Blind Guardian – 1988 to 2003 Reissues

Remastering albums is a tricky business. For every perceived mistake or fault which gets cleaned up, smoothed over, or completely erased; for every tweak or alteration to the mix, there will always be listeners who prefer the original, no matter what. Trying to improve a recording can often lead to losing the charm of the original, and so as much as record label Nuclear Blast have given a significant portion of Blind Guardian‘s discography a deserved facelift here, the results will lie purely in the eye (or in this case, the ear) of the beholder. Continue reading

Helloween Announces The First Pumpkin United Tour Dates

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Helloween recently announced that they will be rejoined by vocalist Michael Kiske and guitarist Kai Hansen for a world tour in 2017 and 2018. Continue reading

Civil War – Gods and Generals

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It has been three very quick years since one of, if not the biggest, power metal acts Sabaton released their crowning glory Carolus Rex (Nuclear Blast), a bastion of bombastic brilliance, and one of the best Euro Metal albums. However, guitarist Rikard Sundén, drummer Daniel Mullback and keyboardist Daniel Mÿhr departed shortly after its release to establish Civil War with Astral Doors’ vocalist Nils Patrik Johansson.

Power Metal is an odd genre. Everyone is a strong, clean technician and there are so many competent acts, though it is very hard to be exceptional and damn near impossible to be distinctive or unique. Sabaton achieved that latter feat, and not just through having a characteristic vocalist in Joakim Brodén. Considering their contributions, the trio of ex-‘ton’s have done well to try and strike out and find their own voice again and while there are moments, such as ‘USS Monitor’ where you can imagine Brodén’s voice enhancing the chorus (Johansson, with a higher pitched Kai Hansen meets Biff Byford reedy voice, doesn’t have half the charisma of the Sabaton man), in the main they have managed to clear enough space to pitch their own towel on the crowded beach of Power Metal.

So, half the battle won, and Gods and Generals (Napalm) begins well enough with a rapid fire pairing of ‘War of the World’ and ‘Bay of Pigs’. However, things quickly go downhill, with the duo of ‘Braveheart’ and ‘The Mad Piper’, which it has to be said are simply fucking naff and frankly embarrassing; keyboard led, nursery rhyme melodies, (not to mention the dog-shit bagpiping) and lyrics that can’t have taken more than five minutes to write. Fortunately things do pick up and by the time the more epic ‘Schindler’s Ark’ comes around, a track with a vocal nod to legendary David Coverdale, and a musical tip to Angra, the early missteps are nearly forgotten, if not forgiven.

But, as I said, it’s easy to be a decent power metal band, but it’s hard to standout; one, because these are narrow lines we’re trapped between, and two, because the very best prove how big the gulf in class is. Civil War has a heritage to hook people in, but they need to improve the music to get them to keep coming back.

 

6.0/10

Civil War on Facebook

 

STEVE TOVEY

 

Evil Invaders – Pulses of Pleasure

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The first track of Pulses of Pleasure (Napalm) is called ‘Fast, Loud and Rude’ and that tells you everything you need to know. Once it kicks off with a riff that buzzes around like a pissed off wasp you’ve just failed to swat, high on the spillage of your fizzy drink, you know exactly what type of journey Evil Invaders are going to take you on.

With a more melodic (and slightly restrained) take on Exodus, and lashings and thrashings of Exciter worship, Evil Invaders don’t do subtle. Or diverse. They do, however, pedal a line in nostalgic old school thrash and speed metal and everything, from the retro production to the squealing solos (nice harmony lead in the title track, by the way guys) and the pacy chromatic riffs is lovingly recreated. Existing in a bubble where metal ended when Udo quit Accept and Kai Hansen stopped fronting Helloween, Evil Invaders’ sound and influences begin in 1979 and end in 1986.

While the production and performance values and the base level of pretty much every band releasing music out there these days has increased a thousand-fold in the last thirty years, Speed Metal still allows, nay, welcomes with studded wrist band adorned arms, the amateurish “rough and ready” approach which did alright by Raven and Razor (one assumes the band name is taken from the Razor album of the same name?). Deliberately Shit Metal only exists in the hearts and minds of those with both (white hi-top clad) feet in yesteryear, and Gehennah, who do this retro thing with more balls, menace and conviction, shit Evil Invaders for breakfast.

Some might argue naïve charm and a love of a bygone age, when denim and chains (and rivets) ruled the roost, but the fun factor soon wears off as Pulses of Pleasure reveals itself to be big on style and short on substance. The classic speed metal albums were great because, above all, they lived and died on standout riffs and excellent songwriting. Evil Invaders fall short on both counts.

 

5.5/10

Evil Invaders on Facebook

 

STEVE TOVEY

Serious Black – As Daylight Breaks

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Well, that’s shut me well and truly the fuck up

(You wish…)

It’s apt to begin a commentary on a release from one ex-Helloween guitarist (Roland Grapow) with reference to the man he succeeded in the pumpkin-obsessed kings of Power Metal, one Kai Hansen, who titled the third Gamma Ray album Insanity & Genius (Noise) and referenced in the lyrics how thin the line between the two is. Well, the line between generic and uninteresting pap and Power Metal Glory is even thinner, perhaps as thin as the hair-line on Herr Hansen’s fivehead these days. But with As Daylight Breaks (Nuclear Blast) Serious Black (contenders for best new band name – certainly best Harry Potter themed one) have released a debut that is so far over the line on the side of quality, the line is a dot to them (answers on a postcard if you get that reference).

Having written off Power Metal in my mind as a genre that, no matter how well its composite parts could be put together, was done, creatively redundant and in the type of artistic morass that Death Metal found itself in for twenty years, nevertheless, like the child poking the disembowelled frog with a stick and hoping for some twitch or reaction, with morbid curiosity I find myself drawn to it. See, when Power Metal is on it, there’s very little better for invigorating the mind and soul. And Grapow’s latest offering slapped me round the chops, leaving me with a fiendish grin, a rediscovered  enthusiasm for the genre and a frog named Lazarus.

The brainchild of Grapow and former Visions of Atlantis bassist Mario Lochert, with the rhythm section rounded out by former Blind Guardian tub thumper Thomen Stauch, Serious Black absolutely nail everything that is joyous about Power Metal infused hard rock, from the driving opening pair of ‘I Seek No Other Life’ and the simply massive ‘High And Low’ through to the theatre-y and slightly camp closing ‘Older and Wiser’.

The band is led by the underrated and under-celebrated vocal talents of former Tad Morose pipes, Urban breed who avoids being one of a million Kiske-clean wannabes by injecting power and tone; at times channelling Jon Oliva, particularly on the keys led title-track, at others Mike Howe (Metal Church), and able to carry a faster verse alongside the ubiquitous sizeable choruses.

Musically, you can bandy about names such as Kamelot (‘Akhenation’), Within Temptation (the uptempo rock romp of ‘Trail of Murder’), Savatage, Stratovarius, and Sonata Arctica if you like; there definite elements of Blind Guardian and Helloween,  and that’s absolutely fine, as Serious Black sit as a kind of summation of all that “is” from the polished end of Power Metal.

As Daylight Breaks benefits from a great, full, vibrant production and above all exudes the sensation of a band really enjoying their work. As they rightly should. I once incorrectly tagged Grapow as a Janick Gers figure who had ruined one of my favourite bands. He well and truly proved me wrong – I even quite like Pink Bubbles Go Ape now, and I’m one of the few people on the planet who love Chameleon (both EMI) – and with Serious Black he’s done it again, proving as Edguy did with last years’ Space Police (Nuclear Blast) that, when done well, Power Metal can be fulfilling rompy-pompy.

 

7.5/10

Serious Black on Facebook

 

STEVE TOVEY

Gamma Ray – Empire Of The Undead

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Kai Hansen almost single-handedly (OK, double-handedly – it’s quite hard to play the guitar with one hand) invented Power Metal as we know and love it today, being the guiding force behind Helloween’s legendary Walls of Jericho (for the thrashier power metal) and Keeper Of The Seven Keys I and II (for all other non-US power metals) tour de forces. In terms of style, since Land Of The Free Gamma Ray have sat firmly between the two, imparting both classics (Somewhere Out In Space, No World Order) and less-than-vital releases (Land Of The Free II, To The Metal).

Like death, taxes, and Max Cavalera dropping names as frequently as you or I drop off the kids, there’s an inevitability about Gamma Ray albums. You know they’re coming , you know exactly what they’re going to sound like and you know you’re going to get to play the #Neknomination rivalling potent drinking game of “Spot The Stolen Riff” (have a shot for each stolen riff on the last 6 Gamma Ray albums and see if you survive), and Empire Of The Undead (earMUSIC) is no different.

Opener ‘Avalon’ is a 9 minute microcosm of all things Gamma Ray. Strong, distinctive riffing, rousing vocals, a powerful chorus, excellent melodic lead-work, grand story-telling… and then some bits stolen from Iron Maiden (though plundering the Brave New World era is a new approach for Hansen). Elsewhere, it’s hard to ignore that ‘Master Of Confusion’ is a mash-up of two Helloween tracks – the Hansen-penned classic ‘I Want Out’ and the post-Hansen ‘Who Is Mr Madman?’ – or that ‘Time For Deliverance’, the obligatory piano ballad, is different words to Queen’s ‘We Are The Champions’. While Hansen may keep on fighting to the end (it’s impossible not to substitute the line), there are further lifts from Judas Priest’s ‘All Guns Blazing’ and his own ‘Future World’.

You may find this forgivable; their albums are always enjoyable, always reliable, and tracks like ‘Born To Fly’ with its massive chorus are certainly good Power Metal songs, but for every fiesty ‘Hellbent’ there’s a ploddy ‘Demonseed’, and, ultimately Empire Of The Undead is just A.N.Other Gamma Ray album, with all their usual high-points and failings.

Inevitable, really.

6/10

Gamma Ray on Facebook

STEVE TOVEY