CRITICAL METAL 2004

 

Here’s another installment of my opinion on some great new stuff out there.  Remember, there aren’t too many low ratings here because I tend to ignore stuff that isn’t to my liking.  Also remember that my rating system is about as scientific as the National Enquirer.  I base it all on my gut feeling and the aesthetic value I derive from the music.  One band in particular got the ultimate rating of a 10:  Into Eternity (it is silly in my view for a reviewer to never give a perfect rating), whereas several bands got close. 

 

ASMEGIN  “Af Helvegum” (11 tracks).  NAPALM.

Rating:  8.5.

          Death, black, and folk influences coalesce into a coherent whole with this album.  This is not a gothic-inspired work like Sins of Thy Beloved, but it does sound like a similarly composed band of male and female vocalists and violins doing their version of Bathory’s “Blood on Ice.”  This is not an exact comparison, but it a near approximation.  Anyway, most groups on Napalm Records have a certain vibe, and if you are familiar with it, then you can feel confident about Asmegin.  Some moments on this record are intense black metal with hyperspeed drumming and shrill vocals, other moments are plodding death metal with deep gutteral vocals.  At other times clean male and lovely female vocals take over and acoustic instruments (guitars, violins, etc.) have their place.  The CD runs the gamut of styles and does so “clean as a whistle.”  It is astounding to hear how this band was able to pull it off.

 

AXENSTAR  “Far From Heaven” (10 tracks).  ARISE RECORDS.

Rating:  9.5.

          Axenstar follow up their impressive debut, Perpetual Twilight, with an even more impressive album.  This is a work of musical maturity and sensibility like you have come to expect from a Swedish power metal band.  The album grabs you from the very beginning and holds your interest throughout.  I like to think of this band as a Swedish Iron Savior.  They have that same penchant for super tight playing, well-executed solos, and great vocals.  Their command of English is impressive (as it is with most Swedish bands).  I mention this because the lyrics are very well written, not cliché and not forced.  Many of the choruses invite you to sing along, but also to think.  Off the top of my head I cannot think of another album in this field that is better.  Granted that they are playing a well-established form of metal in a highly populated field, they are way ahead of much of the competition. 

 

DARK MOOR  “Dark Moor” (12 tracks).  ARISE RECORDS.

Rating:  8.

Though self-titled, this is actually Dark Moor’s sixth release not including tribute and compilation albums.  Unfortunately for me, it happens to be the first album of theirs for me to hear.  Dark Moor strikes me as a Spanish counterpart to Rhapsody, though less flamboyant.  They have that Baroque/Classical style meets prog. metal vibe also shared with bands like Queensryche and Veni Domine and is the spry offspring of Queen.  One or both of the guitarists, Enrik Garcia and/or Jose Garrido, has a soloing style highly reminiscent of Uli Jon Roth, so you can imagine what an exciting album this is.  Unlike Rhapsody’s tendency for fantasy topics of battling with dragons and such, Dark Moor sing about “Cyrano De Bergerac” and “Phillip the Second” (think Kamelot).  Like Rhapsody, DM makes use of a choir and orchestra. 

 

HAMMERS OF MISFORTUNE  “The August Engine” (7 tracks).  CRUZ DEL SUR.

Rating:  9.

          If their name intrigues you, it should.  I don’t know where it comes from or what it means—and I’m sure it means something!—but this I know, this band is very intriguing.  Part classic metal, part 1960’s rock opera is how I would describe them.  Imagine what it would be like if “Jesus Christ Superstar” or “Hair” was composed by one of today’s power metal bands.  And apparently this band has something like this in mind judging by the storyline and the Jefferson Airplane styled male and female vocals.  It is a little out of the ordinary, only comparable to Arwen from Argentina, but it is very enjoyable and a welcome change from the aforementioned ordinary.  If you like clever diversions with enough metal to satisfy the headbanger in you, then this is the album for you.

 

INTO ETERNITY  “Buried in Oblivion” (10 tracks.  44:42).  CENTURY MEDIA.

Rating:  10.

          I didn’t know a band could mix so much aggression with prog-metal and make it sound so cool.  Usually a prog-metal band will not make me want to bang my head.  But with Into Eternity I feel the dual urge bang my head and to contemplate the meaning of life!  With influences from Dream Theatre to Fates Warning, throw in a little Nevermore and some Dickenson (especially Chemical Wedding), some death influence, and a healthy measure of youthful vigor, and you have Into Eternity.  They are a band with a full range of musical options:  technique, emotion, and likeability.

The musical intensity of this album is matched by the sheer depth of sorrow that bleeds through the lyrics of this album.  Several of the songs, in fact, reflect the depression brought on when guitarist/vocalist Tim Roth lost his mother, and guitarist/vocalist Rob Doherty lost his father.  Both passed away during the recording of this album.   To actually be able to maintain their composure, and then to transmit their sorrow into music is a blessing to we the listeners.  Few CD’s deserve a perfect rating, but this one clearly does in my opinion.

 

KNIGHT AREA  “The Sun Also Rises” (10 tracks).  THE LASER’S EDGE.

          I am musical enough to be able to compliment these guys on their technicality and their musicality.  But frankly, this is too popish and too progressive for my tastes.  I include it here simply as a courtesy to the promo agency representative who sent it to me.  There is nothing wrong with this CD, it is just not to my taste.  But those of you into Saga and similar bands should give it your attention.

 

LYZANXIA  “Mindcrimes”  (12 tracks.  52:32 + video).  REALITY.

Rating:  7.5.

          I really like this album, but had a hard time thinking of what to write about it.  To begin with, there is something familiar about this music, which I take to be the influence of producer Fredrik Nordstrom.  Their sound is kind of death metal meets death rock—think In Flames meets The Haunted.  Whether this French band has set out to be that country’s version of Gothenburg or not is hard to tell.  One thing I am sure of: the Reality Entertainment reps have a point when they called Lyzanxia France’s premier metal band.  They are quite good.  In some ways, though, they are a little too adept at utilizing their formula.  While the album starts off with a very exciting song, “Time Dealer,” somewhere towards the end of the album the similarity of the songs causes your mind to drift.  Some people would think of the uniformity of the songs as a strength of the album.  Personally, however, I prefer albums with a little variety.

 

MANKIND LIBERATION FRONT  “Automind” (14 tracks plus video).  REALITY ENT.

Rating:  9.

          This type of album usually does not get reviewed on my site, though I often take a break from metal for this type of “distraction.”  MLF are pop in terms of “heaviness,” but definitely left field.  I expect they probably get play on college stations rather than top 40 stations.  I’m not exactly sure what category these guys belong in.  “Synthpop” is probably a little deceptive since MLF are not a syrupy sweet Casio imitation of Tears for Fears …. And one may detect a certain measure of U2 “Pop” influence on this album.  But most of all, they make me think of groups like House of Wires and maybe Joy Electric.  Anyway, the lyrics are thoughtful and the music a bit unpredictable.  It makes a nice diversion from the usual mind-pummeling music I usually listen to.

 

ORPHANED LAND  “Mabool” (12 tracks.  ).  CENTURY MEDIA.

Rating:  9.5.

Pluralistic, eclectic, theological, imaginative; to say that this music is “boundary-crossing” would be the understatement of the year.  This group of Israeli musicians have taken history, myth, religion, conflict, mysticism, philosophy, culture, pessimism, and hope and integrated them into a powerful musical drama.  While circumstances in the Middle East have prevented them from recording over the past seven years, the band has not weakened their sound, nor sought to “explore other musical avenues.”  Rather, they have honed their talents and reemerged with an unbelievably diverse and inspiring album.  And because their music comes from the Middle East, it reflects the sounds of that culture

As everyone knows, the Bible and other ancient religious traditions speak of a flood; thus the title, Mabool, or lwbm.  But anyone naively expecting a retelling of Noah’s Ark or Gilgamish will be quite surprised at the new epic that Orphaned Land has created here.  Taking the reality of conflict between the three monotheistic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—as their backdrop, Orphaned Land warns these warring brothers of the wrath of God to come upon the earth due to their failure to follow God’s instructions.  Their point is that in our own day these religions have made the land unlivable and now God needs to wipe the slate clean by turning the Holy Land into an “Ocean Land.”  This is a sentiment that many of us can agree with.  (Perhaps they should consider doing a cover of Sepultura’s “Territory”).

Not only is the story if this album an intriguing creation, so is the complex amalgam of music.  I guess it is misleading anymore to use a term like “eclectic,” though this word is totally appropriate.  OL sounds to me like a mixture of Tiamat, Tristania, and Sigh.  These may not be the best bands to compare OL to, but I notice that even the Century Media people failed to list any musical comparisons on the promo sheet, which is out of the ordinary.  I think I chose these three bands for a comparison because of the following reasons:  1) Tiamat has a sort of ethereal vibe like OL.  2) Sigh is very eclectic and experimental like OL.  And 3) Tristania has the beautiful female vocals/choir, the additional instruments, and overall similar sound to OL.  Nevertheless, Orphaned Land are their own band and only resemble these three loosely.  What makes them most appealing to me, at least, is their wholly ethnic flavor, particularly Hebrew (though I am a Christian, I am studying Hebrew Bible in grad school).

You cannot prepare yourself for what you will experience with this album.  And if you are like me, you will find the first listen a little confusing, perhaps overwhelming.  But if you stick with it, you will find that it is a remarkable album, well conceived and well executed.  I have listened to this album practically two or three times a day since receiving it.  So I heartily recommend it.

 


SAINT  “In the Battle” (9 tracks.  40:50).  ARMOR RECORDS.

Rating:  9.5

          Rarely has a band come back from a lengthy retirement sounding so much like the band I remember as Saint has done here.  In the Battle is undeniably the logical successor to 1987’s Too Late for Living and the sign that this band is still viable.  Aside from the seventeen-year interval and 2001’s Perfect Life e.p. —which was a slight musical diversion—nothing has changed or been changed.  Richard Lynch’s solid leadership/songwriting and Josh Kramer’s killer made-for-metal Halfordesque vocals are as powerful today as they were in the late 80’s.  I have been listening to this band for twenty years and I must say that this new album has made me all mushy inside like a 12-year-old girl at an N’Sync concert!

          The album begins with the title track, “In the Battle,” a mid-tempo rocker bearing the characteristic Saint sound, and ends with “Full Armor,” a raging metal bull in a china shop!  In between these two masterpieces are 7 other well-crafted metallic wonders.  The continuity of sound between this new album and the first three releases (Warriors of the Son, Time’s End, and Too Late …), as has already been mentioned, is very satisfying.  To those who are not familiar with Saint, the best comparison I know is mid-80’s era Judas Priest (Defenders of the Faith, Screaming for Vengeance).  Nevertheless, Saint has a trademark sound of their own.  Those familiar with Saint will know exactly what I am talking about here.  You cannot lose with this CD.

 

VARIOUS   “Reality Vol. I”.  (12 tracks).  REALITY ENTERTAINMENT.

Reality Entertainment has brought a lot to the table in the music industry and they want you to become more familiar with their products.  So, here is a budget priced sampler with one track each from the following bands:  Marcy Playground, Godhead, Freakhouse, Slow Roosevelt, Warrior, WWIII, Wayne, The Council, WAKE, Mankind Liberation Front, The Outpatience, and Fastlane.  Many of these bands have received reviews on my site, so look on this page and the previous updates for more specific information on these bands.  But for $7.99, you can get a firsthand listen to them.  Let me end by mentioning, though, that the Wayne track is an unreleased track from the Nuclear Blast album entitled “Metal Church” from a couple of years ago.  Most of the other tracks are from forthcoming releases.

 

VHALDEMAR  “I Made My Own Hell” (12 tracks).  ARISE RECORDS.

Rating:  9.

          Oh yes!  Two words:  classy and furious.  We hear so few bands from Spain and it is cool that this band’s music is going to make its way here to represent that country (along with Dark Moor).  Don’t be fooled by the Germanic name, these guys are from Spain.  They rock like Judas Priest meets Helloween with a Spanish accent and an occasional touch of Mercyful Fate and even a hint of neo-classical/progressive metal (e.g., “March of Dooms”).  In other words, these guys kill.  They walk a fine line between classic and power metal with some Spanish (flamenco?) acoustic passages.  Everything you could want is here.  Though the song titles sound like 80’s hair band songs (e.g., “Breakin all the Rules”), they have a more up-to-date seriousness.   Excellent production, hyperspeed riffs, commercial but meaty, this band makes me wonder what other great bands Spain has been holding out on us!  Don’t miss it.  La musica de Vhaldemar es muy fantastico! 

 

WARRIOR  “The Wars of Gods and Men”  (10 tracks. 40:24).  REALITY.

Rating:  7.5.

          This is a fine album with some very cool songs, excellent production, musicianship, etc.  The addition of former Krokus vocalist, Mark Storace, has changed the makeup of this band a bit, noticeable in songs like “Do It Now,” and “Live Your Life Again.”  Thus The Wars of Gods and Men have a sort of Code of Life era Warrior meets Krokus sound.  It’s not too hard to imagine if you think about it.  The bottom line is that it is a fine collaboration, worthy of the attention of serious fans of classic metal, but I am a bit jaded.  Fighting for the Earth will probably always be the standard for me. 

 

WUTHERING HEIGHTS  “Far from the Maddening Crowd”  (12 tracks.  65:35).  SENSORY

Rating:  9.

          I thought I really enjoyed WH’s last album, To Travel For Evermore, but this new album has outshined it.  Though their name and album title evoke images of British romantic literature (the Brontes, Thomas Hardy), the interested metal consumer should, rather, think Blind Guardian meets Styx in Sweden.  New vocalist, Nils Patrick Johansson has a lot to do with this.  Johansson’s style brings a new dimension to this band. His clean voice is similar to Tommy Shaw/Dennis DeYoung (Styx) and his gritty voice a close match for Ronnie James Dio.  Musically, I just think this new album takes things up a notch from an already well-developed band.  Especially on this album Wuthering Heights draws from past and present to create an album with that classic Dio feel mixed with Blind Guardian, some Styx, and perhaps a drop of Meatloaf, but with a more up-to-date Swedish touch.  In other words, it has commercial appeal in a heavy sort of way. 

Another noticeable aspect of this album is its epic quality.  A lot of classic metal albums are simply a collection of ten or so songs composed by such-and-such a band.  Here we have an album with more of a unifying thread—not repeating songs or background music, but recurring melodies in different settings and keys, variations on a theme like in classical music.  In a word, “classy.”  To summarize, these guys have brought it up a notch and have created a very satisfying album.

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