Review: Blind Guardian – Beyond the Red Mirror

If Blind Guardian are not by now regarded with the sort of reverence generated by Metallica or Iron Maiden, it is a crime against heavy metal. Formed slightly before I was born, they might be the longest tenured band in existence that still carry extraordinarily high expectations. No one realistically expects a band to stay at the peak of their inspiration for thirty years, but Blind Guardian are the exception. They’ve never shown their age or wavered towards mediocrity. Does Beyond the Red Mirror keeps that tradition running strong?

“Yes” is the short answer. A thousand times “yes”, and only a fool would deny it. But when you’re talking about a band that released the unequivocal greatest power metal album of all time, there is still plenty of room for discussion.

Blind Guardian pulled off a pretty tough transition in 2002. They followed up Nightfall in Middle-Earth (1998), their magnum opus by nearly everyone’s measure, with a relatively significant change in style. A move like that has spelled disaster for many great bands, but when Blind Guardian traded in an edgier, crisper production for smooth and seamless symphonic beauty on A Night at the Opera (2002), it totally worked. Their next two albums continued in that direction, and I never had the slightest cause to question it. While A Twist in the Myth (2006) ranks relatively low in their discography for me, that resulted from what I felt was a bit of lackluster songwriting–not pervasive, but present enough to leave the album somewhat diminished in the shadow of its two groundbreaking predecessors. At the Edge of Time (2010) was a grand return to form, definitively proving that this band would not suffer a slow decline as the years caught up to them.

Beyond the Red Mirror opens up with a lot less steam than “Sacred Worlds” lent to At the Edge of Time. The first track, “The Ninth Wave”, kicks off with a pretty typical epic introduction, complete with a professional choir and orchestra, but it’s the sort of sound that really hinges on what will follow. We’re used to a sort of constant rise from symphonics into metal, but “The Ninth Wave” is far more brooding at the outset. “Underwhelming” might be the right word for any other band, and nothing about the lead in really grabs me, but let’s not forget what band this is. I feel pretty neutral–not negative–about the album until the first chorus kicks off. And when that point is reached–“Sail on till you reach the promised land. We all drown in the fifth dimension. The ninth wave.“–you get this big dump of pent-up anticipation that you never knew you had. The five year wait is over. Beyond the Red Mirror is here, and the chorus carries all the grandeur you knew would be coming. It feels so complete and full, so Blind Guardian to the core, that the introduction isn’t sour in retrospect. Instead, the slow motion into glory lets the album creep into you. One second you’re waiting for something to happen, the next you’re in love, and they don’t have to resort to anything jarring or sudden to create the effect.

“Prophecies”, “At the Edge of Time”, and “Grand Parade” follow this trend of paced execution, keeping you wrapped in the warm vibe that is Blind Guardian’s sound while ebbing and flowing along. Not out of place on A Night at the Opera, these four tracks suit the album’s production well and deliver without any misgivings.

“Miracle Machine” serves as the album’s only ballad, and the other five tracks… they’re pleasantly not what I expected. For all the big name orchestras involved in recording Beyond the Red Mirror, Blind Guardian actually get pretty old-school. “Ashes of Eternity”, for instance, is heavily driven by rhythm guitar, and André Olbrich’s tasty solo near the middle is cast far more in the spotlight than it might have been on previous albums. “The Holy Grail”, “Sacred Mind”, and “Twilight of the Gods” follow a similar pattern, while “The Throne” exists somewhere in between. My initial reaction to these songs was not entirely positive, but they’ve almost all grown on me over time. They make for an interesting perspective on Blind Guardian’s career. Hansi Kürsch’s gorgeous vocals still feel fairly well rooted in the A Night at the Opera sound, but Marcus Siepen and André Olbrich are bringing back a lot of the band’s more classic power metal sound. With Hansi still largely dominating the choruses and rhythm and lead guitar being more focal in between, the songs take on a novel sort of vibe that feels like quintessential Blind Guardian but does not point directly to any one previous era in the band’s illustrious history.

I definitely dig it, yet I don’t feel like Beyond the Red Mirror will leave quite the lasting impact on me that Nightfall in Middle-Earth, A Night at the Opera, and At the Edge of Time did. The problem, aside from the lack of a really stand-out ‘bard’ track–“Miracle Machine” is nice but has none of the sing-along appeal of say, “Curse My Name” or “Skalds and Shadows”–lies in the production. I can’t help but feel like Olbrich and especially Siepen are getting the short end of the stick throughout. Like the three albums before it, Beyond the Red Mirror sacrifices a lot of crispness to encompass the massive volume of vocals and orchestration. That worked really well before, but here I just don’t know. Lead and rhythm guitar alike rang with crystal clarity on Nightfall in Middle-Earth, and that was a major part of what made the album perfect. If guitar is to play a more central role again, it would be nice if I could properly hear it. My one beef with Beyond the Red Mirror is that, while the band continues to evolve in positive ways, their producer may be failing to keep up.

I think that’s a big issue. This album is awesome, but I would love it so much more if they’d filled the symphonic void with louder, crisper guitar. That goes for about half of the tracks. I just sometimes feel like a few modest tweaks would have made them better. I’m looking forward to seeing some quality live videos of these songs pop up on Youtube, because I think a live venue may do them better justice. For now, Beyond the Red Mirror earns entry into my Blind Guardian playlist with ease, but I’ll not be revisiting it quite so often as Nightfall, Night at the Opera, or Edge of Time.

If you want another song to check out, I think “Prophecies” is my favorite. “The Ninth Wave”, “Ashes of Eternity”, and “Grand Parade” come close.

Ten Years #20: Equilibrium

Decade of scrobbling countdown:
20. Equilibrium (1,323 plays)
Top track (104 plays): Prolog Auf Erden, from Sagas (2008)

At the end of 2008, I made the peculiar decision to rank Sagas only 6th on my albums of the year list. I knew at the time that it would long outlive the albums that trumped it–The Tallest Man on Earth’s Shallow Grave, Boris’s Smile, Waylander’s Honour Amongst Chaos to name a few–but I suppose I was prioritizing some sort of artsy aesthetic over direct appeal. That was silly. Sagas is the most badass, epic 80 minutes of sound you will ever hear, and it deserves all the glory. Since I don’t know German, I can’t really judge how the lyrics hold up against comparable masterpieces like Blind Guardian’s Nightfall in Middle-Earth and Turisas’s The Varangian Way, but musically it pretty much perfects every epic/symphonic trend in the world of folk metal. What you hear on the opening track, “Prolog Auf Erden”, is a pretty accurate summary of the full album; it’s an explosive, relentless drive through one of the most imaginative worlds metal has ever conjured.

I can’t say I am terribly experienced in Equilibrium’s broader discography. Turis Fratyr (2005) did not grab me quite so immediately, and at the time I was too caught up in enjoying Sagas to really engage it. Rekreatur (2010) had its merits, but I could never fully get over the change in vocalists from Helge Stang to Robert Dahn. Never a band to rush out the new releases, their fourth studio album is not expected until some time in 2014.

Ten Years #31: Turisas

Decade of scrobbling countdown:
31. Turisas (1,040 plays)
Top track (96 plays): In the Court of Jarisleif, from The Varangian Way (2007)
Featured track: Miklagard Overture, from The Varangian Way

The Varangian Way was one of the last albums I expected to matter when I grabbed the pre-release leak in 2007. Having owned Battle Metal (2004) since its release, I remembered Turisas as a run of the mill band with one really outstanding song–Sahti-Waari–and a bunch of generic try-too-hard epic numbers to their name. It took about one minute in 2007 to realize that this band had achieved one of the most impressive turn-arounds in the history of metal. A captivating concept album packed with outstanding vocals and folk instrumentation, a brilliant symphonic backdrop, and thoroughly convincing lyrics, The Varangian Way was my favorite album of 2007 and remains a top 10 all time contender for me today. Mathias Nygård and company crafted an inspiring musical journey from Viking Age Scandinavia through Russia to the seat of the Byzantine empire with all the gloss of a Hollywood blockbuster. From the symphonic prog suspense of “The Dnieper Rapids” to the drunken folk romp of “In the Court of Jarisleif” to the orchestral majesty of “Miklagard Overture”, Turisas employed a world of musical styles to uniquely capture every stage of the voyage. As a concept album, they delivered the full package to an extent that is perhaps only trumped by Blind Guardian’s Nightfall in Middle-Earth. This was no fluke, either. Their follow-up album, Stand Up and Fight (2011), might have lacked the fulfilling sense of completeness that only a concept album can deliver, but it by and large maintained the level of quality of its predecessor, ensuring that Battle Metal could be remembered as a freshman effort and not the more accurate representation of their matured sound. Their fourth studio album, Turisas2013, is set to release this Wednesday (August 21st). While its awkward title and cover art will require some substantiation, I have really high hopes.

I’ll leave you with the lyrics to “Miklagard Overture”. I especially love how Turisas cultivate the power of names to really drive this anthem home; they employ the fact that Constantinople is known in so many languages as a testament to its glory. I personally visited Istanbul last summer, and I can confidently say that it remains one of the most overwhelming cities on this earth, breathing 2000 years of history not in ruin but in vibrant life. Turisas manage to do it justice in a way few other artists could.

Long have I drifted without a course
A rudderless ship I have sailed
The Nile just keeps flowing without a source
Maybe all the seekers just failed

To Holmgard and beyond
In search of a bond
Far from home I’ve come
But the road has just begun

Breathing history
Veiled in mystery
The sublime
The greatest of our time

“Come with us to the south
Write your name on our roll”
I was told;

Sui generis
The saints and emperors
Of bygone centuries
The man-made birds in their trees
Out load their paean rings

In astonishing colours the East meets the West
The hill-banks arise in their green
In wonder I sit on my empty chest
As we glide down the strait in between

To Holmgard and beyond
In search of a bond
Distant church bells toll
For their god they chant and troll

Breathing history
Veiled in mystery
The sublime
The greatest of our time

The Norwegian of rank
In the court of The Prince
I was convinced

Ten gates to eternity
Seen all for centuries
Your inconquerable walls
Your temples and your halls
See all, hear all, know all

My sun rose in the North and now sets in the South
The Golden Horn lives up to its name
From tower to tower a chain guards its mouth
Unbreakable, they claim

To Holmgard and beyond
In search of a bond
Adventures lie ahead
Many knots lie unravelled on my thread

Breathing history
Veiled in mystery
The sublime
The greatest of our time

Queen of the cities
Your welcoming smile
Made all worthwhile
The sweat and the pain

Bathing in gold
Endless rooftops unfold
The sun sets for a while just to rise again

Great walls
Great halls
Greatest of all, Miklagard

necromoonyeti’s 10 Favorite Songs of 2011

I want to hop on the bandwagon. It would be a little silly for me to post my real top 10; for one thing, it would include four Krallice tracks. That aside, nearly everything I’d put on it I’ve either posted on this site as a Song of the Day or included in both my review of its album and my top albums post. So to make this a bit different from my past posts, I’m going to limit myself to one song per band, stick to stuff that I imagine might appeal to people who aren’t interested in extreme metal, and keep it on the catchy side. I’ll list a more honest top 10 at the end.

10. Powerwolf – Son of a Wolf (from Blood of the Saints)

As such, my tenth place selection is about as metal as it’s going to get. Powerwolf’s Blood of the Saints might be simple and repetitive, but it’s about the catchiest power/heavy metal album I’ve ever heard. It indulges the same guilty pleasure for me as Lordi and Twisted Sister–two bands that inexplicably pump me up despite being entirely tame. It also offers some amazing operatic vocals and Dracula keyboards, the cheesiness of which can be easily forgiven. Son of a Wolf might be one of the more generic tracks in a sense, but it’s the one most often stuck in my head.

9. Alestorm – Barrett’s Privateers (from Back Through Time)

The only thing I love more than traditional folk and sea chanties is folk punk and metal. When the latter covers the former, I’m in bliss. Alestorm are emerging as the sort of Dropkick Murphys of metal with all their covers lately, and I hope they keep it up. I loved Barrett’s Privateers before what you’re hearing ever happened, and the metal version delights me to no end.

8. The Decemberists – Rox in the Box (from The King is Dead)

The Decemberists really toned it down this year. Where The Hazards of Love could be described as an epic rock opera, The King is Dead sticks to simple, pleasant folk. But Colin Meloy thoroughly researches pretty much every subject he’s ever tackled, and The King is Dead pays ample homage to its predecessors. Rox in the Box incorporates Irish traditional song Raggle Taggle Gypsy with delightful success.

7. Nekrogoblikon – Goblin Box (from Stench)

With a keen eye towards contemporary folk metal like Alestorm and Finntroll, melodic death classics like In Flames and Children of Bodom, and much else besides, former gimmick band Nekrogoblikon really forged their own unique sound in the world of folk metal in 2011. At least half of the album is this good. Stench is the most unexpected surprise the year had to offer by far.

6. Korpiklaani – Surma (from Ukon Wacka)

Korpiklaani almost always end their albums with something special, and 2011 is no exception. The melody of Surma is beautiful, and Jonne Järvelä’s metal take on traditional Finnish vocals is as entertaining as ever.

5. Turisas – Hunting Pirates (from Stand Up and Fight)

I couldn’t find a youtube video that effectively captured the full scope of Turisas’s sound in such limited bitrates, but believe me, it’s huge. Go buy the album and find out for yourselves. Unlike Varangian Way, not every track is this good, but on a select number Turisas appear in their finest form. Adventurous, exciting, epic beyond compare, this band delivers with all of the high definition special effects of a Hollywood blockbuster.

4. The Flight of Sleipnir – Transcendence (from Essence of Nine)

Essence of Nine kicks off with a kaleidoscope of everything that makes stoner metal great, while reaching beyond the genre to incorporate folk and Akerfeldt-esque vocals. A beautifully constructed song, it crushes you even as it floats through the sky. I could imagine Tony Iommi himself rocking out to this one.

3. Boris – Black Original (from New Album)

From crust punk to black metal, there’s nothing Boris don’t do well, and 2011 has shown more than ever that there’s no style they’ll hesitate from dominating. I don’t know what’s been going on in the past few years with this popular rise of 80s sounds and weird electronics. I don’t listen to it, so I can’t relate. But if I expected it sounded anything nearly as good as what Boris pulled off this year I’d be all over it.

2. Tom Waits – Chicago (from Bad as Me)

Bad as Me kicks off with one of my favorite Tom Waits songs to date. It’s a timeless theme for him, but it feels more appropriate now than ever, and his dirty blues perfectly capture the sort of fear and excitement of packing up and seeking out a better life.

1. Dropkick Murphys – Take ‘Em Down (from Going Out in Style)

In a year just begging for good protest songs, Flogging Molly tried really hard and fell flat. Dropkick Murphys, another band you’d expect to join the cause, released perhaps their most generic album to date (still good mind you, but not a real chart topper). Take ‘Em Down is kind of out of place on the album, but it’s DKM to the core, and as best I can gather it’s an original song, not a cover of a traditional track. If so, it’s probably the most appropriate thing written all year. (The video is fan made.)

If you’re interested in my actual top 10, it runs something like this:

10. Falkenbach – Where His Ravens Fly…
9. Waldgeflüster – Kapitel I: Seenland
8. Liturgy – High Gold
7. Endstille – Endstille (Völkerschlächter)
6. Blut aus Nord – Epitome I
5. Krallice – Intro/Inhume
4. Liturgy – Harmonia
3. Krallice – Diotima
2. Krallice – Telluric Rings
1. Krallice – Dust and Light

And that excludes so many dozens of amazing songs that it seems almost pointless to post it.

My Top 15 Metal Albums of 2011

The years I most actively indulge my musical interests are the ones I find most difficult to wrap up in any sort of nice cohesive summary. December always begins with a feeling that I’ve really built up a solid basis on which to rate the best albums of the year, and it tends to end with the realization that I’ve really only heard a minute fraction of what’s out there. I’m going to limit this to my top 15. Anything beyond that is just too arbitrary–the long list of new albums I’ve still yet to hear will ultimately reconfigure it beyond recognition.

15. Thantifaxath – Thantifaxath EP
Thantifaxath’s debut EP might only be 15 minutes long, but that was more than enough to place it high on my charts. The whole emerging post/prog-bm sound has been largely a product of bands with the resources to refine it, and it’s quite refreshing to hear sounds reminiscent of recent Enslaved without any of the studio gloss. That, and I get a sort of B-side outer space horror vibe from it that’s not so easy to come by. (Recommended track: Violently Expanding Nothing)

14. Craft – Void
This is the straight-up, no bullshit black metal album of the year. It doesn’t try anything fancy or original. It’s just good solid mid-tempo bm–brutal, evil, conjuring, and unforgiving. Hail Satan etc. (Recommended track: any of them)

13. Turisas – Stand Up and Fight
Stand Up and Fight doesn’t hold a candle to The Varangian Way, but I never really expected it to. As a follow-up to one of my all-time favorite albums, it does a solid job of maintaining that immensely epic, triumphal sound they landed on in 2007. It lacks their previous work’s continuity, both in quality and in theme, but it’s still packed with astoundingly vivid imagery and exciting theatrics that render it almost more of a movie than an album. (Recommended tracks: Venetoi! Prasinoi!, Hunting Pirates)

12. Endstille – Infektion 1813
Swedish-style black metal seldom does much for me, and it’s hard to describe just what appeals to me so much about Germany’s Endstille. But just as Verführer caught me by pleasant surprise two years ago, Infektion 1813 managed to captivate me in spite of all expectations to the contrary. Like Marduk (the only other band of the sort that occasionally impresses me), they stick to themes of modern warfare, but Endstille’s musical artillery bombardments carry a sense of something sinister that Marduk lacks. The dark side of human nature Endstille explores isn’t shrouded in enticing mystery–it’s something so thoroughly historically validated that we’d rather just pretend it doesn’t exist at all. The final track, Völkerschlächter, is one of the best songs of the year. Stylistically subdued, it pummels the listener instead with a long list of political and military leaders responsible for mass murder, named in a thick German accent over a seven second riff that’s repeated for 11 minutes. It’s a brutal realization that the sensations black metal tends to arouse are quite real and quite deplorable, and it will leave you feeling a little sick inside.

11. Nekrogoblikon – Stench
Nekrogoblikon released a folk metal parody album in 2006 that was good for laughs and really nothing else. The music was pretty awful, but that was intentional. It was a joke, with no presumption to be any good as anything but a joke. They’re the last band on earth I ever expected, a full six years after the fact, to pop back up with a really fucking solid sound. But Stench is good. I mean, Stench is really good. It’s still comical in theme, but the music has been refined beyond measure. Quirky, cheesy guitar and keyboard doodles have become vivid images of little flesh-eating gremlins dancing around your feet, whiny mock-vocals have taken the shape of pretty solid Elvenking-esque power metal, pretty much everything about them has grown into a legitimate melo-death and power infused folk metal sound. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still not meant to be taken seriously, but they’re now of Finntroll caliber. (Recommended tracks: Goblin Box, Gallows & Graves, A Feast)

10. Týr – The Lay of Thrym
I thought By the Light of the Northern Star was a fairly weak album, and because The Lay of Thrym maintains some of the stylistic changes they underwent then, a part of me keeps wanting to say it can’t be as good as say, Land or Eric the Red. But of all the albums I acquired in 2011, I’ve probably listened to this one the most. Týr have one of the most unique sounds on the market, and it’s thoroughly incapable of ever boring me or growing old. Heri Joensen’s consistently excellent vocal performance alone is enough to make them perpetual year-end contenders. (Recommended track: Hall of Freedom)

9. Waldgeflüster – Femundsmarka – Eine Reise in drei Kapiteln
This is some of the most endearing black metal I’ve heard in a while. Intended as a musical reminiscence of Winterherz’ journey through Femundsmarka National Park in Scandinavia, it’s a beautiful glorification of nature that takes some of the best accomplishments of Drudkh and Agalloch and adds to them a very uplifting vibe. Someone made an 8 minute compilation of the album on youtube which does a good job at previewing without revealing all of its finest moments. (Recommended track: Kapitel I: Seenland)

8. Ygg – Ygg
Ygg is an hour-long trance, evoking ancient gods in a way that only Slavic metal can. You could probably pick apart the music and discover plenty of flaws, but that would miss the point. I think that a lot of these Ukrainian and Russian bands are true believers, and that the purpose of music like this is more to create an experience in the listener than to be good for its own sake. This is a spiritual journey, and if it fails to move you as such it will probably come off as rather repetitive and generic, but I find it impressively effective. (Recommended track: Ygg)

7. Blut aus Nord – 777: Sect(s)
I don’t know where to put this really. I could just as easily have labeled it second best album of the year. Dropping it down to 7th might seem a little unjustified, but eh, this is a list of my top albums, not of the “best” albums of the year. There’s no denying Sect(s) credit as a brilliant masterpiece, but it’s an ode to madness. I mean, this music scares the shit out of me, and if that means it’s accomplished something no other album has, that also means I don’t particularly “enjoy” listening to it. (Recommended track: Epitome I)

6. Altar of Plagues – Mammal
I never did listen to Mammal as actively as I would have liked. I never sat down and gave it my undivided attention from start to finish. But it’s served as a background piece for many late nights at work. It zones me in–stimulates my senses without ever distracting them from the task at hand. I don’t feel like I can really say much about what makes it great, because that’s not the sort of thing I’ve considered while listening to it, but I absolutely love it. It’s a big improvement from White Tomb, which was itself an excellent album, and more so than most other releases of 2011 I will probably continue to listen to it frequently in years to come. (Recommended track: Neptune is Dead)

5. Primordial – Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand (track: No Grave Deep Enough)
Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand is by no means perfect. It’s got a few sub-par tracks detracting from the full start to finish experience, but when it’s at its best all else can be easily forgiven. Call it folk metal or call it black metal, whichever you prefer, but first and foremost call it Irish, with every good thing that might entail. The vocals are outstanding, the music rocks out in folk fashion without ever relenting from its metal force, and while the lyrics don’t always make sense, they always hit like a fucking truck. Where they do all come together, delivered with Nemtheanga’s vast and desperate bellows, the result is overwhelming. O Death, where are your teeth that gnaw on the bones of fabled men? O Death, where are your claws that haul me from the grave? (Other recommended tracks: The Puritan’s Hand, Death of the Gods)

4. Falconer – Armod (track: Griftefrid)
Prior to 2011 I’d largely written Falconer off as one of those power metal acts that were just a little too cheesy to ever excite me. Maybe it was bad timing. Maybe I just happened to hear them for the first time while Kristoffer Göbel was filling in on vocals. Or maybe Armod is just their magnum opus–a spark of genius they’ve never neared before. Flawless if we ignore the “bonus tracks”, Armod takes that early folk metal sound Vintersorg pioneered with Otyg, merges it perfectly with power metal, and offers up 11 of the most well-written and excellently produced songs of the year. Mathias Blad’s vocals are absolutely phenomenal. (Other recommended tracks: Herr Peder Och Hans Syster)

3. Falkenbach – Tiurida (track: Sunnavend)
A lot of people might voice the legitimate complaint that Tiurida, Vratyas Vakyas’s first studio album in six years, sounds absolutely indistinguishable from his prior four. For me, that’s exactly why it ranks so high. Vakyas landed on a completely unique, instantly recognizable sound which, alongside Bathory, defined viking metal as a genre, and he’s refused to change it one bit. I fell in love with this album ten years ago. (Other recommended tracks: Where His Ravens Fly…)

2. Liturgy – Aesthethica (track: Harmonia)
Yes, Liturgy. It’s immature, childish, and imperfect, but it’s uplifting in a completely new way. No matter how far Hunt-Hendrix might go to embarrass himself and his band mates, behind all of his pompous babble there just might be some truth to it. (Other recommended tracks: True Will)

1. Krallice – Diotima (track: Dust and Light)
More than the album of the year, Diotima is one of the greatest albums ever made. I can’t fathom the amount of skill it must take to perform with the speed and precision that these guys do, but if they battered down a physical barrier to metal in 2008, they finally grasped hold of what lies beyond it in 2011. They claim that the songs on their first three albums were all written at the same time by Mick Barr and Colin Marston, before their self-titled debut. If that’s the case, then it must be the experience of performing together and the creative contributions of Lev Weinstein and Nick McMaster that raised Diotima to a higher level. It’s not just that they’ve improved in every way imaginable; the songs themselves are overwhelming, breathtaking, and chaotic to a degree they’d never before accomplished. Krallice perform an unwieldy monster that took a few albums to thoroughly overcome. Now they’re in complete control, and their absolutely brilliant song-writing can shine through. With the exception of the dubious Litany of Regrets, this is possibly the greatest album I have ever heard. (Other recommended tracks: Inhume, Diotima, Telluric Rings)

Opeth and Summoning: Music for October (part 7)

October has always been my favorite month. It marks the beginning of a seasonal reclamation of man by the world, in which civilization’s mask of sensibility begins to slip away. Tasteless architectural symbols of control over nature digress to their more appropriate forms, as frail refuge against forces beyond our control or comprehension. It is, to misappropriate Agalloch, “a celebration for the death of man… …and the great cold death of the Earth.”

Last year I posted a six part series on some of my favorite black metal, folk metal, and related genres for the season. I had intended to do something similar this year, but time just did not allow for it. I never got around to coming up with a central concept on which to focus. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the two bands I have listened to the most this month, Opeth and Summoning, both defy all standards of classification.

I would like to showcase both, but I can’t imagine doing so properly without embarking on a project way beyond the scope of my time and desire to write at the moment. So I will keep this short and sweet, featuring only Opeth’s Orchid (1995) and Summoning’s Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame (2001), and perhaps in the process still introduce you to some amazing music you had not heard before.

Opeth – The Apostle in Triumph

Everyone has heard Opeth, right? Their fame is fairly unprecedented among metal bands that are actually worth a damn. Yet, out of touch with what is and is not popular today as I am, I still get the impression that what I think of as Opeth is just as relatively obscure as it had been when I first heard them well over a decade ago.

Opeth as a popular band, in fact, is entirely foreign to me. Their first album to make the US charts, Damnation, came out right around the time I stopped listening to them altogether, and long after my interest had begun to wane. I was introduced to Opeth, like everyone around the turn of the century, via Demon of the Fall. My Arms Your Hearse was one of the most emotionally charged and breathtaking albums I’d ever heard. At the time, if you wanted to hear more, you had to look backwards, to Orchid and Morningrise, both of which were very different beasts. With them, if no one reminded you of the distortion and growled vocals, you might forget, amidst Akerfeldt’s soft, subtle lamentations, that you were listening to metal at all.

It took both a long time to grow on me. It’s not that they were inaccessible, but that peculiar teenage ability to focus in on a single masterpiece with no appreciation whatsoever for its surroundings had hold of me. There I was covering My Arms Your Hearse from start to finish on my new guitar (sure wish I could still do so now), and I’d listened to Morningrise maybe five times. Orchid never broke through the cellophane. I finally turned to them just barely in time to soak them up before history left them in the dust, a last minute love affair I was conscious of at the time. They ended up becoming my two favorite Opeth albums, and still are.

Even though My Arms Your Hearse was, alongside Blind Guardian’s Nightfall in Middle-Earth, easily the most influential album in my life, Orchid and Morningrise are the two I look back on most nostalgically, and their melancholy beauty always reverberates the sensation.

Opeth – The Twilight is My Robe

So maybe Orchid isn’t really Opeth’s best album. Perhaps I am biased beyond reconciliation. But at any rate, my obsession with it certainly isn’t some subconscious desire to show I am an “old school” fan–the sort of accusation I tend to see on those rare occasions that the album is mentioned at all. Whether you find my placement of it at the top of Akerfeldt’s discography unjust or not, I encourage you to give The Apostle in Triumph and The Twilight is My Robe long hard listens. Agalloch being a decidedly winter-oriented band, I have experienced no music which captures the melancholy side of the autumnal season better than this.

Summoning – A New Power is Rising

I obsessed over The Hobbit as a child, the Lord of the Rings as a teen, and The Silmarillion in my earliest adult years. J.R.R. Tolkien pretty well haunted most of the formative years of my life, and I am forever indebted to him. A few months ago I picked up one of his books for the first time in perhaps a decade, committed to reading them all, but time simply did not allow for it. As with all undertakings though, it influenced my taste in music for the time at hand. I spent much of the summer re-exploring Summoning–a band I’d never actually encountered until Oath Bound in 2006. Thus they were readily at hand at the start of October, and since then they’ve comprised over half of everything I have listened to.

I dare say no single author has had more impact on music than Tolkien, and while I will always regard Nightfall in Middle-Earth as the greatest relevant triumph, Summoning’s discography is a close second. The one band I know of which has taken Tolkien as their lyrical and musical muse pretty much exclusively, they have forged an entirely new style of music over the years that captures that feeling I always got reading him to perfection.

Summoning – South Away

Summoning emerged from black metal, but from the very beginning they stood apart. By Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame in 2001, my favorite album of theirs, this connection had dwindled to little more than the vocals and some tremolo guitar. The constant use of keyboards (often set to replicate brass) and the heavily reverberated, slow drumming are what characterize them best, along with frequent spoken vocal loops.

Perhaps they intend to sound fairly sinister, with lyrics focused more often than not on the darker forces of Tolkien’s tales, but the effect for me is nothing of the sort. The drums paint a vast, diverse landscape of mountains, forests, rivers and plains that are entirely neutral–dangerous to be certain, but more enticing than aversive. They beckon you out to explore the unknown, steeped in mystery–a fantasy world which is here Middle-Earth, but could just as soon be your own back yard on an autumn day, when the changes at hand call on you to leave humanity behind and wander off into the amoral wilderness.

Summoning – Runes of Power

I love black metal, horror, and everything of the sort, but I think the word “neutral” best describes what I have been tapping into this Halloween season. No real glorification of evil for its own sake, nor any embrace of bygone cultures and values here. Orchid and Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame both tap into the individual’s relation to the world absent civilization’s presumptions and impositions–to the mystery of nature and the manifold possibilities within it which mundane daily life denies–be the experience melancholy or thrilling.

Review: Nekrogoblikon – Stench

Up until late July, Nekrogoblikon were a nearly forgotten gimmick. Their first and only previous album, Goblin Island, was released in 2006, and that was the last I ever heard of them. Aside from telling the story of an extra-terrestrial goblin invasion of the most heinous sort (they even ruin Christmas), it featured, among other things, sound clips of the band screaming like little girls, an actual stereotypical Christmas song, a cover of In Flames’ Artifacts of the Black Rain with all the lyrics substituted for banter about goblins, and a dance beat chiptune outro. Musically, it was simultaneously a mockery of a lot of the bands that probably influenced them and a pretty decent, enjoyable imitation of them. But it was never funny in say, a GWAR or Alestorm sort of way. It was more like a Weird Al thing–a novelty. You laugh, but you really don’t want your friends to know you listen to it, and you never play through it twice in a row.

Goblin Box

Their new album is a very different beast. Over the past five years they’ve actually matured into really good song-writers. Don’t get me wrong, Goblin Island had some really catchy tracks, but in the music just as in the lyrics there was a sort of audible immaturity, by design of course, that made light of the bands they were imitating. On Stench this notion is more internal. That is, they’re still parodying Children of Bodom, Finntroll, and just about anything in between, but instead of hearing a bunch of kids making a joke you hear a bunch of goblins being goblins. The immaturity is no longer in the execution; it’s encased in really solid music that, given better production value, could rival many of the very same albums it pokes and prods.

Basically, on Stench the line between a musical parody and a successful cross-genre epic metal masterpiece is very grey indeed. Yet the lyrics are just as blatantly whimsical as ever. The result is hard to swallow, because it’s so good and so bad at the same time. I imagine the spoken ending of this song is a rip on Rhapsody of Fire’s infamously lame spoken lines; it goes approximately “The humans had opened the box to torture and maim all kinds of magical creatures, but the goblins were not to be trifled with. No, not to be trifled with at all. And as the humans laid there, a pulsating mound of bone and flesh, dead and mutilated beyond all hope and reason, the goblins feasted upon their rotting corpses, filling the halls with the shrill sound of chilling laughter….. Forever!” And yet when you listen to it, beneath the cheese you get the feeling that it’s a really badass ending.

It took quite a while for me to get sufficiently passed the fact that it’s a parody to enjoy it in its own right. That was Stench’s initial impact: a part of me was left feeling like I’d been cheated out of something awesome on par with Ensiferum and Equilibrium, but the more I listened to it the more I wanted to click repeat, plant my hand firmly in the center of my face, and grin from ear to ear underneath it. At this point I can safely say I love it unconditionally.

Gallows & Graves

There’s something of a third dynamic going on here as well, and it’s what really tips the scale towards greatness. In some odd capacity this really is, well, goblin metal. If we think of them as those short, mischievous little tinkers that are a good bit like gnomes with the added plus of being spawns of Satan, you can actually hear something of this in the music. Goblins ARE both comical and evil, and while Goblin Island was too much of a joke (albeit a good one) to capture this, Stench pulls it off. Trolls and vikings and pirates have all acquired a sort of musical imagery, much of which isn’t meant to be taken entirely seriously. The idea of a goblin is a good deal less serious than all of those to begin with, and if I was going to “seriously” create a metal sound to capture them, well, Stench seems pretty on the mark. The frantic intro/chorus melody of Gallows & Graves and the kind of childish clear vocals really do call to mind some small, obnoxious, vicious little bugger hopping around your feet, and this same musical imagery reoccurs throughout Stench with a consistency that Goblin Island lacked.

A Feast

It’s really hard to talk about what Nekrogoblikon “accomplished” on this album with a straight face, but the fact of the matter is Stench is really damn good. They manage to successfully combine elements of more metal sub-genres than I can count. It’s also got the clever bonus of thematically justifying all of its potential negatives. Goblins are as obnoxious as they are evil, right, so if they’re mocking a bunch of their metal predecessors musically it’s only natural. This is goblin metal.

Review: Moonsorrow – Varjoina Kuljemme Kuolleiden Maassa

A few months ago I placed this album in my top 5 of 2011 so far, but I really didn’t have much to say about it. Despite having listened to ample amounts of this band over the years, I really am still in no position to thoroughly compare it to their past works (though I’ll certainly try). Moonsorrow has always been a band I’ve listened to in passing–something I put on for the mood it sets, not to appreciate its intricacies. In this sense Varjoina Kuljemme Kuolleiden Maassa is no different. But in the span of just, what, six months, I’ve listened to it more than all of their other albums combined since I first heard about them. So it’s got to have something special going for it.


The first thing that makes Varjoina Kuljemme Kuolleiden Maassa so effective is showcased in the first minute of the opening song. That deep, crushing guitar tone that kicks it off doesn’t lose the spotlight until at least half way through the album, and it’s never abandoned completely. A quick skip through their larger discography tells me this is something fairly new. It’s not their first album to be largely driven by guitar chords, but I’ve found nothing as deep, encompassing, or persistent as this. The result is a fuller sound that keeps me connected as the surrounding styles vary. Tähdetön might move over time from something grim to something sweeping and beautiful, but a thread connects it all. The opening song doesn’t transition in the same sense as their previous works; it follows a steady progression.

Huuto (first 15 minutes)

The folk elements of the album are also worth noting. If a bit less authentic in feel than they used to be, they’re far more in touch with the music that surrounds them. I can’t help but think of Equilibrium’s Sagas throughout Huuto, and to a lesser extent on the other three tracks as well. You’ll find little in the raw here; it’s typically encased in or entirely consistent of dreamy keyboards that feel more fantasy than folk. This isn’t something entirely new for the band. They’ve always been pretty synth-heavy. But I don’t think you’ll find a parallel to Huuto’s intro on their past albums. I think it would have started out with just an acoustic guitar and the keyboards would have entered along with the distortion, or else would have been more of a drone than a dreamy accompaniment. Just like the intro to Tähdetön gives you a distinct example of what has changed on this album metal-wise, the intro to Huuto shows their new approach to folk. The keyboards and traditional sounds are inseparably fused, not two distinct elements of the band.

The third great thing for me is that they’ve returned to writing reasonably short songs. Their last couple releases have been made up predominantly of 30+ minute marathons that are hard to engage from start to finish. The longest song on Varjoina Kuljemme Kuolleiden Maassa is sixteen minutes. I have the option to single out a song once in a while and really get into it from start to finish, making each track a bit easier to appreciate.

Kuolleiden Maa (first 10 minutes)

A lot of what I’ve said about this album doesn’t really apply to the final song, Kuolleiden Maa, which is a fourth of the entire album. It is decidedly darker, and the only track that can really be described as black metal. It’s just as enormous as the rest of Varjoina Kuljemme Kuolleiden Maassa, but the feel is very different. That it’s my least favorite track should be no slight against it; it probably sounds more like what you would have expected on a new Moonsorrow album than any of the others. And it’s well placed to not disrupt the rest of the album. The three generally upbeat tracks come packaged together before the bleak conclusion. It also ends where the first track begins (though this sample doesn’t get that far into it), making the whole album very repeatable. The annoying bit of static you hear on the left in this sample is the product of youtube, by the way, and not something to worry about on the album proper.

In short, everything about Varjoina Kuljemme Kuolleiden Maassa feels bigger, more surreal, and all around more engaging than their past works. It has an incredibly dark ending, but I’d also say it’s all in all more happy and optimistic than their past works–something that certainly appeals to me when I’m in the mood for folk metal. As quintessentially Moonsorrow as it may be, it’s a definite step in a new direction, and the result is my favorite release by them to date. I didn’t actually sample my favorite track here. That would be Muinaiset. But all four feature songs (the rest are short intro/outro/transition tracks) are superb, and you’re definitely missing out if you don’t pick this one up.

Review: Turisas – Stand Up and Fight

Turisas’s last release, The Varangian Way, got my vote for album of the year in 2007. It was a concept album, as so many monumental releases have been, telling the story of a band of viking soldiers of fortune traveling through Kievan Rus, intent on joining Byzantium’s Varangian Guard. Through sweeping symphonics, gritty folk, and a small but significant dose of progressive rock, the travelers encounter new lands, pass through Veliky Novgorod, party hard in king Yaroslav’s court, long for home while daring Dnieper rapids, and eventually arrive at the most majestic city in the world. (The back cover of the album is a map of Russia with each track title placed in its relevant location.) The lyrics might be shallow at times, and the English of questionable quality, but Turisas harness the power of names in a way I’ve never encountered before. When the central character raises “a toast to our generous host . . . ruler of Rus from coast to coast”, it’s the chanting of the Norse rendering of his name–Jarisleif! Jarisleif!–that really drills home the ruler’s greatness. The final, triumphal ending never mentions “Constantinople”. Nygård shouts “Tsargrad!” The chorus responds with “Konstantinopolis!” “The Golden Horn lives up to its name.” And the final resounding proclamation: “Great walls! Great halls! Greatest of all, Miklagard!”

I think it is the historic allusions, and the intensity with which they are employed, that really tip the scales from mere greatness to a masterpiece. If you have any fascination with history, you can’t help but be sucked in.

Stand Up and Fight is not nearly so consistant. At face value it certainly appears to be a continuation of the concept album. Hagia Sophia graces the cover. The opening track is called “The March of the Varangian Guard”, and the final track “The Bosphorus Freezes Over”. After a few listens, I caught on that, these three references aside, the album really has nothing to do with The Varangian Way. If you dig into the lyrics though, there are a few other Easter eggs.

The track most musically reminiscent of The Varangian Way is Venetoi! Prasinoi!

(Due to some bs copywrite issue you’ll have to click the link to hear this one.)

It’s a song about a chariot race, something I tend to associate with earlier Roman culture. If you plug “Venetoi” into wikipedia though, it redirects you specifically to the “Byzantine era” subsection of chariot racing. The use of lesser known names though isn’t at all emphasized like it is in The Varangian Way. The allusions are more subtle, meant I think to give a feeling of continuity without forcing the band to focus exclusively on one general topic. Track title aside, this song could take place in Rome proper.

Of course, The Varangian Way’s lyrics were dubious at times–(What the hell does the Nile river have to do with traveling through Rus to Constantinople?)–and their English was, if usually grammatically sound, not always quite on the mark. In the absence of allusions and grand proclamations, this is much more apparent on Stand Up and Fight. Consider Fear the Fear.

It opens with the lines “Bravery, as we’ve seen on TV: Explosions and swords, hot girls in reward.” How awkward is that? The song continues on with more words than most, and I’m pretty sure they’re attempting to convey some sort of message, but I don’t have a clue what it is. Yet the awkwardness isn’t always a bad thing. Skip to the last minute, and you’ll hear Nygård screaming “Die! Die you sucker! Let me go! Let me free motherfucker!” The way he does it, it’s just as cool as it is corny. It reminds me of Devin Townsend and Mikael Akerfeldt’s epic duet at the end of Ayreon’s “Loser”. … Well, that’s really a stretch, but that song is fucking awesome in ways I can barely comprehend, and I’ll take any excuse to link it:


Corny lyrics also play a hand in my favorite song on the album, Hunting Pirates.

(Due to some bs copywrite issue you’ll have to click the link to hear this one.)

Ok, first of all, it’s called Hunting Pirates. What the hell? The stuff Nygård babbles is ridiculous. “Kill them all! Let them die! Scum they are! Foe of mankind!” The music though, and his vocal style, are so fun that the cheese is almost a good thing. Besides, when he shouts “It is you who are the bad guys!” he’s not necessarily out to save the world. Plenty of folk metal bands are equally ridiculous, Turisas just take the less popular side. If if was a song about being a pirate, I’d laugh at the lines and not think twice about them.

My verdict on Stand Up and Fight: It’s catchy. It’s corny. It’s not The Varangian Way, but it’s miles beyond Battle Metal. Bare with the lyrics; they definitely overextend themselves in contemplation a few times, but for the most part it might only be their cultivation of a “good guy” persona that makes them appear any worse for wear than Alestorm’s demands for “more wenches and mead.” I mean, when I saw them live Nygård was chugging a bottle of vodka throughout the set.

Oh, while I was looking around youtube for functional links (without much success) I did find this: