Posts Tagged ‘power metal’

Sonata Arctica – Ecliptica Review

Posted: September 28, 2017 by kingcrimsonprog in Metal, Metal - Studio, Music Reviews
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220px-SonataArctica_EclipticaSonata Arctica are a Finnish Power Metal band, starting their career in the late ’90s, and Ecliptica is their now-classic self-produced debut album from 1999. This is back before they started getting orchestras and turning progressive, before their concept albums. This is the band dealing purely with the basic, glistening, unaltered, raw and pure perfect formula without experimentation.

In terms of musical direction the material is very much in the style of their fellow countrymen Stratovarius. Very melodic, speedy European-style Power Metal with plenty of doublekicks, keyboards and sweet falsetto vocals. The band have toured with Stratovarius and covered their material so its very much influences on sleeves here. However, just like Airbourne and AC/DC’s sonic relationship, just because they are very similar to someone else’s style doesn’t mean they aren’t doing a damn good job at it. On this album they do that pounding speed metal with keyboard solos and gorgeous melodies thing as well as any of the originators of the scene. The band have such joy, enthusiasm and energy that just sparks off every chorus and solo. Its very pleasant listening. Its like somebody captured smiles and sunshine in audio form. There’s a reason cynics call Power Metal ‘Happy Metal’ and bands like Sonata Arctica play a big part in that.

The songs here are some of the finest examples of the formula in the history of the genre. ‘Blank File,’ ‘Destruction Preventer,’ ‘Kingdom For A Heart’ and the lead single ‘UnOpened’ are all particularly strong. The bouncy powerballd ‘Letter To Dana’ is memorable. (Also the bonus track ‘Mary-Lou’ if you get that version, is very enjoyable). The album is really strong and consistent without much filler and nothing you would want to skip immediately. It is succinct, memorable, flows well and works well as a whole. You can play it from start to end and stay entertained the whole time.

If you scoff at ‘Flower Metal’ and all its cheese, then maybe this will confirm all your worst fears (apart from maybe songs about wizards and dragons and fairies). But if you are a fan of Freedom Call and Stratovarius its hard to see how you wouldn’t love this band and this album.

Tony Kakko has such a strong voice and his contributions on keys add great colour to the material. He conveys such emotion. If you don’t usually like this type of music you may find him a bit too flowery but if you are into this music there are only a handful of singers on the planet who do it as well.

Its almost amazing that the band started off with such a strong debut right away. A lot of bands took a while to get their style down, especially in Power Metal where a lot of bands started off as Thrash or Heavy Metal bands and took a few albums to get where they were going. I guess having other bands already blaze the trial beforehand helped. But much like Hammerfall; even though they didn’t start off in the ’80s like Blind Guardian or Helloween or Running Wild, they just arrived seemingly out of nowhere and dropped a rock-solid gem of a debut, coming out of the gate already formed. The band would go on to very different things with complex concept albums and musical exploration, but this debut finds them focused into the absolute perfect basic speedy melodic Power Metal formula and doing it as well as any of their peers or indeed any of their idols.

Overall; this is an absolute banger of an album. The speed, the melody, the sentimental ballads are all exactly what you want from a Power Metal group and Sonata Arctica have absolutely mastered the form. If anyone were to sling any criticism at the album it could only be that it sounds a lot like Stratovarius, but that can equally be praise because its a difficult thing to achieve, and they do it so well, so consistently and very memorably indeed.

Stratovarius – Episode Review

Posted: September 28, 2017 by kingcrimsonprog in Metal, Metal - Studio, Music Reviews
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Episode_(album)_coverThis is where things just start to go right for Finnish Power Metal legends Stratovarius. Some bands just take a while to really get it right. They formed all the way back in 1984 and gradually mutated with experience and line-up changes from being a solid but forgettable underground Heavy Metal band that didn’t even tour to one of the world’s premier Power Metal bands. Their first three albums were respectable efforts with main guitarist Timo Tolkki on vocals and stylistically lacking much of the melodic Euro flavour or symphonic pomp of their more famous material. Their fourth album saw them add a new lead vocalist in the iconic Timo Kotipelto and start gearing up to become the band they always had the potential to be.

In 1996 the band exploded in terms of quality, memorability, confidence and power. They released the Episode album, their fifth studio long-player, and the first to feature the ‘classic line up’ with the aforementioned Kotipelto and Tolkki (and not forgetting bassist Jari Kainulainen) now joined by the new additions of German Jörg Michael (of Rage fame!) on drums and Swedish Jens Johannson (of Yngwie Malmsteen fame!) on keyboards. This line-up just all compliment each other’s styles really well and bring the best out of each other.

The thundering double kicks of Jörg perfectly suit Tolkki’s Priest-meets-Scorpions-meets-early-Queensryche style riffs. The guitar and keyboard trade-off solos between Tolkki and Johannson are some of the best in the genre and take what Blackmore and Lord were doing in the ’70s and both modernize and metalize it. Kotipelto’s soaring vocals are finely accentuated by background keys from Johannson and are given the room to breathe by the long ringing chords that Tolkki drops over that perfectly-synced rhythm section. This is perfect musical harmony exemplified.

The album contains some of the band’s absolute finest work, such as ‘Father Time,’ ‘Tommorow,’ ‘Will The Sun Rise?’ ‘Speed Of Light’ and the furious instrumental ‘Stratosphere.’ How many bands has this stuff influenced over the years?! You can hear it absolutely dripping down through history to bands like Sonata Arctica and Dragonforce and so, so many others. Hell, even the ballad is great. Sometime I get a bit sick of Power Metal bands doing ballads but ‘Forever’ on this album is absolutely beautiful, so simple and sweetly and perfect.

There’s a bit of variety too, on the slow and pounding numbers like the ominous and threatening sounding ‘Uncertainty’ which sounds like if someone took Metallica’s ‘Wherever I May Roam’ and Queensryche’s ‘Roads To Madness’ and mixed them together. There’s the eastern tinged ‘Babylon’ and the almost eight minute long multi-part, multi-tempo, mutli-mood ‘Night Time Eclipse’ which would foreshadow the band’s slow transition into progressive territories. ‘Season Of Change’ sees the band work with a full orchestra and gives them a symphonic feel similar to Italy’s Rhapsody.

Overall this album was a real triumph for the band, it is a diverse and entertaining journey of an album full of depth and character and indeed some absolutely off the chain virtuosic (yet perfectly balanced) musicianship. It was the beginning of a solid run of really great records with the so called classic line-up and a record that no fan of either the band nor the genre should overlook. Visions might be the first Stratovarius album new fans should check out, but Episode should swiftly follow!

Vain_glory_operaWow, what a change! For German Power Metal luminaries Edguy, the third time was a charm and every other cliché you can throw. The band started off at a really young age, their previous two albums were Maiden, Priest and Helloween worship with very demo-esque production jobs and not so confident performances. You could tell it was good but it didn’t grab your shoulders and shake you.

The third album they unleashed (y’know if you count 1995 version of Savage Poetry) changed that in a big way. Vainglory Opera, from 1998 is a whole other level of professional and inspired. Maybe its partially due to the much greater production job making things sound much more mature and slick, maybe its partially due to the songs themselves being a bit more stripped down, or maybe its just a sheer undeniable spike in confidence and talent…but this album just has that ‘x factor’ that elevates it high. The vocals, man, the vocals! Tobias Samet has such a majestic and gigantic voice. The guitar solos! They siiiiing. Its not even that flashy but its so sweet-spot memorable, y’know?

Then there’s the songs. Ok, there’s two ballads (an orchestral one and a powerballad), there’s a cover song (an almost unrecognizable reworking of an old Ultravox tune jammed through a sort of Stratovarius filter) and there’s an obligatory intro. There’s the title-track which serves as the album’s high point and is a semi-epic that most bands would use as an album closer. To me, it sounds like ‘Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter’ and ‘Mother Russia’ by Iron Maiden had a baby that then got stuck in the machine from the movie The Fly with Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s ‘Trilogy’ and the background music from a documentary on the Christian Church’s history. Its spiced up even further by the guest appearance from Hansi Kürsch of Blind Guardian.

The main bulk of the rest of the material is a mix of two themes; songs with fast double-kick drums that sound like what Helloween would’ve come up with if they had tried to replicate the style of Metallica’s The Black Album in their own unique way, and slower stomping songs reminiscent of Hammerfall when they go mid-paced, but with huge religious-sounding choruses (something they’d explore even more on their next record). The best two for my money being ‘Until We Rise Again’ and ‘No More Foolin.’ Also worth mentioning is ‘Out Of Control’ which features guest guitar work from Stratovarius virtuoso Timo Tolkki.

Its certainly a unique album. Within the genre and within the band’s discography. There aren’t a million other Vainglory Operas out there. Nobody else sounds like this. I don’t think anybody else would either be able to pull it off or be fool enough to try. In the first half of the band’s career when they were still unashamedly Power Metal without the hard rock tinges and before they started adding in all the humour, Vainglory Opera is the band’s attempt at doing the classy grown up mature album. Its real nice to hear the band exploring this ground.

On their next album, the fan favourite classic, Theater Of Salvation, the band would unleash their golden album of absolute pure Power Metal perfection. This album was a perfect stepping stone from their humble youthful beginnings to their zenith, along a not repeated path, but man, while they were here, they nailed it!

220px-PfnuclearfireDo you know what one of my absolute favourite Power Metal songs of all time is? ‘Nuclear Fire’ by Primal Fear. Its up there with ‘When The Dragon Lies Bleeding’ ‘Eagle Fly Free’ and ‘Babylon’ by Hammerfall, Helloween and Edguy respectively as one of those songs I’d play to someone who wanted to know what Power Metal is, why its so good, what makes it a different type of music than NWOBHM or Thrash or whatever else and where it fits in the tapestry of Metal overall. That and it just plain rocks. Over the years I’ve tried to move away from just going with my gut or with cliches like ‘this kicks ass’ …but boy oh boy does ‘Nuclear Fire’ by Primal Fear kick some serious ass! Its the title-track from their 2001 album of the same name, one of the best in their back catalogue.

Primal Fear are a damn fine Metal band, connected to the ever growing Helloween extended family tree through Ralph Scheepers of Gamma Ray fame, who formed this band after Judas Priest auditions didn’t work out for him. Seemingly he just said, “fine then, I’ll make my own Judas Priest album, with blackjack and hookers” and started screeching his way to stardom over some seriously high quality music. Well, needless to say if you like the direction Priest took on Painkiller you’ll probably like this. There’s more to this than just ‘what if Painkiller was a whole band’ (tonnes and tonnes of Accept influence for a start) of course, but this over the top fist-pumping take on pure Heavy Metal does tickle the same part of the brain.

Check out ‘Red Rain’ ‘Angel In Black’ and ‘Kiss Of Death.’ If you want take your-shirt-off, screaming-from-a-mountain-top, majestic Heavy Metal this is dripping with it. Do you want the heavy chug of Thrash, the melodic moments of NWOBHM and classic Heavy Metal, thundering kick drums and seriously delightful guitar solos? Its all here and perfectly balanced. There’s no songs about elves and no keyboards to scare off new-comers to Power Metal, but all that fantastic grandeur it can summon up is here in abundance just done in a hard and satisfying way. ‘Fire On The Horizon’ for example just pounds it out like its trying to prove a point, it just sounds…determined. This album is so self assured and intense and well, Powerful! ‘Fight The Fire’ (three songs about fire on one album!?) sounds like a TV advert for an ’80s Action Movie Marathon.

Their first album was them searching for who they are, their second album was them finding who they are and this album is the crystallization and perfection of that formula. A perfect set of songs in that formula. Even catchier choruses, even better guitar heroics, even crunchier riffs. Arguably some of their best ever songs (especially ‘Nuclear Fire,’). This album just succeeds on every level. Its not overlong, its not repetitive, there’s no filler. For my money, one of their absolute best records and an absolute, unquestionable must own for any fan of the genre (and a damn good taste-trial for skeptics afraid of the flowers and goblins reputation of the genre).

220px-Blind_guardian_follow_the_blindFollow The Blind is the second full-length studio album by the legendary German Power Metal band, Blind Guardian. It was released in 1989 and sees the band in a bit of a transition period, much more advanced than their debut but not yet fully developed into the full on Power Metal style they would become famous for on the next half-dozen albums.

It also sees the band leaning more into a Thrash Metal direction than at any point in their career, with notable Bay Area Thrash influences in particular. If you like Exodus, Testament and Forbidden’s debuts, and you also like Power Metal then this album is a delightful middle ground. Its harder and more aggressive than future Blind Guardian records, and has also yet to develop the more progressive tendencies of their later period. What it lacks in scope however, it makes up for in sheer fury. I think this album would be a great introduction to the band and indeed to the subgenre for fans of Thrash who are maybe afraid of Power Metal due to its reputation as being a bit flowery and wimpy compared to other Metal styles.

On the downside however, for Power Metal fans especially, all that Thrash influence leaves less room for catchiness, melodies and variety as compared to their other work. That is not to say it is devoid of those qualities, just that it is a smaller percentage of the music than usual. Listen to ‘Fast To Madness’ for example… a brilliant Metal song, but you wouldn’t generate as big a sing-along as say ‘Time Stands Still at the Iron Hill.’ The title track does experiment with different tempos and balancing heavy and clean styles, but more in a …And Justice For All/The Years Of Decay way than in an Imaginations From The Other Side way. Both fine ways to be sure, just depends what mood you are in and what expectations you had when you bought the album in the first place.

In terms of songwriting quality, I think Blind Guardian’s albums sort of just got better and better up until about Nightfall In Middle Earth, and so I think this album is better than their debut but not yet as good as Tales From The Twilight World, or the classic Somewhere Far Beyond. That is of course not to say its poor, just that it isn’t as good as the really good stuff. In terms of production, its a bit noisy and harsh on the ears, and works better in small chunks than as a whole. Not unlike fellow Power Metal Pioneers Helloween’s Thrashy Walls Of Jericho album in that regard.

Speaking of Helloween, Kai Hansen makes some guest appearances on this album, both on guitar on ‘Hall Of The King’ and on Guitar and Vocals on ‘Valhalla.’ These for me are two of the best songs on the album anyway, and are made even better by Kai’s presence. The other main highlight is the excellent instrumental ‘Beyond The Ice’ which is one of the best songs on the album for me, very pummeling, quite diverse and with astounding guitar work… it really shows off what a force the band are musically with its bouncy toms and double kicks and the excellent range of riffs and solos.

Overall; Follow The Blind is an experimental album that sees the band trying to find their sound. It is arguably the hardest, fastest and heaviest of their records and arguably the least melodic and catchy. It is however a very decent album that no Blind Guardian fan should miss out on (how could you be a fan and deprive yourself of ‘Banished From Sanctuary’ or ‘Valhalla’?) and that would be a good starting point for fans of heavier music trying Blind Guardian out.

*Ps. The Remastered edition has two cover songs and four early demos to add some value for money. None worth upgrading over in and of themselves, but very welcome if you are getting em for free anyway. *

Iced Earth - The Dark Saga1996’s conceptual The Dark Saga is the fourth studio album by American Power Metal/Heavy Metal band Iced Earth; it was their second album with Matt Barlow singing. It was produced by Jim Morris of Morrisound fame and released on Century Media.

The lyrics are based on the story from the Image comic “Spawn,’” (a lot of character exploration and melancholy – just like the early issue of the book) and so is the artwork. To be honest though, blink and you’d miss it… lyrically it still sounds like most Iced Earth albums anyway and the artwork could easily match their other releases anyway. Its not as if it’s a concept album about The Smurfs or something.

The music on the album is a sort of average of the band’s influences, one part NWOBHM, one part Thrash, one part Power Metal, without being any one overly more than the other… its not their fastest, nor their most bombastic, nor their most “Heavy Metal.” It moved away from the sound of their earlier records and set the tone more or less for their next three or four albums.

If you’ve never heard the band before, image Queensryche’s The Warning mixed with Testament’s Practice What You Preach and Saxon’s Denim & Leather played mostly in a mid-tempo. There’s evocative wide ranging vocals that communicate a lot, there’s a certain rock-meets metal balance and there’s a substantial chug and some double kicks and a bit of a Thrashy edge… only without ever breaking out into a blistering speed.

The standout moments include ‘I Died For You,’ ‘The Last Laugh’ and the seven-minute closer ‘A Question Of Heaven.’ To be honest its all pretty equal though, not much in the way of filler, all of the similar high standard.

If I was going to level any criticism at this record, I could maybe use the ‘formulaic’ card, as its not the most diverse or eclectic release in the world, but that is balanced by how solid and reliable it is. I could play the ‘wearing their influences on their sleeve’ card but their mixture of influences is at least resultant in something that is unmistakably Iced Earth. I don’t feel either is particularly warranted however, this for me is a really decent album from a really decent band… for a brand new listener I’d recommend trying Something Wicked first, but otherwise this is a fine addition to your Iced Earth collection and yet another strong record from the consistent and dependable act.

Here are some songs that are totally floating my boat at the minute, check em out, find a new song to love and support the band accordingly if you do.