Thursday, May 22, 2014

Arch Enemy - War Eternal (2014)
One of extreme metal's biggest names, Arch Enemy are back with a new album and a new singer. Following 2011's fairly disappointing "Khaos Legions," "War Eternal" marks the return of AE's classic, sophisticated melodeath sound. While I do miss Angela Gossow's evil screams, new singer Alissa White-Gluz is a solid choice to replace her even though her vocals are a bit bland at times. There's nothing in the way of experimentation on this album which is probably a good thing since the more simplistic songs on the last album fell a bit flat. "War Eternal" offers some choice cuts such as the immediately catchy title track, the classically influenced "Avalanche," and the highly impressive riffage of "Time is Black." Arch Enemy aren't looking to reinvent the wheel, nor is this album on the level of "Wages of Sin" or "Rise of the Tyrant." Rather, it's simply another great addition to their discography and one that won't let the fans down even despite the vocalist change.

(Special thanks to Century Media for providing me a promo copy.)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Agalloch - The Serpent and the Sphere (2014)
When I heard Agalloch were trying out a space theme rather than their traditional nature/winter theme, I was very excited. "Marrow of the Spirit" was great but it showed signs of a band aging and starting to run out of ideas. A change was indeed in order. Unfortunately though, it seems Agalloch's musical abilities were not up to par for this change. Much of this album feels tedious, repetitive, and downright boring. Take the opener "Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation" for example. It's probably the first time they've Agalloch have attempted a straight-up doom metal song and I have to applaud them for that but it could have been so much stronger by either cutting it in half or adding more variation. The song kinda plods along and I find it difficult to emotionally connect with it in any way. The same goes for "Plateau of the Ages." It's 12.5 minute long metal instrumental whose most interesting feature is perhaps the cool drum beat. Every time I listen to it I think about Agalloch's other metal instrumental, "The Hawthorne Passage,"and how much better it is. Then take "Dark Matter Gods." That song has so much potential but it far too repetitive and unnecessarily long to stand anywhere near Agalloch's best songs. On the plus side, you have "Vales Beyond Dimensions" which features an excellent dark, doomy lead melody that fits the space theme perfectly. Then there's the lead single "Celestial Effigy" which is the most dynamic, progressive track on the album. It's the kind of song that keeps your attention throughout. "Astral Dialogue" is not only one of the most aggressive songs Agalloch have penned, but it's also my favorite song on the album. It's a perfect blend of doom and black metal, and it features the unique songwriting the band are famous for, something sorely lacking elsewhere on "The Serpent and the Sphere." Another positive feature is the lyrics which are fantastic as ever. As for the acoustic interludes, they unfortunately all sound basically the same and are very stale and uninteresting. There is absolutely no comparison between them and the songs on "The White" EP or the glorious "Odal" on "The Mantle." Simply put, this is Agalloch's weakest album but it certainly does have a number of redeeming factors that make it worth listening to. You can hear the seeds of better songs throughout, but those better songs never materialize. If you're expecting something on the level of the first three albums then prepare to be disappointed. I suspect though that this one's a grower so my opinion might very well change later on.
Coldplay - Ghost Stories (2014)
After the glitzy, overproduced pop stylings of "Mylo Xyloto" which left many long-time Coldplay fans such as myself disappointed, the band decided to move back, at least partially, towards their original sound. Nowhere is this move more apparent than on the two sublime ballads "Oceans" and "O." These two tracks alone are possibly some of the best material Coldplay have created. Elsewhere on the album we see Coldplay experimenting around, especially on the ethereal, stripped-down "Midnight" which sounds like it could have been ripped from an M83 or Tycho album. Another highlight is "True Love" which is a fantastic synthesis between their new and old styles and is a truly gorgeous track. Then you have "Always in My Head" which seems to draw influence from U2. The album falls a bit flat on tracks such as "Ink" and "Another's Arms." Overall though "Ghost Stories" manages to be highly consistent in both its themes and overall mood despite having a lot of stylistic diversity. It might not be on the same level as "Viva La Vida" or "A Rush of Blood to the Head" but it's quite enjoyable nonetheless and I'm satisfied that the band are moving back on the right track.

Epica - The Quantum Enigma (2014)
I never thought that Epica could deliver something that rivals the great "Design Your Universe," my favorite album of theirs, but lo and behold it's happened. "The Quantum Enigma" is not only better than the album that preceded it; it marks the culmination of the band's artistic endeavors as they strive to create catchier, more concise songs. And by shifting to such a style, I don't mean to imply that they've abandoned their identity for commercial gain. Rather, they've made their message all the more direct and powerful by trimming the fat and thus delivering a more memorable product, at least compared "Requiem for the Indifferent." On this album you'll find some of the best songs Epica have crafted so far including the lead single "Essence of Silence," the grandiose "Second Stone," and the soaring "Natural Corruption." Whereas "Requiem" felt a bit stale and not all that satisfying, this album sounds fresh, vibrant, and energetic every time you hear it. Every song has something about it that will stick with you. There are no fillers or duds here and you'll undoubtedly come back to it repeatedly. With less growls and catchier choruses than ever before, "The Quantum Enigma" is bar none their most accessible album so keep that in mind if you're thinking of introducing people to the band. If there's anything wrong with this album, I'd say it's the lyrics. The themes they chose to discuss are quite intriguing, but the way Epica discusses them leaves a lot to be desired. Another slight imperfection is the repetitiveness of "Kingdom of Heaven Part II." Were it to be either cut in half or simply made more interesting it could have been as good as its predecessor. All in all though, this is a stunning accomplishment and quite a pleasant surprise for me. I expected to find them running out of ideas and circling the wagons after "Requiem" but instead it seems like they went back to basics, reevaluated their sound, found their creativity once again, and hit it out of the park. The odds of this album ending up on my top 10 list in December are quite high.