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Through their five previous albums, Sweden’s Draconian garnered a reputation as one of the best gothic/doom metal bands out there, building on a strong doom metal foundation with gothic under- and overtones, female vocals (which are not soprano, but more of an ethereal style) and some of the best growls of the genre. Equipped with new singer Heike Langhans (taking over from Lisa Johansson), Sovran is their sixth strike and first since 2011’s A Rose for the Apocalypse and while not being a dramatic departure from their core sound, they still manage to avoid stand still.
Draconian’s sound always has had this wonderful balance between the crushing doom melancholy and the uplifting glimpses of hope courtesy of the gothic elements, which has been shifting one way and the other just enough to continue a different kind of balance in the form of consistency and avoidance of treading water. And the consistency between and during the albums has been astonishing for years and Sovran is no exception.
“Heavy Lies the Crown” sets out with a classical doom riff, delivering the promise their past albums have made every single time, with Heike’s almost frail voice perfectly complementing Jacobsson’s mighty growl, creating this interplay of contrasts between outstanding melody and menacing counterpart that just hovers over the powerful musical foundation and elevates the already very strong musical foundation even further towards the Olympus of the genre. Calling Sovran a dramatic release might evoke images of overwrought theatricalism or an attempt to make an opera out of the whole thing, but instead the dramatic intensity Draconian are able to build up with the dual vocals, dynamic flow and dense atmosphere is another element that makes the Swedes stand out.
The bleak feeling of “Pale Tortured Blue”, the sheer power of “Stellar Tombs”, gloomy masterpiece “Dusk Mariner”, the beautiful ballad “Rivers Between Us” or moody doom monolith “The Marriage of Attaris”, Draconian hit every facet on its head and offer a near-perfect combination of the two styles without getting cheesy or
Langhans’ more commanding voice (without losing the ethereal quality of Johansson, though) gives Draconian a formidable element to complement Jacobsson’s growl that still is strong and powerful yet intelligible, while the production is absolutely brilliant, clear, warm, deep, giving the songs the perfect environment to unfold their grandeur. Draconian cement their position as one of metal’s leading forces in the gothic/doom genre and should once again, deservedly, see high ratings in year-end listings all over!
2015 is a very strong for the NWoBHM, with Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Satan and now Saxon delivering new albums and so far all of them have shown that these old dogs still have a lot to give, showing many of the way younger bands how it’s done. Saxon are standing in their 38th year of operation and Battering Ram is their 21st album in that span, which in itself already is a legacy only very select few bands are able to command.
For more than two decades the Englishmen have been riding high on a wave of pure heavy metal and anno 2015 they still do not show any signs of slowing down or wearing out, even at a combined age of 262 years, and even at age 64 Biff Byford is holding the frigate steady with his presence alone. And despite their age there is no watering down of the British steel, the title of the album is the program, powerful, direct, channelling the collective experience of the band into a compact and efficient opener that appropriately sets the pace for the 45 minutes to follow.
The almost rock’n’roll-ish touch that some of the past few albums have had, is largely scaled back in favour of a more classic heavy metal approach, while avoiding falling into a predictable pattern at the same time. Dark yet powerful and double-bass driven “The Devil’s Footprint” meets the classic straightness of “Destroyer” meets no-frills “Stand Your Ground” and more groovy “To the End” in what can only be called a classical Saxon record from the beginning to the end.
Somewhat sluggish “Queen of Hearts” and a little ho-hum “Hard and Fast” can’t fully keep up and don’t quite meet the usual Saxon standard (and what is it with these odd harmonies in the middle of the otherwise excellent “Eye of the Storm”), preventing Battering Ram from breaking into even higher regions of album of the year lists, but there is one more ace up the Englishmen’s sleeve, at the end (just before the bonus track “Three Sheets to the Wind (The Drinking Song)”, stands one of the most intense and harrowing pieces the band has ever written: “Kingdom of the Cross”. For the most part only consisting of a simple rhythm, bass and some keyboards, Hell fronter David Bower recites a poem telling the the haunting story of World War 1, its feelings and its horrors, his expressive voice fitting perfectly to convey the intense emotion the words contain and Byford only briefly comes in for the chorus. From a band that used to sing about a train bringing mail and standing in a queue, this is some deep and intense stuff that will occupy your mind for a long time, especially when paired with the simple, but ever so efficient melancholic melody threading through the track.
Ever since infamous Destiny in 1988 Saxon seem to be incapable of releasing a weak album and Battering Ram gloriously continues this legacy. No fan shall feel disappointed and it is (almost) as good of a first contact as any to get a taste of this band, which still is going strong after all these years and is a reminder that metal can keep you young. Even at its advanced age, the NWoBHM is keeping the metal flowing!
22 years into their career, Spanish Dark Moor have reached the crucial tenth album, aptly titled Project X in this case. While never having been able to experience a proper breakthrough, they have been among the most consistent power metal bands, having released two outstanding albums early in their career, that being 2000’s The Hall of the Olden Dreams and The Gates of Oblivion two years later, after which they switched singer from Elisa Martin to Alfred Romero. Continuing to garner mostly positive reviews, they for the most part held on to the symphonic power metal moniker, keeping fans happy throughout their career.
So with the new album out, it is not surprising that fans were expecting a continuation of this path, and it should also not be surprising, if their reaction to Project X will mark as abrupt of a change as the album does in comparison to their legacy. Bands of a more epic orientation are largely known for sometimes taking a bit of a shift towards more symphonic and less heavy sounds, which can help diversifying their sound if done right and somewhat alienate them from their loyal fanbase, if it is not done as well, in the case of Dark Moor’s tenth epos the result is option #3: Train wreck.
This may sound overly dramatic and under different circumstances, the review may have turned out considerably more positive, but given Dark Moor’s experience, track record and consistency in style so far, Project X has to undergo somewhat more thorough scrutiny. One of the biggest problems of the album, style changes aside, is the vocal production, where Alfred Romero sounds just plain flat and dull. No, it is not his voice that is the problem, he has not forgotten how to use his pipes, but the production has zero echo and with that zero projection and zero volume, which is not a good start. Musically speaking, Queen is widely regarded as one of the, if not THE prime symphonic rock band out there and as an influence on more than one metal band, while the other reference, Meat Loaf and his Steinbach-fueled rock operas, also is considered classic material, even though more from a pop point of view.
So what does this have to do with Dark Moor? Well, they threw most of their power metal past overboard and hauled in at times strongly Queen and Meat Loaf influenced material, but for good parts the album struggles to emulate either artist’s musical genius or depth and coupled with the above-mentioned production issue makes Project X a daunting endeavour. Sure, “Abduction” has some spring in its step, but the vocal flatness kills good parts of its energy, “Beyond the Stars”, though, is where things start to go down. Embracing more of the symphonic rock direction with strongly reduced heaviness, it just doesn’t represent Dark Moor and what they stood for for more than 20 years, which is a problem for an established band like this, which continues through the gospel influence of “I Want to Believe” and the more all-out symphonic stage sound of “Bon Voyage!”, which has a definite Queen influence.
On the other hand “The Existence” has a good melody, “Gabriel” brings a few more of the older elements into the mix and “Imperial Earth” is the undoubtedly best track of the album, a bit heavier, with a better riff, more drive, more energy, showing that the band still knows how to continue its legacy, albeit on mostly just one song.
The main issue of Project X is not that the material contained is bad, it is just not what fans (and non-fans alike) expect from Dark Moor, point blank. Old fans will be taken aback by the style shift, while listeners that might enjoy the strong symphonic rock influences will not give it the time of day, because they know pretty well what the Spanish band had been producing since their inception. So while the above mentioned expression “train wreck” is maybe a tad excessive, it still aptly describes the problem that Dark Moor are facing, manoeuvring themselves into an unenviable position. As a side project, the album would probably have been more of a success, but as a Dark Moor album it just doesn’t work.
Live at Vulkan Arena in Oslo, Norway on November 5th 2015
Live at Blå in Oslo, Norway on November 4th 2015
Grave Pleasures frontman Mat McNerney, aka. Kvohst, talks about moving on, dancing, and the rush of pushing forward.
Live at Blå in Oslo, Norway on October 7th 2015
After much technical difficulty, The Metal Observer is proud to bring you seven of September’s best.
August has been the strongest month for metal in 2015 yet; here’s a few of the best.