Seventh Wonder – Tiara Review

CoverYeah, any Tiara review’s opening will use the 8 years time span between Seventh Wonder‘s last record, The Great Escape, 2010, and Tiara. Is it more or less tacky to go meta? Anyway, eight years! That builds expectation. Especially as the Swedes have never disappointed with their albums, putting out prog metal opus one after another. Granted, after the epochal Mercy Falls from 2008, there is little left to be said. The band could have stopped right then and there with one of the greatest prog metal albums of all times in their catalogue. Fortunately for us, we are still getting new stuff, even though at a relatively slower rate than in the ’00s. Part of that is surely singer Tommy Karevik’s engagement in Kamelot, which seems to have left little time for his true home. Let’s shed no tears here though and get instead rejoice that we get another Seventh Wonder record after all with the band in peak form and Tommy exercising the whole range of his prowess. Continue reading “Seventh Wonder – Tiara Review”

Mob Rules – Beast Reborn Review

305540Beast Reborn? German heavy metal outfit Mob Rules surely hasn’t been gone long enough to warrant a whole relaunch; as such the new album’s title is more of a reinforcement than a comeback promise. After all, the band’s previous album was released in 2016 and received phenomenally by both press and fans. Rightly so, as Mob Rules evolved and matured their sound greatly over their now 20+ years career. With their first few albums the Germans started out as a rather traditional power metal constellation in the vein of Helloween with melodious guitar leads and heavy keyboard influences. Continue reading “Mob Rules – Beast Reborn Review”

Kamelot – The Shadow Theory Review

1000x1000 (2)I used to be a huge Kamelot fan and I still consider their ’00s outputs as some of the best records released in the otherwise crowded progressive power metal genre. I love both Roy Khan and Tommy Karevik, the former being the iconic shaper of Kamelot‘s renown and the latter an adequate replacement, if at all possible. My enamorment with the band does not mean that I am listening to their albums with rose-colored earphones, on the contrary, I have noticed a steady degeneration in songwriting since 2010’s Poetry For The Poisoned. As always, this is probably highly subjective, but I’d like to deduce my final opinion on 2018’s The Shadow Theory with some more explanations.

I would love to start off writing something positive, but when the The Shadow Theory serves an opening instrumental as generic as “The Mission”, I have to mention it. The same is true for “The Mission” as for the closing instrumental, “Ministrium (Shadow Key)”. Soulless, bland, generic. With those two tracks you will discover pseudo-orchestral pieces consisting of mostly cheap samples commonly used in Hollywood film trailers by subpar componists in the stead of the yet unfinished soundtrack. All effect, no soul. With Kamelot‘s budget and production technology (Sascha Paeth!) you’d expect a more striking instrumental.

Fortunately the album is not composed only of electronic samples but also actual metal songs as well-displayed by high speed power metal hymn “Phantom Divine (Shadow Empire)”, fittingly used as second single from the album after the following track “Ravenlight”. When I first heard “Phantom Divine”, I was extremely disappointed. By now I realized it is the second best song on the album, yet my opinion on the song itself did not change. It tells more about the rest of the album than the track, really. Kamelot used to be known as a groundbreaking, innovative and unique band, but with tracks like “Phantom Divine” they are undermining this image rigorously. Listen to “Phantom Divine” and any other Kamelot single since 2012 side by side, for example “Sacrimony (Angel Of Afterlife)” from 2012’s Silverthorn. I break down the formula: Speedy double bass drumming, down-tuned guitar riffs without purpose and a more than unappealing keyboard “melody”. This followed by a rather calm verse, focusing on Tommy’s vocals until the heavy riffs are reintroduced to finally culminate in a European power metal style allegro chorus. Which Kamelot single was I just describing? Right, all of them.

If the track was good at least. But if you found the composition on some mediocre power metal band’s new album, sung by someone not as illustrious as Mr. Karevik, you’d wipe it away as generic and boring without hesitation. As I said, it is the second best song on the album and that is purely because it still is what it is – a mediocre, but powerful power metal song. No innovation, no soul.

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I talked sufficiently about the second best song, which one’s the best one? That would be “Burns To Embrace”, as expected by many from the youtube trailer displaying short fragments of each song. However, it is only marginally better than “Phantom Divine”. “Burns To Embrace” is another typical power metal track, but this one at least features a sweet melody and anthemic chorus. It’s all a bit more elaborate in its mid-tempo composition than the all-out “Phantom Divine”. Again, this song is nothing special. It is certainly not worth a Kamelot song and would just be a side note, if released by a less known power metal outfit.

“In Twilight Hours”, a ballad, starts off as promising as “Abandoned” but fails to deliver a hard-hitting, emotional refrain. This one features German pop singer Jennifer Haben of fake casting band Beyond The Black. Whatever happened to talented singers like Simone Simons? Well, there’s actually one on the album, Lauren Hart of Once Human who fills a similar role as Alissa White-Gluz on the previous Kamelot release, this time sweetening tracks “Phantom Divine” and “Mindfall Remedy” with both clear and growling vocals. Sadly, she is not granted much space in both composition and mixing, falling behind despite her otherwise excellent prowess.

The rest of the album is as mediocre; when spinning it again and again I was happy to listen to actually engaging songs like the two mentioned top tracks. There are a lot of boring down-tempo tracks lacking any energy or memorability, for example “Static” and “Stories Unheard”. In the past, those would feature great compositional and instrumental virtuosity as in “March Of Mephisto” (2005), but now they are barely a shadow of greater arrangements. Granted, there are good moments. The middle part of “The Proud And The Broken” for example, for the rest insignificant as well, features some interesting, unique structures. Sadly, Kamelot can not expand on their sporadically absorbing ideas and mostly churn out bore after bore.

 

The sound of the album is a standard 2018 fast food production. Fine, extremely compressed, but crystal clear sound. Nothing to rave about and certainly nothing I hope for to catch on in the future. The drumming especially sounds artificial at best. The Shadow Theory actually saw the departure of long time drummer Casey Grillo, the animal behind the battery, to be replaced by Firewind‘s Johan Nunez. Not relevant to the album, which could as well be featuring a drum computer with its lifeless sounds.

That is my final takeaway: Lifeless. Kamelot succumb to mediocre pre-formulated tracks instead of reinstating their former glory with unique, poignant and thrilling songwriting. A less critical thinking Kamelot fan could both enjoy this and hate on me for my honest opinion, it is a Kamelot album after all. It sounds like Kamelot, only lacking everything that made the band great. Let me press the comparison again; if this album was released by an unknown power metal band, no one would bat an eye. The only good thing here really are Tommy’s and Lauren’s vocals, the rest could have been recorded by a robot.

Chris, 04/04/2018

Format reviewed: mp3 320 kBit/s | DR Value: 7
Label: Napalm Records
LinksFacebook | kamelot.com
Release date: 04/06/2018

 

Ayreon – Ayreon Universe Review

1000x1000 (1)In 2017, the absolute madman Arjen Anthony Lucassen did the incredible and brought Ayreon to a live stage on three consecutive days. This display of musician- and craftsmanship featured 16 singers of Ayreon‘s past and eight instrumental virtuosos plus Mr. Lucassen himself, who only participated in two of the 28 tracks played. Fortunately for the remainder of the world population who were not part of the chosen few (9000) attendees, the concerts were filmed and recorded professionally in order for us to enjoy it via Blu-ray, DVD and/or audio. However, not all three shows are part of Ayreon Universe, instead the production team decided to create a Frankenstein’s monster by cutting together the best pieces to one concert for the release (this is my impression from listening to the audio and viewing the experience, I have no confirmed information on this). This has the obvious benefit of choosing the best-performed version of each track while cutting errors or singers who forget the lyrics (not calling out anyone in particular).

That’s right, 28 (twenty-eight) tracks. Plenty of room for each Ayreon enthusiast to get something out of this with their personal favorite tracks. While some may enjoy certain tracks less and go absolutely crazy about other choices, Ayreon Universe is subtitled Best Of Ayreon, a name it deserves. It is only misleading in the sense of not featuring every Ayreon track ever.

Arjen is an amazing composer, but compositions are nothing without the right executing crew. In an epic feat, he and fellow organizer Joost Van Den Broek (also on keyboards here) managed to gather most of Ayreon‘s most notable singers to perform their respective tracks. I’d feel lazy just filling this critique with all their names, but it certainly is admirable to have together on stage greats as Floor Jansen, Damian Wilson, Hansi Kürsch, Tommy Karevik, Anneke Van Giesbergen, Marco Hietala and all the other ones. Each of them is performing at their best in this document of Ayreon’s history. Be it heavier songs like “Dawn Of A Million Souls”, “Star Of Sirrah” or “Intergalactic Space Crusaders” to amazingly instrumented atmospheric tracks like “And The Druids Turned To Stone”, “Comatose” or the Floor-Anneke-Marcela triumvirate performed “Valley Of The Queens”, every song is an experience in itself. Damian Wilson never sounded better than on “And The Druids Turned To Stone”, Mike Mills of Toehider adds his staggering, unique voice like he did on The Source, Magali Luyten (the Belgian power voice who recently joined Nightmare) screams her voice dry – every piece of the puzzle fits together and results in an amazing live performance of everyone participating.

My only complaint is the mixing could have been done better. The fading in and out of the audience in between songs is a bit aggressive and sounds too artificial. The transition could have been smoother. The same is true for the blending of the songs. Instead of actually blending them together, be it from the same day performance or not, Ayreon Universe is suffering from the obnoxious flaw of fading out its tracks to absolute silence in between tracks a few times. There are long streaks of subsequent performance, but about four or five times where everything goes dead suddenly. That slightly ruins the immersion. But all of this is highly specific criticism. The sound production is amazing otherwise and some of the best I ever heard on a live record.

Great choice of tracks, great performances, great sound. There is no reason to not get this album if you are a fan of Arjen’s work, and even if you have not listened to Ayreon before I’d highly recommend this live record, if only for the virtuoso musicianship displayed.

Chris, 03/29/2018

Format reviewed: mp3 320 kBit/s | DR Value: 7
Label: Mascot Label Group
LinksFacebook | arjenlucassen.com
Release date: 03/30/2018

Borealis – The Offering Review

1000x1000I have to start off the review with the elephant in the room (which is not an elephant to you unless you already scrolled down to check the rating and DR value of this album). There is a great many things to say about this album, but within seconds of listening to any of the tracks you will notice the overcompressed nature of The Offering‘s sound. Even overcompressed is an understatement compared to already heavily compressed albums with dynamic range values of 5 or 6. This one’s sporting a value of 4. I haven’t seen heard this in my time yet. And yes, you can absolutely hear it. Listening to this album feels like taking off in an airplane in an infinite loop and having the desire to pop your ears. So, there is that. Usually, I dismiss records pretty quickly when they sound like this. But I also point out that sometimes there are corner cases where the music actually requires a production like this (and the respective records typically are not one of those).

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Is The Offering by Canadian prog power band Borealis an exception to the rule or is The Offering unlistenable trash? The conclusion might surprise you! I will spoiler it here and tell you that I listened to this album a lot, probably about 10 to 15 spins already. With earphones! And no, I am not deaf yet. Maybe a bit, but that’s due to concerts, not this album. The Offering is far from unlistenable.

Borealis have been around since 2005, starting out female-fronted with a change to male singer Matt Marinelli with their first album World Of Silence in 2008. Mr. Marinelli is still on board and improved his singing greatly over the years to which The Offering is a testament. Throughtout their lifetime, Borealis have been honing the art of streamlined prog power metal, with about 60% power metal and 40% prog metal. Imagine Evergrey-light.

Oh, and Evergrey they are giving to us with the opening track of The Offering, “The Fire Between Us”. I am pretty sure they broke in Tom Englung’s bedroom to steal his notes for the next Evergrey single. The execution is slightly different from what the swedes would sound like. As I prefaced, The Offering‘s sound is crazy compressed. While Evergrey do have a rather modern sound, this album comes from the future compared to that. I sure hope not all albums sound like this in a few years, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if Borealis had some kind of sci-fi lyrics. They don’t. The compression is doing great work on the guitars though, those riffs are punching as much as a drum beat. Djent, anyone? I have to admit that with their production Borealis found the right way to convey their compositions. It is easy to slap this kind of compression on any album for easy listening even though it does not match the music at all, but with The Offering the thought process of which production this album deserves could sensibly yield the result I am listening to.

The opening track was a fine kick-off to the album with its drum walls and guitar breaks but merely a preview of what is to come. Borealis honestly outdid themselves with this newest effort. For once, the two previously released single tracks (“Sign Of No Return” and “River”) are among the five-out-of-five tracks on the album. Sandwiched between them you find the title track “The Offering”, a decent piece of catchy US-flavored power metal. One shortcoming I noticed, for example on “Sign Of No Return” and “The Offering” is that the band is going the lazy way out of tracks by just fading them out instead of ending with a good punch. This is weird and hard to comprehend when the whole album’s theme is punch as can be. But lazy fading out is one of my pet peeves, so maybe others won’t mind.

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The biggest higlight is “Scarlet Angel”. This monster of a track starts off Evergrey-like, calm and slow, only to explode in a huge chorus. The second verse adds some heavy riffage and in the end we even get female vocals for maximum theatralic effect. Usually I would never vote a midtempo track as best track on the album, but this one is really impressive with its sound walls and dramatic chorus. The ultimate track “The Ghosts Of Innocence” takes the same line with almost nine minutes of great instrumentation, singing and orchestration. Sure, it’s all canned orchestra, but it is effective nontheless alongside the heavy double bass drumming.

Not all songs on The Offering are as good as the mentioned four absolute highlights. “The Devil’s Hand” is a sluggish ballad, “The Path” a two-minute instrumental (why???) and tracks like “Into The Light” and “Forever Lost” are just average prog power compositions.

As I mentioned before, singer Matt Marinelli’s vocals really came a long way. His voice is varied and capable, usually attending the lower registers comparable to Russell Allen. The higher notes on the other hand remind of softer, more emotional prog singing like Kamelot‘s Tommy Karevik’s (or Roy Khan’s, but that’s a sacrilege and can’t be spoken of). This leads to a diverse brew of influences on The Offering. Throw in EvergreySymphony X and Seventh Wonder and you get Borealis.

The Canadians sadly are lacking the consistent songwriting quality of those prog masterminds but can get in some great hits on par with them. Matt Marinelli’s voice really carries the album a long way and I hope future albums will impress more with great songwriting than with their sound walls. To put an end to the discussion: yes, the compressed sound is alright with The Offering‘s compositions. Could it have been a more dynamic mix? Sure, but dynamic is not a virtue in itself when the music does not benefit from it. In The Offering‘s case both approaches would have been fine, so you can’t judge one purely based on abstract concepts while praising the other one. It still is a bit overkill to the ears to listen to The Offering for more than one or two hours at a time. But the same can be said for live concerts and we all enjoy those.

Chris, 03/18/2018

Format reviewed: mp3 320 kBit/s | DR Value: 4
Label: AFM Records
LinksFacebook
Release date: 03/23/2018

Sebastien – Act Of Creation Review

Act-Of-Creation-fullCzech melodic power metal band Sebastien is deceiving you with their new album. Short songs and catchy choruses make you believe you are dealing with just Another Average Album™ of the genre, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. While Sebastien has “only” been around since circa 2008, most of its members can bring more than 10 years of musical experience to the table. Internationally, however, Sebastien might be the most famous outlet among the various musical efforts of the band members. That is not to say that this is a wildly popular band, even in power metal circles the two previous outputs “Tears Of White Roses” and “Dark Chambers Of Déjà Vu” didn’t resonate too much. “Act Of Creation” (I wonder how long they will keep up the “X of Y” pattern) tries yet again to strengthen Sebastien‘s position in the scene and could actually succeed.

“Act Of Creation” fronts as a simple power metal album featuring upbeat refrains and fast-paced, energetic tracks backed up by George Rain’s colossally gravelly voice, comparable to Jo Amore, Jorn Lande and Nils Patrik Johansson. Maybe a bit softer in parts, but definitely able to belt out some aggressive tunes when necessary. Now, this recipe – unique, powerful voice over lively (power) metal songs – oftentimes passes for a good album, and that is that. There are many bands employing this method and delivering successfully each time, over and over again. Lucky for the listeners and good on Sebastien that the Czech band does not follow this stale program.

The opening track “Act Of Creation” displays the twofold natures of this album’s compositions. It took me about ten spins of the album to see this track for what it is: a really good Kamelot song. Listening to the album a few times, you will surely enjoy the memorable choruses and the overall kick of energy that streams through Act Of Creation’s veins akin to Sabaton‘s tunes, but only after having spent quite some time with the CD the progressive structures reveal themselves to you.

Of course, there are songs that are what they seem to be. “No Destination” for example is an amazing beater with some of the most powerful vocals on this album, “Amy” is your token rock-like single and “Winner” reminds of a more power metal-centered version of Amaranthe. Those songs are great, but where Sebastien really shine is at more flavorful, dynamic and diverse compositions. At first, the easy tracks will pull you in and impress you with their energy, but after a while you recognize the real masterpieces hiding in plain sight.

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“Heal My Soul” is an anthem that reminds of just another power ballad, but grows with every listening session. In the end you will come to realize that this song was actually ghostwritten by Dan Swanö and should have been released on a Nightingale album. Sebastien are really good at having you listen twice, hell, twenty times until you notice every aspect of a song. This is absolutely vital to interesting albums because it keeps you invested. Instead of going stale with simple compositions, “Act Of Creation” actually gets better every time you listen to it. Songs like “Die In Me”, “Full Moon Child” and “My Empire” all seem quite good and enjoyable at first but grow to be more interesting than the songs that made you go “Wow!” during your initial spin.

Sadly there are a few stinkers on “Act Of Creation” as well, namely the three (!) full-on ballads “Queen From The Stars”, “Hero” and “Promises”. Sebastien are not good at writing ballads like Kamelot are. And then there are some average tracks like “Evermore” and “Amy” which do not live up to the complexity and inspiration of the rest of the album. All that said, there is still a great deal of amazing compositions to be discovered on “Act Of Creation” which quickly makes you forget the mediocre pieces. At a running time of 61 minutes it is easy to forgive some fillers.

Describing “Act Of Creation” is hard due to its unique combination of extremely catchy ditties like “No Destination”, “Wake Up” or “Winner” and complex songs such as “Heal My Soul” or “Act Of Creation”. Various influences are spilled all over the album, there is some Kamelot, there is Evergrey, there is Sabaton and there is Nightingale. Overall this album offers a suprisingly enjoyable listening experience, able to be played twenty times in a row and still growing. Any fan of the aforementioned bands or progressive power metal should have a peep at this.

Chris, 02/28/2018

Format reviewed: mp3 320 kBit/s | DR Value: 7
Label: Pride & Joy Music
LinksFacebook | sebastienofficial.com
Release date: 02/23/2018

 

Angra – ØMNI Review

24796449_1931882986827641_8548198602963311541_nWhenever a new Angra album is released, you can expect a surprise. While Angra are at the forefront of Brazilian power metal and especially the international recognition of the local metal scene, they are anything but resting on their laurels or repeat the old recipe again and again.

From incorporating traditional Brazilian sounds in Melodic Power Metal on their first two albums “Angel’s Cry” and “Holy Land”, to catchier, European-sounding records in the 2000s to prog power albums post-2010, Angra not only demonstrate endurance but also innovation and inventiveness. Despite the constantly changing lineup, which initially saw Andre Matos, then Edu Falaschi and in between also half of the founding members (who then founded Shaman) rotating out of the band, the troupe with mastermind Rafael Bittencourt never lets down and continuously releases albums which blow up the cage of Power Metal.

The latest result of this unbridled creativity is the all-encompassing work “ØMNI”, which not only challenges my keyboard, but also the auditorium. Angra continue to follow the path pioneered by the first longplayer with Fabio Lione, “Secret Garden”, and diligently create their own niche between prog, power and folk sounds. On “ØMNI”, the audience should not expect linear melodies like “Carry On”, but instead a surprising turn with every new track.

In order not to push away fans who want a bit more shallow – and I mean more catchy – sounds, the Brazilians open with two quite simple Power Metal songs, of which the first, “Light Of Transcendence”, is from start to finish Classic-European-style Speed-Firecracker à la “Eagleheart”. “Travelers Of Time” presents a somewhat larger entry barrier with its progressive verses, but the overcoming of these is rewarded by a hymnic chorus and a solo reminiscent of the early 2000s.

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After these two soothing melodies (which, by the way, were the first two singles released …), Angra let the cat out of the bag. Oops, no Power Metal? No, but in that case: All the better. “Black Widow’s Web” opens with a spooky atmosphere and a short vocal part by the Brazilian pop singer Sandy, who is probably more well known to Brazilian listeners than international. Then it goes straight into the deepest prog realms with a 7/8 beat and thick Djent-like riffs. Anyone who turns their eyes at Angra and Djent in one sentence should, however, see for themselves how well that works. And do not think so narrow-minded. In addition, Arch Enemy frontwoman Alissa White-Gluz enriches this extremely varied song with her death shouts. As a compromise, there is an ear flattering chorus that gets stuck right away. Certainly one of the band’s most daring tunes, but after the brilliant finale of it, a song remains that stands out and impresses.

Impressive as well is the opening of the following track “Insania”, which is brought by an extremely hymnic choral part in to a prog stanza, and then culminates again in a typical European melodic chorus. This recipe is also the only feature of Angra‘s that runs like a thread through the album. Challenging prog structures with 7/8 and 3/4 bars as in “War Horns”, “Caveman” and “Magic Mirror” are combined with catchy melodies. This leads to one of the album highlights in “Caveman”. Technically advanced Prog sounds, mixed with Brazilian folk influences, resulting in an euphoric chorus, which forms a striking contrast to the prog parts.

Traditional, gentler sounds are emphasized in the two ballads “The Bottom Of My Soul” and “Always More”, which can convince the listener after several rounds. Rafael Bittencourt is convincing as well with his rough, earthy vocals, of which I would have liked more in such a varied, daring album. Although Fabio Lione is a great vocalist, he is more in tune with his main melodic power metal bands, where his vocals soar like an eagle. The progressive, playful sides which Angra often show here call for a heavier singer in the direction of Russell Allen (Symphony X). Lione does a good job, but sometimes his slightly thin voice is inappropriate. In songs like “Silence Inside”, the final 8-minute show, he wants to scream out of the cage, but the music can not keep up. Here a down-to-earth voice like Rafael Bittencourt’s would be more fitting. However, Fabio Lione, for whom singing is routine in the face of thousands of bands and session vocals, does a great job as always.

Experienced, but varied and innovative Angra present themselves on “ØMNI”. The multi-faceted songs benefit from a dynamic Jens Bogren production, which increases the focus on contrast between loud and soft or virtuosic and anthemic. This contrast is the strength of the album. Angra do not make it easy and do not just press out a second “Angel’s Cry”, but continue to develop and dare real experiments. Personally, the predecessor “Secret Garden” had a lot more catchy tunes, but “ØMNI” persuades with its extreme longevity through the varying compositions, which provide many hours of listening pleasure and new discoveries. A fan of the first hour, but also listeners of other directions like Progressive Metal should enjoy this work. Angra do not show weakness and deliver a consistently sophisticated, always interesting album.

Chris, 02/07/2018

Format reviewed: mp3 320 kBit/s
Label: earMUSIC
LinksFacebook | angra.net
Release date: 02/16/2018