Wednesday, March 30

Borealis ~ World of Silence

World of Silence


Canada: the birthplace of basketball, American football (the CFL is far superior to the NFL), the lightbulb, the commercial jetliner, and the garbage bag (just to name a few). The country has been a birthplace for great bands such as Rush, Triumph, The Killer Dwarfs, and Blackguard, as well as a host of wussy bands that I won't mention. I would like to add to that list of great bands out of Canada: Borealis.

I mentioned in an earlier review that ProgPower is a festival on my bucket list. Borealis played at the 2010 event and that's when they came to my attention. I tracked down their music online and I was blown away. After playing email tag with the band's bassist Jamie Smith for a few months, he sent me a copy of World of Silence for me to check out. In a nutshell, what I have to say is: HECK YEAH!!

If you're a fan of Sonata Arctica, Evergrey, Kamelot, and Vanishing Point, you will be a fan of Borealis. While the band plays power metal, they also have symphonic and progressive elements in to their songs. The majority of the songs on World of Silence are a little faster than mid-tempo with a few power ballads thrown into the mix. There's a really good balance between the guitar and the keyboard, each getting a chance to carry the melodies and the solos. The vocals are a great fit for the band, but at times lack a little of the theatrics that are common with this style of music. Lastly, the rhythm section is very tight (you could probably set the atomic clock to it). The songs that stand out to me are "Midnight City", "World of Silence", and "The Dawning Light".

While this is the bands first full length release, the thing that stands out to me most is that the songs are very mature, as if the band has many years of song writing experience. On the downside, although the band's debut release clocks in at almost a full hour, and though the songs are largely fantastic, I find my attention starting to wander towards the end while taking the entire album in one sitting. This could simply be a curse of the modern age we live in.

The band has a new release coming out in May that I am really looking forward to. Borealis is a great young band and World of SIlence is capable of turning heads.

~ ~ ~

Live Long and Rock Hard,

SpaceKev's Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Chronology - The Eye of Time

The Eye Of Time


Bands that walk the line of heavy/power metal synergy tend to lose my interest a little bit. This might be due to the lack of speed, the lessened emphasis upon hyper-melodic choruses and vocal lines, or maybe because the production sounds less polished. In any case, I'm pleased as punch to present to you a band that does a fine job of balancing power metal elements with more traditional metal. My metal ladies and gentlemen: I give you Chronology. A little known band just breaking out of its roots of Maiden-tribute, Chronology has served up a rich and hearty morsel of metal that is probably the best thing I've heard yet out of Hungary.

Lead singer Zoltan Kiss does have a bit of a Dickinson-esque voice, though I find him to be a little bit more proficient and geared towards the more stratospheric, power metal side of things. More or less, this seems to be the tendancy for the rest of the band as well: a modern Euro-power sound with a distinct Iron Maiden-esque flavor. Perhaps this is just because of the band's history, but it seems very obvious to me.

Musically, The Eye of Time is surprisingly varied, deep, and enjoyable. The sound of the band does not remain constantly power-metal centered after the strong, titular opener. Rather, the album proficiently balances modern Euro-power with traditional heavy metal elements in a manner that provokes interest and ensures a quality listen from beginning to end. For an example of what I mean, take “The Scriptorium” with its marvelous harmonization in both vocals and dual guitars, or the surprisingly mellow chorus of “Evil Eye”. With seventeen tracks, I keep waiting to get bored by some filler, but it just doesn't happen. At track twelve, the strange interlude “Benedictio” seems a bit strange, but serves as a very appropriate introduction to the ripping “Father Godhart”, one of the stronger tracks on the cd.

Chronology seems to have bided their time as a cover band for long enough to learn some very valuable lessons. The Eye of Time is never dull and is a surprisingly masterful excercise in marrying the old and new. Much of this is due to the band's guitar players, and the lead axe work is definitely the highlight of this album. Make no mistake, this album will be underrated and go unnoticed by a great many who will enjoy it despite its textbook acoustic passages, guitar solos, vocal melodies, and any number of other items. Sadly, hailing from Eastern Europe alone is what will most likely hold Chronology from widespread success in the near future.

However, if the band can produce an effort that parallels The Eye of Time on their next outing, they'll have some serious clout to work with. I'd tell the band this instant that they ought to make this their day job over “Iron Maidnem”. Covering the classics is admirable, but if you're this good at writing original material, please throw another one in the oven! Highly recommended to fans of less flowery power metal, traditional heavy metal, and even NWOBHM, as this is varied and interesting enough to draw a large crowd!

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The Protagonist's Rating: 8.0 out of 10

Friday, March 25

Fen - Epoch



The high standards of a strong debut will forever be a challenge that plagues up-and-coming bands, especially in the more underground circles, and so it is incredible when a band succeeds in creating something that betters their first outing. This is most definitely the case with British post-black metallers Fen and their recent release “Epoch”, the follow-up to the evocative debut “The Malediction Fields”. They have successfully toed the line between keeping their original and quite unique sound and yet also bringing new elements which make it sound fresh.
“Epoch” opens in a traditional post-rock fashion, with layers of melodic guitar and some muffled drumwork. But what struck me instantly when I heard this song was the presence of an audible, even melodic bass section. The band then weave in a distorted riff before breaking out into a powerful slow black metal section. The first comparison I drew was with Insomnium's opener “Equivalence”, and they are not that dissimilar. The song then incorporates anguished screams and rasps in a DSBM style, with ethereal cleans floating in the background. Although the song lacks in structure, it is a fantastic way of explaining the sound of the album to the listener.

The album continues much in this style, alternating calm post-rock with varying tempos of black metal, and a narrative of brilliantly written nature-inspired lyrics of loss and desolation. An excerpt from my favorite track, is as follows: Illumination wavers in the strengthening grip of dusk/Darkness summoned something more than dreams and empty promises". The vocals are varied, although the mid-pitch rasp is the most frequent. They also employ some tasteful low growls that work surprisingly well. The cleans have improved markedly since the debut album, especially in “The Gibbet Elms”.

The musicianship is fantastic, with many a good riff or tremolo from the guitars, and even one section in “Ashbringer” that reminded me of Drudkh. The bass makes multiple appearances, including a brilliant solo in “Carrier Of Echoes”. Synths dance in the background, adding to the atmosphere but never taking center-stage. The drums are generally quite good, although not outstanding.

It becomes difficult to find issues in this album, although I can find a personal few. Firstly, there is a noticeable lack of structure to the songs, and it is possible for them to meld into one. Secondly, the production on the drums could have improved on the snare sound, and there are constant tom fills which break the structure. Finally, I feel that the album would end a lot better if “A Warning Solace” were to come after “Ashbringer”, as the former has more of a closing feel to it.

However, do not let these small errors put you off this album. “Epoch” is truly a fantastic listen, and anyone who has read this far should definitely consider giving it a try. Even if black metal may not be your usual port of call, there is something for most people to appreciate. Let us raise a toast, if this is the new epoch of black metal.


Angel's rating: 4/5

Eden's Curse - Trinity

Eden's Curse


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Religion isn’t the coolest and safest of subjects when it comes to album concepts, but on the pro (Theocracy) and contra (Avantasia) side of the spectrum, it has produced some excellent, powerful and most importantly, intelligent albums. Of course with a name and discography like Eden Curse’s, it’s no surprise they turn to religion for subject matter, but they still have to reach the levels of excellence, power and intelligence that their predecessors have. Just like Serenity on their latest, Eden's Curse opts wisely for some sort of unified content instead of a bigger story. It gives them the opportunity to use Christian iconography in favor of a lot of different angles.

Starting off with an almost Operation: Mindcrime-ish intro, Eden’s Curse storms out of the gate with the title track: an anti-preacher pamphlet with a thunderous chorus that would shake the pope from his throne and level Vatican City to the ground. Barely leaving any breathing space, they continue with the infectious “Saints Of Tomorrow” and the balls-out heavy single “No Holy Man”, featuring a shining guest performance from Dream Theater’s James LaBrie. Interesting note: LaBrie also does backing vocals here in the company of, among others, Carsten Schulz (ex-Domain, Evidence One, Iron Mask). Safe to say the choir nails it like the Romans did Jesus to the cross.

Eden’s Curse doesn’t just offer straightforward rockers, but dares to be different (this is an incredibly subtle inside joke) and provides some epic material too, with the splendidly engaging “Children Of The Tide” and the crusader’s anthem “Jerusalem Sleeps”.  Weaker points include the misplaced ballad “Guardian Angel”, which disrupts the flow of the album and just isn’t very good anyway, as well as the too obvious and slightly dumb "Cant Fool The Devil", which feels like a Stryper-song. It isn’t until the crisis of faith-inspired “Rivers Of Destiny” that the album picks up again and crosses the finish line victorious.

As said before, Eden’s Curse doesn’t stick to one genre exclusively, but mixes melodic hard rock with heavy and power metal. It gives the album a unique diversity that can kick your ass one time and take you on a mesmerizing journey another. Just like the aforementioned Theocracy and Avantasia, Eden’s Curse has employed religion to release a career-high, and it just goes to show that when handled right, God isn’t the worst of blokes.



Arno Callens' rating: 4.25 out of 5


Thursday, March 24

HeavenFall - 7 Sins

7 Sins


HeavenFall is a five piece symphonic power metal outfit from Germany. Through hard work and a lot of self-promotion, their debut release, 7 Sins has reached the ears of a number of critics and new fans worldwide. As you may surmise, this album is a conceptual take on the seven deadly sins. No, it's certainly not an original concept, but few albums are nowadays, and while I personally find the album cover artwork to be fairly poor, the contents are not.

This album seems shorter to me than it really is. At just over forty-five minutes and with nine tracks, the length is respectable. The songs are original and symphonic without being overly bombastic and pompous, which is sometimes difficult to pull off. Unlike a great many debut artists, I think the band's songs flow quite well between tracks. The blending of musical elements withing individual tracks is also far from amateur. Melodies are mixed well into strong supporting instrumentation, and I think that the drums are actually my favorite feature on this album. The percussion always seems to be active in a way that serves to highly accentuate the rest of the music. While the drum parts are largely static, they are never dull.

I am not the greatest fan of singer Daniel Lähms. His style is a bit too hammy for me, though he's hardly a poor singer. His timbre reminds me of Roy Khan (who I think he tries to imitate to a degree) mixed with a bit of Martin Steene (Iron Fire), but without some of the latter's ridiculous diphthongs. Generally, he has reasonably good lyrics to work with throughout the album, although "Robin Hood" loses points for its vapid chorus. Any band that has to curse to get their point across without a specific context will always get a quick swat of disapproval from me, though this is no Children of Bodom.

7 Sins avoids sounding repetitive with some reasonably good power metal. A couple of the tracks here are coming close to some of the betters that I've heard all year, but the last third of the album drags a bit. The title track and "Envy" in particular are good examples of what Heavenfall has to offer, with crunchy rhythmic guitar lines and running percussion forming waves upon which ride smooth melodies and dancing synths. I was a bit taken aback by the quality of the first few tracks, both in songwriting and in production, since this band is better than a number (Kerion, Skylark, among others) that have a contract.

If you're generally in the market for a new power metal band to listen to, you could do much worse that this. HeavenFall break out and makes good their name with some potent and heavyish symphonic metal. Recommended for most fans of the genre, and I think we'll see this one on a label soon.

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The Protagonist's Rating: 7.25 out of 10

Wednesday, March 23

Apocalyptica - 7th Symphony

7th Symphony


Apocalyptica are one of those bands that I never invested myself too deeply in, aside from thoroughly enjoying their Reflections album; I appreciate what they do, feel they have brought the cello to new, distorted heights and, ultimately, respect the trio (though they now have a drummer) quite a bit.  I decided to give their latest record, 7th Symphony, an impulsive chance since I was feeling myself to be in some kind of classical crossover mood; am I glad I took the plunge? ... mostly, yes.

To get the gripes and complaints out of way immediately here, I must say that the vocal songs, aside from Bring Them To Light (which is actually quite excellent), are just awful - trite emotionless pop awful, in fact - and, sadly, the trio's musical dexterity nor prowess can save these dire pieces.  End Of Me, Not Strong Enough and Broken Pieces all feature mildly talented vocals from relatively well-known radio-friendly rock bands that leave much to be desired for anyone with an even semi-rooted history in such genres; their voices nor lyrics add to the stale compositions and, ultimately, these three tracks break up the flow of what would otherwise be a pretty fantastic record.

7th Symphony, however, is far from being all doom, gloom and disappointment; in fact, aside from the aforementioned tracks, the album features some of the most fresh and invigorating material I have heard from the band, leaving much of their traditional classical leanings in the dust in exchange for a more metallic, aggressive approach.  Sure, one of the things I appreciated most about Apocalyptica was their ability to layer the sublime, emotive tones of clean cellos atop distorted ones, however, the experimentation on 7th Symphony is so effective and successful that I do not feel disappointed by the fact that, well, there just aren't that many classical-esque moments here.  At The Gates Of Manala illustrates this point perfectly; clocking in at seven minutes, we're taken on an instrumental journey met with the coalescing of themes and variations, clearly demonstrating the band's classical background, all whilst sounding absolutely modern and, well, metal.  The track is a true success, and one of the strongest instrumental openers I've heard in some time.

2010 and On The Rooftop With Quasimodo both illustrate Apocalyptica traversing their instrumental side with consistency and quality, however, it is the closing trilogy of songs (Sacra, Rage Of Poseidon and, on the deluxe versions of the album, the rather essential The Shadow Of Venus) that really steal the show, as they say.  Sacra is relatively mellow and cold, which is perhaps due to its inclusion of a traditional Finnish piece, serving as the calm before the storm that is Rage Of Poseidon (which is, by the way, my favorite cut from the album); rather than attempting to describe its jarring movements and thrashing depths, just take the track's namesake into consideration and you'll have a fair idea of what to expect, I'm sure. ;) The Shadow Of Venus thus serves as the calm after the storm, book-ending Rage Of Poseidon quite appropriately along with Sacra; why this song was chosen to be a bonus rather than a necessity is beyond me, I'm afraid.

At the end of the day, I am glad that I decided to pick up a copy of 7th Symphony, despite the poor selection of vocalized tracks that do, again, break up the flow of this otherwise excellent album.  Let us hope Apocalyptica continues upon this new-found path of heaviness and epic bravado, perhaps even further exploring the dizzying heights of cello-summoned metal madness; to the rooftops!

7 // 10

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Dutch Phantasmagoria MMXI!

Carach Angren, one of the most unique and competent symphonic black metal bands existing today, have just announced news of their re-recording of three older songs, the first being the majestic, ghastly Ethereal Veiled Existence; by all means, enjoy it! ... from what is understood, it appears all of the re-recordings shall be made available for download, hopefully sooner than later?

Tuesday, March 22

Children Of Bodom - Relentless Reckless Forever

Children Of Bodom
Relentless Reckless Forever


I suppose it is necessary to say that I am not, nor ever was, one of those Bodom (or, perhaps more accurately, ex-Bodom) fans who vehemently hates everything after Hate Crew Deathroll; sure, Are You Dead Yet? and Blooddrunk are not that close to the mastery of the band's first four releases, however, they are also far from being rubbish.  Relentless Reckless Forever, the band's seventh full-length release, finds Children Of Bodom treading their own path once again, certainly to the disdain of the haters though moreso to the pleasure of the believers; spastic riffs, ripping solos, hoarse vocals, swirling keyboards and a more than competent bottom-end have adorned every Bodom release to date, however, the real question remains whether or not the magic has returned, no?

... yes, it has; err, more appropriately, yes, it has! :D  I, like many of you probably reading this, went into the album with a more or less medial stance, not being overwhelmed with excitement but not cringing with dread either and, within a minute into Not My Funeral, the album's opening cut, I felt something I haven't felt for some years when popping in a new Bodom CD (in fact, not since Hate Crew Deathroll made its way into my hands from Finland in 2003), and it was that rather ambiguous (i.e. hard to describe for a reviewer), cold Finnish magic we all know and love; indeed, it gives you that I-just-put-in-a-piece-of-spearmint-gum-in-my-mouth freshness only Finland is capable of delivering and, needless to say, it's invigorating.

The opening trilogy of songs - Not My Funeral, Shovel Knockout and Roundtrip To Hell And Back - are absolutely stunning, and are undoubtedly amidst some of the strongest material the band has penned in recent years.  Not My Funeral utilizes Alexi Laiho's sense of melodicism and layering impeccably, whilst Shovel Knockout unexpectedly morphs into one of the band's fastest and most aggressive numbers, possessing all of the band's trademarks delivered vibrantly and passionately.  Roundtrip To Hell And Back really took me by surprise, more or less instantly becoming an all-time favorite, with its strong, emotive delivery and structural simplicity tugging my heartstrings left and right; although it's not even close to being a ballad, it has the same kind of heart (and, subsequently, heartache) you'd expect from such a song coming out of Finland, simultaneously showcasing love and hate as it were.  Ugly and Northpole Throwndown (the latter being the only song with omitted lyrics, a first for Bodom) find the band further utilizing their aggression whilst Cry Of The Nihilist and the title-track showcase a more restrained, though no less effective, side of the band, in turn allowing certain musical motifs more time to breathe than we're used to hearing within a Bodom composition; it's a welcomed surprise, no doubt!

All-in-all, this is Bodom through-and-through, more refined and steady than they have been since the early 2000s; sure, Relentless Reckless Forever isn't exactly Hatebreeder or Follow The Reaper in terms of either quality or identity, but it is the most graceful step the band has taken in a long time, readying us for better days to come than those that have recently passed, I'm sure.  Children Of Bodom are back, the confidence has been restored and the metal kingdom has just knighted one of its first 2011 greats; was it worth it? ... indeed! ;)

8 // 10

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Monday, March 21

Aevum - The Creation of Power

The Creation of Power


"Peru eh? I wonder where this is going to end up." Such were my thoughts prior to hitting play on Aevum's The Creation of Power. My last couple of excursions into South American metal have proved to be sadly disappointing, but Aevum has luckily proven to be fairly safe despite hailing from a country not known for its broad offering of metal. Aevum play mildly progressive, moderately symphonic power metal that dabbles just a little in the darker melodic death side of things.

In general, this is nothing too out of the ordinary. However, the symphonic elements are somewhat strange and varied. The band mixes very bright, modern sounding synths with more classical orchestral strings, upright piano, and other traditional sounds with abandon. There are also times that the intertwining guitar, keyboard, and vocal lines are almost polyphonic. Combined, these tendencies result in a sound that is sometimes a chaotic mash of competing melodic lines. Then, when in true power metal form the catchy chorus comes sweeping in, I wonder what on earth the band is aiming at with their strange arrangements. At times, the combination of backing keys and running guitar leads actually DOES work. This confuses me further: why do some sections jar so badly when the band clearly has the capability to mesh and pump out some respectable music? The only conclusion I can come up with is that perhaps the keyboard player has ADHD, since he’s about half on, half off with what the rest of the band is trying to accomplish. Or maybe he snuck into the studio at night with a 750 of Patron and re-recorded some of his lines with these odd conflicting rambles. Stranger things have happened.

Vocally, this is reasonably good, but certainly not superb. The lead singer reminds me a bit of what Damnagoras might be like if he chose to sing a completely different version of power metal, forsaking some of the elements that make his singing so interesting while simultaneously becoming a bit more consistent. Regardless, this is acceptable vocal work, despite a few weak moments in the high register. The band also engages in a bit of death growling here and there. Luckily, I feel that it works to their advantage, adding a bit more bite and variety to some of their tunes without going overboard.

The accessibility of this album owes much to the vocal melody lines, since the rest of the band is in a bit of turmoil. The guitar solos are interesting, but sometimes a bit strange, straying a bit too much from the established tonality to really fit in. There's also a notable lack of hooky guitar leads in many places, and Aevum often tends to relegate its axemen to more monotonous chugging than is necessary. Consequently, guitar freaks will probably pass this album up in favor of something a bit more impressive and flashy.

Despite all of its shortfallings, The Creation of Power isn't a bad album, it just needs some help. Namely, the band mates need to establish a formula that results in less disorganized-sounding compositions. This is valuable to hear, if just to understand what is coming out of the budding South American metal scene, but there are bands that are more worthy of your attention and financial resources. Aevum have taken an important step just by releasing this however, for both themselves and their countrymen. Perhaps in a few years, another album by this band will really create a breakthrough, since the talent and drive seem to be present.
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The Protagonist's Rating: 6.0 out of 10

Saturday, March 19

Alexis - Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey


Alexis is a Chilean heavy/allegedly power metal act that I'd certainly never heard of before. The band seems to be centered around frontman Freddy Alexis, who is involved in a number of groups in and around the nation's capitol. His solo release here is a fairly comprehensible piece of metal work: it's not flashy or original, but fills a large and much-demanded niche.

Generally, Freddy is a decent vocalist, but no more. There are some quality melodies on this album that I almost feel are wasted in the sheer simplicity of the band's material. An example here is “Golden Path”, with a melody that is memorable, unusual, and has the potential to have a melancholic or haunting quality. In context however, it just makes for a decent but unremarkable song. One thing that Alexis certainly shouldn't do is try and sing in the high register. The screeching in “Metalizer II” is fairly bad, and shut me down as fast as the slick intro got my attention. Saddest part is, this song even has a good chorus (or rather, it would have, had Freddy decided to drop an octave).

I've established to my dismay that Birds of Prey has a tendency to lure me in without delivering the goods. Songs like “Breaking the Spell” have a great lead line that got my attention straight off the bat. Then, when they had me, the band stopped what they'd been doing to try and get me to listen to what is the rather mediocre meat of their work, and I won't hold with it. Upon subsequent listens of the album, I fail to even get into these same hooky parts, and that's a bad sign.

The guitars on this album confuse me. It seems that they are attempting to bore me out of my skull by playing the most basic and unimpressive rhythm lines ever, while simultaneously boasting a brief lead part that is really quite neat. The only place that this seems to really work all right for the band is on the title track. The motivic material in the lead is a bit foreign to my ears, but the rhythm lines are deep and sludgy. Compared to most of the rest of the album, this track is definitely out of place, and it almost caters to an entirely different crowd. I thought of Brainstorm about halfway through the tune, and I think that's the best comparison that I can draw. Make no mistake though, this isn't as proficient, especially in the vocal department (as much as some people will whine about Andy Franck).

Generally, Birds of Prey suffers from being relatively uninteresting, with a few minor exceptions. Fans of more generic heavy metal will most likely find this enjoyable, but for those of us with the ear for speed, more distinguished melodies, or a more progressive tinge, this is just another drop in the bucket.

- - -

The Protagonist's Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Friday, March 18

Bloodbound - Unholy Cross

Unholy Cross


Power metal isn't always known for its sparkling originality between its often-tried formula, endlessly repetitive melodies, and limited subject material. But as with all genres, whether or not you tolerate those flaws depends on the level of charm, enthusiasm and vitality with which the compositions are brought. That level can make the difference between "uninspired" and "recognizable", between "stale" and "sweet". A lot of acts have been doing the same stuff for ages and albums on end, but still their "new" material is welcomed with cheers and applause. Never change a winning team, they say, but when that team is just lazily throwing the ball around, it may be time to revise some things.

Enter Bloodbound. After a couple of Iron Maiden-flavoured outings and one particularly fresh and modernized excursion in "Tabula Rasa", the Swedes have settled down in familiar territory. The approach this time around is again different, and the second the booming chorus to opening track "Moria" hits you in the face like the hammer of a cave troll, you know what time it is: time to pledge allegiance to the metal brotherhood, don sword and shield and wage war on just about anything. All the while singing fierce warrior's hymns like "Together We Fight" and "Brothers Of War". It's safe to say that "Unholy Cross" plays out like the best album Hammerfall never made.

A downside to this strategy is that some songs in the middle of the album tend to blend together. Luckily the album ends on a strong note with the title track, a refreshing gust of wind in a sound that risks getting a little dusty. Another problem is the sporadically questionable lyrics. I fail to see the connection between headbanging and the Dwarf-dwelling of Khazad-Dûm. Also, I'm pretty sure that "Drop The Bomb" glorifies the nukings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Which is kinda sick, when you think about it.

Tracking back to my introductory statement, on which side of the dividing line does "Unholy Cross" land? The music is derivative and of the sort that is very often heard, and the album never manages to be fully exciting or fist-pumpingly brilliant. What you do get is a solid product based on a trusted recipe that will please those who like their power metal with a slice of cheddar. "Unholy Cross" doesn't storm the barricades of the genre like its predecessor did, but rather settles comfortably within its confines. Just like with the sophomore record "Book Of The Dead", Bloodbound proves that you don't need Urban Breed to make a decent album.


Arno Callens' Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Thursday, March 17

Blind Guardian - Nightfall In Middle-Earth

Blind Guardian
Nightfall in Middle-Earth


Blind Guardian is a pretty big deal, and what's one more review of one of its albums to the masses? Not much I suppose, but I've recently come to appreciate some of the band's earlier work (for me, this means earlier than A Twist in the Myth, which was my introduction to the band) much more than I used to. In revisiting these albums, I've been able to quickly peg a couple of favorites, with Nightfall in Middle Earth being one of them. This is helped of course, by the fact that I've been dearly in love with the work of Tolkien since reading his monumental trilogy at the age of eight.

While I sincerely feel that NiME is one off the finest homages to Tolkien that I've heard in metal, there is much more to this album than nostalgia and heroic lyricism. However, this is the first of three main reasons that NiME is such a bloody fantastic piece of work. The accuracy of conveying some of the events, characters, and conflicts of Tolkien's is quite stirring. Perhaps these don't come off quite the way that Tolkien would have liked them to, but the spirit of a great world and dark fantasy epic completely saturates every moment of this record.

Secondly, and hand-in-hand with the first, is the musical atmosphere. In particular, the introductions and brief interludes that frequent this album are favorites of mine when the album is listened to in its entirety. The various voices and sound effects that populate these brief pieces add credibility and interest to the album as a whole, as well as instilling the listener with great respect for the lengths to which Blind Guardian went to complete the experience. These aren't third rate Italian flower metal spoken interludes which are overly dramatic and absurdly cheesy, but rather very mixed and colorful spoken additions which are of particular note to those who grew up with the stories of Middle Earth.

Finally, and most importantly for a metal album, is the sheer songwriting strength of the songs on the album. "Into the Storm", the titular "Nightfall", "Mirror Mirror", "Time Stands Still", and "When Sorrow Sang" are examples of the very finest moments of Blind Guardian's songwriting prowess, rivaling even the mighty tunes of Imaginations From The Other Side. I find it impossible to narrow even these tracks down any further in regards to favorites from the album, and the others that I haven't mentioned are not far behind. The choruses are all grand, striking, and epic in a special way that only Blind Guardian can achieve. The band's rather unique guitar tone and arrangement, combined with the unmistakable voice of Hansi, makes for an musical voyage of wonder, malevolence, and rapture.

Saying much more about the album is useless, as there are hundreds of good reviews of this work, and only one album itself. Most of you will have already listened to the stunning musical glory that is but one of the gems in the high-seated crown upon the throne of the Guardian, but any that have not ought to do it and do it soon. This album, while not perfect in every way, and with much that some will inevitably (and foolishly) label as "filler", is a remarkable experience that any true devotee of the genre must at least experience.

- - -

The Protagonist's Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Wednesday, March 16

Instrumental Metal Of Late

So I randomly started listening to Kurogane Lab's Lightning Mirage album a couple of days ago, and it slammed me flat. Since then, I've been listening to a number of great instrumental metal albums that I've acquired over the past few months, but never actually got around to listening to. There's an awful lot of shred metal floating around, but what about some of the less well-known stuff? Here's a little of what I've been spinning. It should be noted that these are all recent releases:

Kurogane Lab
Lightning Mirage

I'm no expert, but this seems to be very video game-inspired. It's fast-paced, extremely energetic and catchy, and straddles the line between shred and Japanese-styled power metal. Don't let the silly anime cover fool you. Like most stuff that Japan churns out, this album is serious business.

 Keith Merrow
Awaken the Stone King

I'm not at all familiar with Keith Merrow, but this is a terrific album full of big riffs, excellent soft interludes, and a great knack for songwriting. I'd describe this mostly as somewhat groovy technical progressive metal, and I see that Jeff Loomis has a guest appearance. In some ways, I'd say this is comparable to Loomis's solo album as well.

Paul Wardingham
Assimilate Regenerate

This album is just awesome. Paul Wardingham is an Australian session guitarist, instructor,  and producer that has seen fit to grace the metal world with an instrumental monster. Stylistically, this is fairly progressive, futuristic, and there are definite influences of melodic death metal at times as well. Quite heavy and intensely satisfying to listen to.

Scarlet Citadel
The Scarlet Citadel

I can find nothing about this album online other than it's available to download for a donation of your choice over at bandcamp. For what it's worth, I recommend it. This is mildly symphonic progressive metal that has some neo-classical, prog rock, and even power metal influences. A quality album, and I wish there was more info available about this.

If anyone else has any recommendations on quality instrumental recordings, recent or not, I'd love to hear about them. These are all quality albums that are at least somewhat obscure, and I want more of it!

Monday, March 14

Mind Key - Pulse For A Graveheart

 Mind Key
Pulse For A Graveheart


Back in my songwriting days, a friend once told me never to write a song about film. For some reason the idea seemed utterly appalling to him. Well, if he was into progressive metal at all, I would love to shove Mind Key’s Pulse For A Graveheart in his face.

Not that this album is entirely based around the concept of cinema, but there are several hints that keyboard player Dario De Cicco, who wrote all of the lyrics, has an affection for the silver screen. Take opening salvo “Sunset Highway” for example, it is in title and content an homage to Billy Wilder’s classic film noir “Sunset Boulevard”. Apart from a well-documented re-telling of the movie through the eyes of faded silent film star Norma Desmond, it also establishes the thunderous branch of progressive metal Mind Key has made its own. The sound clip of film stock rolling through a projector is a nice touch, but what eventually blows us away is the modernized monstrous riffing accompanied with the spacey atmospheric synths of Mr. De Cicco. Not to mention the wonderfully catchy and uplifting chorus that somehow still manages to be dark and melancholic, much like Wilder’s cinematic masterpiece itself.

And that’s only the opening track. How do you follow up a mid-tempo stomper like “Sunset Highway”? You add speed, that’s how. “The Seventh Seal” kicks off with a mood-setting guitar solo and ditto keyboards, but becomes an entirely different beast once the exciting-as-a-game-of-chess-with-the-Devil-chorus kicks in for the first time. Cinephiles will be on alert now, and yes, this song shares its title and subject matter with one of the better known works of Swedish visionary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Does it get classier than this? Yes it does, as the follow-up is based on one of the great American movie landmarks: Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane”. It’s almost as De Cicco is trying to ram us a “1001 movies you have to see before you die”-list down our throats, but as long as it results in breathtaking mini-epics like “Citizen Of Greed”, you won’t hear me complaining.

I could go on lauding every single song of this record into the highest regions of heaven, but I’m close to overselling this thing as it is. Let me just add praise for other standouts like the pumping “Crusted Memories” (not based on a movie, but a story about euthanasia), the innovative “Eye Of A Stranger” (by George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”) and the hauntingly beautiful closer “A New Generation” (a salute to the life and legacy of Italian Cineaste Pier Paolo Pasolini).

Debating whether Mind Key sounds more like Dream Theater than Symphony X is a moot point, since whatever the Italians cook up comes out fresh and impressive. But if we have to talk influences, I’d say this crosses paths with Masterplan and early Evergrey, with a little Symphony X for extra flavor. Fun fact: Mind Key’s own excellent singer Aurelio Fierro Jr. sings a duet with Evergrey’s Tom S. Englund on “Graveheart” and comes out equal, if not the winner in the vocal department. But limiting a description of Mind Key’s music to name-dropping would be underselling their talent and abilities. 

I lack the foreknowledge of their debut “Journey Of A Rough Diamond” (a mistake that will certainly be corrected in the near future), but I just can’t get enough of “Pulse For A Graveheart” to go look for anything else at the moment. Whatever Mind Key has done and has yet to do, their sophomore album stands as one of the most beautiful things ever to come out of the country that brought us Sergio Leone, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antiononi. I’m sure De Cicco would be flattered.

Arno Callens' rating: 4.5 out of 5

Saturday, March 12

Synthphonia Suprema - The Future Ice Age

Synthphonia Suprema
The Future Ice Age


Though I've never being an avid fan of electronic music, I've frequently enjoyed it in small amounts, especially interspersed in my metal fix. Bands like Star One, Ayreon, Dol Ammad, and Dimension F3H have piqued my interest, but I've never heard electronic elements blended into my favored genre of power metal. Enter Synthphonia Suprema, an enthusiastic and very unique Italian band that is doing just that, and carving out a niche for themselves in an overpopulated genre.

The single best thing that Synthphonia Suprema has done absolutely right with The Future Ice Age is remembering to write quality, catchy material before adding any sundry elements to the mix. If a band is going to experiment, they'd better make sure of an accessible gateway, or all of their wonderful creativity will be for naught. The classical argument of originality versus quality has little to do with this particular album and band however, as they achieve both rather swimmingly. Heavy metal purists will give this a dismissive grunt, and electronic metal elitists will likely turn up their noses, but the appreciative audience in between will rejoice over this commendable blend of moderate synth work and catchy Euro-power.

Decidedly synthetic and cold, yet highly accessible, The Future Ice Age boasts a number of great tracks boasting quality hooks and musicianship. Gazing at the album cover while listening to the intro track "Future Hammerblows" gives the listener a pretty good idea of the feel that the album is attempting to achieve. The lead singer (whose name is only listed as "Matkracker") has a voice that sounds almost like it belongs in an industrial-styled setting, which makes him reasonably well-suited as frontman for the band's self-proclaimed "synth metal". At times his voice seems to dip or waver, but always remains fairly stable, giving the listener the impression that while perhaps a bit excessively dramatic, he's certainly a proficient vocalist.

A lot of bands are advertised as "symphonic" while in reality they boast precious few symphonic elements other than a token smattering of keyboard. SS don't make claims of being symphonic, but are perhaps more so than certain other imitators. The influence of the synths is constantly present, but oftentimes takes a backseat to the guitar leads or blazing double bass. Songs like "Dominatron", "I, Storm", and the recurring melodic motives in both "Synthetic Aurora" and "Aurora Symphonica" have proven to me that this band is around for more than one pass, and are capable of writing some extremely memorable and first-rate tunes. At times, The Future Ice Age is oddly soothing, despite its often frenzied pace and hammering drums. The icy keyboard lines which may at first seem out of place lend a cool and almost relaxing sensation to what would otherwise be a relentless sonic assault.

Despite a few minor shortcomings and a bit of a strange combination of music (now that I think of it, you could compare Synthphonia Suprema closely to Machinae Supremacy at times), this is a delicious morsel of unique and powerful metal that will confound elitists attempting to place it within a comfortable box. Not overpowering in any respect, the band's blend of lithe synth work and commanding guitar leads is recommended to any adventurous minds in search of breaking new personal ground in the world of power metal. This is one of those albums that should have made it on my top list for 2010, but didn't due to time constraints.

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The Protagonist's Rating: 7.75 out of 10

Thursday, March 10

The Protagonist's Album Of The Week: 3/5-3/12

Lion's Share
Dark Hours


This one's been a long time coming. I'm a big fan of Nils Patrik Johansson's vocals, and I think that Lion's Share at its best is his ideal setting. The gritty, powerful style of heavy/power metal on Dark Hours is a great listen when I'm in the mood for something less flowery and more dark. "Napalm Nights" is a particular favorite of mine, and never ceases to entertain me.

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Tuesday, March 8

Emerald Sun - Regeneration

Emerald Sun


I received Emerald Sun's Escape From Twilight shortly after its release in 2007, and was reasonably pleased with it, as it exhibited a finer pedigree of songwriting than I typically associate with Greek power metal. With the announcement of Regeneration, I was looking forward to a further development of their sound while hoping that the band would move up to par with some of their northern European cousins. The band's move from Limb Music to Pitch Black Productions was also something I didn't fail to miss, though I don't know the reason for it.

My initial reaction to Regeneration was an overwhelming burst of familiarity, as well as gratefulness that Emerald Sun hasn't resorted to any sort of drastic commercialization or selling-out with its music. But as I've continued to listen, I'm struck with a profound disappointment with the lack of growth that I had hoped for. I know that I'm constantly talking about how each band is unique and has its own special brand of sound, but I guess Emerald Sun don't strike me with this new album as being as distinct as many others. Their influences and sound are very middle-of-the-road and unremarkable, even though the band is obviously fairly talented and proficient. What I mean is this: while playing predictable fun and speedy Euro-power, the band doesn't achieve the whimsy (Edguy), grandeur (Blind Guardian) or even sheer defiant metal passion (Seven Thorns) that other artists are able to muster. Hence, what we have is a glistening and highly attractive metal equivalent of meatloaf. Filling and unoffensive, but with many more appetizing alternatives.

Really, that's where the true criticism ends. There is some pretty spiffy work all over the place on Regeneration, but Emerald Sun don't often manage to keep the great ideas going long enough to craft something really special. I do profess a certain fondness for the silly "Planet Metal", which sees the band abandoning all seriousness for a shot at sheer fun. More than any other, this song really works, and it's definitely my favorite on the album. Most of the rest of the time, the strange wording and unusual lyrical themes seem to clash with the image that I have for this band, as well as the initially attractive album artwork.

So ultimately we have an album that's just a little better than ho-hum, but could have been a lot more. I won't write Emerald Sun off completely, but I'm rather disappointed with Regeneration, all things considered. I must also say that, from this point forward I don't have much confidence in their ability to be more than a gilded 3rd-tier power metal band. I recommend Regeneration only to completists or people that don't generally mind the mass of middling-quality power metal that comes out of this part of the world. There are much better fluffy power metal albums to occupy your time.

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The Protagonist's Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Monday, March 7

Hypersonic - Fallen Melodies

Fallen Melodies


Hypersonic is a young female-fronted power metal band from Italy. Naturally this description alone attracted my attention immediately, so I thought I'd better give this CD a go. I haven't seen much publicity or review on this young band yet, but seeing them on the reasonably good Underground Symphony label dictated that they're probably worth a look.

The most immediately evident thing about Hypersonic is that the band has a rather excellent talent for writing smooth and catchy melodic lines. I'm talking about being on par with greats like Sonata Arctica, Stratovarius, and other such lofty company. The difference being of course, experience. While a very infectious album, Fallen Melodies is a very youthful one which shows its inexperience in a number of musical shortfallings. However, this doesn't prevent the album from being largely enjoyable.

First things first: when Hypersonic is at its best, the band is the equal of any of its brethren. Take for example the blockbuster “My Spirit Free”. I challenge any fan of Euro-power to give it a couple of listens and not retain it in the best way possible. This song is what attracted me to the album in the first place, I find it nearly worth the price of purchase alone. It's a seamless blend of sweeping vocal melody, almost inconspicuous double-bass work (is such a thing possible? Listen and see what I mean.), capable symphonic arrangement, and tight modern guitar work. “My Spirit Free” is one of the trio of songs on Fallen Melodies that sees a glimpse of Hypersonic really developing and laying out their own sound. In general, this means a moderately-paced blend of power metal with a few heavy, gothic, and even pop elements, defined by female singing in the high alto range and supported in depth by considerable amounts of keyboard. “Rebirth” and “A Lovely Creature” are also evidence of the band's more proficient and well-defined moments. I feel that if Hypersonic continue on the path laid by these three songs in particular, and avoid some of the more “filler” (albeit pretty) music, they'll do quite well for themselves in the future.

Fallen Melodies suffers from the typical ailments of debut albums from south European artists: the mixing leaves something to be desired (the vocals seem a bit withdrawn, and the percussion is decidedly lacking in punch), there's a bit of vocal wavering, and some difficulty with English pronunciation as well. With many of the songs, most metalheads will probably find themselves a bit bored with the generic female-fronted power metal that dominates Hypersonic's debut. Comparable to early Lunatica, perhaps Edenbridge, and a number of other similar artists, Hypersonic won't appeal to a terrifically wide audience if the majority of their work remains as general as it is now.

Despite it's seeming mediocrity, I rather like this debut. Sure they're a bit samey, but as mentioned before, the band has a good sense of melody (which is something difficult for many young artists to grasp). Hence, I give this reasonably good marks despite its shortcomings and lack of real distinction. I highly recommend looking into a few songs if this kind of music is your thing. I anticipate that Hypersonic will get good press and have another album out in the not-so-distant future that will display a good dose of maturity. Looking forward to it!

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The Protagonist's Rating: 7.0 out of 10

Thursday, March 3

Power Quest - Blood Alliance

Power Quest
Blood Alliance


Since I discovered Power Quest, I've been absolutely nuts over them. Every one of their albums has entertained me thoroughly (except for the lackluster song “The Message”) and I hold Steve Williams to be something of a melodic genius. Like most fans of the band, I was pretty concerned and sad to see the old members depart (especially considering the ample talent of Alessio Garavello), certain that the sound of the band would change drastically with the departure of everyone but Williams. However, it seems that he's gotten some pretty significant talent to replace the departed Italians. Williams has at last built a primarily U.K.-based outfit that should serve him much better for touring and recording purposes.

Power Quest has a distinct reputation for being extremely flowery and happy. On their last record, Master of Illusion, Power Quest somewhat forsook this path for one of more gravity, and it came back to bite them a bit, since some fans didn't care for the transition and variety. Simultaneously, the band didn't garner too many new fans with the release (for the record, it was and is my favorite PQ album to date). This caused some frustration and while Steve Williams had considered calling it quits, I'm bloody happy he didn't after hearing Blood Alliance.

As anticipated, this isn't quite the same sound. The listener immediately gets slammed with a heavy guitar assault with “Battle Stations”, a fast instrumental tune that seems to be the band's statement of just how things are going to be this time around. As it fades out, the equally guitar-heavy (and quite appropriately-titled) “Rising Anew” charges in with its superb hooks and fatal chorus. Chity Somapala proves that his voice does indeed fit the Power Quest formula. Despite his deeper tone, he's easier to understand, and is able to pull off the vocal slides and melismas that Williams seems to demand from his frontmen. Of everything on this album, it is probably Somapala that I'm most pleasantly surprised by, as I haven't found his prior work particularly stunning.

While the first couple of tracks are decidedly meatier in sound and more guitar-driven, “Survive” calls to mind Power Quest songs of old with heightened focus upon the synthy keyboards. In general the keyboards are downplayed, with the lead guitar taking many more of the hooks and lead lines. However, the melodies are extremely stylistically similar to the band's old work, and clearly of the same mold. Despite the change in instrumental focus, the sound has returned to a less-varied sort, typical of the band's pre-Master of Illusion catalog.

My favorite tracks here are the instrumental opener, the longer self-titled track, and both “Survive” and “Sacrifice”. The band generally maintains a very upbeat atmosphere with the exception of “Crunching the Numbers”, which means that the band will largely appeal to the same audience as before. However, I think the newfound guitar emphasis and lower-ranged singer will gain the band new respect, as well as gather in some of those who may have found their music previously unpalatable. Meanwhile, past fans of the band's work who are jumping up and down to get their hands on this album will not be disappointed in the least.

Blood Alliance is a great return from a talented band and songwriter. I'm pleased with my decision to get an early Korean pressing of the album, and this is likely going to end up on my end-of-year list for 2011. Look into this album right away if you're a fan, or even if you found them a bit too fruity before. Steve Williams and company provide another outing of smashing talent and great fun!

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The Protagonist's Rating: 8.25 out of 10

Sadly, there are no full songs on YouTube for this album as of yet. Check my recent album of the week post for the full album teaser. Or just buy the darn thing.