Ten Years #31: Turisas

Decade of last.fm 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

Ten Years #48: Opeth

Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
48. Opeth (640 plays)
Top track (26 plays): The Devil’s Orchard, from Heritage (2011)

When I saw Opeth was coming up next, I got pretty excited about what the top track would be. Would my really oldschool Opeth credentials shine with a song like The Twilight is My Robe or Advent topping the charts, or could nothing hope to match Demon of the Fall? A Heritage track was the last thing I ever expected. It’s easy to forget, in the onslaught of relatively poor reviews, how much I actually enjoyed that album when it came out. Oh, it wasn’t love at first listen, but for me it was a breath of fresh air after years of diminishing faith in Akerfeldt’s song-writing ability. Opeth was one of the first metal bands I ever listened to, and, nostalgia aside, I really do think their first three albums were by far their best. A void, beginning subtly with Still Life and expanding more drastically after Blackwater Park, had grown between my personal tastes and the direction Akerfeldt was steering the band. This coupled with what I perceived as an overinflated ego to completely erode my interest in the band for a long time. Ghost Reveries and Watershed only managed four and three listens respectively before I yawned and moved on.

I am not much of a progressive rock fan, but with Heritage I did start to feel like Akerfeldt was coming back to earth and keeping it real again. I don’t know about his whole “I’m done with metal” mentality; it seems to me like he’s exactly where he needs to be to start composing the sort of metal I can enjoy again. But even if prog rock is all that’s going to appear under the Opeth moniker for a long time to come, his decision to tone things down has successfully resurrected my interest. The Devil’s Orchard is my most played Opeth song because these charts do not begin until 2003; a few years earlier and the statistics would reflect something quite different. But suffice to say I do think this is the best Opeth album since Blackwater Park.

I’ll leave you with a classic Opeth track of the sort that made these guys, for a pre-last.fm period of four years or so, my favorite band in the world:

Review: Ihsahn – Eremita

Vegard Tveitan released his fourth solo album this year, giving “Ihsahn” a discography almost as extensive as Emperor’s. Eremita offers the eclectic and exquisitely well-executed sound we’ve come to expect from him in recent years. What it does not offer is very much in the way of black metal. This was a predictable turn, as his sound continued to evolve and incorporate more and more progressive elements. Eremita continues from the major shift taken on After.

Arrival, the album’s opening track, is something of a caricature of everything I don’t really like about Eremita. (Considering the almost total lack of Eremita references on youtube, I have no doubt this video will be removed pretty soon for some copyright nonsense, but the guy who shared it’s account is still active for the time being if you want to go explore the album more thoroughly before buying it.)

The power of the driving opening riff is obviously lost in a youtube sample. Don’t let that be a turn-off. But it’s still a relatively unvaried chug-a-chug, with Ihsahn’s unique distorted vox intermixed with soft, sung breaks. Shortly after the 3 minute mark the song explodes into a pretty wild 30 second guitar solo, and then it’s back to what we started with. I do think Ihsahn’s eclectic guitar doodling is pretty impressive. That’s something I’ve yet to tire of. The getting there, however, is kind of a tedious path for me. Prog bands so often lose focus of the importance of creating an overall vibe, and I fear that “Arrival” too runs the serious risk of amounting to little more than a stereotypical build-up to wankfest. Pretty consistently throughout this album I struggle to get into the moments where not much is going on. I never had any such issue with After, despite its equally drastic break from black metal.

On another note, I loved Ihsahn’s vocals when he was doing black metal. Something about their lack of depth always came off as exceptionally more sinister than the stylistic norm. But when they’re taken out of that context, they just seem to clash with the rest of what’s going on. When he layers them it tends to work, but the single vocal track that characterized a lot of The Adversary does not function as well here. It’s an odd comment coming from a black metal fan, but I really wish there was a lot less screaming and a lot more singing on this one.

That being said, I think Eremita starts off with one of its weakest track. The aspects that make me yawn are somewhat less prevalent further in.

“The Eagle and the Snake” is a good example of what works exceptionally well on this album. The return of jazz saxophonist Jorgen Munkeby is a huge plus, making the breaks between Ihsahn’s outstanding solos valuable in their own right and not merely means to an end. The passage from 2:30 to 3:00 is rescued by the subtle addition of a second distorted vocal track to flush out the screams and avoid the sometimes grating contrast in “Arrival”. The song structure doesn’t feel pre-determined, and the dark, jazzy vibe glues the whole thing together. Ihsahn here offers some of his most imaginative guitar solos to date, in a context appropriately conditioned to present them without feeling forced.

Ihsahn doesn’t forget about black metal altogether, either. There’s nothing on Eremita as wild as “A Grave Inversed” (which, I think, might be the best song of his solo career), but “Something Out There” definitely satisfies any cravings to hear some old school Ihsahn in the mix. Ihsahn also takes frequent dives into the realm of death metal, especially on “Departure”. To me, the really pleasant intro/outro and occasional sax appearance aside, this track runs all the same risks as “Arrival” with no epic solo pay-out at the end to reward you for listening to it. But then, there is a reason I don’t like death metal.

Right now, having listened to Eremita attentively maybe four times, I can honestly say I don’t like it. The sort of mood and atmosphere Ihsahn is attempting to create is just completely lost to me on tracks like “Arrival” and “Introspection”, while “The Eagle and the Snake” is more the exception than the norm. But except where something is exceptionally bad (and nothing on Eremita is), it is always hard to put your finger on exactly what you don’t like about it; it is not as though we are in any position to say “the artist should have done this instead”. Ihsahn is a metal legend deserving of the title, and plenty of other people seem to love this album. For me, the difficulty lies in engaging it; I struggle to sit back and give most of the songs my undivided attention without feeling impatient. Eremita lacks a consistent driving force to hold everything together.

Review: Hail Spirit Noir – Pneuma

Do you know how many albums I’ve reviewed in 2012 so far? One. Comparing that to 2011, when I had pumped out well over 40 by this point in the year, you might say I am a bit behind. It was somewhat inevitable this year, with my video game music project taking up the grand bulk of my free time, but it’s not too late to catch up where I can.

And why not start with the obscure? Hail Spirit Noir is a band from Thessalonika, Greece. The person who introduced me to this album described it as “progressive psychedelic black metal”, which I don’t necessarily agree with but should certainly uh… pique your curiosity.

Mountain of Horror

My apologies for this video. I wanted to include the opening track, and the only copy of it on youtube commits the double idiocy of presenting a fake music video and cutting off the last 30 seconds of the song. While it actually syncs up with the music quite nicely, I have no reason to believe it is anything but a fan project, and it should be duly ignored.

I think there is a general bias among metal fans to label anything black which possesses the slightest traces of the sub-genre. To call Pneuma black metal is a bit of a stretch. The elements of black metal it incorporates are all on the fringe of the genre, and at the end of the day it is far too broad to place any single label on. What you get in “Mountain of Horror” is a combination of that “black and roll” vibe that Peste Noire perfected on Ballade cuntre lo Anemi francor, a heavy dose of 70s prog keyboards, and a progressive black break that falls firmly within the sort of sound Ephel Duath pioneered–more avantgarde than “progressive black” in the sense that recent Enslaved and Ihsahn might call to mind.

Against the Curse, We Dream

And what do you know, another fake music video. Oh well. What you might start to notice as this album progresses is a semblance of stylistic consistency underlining the disorganized madness. Black and roll meets traditional black metal meets psychedelic/70s prog meets avantgarde doodling, mouthful though it may be, is definitely the order of the day.

The Peste Noire vibe is definitely the selling point for me, and in Against the Curse, We Dream it syncs up particularly nicely with the prog synth. The Ephel Duath-esque avantgarde bits leave a lot to be desired, but really, when does avantgarde music ever not leave a lot to be desired? Its presence is at least relatively minimal in the broad range of Pneuma’s sounds. The disorganized nature of the songs is also not particularly problematic, in so far as a standard rock beat sustains to hold the vast majority of it together.

The only thing that kills it a bit for me is the lack of dynamics. From the most break-neck blast beats to the calmest, coolest prog grooves, the album maintains pretty much the exact same level of intensity. It is very much even keel from start to finish. That is more a vice of prog music, which Hail Spirit Noir ultimately choose to place above the metal side of their sound. Much like practically all prog that I have encountered prior to the past ten years, it never opts to overwhelm, feeling relatively dispassionate at the moments where intensity is in highest demand. Consider the staccato break at 5:34 in this video, and how much it could benefit from the level of tension System of a Down applied to similar passages in their early albums. The aggression which follows is somewhat lost to the vibe-killer that the previous passage did not necessarily need to invoke. The avantgarde outro is a disappointing end to a relatively creative song that, enjoyable though it may be, fails to move me to the extent that I feel like it ought to have. This is, of course, to place some unfair stipulations on the band; that the overall atmosphere isn’t what I would have chosen doesn’t mean it fails to capture the vibe Hail Spirit Noir were aiming for.

Haire Pneuma Skoteino

The closing song, Haire Pneuma Skoteino, is by far the most accessible song on the album, and I was pretty surprised by how well I remembered it, having only heard the song one time before, when I first picked up the album half a year ago. I suppose a poppy, catchy outro track is well in keeping with Hail Spirit Noir’s consistent inconsistencies.

At the end of the day, I have mixed feelings about Pneuma. It falls victim to being the first new release I’ve listened to in the better part of a year, and I’m no doubt being a lot more critical than I would have been this time last year, but I just feel like the execution leaves a lot to be desired. On the other hand, it is definitely an impressive and well-informed debut from a band on an obscure label from a country not exactly famous for its metal scene, and the shortcomings I hear suggest I am instinctively holding them to a much higher standard than I would other bands with similar backgrounds. Pneuma isn’t an album I’m likely to revisit, but it has convinced me that this band is a world of potential. I’ll be keeping an eye out for their future releases.