Sigh – Graveward – Album Review

sigh cover

Artist: Sigh

Album Title: Graveward

Label: Candlelight Records

Year of Release: 2015

Sigh are one of those bands that I never managed to get into. Mind you, I was probably guilty of just the one attempt before discarding them. In my defence, it was in my more formative years of black metal discovery and the all-out avante-garde nature of the 1997 album ‘Hail Horror Hail’ was just too much for my delicate constitution at the time. The result was that, to my detriment, I never went back to try again. Until now, that is. Over the years, my tastes have definitely broadened and my mind has opened to a point where I felt that another attempt at the Japanese band was well and truly due. It has proved to be a prudent decision and one that has offered me more enjoyment than I, in all honesty, had expected.

The first thing to say is that this quintet are still mad as hell and manage to both confound and confuse with their eclectic, chaotic and unusual approach. However, the apparent lunacy which remains rooted in black metal but which then incorporates just about every other genres of music, from jazz to classical, industrial to thrash, is kept in check enough so that the music never freefalls out of complete control. It gets close, but never jumps off the precipice into complete anarchy.

Since their last album, 2012’s ‘In Somniphobia’, things have changed in the band’s camp. Most notably, Sigh recruited guitarist You Oshima (of Kadenzza fame) and whilst my frame of reference is limited, I must admit that this would appear to be a real benefit to Messrs Mirai Kawashima (vocals, keys, orchestration), Dr Mikannibal (vocals, saxaphone), Satoshi Fujinami (bass) and Junichi Harashima (drums) as the guitar playing is definitely one of the strengths of ‘Graveward’, be it the riffs or the abundance of expressive and lavish lead work.

sigh band

In terms of the lyrical and thematic inspiration at play here, ‘Graveward’ has been inspired by Italian zombie films as well as the genre of Hammer Horror, following a conversation with Fabio Frizzi, a name familiar with horror fans no doubt thanks to his involvement with the movies of Lucio Fulci (‘The Gates Of Hell’ for example)

Opener ‘Kaedit Nos Pestis’ blasts out of the blocks with an almost neo-classical-inspired lead guitar solo before reverting to a more thrash-meets-black metal riff and growled vocals. It’s a high tempo opening that also features keyboard solos, an almost catchy, sing-along chorus of sorts and higher-register clean vocals, not to mention keyboard solos, programmed embellishments, rich orchestral sections and dark choral chanting. It’s suitably quirky and initially quite daunting but, given time, it becomes quite infectious.

Thanks to an abundance of rich orchestration, the title track is more straightforward for a Sigh composition and comes across as a darker, more demented and ultimately, a more interesting version of Nightwish. ‘The Tombfiller’ meanwhile is like the bastard offspring created following an illicit liaison between a Hollywood thriller/horror soundtrack and Bal Sagoth in a bedroom of power metal.

The central riff to ‘The Forlorn’ is a masterclass of jagged, evil-injected headbanging groove interspersed with 70s keyboard sounds, strange electronic noises and a sheen of pantomime horror. ‘The Molesters of my Soul’ offers more brilliant slow-paced riffing but ups the avant-garde ante courtesy of bizarre effect-laden vocals, a plethora of odd electronic sounds and forays into downright weird recesses. And yet, the lead guitar solo is sublime and segues beautifully back into a return of the bludgeoning riff.

‘Out of the Grave’ is frenetic, schizophrenic and allows the saxaphone the spotlight, an aspect I’d normally dislike immensely but which fits the tone of the track perfectly. ‘The Trial By The Dead’ introduces a female soprano voice as well as a somewhat cheeky injection of French cabaret music, whilst ‘The Casketburner’ successfully blends uncompromising extreme metal with moments of freeform lounge jazz and swing music. And yet, for all its cabaret quirkiness, make no mistake – there’s a genuinely dark and foreboding metal underbelly to much of this material from Sigh, as befits the lyrical themes at play on ‘Graveward’.

‘A Messenger From Tomorrow’ begins in highly melodic fashion, a relatively rare thing for Sigh and, despite a few shifts in direction as is their style, the melodic and infectious nature of the track remains throughout to a greater or lesser extent. For me, such is it’s understated magnificence, it’s the album’s stand-out moment.

‘Dwellers In A Dream’ closes the album in a high-tempo fashion but suffers a little from ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ syndrome caused by its direct predecessor.

If I had another small criticism, it would be in terms of the production. With hindsight, I have come to realise that the slightly cluttered and muddy sound is probably deliberate in order to add authenticity to the lyrical concepts at play. However, I’d have personally preferred a clearer mix to allow the myriad ideas and embellishments every chance to shine.

That said ‘Graveward’, which also features a special guest list that includes the unlikely bedfellows of Matt Heady (Trivium), Fred Leclercq (Dragonforce), Salisbury Tolis (Rotting Christ), Metatron (The Meads of Asphodel) and Niklas Kvarforth (Shining), is a bit of a belter. It toys with the listener and tests your stamina and ability to embrace eclectic ideas. However, it is brought together so smoothly and seemlessly that after a few listens, it actually makes quite a bit of sense. Ultimately, it is a chaotic and very odd extreme metal record that is also charming and very rewarding. For that, it deserves our appreciation and admiration. I’m now off to rediscover Sigh’s back catalogue…wish me luck.

The Score Of Much Metal: 8.25

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:

Pantommind – Searching For Eternity
Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar
Klone – Here Comes The Sun
The Gentle Storm – The Diary
Melechesh – Enki
Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld

Heavy Metal Is Not Just ‘Shouty’ Music – Part 2 – The Female Voices

I received some great feedback to my original post entitled ‘Heavy metal is not just ‘shouty’ music’ but a few people criticised it for one important reason: my post only featured male vocalists. This was in no way deliberate and, to underline this point, I have decided to write a second post that puts some of the best female vocalists in rock and metal under the spotlight.

Putting this blog post together was more difficult than I thought it would be for a number of reasons. Firstly, when I sat down to write this article, I realised that that there are a lot more female vocalists in heavy metal than I thought. Secondly, I realised that I don’t listen to nearly enough music with female vocalists as I should. Shame on me.

The result is a very personal list that mentions those artists who have impressed me over time and more recently; the singers that genuinely stand out to me and offer something different.

Naturally, there will be those of you reading this that are greater aficionados of female-fronted heavy music (if you can even pigeon-hole it all into such a tidy niche) that will vehemently disagree with my choices. But hey, that’s good – tell me who I’ve missed and why…maybe I could then write a supplementary blog once I’ve fully explored your suggestions.

Anyway, enough of my ramblings, here’s my list of current favourite female vocalists in heavy music…

Lee Douglas

Caroline Traitler Photography

Caroline Traitler Photography

Anathema are in no way a female-fronted band; however they are a band that has within their ranks of late, a female vocalist in the form of Lee Douglas who is very special indeed. Mind you, that’s a bit of an understatement borne out of the fact that I find it hard to put into words how deeply Lee’s vocals affect me. I’m not sure that there’s another voice out there in any genre who can convey such emotion and touch me so deeply. Lee’s voice is elegant, graceful, beautiful, fragile, angelic and timeless.

Cristina Scabbia

Lacuna Coil - Christina Scabbia & Andrea Ferro

Ms Scabbia had to feature in this list because I’ve been a fan of hers and of Lacuna Coil from just about the very beginning. To be entirely accurate, Lacuna Coil feature dual vocalists and the interplay between them is what makes the band so interesting. That said, Cristina’s voice never ceases to impress me. It is full of power and attitude when required but it possesses a silky-smooth quality with an unmistakable Mediterranean flavour that frequently sends chills down my spine.

Tarja Turunen

Tarja Turunen 2013 1

One of the original and best, Tarja Turunen is a rare talent. Bursting into the conscious of metal fans the world over with Nightwish, Tarja’s classically-trained operatic delivery forced just about everyone to stop and listen. Note perfect, emotionally charged and possessing a deceptive strength, Tarja’s voice remains instantly recognisable. Not content to tread water, Tarja, as a solo artist primarily, continues to push her vocal talents to new, ever impressive heights.

Anneke van Giersbergen

Picture by: Bullet-Ray

Picture by: Bullet-Ray

I remember discovering Anneke van Giersbergen via the seminal The Gathering album, ‘Mandylion’ and, since then, I have been thoroughly smitten whether as a solo artist or more recently in conjunction with Devin Townsend or Arjen Lucassen. Anneke’s range is impressive and is capable of enhancing just about any kind of composition, from genres as diverse as Gothic metal, prog rock or even folk. Anneke’s delivery sounds so effortless and has a beautifully delicate, haunting quality to it that I adore.

Floor Jansen

Photo: Tim Tronckoe photography

Photo: Tim Tronckoe photography

The sheer power of Floor Jansen’s voice is frightening. However, more frightening is her versatility as she is able to deliver a classical soprano one minute and then revert to an out-and-out rock voice the next. Whatever the style, Floor is note perfect, confident and completely convincing, to the point that whilst I was never a huge fan of After Forever or ReVamp, I listened because of Floor. She may also be the much-needed saviour of Nightwish, although time will tell on that score.

Agnete M. Kirkevaag

agnete madder

The delivery of Madder Mortem vocalist Agnete M. Kirkevaag won’t be to everyone’s taste and neither will their music either. Nevertheless, if there’s one female vocalist that has the ability to surprise, delight and confound in equal measure, in my opinion it has to be Agnete. Blessed with an impressive range and the guts to try anything, the result occasionally borders on the discordant and uncomfortable. However, this is juxtaposed almost schizophrenically with some really subtly beautiful quiet melodic passages when required.

Julie Kiss

Photo: Gothicman

Photo: Gothicman

It takes a special vocalist to enhance and bring a certain amount of immediacy to a complex and technical form of jazz-influenced progressive metal. However, that’s exactly what Julie Kiss succeeds in doing. Her soothing and serene tone for the most part is coupled with a knack of creating unusual yet thoroughly engaging melodies to the point that the listener becomes enthralled and mesmerised by the end result.

Elize Ryd

Photo Andreas Amberg

Photo Andreas Amberg

Not content with two male vocalists, Amaranthe also boast within their armoury one of my favourite female vocalists, Elize Ryd. Frankly, most pop singers could learn a thing or two from Ms Ryd given that she clearly understands how to consistently deliver addictive hooks and melodies via a potent voice. What’s more impressive is that her seductive tone has the range to be believable both atop catchy pop-like choruses or as a direct counterpoint to a full-on metal assault.

Krissie Kirby

krissie

Full of power and attitude, Triaxis’ vocalist Krissie Kirby is a force to be reckoned with and, as such, is without doubt one of my favourite female vocalists in heavy metal. It’s rare for a thrash metal band to be spearheaded by a female voice, but Krissie sounds perfect in the role, matching the scything riffs and heavy rhythm section blow for blow. And on several occasions, thanks to a great blend of melody and brute force, the impressive-lunged Krissie helps to take an already excellent Triaxis to a whole new level.

Simone Simons

Epica - Simone Simons & Mark Jansen

What I like most about Epica’s Simone Simons is the variety and versatility in her vocal delivery. On the one hand, Simone is happy to project her rich, classical, operatic voice but then with little or no apparent effort, can switch to a more straight-up rock approach. And when the tempo slows, the softness and delicacy of Simone’s voice comes to the fore, in stark contrast to the growled male vocals with which she frequently duets. The fact that she is still so young means she can only get even better; what a wonderful thought.

Pantommind – Searching For Eternity – Album Review

Pantommind cover

Artist: Pantommind

Album Title: Searching For Eternity

Label: Spectastral Records

Year Of Release: 2015

691. That’s the current number of ‘likes’ that progressive metallers Pantommind have on Facebook. I know very well that social media is in no way the only measure of an artist’s success and neither should it be. But like it or not, it is a snapshot; a barometer of the popularity of a band. And so 691 likes for a band of this quality? That’s unbelievable. But crucially, I think things are about to change in the near future. Let me explain why…

Pantommind are, I think, the only Bulgarian band that features in my music collection, although I stand to be corrected of course. The quintet from Gabrovo in Bulgaria can trace their roots all the way back to 1993, when a group of friends came together through a love of music and called their band ‘Lavender Haze’. In 1995, the name changed to Pantommind, but it wasn’t until 2005 that debut album ‘Shade Of Fate’ was released. 2009 then saw the release of sophomore effort ‘Lunasense’. I have both albums and enjoy the music contained within them, although I wouldn’t have referred to Pantommind as one of my very favourite prog metal artists. As with most bands, line-up changes have played their part, most notably with the departure of drummer Dragomir Minkov to devote more time to surrealist painting. This departure led to a temporary disbanding of Pantommind and so it has taken around six years for the third album to see the light of day. ‘Searching For Eternity’ is the title of this record and, simply, it is a game changer.

Pantommind have not drastically altered their approach to songwriting and execution on ‘Searching For Eternity’. Listeners are still treated to complex and technical progressive metal with melody and atmosphere but the entire band have honed their skills in all departments thus creating an album that delivers a huge step up in terms of overall quality and enjoyment. I’ve lived with this album for about a week now and I have to say I’m hugely impressed with what messrs Tony Ivan (vocals), Pete Christ (guitars, bass keyboards), Ross (guitars), Drago (drums) and Sunny X (keyboards) have to offer.

Photo: Ivelin Andreev

Photo: Ivelin Andreev

Whether or not you’ll enjoy this album will largely depend on whether you’re a fan of technical musicianship and huge keyboards within your music. If the answer is no, I suggest you’d be better served listening to something else. If the answer is ‘yes’, read on.

What I personally love about the overall genre of progressive music is that, in general, there are no rules and so musicians are afforded the freedom to pursue their personal visions, unconstrained by convention or prevailing trends. In the case of Pantommind, they have taken no heed of the fact that in 2015, guitar solos are not ‘de rigeur’ and instead deliver song after song chock full of blazing examples of six-string prowess. Some may consider it self-indulgent or over-the-top but personally, I love it. The guitar work is fast and complex but it is also very precise, melodious and expressive. Yes there are fast runs through the scales but there’s so much more on offer than that. A prime example of this being ‘Lost Lullaby’ where the speed is decreased in favour of a much more emotive and thoughtful tone, underpinned by some lovely acoustic guitars and subtle keys. The guitar riffs themselves are also well thought-out and executed with plenty of satisfying chops and headbanging fodder at regular intervals. There’s even room for a few bass flourishes courtesy of Pete Christ which is a nice touch from my point of view.

The aforementioned synths play a huge part in the Pantommind sound, as they bathe every composition in a rich, warm glow, whilst softening the edges and creating depth and atmosphere at the same time. I also rather like the vocal delivery of Tony Ivan. His is a very accomplished clean tone that offers a good range, enabling him to hit both high and low notes without any apparent effort or strain. At times, whilst in the higher register, his vocals are reminiscent of Stu Block (Iced Earth) from his Into Eternity days.

Speaking of reference points, I have to say that there is a definite old-school feel to a lot of the material throughout ‘Searching For Eternity’. As such, I hear elements of early Shadow Gallery, Crimson Glory, Cloudscape and Suspyre alongside hints of 80s Bay Area thrash such as very early Metallica, particularly when Pantommind wheel out the acoustic guitars and slow things down a touch.

References aside, what I particularly like about ‘Searching For Eternity’ is the way in which the technicality never takes over. At no point do I find myself thinking that the music is merely a directionless or disjointed exercise in technical posing or muscle-flexing. Instead, each composition has a clear structure and is held together via some strong melodies, particularly within the choruses. The likes of ‘Moon Horizon’, ‘Tell Me’ and the epic title track are particularly noteworthy thanks to their power and infectious nature. That said, ‘Searching For Eternity’ is a surprisingly consistent record where the quality rarely dips below being excellent.

As I said before, this album could be the game-changer for this group of talented eastern Europeans. Frankly, it deserves to be. Admittedly it will appeal in the main to a niche market but with the right promotion, there’s no reason that ‘Searching For Eternity’ couldn’t propel the name Pantommind into the conscious of a much wider audience of music fans who appreciate high quality heavy progressive music.

The Score Of Much Metal: 8.75

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:

Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar
Klone – Here Comes The Sun
The Gentle Storm – The Diary
Melechesh – Enki
Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld

Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar – Album Review

submasq cover

Artist: Subterranean Masquerade

Album Title: The Great Bazaar

Label: Taklit Music

Year Of Release: 2015

“Welcome to the carnival of the dysfunctional and the disturbed” declares the official website of Subterranean Masquerade, an intriguing band that, in their own eyes at least, is anything but ordinary.

Subterranean Masquerade have been in existence since 1997 but ‘The Great Bazaar’ is only their second full-length release. That’s not exactly prolific but in the music world, a quick turnaround is not always a positive thing. Plus, the band have suffered along the way with line-up changes and a fair amount of the kind of uncertainty that tends to occur when the act is more of a project than a proper band.

The creation of guitarist and songwriter Tomer Pink, Subterranean Masquerade went through a period of complete inactivity for several years before effectively reforming with a largely new and reinvigorated line-up. In 2015, the band is a true multi-national affair, comprised of no less than seven musicians. Tomer Pink is joined by fellow guitarist Or Shalev, bassist Golan Farhi, keyboardist Shai Yallin, drummer Matan Shmuely of Orphaned Land fame as well as an impressive duo of vocalists in the form of Paul Kuhr (Novembers Doom) and Kjetil Nordhus (Green Carnation, Tristania)

submasq band

As striking as the line-up may be, it is always the music that comes first for me. All the fancy names in the world mean nothing if the music is substandard. Fortunately, Mr Pink must agree with this sentiment as Subterranean Masquerade deliver some really great music on this record. In fact, as principle songwriter, Tomer Pink must take an awful lot of credit because it is extremely rare to encounter compositions that are so cohesive and natural-sounding whilst incorporating so many disparate and seemingly opposing styles and ideas. The music on ‘The Great Bazaar’ is not for the faint-hearted but neither is it so indulgent or disjointed that it fails to fully engage the listener. Admittedly it takes a few spins for the magic to work but with a little effort, the rewards are not insignificant.

To give one example of what I mean, take a listen to the opening track, ‘Early Morning Mantra’. It begins with a bold Middle-Eastern melody incorporating authentic instrumentation before going off in all manner of directions throughout its six-minute length. I kid you not, there are elements of 70s prog rock, folk, extreme metal, jazz, symphonic metal and world music to be heard as well as a quirky brass-led ska breakdown for good measure. The track also includes both clean singing and death metal growls. And yet, for all this, the track flows beautifully from start to finish; everything is there for a reason and the whole composition is glued together by some very satisfying and strong melodies.

Given the protagonists involved in the creation and execution of this album, it is hardly surprising to learn that there are strong nods towards a number of artists within the metal world. Within the intro to the opener and throughout the heavily ethnic-flavoured ‘Specter’, the influence of Orphaned Land looms large. Then there’s the guest appearance from Orphaned Land frontman Kobi Farhi on ‘Father and Son’ to further underline the links. Opeth is another relatively obvious reference point and there are fleeting similarities to others within both the prog and extreme metal worlds. Nevertheless, Subterranean Masquerade manage to maintain a sense of identity and a pleasing amount of originality throughout.

The more I listen to ‘The Great Bazaar’, the more I enjoy it. The melodies come ever closer to the surface and begin to burrow themselves under my skin. As a result, I begin to really embrace the quirkiness of the album, which includes the flirtations with the Hammond organ, woodwind and brass instruments, the latter of which I normally dislike greatly. Not here, strangely though.

Whilst the entire album maintains a high standard throughout, the honour of ‘best song’ has to be bestowed upon the utterly brilliant ‘Blanket of Longing’. It is one of the shorter tracks on the album and is also, comparatively speaking, the closest that Subterranean Masquerade get to a mainstream anthem. The chorus is a killer – utterly addictive and memorable – and the symphonics really add something special to the song. Of course there’s an elevator-music style lounge jazz breakdown somewhere in the middle but even this works and nicely juxtaposes the higher tempo material that surrounds it.

It can’t all be 100% positive however and if I was to criticise ‘The Great Bazaar’ in any way, it would be in terms of the length of the album. The seven tracks clock in at around the 40-minute mark and, given the quality of the music, it doesn’t feel like it’s quite enough. Come to think of it, this isn’t much of a negative really if I’m criticising the record for not giving me enough quality music. But for me, personally, I tend to feel that the album is just a little on the short side and frankly, I want more.

That small quibble aside, ‘The Great Bazaar’ is a very strong album. It’s varied, it’s intriguing, it’s powerful and above all, it’s wonderfully idiosyncratic.

The Score Of Much Metal: 8

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:

Klone – Here Comes The Sun
The Gentle Storm – The Diary
Melechesh – Enki
Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld

The Gentle Storm – The Diary – Album Review

gs cover

Artist: The Gentle Storm

Album Title: The Diary

Label: Inside Out Music

Year of Release: 2015

‘The Gentle Storm’…if you stop and think about it and let the words mull over in your mind for a time, it suddenly hits you what a really nice, clever and simple name it is. A contradiction in terms it may be but it’s one that beautifully sums up what this album is all about. But more about that in a moment; first, some context.

The Gentle Storm is the latest release from the intense workaholic that’s Arjen Lucassen, the Dutch multi-instrumentalist that is occasionally – and rightfully in my opinion – referred to as a musical genius. Arjen has been a part of the rock/metal music scene for over 30 years and in that time, has recorded some of the most highly regarded music within the progressive genre. With The Gentle Storm, normal service has been resumed and this project stands shoulder to shoulder with Lucassen’s previous work under his several various guises, be it Ayreon, Guilt Machine or Star One to name a few.

To be entirely accurate though, The Perfect Storm is more of a joint collaboration between Arjen and his compatriot, Anneke van Giersbergen, better known for supplying her angelic vocals to The Gathering and more latterly, in collaboration with Devin Townsend but also as a revered solo artist in her own right.

Courtesy of: Tim Tronckoe photography

Courtesy of: Tim Tronckoe photography

The fiendishly talented Lucassen handles the majority of the standard instruments on the album. However, a plethora of guests join him and Anneke on the record including a choir and over 40 authentic, exotic instruments making it an ambitious project to say the least. But Arjen is no stranger to handling such huge logistical efforts as he proves once again.

There’s even a live band for when The Gentle Storm goes onto the stage. Yes, you heard that right, the reclusive Arjen is going to perform live. For this momentous occasion, Anneke and Arjen are to be joined by an all-Dutch crew comprised of guitarists Merel Bechtold (Purest of Pain, MaYaN) and Ferry Duijsens (Anneke van Giersbergen, ex-Dreadlock Pussy), drummer Ed Warby (Hail Of Bullets, Ayreon, ex-Gorefest), bassist Johan van Stratum (Stream of Passion) and keyboardist Joost van den Broek (ex-After Forever).

But what’s the music like that fans will be treated to?

The Gentle Storm is, to put it mildly, an intelligent and multi-faceted beast. It’s a double album that features eleven tracks recorded twice in two different guises. Disc one features ‘calm’ versions of the eleven compositions whilst disc two revisits the songs and in the process dials up the metal. No suprise then that disc two is referred to as the ‘storm’ disc. I find the whole idea thoroughly fascinating.

But that’s not all. ‘The Diary’ is a concept album lyrically as well. In celebration of their Dutch heritage, the concept centres around the Dutch Golden Age from the 17th Century, a time that encompasses the likes of Rembrandt and Vermeer for example as well as new discoveries and advancements in many of the important areas we now take for granted. The story is then brought to life and given a real human element via the creation of two central characters. A sailor and his wife are kept apart for two years and their only means of communication is via letters, the content of which are explored throughout the album. It’s both am enlightening and touching story that only serves to add to the drama and richness of the album.

Disc one, the ‘gentle’ disc is stunning in its beauty. To say it is simple would be grossly unfair but so expertly crafted is it that the music gives off the illusion of simplicity; the melodies are hook-laden and breezy, the compositions feel light and airy and the almost ethereal vocals of Anneke sound effortless. The entire disc has a demonstrable folk feel to it; acoustic guitars, woodwind, strings, French horn, pianos and the myriad of aforementioned authentic instruments all play a part in creating an end product which is really rather special. Lucassen’s compositional skills are well-known and widely lauded but here, he has pulled out all the stops. In interviews, he readily admits that he wrote the music to allow Anneke’s voice to shine and he has achieved his aim with aplomb. The music is instantly recognisable as Arjen’s work but he has allowed his melodic sensibilities to come to the fore and has created some of his strongest material to date, allowing Anneke to shine like a diamond throughout. Frankly, so beautiful is Anneke’s voice that I could genuinely listen to her singing the contents of a tax return all day long.

I must admit that I wasn’t immediately put under a spell by the ‘gentle’ disc but I cannot deny that the more I listen, the more I want to return for more. The chorus within ‘New Horizons’ for example is gorgeous and captivating, the subtleties within ‘Endless Sea’ or ‘Heart of Amsterdam’ are remarkable and the almost cheeky instrumental interplay within tracks like ‘Eyes of Michiel’ is a real joy to behold.

However, I am the Man of Much Metal and for all the copious strengths of the ‘gentle’ disc, it is on the ‘storm’ disc where I unsurprisingly derive the most enjoyment. Others will no doubt disagree, but to my mind, the whole thing comes fully alive on the second disc.

Picture by: Bullet-Ray

Picture by: Bullet-Ray

We’re not talking extreme metal here and, in all honesty, the metal excesses and fripperies could have been further embellished had the mood taken the duo. However, in spite of this laudable restraint, the ante is nevertheless upped significantly. On opener ‘Endless Sea’, the guitars and dramatic symphonics are brought more to the fore to wonderful effect. The choir sounds magnificent and Anneke’s vocal delivery is captivating, reminding me more of her output on The Gathering’s seminal release ‘Mandylion’ than anything else she has put her name and considerable talents to since.

‘Heart of Amsterdam’ benefits second time around from a surprisingly chunky and heavy guitar tone that I adore and the whole thing has a grandiose majesty and beauty that cannot be ignored.

One of many highlights however must be the delightful ‘Shores of India’ with its Middle Eastern melodies and tangible exotic flavour. Coupled with a really superb rhythm guitar tone, big choir-led crescendo and another brilliant vocal delivery from Anneke, it’s a real head-turner and one of the strongest compositions on this record.

One day, Arjen Lucassen will be involved with a less-than-stellar album, but it isn’t now. The partnership between Arjen and his leading lady, Anneke van Giersbergen has proved to be an inspiring one, one that has delivered a double album which is epic and ambitious but ultimately a magnificent triumph. It might not all be to everyone’s taste, but I love it. Absolutely superb.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.25

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:

Melechesh – Enki
Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld

My Top 10 Tracks of 2014

What started as a throw-away remark on Twitter has suddenly turned into the content of another blog post on the Blog Of Much Metal. Having explored in great detail my favourite 20 albums of 2014, I happened to wonder aloud about my favourite ten individual songs from last year. The response to my musings was incredible – at least two people replied feigning interest. That’s enough for me; in spite of the rather late timing, it had to be turned into a full blog post immediately!

So, here, in no particular order, are my favourite 10 compositions of 2014…

Evergrey – Archaic Rage

A powerful call to arms that bravely confronts and lays bare one of society’s most stigmatized, feared and misunderstood issues from a very personal perspective. And all this, wrapped up in a sonic tour-de-force; an anthem of epic proportion, capable of sending shivers down my spine every time. A perfect example of why I love heavy metal.

From the album: ‘Hymns For The Broken’

Anathema – The Lost Song, Part 2

Candidates from this album were plenty in number but ultimately, this track had to win. Leigh Douglas sounds angelic atop some subtly gorgeous melodies and the lyrics speak to me directly, allowing me to feel closer to a lost loved through the poignant content. I cry every time I listen. Thank you Anathema.

From the album: ‘Distant Satellites’

Threshold – Autumn Red

It was a toss-up between this, the epic ‘The Box’ and the majestic ballad, ‘Lost In Your Memory’ when it came to Threshold’s entry in this list. However, thanks to some chunky riffing, a greater progressive sheen, strong hooks and some killer vocals from Damian Wilson, this has rightly come out on top.

From The Album: ‘For The Journey’

Distorted Harmony – Every Time she Smiles

The first time I heard this song, my jaw hit the floor. Distorted Harmony had moved from being a Dream Theater clone into a unique force in their own right. The remainder of the album slays but this track had the biggest impact. Blazing fury one second, sophisticated quiet melody the next; challenging complexity but with an intermittent groove capable of moving statues.

From The Album: ‘Chain Reaction’

Haken – Crystallised

With music like this, it’s not hard to see how a 3-track EP made it into my Top 20 albums of 2014 list. ‘Crystallised’ contains everything that I want from Haken and progressive music in general – Nearly 20 minutes of epic, melodic, challenging and occasionally bonkers magnificence. Perfect.

From The EP: ‘Restoration’

Lunatic Soul – Gutter

One of only a couple of tracks in this list that don’t feature somewhere in my top 20 albums list. This particular track is a moody and rather intense atmospheric composition that grabbed my attention thanks to some inspired vocal melodies in the chorus. Riverside’s Mariusz Duda has never sounded so compelling. Try as I might, I can’t stop listening to this song, it’s fantastic.

From The Album: ‘Walking On A Flashlight Beam’

Sólstafir – Lágnætti

I don’t think there is a better band than Sólstafir when it comes to conveying the rugged and isolated beauty of Iceland. This is the opening track of the album and it sets the scene wonderfully. Beginning quietly and serenely, it eventually explodes into a powerful driving rock crescendo that’s breath taking.

From The Album: Otta

Voyager – The Morning Light

If you’re looking for a piece of music to get the blood flowing and to cheer you up, this could be the song for you. Melodic progressive metal has never sounded so good thanks to a blend of giant hooks, big riffs, powerful vocals and an unashamed pop sheen. This is the Voyager blueprint and ‘The Morning Light’ is their finest hour.

From The Album: ‘V’

Flying Colors – A Place In Your World

I have chosen this track as it is rather symbolic of my increasing love for progressive rock, particularly the kind that has a classic 70s feel and slight pop element to it. ‘A Place In Your World’ stands out thanks to a combination of undeniable technical prowess, suble complexity and hooks both vocal and instrumental that make a single listen impossible.

From The Album: ‘Second Nature’

Nothing More – I’ll Be Ok

One of the big surprises of 2014. On an album of brilliant modern melodic rock/metal, ‘I’ll Be Ok’ is my standout moment. It is a genuine slab of properly emotional music that doesn’t come across as vacuous like many of Nothing More’s peers. Oh and it has a hook-laden chorus to die for.

From The Album: ‘Nothing More’