Friday, December 31

The Protagonist's Album of the Week: 12/25-1/1

Star One
Victims of the Modern Age
2010

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...and my obsession with Arjen Lucassen's work continues, with my acquisition of Star One's latest release Victims of the Modern Age. I had pretty high expectations when I first put this album on, since I've heard a multitude of whispers praising it as one of the better prog works of the year.

To sum up my feelings on this album briefly, I was slightly disappointed on the whole. This album is heavier, more extreme (death vocals on a couple of tracks), and less saturated with the spacey sounds of the original (I really enjoyed the feel of Space Metal). Despite this, Victims of the Modern Age is most clearly a Lucassen album, and continues to employ the same complex yet catchy patterns (as well as the layered vocals) that I've come to expect from his compositions. Instead of bringing you the same spellbinding, cosmic journey that he did on the first Star One album, Lucassen substitutes a voyage of darkness and intensity this time around. Good right off the bat, and a grower as well!

Here's a sample of the album's opener. Or rather, the first song as well as its instrumental prelude.

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Star One- Down the Rabbit Hole + Digital Rain

Thursday, December 30

Heroik - Heart of Battle

Heroik
Heart of Battle
2010

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The year 2010 has been something of a metal epiphany for myself in that I've discovered that Quebec is an absolutely incredible place for metal talent. Granted, I'm specifically targeting the power metal scene with that statement, but from what I've heard it extends into the folk, black, heavy, and death genres as well. Heroik is another of several Quebecois debut artists releasing their first album this year (along with newcomers Viathyn and Instanzia), and are the most symphonic of the trio, relying heavily upon choirs and synths to deliver their epic sounding power metal.

Upon receiving their album, the first thing that caught my attention was t
he album artwork. Looking like something out of a twisted and sinister whimsical dream, it depicts a lone warrior surrounded by bizarre-looking horrors. The band describes their album as a call-to-arms to persevere over the challenges of depression and suffering, and so the strange but well-drawn art is perhaps applicable. The lyrical themes seem to be spot-on, and the music does indeed have a very melodic and heroic quality to it. It reminds me a bit of some Italian symphonic power metal (Domine, Rhapsody of Fire, etc.) but without the higher vocals and occasional difficulty in understanding the sung words. Also, I can't help but find some spiritual similarity to Manowar upon occasion (mostly in the battle-and-brotherhood lyricism).

Musically, Heroik's debut offering is an admirable example of what a fledgling band should sound like. There's room to grow, as the vocals occasionally begin to sound a little bit over-dramatic. The production job isn't perfect either (the guitars and drums could be afforded some more room in the mix; they're a little bit flat and light). Despite these flaws, “Heart of Battle” is an exciting and uplifting album that clearly has aspirations of grandeur. The songs are fast and pounding, with a vivid atmosphere of valiance and self-assuredness that defies hindrance or defeat. My favorite tracks include “Lost World”, “Stormseeker”, and the titular “Heart of Battle”. All three are faster tracks that showcase the band's ability to combine said speed with orchestral elements and choral sections to create a strong and enjoyable experience of true metal.

One unique feature of Heroik's work lies in the previously mentioned vocals of Jordan Delage. I've said that he sometimes comes off as a little bit over-dramatic, but I want to mention his use of low-register vocals. It is quite rare for a metal singer to slide down the bass clef and hit a bona-fide low note, especially if it's held for any real length of time. Delage does this on a number of tracks. At some points, it sounds a little weak, but when he's on, it's phenomenally powerful! His vocals are very unique (considering the style in which they are being used), and a treat for those of us who enjoy a good bass/baritone vocalist with our metal fix.
Being that “Heart of Battle” was self-released by a bunch of guys with an ambitious vision, I think that it accomplishes precisely what it means to. This album is not a joke, it's a competent and bombastic opus that will be a stepping stone on the band's path to future success. Labels should take note of this album as well, since it's better than a lot of the mediocre power metal coming from Europe (especially that which comes from nations bordering the Mediterranean Sea). Heroik's triumphant anthems seek to vanquish suffering and doubt, replacing these feelings with glory and a sense of accomplishment. This is a quality record, both musically and in intent.

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The Protagonist's Rating: 7.5 out of 10








Tuesday, December 28

Post-Christmas Thoughts: Plans for a New Year

After an extended and refreshing weekend, I think that we're ready to address the new year, and what it's going to bring. There has been little in the way of communication from The Metal Observer as of late, but their re-organizational process is still underway, and perhaps there will be something on the horizon as of the new year.

There have been several offers/requests for coordination with other sites, other people, and other projects. At this point, it's too early to say what will happen. Regardless, I believe that Black Wind will continue to receive fairly frequent updates for the foreseeable future. Especially considering that several bands have requested reviews that should be posted fairly soon (watch for reviews for Canadian band Heroik and French prog group (Sworn)).

Like everyone else, we will be providing a personalized "Best-of" list for 2010. This will likely tend towards melodic power metal, of course, as it's primarily what I'm qualified to comment on. This is of course, my personal list and should by no means be expected to be the be-all and end-all.

I also would like to try, if at all possible, to stay pretty well caught up on the new releases during 2011. This means that I'd like to acquire, listen to, and review most of the melodic metal releases for the year as they come along and provide a consistent, up-to-date commentary and critique. Perhaps this will work, perhaps not, but I'm going to try it for a while.

Last on the agenda today is a list of free metal samplers that have been brought to my attention by a local friend of mine, and I thought I ought to share them with our readers. There's a lot of mixed metal, but here are the links to the free playlists on Amazon:

Nuclear Blast's "Sinister Spring Slaughter" sampler. (Not that sinister, bunch of mixed artists)

A new sampler from Metal Blade. (Summer 2010, I think, but what the heck?)






That's all for now. Cheers!

Friday, December 24

The Protagonist's Album of the Week:12/18-12/25

Star One
Space Metal
2002

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I've owned a few Ayreon cds for a while now, but this last week has been my real musical baptism into the works of  Arjen Lucassen (the mastermind behind Ayreon, Ambeon, and this, his science-fiction inspired progressive metal project).


I can't quite describe why I love this album so much, just like I can't quite describe why I love British neo-prog band Arena so much. There's something about them that is consistently catchy and intriguing while remaining innovative, complex, and wholly refreshing. Listening through "Space Metal" isn't like listening to anything else (ok, except maybe some Ayreon), and it's actually accessible!


I've also been spinning Ayreon's "Into the Electric Castle" a fair bit as well, but Star One takes the cake here. Everything I've hear suggests that the new 2010 album from this project of Lucassen's is even better. I can't wait to get my hands on it.


Please enjoy a couple of great clips from "Space Metal", they're longish, but totally worth the listen:




Thursday, December 23

Thaurorod - Upon Haunted Battlefields

Thaurorod
Upon Haunted Battlefields
2010

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Ah, yet another debut power release in what has been a banner year for the genre. Thaurorod hail from Finland, and play moderately symphonic, slightly progressive, and fantasy-saturated power metal. Like the majority of their countryment, they're quite proficient with what they've chosen to do with this album, but have their work cut out in making a name for themselves.

So what is it that sets Thaurorod apart, and what makes them worthy of your attention and financial contribution? The short answer is that these fellows are doing everything right and clearly have a good focus. There's not a lot of novelty about Thaurorod's work, but they're placing themselves in a segment of the genre that does set them a bit apart from numerous other releases this year. I'm speaking of the band's more traditional metal trappings which to me, draw as much influence from Judas Priest as they do from Sonata Arctica and Stratovarius.

This sort of styling becomes evident first and foremost with vocalist Makku Kuikka, with whom this album was recorded. He's got a slightly gruff voice with respectable range, and despite all of the symphonic elements and keyboard flair on the album, he lends a sharp cut to the band's sound. “Upon Haunted Battlefields” cannot be called a flower metal album in good taste, as it almost has more in common with some epic power/folk hybrids like Korpiklaani or Trelleborg.

The guitars are the other element that hone the edge on the blade that is the band's debut. Well-produced and with plenty of crunch, I was surprised by just how much lead work the axemen got in on this album. Unlike the rapid picking and double-bass pedaling of many of their cohorts, Thaurorod allow their drummer and guitarists to take more of a lead role in shaping the melodies and rhythms of their songs. This can be good or bad, depending upon the band and the amount of freedom that the guitarists have, but I'd say that it works pretty well for this band. Their songs are a bit more varied than many, and consequently will perhaps appeal to a wider audience.

There are very neat epic sections conjured up aplenty by the supporting drums and keyboards. The title track is a prime example of most everything I've discussed up to this point: sizzling leads, a majestic keyboard interlude, shifting song sections, pounding drums that refuse to stick to a single given pattern for too long, and a solid vocal performance by Kuikka.

Thaurorod don't always write the most memorable material, but their effort is solid. It's always a good feeling to have some variation from the hordes of metal bands that populate the scene. Thaurorod are a band that I will not tire of anytime soon, and look to be quite active. They've changed vocalists a number of times already since their inception, and Kuikka has departed the band. There are rumors that the illustrious and immensely well-respected Michele Luppi (Vision Divine, Killing Touch) has been courted to be the replacement singer for the band. But regardless of who takes over the vocal duties, this album gets a thumbs-up and a good recommendation!

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The Protagonist's Rating: 7.25 out of 10


Monday, December 20

Meet Saint Deamon.

It's been a while since I just threw a band out quick without a full review, so here it is. Everyone needs to know about Sweden's Saint Deamon.

These fellows have been around for a couple of years, dropping their first album In Shadows Lost from the Brave in 2008, and following it up in May of 2009 with Pandeamonium. You see already that the band has a penchant for kind of dumb titles and spelling, but don't let that deter you from checking out their albums, as they are high-quality works.

Saint Deamon play a mid-tempo and vocal-centric variety of power metal that is a bit more simplistic than what we're usually used to hearing from the genre. This doesn't at all imply boredom however, and Saint Deamon are the sort of power metal that will appeal to those who love the genre, as well as more traditional metal fans who need something a little slower paced with less kick drum. Allow me to demonstrate with a track:



As you'll notice, they do struggle a bit with coherent English, but not so much that the music isn't understandable or enjoyable. Here's one more track off of their debut, hope you enjoy!

Saturday, December 18

The Protagonist's Album of the Week 12/11-12/18

Keldian
Heaven's Gate
2006

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Apologies for the late post this week, but this is still worth getting out there. Keldian has been unapologetically filling my ears the past few days with their enchanting and light-hearted take on power metal. This album, their first, tends to be somewhat space-themed in terms of lyrics. With a hearty dose of keyboard, songs like "Sundancer" (which I posted in my overview of Norwegian power metal) and "Crusader" are rich and uplifting compositions that match or exceed the memorability of their peers. Keldian's vocals are a bit different from others, very pure and clean, but lacking some of the richness and fullness that is heard in some bands. Luckily, this is probably the most objectionable thing about their music. It's well worth hearing, and I hope you enjoy this sample from "Heaven's Gate".

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Keldian- Crusader

Thursday, December 16

Silverlane - Above the Others

Silverlane
Above the Others
2010

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Until recently, German heavy/power metal band Silverlane has completely escaped my attention (somewhat surprising, since they seem to get a modest amount of press at least), but with the release of “Above the Others”, they seem to have stepped up their game a bit. With no previous experience, I had nothing to color my judgement of their new release.

Silverlane's plan of attack is more or less straight-up fast-paced power metal, with occasional bouts of more traditional metal stylings, as well as some symphonic flair from time to time. They display a bit of progressive songwriting ambition with the four-part song “The White Lady”, but otherwise this is a pretty straightforward album that doesn't stray too far from its roots by trying to do anything experimental. As such, it ends up being an enjoyable and quality outing that has a distinct charisma about it.

Vocalist Ecki Singer has one of those rough-edged voices, but rather than singing with a power/thrash group like Primal Fear or Morgana Lefay, we've got polished melodic power metal. Generally, those vocalists with a bit of a gravelly tone don't sit too well with me in bands like Silverlane, but there's something different about Singer. His vocals are just slightly abrasive, yet quite accessible and listenable.

In other news, “Above the Others” is just as solid instrumentally as it is vocally. The keyboards are extremely tasteful and melodic, and achieve a pretty prominent position in the mixture. Thumbs up to keys player Dorothee Schmitt for an excellent performance! Silverlane also boast some great solos that excel in their dirty distorted tone. Well-suited for their music, these solos are a great companion to Singer's aggressive vocal stylings. All elements combined make for a well-defined atmosphere. Better than a lot of melodic heavy and power metal bands that tend to carry the same feel through an entire album, Silverlane truly excel at sculpting their tunes into very unique tracks. The title track “Above the Others” has a soaring, triumphant feel that captivates the listener. “Ready to Rock” is an unoriginal track and concept (you can guess where it goes), but is a straightforward rock and roll tune that Heavy metal fans will enjoy. Most notably perhaps is the aforementioned four part song, wherein the musical scenery changes somewhat drastically between each song. The final two parts of “The White Lady” exemplify this. “Between the Trees” builds a haunting atmosphere, describing a murderer with a guilty conscience, whereas “Days of Sorrow” scales up to a grand chorus that is a plea for redemption:

“Can you save my soul from these days of sorrow
Can you take away all these years of pain
Can you save my soul, there's no tomorrow
On the other side, there's another life waiting for me”

The more that I listen to this album, the more that I like it and the richer it becomes. It's not quite on par with some of the best releases of the year, but it's fresh, remarkable, and very enjoyable. Fans of euro-power and melodic metal should look over this one. This is one face of the new generation of melodic power metal that is providing the scene with good looks and quality music.

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The Protagonist's Rating: 8.0 out of 10

Wednesday, December 15

Thoughts, Conjectures, etc.

Taking a break for a moment to yak, as I like to do every so often. It's the time of year we're all so wrapped up in shopping, school finals, holiday events, etc., and I'm no exception. Something that is exceptional is the difficulty I've been having getting back into Trans-Siberian Orchestra, normally my favorite Christmas music and experience. Perhaps it'll happen soon, who knows, but I had some trouble getting into Night Castle.

My busy schedule doesn't allow me to review and comment on so many new releases that are constantly arriving on my electronic doorstep, so I want to point a few out quick. The Instanzia album that I got swept up in was a brief obsession, and that came through. Most albums are not so lucky. Here's a list of others that I've been enjoying thoroughly lately, but may not necessarily be so lucky as to be chosen for review in the near future:

Delirion- Lotus (Really excellent symphonic power metal, so catchy!)
Silverlane- Above the Others (Just discovered this today, and it's pretty catchy and entertaining so far, though I've yet to hear the entire album)
Signum Regis- The Eyes of Power (respectable neo-classical power/prog)

Since the Blind Guardian Concert, I've also been on a bit of a BG kick, and have listened to about half of their discography in its entirety in the past week or so, including A Twist in the Myth, Imaginations from the Other Side, Nightfall in Middle-Earth, At the Edge of Time, and Battalions of Fear. There's been a discussion running around the forums at the Metal Crypt that started when someone asked for a rec on which Guardian album to check out next. Pretty soon of course, every album in their catalog was recommended twice. Is there any other band that has so many great albums and such a division amongst fans as to which is the greatest? None comes to mind.

I realize that I've really been on a melodic power metal kick lately (heck, when am I not?), but my everyday listening has been including a bit more folk/viking metal and melo-death lately. I should try to get around to a newer release in a different genre soon, just to spice things up a bit.

There's a Christmas concert this Friday evening that I'll be attending, and so another concert review will be forthcoming soon. There are seven local bands playing, and so it promises to be a fair amount of work. I'm also collaborating with a couple of the fine fellows from Dawn of Valor to work on a website to enchance the web presence of the local scene. Twin Cities metalheads rejoice!

Also hoping that Oakenson will return at some point soon. Our modest little blog continues to grow in terms of readers and popularity, but it's not the same without him around. In the meantime, thanks for the emails and occasional comments. Contact is encouraged, and feedback is humbly requested. A good evening to all of you, stay warm and merry this cold winter's eve.

-The Protagonist

Tuesday, December 14

ReinXeed - Majestic

ReinXeed
Majestic
2010

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Majestic” was my very first taste of ReinXeed, the studio project of Tommy Johansson (Majestic Vanguard, Golden Resurrection), that I've heard tossed back and forth for a while now. I never realized that he was so young, having released a trio of studio albums by himself by the age of 23. This only increased my admiration for his work, though I confess I became a little bit nervous about the album as well, worried that it might not have a very mature sound.

This is unabashedly symphonic and somewhat “fluffy” power metal. There's not much heaviness to it, and this will turn off a number of people immediately. If you're one of those ridiculously masculine, closed-minded metalheads, I pity you. What you are missing is a veritable treasure-trove of soaring melodies, fantastic shredding, and wonderfully emotive neo-classical songwriting. The lyrics are primarily Christian in content, but tend towards themes of strength, freedom, and inspiration rather than preaching gospel, so they are largely unobjectionable.

If there's fault to be found with “Majestic”, it may be that there's a sameness in sound between some tracks, though anyone with a trained ear will most likely not find this a problem. As I mentioned earlier, this album is infectious and catchy. I have a hard time getting into slower songs, as some may know, and ReinXeed's “Second Chance” is one of the best of the year, with a very melodic vocal line and some excellent fretwork. I've always felt that bands need to get their quick songs down before they start digging into ballad territory, and I'm happy to report that ReinXeed does both very well.

The neo-classical influence on this album is quite strong, especially on songs like the opener, “Deep Under Sea” and the aptly titled “Melody of Life”. These are also some of the strongest moments on the album, along with the driving and excellent “Neverland”. The omnipresent keyboard support and layered vocals provide a very distinct and lush sound to this album. I'm consistently surprised by how various metal bands that share so many similarities can simultaneously sound so very different from each other. ReinXeed is one more example of how this is true. Instrumentally, this might occasionally pass for Balflare, early Sonata Arctica, or perhaps even Freedom Call, but the sum of its parts makes it a considerably unique experience. For some, this will not be a good sort of unique. Tommy's voice is high, and not the most powerful, but it is refreshingly clear and coherent.

Singling out other specific tracks doesn't seem to me to serve a great deal of purpose on this particular album. My favorites are “Neverland”, “Deep Under Sea”, the title track, and “Sword in Stone”, as I find these to be the best-written and most consistently enjoyable. An aficionado of melodic power metal will fast discover that all of the material is quite pleasing, however. I see that Johansson has now added a couple of band members for future recordings and live shows, which is good news for the future of this project.

Majestic” isn't breaking much new ground, but it's a very talented effort that showcases the talent of young Mr. Johansson. The supremely melodic vocal and guitar lines will have many fans of power metal enraptured in fairly short order, and send the rest away shaking their heads. ReinXeed's latest is an admirable effort that satisfies very fully, and I look forward to another release just like it within the next couple of years.

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The Protagonist's Rating: 8.75 out of 10

Dawn of Valor - Dawn of Valor

Dawn of Valor
Dawn of Valor EP
2009

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Dawn of Valor is a five piece hailing from Saint Paul, MN. Sounding like a blast straight out of the 1980's, these fellows are playing in a well-established and very well-respected genre. I'm proud to say that they represent the scene well, and while this is pretty rough 'round the edges (as are most self-released demos/EPs), there's a whole lot of shiny inside.

First of all, Dawn of Valor has EXACTLY the kind of frontman that you need for this. Sean Iredale has a distinct and powerful voice that is not only masculine and potent, but relatively smooth and tonally secure. (something occasionally lacking in music like this). The screams that he utters are perhaps not on par with better established acts, but he makes up for it by being almost theatrical on these four tracks. The backing vocalists contribute a great deal as well, and more than a number of bands I've heard playing in the same style. There are some great shout-along sections throughout these tracks which make Dawn of Valor very appealing live.

Preaching metal law, brotherhood, and strength, the lyrics are just what you look forward to hearing. All this evangelism is of course provided with passion and a significant flair of guitar. The axe work on this EP is quite catchy and really pushes the songs along. "Devil Within" is perhaps the most guitar-driven track here, while "The Land" leans towards vocals and group shouts. "Fight for Our Lives" is a much different track which relies upon tempo and dynamic changes to establish itself (which it does proficiently), as well as illustrating Iredale's knack for theatrical singing in both his "swooping" vocals and the sung-spoken narration in the softer sections. The final song, "Comrades in Arms", climbs in tempo from the beginning and boasts some of the most accessible moments on the album.

There's definitely room for improvement here, as the group vocal shouts come off as a little weak at times. This could just be the mix, but they seem to be lacking a bit of cohesion. The drums also need a different mix, as the snare is almost irritating at times. While I prefer the guitars a bit more polished and prominent, this particular part of the mix is very true to the older feel that the band is searching for.

On the whole, Dawn of Valor bears the flag for their chosen style of music very well, and with an excellent original twist. While this isn't quite my favorite genre of heavy metal, it's growing on me, and quality local bands like Dawn of Valor are the catalysts.

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The Protagonist's Rating: 7.0 out of 10

Thursday, December 9

The Protagonist's Album of the Week: 12/4-12/11

Olympos Mons
Medievil
2007

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I've had this album for a fair while now, but haven't really given it that much of a listen until recently. Olympos Mons is a Finnish symphonic power metal group that has a rather aggressive take on the genre. As with most Finnish metal, this band hits a soft spot for me. It's not exceptionally stellar, creative, or catchy, but I still haven't been able to put it down lately, especially today. Here's one of my favorites, the title track "Medievil".


Wednesday, December 8

Instanzia - Ghosts

Instanzia
Ghosts
2010

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Metal bands are constantly putting out new material. We follow artists and expect quality releases from them year after year. We also expect new artists to generally have to put out a couple of albums before they really hit the mark and become as good as their contemporaries. Very occasionally, we get blindsided by a new project whose work is truly excellent and unexpected. This is precisely how Instanzia's debut album “Ghosts” hit me.

Instanzia, the brainchild of one Alexis Woodbury (lead vocals and lead guitar), is of the European persuasion of highly melodic, keyboard supplemented (this is important, the keys aren't dominant), and double-bass driven power metal. The music was written and largely recorded by Mr. Woodbury as well, as the band was largely assembled during the production of the album. For a debut, the mix is quite good. The drums are reasonably solid, the vocals at the level they should be, and nothing stands out too much over another. The bass can be hard to pick out, but that's somewhat to be expected in this style of music.

As usual, I'll jump on the vocals immediately. The tone is good, and Woodbury doesn't attempt to reach outside of his comfortable range. As such, there is no straining. The vocals are not exceptional, but they are proficient, catchy, and more than acceptable. There's also a use of overlapping vocals in a number of chorus sections, which provides them an ample boost. On the note of vocals and lyrics, I want to point out that of many power metal bands for whom English is a second language (particularly in this genre and early in their career), Instanzia is one of the best I've heard in terms of grammar and pronunciation.

Instrumentally, “Ghosts” is quite enjoyable. It isn't a highly complex or virtuosic album, but makes up for this in sheer memorability. Hearkening up in spirit classic melodic power metal like Secret Sphere, Vision Divine, and Freedom Call, “Ghosts” is a largely uplifting and inspiring album. Mostly high-tempo and galloping, most of the tracks here are borderline anthemic with their instantly recognizable melodies. While not technically over the top, the album has a reasonably polished and tight feel instrumentally. Most of the time, the guitars are taking a backseat to the sweeping vocal choruses, and this is clearly a vocal-centric album at heart.

This is not dark, heavy power metal, but nor would I qualify it as quite the “flower metal” that bands like Power Quest and Freedom Call are renowned for. The songs are a bit more thoughtful, if upbeat, and are also easily comprehensible for the English-speaking listener. My personal favorites off of the album illustrate this point perfectly. The first, “A Genius Who Believes”, concerns the quest of a man determined to take to the stars against nearly insurmountable odds. It also has a great chorus.

I have to dedicate a whole paragraph to the final track on the album: the longer, more epic, and more complex “Desert Fox”. This is a bottled tale of the German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his personal struggle during World War Two within the Nazi regime, in addition to his military exploits. It boasts the catchiest and most touching lyrics and melodies on the entire album. In addition to being a good deal longer than the other songs, it also contains a longer solo section than any of the others. It's also the song in which the band deviates from their standard-formula song structure more than the rest. “The Desert Fox” is an excellent tale of humanity and sacrifice, and far and away my favorite track on the album, and is becoming one of my favorite metal tracks ever.

This album is certainly for fans of the more melodic side of power metal, though I'd say anyone can and should give it a shot, as there's precious little to dislike here. The vocals are in need of a little polishing, and the band could perhaps be a bit more exploratory in their approach, but this isn't an amateurish outing by any stretch of the imagination. Very highly recommended, and a high contender for the best new power metal band of 2010.

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The Protagonist's Rating: 8.75 out of 10
Originally written for The Metal Observer

Tuesday, December 7

Skyliner - Skyliner

Skyliner
Skyliner
2010

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Jake Becker from Floridian power metal band Skyliner asked me a couple of days ago to review his band's three-track demo, and I was happy to oblige given my recently provoked interest in small-time local acts. The entirety of the work from this demo can be found on the band's Myspace page, and I encourage you to give them a visit.

Brief though Skyliner's demo may be, it is deep and detailed, giving the listener a very distinct impression what the band is capable of, and what kind of sound they are putting out. In the case of this Floridian power metal outfit, the trend is a fast, driving brand of power metal leaning heavily towards the US school, yet incorporating a very hefty dose of melody.

As always, vocals are one of the most important aspects for myself, and in this band there is no exception to that rule. Jake Becker's lead vocals are feeling, though I find they have a certain wavering quality about them from time to time when he is reaching a bit higher. His voice is very strong in the low register, hearkening to mind one of my favorite harder power metal acts, Dark at Dawn. In the chorus of "Symphony in Black", the addition of grouped voices sounds very good and suggests the potential for some incredible group vocal work to come. In fact, anywhere in these three songs where there are layered vocals, it's a good feature. While I find Becker's vocals a bit weaker on "Vendetta", I actually think that they're rather good on the final song, a softer (mostly) emotional piece entitled "Aria of the Waters". Perhaps this is just the production or when the songs were recorded.

Production-wise, this is a demo, so not a great deal is expected. While certain parts are muffled and not mixed the way you'd hear them on a polished album, the lack of a glossy feel helps you appreciate the heart that these guys put into their music, which leads me to the high point of this demo...

Sweet mercy can these guys riff! "Symphony in Black" is one catchy lick after another, laid out in a pattern that creates a complex, winding, and profoundly enjoyable listen. "Vendetta" is no letdown either, beginning with an anthemic and triumphant guitar lead that plunges into a machine gun riff-fest that doesn't let up. The tasteful use of keyboards only makes this song more interesting and unique, rather than interfere at all with the skilled axe work. "Aria of the Waters", while less remarkable instrumentally, has the rare ability to keep me interested in a ballad, so the band is sure doing something right.

If you're a fan of local metal in FL, do yourself a favor and look up Skyliner right now. If you're one of those far-flung metalheads that enjoys peeking in on demos all over the country, this one comes highly recommended. With a good production job and tightening up of a few details, Skyliner could be a force to be reckoned with. Even in their current gritty state, these are some catchy, memorable songs that should appeal to anyone remotely interested in the genre.

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The Protagonist's Rating: 8.25 out of 10

Friday, December 3

The Protagonist's Album of the Week 11/27-12/4

Instanzia
Ghosts
2010

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From almost literally out of nowhere, a Canadian band titled Instanzia has released a full length album titled "Ghosts" that has taken me entirely by surprised and left me out of breath and wanting much more. Since acquiring this album a couple of days ago, I have been able to listen to nothing else. Though this won't be the case for long, this album needs to be mentioned. I've already been in contact with the band's guitarist and vocalist, Alexis Woodbury, and I don't know that the band has had a great deal of publicity as of yet.

Unfortunately, I haven't any way to give you a sample of this album other than to refer you to the band's Myspace page. This is melodic power metal at it's best. Fast, catchy, complex, and with excellent vocal work, this band's work is comparable somewhat to early Sonata Arctica and Dreamtale, but with a distinct sound all their own. Though there isn't a sample of it online, the very best track is the final "Desert Fox", something of a narrative on the life of German general Erwin Rommel, and a fantastic track both musically and lyrically.

I will be penning a review for this album to be posted at The Metal Observer, as I fully believe that it deserves more popularity and views than our small site can provide. Please look for the review there within the next week or so. If you sample the songs and like them, please support the band! This is the very sort of talent that needs to be spread around!

Thursday, December 2

Seven Kingdoms - Seven Kingdoms

Seven Kingdoms
Seven Kingdoms
2010

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I first came across Seven Kingdoms, like more than a few people, when I saw them on the tour posters with Blind Guardian for the latter's US tour. I looked up their albums and did a bit of listening. After a few songs, I concluded that I was pretty interested in seeing them live as well. This didn't properly prepare me for the concert however, which turned me into an avid fan of the band almost overnight.

So I grabbed a copy of the album and sat down for a listen after the concert was over, and I wasn't disappointed in the least. Seven Kingdoms plays a unique blend of female-fronted and fantasy-themed melodic power/death metal that appeals to me pretty strongly. The young band has now released a pair of albums, and this is their first with Sabrina Valentine on vocals. As readers might remember, I expressed my slight misgivings about female-fronted power metal in a previous review. Once again, I am supremely pleased to report that another band and another fine lady have dashed my fears, this time probably once and for all.

Sabrina's voice is clear, strong, and she glides between notes gracefully and with confidence. Not a stratospheric soprano, she keeps her voice in a range that is comfortable and turns out one proficient vocal offering after another. The other vocals on this album are quite harsh, and sound like something straight off of a scathing Scandanavian folk metal album. Mixing this formula with that of highly listenable and catchy power metal, the songs here swing from wonderfully strong accessible tracks like “Somewhere Far Away” and “Into the Darkness” to ferocious battle hymns like “Eyes to the North” and “Thunder of the Hammer”.

From first to last, the dual guitar leads are relentless and obviously extremely talented. This band is not to be undersold in terms of technical skill by anyone. The drummer packs a considerable punch, particularly on the final titular track of the album. The musical lines here have clearly been carefully crafted and composed with passion. More than anything, it is the melody lines (particularly the guitar leads) that carry the sheer energy of this album up the chart and make it a true standout. The fact that they've also got great rhythm and vocal support just puts the icing on the cake. In fact, the only real problem I have personally with this album is the imperfect production.

An album like this makes you wonder why we Americans have to look so far abroad to get our melodic metal fix so much of the time. Here we have an extremely talented and passionate metal band in our own Floridian backyard. If you're a fan of power, folk, or just straight up faithful heavy metal, go look up Seven Kingdoms immediately; they're very competent and enjoyable. This release puts the band on the map, and their next album will be in my hands as soon as possible!

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The Protagonist's Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Wednesday, December 1

Concert Review- Blind Guardian, Holy Grail, and Seven Kingdoms

Well, I can safely say that last night was one of the better concert experiences that I've had. I've been a Blind Guardian fan for a few years now (got on the bus a little late, only been following them since "Twist in the Myth", which also happens to be my favorite BG offering), and this has been my first real chance to see them live, so I jumped at it! I did a little homework before going, and was also especially looking forward to hearing Seven Kingdoms, after I'd heard a little of their work.

The Venue

The venue, a local dive called The Cabooze on the west bank of the Mississippi river in Minneapolis, was a first for myself. After waiting outside for nearly half an hour in the freezing Minnesota wind, we were admitted. After another minute trying to find my name on the will call list for tickets, the lovely lady at the booth just let me in and said she'd take care of it later, for which I was grateful. Props for service, at least. The Cabooze is decent sized, with more seating overall than Station Four in Saint Paul. It's also a little bit nicer, but with less room right in front of the stage. My friend and I took a seat up on the balcony for a short while, but quickly moved into the crowd and got very close to stage right, where we remained for the rest of the concert.

Seven Kingdoms


The first band to play was Florida's Seven Kingdoms, in support of their self-titled new album. I had listened to their album  ahead of time, but was very impressed by how catchy all their offerings were (almost entirely, if not all off of said new album). Their lead vocalist, a lovely lady by the name of Sabrina Valentine, was very charming and has a heck of a pair of lungs for a small frame. Seven Kingdoms had pretty good stage presence as well, though the crowded room and poor acoustics made their sound (and that of all the bands) suffer considerably. I was very delighted with their performance overall however, and will make a point to see them live again, should they ever be in the area. Expect to see a review of this band's 2010 release on the site sometime in the near future.

Holy Grail
I knew right off the bat that Holy Grail wasn't my cup of tea, but their performance was very entertaining nonetheless. The shrieking, head-windmilling, cursing-at-the-top-of-your-lungs style heavy metal isn't my dish, but the band had some real talent, and WOW did James Luna ever throw his head around. Unfortunately for Holy Grail, it was their frontman and lead guitarist Eli Santana that led the band alone. Their bassist and other guitarist may as well have been asleep for as much as they were moving and getting into the music. Melodies and rhythms were churned out in plenty, but the life was really only carried by two members of the band, and so there was really something missing.

Blind Guardian


The band that everyone (including myself) came for. Blind Guardian disappointed me only slightly in that they played only 2 songs off of their brand new album "At the Edge of Time", and only one song off of "A Twist in the Myth". Otherwise, their set material was almost purely drawn from "Imaginations from the Other Side" and "Nightfall in Middle Earth". I enjoyed these songs thoroughly as well, but I felt like the band contradicted themselves playing in this manner when they specifically stated their main purpose in performing was to promote their latest release. 

That being said, Blind Guardian were as fantastic live as I'd hoped for. Hansi Kürsch was a very formidable frontman indeed, and had incredible stage presence. Howling like a demon at some points, while reverting to his trademark smooth croon during offerings like "The Bard's Song". I noticed him dropping octaves on multiple occasions, which was disappointing. Between his frequent trips to the back of the stage and a brief mention of things being kept somewhat short, I got the impression that he was not feeling well, so I can hardly blame him for this. Even Hansi's style of "classy" headbanging was fun and very much indicative of his personality.

As for the rest of the band, they were entirely marvelous. Both Olbrich and Siepen were very interactive with the audience. None of the band members came off as conceited or aloof, which I had been a little worried about. Rather, they put as much energy and passion into their performance as I'd expect to see at a huge open-air festival. Despite a somewhat stale setlist (it has hardly varied from city to city), I'd go see Blind Guardian again in a heartbeat. The entire concert was splendid. Short of my first Rush concert, it's probably the best I've ever attended.

Tuesday, November 30

Trelleborg - Lands of Njord

Trelleborg
Lands of Njord
2010


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Most every metal band has at least one minor feature that makes them different, and some bands have any number of things that truly make them unique. This applies very strongly to Trelleborg, a young Russian band that have emerged from Saint Petersburg with a very unique blend of metal influences. On their debut album, "Lands of Njord", the young quartet storm out with a surprising and memorable offering that will likely divide a great deal of metal heads.

It's difficult to precisely pin down the style of the band. Sure, they're predominantly some flavor of folk metal with some power and black influences. Sure, it's very symphonic with a touch of progressive nature here and there, but there's some very unique touches to Trelleborg that make them more than just another folk band playing up cliches to try and earn themselves a quick audience.

As usual, I'll point out the vocals first thing. "Lord Volland" has a VERY unique voice. It's somewhat obvious that he's not a classically trained professional, but he's got a strong, deep, and smooth voice that adds to the attempted epic feel of the album (and succeeds, in my book). He also pounds out the growls that appear on several tracks on the album (but definitely play second to the clean vocals). While they're decent, they're nothing to write home about.

Secondly, this is an extremely symphonic piece of folk/viking metal. There are a few points in here that remind me sharply of Bal-Sagoth, with occasional blast beats and synthy keyboard backing. In sharp contrast, there's also a hefty dose of the much-maligned accordion. This instrument always gets a bad rap, but I love the thing, and it's put to good use here by Trelleborg. Particularly of note pertaining to the accordion is their song "Metsanhumppa!", a four minute instrumental that is fast, fun, and incredibly catchy (think of it as Trelleborg's version of Nightwish's "Moondance").

Yes, humppa and accordion, we're now drawing lines to bands like Finntroll and Korpiklaani as well. Well, Trelleborg are definitely a little more power metal-ish and epic than either of these two. The more epic tracks like "Gunbjorn" and "Tale of the Immortals" might feel slightly similar to songs like those recorded by say, Ensiferum, but the feel is much different. "Lands of Njord" is a tough album to compare, and thus somewhat difficult to categorize, but the formula has worked well for this aspiring young band. Also noteworthy is their decent English pronunciation Particularly for the nation of Russia, where many bands seem to like to stick to their native tongue, this is exceptional.

All things considered, "Lands of Njord" is a strange and unique experience, ranging in style from humppa to epic battle hymns to strange blast beat-laden black metal passages. I can't help but like it, and I admit that a fondness has grown for this little Russian gem. I'll be on the lookout for their next album for sure.

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The Protagonist's Rating: 7.75 out of 10



Thursday, November 25

French Power Metal: An Overview


France, a nation reknowned and reviled throughout history like few others. When it comes to metal, France has been prolific in the genres of death, black, and thrash, but noticeably lacks a strong power metal following. Considering its location and population, this seems somewhat strange, so I've decided to do some digging similar to that which I performed with Norway.

There are only a couple of big name power metal bands from France, though I have come across a number of very interesting lesser names. Stylistically, the French bands seem to run a gamut of influences, from neo-classical shredding and highly melodic structures (similar to their German cousins), to traditional heavy metal sounds a la Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. So again we have a nation without a well-defined national style (it's what happens when you have a small scene), but explores a number of subgenres.

So, without further ado, please find some of the best offerings of French power metal below. mixed in you'll find some samples of their music as well.

Heavenly

Heavenly are one of my favorite power metal bands hands down, and definitely a French premier. Particularly on their latest release, there are some poor things to be said about them. Their fourth album found the band entering some harder, more modern territory (which on "Virus", I find delightful), and this tendency continued and became a bit poppier on their 2009 release, "Carpe Diem". Heavenly play a brand of solid neo-classical power metal, influenced by classics like Gamma Ray. Here's a quality track off of my personal favorite album, 2006's "Virus":


Nightmare

Another of the larger French names in power metal, Nightmare has been around since the early 1980's when they began by playing a brand of traditional heavy metal. After reforming in 1999, the band has resumed their output, but with a much stronger leaning towards power metal. With some very distinct, rougher vocal lines and excellent riffing, Nightmare dropped jaws in the power metal world by dropping a quintet of hard-rocking albums throughout the 2000's, the best of which include their reunion album "Cosmovision" and 2005's "The Dominion Gate".

Alkemyst

An as-of-yet still up and coming young progressive power metal band, Alkemyst has only managed a pair of full length albums since their inception in 1999. However, both offerings are excellent. In the case of 2008's "Through Painful Lanes", they have stacked themselves up against that Europe has to offer with a dynamite album that showed off their technical prowess and impressive songwriting skills. With luck, Alkemyst can release another album much sooner than the last, and continue to receive critical acclaim with their unique brand of Euro power/prog.

Bel O Kan

A recent emergence, Bel O Kan released their debut album "Birth of a Queen" in 2009. This upstart young band plays female-fronted symphonic metal with leanings more towards heavy metal than power. The tempos are not quite so fast, and the instrumentation a bit more sparse, but this is an extremely enjoyable album that has firmly planted the band in a position to further their ascent in the world of melodic metal. If they tighten up their dual vocal lines, this band could be a real force to be reckoned with. Here's a track to sample:


Karelia

A melodic metal band that has established themselves well within France, Karelia seems lately to be taking leanings away from metal and more towards hard rock. Not having heard their latest material, I can't say if this is good or bad. However, some of their past material is quite enjoyable. The band aims to put a fresh, uninhibited spin on heavy metal. Given their recent work, it seems that they are succumbing to popular demand and the urge to make a quick buck. Worth a look, at least.

Manigance

Another progressive power metal band, and not one that I'm familiar with. Singing entirely in French, this band sounds like they have some promising material (check their Myspace page for some songs), and I'll be on the lookout for some of their work in the near future. They've put out 3 full length releases since 2002, and are due for another this fall. In every nation it seems there are a couple of excellent bands that don't get the popularity that they deserve because they don't sing in English. Manigance, it seems, are one of these bands.

Phenix

Phenix is genrecized as progressive power metal as well, but listening to them, they seem to have more of a heavy/power sound and attitude. At times, it seems like they've even a US power metal/thrash tinge to them, which certainly provides a bit of a novel flavor in comparison to many of the other bands on this list. I profess not to care for the vocal stylings of the lead singer to any great extent, but I'm sure that others would. Worth looking into.

Wildpath

Another symphonic band, Wildpath boasts more of a power metal flavor, and with a very pleasant female vocalist. Their debut album, "Nyx Secrets" has a very unique cool and almost calming atmosphere about, and while not incredible, they crafted something that is truly special. Wildpath have released a second album in 2009, entitled "Non Omnis Moriar", which I am very excited to hear. This is a remarkable band that is bursting with potential. Here's a great track off of "Nyx Secrets":


Well, there you have it. Perhaps not as in-depth as a few niche specialists might appreciate, but creating this list has already satisfied my craving for a little more metal from France, and will hopefully open a few eyes as to what the nation has to offer. The world of metal is a never-ending trail of discovery, and this is just the tip of the iceberg!

Hail to all, and a happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 23

Equilibrium - Rekreatur

Equilibrium
Rekreatur
2010

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This review is for Oakenson, as he would have penned it in my place I'm sure, were he around to do so.

With only a small amount of listening to “Turis Fratyr” before encountering Equilibrium's latest offering, I didn't have much to go on. At the time when I first discovered Equilibrium, I was not one for harsh vocals at all, and so it didn't get much play time. Now that I've done some more listening and my ears have become attuned, I've turned back to Equilibrium. They're symphonic, epic, and a little bit over-the-top, all of which mean that they're right up my alley.

It seems to me that “Rekreatur” has been getting a bad rap now that Equilibrium have had their breakthrough and gained some popularity. It's been accused of any number of failings, from poor vocal performance and repeating their old material to being “too light-hearted”. However, this review is not an attack on anyone's poor opinions. Rather, let's start from the top.

If you're reading this, you're most likely already aware of Equilibrium's work, so you know just what to expect from them. Things haven't changed, though they are perhaps a little bit more upbeat this time. These are the same crunchy, synth-drenched battle songs that Equilibrium has been doing since their inception, and will likely continue to do. The vocals are all harsh, and perhaps not the greatest for the genre. I admit I'd probably like the music better if the vocals were clean or at least more akin to those used by bands like Ensiferum and Wintersun. The music isn't very deep either (heck, you can't even understand the lyrics if you don't speak German); it's the sort of fluffy fantasy/folk metal that you listen to when you're in the right mood and want something catchy and uplifting. I for one love it.

I am not the greatest judge of harsh vocals, and so I'm hardly in a strong position to critique Rober Dahn, nor compare him to previous vocalist Helge Stang. If nothing else, they have a heck of a backup band, and one that excels at writing fluid and catchy melodies. The greatest thing about Equilibrium in my opinion is the absolute thrill and grandeur of their keyboard-topped melodies, and these are as sweeping and majestic as ever on this album. Everyone has their own favorite picks on this album, mine include “In Heiligen Hallen”, “Der Ewige Sieg”, and “Der Wassermann”.

Aside from the keyboards, the music is solid. The guitars largely play a rhythm role, but are able to break in with a galloping lead from time to time. Because of the ridiculous style of the music, the presence of the bass is largely glossed over, which is a pity, though I'm sure it comes through better at live shows. The percussion is another impressive part of this and every Equilibrium album. Simply to keep up the blazing pace that the band sets would seem to be a significant feat. The percussion is occasionally varied as well on “Rekreatur”, expanded beyond the standard metal drum kit in some areas, though I do not know if these sounds are electronically generated or not.

Suffice it to say I can't understand nay-sayers of this album, as it's pretty consistent with what the band have been doing. Saying that songs are fluffed-up re-writes of old tunes is not true. Like most bands, Equilibrium's style is pretty unvaried, and it becomes a matter of listening intently enough to be able to distinguish one song and one album from the other. Just because it's all keyboard-driven epic melodic death metal doesn't mean it all sounds the same. Now, based exclusively on the style of music that the band plays, this album is going to turn a number of people away because of its sound. For those that don't mind or enjoy the style, “Rekreatur” is certain to satisfy. Both authors of Black Wind heartily endorse Equilibrium's latest effort, and hope for an equally strong outing their next time around!

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The Protagonist's Rating: 8.75 out of 10