Posts Tagged ‘ progressive Power Metal ’

Album of the Week 41-2017: Saber Tiger – Timystery


Before Saber Tiger was fronted by the passionate howls of Takenori Shimoyama, they made a couple of excellent albums with Yoko Kubota, an impressive singer in her own right, at the helm. This was the time when the Japanese quintet started incorporating progressive elements into their music, slowly morphing from an above average heavy metal band to the amazing band they are today. ‘Timystery’ is one of those albums that does everything just right. The compositions are better and the musical interaction is more cohesive than ever before. And though it would turn out to be Kubota’s last album with the band, she really comes into her own here.

‘Timystery’ finds Saber Tiger streamlining the progressive touches that were on the foreground on its direct predecessor ‘Agitation’. As a result, ‘Timystery’ feels a little more like ‘Invasion’, Kubota’s 1992 debut with the band, but there is some more musical class hidden beneath the surface. In essence, the album is exactly what you would have expected from Saber Tiger at this point in their career: energetic songs, huge beefy riffs and recognizable choruses, but the songs take a few surprising twists. Also, it is Saber Tiger’s first album that features English lyrics exclusively.

Fortunately, these lyrics go beyond the usual English catchphrases surrounded by poor grammar that Japanese bands revelled in at the time. I don’t know if Kubota had any help, but her English is decent enough and the songs actually have topics. There is a lot of relational material and lyrics about trust issues, but they work. Sometimes even surprisingly well: every aspect of ‘Bad Devotion’ is flawless. The start-stop riffs and dynamics of the song really enhance the story of a woman trying to get back on her feet, while every section of the song is a new climax, culminating in the solo section, which is both virtuosic and goosebumps-inducing.

Of course, no one needed to worry about the qualities of the musicians; Akihito Kinoshita and Yasuharu Tanaka are likely the best guitar duo in the business, Takashi Yamazumi is a bassist who makes the most of his moments, but also has no problem holding down the bottom end and Yoshio Isoda is solid as a rock. That musicianship is what lifts songs like the highly rhythmic ‘Living On In The Crisis’, the relatively heavy opener ‘No Fault / No Wrong’, the pleasantly melodic ‘Distressed Soul’, the pounding ‘Revenged On You’ and the highly dynamic ‘Easy Road To Life’ above their obvious compositional quality.

Saber Tiger truly struck gold on ‘Timystery’. They found the perfect balance between progressive metal – the unconventional rhythms of the lengthy closer ‘Spiral Life’ are easily the most “proggy” moment of the record – and traditional heavy metal, creating something that may appeal to fans of both genres. The album contains several of the best songs the band has ever made and it would take more than fifteen years before the band would top it. Albums this consistent are a rarity, especially in the mid-nineties metal scene, but ‘Timystery’ is simply an album that will not let you go until long after it is over.

Recommended tracks: ‘Bad Devotion’, ‘Living On In The Crisis’, ‘Easy Road To Life’

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Album of the Week 39-2017: Galneryus – Ultimate Sacrifice


A new Galneryus album is always something to look forward to, even though it seemed highly unlikely that they would exceed the quality of ‘Under The Force Of Courage’. Unlikely, but not impossible, as ‘Ultimate Sacrifice’ proves. The record is a continuation of the concept on its predecessor, but it updates the formula of that album in a way that makes ‘Ultimate Sacrifice’ feel like a fresh, new experience, even though it’s the same euphoric, warp speed power metal that we have come to expect from the Japanese quintet. It has just been offset with some darker and more progressive elements.

Initially, the latter half of the album appealed to me significantly more than the former, something which is still true about ‘Under The Force Of Courage’ for me. In this case, it is mainly the presence of ‘Rising Infuriation’ and ‘Brutal Spiral Of Emotions’. While the former is a showcase for keyboard player Yuhki’s love for progressive metal – Symphony X most notably – and quite likely the darkest moment of the record, the latter is structured in a way that is rather atypical for Galneryus: a crazy, virtuosic beginning, some of the band’s heaviest riffing in the middle and a passionate ballad in the end.

There are a few real gems among the first few tracks though. First of all, Galneryus has once again created an intro track that counts as one of the highlights of the album (‘Enter The New Age’) and it evolves into ‘Heavenly Punishment’, which after a few spins turned into one of my favorite Galneryus openers. In many ways, it is typical for them, but it is just a tad more aggressive and melancholic than their usual openers. ‘Wings Of Justice’ has a vicious intro and verse that bring to mind Rhapsody’s ‘Holy Thunderforce’ and the middle section of ‘The Shadow Within’ is simply to die for.

Galneryus usually shines when they combine their trademark sound with a fresh approach. ‘Wherever You Are’ turns out to be a great melodic hardrock tune in the vein of ‘Shining Moments’ with one of Syu’s most incredible guitar solos near the end and not the typical Galneryus ballad. That one is still here, but it’s hidden in the final six minutes of ‘Brutal Spiral Of Emotions’. Anyone looking for the “Galneryus sound” will be pleased by the twelve minute title track that closes the album. It works its way through a number of climaxes – including one where a raw-throated Syu takes over the microphone from soaring siren Masatoshi Ono – before leaving you wanting to turn the album on again.

The fact that Galneryus is one of the most beloved Japanese power metal bands, even outside of Japan, where their albums are not even available on cd, should not be much of a surprise anymore. The band is simply a tad better than its international competition in every way: their choruses are slightly more powerful, Syu has just a little more emotion in his shredding, Ono soars just a bit more powerfully… All of this results in a type of power metal that is not lacking any power, but neither does it leave anything to be desired in terms of melody, energy and slight progressive touches. One of the metal highlights of the year.

Recommended tracks: ‘Rising Infuriation’, ‘Heavenly Punishment’, ‘Brutal Spiral Of Emotions’

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)’

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’