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?
Ten thousand tons.
Space wizards and art collective extraordinaire Ufomammut have spent the last few years slowly conquering the world of doom. Returning to the studio to follow up the staggering colossi Eve and Oro, the Italian psychedelic warlords have concocted another six-part opus, materializing in the form of Ecate. The band still features the original lineup, consisting of frontman Urlo, six-string samurai Poia, and rhythmic shaman Vita. Having played together as Ufomammut since 1999, their sound has come a long way since the trippy sludge of Godlike Snake, but the galactic doom essence remains the same.
Whereas the band’s output from the last few years have concentrated on concept albums, Ecate is a return to the more conventional structuring from Snailking. Make no mistake, Urlo’s bass still resonates as heavens tremble, the album is filled with interstellar effects, and everything feels exactly how an Ufomammut-release should. For the uninitiated, imagine the magnitude of Yob entwined in warm embrace with the acid-laced spirit of Hawkwind or Pink Floyd, and you will approach Ufomammut’s own corner of the musical cosmos. Tribal drums, distant echoes, and faint whispers set the stage for another grand scale space ritual.
Oscillating between space-age dreamy soundscapes and enormous riffs that rain down like the fist of an angry god, Ecate is an elegant balancing act. The heaviest track of the lot, appropriately titled “Plouton”, barely clocks in at the three-minute mark, but features a riff with the power to freeze time. On the other end of the spectrum, both “Chaosecret” and closing number “Daemon” are monstrous entities that stretch past ten minutes each, which won’t come as a surprise if you’re familiar with the band.
This lurking feeling of familiarity also represents Ecate’s only potential weakness. Although one could simply chalk it up to musical consistency, the motifs throughout this album will ring very familiar for anyone who’s been riding along for Ufomammut’s last few outings. With Eve, the band perfected their signature sound, which carried over through the Oro-albums and continues straight through Ecate. The formula, which includes the aforementioned psychedelic keyboards, gigantic riffs, and vocal transmissions from the black void of space, runs the risk of feeling formulaic. In fairness to the band, however, even though it feels a little repetitive at times, the spacious sounds of Ecate are more than enough reason to fall in love with Ufomammut all over again. The album is a treasure-trove of gargantuan tunes and mind-bending psychedelia, and it feels fantastic to be back in the mammoth’s mystery machine.
Seen in light of the band’s recent efforts, Ecate feels like a step up from the Oro-albums, which meandered at times, and as a grand return to form for Italy’s loudest band. Aside from the jaw-dropping intensity of “Plouton”, there aren’t any surprises in store for Ufomammut-fans this time. That’s a minor gripe, however. With these guys you know exactly what you’re getting; cosmic vibrations of monumental doom metal.
A new beginning.
Whenever a new Nightwish album rolls around, the internet is abuzz with discussions. Will the new album be as complex as the previous, will it sound more like the old Nightwish and so on. Ever since the band and original singer Tarja Turunen went separate ways in 2005, a lot of these discussions revolve around the vocals and Turunen’s successor Anette Olzon did not (and still does not) really fare that well, so when the Finns made former After Forever front lady Floor Jansen their permanent vocalist, the anticipation for album number eight, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, skyrocketed.
In some ways, the new album is a continuation of the band’s evolution over the past few years, away from the more power metal influenced regions and closer to a symphonic metal pasture that puts more emphasis on the symphonic portion than heaviness at times. A side effect of this, though, is that Holopainen and band manage to avoid just treading water and continue to explore the bordering areas of their chosen stylistic spectrum without wandering off too far and alienating their fans.
And not unlike the last two albums Dark Passion Play and Imaginaerum, Endless Forms Most Beautiful is not an album that will reveal all of its details and flow at first or second listen, instead it will take the listener probably a few sessions to really comfortably find a spot to fully comprehend and enjoy the more than 78 minutes of music contained here. The single Élan has had a very mixed reaction among the fans, not least due to being a balladesque-to-mid-paced song, but opener “Shudder Before the Beautiful” actually shows that Nightwish have not forgotten how to keep the heaviness intact, but padding it with more extensive symphonic orchestration, which sounds fuller than ever and gives Floor ample space to let her vocals shine. Speaking of which, while she can pull off Tarja’s soprano without any problems, as proven live, she obviously has not been drafted in to emulate the old operative style, but instead surprises with a very powerful and varied performance that greatly aids in propelling the songs forward. And staying on the vocal side, bassist Marco Hietala has taken a step back in the overall mix, leaving the stage to Floor more, acting more as support and strong accentuation than an equal.
And within the context of the a bit heavier “Weak Fantasy” and faster and a bit more aggressive “Yours is an Empty Hope” suddenly the calmer “Élan” makes sense and it is something that Nightwish have always had, calmer, lighter songs throughout the albums, which continues here with “My Walden”, which is the probably catchiest of all the tunes on Endless Forms Most Beautiful and might very well be a bone of contention with some… The title track on the other hand is straighter, with more bombast in the chorus and great dramatic dynamics, which greatly help it reach the upper echelons of Nightwish’s creative output.
Undisputed, though, should be the closing duo “The Eyes of Sharbat Gula” and “The Greatest Show on Earth”, with the former being a moody instrumental, which kind of acts as an intro to the 24-minute monster that is “The Greatest Show on Earth”. Said epos takes its time to get going, with soft piano and then some light orchestration as well as light female vocalization and a quiet folky touch, but once things kick in around the six minute mark with double-bass driving the same folky melody forward, Holopainen treats the listener to a very varied and dynamic track that sees Floor’s most inspired and soaring performance of the album in the chorus, which forms a strong contrast to the darker verse, before the bridge starts to pick things up again, leading into the chorus, forming a strong and dramatic closer to the album.
Endless Forms Most Beautiful is a grower, so much is for sure, seemingly unspectacular and somewhat subdued sounding at the beginning, it starts to reveal more and more details with each repeated listen, showing a lot of different nooks and crannies to explore and discover, making it the overall maybe most intricate Nightwish album to date without forsaking their past or seeing a drastic change of style. Can it rival the likes of Oceanborn, Wishmaster or Once? That strongly depends on your point of view, which era of Nightwish you prefer, but Endless Forms Most Beautiful definitely is another strong addition to Nightwish’s catalogue and while she may have been used in a more efficient way to showcase the full range of her voice, it also is a first proof that Floor Jansen might be exactly the vocalist the Finns need for their future.
Maybe not their best album, but a very strong effort that will be high up on year-end lists all over.
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.
Breaking down the best and worst of the Soundwave festival’s 2-day stopover in Melbourne.