the contrary. The riff work on the album is still as rooted in traditional heavy metal as it always has been, but the polish of the production and the melodic sensibilities really opens the door for J-rock fans, while the dynamic and subtly adventurous nature of the record invites progressive rockers to have a listen. No matter what side of Onmyo-za you like best, it is represented on ‘Chimimoryo’, which – as a result – is one of the band’s best.

What really makes ‘Chimimoryo’ as near perfect as it gets is the fact that it has a very pleasant flow. It would not surprise me if multiple track orders were tested before release in order to find the one that is just right. This is not the type of album where you’d get tired of too many songs of the same tempo or style after each other, neither does it boggle your mind with illogical genre-hopping. The powerful voice of bassist and band leader Matatabi and the expressive (mezzo-)soprano of Kuroneko are very much in balance here as well.

As great as ‘Chimimoryo’ is all the way through, the more epic tracks really raise the album’s status. And that already starts when you put on the album, as ‘Shutendoji’ is a monumental midtempo hardrock track of late Zeppelin proportions, only with some brilliant guitar harmonies and a metallic rhythm section more reminiscent of Iron Maiden. Later on, ‘Dojoji Kuchinawa No Goku’ takes you through multiple climaxes during its eleven and a half minutes. Huge, doomy riffs, balladesque sections and one of the more awesome speed metal riffs in the band’s discography, it’s all there and each section is even better than the last.

These songs alone don’t make a good album though. The hypermelodic single ‘Kureha’ is reminiscent of ‘Yoka Ninpocho’ in how the clean and distorted guitars interact, the strong melodic metal stomper ‘Araragi’ feels like a sequel to ‘Shutendoji’ with its powerful lead guitar themes and broad chords and if it’s fast riffs you want, ‘Hiderigami’ and ‘Oni Hitokuchi’ will serve you all the energetic speed metal you need. Kuroneko’s composition ‘Tamashizume no Uta’ is the lone ballad on the album, but her amazing voice and the rather atypical marching rhythms and percussion really turn it into something unique.

Unless you are a wool-dyed old-schooler, ‘Chimimoryo’ would be the perfect album to get acquainted with Onmyo-za’s unique sound. Matatabi’s compositions evidence that the guitars of Maneki and Karukan do not have to play power chords the whole time in order to sound metallic and the vocals prove that there are more options than the overused beauty and the beast tactic for male-female vocal duos. Onmyo-za would later top ‘Chimimoryo’ with ‘Kishibojin’, but only barely. This is one of the very few albums that is of consistently high quality from start to finish and deserves to be heard because of that.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shutendoji’, ‘Dojoji Kuchinawa No Goku’, ‘Araragi’, ‘Oni Hitokuchi’

Album of the Week 05-2018: Onmyo-za – Kongo Kyubi


Due to its polished, almost glossy production and the relatively mellow nature of its songs, ‘Kongo Kyubi’ initially was one of my least favorite Onmyo-za albums. After letting the album – and, presumably, myself – mature for a while, my appreciation for the album increased rapidly. It is quite unique in the Onmyo-za canon in that there is an abundance of clean and twelve string guitars, but only three of the songs qualify as a ballad. Instead, ‘Kongo Kyubi’ channels all the band’s melodic sensibilities and puts them on the crossroads of traditional heavy metal, eighties hardrock, mildly progressive rock and J-rock.

Had Onmyo-za continued down a softer road following ‘Kongo Kyubi’, it would have been seen as a transitional album, but since it was followed by one of the darkest records the band ever made, it can probably be considered a melodic experiment that works surprisingly well. That does not mean the album feels like a stylistic detour; songs like ‘Aoki Dokugan’ and ‘Sokoku’ contain everything Onmyo-za fans would want; NWOBHM inspired riffs, melodic lead guitar themes, highly memorable melodies and – always a defining feature of the band – the excellent dual lead vocals of bassist Matatabi and his wife Kuroneko.

Still, ‘Kongo Kyubi’ has a few amazing songs that would have sounded out of place on other Onmyo-za albums. ‘Banka’, for instance, is the most bluesy track the band ever released, albeit in an eighties Gary Moore blues ballad kind of way. Furthermore, ‘Baku’ sets the mood for the album very effectively. It is based on some shimmering twelve string parts courtesy of guitarist Maneki, but also has a few pulsating riffs, a notably upbeat chorus and some of Matatabi’s busiest bass work to date. ‘Izayoi No Ame’ does a brilliant job combining Onmyo-za’s trademark melodic J-metal with melodic hard rock.

That does not mean that ‘Kongo Kyubi’ is without its heavy moments. ‘Kuzaku Ninpocho’ is a masterpiece of a speed metal track, while the three-song suite ‘Kumikyoku Kyubi’ is remarkable in being the only Onmyo-za suite so far that does not contain a distinct ballad-esque track. Sure, its first part ‘Tamamo-No-Mae’ has a bouncy, almost disco-like rhythm as its foundation, but the epic Iron Maiden vibe of ‘Shomakyo’ and the riff-fest ‘Sessho-Seki’ keep it firmly within the metal realm. In addition, ‘Kuraiau’ – yes, I also first thought it was “cry out” – is the best of Onmyo-za’s upbeat closers, which often are a little lightweight. By contrast, ‘Kuraiau’ has a powerful seventies hardrock feel.

Once ‘Kongo Kyubi’ clicked with me, I learned to appreciate it for what it is: an extremely well-written, perfectly arranged and flawlessly produced album. Onmyo-za found a way to perfectly balance their sense of melodicism with some surprisingly inventive riff work which sounds standard enough, but really isn’t once you find out the chord structures. As for myself, I am glad I love this band enough to give this album a few extra chances, after which it proved that it is not a watered down version of Onmyo-za, but instead a very successful attempt at highlighting the band’s more romantic side. The latter half of the album is surprisingly metallic though.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kuzaku Ninpocho’, ‘Izayoi No Ame’, ‘Kumikyoku “Kyubi” ~ Shomakyo’, ‘Kuraiau’

Album of the Week 02-2018: Eternity’s End – The Fire Within


Everything Christian Muenzner touches turns to gold, or so it seems. Obscura was one of the very few modern technical death metal bands I loved, Alkaloid was one of the most unique progressive metal bands in recent years and ‘The Fire Within’, the debut album from his progressive power metal band Eternity’s End, contains some of the best contemporary power metal I have heard in years. Muenzner appears to be the melodic conscience of most of his bands and it is that side that of his songwriting personality that is on full display here. No song here is less than good.

Being a progressive power metal album, ‘The Fire Within’ contains all of the guitar harmonies, whirlwind guitar solos, memorable choruses, fantasy lyrics and Symphony X-isms you could wish for, but Eternity’s End adds a much larger dose of intensity and aggression to the mix. As a result, the riffs set the record on fire and the choruses sound proud and strong rather than tepid invitations to sing along. It helps that Ian Parry sings these songs, as these are his best performances since his early Elegy days. His clean-but-raw approach is perfect for Muenzner’s songs and he sometimes reaches heights I didn’t realize he was capable of reaching.

As good as Parry, keyboard player Jimmy Pitts and the rock solid rhythm section of Muenzner’s former Obscura buddies Linus Klausenitzer and drummer extraordinaire Hannes Grossmann are, Muenzner’s riffs are really what make the record. They have a fat, beefy bottom end, which gives them a propulsive quality that many modern power metal bands lack. They are often fast, but Muenzner knows how to apply dynamics do his songs, often opening up an otherwise dense song with a strong chorus or a remarkable melodic passage, which is the case in songs like the excellent ‘Eagle Divine’ or the incredible ‘The Hourglass’.

Songwriting-wise, there is literally nothing to complain about here. The album has a really pleasant flow, moving back and forth between gripping, catchy power metal songs like ‘Demonblade’, ‘Moonstruck’ and the title track and more epic tracks like the monumental closer ‘The Fall Of The House Of Usher’. The latter feels significantly shorter than the eight minutes it actually takes to finish and the instrumentals are nothing short of breathtaking. Halfway through, the relatively midtempo, eighties hardrock inspired ‘White Lies’ manages to function as a breather without even getting close to ballad territory.

There is almost too much talent in Eternity’s End, but fortunately, all of the musicians involved are aware of the fact that the songs are more important than displays of virtuosity. Sure, there is some incredible musicianship going on, by Grossmann and Muenzner himself most prominently, but no single solo triumphs over the immense melodic qualities of this masterpiece of an album. Anyone whose heart beats faster upon hearing energetic, yet classy power metal should at least give Eternity’s End a chance. I can assure you more “chances” will follow. Here’s to hoping this will be more than a one-off.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Fall Of The House Of Usher’, ‘The Hourglass’, ‘Eagle Divine’

Album of the Week 52-2017: Matenrou Opera – Avalon


By the time Matenrou Opera signed to King Records subsidiary Bellwood, they had dropped almost all of their metalcore influences and most of their J-rock leanings, becoming pretty much a full-on symphonic power metal band. A style the band obviously feels very comfortable with, as evidenced by their ‘Avalon’ album. Fans of the band’s early work may complain about the relatively limited number of stylistic detours, but the truth is that Matenrou Opera specializes in what they are best at anyway on the album: highly melodic power metal songs which are uncomplicated and kind of progressive at the same time.

One of the most notable symphonic elements in Matenrou Opera’s music is the string sound of keyboard player Ayame. On ‘Avalon’, we can hear a real choir and synthesized string sounds, whereas most bands would select the opposite. That threw me off initially, but ultimately, it contributes to Matenrou Opera’s fairly unique sound. The chorus of power ballad ‘3Jikan’ may not have sounded quite as dark and powerful with actual strings. Furthermore, the synthesized horns lend a nice, triumphant atmosphere to ‘Kagayaki Wa Senkou No You Ni’, of which the chord progression in the chorus is somewhat reminiscent of Loudness’ ‘Soldier Of Fortune’.

Sonics aside, ‘Avalon’ is a compositional triumph. Opening track ‘Tengoku no Tobira’ may be the best song the band as ever released. The way it builds from the subdued aggression of the intro towards the hopeful melancholy of its chorus is nothing short of amazing. It is hardly the only highlight on ‘Avalon’ though. ‘Jolly Roger Ni Sukazuki Wo’ contains some of the most intense riffing and busiest rhythms in the band’s oeuvre, ‘Tomo Ni Sasagu Requiem’ is an exercise in dynamics, ‘Tonari Ni Suwaru Taiyou’ is breezy, yet defiant and closer ‘Tengoko No Aru Basho’ is the perfect climax in both atmosphere and instrumentation.

As far as personal performances go, I have always had a weak spot for guitarist Anzi. He is influenced by the same neoclassical school of guitar playing that many Japanese guitarists seem to take their inspiration from, but his tone is cleaner and his approach is more song-oriented. Even the neoclassical instrumental he penned, ‘Stained Glass’, is not a hyperspeed shredfest, but a melodically strong composition. Sono’s ubiquitous vibrato is a matter of taste, but it is a fact that he has more character than most Japanese singers. The drum work of Yu definitely deserves a mention too. His fills can be busy, but he never lets the music collapse.

Those assuming that Matenrou Opera is still just another J-rock band should certainly give the band another chance. There are a few traces of that in ‘Orb’, but as a whole, ‘Avalon’ is a very well-written and expertly performed power metal record which is typically Japanese in its catchy, symphonic nature, but exuberant and aggressive enough to please fans of European power metal. It is also the most consistent set of songs the quintet has released thus far, giving them the confidence to establish themselves as a power metal band for good.

Recommended tracks: ‘Tengoku no Tobira’, ‘Jolly Roger Ni Sukazuki Wo’, ‘Kagayaki Wa Senkou No You Ni’

Album of the Week 50-2017: Adagio – Life


Adagio has always been a band I should love, but didn’t. Kevin Codfert’s orchestrations are amazing, Stéphan Forté is one of the few highly skilled guitarists that found a middle ground between virtuosity and melodicism and none of their past singers was worse than good. Yet, something was missing for me. Initially, this was the case with their new album ‘Life’ – their first in no less than eight years – as well. Forté’s djenty rhythm guitar that occasionally pops up was a bit of a turn-off for me. And yet, ‘Life’ has slowly grown to be one of my favorite albums of the year.

Part of the reason for my returning interest was the presence of singer Kelly Sundown Carpenter, whose huge, raw-edged range never ceases to amaze me. Still, this may just be his best performance yet. His voice is extremely spirited and he frequently reminds me of late Gotthard frontman Steve Lee in his best days. Even a great vocal performance would not be relevant if the songs aren’t any good though and luckily, the French band succeeded at writing a highly dynamic and pleasantly polished record, on which Forté’s violent riffs and Codfert’s orchestral grandeur are constantly in perfect balance.

One of the most notable differences with the band’s past is that the tempo of the songs on ‘Life’ is considerably lower. And while an album full of mid-tempo songs may sound discouraging to the power metal audience: don’t let it. The subdued tempo of the songs allows Carpenter’s vocals and the ethnic, often Middle-Eastern flavor of the orchestrations to flourish, resulting in bombastic masterpieces, such as the cinematic ‘Subrahmanya’, more traditionally progressive moments such as ‘The Grand Spirit Voyage’ and ‘The Ladder’ and the massive, epic grandiosity of the lengthy opener that carries the same title as the album.

Remarkably, Adagio chose to place the more accessible material on the latter half of the album. That was probably beneficial to the album, as it has a very pleasant flow. Songs like the dramatic ‘I’ll Possess You’ and ‘Secluded Within Myself’ and the almost uptempo, yet equally dark closer ‘Torn’ are no less good than the songs opening the album though. The only near-miss is the ballad ‘Trippin’ Away’. The first half of the song and the performances by both Forté and Carpenter are too good to completely dismiss it, but while I don’t doubt Forté’s sincerity, the lyrics of this love song are too mawkish and awkward to enjoy.

The rest of the album is really good at worst and downright incredible at best. On ‘Life’, Adagio shows that it is perfectly possible to have everyone playing on top of their game without actually getting in the way of the music and that in itself already makes the album a great success. For me, this is the first time Adagio really profits from all the qualities within the band. And that has resulted in quite a unique sound; I have never heard these elements combined in a way even remotely close to how ‘Life’ sounds. A must for fans of progressive or orchestral metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Subrahmanya’, ‘Torn’, ‘Life’

Album of the Week 49-2017: Fates Warning – Theories Of Flight

Initially, Fates Warning’s twelfth studio album ‘Theories Of Flight’ failed to excite me the way its predecessor ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ did. I dismissed it as the prog metal giants trying to repeat the same formula. Then suddenly, it clicked. And I realized that ‘Theories Of Flight’ is one of Fates Warning’s best albums thus far. Yes, it roughly follows a similar formula as ‘Darkness…’ did, but Fates Warning succeeds at blending their traditional progressive metal roots with contemporary prog rock elements in the vein of Porcupine Tree and Tool and more catchy moments better than ever here.

The guitar work of sole remaining original member Jim Matheos are an important part of the aforementioned formula. It is incredibly varied. Within the same song, it often flows from traditional heavy metal riffs to typical prog chops and atmospheric clean strums in a very fluent and pleasant manner. It would be unreasonable to ignore the contributions of Bobby Jarzombek though. While his predecessor Mark Zonder was an incredible drummer in his own right, Jarzombek plays with a comparable level of technicality, just with a style that feels somewhat looser and more driving than Zonder’s. A very solid foundation for compositions that often feel fluid.

Progressive metal has a bit of a bad rap for lacking a focus on songwriting. Enter Fates Warning. Even in their early days, they combined hooks and recognizable melodies with all the odd meters and unpredictable compositions you could wish for. Virtuosity does take a back seat on most of their albums and ‘Theories Of Flight’ is no exception. Sure, there are some great leads to be found here – remarkably, the majority recorded by former guitarist Frank Aresti and live guitarist Mike Abdow – but Matheos mainly seems interested in using his guitar for dependable melodic work.

Fortunately, this approach works very well. At time incredibly so. ‘SOS’, for instance, is a highly dynamic track with lots of fantastic twists, but its incredible chorus – performed expertly by Ray Alder – is the highlight of the song. Opening track ‘From The Rooftops’ feels like a bit of a mini-suite and as such, it is the most traditionally progressive song on the album, while ‘White Flag’ is so metallic that it would not have sounded out of place on one of the band’s late eighties records. The 10 minute songs ‘The Light And Shade Of Things’ and ‘The Ghosts Of Home’ are not crammed full of ideas, but instead given room to slowly develop into multi-faceted, atmospheric masterpieces with multiple mood changes. Very impressive.

And as if the fact that ‘Theories Of Flight’ does not have a single weak moment wasn’t yet enough, Jens Bogren’s fantastic production makes the listening experience even more pleasant. Sonically, the album is as far away from the overly compressed standard for contemporary prog metal releases as it gets. ‘Theories Of Flight’ sounds organic and lively, even giving the extremely effective bass work of Joey Vera the space it deserves without becoming intrusive. This album is what happens if you put a group of incredible musicians who only care about having the music sound as good as it possibly can in one studio. Absolutely essential for fans of progressive music.

Recommended tracks: ‘SOS’, ‘White Flag’, ‘The Ghosts Of Home’

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