Bigger names and a few hidden gems dominate this month’s best offerings
And Shawn goes rogue. Again.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Lisbon-based Moonspell have been one of these bands that constantly evolve and change, from their folk influenced black metal of their beginnings over their gothic metal phase, the inclusion of electronics, the return to gothic metal fused together with death and black metal and so on. Not all of the adjustments were met with the same level of enthusiasm by the fans, but ultimately the band stayed one thing after all: Moonspell. One contributing factor could be the unusual stability in the band’s line-up, with three founding members still in the line-up after going on 23 years of existence.
Extinct, their eleventh album, continues down the same direction that the band had been walking down the past couple of years, but takes some influences from earlier excursions to include into their Lusitanian style mix, like some more poppy gothic rock elements, which actually had caused quite some pre-release stir, since the first single “The Last of Us” and then also the beginning of opener “Breathe (Until We Are No More)” feature this fairly prominently and led many fans to believe that the Portuguese were headed back to the days of a The Butterfly Effect, arguably the least favourably received album of the band to date.
Within the album context, though, things look a little differently and show yet another facet of the band within its chosen spectrum, a little less of the black metal influence and a bit more leaning towards the gothic metal spectrum again with extended use of keyboards, like the already mentioned “Breathe (Until We Are No More)”, which sees its only real heaviness in Fernando Ribeiro’s growls in the chorus and some more intense moments, but other than that the reduced heaviness works to introduce the listener to the new album and its overall more melodic direction. The title track adds a little more crunch to the guitars and its growled verse, but then unleashes this ultra melodic and irresistible chorus that automatically draws you in. And this is where Moonspell’s experience and talent really shines through, by making the songs so damn good that even potentially negatively viewed elements don’t matter anymore.
And there even is a little throwback all the way back to the Anno Satanæ and Wolfheart releases in “Medusalem”, which brings back the Arabic melodies (not the heaviness, though), just embedded into a song that straddles the line between gothic rock and gothic metal, but it is these melodies that leave their firm imprint on the track. Despite the reduced overall heaviness and more reliance on melodies and clear vocals, Extinct never drifts off into shallow waters, because the quality of the compositions is what propels the album forward, even though it is a welcome element to hear some of Ribeiro’s trademark growls as in the chorus of “A Dying Breed”, which have not lost any of their power and are as distinct of a Moonspell element as his deep, clear voice.
Fans are used to expecting different facets of Moonspell on their albums and Extinct is no different. While still being distinctly Moonspell, it has a lighter, more melodic emphasis than the last few albums and even though some fans will take offense in the reduced heaviness, the album features some of the best and most emotional melodies in the Portuguese history to date. While at first it might seem too much of a lightweight, repeated listens will allow the songs to expand and reveal all details, making it a gothic metal highlight of 2015 and it is good to see that even after 23 years the quintet still avoids standstill, even if it means to pick up part of the past in order to move on!
Divided we shall conquer…
Norway’s Enslaved have never been known as a band to take the easy way out or the roads that are being travelled by the majority of other bands. Neither have they been predictable, which has gotten them as much acclaim as their penchant for meshing musical extremes together in a formidable way. In Times is their thirteenth album and while staying true to themselves by keeping the stylistic elements they had been processing over the past couple of albums intact, they are nowhere near standstill or stagnation.
As before black metal and progressive rock form the pillars their tasty musical concoction is built on, but where they had been combining and meshing the two opposing styles before, In Times sees a slight adjustment with a more defined distinction between the two, which surprisingly works just as well as the more integrated approach of the last two albums, but shows continued evolution of the band.
Opener “Thurisaz Dreaming” already lives this paradigm with abrasive black metal passages meeting pure progressive rock parts. Especially the former comes as a surprise, since the Norwegians have not sounded as feral in a long time, and might leave a few of their newer fans dumbstruck at first, it speaks volumes for the band’s talent, though, to be able to pull it all together into a gripping roller coaster through the extremes that throughout it all sounds like Enslaved. “Building with Fire” follows down a similar path, yet in this case embeds the black metal elements into a framework of fairly straight prog rock with some of the best melodies the Norwegians have penned to date, serving as the counterpoint to the opener. Herbrand Larsen’s emotional clear voice acts as the soothing opposite to Grutle Kjellson’s ferocious roar, underlining the different currents within the lengthy compositions (none of which clock in at less than eight minutes) and continuing the dense atmosphere the quintet builds up.
“One Thousand Years of Rain” is the maybe straightest track on In Times, harkening back more to their viking metal era, while the title track takes more of an influence from progressive rock, setting out with a lengthy opening sequence exploring space and sound, before sharp riffing and Kjellson’s vocal chords rip through the dreaminess, bringing both song and listener firmly back down to earth, but returning to the wonderfully catchy chorus time and again.
Easy to digest In Times definitely is not, but that has never been Enslaved’s premise, yet the ease they weave in and out of the different elements makes it less difficult to get into than one would think. One might be able to call In Times the band’s most complete work, since it manages to visit pretty much every stage of their career, from the scorching black metal of their early years over the hymnic viking metal (a genre they played a big role in shaping) to the progressive influences of their later years, it all comes together into an equally complex and simplistic album. Simplistic might be misleading, since even “simple” Enslaved still outweighs many bands out there in terms of complexity, but despite bringing together the juxtaposed extremities of black metal and progressive rock, the more distinct separation of the two makes for a less challenging listen than their last two efforts Axioma Ethica Odini and RIITIIR.
In Times maintains Enslaved’s integrity as mature and border-poking songwriters, where even “business as usual” means pushing envelopes and while not their strongest effort to date, should not disappoint any fans of the band’s later albums by any means and still stands head and shoulders above many, many releases out there!
Join us on the ride…
Whenever the name of Arjen Lucassen pops up in connection with a new project, metalheads worldwide take notice. Renowned for his outstanding Ayreon project, he has dabbled in several different genres since, be it via Streams of Passion, Star One, his solo project, Ambeon etc., and when news broke that he would be teaming up with former The Gathering singer Anneke van Giersbergen for a new endeavour called The Gentle Storm, the fans listened up.
Musically the direction of The Diary was announced to be a mix of classic and metal as well as acoustic folk and that there would be two versions of the album, one purely acoustic and the other one with the metal elements incorporated, but then again, who would seriously expect Lucassen to ever take the easy route? And if that was not enough already, there also is a whole concept behind the album, penned by van Giersbergen, about a sailor and his wife in the 17th century, who are apart for two years throughout his travels and only can keep in touch via letters, which are touched on in the lyrics.
The acoustic first disc, aptly subtitled Gentle, might not appeal to the metalheads all that much, since it is very introspective, calm and emotional, yet at the same time the relative simplicity of the arrangements makes Anneke’s voice a particular focal point and allows her to shine, while the lack of embellishments show the sheer quality of Lucassen’s songwriting on top of it. The second disc, Storm, brings in the heaviness, bombast and progressive leanings, with some subtle changes in the arrangements between the two versions as well (as in the flute solo on “Heart of Amsterdam” turning into a guitar solo on the Storm side of the album).
And The Diary probably shows Anneke at her strongest performance since her early The Gathering days, not that she delivers the same powerful performance like on Mandylion, but it is great to hear her in a more metal context again and if there is a composer that manages to highlight her voice while keeping the song around it exciting and important as well. To show some of the differences, “Endless Sea” in the gentle version is very stripped down with percussion, acoustic guitar, some violin and cello and Anneke’s voice taking center stage, while in the storm version Arjen adds a distinct symphonic and dramatic element with choir, electric guitars and everything, while Anneke still manages to shine within a beautifully dense and emotional song.
Another star among great songs is “Shores of India”, which excellently conveys the exotic atmosphere of foreign shores, a beautiful and strong chorus and another great performance by Anneke, or dramatic “The Storm” that perfectly conveys the menace of the storm into the music, but in the end every track showcases the class of the duo both in terms of composition and execution. Doubling up with a calmer and heavier side is not only very ambitious, but also ultimately makes for a very interesting listening experience, that gives you a distinctly different exposure in texture and mood.
At one point Arjen Lucassen will write, record and release an album that is not up to par, but so far the consistent very high level of quality he has been able to keep up for over 30 years now (starting with Vengeance) has not shown any signs of letting up, no matter which style he tackles. The Diary is a beautiful, ambitious and in the end glorious album that shows a somewhat softer, more emotional side of his songwriting and Anneke delivers her maybe best vocal performance in 20 years. What more can you ask for?
Bigger names and a few hidden gems dominate this month’s best offerings
And Shawn goes rogue. Again.
There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call Evan’s Favorite Records of MMXIV.
One of a series of articles that gets down and dirty, where Metal Observer writers’ favorite music of 2014 is uncovered. Here, Shawn lists his favorite albums of the past year.
Here are Nathan’s 30 reasons why 2014 was a good year for metal
Josh takes us through his highlights of 2014, featuring; Iced Earth, Architects, Mastodon and, uh… Taylor Swift.
The Albums Of The Month column returns with the best picks from February 2015.
…and one leftover from January.