Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ihsahn - After (2010)

Mind-blowing. Eccentric. Genius. All of these things describe Ihsahn, former vocalist and guitarist for Emperor, one of the preeminent black metal bands in the world. Now on his own, he has a bonafide "album of the year" candidate in this, his third solo record.

The album was Ihsahn's first experimenting with 8 string guitars, which he described as being "both challenging and inspiring." The hard work seems to have paid off in the material included, a collection of some of the most varied, eclectic songs you can find in metal today.

Unlike the two albums before, "After" is a much more polished effort. It still contains all of the high speed, punishing double kicks, black metal screeching vocals and blistering guitar work that you have come to appreciate. All of those things are used as a disclaimer on the albums opening track, "The Barren Lands." But what makes them stand out is the use of well placed, clean vocals. Ihsahn has created a wonderful contrast here.

"A Grave Inversed" may sound like the standard black metal screamfest at first. But there is something odd. Do you hear it? It starts off as an accent, but soon the saxophone solo blindsides you. I am sure John Coltrane and Charlie Parker never envisioned their craft being developed into this. But, surprisingly, it not only fits, but flourishes. The presence of the saxophone is welcomed. It could be the next evolution of metal.

A melodic turn approaches, with Ihsahn showing off his vocal diversity on the title track, "After." Don't worry, the double bass and layered guitars are still here. "Frozen Lakes On Mars" is a well written metaphor, comparing blue eyes to the lakes on the now dry red planet, both lifeless and empty. Ihsahn continues to tear down the assumptions of what black metal is about.

The true fusion of jazz and metal is found in "Undercurrent," which places the saxophone at the lead of the band, and lets the entire track build around it. A smooth bassline ties it all together in a perfect musical marriage. Things slow down considerably for "Austere," an atmospheric, bass driven outing. Mainly an instrumental, it allows for Ihsahn's musical prowess to be heard, join by his friends, drummer Asgeir Mickelson and bassist Lars K. Norberg, both of the band Spiral Architect.

"Heavens Black Sea," aptly named, brings the darker side back. Intertwined guitar work, all performed by Ihsahn, joined with sporadic double bass, provides the platform to jump from screams to singing, and back again. It clears the way for the epic closer, "On The Shores," which at times breaks down into an jazz improv, before slamming back to black metal glory. The entire album, summarized in one all-over-the-place jam session.

Black metal musicians are often dismissed as satanists, with black and white face paint. Double bass, distorted guitars, screams. Ihsahn is proof that there is so much more to be had. When you see where he has been, what he has done in the past, what would you expect? Would you have believed that this album ends with a saxophone solo?


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Katatonia - The Great Cold Distance (2006)

Sweden's Katatonia is different. They simply cannot be confined to a single musical label. The material stirs such diverse emotions, often at odds with one another. How can one song be both empowering and thoroughly depressing? How can a band be so heavy and yet so sensitive at the same time? Only the members of this five piece can know for sure.

"The Great Cold Distance" doesn't wait to draw you in. "Leaders" is well placed at the top of the tracklisting, with the opening riff grabbing your attention immediately. Flawless execution, smooth transitions, and top notch production all take the fore. The melancholy, yet staggeringly powerful vocals of band frontman Jonas Renkse are offset with background screams, creating a beautiful contradiction.

"Deliberation," which served as a single from the album, starts off somewhat delicately, with splendid drum fills moving the song into the heavier chorus. Renkse's dark, somber lyrics are constantly highlighted. Each song seems to be part of a larger story, with this one begging the question; "Will you wake us up before it is time?" Seamlessly, it flows into "Soil's Song," which is a reminder that the end is always near. A smooth bassline unites drum and guitar together in a singular wave.

The albums strongest effort, "My Twin," is the song that has turned many people on to this album, and this band. As powerful as it is emotional, it will make the hair on your arm stand. Musically, the band outdo themselves. They create a haunting soundscape, providing a suitable canvas for the vocal melodies. The lyrics, telling a story of love and loss, leave you breathless. "I think of love/I let it pass/ It feels like fire/But it won't last." And as suddenly as it begins, it ends.

"Consternation,"  with it's deep guitars and strong, driving drums dries your tears and convinces you to move forward. "Follower" walks the line between heavy and beautiful with uncanny precision, even providing a "breakdown" of sorts to provide head bobbing material. "Rusted" completes the trio, with synthesizers and effects used to furnish a ghostly sense, leaving the crushing guitars to push the track forward.

Combining both the heavier side, as well as a touch of the electronic, "Increase," follows. Renkse reveals more of his seemingly tortured soul, telling us that "There won't be a time when I'm at ease." The ability to stop and start, fade in and fade out is something Katatonia has perfected. Guitars can cut, leaving a second to highlight a single word, and return to drive the point home.

A darker, heavier track, "July," leads the tail end of the album. This could be the anthem for your depressed summer months, though decidedly different from the "good weather, roll down your windows and blast it" type of music. "In The White," with a first verse akin to a lullaby you may have known, is a love song of a much different color. Gray, perhaps. Renkse croons "And now that you're here/It becomes so clear/I have waited for you always." The words of a broken man.

After traveling through an album that seems to navigate the months of the year, "The Itch" and "Journey Through Pressure" are excellent closing efforts, finishing the story.

This album is a departure from what the band had done before. It is focused, fine tuned to perfection. Maybe you can share in Jonas' woes. Maybe you can't. But you simply cannot find another band that embodies so much pain, and so much power. Katatonia is different.

"The sky moves faster at this time of year."


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Avantasia - The Scarecrow (2008)

The pride of Germany, Tobias Sammet, is not short on ideas and imagination. After all, you don't come up with the idea for a duo of albums titled "The Metal Opera" without a true concept in mind. So, for the Edguy frontman and rock superhero, Avantasia was a way to showcase his vision. And The Scarecrow is a masterpiece for the ages.

Featuring a laundry list of guest appearances, from the likes of Alice Cooper to Michael Kiske (formerly of power metal masters Helloween), Eric Singer (Kiss) to Amanda Somerville (female frontwoman extraordinaire), this is truly a fantasy come to life. The album delivers more variety than the "Metal Opera" series, straying from the all-out symphonic power metal, and delving into many different arrangements.

"Twisted Mind," the albums opening track is the perfect appetizer. It is a sampler plate of everything that is to come. Layers of sound coming together, creating a sonic assault. The song pushes forward with numerous tempo changes, all the while adorned with a great vocal presence from Sammet and Kamelot frontman Roy Khan.

The title track, "The Scarecrow," is the 11 minute epic that fans of the genre are expecting, this time seeing Sammet share the microphone with the aforementioned Kiske, as well as Jorn Lande. It becomes a challenge to try not to sing along. The orchestration is simply mind blowing, adding in strings, keys and horns. All too soon, the track ends, giving way to high speed "Shelter From The Rain," a showcase of the musical prowess of the all-star backing band.

"Carry Me Over" serves as a "ballad before the ballad". The tempo slows and Sammet handles the song on his own. Perhaps this track is the one that lets you enjoy his lyrical genius. "And now I might as well be the man on the moon/I am watching but you don't seem aware." All else fades, as Tobias delivers one last line, and you are now fully immersed in one of the most beautiful ballads you may come to hear in metal, "What Kind Of Love." Amanda Somerville and Sammet weave their vocals together, on top of a beautiful arrangement of strings and percussion.

"Another Angel Down" kicks in with a fury, full speed ahead. Empowering and awe inspiring, it begs for you to chant along with the chorus-leading line "We rock the ball!" It leads to a noticeable turn in the albums sound. The Alice Cooper fronted "The Toy Master" has a darker tone. Cooper is at his creepy best, bringing back memories of his "Welcome To My Nightmare" performance of the early nineties.

"Devil In The Belfry," another uptempo rock track, provides some of the albums best guitar work. Sascha Paeth, guitar virtuoso, shines throughout. Secondary ballad, "Cry Just A Little," follows as a breather of sorts, allowing you to have one last somber moment before all hell breaks loose. Bob Catley (Magnum) lends his voice to the piano-laden love song.

"I Don't Believe In Your Love" delivers a signature Sammet moment. He manages to sing the word "fuck" in an almost acceptable way. He makes it sound like a word we should all be using all the time. And it all leads into the closing masterpiece, "Lost In Space," which had been released as a two part CD single almost a year before the album emerged. Signature Avantasia, it gives you a little bit of everything. Musically and lyrically, it finishes the story, driving it all home.

This album, which is later joined by "The Wicked Symphony" and "The Angel Of Babylon" to form what has been dubbed "The Wicked Trilogy," is almost too good to be true. Tobias Sammet has brought his vision to life, all with a little help from his friends.


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Gojira - From Mars To Sirius (2005)

Looking for something to snack on? “From Mars To Sirius” is some excellent ear candy.

The album opens up with “Ocean Planet,” delivering large amounts of bass and incredible drum fills. Then followed by “Backbone,” which I would say is literally the backbone of this album. It consists of constant, heavy chugging through out the song, which will leave your head nodding from start to finish. Wicked fast double bass petals and powerful guitar riffs clashing together to form a beast.

Things calm down for bit with the instrumental, “Unicorn,” which I feel really gave some structure to the album. It gives you a chance to catch up and embrace the first 3 hard hitting tracks.

But then, of course, things pick up again with “Where Dragons Dwell” and “The Heaviest Matter Of The Universe.” Heavy distorted guitars and bone crushing vocals. You might want to turn your speakers up for these two.

The last song on the album, “Global Warming,” brings a little bit of everything to the table. It starts out dark and slow, with some clean singing and repetitive guitar riffs. However, it then drops into some heavier chugging and aggressive vocals. A good 7 minutes and 50 seconds of pure dirty guitar work. It’s great when you can incorporate all of this creativity into one track. It really leaves a solid imprint in the back of your mind.

Out of all of Gojira’s albums, I have to say this one tops them all, but who knows what they have in store for us next!


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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Stratovarius - Elysium (2011)

If you’re looking for symphonic power metal at its best then look no further…

Stratovarius has struck the metal world yet again with their thirteenth studio album, “Elysium,” throwing melodic riffs and high and low use of vocals from all directions. With every creative verse comes an epic solo that is followed by an orchestrated background that will knock you on your ass. Songs like “Infernal Maze“ and “Event Horizon” blast through the record with high speeds and incredible accuracy. This is what is known as true power metal.

My personal favorite, “Move the Mountain,” starts off dark and eerie, but slowly opens to a beautiful story. The riffs will remain stuck in your head for days, as I found my self constantly whistling the solo that follows the second chorus in the song.

Now, a Stratovarius album always comes with that one solid 15+ minute song of greatness. Track 9, the title track “Elysium,” is that song. Verse after verse, solo after solo, the structure of this epic masterpiece changes again and again. Timo Kotipelto’s pitch varies back and forth from calm and mellow, to loud and sharp. As it plays just over 18 minutes long, the tempo builds slowly. Before you know it, the song ends, leaving you begging for more. Thank god there’s a replay button on your iPod, because your going to want to hear this one over and over again.

As always, Stratovarius delivers another mind blowing album.


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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Swallow The Sun - Hope (2007)

Hope. We find it in many places. It is always up to the beholder to choose their own source. From churches to TV, books to movies. Hope can come from anywhere. Even a metal record.

Right from the onset, the title track "Hope," Swallow The Sun give you a taste of the sonic onslaught that will follow. Well constructed, intertwined guitars lead you into the fray, building up into a thunderous chorus. Vocals touch on the extremes, from soft, melodic crooning, into the growls and screams that make your hair stand straight. You would never think that one man delivers both ends of the spectrum.

As the album progresses, the bands strengths come to the fore. The rhythm section lays down the framework for it all, allowing the songs to build over each pending cymbal crash. The bass lines, ever present, provide the constant flow of one section to the next. But the unsung hero to this album, from track to track, is the powerful, if not eerie, presence of the keyboard. It is never more evident than in the waning moments of "These Hours Of Despair." Haunting, ghostly tones.

The meat of the album lies in tracks 3 and 4, a back-to-back exhibition of what many bands in the doom/death genre strive for. "The Justice Of Suffering" is equally beautiful as it is frightening. A well executed chorus, powerfully sung, is sandwiched between the dark, heavy verses. Beauty and the beast, all in one song. The follow-up, "Don't Fall Asleep," could be delivered as a dark lullaby at times, imploring the listener 'Don't fall asleep/to the breathing of the walls."Then, seconds later, you are jolted back to life with a bruising refrain, all six pieces of the band locking together in a period of head-banging glory.

Things slow down a notch for the aptly named "Too Cold For Tears," but not for long. It is merely a chance to catch your breath before "The Empty Skies," which will shake the breath from you with a trio of vocal stylings, from clean singing to growls, and on the black metal rasp. The song structure is to be celebrated, as each track flows seamlessly into the next, continuing the story. "No Light, No Hope" almost seems like a three minute addendum to 'The Empty Skies", before giving way to the climax.

"Doomed To Walk The Earth," the closing track, reinforces everything you came to love in the prior seven. It begins to break down, trailing off, only to come back in for one final outburst. Guitar, bass, drums and keyboard take you on one last journey, before ending on a somber, quiet guitar riff.

There is simply no dead air, no filler to be had on this album. With each passing track, the band gives you more of what you wanted. The enchanting melodies, the flip-of-the-switch periods of chugging excellence. It is all here, delivered at a constant, deliberate tempo. You won't find any blazing solos here, nor will you care. You will find everything you need in an eight track, hour long, epic masterpiece.

You might even find hope.


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