Posts Tagged ‘ traditional Heavy Metal ’

Album of the Week 26-2020: Turbo – Dorosłe Dzieci

While ‘Dorosłe Dzieci’ isn’t necessarily my favorite Turbo album – that would probably be the more thrashy ‘Kawaleria Szatana’ – it is one of the most accomplished debut albums of all time. It largely foregoes the flaws debut albums tend to suffer from, such as still being in search of the style a band feels comfortable with or a subpar sound due to having a limited recording budget or not knowing how to replicate the energetic sound of live performances in a studio environment. ‘Dorosłe Dzieci’ is a powerful, convincing opening statement for one of Poland’s most influential heavy metal bands.

Stylistically, ‘Dorosłe Dzieci’ is notably less thrashy than the sound Turbo would later come to be known for, but still remarkably heavy for 1983. Here, Turbo’s sound is deeply rooted in the NWOBHM tradition, frequently drawing parallels to Iron Maiden’s earliest work, although the slower moments also bring the Scorpions’ heaviest tracks to mind; ‘Mówili Kiedyś’ in particular reminded me of ‘Animal Magnetism’. There are still traces of seventies hardrock to be found on the album, but whenever those influences are most obvious, it is clear that the band added them fully intentionally rather than not yet knowing how to evolve those into an early heavy metal sound.

One thing that sets Turbo apart from their peers are the fantastic vocals of Grzegorz Kupczyk. While he would experiment with various degrees of harshness throughout the eighties and nineties, he is simply a force of nature here. His full cleans sound mature and emotive, but he occasionally brings out a sandpaper edge to drive home the aggression of tracks like the interestingly structured ‘Przegadane Dni’. Wojciech Hoffmann and Andrzej Łysów are fantastic guitar duo, especially shining during the abundant guitar harmonies. And the fairly prominent bass work makes it unfortunate that Piotr Przybylski didn’t record any heavy metal albums after this one.

There is very little to complain about when it comes to the songs on ‘Dorosłe Dzieci’. It kicks off perfectly with the early speed metal of the incredible ‘Szalony Ikar’ and the aforementioned, rhythmically dense ‘Przegadane Dni’ and maintains its momentum throughout most of the album. The title track is a nominee for the best ballad ever recorded by a metal band. It has the resigned melancholy that lots of eastern European ballads of the era had, only with a lot more instrumental and vocal prowess and a perfect build-up of tension. Those craving something heavier are well off with the likes of ‘Toczy Się Po Linie’, ‘Nie Znaczysz Nic’ and ‘Ktoś Zamienił’, despite the hypermelodic chorus of the latter.

If I was forced to pick a flaw on ‘Dorosłe Dzieci’, it would be the sequencing, as I think the atmospheric ‘W Sobie’ appears far too early, despite being a strong instrumental. Apart from that, this is a debut album to be jealous of even for most actual NWOBHM bands – you know, the ones that are actually British. The songs are powerful and for the time monstrously heavy, but the emphasis is still on melody. In fact, I’d say that ‘Dorosłe Dzieci’ is so good that most people digging into obscure seven inch singles by second rate NWOBHM bands while this album is up for grabs are wasting their time. A pinnacle of early eighties European heavy metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Szalony Ikar’, ‘Dorosłe Dzieci’, ‘Przegadane Dni’, ‘Todzy Się Po Linie´

Album of the Week 23-2020: Heljareyga – Heljareyga

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended tracks: ‘Vetrarbreytin’, ‘Heljareyga’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album of the Week 16-2020: Accept – The Rise Of Chaos

Despite liking the Mark Tornillo-fronted era of Accept, ‘The Rise Of Chaos’ kind of passed me by initially. Looking back, the inconsistency of its predecessor ‘Blind Rage’ combined with the promise of a somewhat more straightforward album and a few bouts of extreme lyrical simplicity in the preview tracks probably contributed to that. That was clearly a mistake. First of all, complexity was never Accept’s forte and while I love ‘Stalingrad: Brothers In Death’ for its melodic depth, ultimately one just wants to hear Accept pound out ballsy, effective heavy metal. As such, ‘The Rise Of Chaos’ is a triumph.

Most of the adjecives associated with Accept – solid, dependable, workmanlike – can be interpreted as both positive and negative. ‘The Rise Of Chaos’ will not do much to change whichever interpretation you adhere to. Musically, this is exactly what one would expect: simple, powerful riffs, raw lead vocals, gang chants, Wolf Hoffmann’s classically-inspired guitar solos… Just like Accept always has been. The album is distinguished by its atmosphere, however. It’s not defiant and euphoric like ‘Stalingrad’, neither is it quite as melancholic and dynamic as ‘Blind Rage’. Instead, there is an undercurrent of disillusionment and nostalgia running through most of the songs.

This does not mean Accept has gone all reflective on ‘The Rise Of Chaos’. The main mission of the band is clearly to still churn out a bunch of fist-pumpers that are easy to sing along. It just means that even the simplest tracks are not quite the party anthems that the likes of ‘Balls To The Wall’ were. The social observations in the lyrics generally have the depth of a puddle, but there is a larger number of outright minor key guitar riffs this time around to greatly enhance that atmosphere. Even while you’re shouting along the title of opening track ‘Die By The Sword’.

It helps that Accept has Mark Tornillo singing these days. He has the same shrieky approach as Udo Dirkschneider, but he is better able to carry an actual melody. His voice truly gives songs like ‘Worlds Colliding’, closing track ‘Race To Extinction’ and pensive album highlight ‘Koolaid’ an extra shot of emotional depth. The latter fits alongside lower-key, more melodic latter day Accept songs like ‘Shadow Soldiers’ and ‘The Curse’ nicely. Those who prefer to hear Accept in their simple, pounding glory need not worry: the likes of ‘No Regrets’, ‘What’s Done Is Done’ and the aforementioned ‘Die By The Sword’ should still be more than satisfactory.

Even though it is subtle, the greater degree of melodic sophistication really make ‘The Rise Of Chaos’ a more worthwhile album than ‘Blind Rage’, which was an album of highlights rather than an album with a pleasant, continuous flow. Only the cringeworthy lyrics of the somewhat too straightforward ‘Analog Man’ make me reach for the skip button at times, but as a whole, ‘The Rise Of Chaos’ is an excellent latter day Accept record. There are not many classic metal bands that release material that is at least on par with their heyday material these days, but Accept is one of the best examples of how to do it.

Recommended tracks: ‘Koolaid’, ‘No Regrets’, ‘Race To Extinction’, ‘Die By The Sword’

Tools for Discovery: Aria albums ranked

Yesterday, I informed you about the release of the Aria documentary ‘Behind The Shadow Kingdom‘. This documentary serves as an excellent introduction to the band’s material, but those of you who can’t read Russian, but still would like to dig deeper into the band’s material, may want some help. In the near future, I will publish a show & tell list of my favorite songs, but let’s start with ranking their albums. I am by no means an expert, but I love the band and have been following for a while and these are all of Aria’s album in what I consider least to most enjoyable. I consciously went for that choice of words, as “worst to best” would suggest a great difference in quality, while I think most of these are very well worth your time.

Interestingly, at the time I started writing this article, I had no idea what the outcome would be myself. My number one was a surprise even to myself until the list was finished. The simple fact is that Aria has a ridiculously consistent discography and most of these albums are worth owning if you are a fan of traditional heavy metal. And if you need a sample on an album that strikes you as interesting, each of them – except for the Artur Berkut-fronted albums – are available through platforms like iTunes and Spotify.

There are no strict rules for this list, except that it’s studio albums only and I try to include a limited number of songs as recommendations. Especially the higher ranking titles could really have most of their songs listed. Or all, in case of the number 1…

13. S Kem Ti? (1986)

Since Alik Granovsky and Andrey Bolshakov wrote all the material on ‘S Kem Ti?’, it would be tempting to say that Aria’s sophomore album is practically Master’s first album. At the time, however, both Aria and Master could do better than this. ‘S Kem Ti?’ is melodically lacking. ‘Volya I Razum’ and ‘Zdes’ Kuyut Metall’ became classics of the early Russian metal scene, but they also both could have a minute trimmed off the end. There are some cool songs on ‘S Kem Ti?’, but overall the album somehow shows Aria more confused about their identity than on the debut album. Ultimately the best thing about ‘S Kem Ti?’ is its cover.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ikar’, ‘Vstan’, Strah Preodoley’

12. Generator Zla (1998)

‘Generator Zla’ is a frustrating album. Again, it is a below average Aria album with an awesome cover, but contrary to ‘S Kem Ti?’, ‘Generator Zla’ does have a few songs that rank among Aria’s best. The particularly Maiden-esque ‘Obman’ has rightfully become a live staple for the band, ‘Smotri!’ is an enjoyable opener and I love the dirty hardrock grind of ‘Gryaz’. It’s just that many of the songs here have good moments rather than being great all the way through. Also, mildly altering the track order may have fixed some of the sequencing issues the album has. None of the last three tracks is bad by any means, but they could really have used being broken up by one or two more traditional metal tracks.

Recommended tracks: ‘Obman’, ‘Grayz’, ‘Smotri!’

11. Armageddon (2006)

‘Amageddon’ is without a doubt the most modern-sounding Aria album to date. The album has a distinct contemporary power metal vibe, including the appropriate production, and while the band manages that style quite well, they also sacrifice a bit of their identity in the process. It is a very consistent album, which is admirable, but also in the sense that much of it goes by in a bit of a blur. That doesn’t mean that there is nothing to enjoy here. Especially the first half of the album has a bunch of songs with excellent melodies, ‘Krov’ Koroley’ is a classic Iron Maiden-styled epic and closer ‘Tvoy Dyen’, Artur Berkut’s sole songwriting contribution to Aria’s discography, is a refreshing melodic hardrock track.

Recommended tracks: ‘Strazh Imperii’, ‘Krov’ Koroley’, ‘Pozledniy Zakat’

10. Maniya Velichiya (1985)

Back when Aria debuted, there wasn’t really much of a Soviet metal scene to speak of or any template to follow. As a result, there is a freedom and spontaneity to ‘Maniya Velichiya’ that none of their other albums have. Vladimir Holstinin and Alik Granovsky just wrote what they thought was good. The drawback would be that ‘Maniya Velichiya’ lacks consistency, but even that is not much of a problem here. Aria had a great singer, a great guitarist and a bunch of interesting songs. ‘Torero’ is so good that it hurts. Although Aria was still in search of the identity that fit them best here, ‘Maniya Velichiya’ does an excellent job introducing Aria, though it does run out of steam a bit during the second half.

Recommended tracks: ‘Torero’, ‘Bivny Chërnih Skal’, ‘Eto Rok’

9. Kresheniye Ognëm (2003)

With a largely new line-up in place – only founding guitarist Vladimir Holstinin and bassist Vitaly Dubinin remained – ‘Kresheniye Ognëm’ is something of a second debut album for Aria – or third, if you count ‘Geroy Asfalta’ as the second. It has many of the same strengths and flaws as ‘Maniya Velichiya’ as well. ‘Kreseniye Ognëm’ is quite likely the most frontloaded album in Aria history. It starts out with a bunch of excellent songs that really support the legitimacy of an Aria without their legendary singer Valery Kipelov. It just fails to maintain momentum during the second half of the record. The album is somewhat underproduced to a fault as well. Artur Berkut is often described as the band’s worst singer and while he certainly is less impressive than the singers who preceded and followed him, he does a more than admirable job here. He sounds powerful and convincing.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kolizey’, ‘Kresheniye Ognëm’, ‘Patriot’

8. Himera (2001)

Often singled out as the album on which Aria started to fall apart, as no less than three members would depart the band after its release, ‘Himera’ is actually much better than the circumstances would suggest. It does suffer from some consistency issues, but when ‘Himera’ is good, it is excellent. I used to think that the ballads far outshone the more metallic tracks on the album – and, truth be told, ‘Oskolok L’da’ and especially ‘Shtil’ are simply excellent – the harder material grew on me significantly. ‘Goryachaya Strela’ and the title tracks are fantastic heavy metal songs that I always liked, but recently, I have also really come to like the powerful melodic rocker ‘Put’ V Nikuda’ and the majestic epic ‘Tebye Dadut Znak’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Goryachaya Strela’, ‘Tebye Dadut Znak, ‘Shtil’

7. Noch’ Koroche Dnya (1995)

Created in a time of inner turmoil, with both guitarist Sergey Mavrin and singer Valery Kipelov leaving the band – though the latter would return before the album was recorded – it is something of a miracle that ‘Noch Koroche Dnya’ came out as well as it did. While it lacks the consistency of the three classics that preceded it, the highlights are every bit as good. ‘Angelskaya Pil’ is one of the best power ballads Aria ever recorded, ‘Duh Voyni’ and the title track are classic Aria in all their Maiden-esque glory, ‘Rabstvo Illusiy’ is one of my favorite Aria openers and ‘Korol’ Dorogi’ is an energetic masterpiece. That cover is an eyesore though.

Recommended tracks: ‘Korol’ Dorogi’, ‘Duh Voyni’, ‘Angelskaya Pil’, ‘Robstvo Illusiy’

6. Proklyatiye Morey (2018)

To be fair, an album that starts with an opening track as mind-blowing as ‘Gonka Za Slavoy’ could be totally uninspired otherwise and still manage to make a positive impression. Fortunately, there are many more good tracks on ‘Proklyatiye Morey’. The mix of long progressive tracks and shorter, punchier songs is in many ways reminiscent of Iron Maiden’s latter-day work, though it has to be said that Aria consists of less formulaic songwriters. Speaking of songwriting, Sergey Popov continues to prove himself a valuable addition to the songwriting team, having written several of the album’s highlights. ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ is slightly less consistent than the other Mikhail Zhitnyakov-fronted albums, but much better than any band in this stage of its career could wish to be.

Recommended tracks: ‘Gonka Za Slavoy’, ‘Ot Zakata Do Rassveta’, ‘Zhivoy’, ‘Ubit’ Drakona’

5. Igra S Ognëm (1989)

Out of all the classic Aria albums, ‘Igra S Ognëm’ is the darkest-sounding. Apart from the slighly too upbeat closer ‘Day Zharu’, all the songs on ‘Igra S Ognëm’ have a disillusioned, at times even melancholic feel. It also has the largest number of songs of which I constantly forget how great they are, possibly due to the fact that the album is often relatively poorly represented on the band’s setlists. The nine-minute title track is a masterpiece and ‘Raskachayem Etot Mir’ a crowd pleaser, but the aggressive defiance of the likes of ‘Boy Prodolzhayetsya’ and opener ‘Chto Vi Sdelali S Vashey Mechtoy’ should not be forgotten either, just like the hopeful, yet still fairly melancholic ‘Rab Straha’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Boy Prodolzhayetsya’, ‘Igra S Ognëm’, ‘Chto Vi Sdelali S Vashey Mechtoy’, ‘Rab Straha’

4. Krov’ Za Krov’ (1991)

‘Krov’ Za Krov” is one of those Aria albums on which just about every song became a classic. It is bookended by two of the greatest songs Aria ever released, but there is more than enough to enjoy in the intervening thirty minutes. The darkness of ‘Antichrist’ is quite unusual among Aria’s discography, but it works exceptionally well. And though Valery Kipelov refused to perform the song live due to a combination of his christian beliefs and fans misinterpreting the message of the song, it is one of his best recorded performances to date. The title track is another great epic, though it falls somewhat short compared to ‘Igra S Ognëm’, while ‘Ne Hochesh’ – Ne Ver’ Mne’ is one of the hidden gems in the band’s repertoire.

Recommended tracks: ‘Proshay, Norfolk!’, ‘Sleduy Za Mnoy!’, ‘Ne Hochesh’ – Ne Ver’ Mne’

3. Cheryez Vse Vremena (2014)

If the first Mikhail Zhitnyakov-fronted album rekindled Aria’s fire, its follow-up stokes it even further. On ‘Cheryez Vse Vremena’, Aria sounds more confident and energetic than ever. And they’re not exactly shy about it either, as the title track is one of the most propulsive opening tracks the band ever had. The whole album manages to retain the traditional metal feel that has basically become synonymous with Aria, but also sounds relevant and contemporary in the 21st century. Sergey Popov really establishes himself as a reliable songwriter on this record, having written three songs, including ‘Gorod’, a top three Aria song for yours truly. There is undeniable chemistry between the current members of Aria and that propels ‘Cheryez Vse Vremena’ into greatness.

Recommended tracks: ‘Gorod’, ‘Cheryez Vse Vremena’, ‘Angeli Nyeba’

2. Feniks (2011)

All obvious references to the titular character aside, ‘Feniks’ does really mark a triumphant return to form for Aria. It takes the contemporary productional approach of its predecessor ‘Armageddon’ and injects that into the traditional heavy metal compositions Aria is known for. Vitaly Dubinin really worked his ass off to make ‘Feniks’ count and it works. It has some of the greatest Aria songs to date and a singer that can carry them. After all, ‘Feniks’ was current singer Mikhail Zhitnyakov’s debut with Aria and his power, range and theatrical delivery immediately made him my favorite Aria singer. All the powerful riffs and guitar harmonies you could ever want are in these expertly crafted songs.

Recommended tracks: ‘Boi Bez Pravil’, ‘Chërny Kvadrat’, ‘Dalniy Svet’

1. Geroy Asfalta (1987)

By today’s standards, ‘Geroy Asfalta’ would qualify as an EP, with its six songs and barely half an hour of run time. Its brevity works in its favor, however. ‘Geroy Asfalta’ is truly one of those “all killer, no filler” affairs. I could spend ages signifying its importance for the Soviet metal scene, but the most important fact is that ‘Geroy Asfalta’ is an expertly written and performed heavy metal album. Bassist Vitaly Dubinin debuts on the album and immediately leaves his mark on the songwriting department. That also means that the Iron Maiden influence is dialed way up, but I also think the accusations of plagiarism are largely exaggerated – save for maybe the solo section of ‘Na Sluzhbe Sili Zla’. ‘Geroy Asfalta’ was the deserved breakthrough for Aria and still ranks as their most influential album.

Recommended tracks: ‘1100’, ‘Ballada O Drevnerusskom Voine’, ‘Mërtvaya Zona’

Aria Documentary ‘Behind The Shadow Kingdom’


A little while ago, I was approached to contribute to what was to become an Aria documentary aimed at a more international audience. Being the great fan I am of the band, I was honored to contribute. The documentary is out now and it is called ‘Behind The Shadow Kingdom’, a clear reference to their fantastic recent live release ‘Gost’ Iz Tsarstva Teney’, which translates to “guest from the shadow kingdom”. I urge everyone who is even remotely interested in heavy metal to check the documentary out, as it is quite an accessible look into the band’s current work.

My own contributions to this documentary are nothing more than a cameo, but that is hardly a problem. For me as a fan, first and foremost, it was fantastic to finally have some subtitled background information straight from the band. I was approached too late to contribute any interview questions, but the questions that were asked give quite a nice look into the preparations and the production of a show as big as the one on ‘Gost’ Iz Tsarstva Teney’.

Don’t let the “fan documentary” tag mislead you; ‘Behind The Shadow Kingdom’ is actually more informative than the average special features on an official DVD by any band.

Album of the Week 14-2020: Saxon – Lionheart

Following the departure of original guitarist Graham Oliver, Saxon gradually grew into too much of a German-styled power metal band. This is not to discredit his follow-up Doug Scarratt, who is probably the best musician to ever play with the band, but the beefy, modern production jobs on their later albums don’t quite carry the charm of their earlier works, which were very much reminiscent of the time when hardrock and heavy metal weren’t actually seperate things yet. There is one exception to this rule however: 2004’s ‘Lionheart’, an album which is still bombastic, but also has the dynamics of early Saxon.

Upon first glance, ‘Lionheart’ is not that much of a departure from the other twenty-first century Saxon albums. This is quite obviously a Charlie Bauerfeind production, with the guitars sounding crispy clear and the drums sounding huge. ‘Lionheart’ just feels less like Saxon going through the motions than many of their other recent albums. There are some ambitious tracks that undoubtedly are inspired by the possibilities modern studio technology gave the Brits, but there are also some more triaditional hardrock and heavy metal riffs to be heard this time around. And most of the choruses actually stick without trying too hard.

The song that initially attracted my attention was the title track of the album, a work that is quite progressive by Saxon standards. It is not very common for Saxon to play around with the time feel of songs, especially not to slow down for the chorus. The normal time feel of the verses contrasts nicely with the stomping nature of the half time feel that transforms the chorus into a chant, while the use of clean guitars and interesting chord work further enhances the song. Biff Byford’s vocal performance also counts as one of the most commanding in his career.

‘Lionheart’ contains significantly more enjoyable material, however. ‘English Man ‘O’ War’ is easily one of the most traditional Saxon songs in ages, while ‘Man And Machine’ is an equally uncomplicated stomper that will appeal to old school metalheads. The driving triplet riffs and rhythms that carry ‘To Live By The Sword’ are engaging enough to forgive the cliché lyrics of the chorus, especially considering the sublime harmonies that sing them. The intense midtempo stomper ‘Justice’ – another track with a chorus that opens up the entire song – is one of the most underrated gems in Saxon history and the aggressive speed metal of ‘Witchfinder General’ is the perfect opener.

At the time, the bland single ‘Beyond The Grave’ was a little misleading, as ‘Lionheart’ is without a doubt my favorite Saxon album of the current century. ‘Lionheart’ is not even a decent album with a few standout tracks, as many recent albums by bands that have been around a long time seem to be. While many traditional bands who tend to keep it simple embarrass themselves when they attempt quasi-progressive tracks, even ‘Searching For Atlantis’ is enjoyable enough. If I were to suggest a Saxon album to get familiar with them, I’d still go with ‘Strong Arm Of The Law’ or ‘Power & The Glory’, but fans of traditional heavy metal could do a lot worse than ‘Lionheart’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Lionheart’, ‘Justice’, ‘To Live By The Sword’

Album of the Week 10-2020: Burning Witches – Dance With The Devil

Burning Witches is a Swiss band that has been making a mix of traditional heavy metal and contemporary power metal for the last five years. I always found their music mildly entertaining, but something has changed with their new album ‘Dance With The Devil’. First off, there is a larger variation in tempos which greatly enhances the attention span of the album. Those who like myself have been bothered by the reliance on mid-tempo rhythms will certainly find that an improvement. Secondly, new singer Laura Guldemond – the second Dutch member after guitarist Sonia ‘Anubis’ Nusselder – adds an overwhelming degree of power to the band’s music.

While the overall sound of ‘Dance With The Devil’ is not all that different from their earlier work, Guldemond’s grit allows the band to take on a more aggressive and theatrical approach. At times, Burning Witches sounds like a more straightforward sister band to Hell, though the Accept and Judas Priest influences are still quite prominent. More attention has been given to the production as well, with exciting layered arrangements in the vocal and guitar department being the norm. Together with the pacing variation, this all accounts for a more consistently engaging listening experience.

The greater deal of aggression is naturally most prominent in the faster tracks. ‘Sea Of Lies’ and the excellent opening track ‘Lucid Nightmare’ are more or less equal parts modern power metal and the most melodic end of the thrash metal spectrum, with Lala Frischknecht laying down some of her most powerful double kick patterns thus far. The former also shows off Nusselder’s ability to construct a memorable solo section by effectively making her guitar parts sort of a mini-production within the composition. The delightfully energetic ‘Wings Of Steel’ is just begging to be sung along by thousands in front of the European festival stages.

However, ‘Dance With The Devil’ is not just convincing at its most uptempo or menacing. Because of the larger number of fast moments, the mid-tempo tracks are more distinctive and powerful as well. ‘Necronomicon’ and the remarkably aggressive closer ‘Threefold Return’, for instance, have a driving undercurrent of danger, which fits Guldemond’s voice to a T. ‘Dance With The Devil’ and ‘The Sisters Of Fate’ have a bit of a gritty hardrock vibe. A true highlight is ‘The Final Fight’, which is an elegantly arranged eighties-styled Euro power metal anthem with a melancholic twist and another excellent solo section.

A band like Burning Witches is always in danger of being accused of lacking originality. Thinking so would be approaching them the wrong way, however. It is clear that the quintet wants to pay homage to their heroes from the eighties, but they do so without sounding tired or overly reliant on clichés. It does help that most of Romana Kalkuhl’s riffs have a somewhat modern bite to them, while the production is surprisingly natural and old school for power metal these days. Anyone who likes uncomplicated heavy metal with a mind-blowing vocal performance and a great number of fiery solos should give ‘Dance With The Devil’ a chance. It is easily Burning Witches’ best album yet.

Recommended tracks: ‘Lucid Nightmare’, ‘The Final Fight’, ‘Wings Of Steel’

Album of the Week 09-2020: Volcano – Godspeed

Reliability defines Volcano. They have steadily released new music since their last line-up change in 2010 and all of those albums contain a consistently good mix of equal parts thrash metal and classic heavy metal, with some touches of melodic death metal thrown in for good measure. Between 2015 and 2018, the band released a new studio album every year in mid-July. And while all of those albums were good – ‘Melt’ (2015) and ‘Darker Than Black’ (2018) in particular – it is good that Volcano took some more time for ‘Godspeed’. It does dial back the intensity a little, but only in favor of more variation.

The songwriting credits may offer some insight on the varied nature of ‘Godspeed’. Former Gargoyle guitarist She-ja was always the main songwriter for Volcano, but ‘Godspeed’ is the first album that has input from each of the four band members. She-ja still composed half of the songs, so the album is still full of thrashy riffs, triumphant guitar harmonies and solos that are either bluesy or neoclassical. Overall though, ‘Godspeed’ sounds a little more traditional heavy metal than other recent works. ‘Ironbound’ era OverKill might be a good reference, not in the last place because Nov has a similar timbre to Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth.

Bassist Akira Tanaka has been contributing to the songwriting for a few albums now and he does seem to have a preference for the more melodic side of heavy metal. ‘I Decide Who I Am’, with its hyper-melodic, piano-enhanced verses, is a bit of a strange choice for the second song on the album, but the chorus does contain some of Nov’s greatest vocals on the record and She-ja’s guitar solo is nothing short of amazing. Closing track ‘Grief’ is a big, epic heavy metal track that kind of mirrors ‘Guardian Deity’, Akira’s closer for ‘Darker Than Black’, though not quite as thrashy.

Even more interestingly, ‘Godspeed’ is the first album that features songwriting contributions from drummer Shunsuke ‘Shun’ Ohyama. And if these songs are anything to go by, he is certainly welcome to contribute more. The hilariously titled ‘Lust In Peace’ has a blunt, hardcore-ish vibe in its riff work and a death metal-inspired chorus, but also some really classy lead guitar work. His other composition ‘Into The Flame’ kind of brings to mind ‘Melt’ highlight ‘Tokyo Panic’ in the way tight riffs and borderline chaotic verses alternate, but it is also a great deal more melodic. Definitely two of the album’s highlights.

Volcano is at its best when they thrash hard. Anyone who enjoys that side of the band has plenty of She-ja compositions to look forward to. ‘D.R.’, ‘Raise Your Fist’ and opening track ‘Salvage Sun’ are all scorching rippers full of fast thrash riffs and memorable melodies. ‘Get Wild’ is the trademark sleazy track, although it sounds less like rock ‘n’ roll and more like a mixture of Black Sabbath, latter day Loudness and Gargoyle this time around. His other two tracks are decidedly more melodic, with ‘Angel Son’ being an excellent mid-tempo heavy metal track and ‘Breaking, Saving, Killing,’ (yes, that comma is supposed to close the title) being a power ballad. The latter is not bad, but I wish they had replaced Nov’s “whoa-oh” chants with a guitar melody.

‘Godspeed’ is basically exactly what one would expect from Volcano at this point, for better or worse. Only those expecting the pronounced melodic death metal touches from ‘Mythology’ (2011) and ‘Melt’ may end up disappointed, as ‘Godspeed’ certainly is a more traditional affair. The extra half a year they took to make the album this time around has accounted for a more varied selection of songs, but the core sound of Volcano is still intact. Anyone who has as much of an obsession with thrash riffs and twin guitar harmonies will likely enjoy ‘Godspeed’.

Recommended tracks: ‘D.R.’, ‘Into The Flame’, ‘Salvage Sun’

Release of the Week Extra 41-2019: Aria – Gost’ Iz Tsarstva Teney

Bands whose songs are inspired by movies or works of literature are often inspired to do theatrical concerts at some point. Aria did this already with ‘Plyaska Ada’ back in 2007, but ‘Gost’ Iz Tsarstva Teney’ has them armed with a more consistent set of songs and a better singer. As a result of this set-up, ‘Gost’ Iz Tsarstva Teney’ focuses on Aria’s more theatrical songs, but those tend to be their best anyway. It even has a very pleasant flow if you just listen to the audio portion, however, which makes this a must-have for fans of traditional heavy metal.

‘Gost’ Iz Tsarstva Teney’ is Aria’s third live release in three years, which may seem like too much, but all of these were special occasions. ‘Klassicheskaya Aria’ had the band playing with an orchestra and ’30 Let! Yubileyniy Kontsert’ was an anniversary show. Despite the theatrical themes, ‘Gost’ Iz Tsarstva Teney’ is the most “normal” of the three in the sense that it’s just the band playing some of their best material without having to take orchestral arrangements or appearances from former members into account. Combine that with the band’s tight, yet energetic playing and you’ve got one of Aria’s best live sets to date.

As good as the band’s compositions and musicianship are, an important part of why this set-up works is current singer Mikhail Zhitnyakov. He is easily the best Aria singer to date. His dramatic vocals really fit the material on this record and his visual performance makes me wonder if he has a background in musical theater. From the moment the band blasts out of the gate with the incredible ‘Gonka Za Slavoy’, he grabs the audience by the throat and while I’m not necessarily a fan of singers changing clothes a lot, he really embodies the characters he acts out. Hear him sing ‘Antichrist’ – a song I thought no one could do better than Valery Kipelov, but I’ve been proven wrong – and you’ll hear what I mean. His fantastic entrance helps, but his amazing vocal performance gives it lasting value.

Sonically, there is very little to complain about. All the instruments are crisp, clear and lively and I have the idea there hasn’t been a lot of post-productional polishing going on, especially since the concert was recorded in late April and is out already. Vitaly Dubinin really proves the value of having a bassist who does more than blindly following the guitars, as his playing is melodically richer than that of Steve Harris, who appears to be his main influence. Sergey Popov and Vladimir Holstinin are an incredible guitar duo, with Popov being the slightly more aggressive player, sounding as an unshakable guitar wall when playing in unison. Maxim Udalov is the ultimate serviceable drummer who knows what the music needs at all times.

Of course, the visual appeal of the show will be the major talking point for the DVD portion of ‘Gost’ Iz Tsarstva Teney’. Some of it is a really nice addition too and certainly better executed than Iron Maiden’s half-assed attempts on ‘Death On The Road’. A good thing is that the theatrical elements are sometimes quite subtle, such as the denim jackets for ‘Geroy Asfalta’ or the red muleta in Zhitnyakov’s pocket during ‘Torero’, which allows the bands to play these classics without them feeling like too much of a departure from the rest of the show. It’s even better because this is probably the best version of ‘Torero’ that is currently available on any Aria live recording. The breastplate on Zhitnyakov’s armor saying “ARIA” instead of “SPQR” during the incredible ‘Kolizey’ is a nice touch.

However, even without the DVD portion, ‘Gost’ Iz Tsarstva Teney’ is worth hearing. Ultimately, that is what makes it a successful release. Aria managed to put on what looks like a music theater show without it getting in the way of their fantastic songs. There are six songs from last year’s ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ on the release, but it isn’t as focused on that record as one might think. Also, with excellent performances of classics like ‘Shtil’, ‘Kreshcheniye Ognëm’, ‘Noch Koroche Dnya’, ‘Obman’ and the anthemic ‘Ulitsa Roz’ in addition to all the aforementioned tracks, it would be a great introductory release for anyone who wants to get acquainted with the band. If you aren’t sure whether you want to order the album or not, make sure you check it out on one of the bigger streaming platforms, as it is internationally available.

Recommended tracks: ‘Gonka Za Slavoy’, ‘Antichrist’, ‘Kolizey’, ‘Torero’