Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen – Album Review

Artist: Esa Holopainen

Album Title: Silver Lake By Esa Holopainen

Label: Nuclear Blast

Date of Release: 28 May 2021

I don’t mind admitting that I’m a huge fan of Amorphis, and have been since before the Millennium, thanks to the amazing ‘Tuonela’ album. It still remains a personal favourite of mine, not just within the incredibly strong Amorphis back catalogue, but within my ever-growing collection as a whole. So when I found out that one of the founding members and principal songwriters, Esa Holopainen was to release his very first solo effort, I was excited and slightly nervous in equal measure. Would this record sound anything like Amorphis, or would it be completely different? It was always unlikely that Holopainen would sing himself, so would it be an instrumental affair, or would it feature a guest vocalist? These any many other questions rattled around my brain as I semi-patiently awaited more news.

Brought to fruition thanks to the near worldwide Covid pandemic lockdown, throughout almost the entirety of 2020 and much of 2021 so far, it turns out that ‘Silver Lake By Esa Holopainen’ is a more intriguing affair than I was perhaps expecting. What Esa Holopainen has done is assemble a collection of superb vocalists to sing on the record, a veritable who’s who of the rock and metal worlds, from Jonas Renkse of Katatonia, to Anneke van Giersbergen. Now, naturally, not all of the voices suit the same kind of song, so what ‘Silver Lake…’ is, is more of a project, and a collection of different styles, albeit all written by Esa himself. These kinds of records can be very hit and miss, so it’s fair to say that this was a bold and brave move. The big question though, is ‘does it work?’ and ‘is the final product worth our time and attention?’

The answer to these questions is both yes, although I have to declare that it’s a cautious yes rather than an all-out, screamed affirmation. Being such a diverse album to cater for the assembled vocalists, ‘Silver Lake…’ does have its peaks and troughs, although I like to refer to them, more kindly, as slightly lower peaks, or peaks designed for those who suffer from vertigo. When the music hits the mark, it’s marvellous, whilst the jury remains out on a couple of the tracks. I suspect that each listener will have his or her own views too, based on how much you like each singer. So please don’t take my word as gospel because you may have a very different feeling about the music than I do.

But first up, hold the front page! Matt likes the tracks that feature Katatonia’s Jonas Renkse. Well duh. Quite frankly, I could listen to the Swede sing my itemised bank statements without me wanting to kill myself. However, I return to the cautiousness that I expressed earlier, because they’re not my favourite songs on the album if truth be told. Renkse is the only guest to feature on two tracks, ‘Sentiment’ and the closer, ‘Apprentice’. They are both acoustic-led tracks, with the former sounding like one of the more folk-inspired numbers from recent Katatonia records, with heavy 70s key sounds. Esa’s guitar playing is beautifully deft and poignant, while Renkse is his usual impeccable self. However, it is lacking a little something. The latter contains, for my tastes, the stronger melodies and resonates with me a lot more. I also like the darker, more melancholy vibe within it too, as well as some great bass playing at its heart.

However, it is elsewhere where I derive the most enjoyment. For example, I adore the opening instrumental, ‘Silver Lake’, a beautiful acoustic guitar-led piece that displays Esa Holopainen’s skills as a lyrical guitarist and composer. The way it builds in intensity is wonderful, especially when those unmistakeable electric leads emerge to an atmospheric, almost cinematic backdrop.

Somewhat surprisingly, I have also really grown to love ‘Storm’, a track fronted by Swedish vocalist Håkan Hemlin, that features some strong electronics, a driving beat, and some bluesy guitar notes from Esa. I’m reminded a little of bands like Magnum here, as it’s just a quality rock song, with a huge, rousing chorus, made all the more powerful by the quieter, brooding verses either side.

One of my absolute favourites though, has to be ‘Ray Of Light’, featuring the voice of Einar Solberg of Leprous. Again the song is littered with plenty of keys, creating a classic 70s feel, but Solberg is in mesmerising form, delivering a performance that is nothing short of captivating, enhancing the already strong melodic intent of the music with a passionate display, using his unique technique to its fullest. The press release talks about the fact that some of the vocalists wanted to write their own lyrics and melodies, whilst others let Esa take control. I’d love to know more about which vocalists did what on this album, although if I was a betting man, I’d say that Solberg was heavily involved with ‘Ray Of Light’.

For fans of recent Amorphis output, there’s good news as Tomi Joutsen lends his gruff bark and clean singing to ‘In Her Solitude’, arguably the heaviest song on the album. It is great to hear Esa compose a song like this, as it demonstrates his pride in his main band, rather than trying to distance himself from the day job. And it’s a great song, one that could easily feature on the next Amorphis record and be rightly lauded by fans.

Mind you, the following track, ‘Promising Sun’, led by Bjorn ‘Speed’ Strid (Soilwork) offers some delicious chunky riffs that send shivers up and down my spine. And Anneke van Giersbergen channels her best The Gathering performances within ‘Fading Moon’, another satisfyingly muscular track, albeit laced with lots of textured synths, and piano notes to accent the chugging riffs.

The only song I’ve not mentioned is ‘Alkusointu’, a composition that features a spoken-word performance by Finnish legend Vesa-Matti Loiri in his native tongue. The track is interesting in that it juxtaposes some heavy guitar notes with some genuinely whimsical synths and melodies, not to mention a pedestrian tempo. I’m not a fan of the saxophone lead solo that emerges, but that faux-pas aside, it’s an entertaining piece.

Despite my very small reservations here and there, I have to conclude that ‘Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen’ is an overall success. It’s always a bit of a risk to invite so many different vocalists, with such different styles, onto an album, but by and large, it works here. Yes, there is an argument to say that the record lacks a little in terms of having a clear identity, but Esa Holopainen is such a talented guitarist and composer, that he is the glue that holds everything together, thus creating just enough cohesion. I have no qualms in recommending ‘Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen’ to anyone who likes Amorphis, or any of the assembled vocal cast.

The Score of Much Metal: 85%

Dessiderium – Aria

Cynic – Ascension Codes

TDW – Fountains

Hypocrisy – Worship

W.E.B. – Colosseum

Navian – Cosmos

NorthTale – Eternal Flame

Obscura – A Valediction

Nightland – The Great Nothing

MØL – Diorama

Be’lakor – Coherence

Hollow – Tower

Doedsvangr – Serpents Ov Old

Athemon – Athemon

Eclipse – Wired

Swallow The Sun – Moonflowers

Dream Theater – A View From The Top Of The World

Nestor – Kids In A Ghost Town

Beast In Black – Dark Connection

Thulcandra – A Dying Wish

Omnium Gatherum – Origin

Insomnium – Argent Moon EP

Kryptan – Kryptan EP

Archspire – Bleed The Future

Awake By Design – Unfaded EP

Cradle Of Filth – Existence Is Futile

Seven Spires – Gods Of Debauchery

Sleep Token – This Place Will Become Your Tomb

Necrofier – Prophecies Of Eternal Darkness

Ex Deo – The Thirteen Years Of Nero

Carcass – Torn Arteries

Aeon Zen – Transversal

Enslaved – Caravans To The Outer Worlds

A Dying Planet – When The Skies Are Grey

Leprous – Aphelion

Night Crowned – Hädanfärd

Brainstorm – Wall Of Skulls

At The Gates – The Nightmare Of Being

Rivers Of Nihil – The Work

Fractal Universe – The Impassable Horizon

Darkthrone – Eternal Hails

Thy Catafalque – Vadak

Terra Odium – Ne Plus Ultra

Hiraes – Solitary

Eye Of Purgatory – The Lighthouse

Crowne – Kings In The North

Desaster – Churches Without Saints

Helloween – Helloween

Fear Factory – Aggression Continuum

Wooden Veins – In Finitude

Plaguestorm – Purifying Fire

Drift Into Black – Patterns Of Light

Alluvial – Sarcoma

White Moth Black Butterfly – The Cost Of Dreaming – Album Review

Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen

Bloodbound – Creatures From The Dark Realm

Nahaya – Vital Alchemy

Frost* – Day And Age

Obsolete Theory – Downfall

Vola – Witness

Acolyte – Entropy

Dordeduh – Har

Subterranean Masquerade – Mountain Fever

Seth – La Morsure Du Christ

The Circle – Metamorphosis

Nordjevel – Fenriir

Vreid – Wild North West

Temtris – Ritual Warfare

Astrakhan – A Slow Ride Towards Death

Akiavel – Vae Victis

Gojira – Fortitude

Hideous Divinity – LV-426

Benthos – II

Evile – Hell Unleashed

Ninkharsag – The Dread March Of Solemn Gods

Bodom After Midnight – Paint The Sky With Blood

Morrigu – In Turbulence

Mother Of All – Age Of The Solipsist

Throne – Pestilent Dawn

Sweet Oblivion (Geoff Tate) – Relentless

Exanimis – Marionnettiste

Dvne – Etemen Ænka

Cannibal Corpse – Violence Unimagined

Arion – Vultures Die Alone

Maestitium – Tale Of The Endless

Wode – Burn In Many Mirrors

Everdawn – Cleopatra

Unflesh – Inhumation

Mourning Dawn – Dead End Euphoria

Wheel – Resident Human

Wythersake – Antiquity

Odd Dimension – The Blue Dawn

Metalite – A Virtual World

Cryptosis – Bionic Swarm

Ghosts Of Atlantis – 3.6.2.4

Memoriam – To The End

Aversed – Impermanent

Secret Sphere – Lifeblood

Enforced – Kill Grid

Liquid Tension Experiment – LTE3

Turbulence – Frontal

Iotunn – Access All Worlds

Warrior Path – The Mad King

Stortregn – Impermanence

Mariana’s Rest – Fata Morgana

Orden Ogan – Final Days

Witherfall – Curse Of Autumn

Plague Weaver – Ascendant Blasphemy

Ephemerald – Between The Glimpses Of Hope

Paranorm – Empyrean

Einherjer – North Star

Epica – Omega

Humanity’s Last Breath – Välde

Simulacrum – Genesis

Forhist – Forhist

Evergrey – Escape Of The Phoenix

Empyrium – Über den Sternen

Moonspell – Hermitage

Infernalizer – The Ugly Truth

Temperance – Melodies Of Green And Blue EP

Malice Divine – Malice Divine

Revulsion – Revulsion

Demon King – The Final Tyranny EP

Dragony – Viribus Unitis

Soen – Imperial

Angelus Apatrida – Angelus Apatrida

Oceana – The Pattern

Therion – Leviathan

Tribulation – Where The Gloom Becomes Sound

Asphyx – Necroceros

W.E.T. – Retransmission

Labyrinth – Welcome To The Absurd Circus

TDW – The Days The Clock Stopped

Need – Norchestrion: A Song For The End

You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here:

2020 reviews

2019 reviews
2018 reviews
2017 reviews
2016 reviews
2015 reviews

Empyrium – Über den Sternen – Album Review

Artist: Empyrium

Album Title: Über den Sternen

Label: Prophecy Productions

Date of Release: 26 February 2021

I have a soft spot for Empyrium, so much so that I splurged a great deal of money on the box set ‘A Retrospective…’ a few years ago. Starting out as more of a melodic black metal band, the duo have morphed over the years into something much more nuanced and interesting, blending the black metal with dark rock and acoustic-led folk music, to the point where the latter influences began to overtake the more metallic elements quite considerably. Indeed, their 2014 ‘comeback’ album, ‘The Turn Of The Tides’ abandoned almost all semblance of metal in favour of an all-out neofolk approach.

At every stage however, Markus Stock (acoustic and electric guitars, vocals, drums, bass, keyboard, dulcimer) with the assistance of Thomas Helm (vocals, keyboard, acoustic guitars) from 2002, has created beautiful music. Regardless of whether it was heavier, or more delicate and ethereal, the music has always been of the highest calibre. And that trend continues in 2021.

Entitled ‘Über den Sternen’ (translated as ‘Above The Stars’), Empyrium deliver another incredibly engaging and entertaining listen. All of the hallmarks of their music remain intact but as the two musicians suggest in the press release, they have managed to find a ‘new balance’ that seeks to pull together the two sides of their music. What this means is that ‘Über den Sternen’ sees a continuation of the elegant and often hypnotic acoustic folk, albeit with a healthy dose of those more metallic elements seen during their early days, making a welcome return. The result is really rather wonderful.

A word of caution, however. Even though the heavier aspects return in greater abundance, do not expect ‘‘Über den Sternen’ to pummel you into the ground. That’s simply not the Empyrium way. Instead the distorted guitars and abrasive gruff vocals maintain a sense of harsh, gritty elegance, to compliment and juxtapose the quieter, more fragile elements of the music. Mind you, when the lyrical content has always tended to err on a more romantic side, of nature, myth and ancient lore, a thorough bludgeoning simply wouldn’t fit.

There are so many candidates to choose from to demonstrate just what a thoroughly engrossing and elegant record ‘Über den Sternen’ is. There’s something within just about every one of the eight tracks that’s going to make you sit up and take notice. I really mean that. However, I’d have to immediately pick ‘The Wild Swans’ and the closing ten-minute closing title track as two firm favourites.

‘The Wild Swans’ demonstrates that almost effortless symbiosis between the folkier side of latter-day Empyrium and the reprise of the heavier early material. It opens quietly and in comes a simple drum beat, ushering in Stock’s gruff vocals, alongside fast-picked, cold riffing. The heaviness is short-lived, but it carries with it an arresting melody that features throughout the seven minutes or so, becoming ever more addictive. There’s a definite blackgaze feel to the composition, as delicate picked acoustic guitar notes weave in and out of the wistful synth-led atmospheres when the restrained aggression gives way. Clean vocals make an appearance too, almost plainsong-like in their delivery, whilst the song ebbs and flows beautifully, harmoniously, somehow managing to sound ever more epic as it develops.

Then there’s the title track. It begins in majestic fashion, heavy but opulent thanks to some strong synths alongside lovely staccato riffing, the preserve of the black metal realm. Growls accentuate the extreme metal credentials of the music before everything but minimalist keys and a gentle acoustic guitar remain. The song is suddenly wistful and dreamlike in tone, with spoken words and clean vocals. And then, out of nowhere, we’re hit with a truly magnificent melody. Open guitar chords emerge this time alongside the growls, but the melody remains the focal point, built on by rich symphonic sounds, sending shivers down my spine, especially when the electric guitar accentuates the central melody line. The rousing melody is reprised at points throughout the song to devastating effect, especially when the choral vocals are layered on top. It is made all the more powerful by the fact that in between, there are sections of quiet contemplation, and foreboding atmosphere at odds with the grandiosity elsewhere, but perfectly suited to the composition, nonetheless. We have another early contender for one of the songs of the year right here, such is its incredible brilliance.

The opening composition, ‘The Three Flames Sapphire’ begins with a delicate acoustic guitar melody that’s soon joined by the gorgeous sounds of a lamenting cello, before giving way to faster, more up-tempo acoustic guitars and folk-like rhythmic drumming. A flute provides a whimsical edge as stronger, yet understated melodies begin to emerge. I love the vocals within this track, either layered, whispered, spoken, or choral-like, almost religious-sounding. There’s even room for some sparingly used growls when the song injects brief spells of heavier material.

‘A Lucid Tower Beckons On The Hills Afar’ opens with some of the most overt aggression on the album, but the sound of a dulcimer gives the song a really interesting identity, different from all the aforementioned tracks. As with the majority of the songs, this composition benefits from some simply beautiful melodic work, whilst the layers of choral vocals create an arresting listening experience as well. Then there are the extended passages of quiet introspection, that conjure a cold, misty autumn shoreline in my mind.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea by now. ‘Über den Sternen’ is a thoroughly superb album, and is most definitely the album that I had hoped I’d hear from Empyrium again one day. The blending of disparate sounds, ideas, and imagery is very impressive indeed, creating music that is dynamic, rich, engaging, dramatic, original, and oh so very beautiful. With ‘Über den Sternen’ I think Empyrium may just have created their greatest and most accomplished work to date.

The Score of Much Metal: 92%

Further reviews from 2021:

Moonspell – Hermitage

Infernalizer – The Ugly Truth

Temperance – Melodies Of Green And Blue EP

Malice Divine – Malice Divine

Revulsion – Revulsion

Demon King – The Final Tyranny EP

Dragony – Viribus Unitis

Soen – Imperial

Angelus Apatrida – Angelus Apatrida

Oceana – The Pattern

Therion – Leviathan

Tribulation – Where The Gloom Becomes Sound

Asphyx – Necroceros

W.E.T. – Retransmission

Labyrinth – Welcome To The Absurd Circus

TDW – The Days The Clock Stopped

Need – Norchestrion: A Song For The End

You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here:

2020 reviews

2019 reviews
2018 reviews
2017 reviews
2016 reviews
2015 reviews

Atavistia – The Winter Way – Album Review

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Artist: Atavistia

Album Title: The Winter Way

Label: Independent Release

Date of Release: 29 May 2020

I have ‘Time I’ in my collection as any self-respecting fan of heavy metal should, but to be perfectly honest, theirs is not the brand of heavy metal that I tend to get carried away with. I love melodic death metal, and I equally love black metal too. But not so much the kind that is imbued with folk melodies and overt symphonic elements. So why then, am I bringing you this review when the band at the centre of it play exactly this kind of music, that heavily draws inspiration from Wintersun, Ensiferum and the like?

I can give you no less than four reasons: Firstly, there are loads of you out there that do love this music and will be interested in finding out about Atavistia if they are not currently on your radar. Secondly, in lockdown, there’s more time to explore new music and I may as well put my time to good use. Thirdly, 2020 has seen me tackle my prejudices to the point that I now embrace music that I’d previously (and foolishly) sought to avoid because I thought I’d not like it. This kind of thing falls squarely into that sphere. And finally, it is sometimes a good thing to offer an opinion on music about which you have no prior knowledge, therefore coming at the results with fresh ears.

A little background research will tell you that Atavistia are a quartet hailing from Canada and are comprised of drummer Max Sepulveda, guitarist Dalton Meaden, bassist D’wayne Marray, and vocalist/guitarist Matt Sippola. ‘The Winter Way’ is apparently their sophomore release, following on from 2017’s ‘One Within The Sun’, which I’ll admit I haven’t heard. They remain unsigned but maybe ‘The Winter Way’ will be the next step in changing that? Let’s find out…

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A couple of things immediately leap out at me as I listen to ‘The Winter Way’. Firstly, this is a big undertaking from this relatively new band. The album may only be comprised of seven tracks, with the first being an instrumental intro, but the whole thing clocks in at over an hour in length. It means that the shortest track on offer aside from the intro is just shy of nine minutes in length. That’s a bold approach, not without its risks, but it also hints at a band that are confident in their abilities. And, from an instrumental perspective, so they should be. There are some incredibly strong performances from all four corners of the band. Max Sepulveda is not afraid to mix things up, delivering some impressive blastbeats and lightning-fast fills when the need arises, alongside segments that call for more restraint. Guitarists Matt Sippola and Dalton Meaden are a good double-act too, with an ability to create cold, frosty black metal riffs alongside more muscular sounds, as well as plenty of expansive and virtuosic leads along the way.

It would therefore appear that all of the basic building blocks are in place for Atavistia to impress and push towards a bigger and brighter future. And for many of you who check this band out may well think that this is indeed the reality. Unfortunately, for me, try as I might, I can’t really warm to the record.

I admire the scope of the album; the way that it ebbs and flows, from quiet contemplative moments to all-out aggression, and from minimalist passages to more opulent, multi-layered parts. I like the use of the symphonics to create that bombast and sense of epic majesty, and I approve of the range of vocals used throughout, from gruff screams, to clean singing, via the occasional moody spoken-word approach. There is even the odd female voice to be heard. I can hear the Wintersun worship – to suggest otherwise would be disingenuous in the extreme – but I also hear plenty of ‘Spiritual Black Dimensions’-era Dimmu Borgir nestled within the compositions too, as those overblown symphonics and grandiose black metal influences come to the fore. One prime example would be within ‘The Forbidden One’, arguably one of the better songs on ‘The Winter Way’.

The problem for me, is that for all of the obvious effort, there’s something lacking with ‘The Winter Way’. I play it and I quite like it. But when it ends, I can’t really remember much about it, or recall moments within it where I lost my head, or smiled my usual goofy grin that often accompanies a melody, riff, or other idea that catches me and fires my enthusiasm. There are a few nice melodies to be heard, such as within the closing title track, but none of them punch their way out of the hubbub, to really make an impression. It feels like I am having to search through the layers of music to find these redeeming features. I suppose I just wish they were stronger, more impactful, and lasting.

It might sound like I’m being harsh, but that’s only because I can see a band with huge promise here. They have the talent, they have the ability, and they clearly have the imagination and work ethic to turn heads and create waves. Unfortunately, ‘The Winter Way’ is not that album. It is good, with brief flashes of something even better, but generally it falls just a little short. That said, if you’re a Wintersun fan, then by all means give it a listen because if you have a stronger disposition to that kind of music, then you may well enjoy the music of Atavistia more than I.

The Score of Much Metal: 66%

Check out my reviews from 2020 right here:

Astralborne – Eternity’s End
Centinex – Death In Pieces
Haken – Virus
Pile Of Priests – Pile Of Priests
Sorcerer – Lamenting Of The Innocent
Lesoir – Mosaic
Temnein – Tales: Of Humanity And Greed
Caligula’s Horse – Rise Radiant
…And Oceans – Cosmic World Mother
Vader – Solitude In Madness
Shrapnel – Palace For The Insane
Sinisthra – The Broad And Beaten Way
Paradise Lost – Obsidian
Naglfar – Cerecloth
Forgotten Tomb – Nihilistic Estrangement
Winterfylleth – The Reckoning Dawn
Firewind – Firewind
An Autumn For Crippled Children – All Fell Silent, Everything Went Quiet
Havok – V
Helfró – Helfró
Victoria K – Essentia
Cryptex – Once Upon A Time
Thy Despair – The Song Of Desolation
Cirith Ungol – Forever Black
Igorrr – Spirituality and Distortion
Nightwish – Human. II: Nature.
Katatonia – City Burials
Wolfheart – Wolves Of Karelia
Asenblut – Die Wilde Jagd
Nicumo – Inertia
The Black Dahlia Murder – Verminous
Omega Infinity – Solar Spectre
Symbolik – Emergence
Pure Reason Revolution – Eupnea
Irist – Order Of The Mind
Testament – Titans Of Creation
Ilium – Carcinogeist
Dawn Of Ouroboros – The Art Of Morphology
Torchia – The Coven
Novena – Eleventh Hour
Ashes Of Life – Seasons Within
Dynazty – The Dark Delight
Sutrah – Aletheia EP
Welicoruss – Siberian Heathen Horde
Myth Of I – Myth Of I
My Dying Bride – The Ghost Of Orion
Infirmum – Walls Of Sorrow
Inno – The Rain Under
Kvaen – The Funeral Pyre
Mindtech – Omnipresence
Dark Fortress – Spectres From The Old World
The Oneira – Injection
Night Crowned – Impius Viam
Dead Serenity – Beginnings EP
The Night Flight Orchestra – Aeromantic
Deadrisen – Deadrisen
Blaze Of Perdition – The Harrowing Of Hearts
Godsticks – Inescapable
Isle Of The Cross – Excelsis
Demons & Wizards – III
Vredehammer – Viperous
H.E.A.T – H.E.A.T II
Psychotic Waltz – The God-Shaped Void
Into The Open – Destination Eternity
Lunarsea – Earthling/Terrestre
Pure Wrath – The Forlorn Soldier EP
Sylosis – Cycle of Suffering
Sepultura – Quadra
Dyscordia – Delete / Rewrite
Godthrymm – Reflections
On Thorns I Lay – Threnos
God Dethroned – Illuminati
Fragment Soul – A Soul Inhabiting Two Bodies
Mariana Semkina – Sleepwalking
Mini Album Reviews: Moloken, The Driftwood Sign & Midnight
Serenity – The Last Knight
Ihsahn – Telemark EP
Temperance – Viridian
Blasphemer – The Sixth Hour
Deathwhite – Grave Image
Marko Hietala – Pyre Of The Black Heart
SWMM – Trail Of The Fallen
Into Pandemonium – Darkest Rise EP
Bonded – Rest In Violence
Serious Black – Suite 226
Darktribe – Voici L’Homme
Brothers Of Metal – Emblas Saga
A Life Divided – Echoes
Thoughts Factory – Elements

You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here:

2019 reviews
2018 reviews
2017 reviews
2016 reviews
2015 reviews

Kvaen – The Funeral Pyre – Album Review

Kvaen - The Funeral Pyre - Artwork

Artist: Kvaen

Album Title: The Funeral Pyre

Label: Black Lion Records

Date of Release: 28 February 2020

The black metal scene is littered, arguably more than any other, with one-man bands and projects. Many of them are absolute rubbish, the kind that only their mothers will like, or that can’t really be heard because they were recorded in a shoe box or biscuit tin in the middle of a blizzard on a four-track recording device. In some instances, I’m pretty sure that the recording equipment of choice may even have been a Dictaphone. However, on my voyage of discovery, I happened upon this, a one-man band from Sweden, going by the name of Kvaen.

The musician at the centre of Kvaen is a name that might be vaguely familiar to some of you. Jakob Björnfot is the ex-guitarist with melodic death metal band Duskfall and, as well as being a relatively prolific session musician, he is currently a live member of the most excellent Ghost Ship Octavius. I’m pretty sure that I must have crossed paths with him at ProgPower Europe in that case. Small world.

Anyway, Kvaen is Björnfot’s baby, a band or project if you will, to call his own. And it sounds nothing like the aforementioned one-man black metal acts because crucially, this debut album, entitled ‘The Funeral Pyre’, is extremely good, with much to commend it. In fact, it is better than ‘good’; it is flippin’ excellent.

Since grabbing hold of this promo, I have listened to it frequently and I am in no way tiring of the content. Spanning eight tracks and roughly 45 minutes, it is the perfect duration to make an impact and leave, whilst leaving the listener wanting more. Having said that, what more could the listener want? This is an album that is described by Björnfot himself as “black metal with speed, pagan, and Viking metal influences”. It’s a pretty accurate description too, as ‘The Funeral Pyre’ is certainly fast and aggressive, sounding cold and atmospheric at the same time. But the music is also surprisingly melodic with plenty of folk trappings. Then there’s the organic, natural feel to much of the material, enhanced by a strong and clear, yet authentically raw production. It is clear very quickly, that a lot of love, care and thought has gone into this record.

The album, via ‘Revenge By Fire’, literally charges out of the blocks with a fast, urgent and energetic tremolo riff, accented by some thunderous drumming. On that note, Björnfot has deliberately gone for real drums on ‘The Funeral Pyre’ and I couldn’t be happier about this. As good as sampled drums or machines are these days, they’re no substitute for the real thing as this album so easily proves, with the drumming performed by a clutch of guest sticksmen. Back to the opening song, and the Dissection-esque riffs and gruff vocals eventually give way to a stunning melody that gets lodged in my head for hours after the album has ended. It has a definite folk/Pagan tone to it, brought to life by a speedy lead guitar line. It doesn’t outstay its welcome though and it comes and goes a couple more times within the song to accent and soften a little the more savage intent of the composition, most notably when the intensity ceases for a brief moment to allow the bass to be heard in the relative, short-lived tranquility.

Kvaen

If anything, ‘Yee Naaldlooshii’ is even better. It is just as aggressive, but the speed is decreased ever so slightly and the melodies are even more epic and pronounced. The guitar is the lead protagonist again for the melodic intent but it is accented by some subtle keys and a slight smoothing of the vocal delivery to something akin to a gruff croon.
The folk influences loom large on the title track, which is just as fast and furious as previous material, but injects some clean strummed guitar at strategic points, as well as some intriguing, heavily effected spoken vocals. The sense of the wilderness and nature comes to the fore too, as the song is just incredibly epic-sounding from start to finish, enhanced by yet more great lead guitar work including a blistering and wailing extended solo which is just delicious.

What I really like about ‘The Funeral Pyre’ is that Björnfot has a clear objective and he nails it from beginning to end. There is nothing extraneous to be heard on the album – everything is included for a purpose and not a moment is wasted. As far as Björnfot is concerned, less is more but he is absolutely right as his succinctness has served to make the whole record stronger and more enjoyable.

Take ‘Septem Peccata Mortalia’ as the perfect example. At just a smidgen over four minutes, the song is epic, engrossing and contains plenty of variety in the form of fast riffs, a beautifully arresting melody and an interesting stop-start thrash-like machine-gun riff and drum combo that catches my ear. Then there’s ‘As We Serve The Master’s Plan’ which contains more of a classic metal attitude as well as bold choral vocal effects and a wonderfully delicate and nuanced lead guitar line above a more minimalist soundscape where again the bass is allowed to come to the fore.

There really isn’t much more to say about ‘The Funeral Pyre’ that I’ve not already said. Anyone who likes their extreme metal in the blackened death or even the Pagan/folk vein, then Kvaen is a complete no-brainer and ‘The Funeral Pyre’ needs to be nestled in your collection with immediate effect. It’s as simple as that.

The Score of Much Metal: 91%

Check out my reviews from 2020 right here:

Mindtech – Omnipresence
Dark Fortress – Spectres From The Old World
The Oneira – Injection
Night Crowned – Impius Viam
Dead Serenity – Beginnings EP
The Night Flight Orchestra – Aeromantic
Deadrisen – Deadrisen
Blaze Of Perdition – The Harrowing Of Hearts
Godsticks – Inescapable
Isle Of The Cross – Excelsis
Demons & Wizards – III
Vredehammer – Viperous
H.E.A.T – H.E.A.T II
Psychotic Waltz – The God-Shaped Void
Into The Open – Destination Eternity
Lunarsea – Earthling/Terrestre
Pure Wrath – The Forlorn Soldier EP
Sylosis – Cycle of Suffering
Sepultura – Quadra
Dyscordia – Delete / Rewrite
Godthrymm – Reflections
On Thorns I Lay – Threnos
God Dethroned – Illuminati
Fragment Soul – A Soul Inhabiting Two Bodies
Mariana Semkina – Sleepwalking
Mini Album Reviews: Moloken, The Driftwood Sign & Midnight
Serenity – The Last Knight
Ihsahn – Telemark EP
Temperance – Viridian
Blasphemer – The Sixth Hour
Deathwhite – Grave Image
Marko Hietala – Pyre Of The Black Heart
SWMM – Trail Of The Fallen
Into Pandemonium – Darkest Rise EP
Bonded – Rest In Violence
Serious Black – Suite 226
Darktribe – Voici L’Homme
Brothers Of Metal – Emblas Saga
A Life Divided – Echoes
Thoughts Factory – Elements

You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here:

2019 reviews
2018 reviews
2017 reviews
2016 reviews
2015 reviewsin

Mariana Semkina – Sleepwalking – Album Review

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Artist: Mariana Semkina

Album Title: Sleepwalking

Label: Kscope

Date of Release: 14 February 2020

You may recognise the name, for Mariana Semkina (who has tweaked her real name, Marjana for this release) is one half of the duo that, alongside Gleb Kolyadin has created the rather intriguing and beautiful Iamthemorning, who have rightfully gained in popularity in recent years. ‘Sleepwalking’ however, is the debut solo album from Semkina and, to all intents and purposes, it came about a little by accident.

According to Marjana herself, she wrote the material on ‘Sleepwalking’ for her own benefit, as a therapeutic exercise to help her through some dark days. In the end, she realised that she had crafted a body of work that was simply too personal to be able to release in any other way than under her own name.

An accident it may have been, but there’s no denying that it has turned into a very happy accident indeed. Not only does Marjana boast eleven new, original songs to give the world, but she has also managed to enlist the help of some of impressive names to help her bring her compositions to life. Joining Marjana on ‘Sleepwalking’ are Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess, Nick Beggs (Steven Wilson, The Mute Gods), drummer Craig Blundell and Vlad Avy. Not only that, but the record also features the St Petersburg Orchestra ‘1703’.

On paper, this sounds like it should be a mouth-watering prospect. And, happily, in reality, that’s exactly how it has turned out. This is normally the kind of music that is way out of my sphere of knowledge as there’s not a blastbeat or heavy guitar in sight. In fact, the only heaviness to be heard is within the deep, emotional, dark and personal lyrics that Semkina sings throughout. Should genre labels be important to you, the music could be described as a blend of folk, pop, alternative and classical music.

Genre tags are, to my mind, a little redundant here though, because I honestly believe that it is better to describe the music in less clinical, linear terms. After all, this album is a much more human affair, being born out of the more organic needs and feelings of Marjana herself. ‘Sleepwalking’ therefore, is an incredibly rich and immersive experience, as well as a thoroughly beautiful yet lyrically and emotionally challenging one. It is never easy listening in on someone’s innermost personal thoughts and feelings, and ‘Sleepwalking’ is no different.

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With that said, I would suggest that, in my opinion, ‘Sleepwalking’ is actually a more immediate and enticing listen than her work with Iamthemorning. It is difficult to articulate why this is, especially given the overtly challenging emotions that come out to play here. However, having tried to wrestle with this conundrum for several days, I think it boils down to the fact that, for my tastes, the melodies tend to speak to me more.

Take ‘Everything Burns’ as an example. It is a dark song, but the orchestral arrangements are stunning; they are minimal enough to not detract attention from Semkina’s gorgeously delicate voice but the strings in particular, carry a sense of elegance that is striking, underpinned by a sensitive drum beat from Blundell.

And then it hits me more clearly – as mesmerising as Marjana’s performance is, she has found an ensemble who have brought out the very best I her. From the orchestra, to the performances from Beggs, Blundell and Rudess, this is a really beautifully-delivered album that enhances the magical vocal performance of Marjana and her songwriting abilities. No-one has let ego get in the way; instead these accomplished artists have worked together to bring Marjana’s voice and her musical vision to life. If anything, ‘Sleepwalking’ is all the more powerful and effective because of it.

‘Mermaid Song’, which again features the orchestra in full-on cinematic mode, is utterly breathtaking thanks to the sincerity of Marjana’s performance on top of the bold soundscapes created to compliment her perfectly.

The piano within closer ‘Still Life’ is sumptuous, yet understated, adding a touch of extra elegance to the composition, whilst at the other end of the album, opener ‘Dark Matter’ benefits from delicate acoustic guitar notes and quiet orchestration, which builds to deliver an irresistible crescendo that has a distinctly dark, cinematic vibe to it.

If I’m honest, I’m not a fan of every song, although the vast majority are nothing short of wonderful and, I hasten to add, those that I don’t like as much are down to personal taste rather than a lack of quality. Some are genuine growers that only fully flower after much effort on my part, such as ‘Am I Sleeping’ as just one example. I love it now, but for a long time, I wasn’t altogether sure about it.

Overall though, ‘Sleepwalking’ is an incredibly rewarding listen and an album that has surprised and delighted me in equal measure. It isn’t always easy, but that just adds to its charms, of which there are many. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Marjana Semkina because, on the strength of ‘Sleepwalking’, there is bound to be a clamour for more solo work in the not-too-distant future. Rightfully so, too, as talent like this simply cannot be ignored.

The Score of Much Metal: 90%

Check out my reviews from 2020 right here:

Mini Album Reviews: Moloken, The Driftwood Sign & Midnight
Serenity – The Last Knight
Ihsahn – Telemark EP
Temperance – Viridian
Blasphemer – The Sixth Hour
Deathwhite – Grave Image
Marko Hietala – Pyre Of The Black Heart
SWMM – Trail Of The Fallen
Into Pandemonium – Darkest Rise EP
Bonded – Rest In Violence
Serious Black – Suite 226
Darktribe – Voici L’Homme
Brothers Of Metal – Emblas Saga
A Life Divided – Echoes
Thoughts Factory – Elements

You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here:

2019 reviews
2018 reviews
2017 reviews
2016 reviews
2015 reviews

Album of the Year 2018 – Number 22

Welcome to the ninth chapter of 2018’s ‘Album of the Year’ series. Not even a third of the way through my list and already I have received some really heartening comments about the choices and the fact that some of you have discovered something that you originally missed out on earlier in the year for one reason or another.

And this, in a nutshell, is why I do what I do. A list would be easier of course, but this way gives me the opportunity to provide a little more context as to why I feel the way I do about an album. And in so doing, it has convinced some of you to revisit something or uncover it for the first time. Long may this continue. And all the while that it does, I shall keep doing this!

As always, if you’ve missed the previous picks in this series so far, links to these can be found at the bottom of this post.

But now for today’s main event…

Number 22:

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Ivar Bjørnson and Einar Selvik
‘Hugsjá’
Norse Music
Score of Much Metal: 9.5

An album on this list that’s not metal? How absurd. And yet, one again I am delighted to feature an album in my countdown that offers something a little different to my usual rock and metal fare. Admittedly, the protagonists behind today’s choice are embedded in that world and it is because of their work with Enslaved and Warduna that I know about this project. However, whilst having some rock influences within in, ‘Hugsjá’ is very different animal from the duo’s day jobs.

‘Hugsjá’ is an exercise in creating atmospheres and telling stories to the listener using the compelling and organic medium of traditional Norse folk music. The music feels like it soothes and cleanses the soul a little, thanks to a flow to the music which allows more ingredients into the mix than is noticeable on a first listen, not to mention the sounds of birdsong and running water both within and between compositions.

The melodies within the music are incredibly strong too, with ‘Ni Modre av Sol’ still sending shivers down my spine even now, some six months or more since I reviewed the record. Then there’s the raw power and emotion of ‘Fornjot’ which just gets better and better. The pull of these melodies and the purity of the music as a whole are so strong that I don’t go many days without dipping into ‘Hugsjá’ or delving into the entirety of the album. And each time that I do, I am richly rewarded.

To quote my review of 25 April 2018:

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“Curiosity may have killed the proverbial cat but on this occasion, it has led me to one of the most magnificent discoveries so far in 2018 and beyond. I have a strong emotional bond with Scandinavia and so I have ultimately found this record to be a powerfully intense listening experience. But even had that bond not been so strong, I am certain that the music would still have has a profound impact upon me, such is its authenticity, rawness and rugged beauty.

‘Hugsjá’ isn’t a pure, out-and-out folk record either. There are plenty of subtle ingredients that ensure that there’s a nice balance between authentic Norse folk music and rock of the progressive variety. AC/DC this isn’t, but the intelligent use of Bjørnson’s guitars and bass alongside the drums within some of the compositions lends the material a more robust, imposing quality alongside a sense of greater power and urgency.

However, as far as I’m concerned, it is the strong compositional nous of the duo and their ear for a strong melody that makes ‘Hugsjá’ such an amazing record. There literally is no track on the album that threatens to lower the quality or ruin the flow; every song eventually delivers an earworm or two – it might take a bit longer for some to come to the fore than others, but they are there and it’s a heady feeling when they finally make their mark.

You can feel the conviction that both artists have towards the music on this record, meaning that you believe in the material and buy into it wholeheartedly. The combination of traditional and more modern instrumentation is well-balanced, complimenting each other perfectly.”

Read the full review here.

If you missed the previous posts in my 2018 list, click here:

Album of the Year 2018 – Number 23
Album of the Year 2018 – Number 24
Album of the Year 2018 – Number 25
Album of the Year 2018 – Number 26
Album of the Year 2018 – Number 27
Album of the Year 2018 – Number 28
Album of the Year 2018 – Number 29
Album of the Year 2018 – Number 30

If you missed my ‘best EPs and compilations of 2018, you can read that here:

Album of the Year 2018 – EPs and Compilations

And here’s a reminder of my countdown series from previous years:

Album of the Year 2017
Album of the Year 2016
Album of the Year 2015
Album of the Year 2014
Album of the Year 2013
Album of the Year 2012

The best of 2018 so far – Part 3

Welcome to day three of my half-year round-up of the best music released during the first six months of 2018.

If you missed the previous parts of this mini-series, you can read them here:

The best of 2018 so far – Part 1
The best of 2018 so far – Part 2

However, essentially, this is a brief, chronological run-down of my favourite albums that were released between 1st January and 30th June 2018. The huge one-by-one countdown will return in the winter. And, to re-state, I still have a few albums that I have yet to review from the first half of the year for whatever reason. So, if you don’t see a particular record mentioned here, you may do by the time I complete my end-of-year top 30.

So, to continue the format, here are the next three albums that grabbed my attention earlier in 2018:

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Auri
‘Auri’
Nuclear Blast
Score: 9.25

 

Despite my antipathy towards Nightwish these days, I felt compelled to check out Auri, the new band that features Tuomas Holopainen and Troy Donockley alongside vocalist Johanna Kurkela. It is a beautifully subtle, emotional and earthy album that has really impressed me.

“Auri may not have too much in common with my normal preferred musical choices, but I find myself really liking this record. It has charm in abundance and an inner strength that belies much of the more delicate material that emanates from the speakers with spectacular clarity thanks to a wonderful production. And even though there are nods towards Nightwish occasionally, Auri has created a strong identity all of its own that means you are guaranteed a unique listening experience if you give Auri a try – and I really recommend you do so. I didn’t expect to like this, but I have well and truly fallen for its numerous charms.”

Read the full review here.

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W.E.T
‘Earthrage’
Frontiers Records
Score: 9.9

 

I do love a spot of melodic hard rock and W.E.T are one of the very best that the genre has to offer. And, if there was ever any doubt about this, then ‘Earthrage’ snuffs it out once and for all. This is a sensational album, believe me.

“Do I want huge choruses? Do I want plenty of giant hooks? Do I want strong songwriting? Do I want impressive musicianship? Do I want to feel the passion of the musicians? Do I want power and for the music to rock? And finally, do I want the music to make me feel happy and alive?…

…they have an innate understanding of what makes a great song. One album could be considered a fluke, but without even considering their primary bands’ material, ‘Earthrage’ is the third record in a row to produce top drawer material. That’s not luck. That’s skill and plenty of it…

…I’m pretty sure, even at this relatively early stage, that it is W.E.T.’s best album to date and right now it is fighting hard to be my personal favourite melodic rock record ever. Time will ultimately tell on that score, but regardless, as I sit here now, ‘Earthrage’ is damn close to being a perfect record. I love this band!

Read the full review here.

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Borealis
‘The Offering’
AFM Records
Score: 9.5

 

You’d have to have been a hermit for the last few years to be oblivious about my love for Evergrey. And so, when a band comes along and does their very best to out-Evergrey my favourite band, I’m bound to take a listen. In the case of ‘The Offering’, I listened many, many times and loved what I heard each and every time. Full-blown power, heavy riffing and strong melodies combine to create a symphonic metal powerhouse of an album.

“I’d go so far as to say that the opening one-two of ‘The Fire Between Us’ and ‘Sign of No Return’ are two of the best prog/power tracks I’ve heard for some time…

…if you’re a fan of progressive power metal with melody and plenty of symphonic intent, then you need to add Borealis’ ‘The Offering’ to your collection immediately.”

Read the full review here.

Amorphis – Queen Of Time – Album Review

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Artist: Amorphis

Album Title: Queen Of Time

Label: Nuclear Blast

Date of Release: 18 May 2018

Just when you think that a band has reached their peak, they come along and prove you wrong. The moral of the story therefore, is never think that a band can’t improve upon a superb release, because they can. The evidence I present to the court is ‘Queen Of Time’, the thirteenth album from Finnish veterans Amorphis.

Back in 2015, I suggested that ‘Under A Red Cloud’ was arguably the best album of Amorphis’ career and that is something I still adhere to three years later. ‘Under The Red Cloud’ is most definitely the sound of a band firing on all cylinders, pushing my historical favourite record, ‘Tuonela’ all the way. However, if anything, ‘Queen of Time’ sees its direct predecessor and raises the stakes even higher. I’m scratching my head a little as I try to grapple with this reality but reality is most certainly is. Like a fine wine, Amorphis just seem to get better with age.

The first thing to state is that ‘Queen Of Time’ is not a radical departure for a band that has been on a gradual evolution of sound over their entire career. What it is, is the next step in their evolution and a firm statement of where they are today as artists and musicians.

And that statement seems to suggest that Amorphis are hitting new heights, challenging themselves and creating some magic in the process. ‘Queen of Time’ is, quite honestly, a joyous listening experience from start to finish, principally because everything that these Finns do is of the very highest quality. The melodies are strong, the folk elements are both authentic-sounding and interesting and there is a faint progressive element to the music in terms of the variety and subtle ideas at play. Indeed, ‘Queen Of Time’ feels like it contains some of the most complex music within the entire discography. If that wasn’t enough, I also love the heaviness of some of the material – led by the commanding riffs of guitarists Esa Holopainen and Tomi Koivusaari, and enhanced by the superb rhythmic section of returning bassist Olli-Pekka Laine and drummer Jan Rechberger – that is juxtaposed so smoothly and effortlessly with lighter, more upbeat sections, something that Amorphis have seemingly excelled at in recent years.

Put simply, the song writing is just so strong that so many of the songs on this record turn into bona-fide anthems that get lodged in my head for ages after the songs have finished playing.

Then, to top it all off, there’s the vocals of Tomi Joutsen. Over the years, the surprisingly shy and retiring singer has got better and better, to the point where I honestly feel that he is one of my absolute favourites. His clean delivery is so smooth and full of feeling that it simply cannot be ignored, but it is the variety in his singing that’s just so damn impressive.

What also strikes me about ‘Queen of Time’ also, is the depth and richness of the material. Each track is multi-layered and full of subtlety but they never feel over-worked or cluttered. The keys of Santeri Kallio are superb on this record, but they are enhanced by the addition of an orchestra and a choir for the very first time in the band’s career. It is a masterstroke that adds layers of atmosphere, a symphonic bombast and a majestic elegance that is often breath-taking, always irresistible.

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Where does one begin then, when trying to pick out the best moments for a succinct review? Well, I’ve never been renowned for brevity or succinctness, so who cares, right?

The album kicks off in masterful fashion with the lead single with which many of you are now extremely familiar. Let me assure you however, that if ‘The Bee’ remains the only song you’ve heard from ‘Queen Of Time’ to date, the rest of the album really is just as good. The quiet yet ominous opening that explodes into a gorgeous melodic section full of exuberance is captivating, as the insistent heavy riffing imbued with an almost Middle-Eastern flavour, and the huge atmospheric chorus that was hinted at in the early stages. And it gets better with repeated listens; so much better, as the small, subtle intricacies peek through into your conscious. If your pulse is not racing as the song closes at the five-and-a-half-minute mark, there really is no hope for you I’m afraid.

‘Message In The Amber’ offers a much more pronounced Scandinavian folk flavour, as well as a greater dichotomy between quiet, understated passages and the all-out metal attack, led by gruff growls and plenty of measured aggression. It also has a greater cinematic sheen, as well as a darker overall vibe, embellished wonderfully by the aforementioned choir.

The opening up-tempo riff of ‘Daughter of Hate’ has a vaguely off-kilter, progressive feel to it whilst being very seductive. I cannot shake the belief that there’s also a black metal edge to the song on occasion which is no bad thing. I even like the guest appearance of Shining saxophonist Jørgen Munkeby who adds yet another dimension to proceedings, whilst further emphasising the experimental, almost playful nature of the song which is capped off with a native spoken-word section towards the close.

If I had to pin my colours to the mast, I’d declare the following two tracks, ‘The Golden Elk’ and ‘Wrong Direction’ as the album’s best however. The former begins with a striking, cinematic intro reminiscent of Kamelot in their pomp before launching into a stomping, heady melody that makes an immediate impact and which only gets better when the chorus fully unfolds. There are parallels with Orphaned Land too, thanks to the pronounced Middle-Eastern melodies that come hugely to the fore throughout the song.

The latter contains unmistakeable echoes to the ‘Tuonela’ era, especially in the brilliant opening guitar work, so it’s no wonder I find myself gravitating towards it. It is also one of the simpler, straightforward tracks on the record, with a devastatingly strong chorus that Joutsen makes his own, ensuring in the process that it is a sing-along anthem of epic proportions. Right now, this ranks as one of my all-time favourite Amorphis compositions, an accolade I can’t see being removed any time soon.

I could honestly mention every song on ‘Queen Of Time’, as there isn’t a misstep or a weaker moment anywhere to be heard. For example, ‘Heart of The Giant’ is another ambitious composition complete with keyboard solo and sprawling grandeur, ‘We Accursed’ is blessed with a wonderful tempo and no small amount of groovy swagger, whilst ‘Grain Of Sand’ masterfully builds to an imposing climax.

However, I feel compelled to take a breath and pause to mention ‘Amongst Stars’ in particular, a euphoric beacon of light and melodic brilliance that is further enhanced by a guest appearance from the unmistakeable Anneke van Giersbergen, who sounds as angelic as ever, the perfect counterpoint to Mr Joutsen within the exquisite song.

Finally, my review of this spectacular album wouldn’t be complete without mention of the production. It takes a huge amount of talent and skill to make such an ambitiously grand proposition like this sound so balanced, powerful and clear. Enter Jens Bogren of Fascination Street Studios, who has surpassed himself here. Put on a pair of headphones and tell me that this isn’t one of the best-sounding albums of recent years, I dare you.

All this means that with ‘Queen of Time’, I am faced with a strong contender for ‘album of the year’. Virtually flawless, oozing with class, slathered in killer musicianship and bursting with unforgettable melodic elegance, ‘Queen of Time’ has to be the very best record of Amorphis’ career. If you haven’t bought it yet, I hope this review has convinced you to do so. If you’re a metal fan with any shred of self-respect, ‘Queen of Time’ needs to be in your collection immediately.

The Score of Much Metal: 9.8

If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from 2018 and from previous years right here:

2017 reviews
2016 reviews
2015 reviews

At The Gates – To Drink From The Night Itself
Dimmu Borgir – Eonian
Hekz – Invicta
Widow’s Peak – Graceless EP
Ivar Bjørnson and Einar Selvik – Hugsjá
Frequency Drift – Letters to Maro
Æpoch – Awakening Inception
Crematory – Oblivion
Wallachia – Monumental Heresy
Skeletal Remains – Devouring Mortality
MØL – Jord
Aesthesys – Achromata
Kamelot – The Shadow Theory
Barren Earth – A Complex of Cages
Memoriam – The Silent Vigil
Kino – Radio Voltaire
Borealis – The Offering
W.E.T. – Earthrage
Auri – Auri
Purest of Pain – Solipsis
Susperia – The Lyricist
Structural Disorder – …And The Cage Crumbles In the Final Scene
Necrophobic – Mark of the Necrogram
Divine Realm – Nordicity
Oceans of Slumber – The Banished Heart
Poem – Unique
Gleb Kolyadin – Gleb Kolyadin
Apathy Noir – Black Soil
Deathwhite – For A Black Tomorrow
Conjurer – Mire
Jukub Zytecki – Feather Bed/Ladder Head
Lione/Conti – Lione/Conti
Usurpress – Interregnum
Kælling – Lacuna
Vinide – Reveal
Armored Dawn – Barbarians In Black
Long Distance Calling – Boundless
In Vain – Currents
Harakiri For The Sky – Arson
Orphaned Land – Unsung Prophets And Dead Messiahs
Tribulation – Down Below
Machine Head – Catharsis
Bjorn Riis – Coming Home EP
Twilight’s Embrace – Penance EP
Bloodshot Dawn – Reanimation
Rise of Avernus – Eigengrau
Arch Echo – Arch Echo
Asenblut – Legenden
Bleeding Gods – Dodekathlon
Watain – Trident Wolf Eclipse

Ivar Bjørnson and Einar Selvik – Hugsjá – Album Review

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Artist: Ivar Bjørnson and Einar Selvik

Album Title: Hugsjá

Label: Norse Music

Date Of Release: 20 April 2018

A significant change of career and continued parental responsibilities means that I am still playing catch up with my reviews at this congested period of the year. As such, the album central to this review has already been released. It’s intensely frustrating that this is the reality with which I am faced, but sometimes life gets in the way of one’s hobby, however important that hobby might be.

That said, the positive to this is that I have had a little more time with this record than I might otherwise have had. And in this case, that’s a huge bonus indeed. In fact, it is in the last few days, generally late at night, that the magic of this record has truly begun to emerge. As such, what follows is a significantly different review to that which would have been published a week or so ago.

The album in question is entitled ‘Hugsjá’, the second full-length release from two highly-regarded musicians in metal circles, namely Enslaved’s Ivar Bjørnson and Wardruna’s Einar Selvik. The two came together around 2014 and released ‘Skuggsjá – A Piece For Mind & Mirror’ two years later. But for many reasons, it was a release that completely passed me by. I’m not generally the biggest fan of folk music in all its forms, and so the fact that ‘Skuggsjá’ was billed as a folk record was arguably the biggest reason for my failure to check it out.

This time around, curiosity got the better of me and I checked out ‘Hugsjá’ the moment that I was offered the promo. It was curiosity built around the name of Bjørnson, as I’m a huge fan of Enslaved. Selvik, I will admit I’m less familiar with as I haven’t traditionally been much of a fan of Wardruna. It was also curiosity piqued thanks to the artwork for the album, artwork that features the evocative black and white image of a traditional Nordic sailing boat on apparently calm waters with both Selvik and Bjørnson aboard.

Curiosity may have killed the proverbial cat but on this occasion, it has led me to one of the most magnificent discoveries so far in 2018 and beyond. I have a strong emotional bond with Scandinavia and so I have ultimately found this record to be a powerfully intense listening experience. But even had that bond not been so strong, I am certain that the music would still have has a profound impact upon me, such is its authenticity, rawness and rugged beauty. Included within Selvik’s repertoire and therefore featured on this record are instruments such as the taglharpa, kravik lyre, goat horn, birchbark lure and bone flute. So when I said ‘authentic’, I meant it.

I find ‘Hugsjá’ to be something of a hypnotic listening experience too, almost meditative in places, given the calming influence that it is on me. To illustrate my point, take ‘Nytt Land’ as one of many perfect examples. The track, one of three in excess of seven minutes, features a throbbing bass guitar that rumbles beautifully with a gentle recurring pulse, whilst the guitar delivers a simple, repeated melody to compliment. Drums provide a steady beat and when joined by Selvik’s rich, melodious voice, it all comes together to create that strangely hypnotic sensation. The song breaks out of the cycle occasionally and also introduces plenty of authentic instrumentation, but the core remains and it’s a delight to immerse yourself within it.

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‘Nytt Land’ is also a good example of the fact that ‘Hugsjá’ isn’t a pure, out-and-out folk record either. There are plenty of subtle ingredients that ensure that there’s a nice balance between authentic Norse folk music and rock of the progressive variety. AC/DC this isn’t, but the intelligent use of Bjørnson’s guitars and bass alongside the drums within some of the compositions lends the material a more robust, imposing quality alongside a sense of greater power and urgency. Penultimate track, ‘Oska’ encapsulates much of this within its substantial length.

However, as far as I’m concerned, it is the strong compositional nous of the duo and their ear for a strong melody that makes ‘Hugsjá’ such an amazing record. There literally is no track on the album that threatens to lower the quality or ruin the flow; every song eventually delivers an earworm or two – it might take a bit longer for some to come to the fore than others, but they are there and it’s a heady feeling when they finally make their mark.

I’m fairly certain that the opening title track is book-ended by the sound of a bullroarer, an ancient method of communicating over long distances, although I could be wrong of course. In between, is the most intoxicating of songs, dark in tone with a strong percussive, tribal-sounding beat. But the combination of evocative, almost melancholy melody and heartfelt singing from Selvik means that it sends shivers down my spine every time I listen, whilst I picture an unforgiving and rugged Scandinavian vista in my mind.

The die is cast and what follows is every bit as intoxicating. ‘WulthuR’ is a great blend of ancient instrumentation and modern influences as the opening moments see a duet of sorts between what I suspect is the goat horn and an up-tempo drum beat. Selvik’s vocals aren’t quite so prominent here, and he is joined in the latter stages by the low hum of voices as the slightly more upbeat piece drives powerfully to its conclusion.

For my personal tastes, the double-header that’s ‘Ni Døtre av Hav’ and ‘Ni Mødre av Sol’ are the stand-out pieces on this already impressive album. The former track is translated as ‘nine daughters of the sea’ and apparently tells the story of the nine daughters of Rán and the jötunn Ægir from Norse mythology. It is an intensely poignant piece of music with beautiful melodies juxtaposed with darker, slightly harsher sections, accented by the sounds of water almost throughout.

If anything, ‘Ni Mødre av Sol’ is even better, arguably my favourite composition on the entire album. Translated as the ‘nine mothers of the sun’, this piece tells the story within Norse mythology of nine sisters who together, gave birth to the god Heimdallr. The song has an ethereal, other-worldly quality that pulls me in and, depending on my mood, brings me to the verge of tears. Selvik’s singing is heartfelt, plaintive and evocative, dovetailing with the simple but intensely beautiful central melody that begs to be played again and again. So I do. Over and over.

In closing, I have no hesitation in stating that ‘Hugsjá’ is a beautiful album, full of depth, emotion and authenticity. You can feel the conviction that both artists have towards the music on this record, meaning that you believe in the material and buy into it wholeheartedly. The combination of traditional and more modern instrumentation is well-balanced, complimenting each other perfectly. In short, ‘Hugsjá’ is nothing short of a masterpiece.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.5

If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from 2018 and from previous years right here:

2017 reviews
2016 reviews
2015 reviews

Frequency Drift – Letters to Maro
Æpoch – Awakening Inception
Crematory – Oblivion
Wallachia – Monumental Heresy
Skeletal Remains – Devouring Mortality
MØL – Jord
Aesthesys – Achromata
Kamelot – The Shadow Theory
Barren Earth – A Complex of Cages
Memoriam – The Silent Vigil
Kino – Radio Voltaire
Borealis – The Offering
W.E.T. – Earthrage
Auri – Auri
Purest of Pain – Solipsis
Susperia – The Lyricist
Structural Disorder – …And The Cage Crumbles In the Final Scene
Necrophobic – Mark of the Necrogram
Divine Realm – Nordicity
Oceans of Slumber – The Banished Heart
Poem – Unique
Gleb Kolyadin – Gleb Kolyadin
Apathy Noir – Black Soil
Deathwhite – For A Black Tomorrow
Conjurer – Mire
Jukub Zytecki – Feather Bed/Ladder Head
Lione/Conti – Lione/Conti
Usurpress – Interregnum
Kælling – Lacuna
Vinide – Reveal
Armored Dawn – Barbarians In Black
Long Distance Calling – Boundless
In Vain – Currents
Harakiri For The Sky – Arson
Orphaned Land – Unsung Prophets And Dead Messiahs
Tribulation – Down Below
Machine Head – Catharsis
Bjorn Riis – Coming Home EP
Twilight’s Embrace – Penance EP
Bloodshot Dawn – Reanimation
Rise of Avernus – Eigengrau
Arch Echo – Arch Echo
Asenblut – Legenden
Bleeding Gods – Dodekathlon
Watain – Trident Wolf Eclipse

Auri – Auri – Album Review

Auri - Auri - Artwork

Artist: Auri

Album Title: Auri

Label: Nuclear Blast

Date Of Release: 23 March 2018

In all honesty, my love of Nightwish has plummeted over the years to the point where I’ll take a casual listen now and again, but I no longer consider myself much of fan. And that’s coming from a position where I absolutely adored their 2004 album ‘Once’. I still do if I’m honest. And before thie inevitable allegation is levelled at me, I will place it on record that my relative abandonment of Nightwish has little or nothing to do with the departure of Tarja Turunen as lead vocalist. Indeed, if anything, in Floor Jansen, the Finns have an equally powerful, compelling and beautiful voice at the helm. Different, but equally good. No, my apathy stems more from the fact that try as I might, I don’t engage as strongly with the songs themselves anymore.

But, I hear you cry, what relevance does this have to this review of Auri’s debut album? The answer is that it serves as important context for what is to come, because Auri features none other than two Nightwish members in founder Tuomas Holopainen and more recent recruit Troy Donockley. These names are, to be honest, the main reason why I decided to check this record out. That and the fact I was offered the opportunity to listen by those good people at Nuclear Blast.

But importantly, the desire to listen initially was caused by intrigue, rather than blind adoration of the protagonists. As such, I don’t come to this record having already made up my mind about it, be that positively or negatively.

With that out of the way, I now wish to turn my attention fully and squarely onto Auri. The band is essentially a trio, comprised of Holopainen on keyboards and backing vocals, multi-instrumentalist Donockley on acoustic and electric guitars, bouzouki, uilleann pipes, low whistles, aerophone, bodhran, keys and vocals, and Johanna Kurkela (who some of you may recognise thanks to a guest appearance or two with Sonata Arctica) on lead vocals and viola. There are a few guests that litter the album, but it is this core trio that bring us ‘Auri’.

And the greatest thing about Auri is that none of the three musicians seeks to steal the spotlight. It might have been easy for any one of the three to seek a leading role to the detriment of the others, for they are all incredibly talented musicians in their own right. However, ‘Auri’ is the sound of three artists coming together to create something special, something rather unique but hugely powerful and compelling.

If I’m honest, when I first allowed Auri into my life, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all. I think that much of this has to do with the fact that I simply didn’t know what to expect, so when I heard the record, it took time to adjust to what I was listening to. This isn’t my usual heavy metal fare. Neither is it rock in the truest sense, although there are rock-isms within many of the eleven tracks that feature on ‘Auri’, through some powerful rhythms and guitar embellishments. The press material rather loftily suggests that this isn’t music that can be ‘described by words alone’. However, I can understand and agree with this to an extent. The problem is, though, it’s my job to describe music, so I have to at least give it a try.

On that score, I’d have to say that the music is symphonic in tone, with heavy Celtic folk influences. It is dreamy, with minimalist tendencies in places, but it sounds organic and warm, with a welcoming and beguiling feel to it. Every time I listen, I get lost in the wistfulness and the gentle nature of much of the material, as it seeps into me, filling me with a warm glow. I also like the way in which the trio successfully blend modern sounds with more traditional fare, making it sound relevant, whilst also harking back to days gone by.

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Opening track, ‘The Space Between’ is about as upbeat and urgent as Auri get, thanks to a strong, pronounced driving beat that continues throughout. The Orchestration is rich, full and inviting, whilst the deep-timbred strings that segue into an understated electric guitar lead, which then gives way to a higher-pitched violin is the section that produces the most magic in my opinion. However, the smooth and vaguely ethereal voice of Johanna Kurkela cannot be ignored, taking us all willingly along for the ride. Hers is a delivery that is impossible to ignore – soft, lilting and with a magnetic quality to it.

It may not be metal or rock in the slightest, but ‘I Hope Your world is Kind’ does carry with it a sense of Nightwish familiarity thanks to the chosen folk melodies that come to the fore. ‘Skeleton Tree’ which follows, is one of the darkest and most striking compositions on the record and a personal favourite. I’m not normally the biggest fan of Celtic folk, but on this occasion, as the urgency returns for the final minute or so, I make a willing exception. It also showcases some of the exceptional, yet subtle talents of Troy Donockley, embellishing the composition with skill and panache.

I also like the acoustic guitar and male vocals that appear within the exquisite ballad ‘Desert Flower’. On this song, the melodies hit me hard right out of the gate – no ‘growing on me’, it is instant love. And, in the right mood, the male/female duet, the minimalist orchestration and gorgeously fragile violins could bring a grown man to tears.

The quality continues with seemingly no end, as ‘Night 13’ is another stand-out piece. For the most part, Johanna Kurkela takes centre stage but what I like so much is the way that it builds so serenely, to create a wonderfully dramatic, percussion-led climax, full of drama. The simply-titled ‘See’ is a superb masterclass in blending modernity with the traditional, as Holopainen bathes the folky track with some intriguing sounds, unique but almost psychedelic in nature.

I could quite easily believe it if you told me that ‘The Name of the Wind’ featured within a cinematic soundtrack, such is its majestic nature. But then, I also get more than an occasional hint of modern-day Anathema within ‘Aphrodite Rising’, which is a bittersweet composition with plenty of Donockley magic and an infectious vibe, particularly in the latter stages.

Alongside the aforementioned ‘Skeleton Tree’, ‘Savant’ is another darker composition with the hint of a twisted, slightly uncomfortable lullaby. And the darker side of Auri continues with ‘Underthing Solstice’, although this is a much more sombre, minimalist affair, complete with church organs and powerful orchestration in places.

The album then concludes with the slightly quirky ‘Them Thar Chanterelles’, thanks to some interesting vocals and a ‘Riverdance’ edge. It isn’t a personal favourite if I’m honest, but it’s an important song insofar as it pulls the story together neatly at the end.

Auri may not have too much in common with my normal preferred musical choices, but I find myself really liking this record. It has charm in abundance and an inner strength that belies much of the more delicate material that emanates from the speakers with spectacular clarity thanks to a wonderful production. And even though there are nods towards Nightwish occasionally, Auri has created a strong identity all of its own that means you are guaranteed a unique listening experience if you give Auri a try – and I really recommend you do so. I didn’t expect to like this, but I have well and truly fallen for its numerous charms.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.25

If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from 2018 and from previous years right here:

2017 reviews
2016 reviews
2015 reviews

Purest of Pain – Solipsis
Susperia – The Lyricist
Structural Disorder – …And The Cage Crumbles In the Final Scene
Necrophobic – Mark of the Necrogram
Divine Realm – Nordicity
Oceans of Slumber – The Banished Heart
Poem – Unique
Gleb Kolyadin – Gleb Kolyadin
Apathy Noir – Black Soil
Deathwhite – For A Black Tomorrow
Conjurer – Mire
Jukub Zytecki – Feather Bed/Ladder Head
Lione/Conti – Lione/Conti
Usurpress – Interregnum
Kælling – Lacuna
Vinide – Reveal
Armored Dawn – Barbarians In Black
Long Distance Calling – Boundless
In Vain – Currents
Harakiri For The Sky – Arson
Orphaned Land – Unsung Prophets And Dead Messiahs
Tribulation – Down Below
Machine Head – Catharsis
Bjorn Riis – Coming Home EP
Twilight’s Embrace – Penance EP
Bloodshot Dawn – Reanimation
Rise of Avernus – Eigengrau
Arch Echo – Arch Echo
Asenblut – Legenden
Bleeding Gods – Dodekathlon
Watain – Trident Wolf Eclipse

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