Wednesday, January 28, 2015
Blind Guardian - Beyond the Red Mirror (2015)
Blind Guardian are one of metal's biggest bands. Their over-the-top style and retelling of Tolkien's stories have endeared them to countless metalheads around the world. Albums like "Imaginations From the Other Side" and "Nightfall in Middle-Earth" are considered defining works of the power metal genre. And let's not forget that Hansi Kursch is one of metal's best vocalists.
Despite all that, I've never been anything more than a casual fan. I always felt like the band had talent and a number of really good songs but there was always something stopping me from counting the band as one of my favorites. I think it can partially be explained the fact that BG songs usually have too many lyrics/singing and not enough instrumentation for my taste, but mainly because other power metal bands have simply released more enjoyable material (i.e. Stratovarius' "Nemesis," Kamelot's "Black Halo" etc.)
But here on "Beyond the Red Mirror," Blind Guardian have truly proven themselves to me, despite it sounding quite typical for their style. I largely dismissed this album on my first listen, impressed only by the title track and not much else. However, on the second listen it began to click very quickly.
Whether it's the incredible chorus in "The Ninth Wave" or the catchy, extremely memorable choruses on pretty much every song, this album is absolutely killer. Their previous album "At the Edge of Time" was good, but here they've really refined and focused their sound to make something very cohesive, much like a concept album.
The only issues I have are with the slightly uneven production and the song "Miracle Machine." The latter piano ballad is pleasant enough but would have been a true testament to the band's songwriting abilities were it composed with an acoustic guitar.
Other than that, this is a stunning album that's already one of my favorites not only of 2015, but of power metal in general. For a legacy band far along in their career to release something of this caliber is incredible. Even if you're not a Blind Guardian fan, I highly suggest you give this a listen. In all likelihood it'll be the album that turns you into a fan.
Wednesday, January 7, 2015
The Contortionist - Language (2014)
The thing that stuck out to me the most on my first was just how integrated and seamless this album feels. "Intrinsic" is a collection of great songs, but this album has a narrative quality that makes it all the more cohesive and impressive. But the single-best element here are the crystal clear, jaw-dropping vocal performance given by Lessard. The end of "Ebb and Flow," "Intuition"...I could go on and on about all the memorable vocal lines here.
The instrumentation is top-notch too. The futuristic, cosmic vibe is reminiscent of Cynic, Scale the Summit, and post-rock. The riffs can be a bit too staccato at times, but as this is a vocal-oriented album, they don't stray too far from the main plot. The play-off between heavy and light keeps things extremely dynamic, and it doesn't feel at all forced.
"Language" is an incredible accomplishment for this young band. Much more than their previous two albums, this one emotionally resonates with me in a way that few prog metal albums have. With Lessard at the helm and the band's forward-thinking musical vision, things are looking very bright indeed for the next Contortionist album.
Wolves in the Throne Room - Celestite (2014)
My favorite track on the album, "Celestite Mirror," is as powerful as anything WitTR have recorded to date. Its grandiose, mysterious synths are backed by a choir of violent guitar chords, immersing the listener in an eerie, captivating sonic world. The bold, yet sparse composition of this track and "Turning Ever Towards the Sun" are, at times, heavily reminiscent of Romantic-era classical music, a fact made more apparent by the intermittent horn swells.
Those who need convincing should at least check out "Initiation at Neudeg Alm," arguably the album's most accessible and melodic track. It reprises the melody of "Subterranean Initiation" from "Celestial Lineage," thus making it recognizable to fans of the band's metal era.
The more I listen to this album, the more I'm convinced it's one of my favorites in the ambient genre. The cover is a perfect visual description of the album's sound: "Celestite" is the ideal album to listen to when virtually exploring the universe. While I still fervently hope they make another black metal album, I'd be thrilled to hear a follow-up to this one.
Sunday, January 4, 2015
Amaranthe - Massive Addictive (2014)
While some may lament that this is a perfect example of the watering down of melodic death metal, my view is that albums like show its diversity and willingness to go in new directions. In fact, I'd argue that it's keeping the genre's spirit alive, especially in light of In Flames' subpar "Siren Charms" (which I won't even bother to review). But regardless of whether you're a death metal fan at all, you should definitely check this out. It's infectiously catchy, and is more refined and focused than their first two albums.
Electric Wizard - Time to Die (2014)
Sadly though, while this album isn't at all bad, much of it feels like a rehash of older material. The first three songs: "Incense for the Damned," the title track, and the extremely evil "I Am Nothing" are the clear standouts. The rest of it feels a bit plodding and unfocused. The album's lead single, "Sadiowitch," is quite unimpressive compared to the driving, groovy stomper "Black Mass" from the previous album.
While many may praise EW for their consistency, I think that most fans see the band's age starting to show. Most of those fans will also lose interest in this album fairly quickly and want to spin the classics such as "Come My Fanatics" and "Dopethrone" rather than the albums that try to imitate them.
"Time to Die" isn't a bad album by any means. In fact, "I Am Nothing" is possibly their darkest, most evil song to date, and really stands out in their career. However, as a whole, this album feels rather formulaic. If I were in the band, I would consider branching out into more psychedelic and non-metal territory to really make the next album stand out from the rest. But all in all, this is solid addition to this great band's catalog and I'm excited to see what they do next.
Earth - Primitive and Deadly (2014)
Being recorded in a desert, "Primitive and Deadly" makes no secret of its emulation of the desert landscape. Take, for example, the wide open, simple chords and apocalyptic tone on standout "Rooks Across the Gate." This utterly haunting track speaks to the desert's mercilessness, sheer beauty, and glacial rate of change. One can easily imagine this as the soundtrack to the desert portions of "Fallout: New Vegas" and "Red Dead Redemption."
At the same time, despite the album's beauty, it has a steep learning curve. Ff the new Yob album is hard to get into, this album is even more challenging. There's very little in terms of dynamics here, (let alone on any other Earth album) so it requires a tremendous amount of patience to even begin to process it. Nevertheless, this is undoubtedly their finest work and one of the best drone albums (if it can be called that) I've heard.
Yob - Clearing the Path to Ascend (2014)
Like Pallbearer, Yob craft a very heavy, dense, psychedelic sound. The difference is that Yob are a bit more "metal" and less melodic than their doom counterparts, and they have shouted vocals akin to post-metal such as Isis and Cult of Luna.
Yob's lumbering, mammoth riffs on this album stand in extreme contrast to the introspective, Pink Floydian acoustic sections. Each of the 4 gargantuan tracks on this record perfectly matches the mood of the album cover: a journey into an unknown, exotic land lost in the mists of time. Mike Scheidt's vocals are some of the best I've heard in doom. His mournful, languid clean vocals perfectly compliment his throaty, caveman growls.
But what I consider to be the underlying strength of this album is that despite all 4 songs being over 10 minutes and quite repetitive, I rarely felt bored. Instead, I found the hazy, dark atmosphere on "Clearing the Path to Ascend" the perfect enticement to keep listening. The wait was well worth it as I reached "Marrow," my favorite track. "Marrow" is a haunting, brooding doom masterpiece that is easily the culmination of Yob's discography. "Clearing the Path to Ascend" is certainly not something that most people will get into on the first listen, but it's well worth investing time into as it's truly a doom gem. Along with the new Pallbearer record, this one gets my vote as best doom album of 2014.
Opeth - Pale Communion (2014)
"Pale Communion," though, is a different story. The meandering fusion-inspired passages of "Heritage" have been trimmed down, and the end product is much closer to their metal days. "Moon Above, Sun Below," with its heavy, distinctly Opeth-ian riffage and harmonized acoustic interludes, could have easily fit on "Deliverance" or "Watershed." Similarly, the driving, Middle Eastern-tinged lead riff in "Cusp of Eternity" echoes back to "Atonement" on "Ghost Reveries." Mikael Akerfeldt and co. are clearly more confident in their songwriting abilities, whereas on "Heritage" it seemed as if they were approaching the writing process with an explicit desire not to make a metal album. And though "Pale Communion" is anything but a metal album, which makes it all the more unique in Opeth's catalog.
This album has something for every Opeth fan. Yes, there are obvious nods to their metal past, a fact much appreciated by old school fans such as myself. However, with songs like the Damnation-esque "Elysian Woes" and "River," Opeth are yet again charting new territory while still retaining the distinct melacholic sound that's defined them throughout their career. "Voice of Treason" and "Faith in Others" are some of my favorite tracks on this album. They both feature string sections that are employed so skillfully that one could hardly imagine the songs without them. "Faith in Others" has a particularly cinematic and even cathartic quality about it that makes it not only Opeth's best closing song, but also some of their most intensely depressing (in a good way) lyrics.
"Pale Communion" is Opeth at their most honest and emotional, unwilling to care what the press or even their fans expect of them. This is a gorgeous story of loss and betrayal that pays homage to the greats of 70's prog rock with the kind of authenticity and focus that "Heritage" sometimes lacked. It may be difficult for a lot of fans to look beyond Opeth as a metal band, but with this album it's clear that they're more than capable of branching out into different directions and redefining their identity, even at such a late stage in the game. I know of no other band who has changed styles so drastically, yet retained the high quality of their music. Where Opeth goes next is anyone's guess.