Category Archives: Heavy Metal

Orden Ogan – Gunmen – Album Review

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Artist: Orden Ogan

Album Title: Gunmen

Label: AFM Records

Date of Release: 7 July 2017

This is getting embarrassing. Over the past couple of decades, I have built up what I would like to think is a fairly extensive and varied knowledge of vast swathes of the heavy metal world, even occasionally veering into rockier territories where appropriate. However, it wasn’t until I started writing music reviews for myself rather than a national publication that I have begun to realise how much more there is out there that has completely eluded me. It’s actually quite staggering and a little overwhelming if I’m honest.

And today, I bring you the latest band that has been a completely new revelation for me, namely Orden Ogan. I am familiar with the power metal and melodic metal genres, liking much within them. But German outfit Orden Ogan never crossed my path. Until now.

But hey, I thought, it’s not like they have been around for that long, is it? Oh, 20 years? Damn. Three demos and five previous studio albums? Damn and drat. Oh well, let’s not dwell on my failings, let me try to put things straight at the earliest opportunity, for Orden Ogan have made an impression on me that is extremely positive.

Based on the evidence of ‘Gunmen’, the Teutonic quartet comprised of guitarist/lead vocalist and last-remaining founding member Sebastian ‘Seeb’ Levermann, guitarist Tobias Kersting, bassist Niels Löffler and drummer Dirk Meyer-Berhorn are likely to quickly become a firm favourite of mine in the power metal world. Naturally, genre pigeon-holing can be precarious but Orden Ogan are easier than most; this is unashamed power metal with all the trimmings and a few fleeting elements of other influences, namely folk metal and symphonic metal.

What hits me right off the bat with the dark Wild West-themed ‘Gunmen’ more than anything else, is the way in which they create genuinely epic-sounding music. More specifically, it is the choruses on this album that make the biggest impact. And it’s an immediate impact. Some bands will pretend to create bombastic and epic music but Orden Ogan properly succeed. Layers of keyboards, synths and choirs combine with the more metallic aspects of their sound to produce a soundtrack that is rousing and one that cannot fail to stir even the coldest of hearts. The choruses throughout this record are huge, addictive beasts that I have listened to on repeat several times without them losing any of their ardour. In fact, in many cases, they just get better.

The opening one-two comprised of the title track and ‘Fields Of Sorrow’ is easily one of the most powerful and attention-grabbing beginnings to a record that I have heard from a power metal band in many a year. ‘Gunman’ is a highly-charged thrill-ride from the opening hefty guitar notes and orchestration, right through to the sound of a firing gun to signal its end. In between, we get a combination of stomping and galloping metal riffs, melodic lead guitar licks, a ferocious rhythmic backbone and one of the biggest and most glorious choruses you’ll hear for quite some time. I adore the groove that accompanies the chorus and even the ubiquitous lead guitar solos that crop up toward the end are a great blend of shred and melody. Atop it all are Levermann’s vocals, which I am drawn to thanks to his gritty and deep tones.

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By contrast, ‘Fields Of Sorrow’ is a much darker number and generally more mid-tempo than its predecessor. It kicks off with a seriously cool riff that reinforces my opinion that this record is blessed with some superb guitar tones and a production that more than adequately does it justice. Once again, the chorus is where the music goes from great to sensational. It is a sombre affair but remains highly addictive and huge in scope. The pummelling double-pedal drumming that underpins the chorus is a lovely touch, too, adding further gravitas to proceedings.

It would be difficult for most bands to follow up such an impressive opening and indeed, if I’m being completely honest, I’m still of the opinion that these two cuts, aside from the final song ‘Finis Coronat Opus’ are the strongest on ‘Gunman’. However, what follows is still very good indeed and almost all of the eight subsequent songs have something about them that warrants my admiration. I dismissed ‘Vampire In Ghost Town’ out of hand on a first listen because it came across as just a little too cheesy and the lyrics felt a little silly. But now, I can’t help but love it, principally because, despite the silliness, it remains a well-crafted heavy metal song with meaty riffs, catchy melodies and yet more powerhouse rhythmic flair, a strong recurring feature throughout the album.

The soothing, acoustic opening of ‘Come With Me To The Other Side’ is accented by the soft tones of ex- Leaves Eyes vocalist Liv Kristine, who appears at points elsewhere within a song that has a balladic feel to it, but does not dial down the bombast and metallic elements to compensate. Instead, it becomes a bona-fide symphonic anthem, with a vaguely progressive edge given its many varied components.

It is this variety overall that makes ‘Gunman’ such a rewarding listen and one that doesn’t quickly become one-dimensional and boring. The output remains firmly in the power metal camp, but within this framework, I get the impression that the quartet wanted to experiment a little bit. As such, in addition to the aforementioned tracks, we get s like ‘Down Here (Wanted: Dead Or Alive)’ with its dramatic cinematic overtones and the brooding, stomp of ‘One Last Chance’, where the heaviness is marked and wouldn’t be out of place in other more extreme metal genres. It goes without saying that the chorus is another delicious affair here too.

Closing track, ‘Finis Coronat Opus’ is the longest on ‘Gunman’, nearly nudging the nine-minute mark. Personally, I can’t think of a better way for Orden Ogan to end this epic record, than with their most epic composition. It plays around with light and shade and pacing to great effect, injecting just a touch of prog and then dials everything else up to 11. The chorus is gargantuan, the riffs are superb and the bombastic symphonic elements are a real joy. There’s a sombre tone to the song but a sense of hope and positivity comes through as it draws to a close.

There is no doubt in my mind that ‘Gunmen’ will end the year as one of my favourite power metal albums. It exudes quality from every pore and has been a genuine revelation for me. I will explore the back catalogue for sure but for now, I just need to prise ‘Gunmen’ out of my stereo…and that might prove harder than I first thought.

The Score of Much Metal: 8.75

If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:

2015 reviews
2016 reviews

Iced Earth – Incorruptible
Anathema – The Optimist
Solstafir – Berdreyminn
Dream Evil – Six
Avatarium – Hurricanes And Halos
Ayreon – The Source
Until Rain – Inure
MindMaze – Resolve
God Dethroned – The World Ablaze
Bjorn Riis – Forever Comes To An End
Voyager – Ghost Mile
Big Big Train – Grimspound
Lonely Robot – The Big Dream
Firespawn – The Reprobate
Ancient Ascendant
Pyramaze – Contingent
Shores Of Null – Black Drapes For Tomorrow
Asira – Efference
Hologram Earth – Black Cell Program
Damnations Day – A World Awakens
Memoriam – For The Fallen
Pallbearer – Heartless
Sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius
Vangough – Warpaint
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day

Iced Earth – Incorruptible – Album Review

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Artist: Iced Earth

Album Title: Incorruptible

Label: Century Media Records

Date Of Release: 16 June 2017

The phrase ‘only time will tell’ features a lot in music reviews, certainly in mine. Over the years, I’ve had to listen to hundreds of albums and put pen to paper in double-quick time to submit my thoughts in time for the deadline. All too frequently, I have to make a snap decision about whether I like something and sometimes I’ll add in the caveat ‘only time will tell’ to buy myself a little breathing space regarding a record’s long term status and whether it’s a classic or the band’s best. Sometimes, I get my reviews right and sometimes I get them wrong.

When it comes to Iced Earth, I have to hold my hands up and admit to getting it very wrong. I’m a long term fan of the Indiana metal band, discovering them in the late 90s via ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’. This is the album lauded by many as the band’s best and I certainly hold it in high regard. However, with interest piqued, I delved into the back catalogue and I also enjoy the vast majority of their earlier material, favouring ‘Night of the Stormrider’ if my life depended on it. In terms of the post- ‘Something…’ era, I lapped up ‘Horror Show’ and ‘The Glorious Burden’, both of which are fabulous records. Their unique blend of classic metal, power metal and thrash has proved to be a potent formula amongst their ever-growing army of fans, myself included.

More recent output, beginning with 2007’s ‘Framing Armageddon: Something Wicked Part 1’ and ending in 2014 with ‘Plagues of Babylon’ garnered very positive reviews from me in the pages of Powerplay Magazine. However, as time has told, I don’t return to them as frequently as I thought that I would. If I want a fix of Iced Earth, I’ll tend to go for something older. In fact, as I type, I’m hard-pressed to remember very much from any of these more recent albums.

Many will point to the instability of the line-up and, in particular, the frequent changes of the vocalist. However, I think that’s unfair. Matt Barlow will remain a fan favourite since he stood front and centre over some of the best material of the band’s career. That’s unavoidable. However, Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens did an excellent job on a couple of records including the aforementioned ‘The Glorious Burden’ and then, after a brief return for Barlow with ‘The Crucible of Man: Something Wicked Part 2’, Iced Earth have since 2011, turned to ex-Into Eternity vocalist Stu Block to deliver their diatribes. And make no mistake; he does a very good job, sounding very similar to both Barlow and Owens when delivering in the lower and higher registers respectively.

The revolving door syndrome that has affected almost every other position within the band is not entirely to blame either, although it can’t have been the most conducive atmosphere in which to create high quality music. Neither can Schaffer’s ongoing medical problems which fortunately have never drastically curtailed his endeavours. At the end of the day, this is Jon Schafer’s band; he founded Iced Earth and he remains the central creative force, creating most the material and having a say in just about everything else.

With that said, all of the albums between 2007 and 2014 have some very good material on them and I’m in no way saying that they are bad. It is just that they haven’t stood the test of time with me.

This time around however, with no deadlines or time constraints, I could listen in more detail and form a much firmer opinion over the material. And the material in question is the ten songs that feature on ‘Incorruptible’, the twelfth album in the Iced Earth discography.

The accompanying press release sees the ever-confident and bullish Shafer referring to this album as one of their strongest and whilst I approached this hyperbole with caution, I now must agree with him. Having allowed this album to burrow deeper into my brain than many others, I feel much more confident in delivering a very positive review of ‘Incorruptible’. I shall go so far as to stick my neck out and venture that this record is the best material to emanate from the Iced Earth camp since ‘The Glorious Burden’, possibly even longer. Indeed, alongside vocalist Stu Block, in-out drummer Brent Smedley, bassist Luke Appleton and new lead guitarist Jake Dreyer, Schaffer has clearly hit a rich vein of form with ‘Incorruptible’.

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What I like about this album so much is that it manages to blend powerful riffs and heavy music with plenty of melody and strong choruses to make the music truly memorable and rather addictive. Add in to the mix a sense of theatrics, drama and storytelling for which Iced Earth have become known and synonymous and suddenly things start to stack up in the right way.

Given the dark album cover complete with the ubiquitous Set Abominae character, I was expecting something more along the lines of ‘The Dark Saga’ with this record. But what I actually get is more of a ‘Something Wicked…’ vibe, where just about every track delivers something that makes me bang my head, smile or reach for the repeat button. There will no doubt be some who suggest that Iced Earth are cynically trying to recapture the magic of ‘Something Wicked…’ but I humbly disagree. Of course there are some similarities but on ‘Incorruptible’, I hear some of that magic that has imbued all classic Iced Earth material, whatever the era, whoever the clientele.

Kicking off with a dark and theatrical, almost cinematic intro, ‘Great Heathen Army’ offers fans of this band a thoroughly rousing and raucous opening salvo. Block screams and croons with gusto, the rhythm section pounds away and those trademark fast-picked rhythm guitars of Schafer create some tasty riffs. The chorus is a bit of a grower too, blossoming into a full-blown anthem after a few spins.

One of the most ear-catching aspects of Iced Earth on this record though, is the lead guitar work of newbie Jake Dreyer. His lead breaks litter the opener but they have a genuinely melodic edge to them, transforming the solos into something more nuanced than just a gratuitous shred-fest. To further illustrate this point, just check out the fabulous ballad-esque ‘Raven Wing’, complete with lush acoustic guitars. It is here that Dreyer indulges in some lead work that is full of depth, subtlety and bluesy soul, as well as the necessary all-out shred. It doesn’t do any harm that the entire song itself is a well-crafted monster, but it is the lead work alongside the changes in pace and heaviness that leaves the greatest impression.

The variety of the music is also a definite strength of ‘Incorruptible’ too. This is not a one-dimensional album and it benefits greatly as a direct result. You get the mid-tempo stompers like ‘Black Flag’ which in itself is a muscular metal track laced with plenty of melody. And there are the more sombre and brooding compositions like ‘The Veil’ which arguably features my favourite chorus on the record, one that I find myself humming at the most unexpected of times, unable to dislodge it from my head.

Then there’s the short, sharp and intense thrash blitzkrieg of ‘Seven Headed Whore’ with its intro riff that’s instantly reminiscent of Slayer in their prime followed by the potent combination of machine-gun drumming and matching riffs. In contrast, ‘Brothers’ is imbued with a satisfying groove that’s infectious as hell.

‘Ghost Dance (Awaken The Ancestors)’ is an instrumental but far from being a snooze-fest, it is actually one of the most intriguing tracks on the record. I find the tribal vocals fascinating and a really nice touch whilst I’m genuinely taken by the pronounced, powerhouse drumming that is a firm feature of the track.

And ‘Incorruptible’ ends in fitting Iced Earth style with a slightly longer track, ‘Clear The Way (December 13th, 1862)’. At just shy of ten minutes, it isn’t the longest epic that Schaffer has ever penned but it does still pack a punch. Complete with occasional Celtic overtones, a certain amount of quiet homage to Iron Maiden and the sounds of war, it tells a story within the Battle of Fredericksburg to great effect. It’s a glorious romp and the perfect way to end such a glorious album.

Mind you, I’m struggling to pick out any of the songs on ‘Incorruptible’ that demonstrate a lessening of the quality as I genuinely like them all. In that respect, this has to be the most consistent record from Iced Earth for a significant number of years. In fact, as I alluded to earlier, this is without doubt their best release since ‘The Glorious Burden’ and it pushes the likes of ‘Horror Show’ and ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ as one of their best ever releases. In short, ‘Incorruptible’ is unmistakeably the sound of Iced Earth firing on all cylinders and I love it.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.25

If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:

2015 reviews
2016 reviews

Anathema – The Optimist
Solstafir – Berdreyminn
Dream Evil – Six
Avatarium – Hurricanes And Halos
Ayreon – The Source
Until Rain – Inure
MindMaze – Resolve
God Dethroned – The World Ablaze
Bjorn Riis – Forever Comes To An End
Voyager – Ghost Mile
Big Big Train – Grimspound
Lonely Robot – The Big Dream
Firespawn – The Reprobate
Ancient Ascendant
Pyramaze – Contingent
Shores Of Null – Black Drapes For Tomorrow
Asira – Efference
Hologram Earth – Black Cell Program
Damnations Day – A World Awakens
Memoriam – For The Fallen
Pallbearer – Heartless
Sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius
Vangough – Warpaint
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day

Dream Evil – Six – Album Review

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Artist: Dream Evil

Album Title: Six

Label: Century Media

Date Of Release: 26 May 2017

Dream Evil have been knocking around the metal scene for many years, having been created before the millennium by the renowned Studio Fredman producer Fredrik Nordström. It was his burning desire to create his own power metal band and Dream Evil was the result. In the early days, the band featured the notable names of guitarist Gus G (Firewind, Ozzy Osborne) and drummer Snowy Shaw.

These guys have moved on, with Dream Evil now comprised of Nordstrom alongside lead vocalist Niklas Isfeldt, lead guitarist Mark U Black, bassist Peter Stålfors and drummer Patrik Jerksten. Nevertheless Dream Evil have remained steadfast throughout and ‘Six’ being, you guessed it, their sixth studio album to date, albeit following a hefty seven-year hiatus since ‘In The Night’ was released in 2010. However, on the basis of the music on ‘Six’, it might have been kinder for all concerned if Nordström and his merry men had moved on to pastures new as well.

Long term readers of the Blog of Much Metal will know that I am not the kind of person who takes any satisfaction from writing more negative reviews. So when I can only conclude that ‘Six’ is a distinctly average album with more filler than stand-out material, you know that I am not saying this lightly or for effect.

So why have I reviewed this then? I was actually interested in hearing the new album because I have a couple of early Dream Evil albums nestled in my collection and there is some decent material to be heard on them. And additionally, I have invested too much time trying to like this album to abandon it without committing my thoughts to paper. However, from the first spin, with no agenda or axe to grind, I simply found myself feeling thoroughly disappointed and entirely underwhelmed for the most part.

But let me begin with the positives, as no album is completely devoid of such things. For a start, I do enjoy the hefty guitar tones that deliver some decent riffs. They pack a fair punch, offer plenty of grunt and help to dispel the thoughts that power metal is a softer form of metal. The rhythm section is equally commanding and muscular, as demonstrated on the self-monikered opening track, ‘Dream Evil’. It is one of the few tracks on this record that’s a genuine grower, becoming a bit of a pulsating, headbanging anthem that I am sure will come alive on stage during the upcoming festival season.

The production must be mentioned as it is this that helps to lend the guitars, bass and drums such a rich sound. Naturally, this comes as no surprise given the clientele and it is where Nordstrom comes into his own, being the quality knob-fiddler that he is.

In terms of other songs on the album that are worth mentioning, there’s the brooding, slower-paced ‘Creature of the Night’ which features some of the strongest melodies on the album. ‘The Murdered Mind’ is a fun, breezier number with a pleasant chorus whilst ‘Six Hundred And 66’ offers some great grooves and arguably the catchiest chorus on the record.

Sandwiched in between though, are too many compositions that do very little for me. The musicianship is perfectly acceptable, very good in places. And that makes things even more frustrating because they clearly have the talent to produce a higher-quality or at least a more consistent product.

Then there are the lyrics. Now I’m far from a lyric snob and very often I couldn’t care less what’s being sung about if the music is of a high quality. But even I struggle to ignore the words that accompany some of the songs on this album. Take ‘Sin City’ as the perfect example. ‘…they met my older brother, who was rich, he was poor.’ C’mon, seriously? Then there’s the line in the same song: ‘the devil proved to be a really nice guy and they partied all night long. And those who always believed in God, admitted they were wrong.’ How are your toes? Have they uncurled yet?

I also have to be honest and venture the opinion that I’m not the greatest fan of Niklas Isfeldt’s vocal delivery. He has a powerful set of lungs with a decent range but I quickly tire of his higher-pitched tones which veer perilously close to annoying territory for my tastes.

And that’s about it. I could go on, but I’ll leave it there. Dream Evil have a lot going for them and when they get it right, they get it very right. Regrettably, their conversion rate isn’t that high on ‘Six’ and so for every decent track, there are two or three that fall flat. It’s a shame and I genuinely hate being negative, but I have to be honest. Sorry guys, I won’t be returning to this record any time soon.

The Score Of Much Metal: 6

If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:

2015 reviews
2016 reviews

Avatarium – Hurricanes And Halos
Ayreon – The Source
Until Rain – Inure
MindMaze – Resolve
God Dethroned – The World Ablaze
Bjorn Riis – Forever Comes To An End
Voyager – Ghost Mile
Big Big Train – Grimspound
Lonely Robot – The Big Dream
Firespawn – The Reprobate
Ancient Ascendant
Pyramaze – Contingent
Shores Of Null – Black Drapes For Tomorrow
Asira – Efference
Hologram Earth – Black Cell Program
Damnations Day – A World Awakens
Memoriam – For The Fallen
Pallbearer – Heartless
Sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius
Vangough – Warpaint
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day

Avatarium – Hurricanes And Halos – Album Review

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Artist: Avatarium

Album Title: Hurricanes And Halos

Label: Nuclear Blast

Date Of Release: 26 May 2017

‘Hurricanes And Halos’ is the title given to the third studio release from Swedish doomsters Avatarium, a band that was formed in the minds of Leif Edling (Candlemass) and Marcus Jidell (ex-Evergrey, Soen) before becoming a reality in 2012. Their sophomore album, ‘The Girl With The Raven Mask’ was released in 2015 and, quite rightly, it garnered much critical acclaim. If the world was beginning to take notice of Avatarium, this record catapulted the quintet into the full glare of the heavy metal spotlight.

But much has changed in the world of Avatarium since the releae of ‘The Girl With The Raven Mask’. The band is now a sextet of sorts, but the back story is much more complicated than a simple addition to the ranks. Leif Edling has now stepped away from the bass but remains involved and can claim the song writing credits to six of the eight tracks on ‘Hurricanes And Halos’. Into the vacated bass slot therefore, comes Mats Rydström and he is joined by fellow newbie and organ player Rickard Nielsson who has replaced keyboardist Carl Westholm. The rest of the band remains the same however, with co-founder Marcus Jidell on guitars, Jennie-Anne Smith behind the microphone and Lars Sköld on the drums.

Given the comings and goings behind the scenes, it could have been easy for Avatarium to take their eye off the ball and deliver a new album that wasn’t up to the standard of their last. But to think in such a way would be a mistake and would be to do the members of Avatarium a huge disservice. When you have musicians of the calibre of Jidell, Smith and Edling, you’re almost certainly not going to get anything substandard. If anything, ‘Hurricanes And Halos’, which features a bigger song-writing contribution from the handsome couple of Jidell and Smith, is another confident step up for this band.

When I reviewed ‘The Girl With The Raven Mask’, I remarked that it generally takes a lot for me to get excited about an album that has one foot firmly planted in the realm of doom. Well, that statement remains true but Avatarium prove once again that they one of the few bands that can manage this feat. There’s something about this band that speaks to me.

This becomes even more unfathomable in many ways when I add in to the equation that Avatarium are also heavily steeped in 1970s nostalgia as well as seemingly professing an admiration for blues, classic rock and an occasional dalliance with psychedelia. If I take a look at my personal music collection, I have a hard job finding very much that fits within any of these genres. And yet, I love Avatarium. And I love ‘Hurricanes And Halos’. Go figure.

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In trying to do just that and figure out why I have such a connection with this band, I have hit upon many possibilities.

Firstly, there is the raw honesty and genuine depth found within the compositions themselves. You get the distinct impression as you listen, that nothing has been left at the door with these guys – it is all or nothing. When Jennie-Anne sings, she sings with such passion and richness that you can’t help but listen, rapt as she delivers her gritty monologues with finesse and such resonance. This is most definitely Jennie-Anne Smith’s best performance so far and at times, she threatens to steal the show entirely, such as within the chorus of the opener, ‘Into The Fire – Into The Storm’ as one of many examples.

With lesser musicians behind her, that might have easily happened. But not in Avatarium. In Marcus Jidell for example, Avatarium are blessed with one of the very best guitarists that I know of. I must have said all this a hundred times over the years, so once more couldn’t hurt. His style is not to belt out lightning fast lead runs or to show off with fancy gimmicks. Instead, he has a grace and elegance that means that he can convey an emotion or a thought with one carefully crafted note or a series of well thought-out chords.

As demonstrated in the aforementioned heady opener, ‘Into The Fire – Into The Storm’, Marcus has not forgotten how to rock out either. The song begins with a strong 70s doomy riff that gets things off to a bold and striking start. The Hammond organ of the equally impressive Nielsson joins the party briefly before becoming an integral part of the grand chorus and later, offers an indulgent but entirely fitting lead solo.

‘The Starless Sleep’ is another superb track, one that underlines the doom credentials of Avatarium as well as underlining the strength of the oft-unsung rhythm section. Skold’s drumming is precise but has a loose, carefree feel to it, whilst bassist Mats Rydström delivers a really satisfying low-end rumble to inject gravitas to the music.

The stripped back and darkly textured ‘Road To Jerusalem’ is the perfect song to act as contrast to the higher-octane opening tracks. It also showcases the beautifully organic and honest production to ‘Hurricanes And Halos’. This is not an album to be smothered in clever, modern effects or polished to within an inch of its life. Instead, in keeping with the music itself, producer Marcus Jidell alongside David Castillo (mixing – Katatonia, Opeth) and Jens Bogren (mastering – Soilwork, Sepultura) have created a living, breathing, colourful beast that loses none of the music’s potency along the way.

The icing on the cake with ‘Hurricanes And Halos’ is the surprising amount of variety on offer. Already I’ve described the full-on power and the more subtle sides of Avatarium, but there’s more to uncover along the way.

‘Medusa Child’ is a thoroughly engrossing piece of music that begins in commanding and heavy fashion. The hooky chorus then comes out of nowhere, at an almost complete right-angle to the more aggressive and potent music that surrounds it. And then, at the half-way mark, it morphs again. An eerie child’s voice sings the chorus lyrics whilst underneath, the band veers into almost ambient, post-rock territory as a quiet, subtle melody begins to build into a rousing finale, almost threatening to implode as it does so.

‘Hurricanes and Halos’ is as far as I can tell, as much an exercise in creating interesting and multi-faceted soundscapes as it is about crafting intelligent doom-infused rock music. This point is proven eloquently via the brooding ‘When Breath Turns To Air’ with its exquisite and melodic fragility. But it is then hammered home by the closing title track which is quite different in construction and tone, but is equally poignant and captivating.

For me, it is the perfect way to end the record, a record that has impressed and moved me in equal measure right from the off. I can think of no other band in the modern era who does this kind of thing better than Avatarium. That in itself should speak volumes about just how good it is. I doubt I’ll hear a more compelling doom-infused rock album all year.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.25

If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:

2015 reviews
2016 reviews

Ayreon – The Source
Until Rain – Inure
MindMaze – Resolve
God Dethroned – The World Ablaze
Bjorn Riis – Forever Comes To An End
Voyager – Ghost Mile
Big Big Train – Grimspound
Lonely Robot – The Big Dream
Firespawn – The Reprobate
Ancient Ascendant
Pyramaze – Contingent
Shores Of Null – Black Drapes For Tomorrow
Asira – Efference
Hologram Earth – Black Cell Program
Damnations Day – A World Awakens
Memoriam – For The Fallen
Pallbearer – Heartless
Sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius
Vangough – Warpaint
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day

Ayreon – The Source – Album Review

 

ayreon-cover

Artist: Ayreon

Album Title: The Source

Label: Mascot Label Group/Music Theories Recordings

Date Of Release: 28 April 2017

My relationship with the music of Arjen Anthony Lucassen is a complex one. I would definitely class myself as a fan, but not one without reservation, as the back catalogue contains both the sublime and the slightly less impressive as far as I’m concerned. For example, I love the ‘Space Metal’ and ‘Victims of the Modern Age’ albums under the Star One moniker, whereas I have a hard time with early Ayreon records up to and including ‘Into The Electric Castle’. For many, this latter revelation will be akin to blasphemy, but that’s my opinion and I stand by it.

Nevertheless, latter Ayreon releases have made a much more positive impact with ‘01011001’ and ‘The Theory of Everything’ both capturing my imagination to the point where I was really excited to hear Lucassen’s ninth instalment of this particular franchise, ‘The Source’.

It has been a while in the making, some four years since the release of ‘The Theory of Everything’. Mind you, projects as ambitious as ‘The Source’ take some time and organisation to pull off, even for a workaholic like Lucassen. Additionally, the intervening period has also seen him working with Anneke van Giersbergen on the debut The Gentle Storm album, ‘The Diary’.

‘The Source’ is, as you might expect, a full-on science-fiction concept album, set 6 billion years in the past, that seeks to tell the story of an alien race’s attempts to save themselves and their planet from crisis. It is comprised of 17 individual tracks of progressive rock and in keeping with these huge Ayreon rock operas, it features no fewer than twelve guest vocalists, some which are new to the Ayreon family and others that are returning for another stint. As such, you get to hear the talents of James LaBrie (Dream Theater), Tommy Giles Rogers (Between the Buried and Me), Simone Simons (Epica), Mike Mills (Toehider), Floor Jansen (Nightwish), Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian), Michael Eriksen (Circus Maximus), Tobias Sammet (Edguy, Avantasia), Nils K. Rue (Pagan’s Mind), Zaher Zorgati (Myrath), Tommy Karevik (Seventh Wonder, Kamelot) and Russell Allen (Symphony X).

If that wasn’t enough, Lucassen, the multi-instrumentalist recluse is joined by a select group of musicians including drummer Ed Warby (Gorefest, Elegy), guitarists Paul Gilbert (Mr. Big), Guthrie Govan (The Aristocrats, Asia, Steven Wilson), Marcel Coenen and keyboard player Mark Kelly (Marillion). There’s even room for guest appearances from regulars like cellist Maaike Peterse, flautist Jeroen Goossens and violinist Ben Mathot.

Regardless of your thoughts on the music of Arjen Lucassen, one cannot deny his ambition to pull this project together, however seasoned a pro he might be. And on that note, let’s venture into the music itself. After all, that’s why you’re reading this review isn’t it?

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Cutting swiftly to the chase, it is fair to say that long term fans will be left feeling very happy with the results, wrapped safely in the comforting arms of the familiar. The die has been cast on previous Ayreon albums and by-and-large, there are no major deviations from the norm on ‘The Source’. It is over-the-top, pompous and at times, a little silly. Pick your cheese of choice and you’ll find a morsel or two of it here without question. My toes occasionally curl and I wince at certain points. The Celtic, folky ‘All That Was’ for example, does not fare well in my estimations, neither does the operatic injection within ‘Deathcry of a Race’ which is simply too much and a little ‘nails down a blackboard’ for me. As a result, ‘The Source’ is not the perfect, blemish-free release.

And yet, there is no escaping the fact that ‘The Source’ is a hugely enjoyable album for the most part, with plenty of stand-out moments where my imagination is fully captured and my enthusiasm ignited. And it must be said that much of my enjoyment comes from listening to the various vocalists who guest on this record. There are still those out there who dismiss heavy metal as just noise, overlaid by shouty blokes who can’t sing. Well, if there was ever a record to expose this ignorant view as the huge falsity that it is, it’s this one. The talent from across the gender divide is just off the scale and as absurd as the concept is in places, the vocalists breathe life into it, giving it a genuine credibility in the process.

In fittingly bombastic style, the record begins with a 12-plus minute epic that introduces just about every singer that features on the album. I’m not the biggest James LaBrie fan but even he sounds great, floating through an eerie and post-apocalyptic, dystopian soundscape at the outset. The song twists and turns throughout, never settling, as the groundwork for the concept is laid. Tommy Karevik is the early show-stealer thanks to an incredibly passionate and powerful performance, but the surprisingly heavy chugging riff pushes him close. Lucassen himself refers to this record as more guitar driven and heavier, a point that is underlined here right from the outset.

But the undoubted star of the opening act, surrounded by the likes of Nils K. Rue, Tobi Sammet and Hansi Kursch has to be Mike Mills. It’s a cliché as old as time to say that you could listen to certain vocalists singing the phonebook. But in the case of Mills, he manages to send shivers down my spine by singing something as dull as the binary code atop some moody, futuristic synths. ‘Zero, one, zero’ etc. has never sounded so utterly captivating and emotive, believe me.

I’m not such a fan of the funky, bluesy sequence that follows, although ‘Sir’ Russell Allen lends it a certain undeniable panache and swagger. There’s even time right at the death for Floor Jansen to lend her impressively huge vocal chords to see this opener out in rousing style. Had the entire record remained at this level, we’d have been staring down the barrel of a near-perfect score, it’s that good. In fact, I’d venture to suggest that it is one of Lucassen’s best under any of his various monikers.

Elsewhere, I’m a huge fan of ‘The Dream Dissolves’ with its killer lead guitar solo and the extended keyboard flamboyance. Aside from the aforementioned operatic section within ‘Deathcry of a Race’, it is a brilliant song thanks to its Middle Eastern melodies, heavy riffing and Zorgati’s distinctive vocals. And ‘Into The Ocean’ is a storming up-tempo rocker with overt 70s overtones created by the chosen keyboard sounds.

More heavy riffs and forceful drumming feature within the immediate and insanely catchy ‘Planet Y Is Alive!’ which evolves into something far more soundtrack-like and preposterously fun in the mid-section.

There are plenty more positives within this lengthy endeavour but for the sake of brevity, allow me to conclude with my joint-favourite piece, ‘Star Of Sirrah’. Heavy, melodic, over-the-top, this is Ayreon on top form. The song opens in moody but melodic and dramatic fashion with an acoustic guitar and bold synths before another huge, killer riff sweeps everything aside. It chugs and growls with real intent, complimenting all of the various vocalists who take a turn at delivering this part of the concept. If I had to nail my colours to the mast, I’d have to say that Nils K Rue offers the most compelling performance, closely followed by Tobi Sammet. It’s not a simple song by any means but it shows how superb Lucassen can be as a songwriter when he dials down the crazy and pens something a little more straightforward and rocking. Because boy does this track rock.

One of the nicest artists I’ve ever crossed path with is also one of the most openly insecure musicians in the business. Self-doubt riddles the psyche of Arjen Lucassen, something with which I can most definitely identify. The guy has an army of fans though and he always manages to attract great musicians to assist him with his music, so he must be doing something right. And there’s ‘The Source’ to further underline this conclusion. It might be a flawed record in places but regardless, ‘The Source’ is a triumph of which Lucassen should be rightly proud.

The Score Of Much Metal: 8.25

If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:

2015 reviews
2016 reviews

Until Rain – Inure
MindMaze – Resolve
God Dethroned – The World Ablaze
Bjorn Riis – Forever Comes To An End
Voyager – Ghost Mile
Big Big Train – Grimspound
Lonely Robot – The Big Dream
Firespawn – The Reprobate
Ancient Ascendant
Pyramaze – Contingent
Shores Of Null – Black Drapes For Tomorrow
Asira – Efference
Hologram Earth – Black Cell Program
Damnations Day – A World Awakens
Memoriam – For The Fallen
Pallbearer – Heartless
Sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius
Vangough – Warpaint
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day