If you’re looking for a metal album about pirates this summer that you can listen to guilt free (what? I meant now that we’re all mature enough to not worry about calling things like this a guilty pleasure… honest guv!), you need look no further than Visions of Atlantis’ eighth full-length album, the rather bluntly and descriptively titled Pirates (Napalm Records).
Ready to wage bloody battle against the drudgery of everyday life once more, Italian power metallers and emerald sword aficionados Rhapsody of Fire return with all dragons blazing on their latest album Glory For Salvation(AFM Records). Driven by escapism and pure fantasy, there’s simply no room or requirement for conventional subjects like relationships, politics or social commentary in this hour or so of questing and wizard worship.
“Veteran” is a word that gets seriously abused in Heavy Metal reviews, but Virgin Steele pretty much demand it – operating consistently since 1982, David DeFeis (a sort of alternate-universe Good Joey DeMaio) has covered a surprisingly broad ground within his chosen field. From driving Hard Rock-flavoured Heavy Metal, via an excursion into more accessible AOR territory, they progressed into a truly operatic style of Symphonic Power Metal leagues ahead of most of their peers in that style, and in recent years have pursued a more contemplative, darkly-progressive style.
The initial sound of Nocturnes Of Hellfire And Damnation (SPV/Steamhammer), then, is of a sudden, squealing gear-change as they drop back into the kind of bombastic but catchy Heavy Metal most associated with 1985’s Noble Savage (Cobra Records). The meandering song structures and brooding emotional displays of the last two albums are almost entirely gone, as are the multi-layered classical histrionics of the House Of Atreus trilogy – here The Riff is once again king, and the symphonic elements exist to add ostentation to it but never undermine its majesty.
I’m going to be honest, despite the rave reviews it’s receiving from many fans, I was initially a little underwhelmed with Nocturnes, largely because I’ve really been enjoying the direction they took with Visions Of Eden (T&T Records) and The Black Light Bacchanalia (SPV/Steamhammer). The production was a little rough, certainly, and both albums took time to really build up steam, but to me they felt like a genuine, honest exploration of a new direction for the band while building on the past. Nocturnes initially sounds like a retrograde step, but it’s hard to stay disappointed for long once the quality of the song-writing kicks in – DeFeis has gone right back to the basics of his craft here, but kept the lessons he’s learned over the years, making a truly engaging collection of songs that’s both catchy and resonant with the sense of mystery that so much modern Metal is missing. And he still clicks, whistles and squeals like a Heavy Metal Dolphin between verses, which is as charming as it ever was. If the album is longer than it really needs to be… that’s hardly a new problem for the band, but one that the quality of the songs largely counteracts.
Ultimately, exactly how excited you’re going to be about Nocturnes Of Hellfire And Damnation probably depends on how much you’ve been enjoying recent Virgin Steele, but even those disappointed that DeFeis won’t be continuing his journey into symphonic moodiness can’t deny that this is a strong, powerful album of serious Heavy Metal from a band who still stand head-and-shoulders above their peers and the successors alike.
Ghost Cult Ed and part-time Blaze Bayley impersonator Steve Tovey recently claimed that Power Metal needs its own version of Portal. Not a band with multi-coloured clocks on their heads playing abstract Noise Metal about unicorns (though that would be brilliant), but a band who can shake up a moribund genre by playing music that is entirely rooted within it while taking a very different approach to song-writing and composition. Having already given his chosen style a massive shock to the system with the original line-up of Rhapsody, Luca Turilli is in the position to do so again – if enough of his peers are prepared to listen.
Following on directly from 2012’s revelatory Ascending To Infinity, Prometheus – Symphonia Ignis Divinis (both Nuclear Blast) sees Luca and friends fusing his original Rhapsody format with Italian Operatic and Symphonic Pop but integrating it more smoothly. Whereas Ascending declared this influence with a straight, guitar-free cover of Alessandro Safina’s ‘Luna’ alongside more traditional Rhapsody-style songs, Prometheus blends these elements – and the film soundtracks that Rhapsody had always aimed for but never achieved this well – into a seamless whole. If this leaves the album with nothing quite as breath-taking as Ascending’s stand-out ‘Tormento e Passione’, it creates a more consistent feel across the album, not to mention a subtle, understated piece of dark symphonic pop in the shape of ‘Notturno’, which is in an entirely different league to the ballads most Power Metal bands would settle for.
In case it hasn’t been clear already, this is not straight-forward European Power Metal. Just as Portal baffled many older Death Metal fans with their lack of recognisable riffs and melodies, there’ll be Rhapsody fans left frustrated by the unconventional song structures and the relatively minor role that the guitars often play compared to the other elements. Like its predecessor, it manages to capture the feel of classic Rhapsody while pulling off moves that they would never have been willing (or, frankly, able) to handle.
Prometheus, like its predecessor, is both a bold reinvention of European Power Metal and a celebration of its traditions, simultaneously familiar and challengingly new, and it offers a template of how the old warhorse could be given new purpose – the question is whether that’s what the rest of the Power Metal world wants.
Haven(Napalm), American Power Metal band Kamelot’s eleventh studio album and second since the departure of Roy Khan, is an album that sounds like a musical at heart, like it was fastidiously crafted to be performed on Broadway. Its stylings and symphonic groundings and Tommy Karevik’s leading man performance all point to it, and so effective is their dramatic voice, perhaps taking their work to the theatrical stage is the next step they need to take to fully realize a legacy that has been consolidated by consistency.
Historically, the Floridians have always been walked on safe, and not the wild, side. A touch of fantasy, a host of symphonics, with soaring, immaculate vocals on top, they have always delivered and always sounded utmost in their professionalism and musicianship, but never truly excited; a band that, while most definitely best in class (though perhaps by default), are at times too slick and lack the insanity/genius of a great.
The heady mix of Savatage, Dream Theater and Queensrÿche coupled with effective symphonics and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical theatrics is near-perfected in opening duo ‘Fallen Star’ and ‘Insomnia’, up there with the best tracks of the bands’ career, but it is with ‘Under Grey Skies’ and the addition of Charlotte Wessels’ (Delain) dreamy vocals and Troy Donockley (Nightwish)’s tin whistle that matters bloom and the full epic musical scale of the vision for the album begins to be realized. It sails close to the Eurovision ballad wind, but it’s a beautiful song fully suited to a soundtrack or a musical. Elsewhere, downtuned staccato rhythms underpin grandiose unveilings and Karevik dispels any notions that the band can’t succeed without Khan with an assured performance; actor, narrator, singer, frontman and further proof that the line between Kamelot’s albums and musical theatre is a thin one.
All the previous criticisms can apply: this is a slick, professional band, but on Haven Kamelot have once again verified they are best in class, and have found an emotional connection. No longer cold to the touch, they are bringing to life their vision most effectively and with genuine zest. While retaining all the expected hallmarks, it is most definitely meticulously put together (if the devil is in the detail, then Haven is positively Satanic) but there is something more to it; something exuberant bubbling through. You would expect a band entering their third decade to have the requisite chops, but you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be injecting such vitality and vigour into the mix.
“Impact” is a difficult concept to define in terms of music, but an extremely important one. The effect that a given piece of music has on any listener is always going to be extremely personal and subjective, of course, but to some extent it is possible to measure how much impact an album is able to make to its listeners through its emotional accessibility – the extent to which it is prepared to “let us in” to its world.
Blind Guardian are one of the founders of what we now call Symphonic Power Metal, and still one of its principle exponents. As you’d expect from a band who’ve been putting out albums for over twenty-five years now, their recorded output is not without its ups and downs, but across ten studio albums and numerous singles and live recordings they’ve maintained an admirable consistency in professionalism and power.
Beyond The Red Mirror (Nuclear Blast) is a technically flawless album, there’s absolutely no denying that, and at times genuinely beautiful. “Symphonic” is a much-abused word and concept in Heavy Metal, often translating to “our riffs are boring so we’re covering them in keyboards” or “I secretly wish I was Enya”, but Blind Guardian have always been one of the few exceptions to that rule, and age has seemingly broadened their skill with the symphonic elements of their sound. Likewise, they have always been masters of the catchy chorus and soaring hook, and there’s plenty of evidence for both of those things throughout BTRM.
Given the unreserved praise so far, you might be wondering why the mark at the end of this review isn’t higher – and I’m sure there are Blind Guardian fans out there sharpening their internet knives right now – but the answer comes back to that thorny quality “impact”. BTRM is beautiful like a painting, or a landscape observed through a window – intricate, masterful and distant. There’s no attempt to communicate with the audience, no invitation to join the band in their world, and as a result the experience seems cold and clinical, more a soundtrack than a Heavy Metal album.
Let there be no doubt – Beyond The Red Mirror is a beautiful, technically flawless album full of masterful song-writing and symphonic arrangements, and if that’s all you want from the band you won’t be disappointed. Those of us who miss the times when Blind Guardian found space for real blood and thunder in their music, however, will likely find it a cold and somewhat uninviting proposition.