Sunday, February 16, 2014

Stormwarrior - Thunder & Steele

I discovered Stormwarrior back in 2002 with their self titled debut. I immediately became a fan of this band. They took me back with their obvious homage to Walls of Jericho era Helloween to include guest appearances from Kai Hansen, Dirk Schlachter and Markus Grosskopf. Yeah, their song titles are cheesy and they may not be innovators but goddamn are they good! So here we are in 2014 and they have released their fifth full length album Thunder & Steele. This album is more of the same from this band without sounding dated or stale. I don't know how they do it but they always seem to release quality albums time after time.

Lars Ramcke on the guitars and vocals is the only original member left but it shows that he is and always was the driving force behind this band. The songs on this album have the energy and speed of their past albums but still seem to sound fresh. He seems to have a slight Kai Hansen sound to his voice. The album kicks off with the title track and is just kick your teeth in speed metal. Blazing riffs, double bass madness and blistering's all there in it's true metal glory. The production has a Iron Savior sound to it because it was mixed and mastered by Piet Sielck. Songs like "Sacred Blade", "Ironborn", and "Die by the Hammer" are instant speed metal classics with huge hooks and melodies that border on epic.

There are some songs on the album like "Steelcrusader", Fyres in the Night", and "Child of Fyre" that are less speed metal and more straight up true metal. The riffs on these songs are catchy and the melodies and choruses are full of hooks. Of course no true metal song on the planet would be complete without killer guitar solos. The guitars on this album are outstanding...never overtly pretentious, just godly. Just listen to the solos on this album...especially on "Sacred Blade" and "Steelcrusader" and you will see what I mean.

Now some will probably give this album points off for their cheesy metal lyrics. I say fuck off! Yeah the lyrics are cheesy and the using "y" instead of "i" in the titles of "Fyres in the Night" and "Child of Fyre" may turn some people off as being more ridiculous than Manowar but for some reason these guys can get away with it.. These guys are the epitome of "True Metal" but it's not embarrassing like some band I know that starts with Man and ends with Owar!. As I said before, this has all been done before by numerous bands prior to these guys but Stormwarrior seem to pull it off with class. They pay homage to the early days of speed metal, not rip it off. I'm an older metal head and this just takes me back to the glory days of metal. This band and this album is essential for any metal head.


Valdrin - Beyond The Forest

When one thinks of melodic black metal, the United States is usually not the first thing that comes to mind. The States really are not known for it's abundance of quality black metal let alone quality melodic black metal. So imagine my surprise when I ran across Valdrin from Cincinnati. This band plays a melodic black metal that sounds like a cross between Dissection, Old Man's Child, with a touch (just a touch) of mid era Dimmu Borgir. This album is not only good but bordering on outstanding. I really hope this band can get some recognition because they may be the only band since Judas Iscariot to put the U.S.A. on the black metal map.

And let me get this out of the way first, this is not overtly keyboard laden goth metal disguised as black metal. These guys are the real deal. There is an intro on here that could have been a lot shorter and is a bit silly but it leads into the title track that clocks in at 10:22. This song is a fucking epic riff fest with riffs that remind me of early Dissection. The length of the song does not take anything away from it and it never gets boring. The vocals are actually typical black metal and are quite good. They never get in the way nor are they annoying. There are some really good solos which are not typical of the genre. The keys are used for atmosphere and do not take anything away from the songs. The production is clean and clear without being over produced.

There are songs that are more straight up black metal with blasts and good tremolo riffs such as "Serpent Willow" or "Calling to the Canidae Horde" that could have been on any of the classic Scandinavian second wave albums. Then there are those that are more melodic like "Impaled Visions Breed Within the Vines" and "Through the Catacombs" that use moderate keys but keep the guitars and the riffs up front. Then there is "Darkness As Black As Evil" that slows it down a bit and is more key oriented and (other than the intro) could be the only weak song on the album...and even it is not THAT bad. Then we have songs like the album closer, "Forgotten Souls", that are a mix of aggression and melody.

Sometimes when searching for some new music to listen to you run across a gem such as this one. This album is actually one that I have listened to several times in the past few weeks since it's release so it has staying power. If you like your black metal epic with a mix of melody and aggression then this album is essential.


Kampfar - Djevelmakt

Pagan black metal band Kampfar just recently released their sixth full length titled Djevelmakt. I have always been very fond of this band and have enjoyed all of their previous releases. Created by main man Dolk after his previous band Mock split, these guys began playing a folk infused black metal along the lines of Windir but also sounding similar to Taake. These days they seem to be going in a more epic and progressive direction that resembles Enslaved a bit. With this new album they have seem to have found that perfect balance between progression and aggression without losing the folk influence.

The album opener "Mylder" was also the first single released from this album. Starting off with a mild piano intro the song quickly moves into a progressive black metal sound that, as I said, reminds me of latter day Enslaved but with a layer of Moonsorrow thrown in there. The riffs are a bit slower without the signature tremolo riffing of most black metal. There are some clean vocals as well as some flute sounds in the song giving it that folk feel without being flat out folk metal. And the Enslaved comparisons keep coming as we go into "Kujon" with it's slower more progressive sound. "Blod, Ederog Galle" is more typical Kampfar with a bit more blasting and riffs that could have been on Mellom Skogkledde Aaser.

This album has the distinction of having a huge variety in the songs. No two sound the same nor does this album have a typical sound. The second single "Swarm Norvegicus", for example, is slow with orchestrated synths creating an almost eerie atmosphere. Dolk's growls are more aggressive and in your face. The keyboards on some songs are used in a refined way without being too over the top usually as an intro to a song, as with the opener and "Fortapelse", or to create the song's atmosphere as with the blaster "Svarte Sjelers Salme". The production on this album is clean and clear without being overtly slick. As a matter of fact, this is the best sounding mix job ever done by Peter Tagtgren.

This album marks 20 years for this band and it appears that they have no intention of slowing down. This also does not seem like a band that will regurgitate the same riffs just to put out an album ever two years. This album is proof of that. When one talks of a band "progressing" or altering their sound, this is an example of doing it the right way. There is no weak songs on this album. I have all of their releases and love every one of them and this one is no exception. This album is essential for any metal fan.


Friday, February 14, 2014

Manowar - Kings of Metal MMXIV

So Manowar has returned with their re-recorded version of their 1988 album Kings of Metal. Manowar have always been a strange bunch to me with their over the top "true metal" image. Most of their classic albums have had some truly killer tracks with a bunch of filler. In all honesty, the band has not done anything even remotely interesting since 2002 with Warriors of the World and even then only 60% of the album was even metal. Kings of Metal is actually one of my favorites by them and I bought the original when it came out so I was interested in hearing this. Well folks, if you thought that Lord of Steel was the death of the band, this release is the nail in the coffin.

The track list is a bit different on this album than on the original. They changed some of the song titles as you'll see (with all of the song titles having MMXIV in them). The album start's off with one of Manowar's greatest songs ever, "Hail and Kill." This song originally had the biggest balls of any Manowar song ever done. It defined metal. From the first note of the re-recording it's apparent that it's tuned down and slower. Eric Adams sounds okay but far from his glory days and it's apparent that it's tuned down for one reason...he can't hit the notes anymore. His screams are not as ballsy or as clear as in his prime and they sound forced. The production stands out as extremely slick with absolutely no balls at all. We can't blame that on the new millennium with all digital production since this album was originally was recorded in an all digital format. It actually sounds like Manowar does "Dad rock." It's like it was recorded on a cheap pro-tools rig on a shitty budget.

The disappointments keep coming as the remainder of the album is more of the same. "Kings of Metal", "THE Heart of Steel", "ON (wtf?) Wheels of Fire", and " THE Blood of the Kings",  the other ballsy songs on the album, have been brutally castrated by the production and the stale recording. And what the fuck is up with putting "The" in front of the titles of the songs?  What would they do if any other band would have butchered these songs like this? Joey DeMaio would have called them out! Why would they do this to their own songs? And don't get me started on " THE Sting of the Bumblebee." There's actually a metronome beeping on it! It's Joey being even more pompous than ever with him actually advertising his bass solo being 300bpm. So what!! It's sad and embarrassing.  Even songs like "A Warriors Prayer" and "THY (lol) Crown and THY Ring" are worse and more cheesy than the originals.

Manowar have been going down this road for a while now. Each time they announce a release, I get my hopes up that they may at least try and recapture a little of their former glory. They've never been the most consistent band in metal but recently they have not done anything worth listening to. Now it seems that it is time for them to hang up their instruments and call it a day. They should have gone out on somewhat of a high note with "Warriors of the World". Their over the top true metal image used to be their "schtick" but now it's just embarrassing. Maybe they should just be like Kiss and do "Farewell Tours" every few years and only play their "classics." Anything is better than this.


Saturday, February 8, 2014

Fates Warning - No Exit

There seem to be two camps when it comes to Fates Warning.  There is the camp that absolutely worships original vocalist John Arch and there is the (much smaller) camp that prefers current vocalist Ray Alder. I'm actually part of the Alder camp. I do believe that John Arch was a great metal vocalist for his time and, unlike Ray Alder, he has succeeded in keeping his voice in tip top shape. However, there was something about his voice that just didn't connect with me and I feel that Ray Alder had a much better tone. No Exit is the first album with Ray Alder and I feel that this album is the peak of the band's career both in songwriting and in execution.

No Exit was my first exposure to the band so maybe that is where my bias comes into play. Any metal head who is around my age will remember seeing "Silent Cries" on Headbanger's Ball and that is where I first heard the band. I'm not sure why I hadn't heard of them prior to this album since they had three other albums on Metal Blade before No Exit, but nonetheless I hadn't. When I heard the song I immediately purchased the album and I about wore the grooves off of it. After that I looked into the band's past and did not believe then nor do I believe now that Fates Warning has put out a better album.

After a brief intro song (which is the title track) we go right into "Anarchy Divine." Straight out of the shoot this song just reeks power and top notch musicianship. The riffs range from pure thrash to driving power metal. The solos are skilled and classy. Ray Alder wastes no time showing his vocal range with some of the best vocals to ever grace metal music. The remainder of the first half of the album is more of the same with songs that show how the band can go from pure thrash riffs to a more prog/power sound. Songs like the aforementioned "Silent Cries" and the thrashier "Shades of Heavenly Death" are full of pure power. "In a Word" is between the two and a bit slower but no less powerful.

The second half of the album is the monumental song "The Ivory Gate of Dreams" that clocks in just under 22:00 and is in eight parts. There are beginning and ending acoustic parts that segue into parts II through VII which are absolutely brilliant. This is one of the best metal songs ever made. There are those who criticize this album for all kinds of reasons from...from it's lack of direction and melody to just the fact that it's not John Arch. If you go into this album with blinders on, you are denying yourself a quality slice of classic U.S. prog/power metal. This album is essential.