Welcome to Secret Steel, the fifth chapter, “Black Metal 1: An Unholy Union”
Sailing to the Ethereal Heights
There is a long held stereotype within the metal world that one of its more consonant and accessible sub-genres, namely power metal, is a monolithic synthesis of hook-driven, flashy 80s influenced fair with a faster tempo and fantastical to the point of cartoonish lyrical subjects. While the charge of excess is one that any variant of metal would openly celebrate, the notion of a one-dimensional approach is a laughable one when the number of bands encountered goes beyond four or five. Of particular note is the somewhat lighter and prog-influenced variation that one might refer to as Sci-Fi metal, namely a subset of the Euro power metal revival dealing predominantly with space travel and featuring a spacey, almost ethereal combination of ambient keyboards and a lighter shade on the Helloween approach that was pioneered to a large extent by Stratovarius’ earlier 1990s output, and 1992’s Twilight Time in particular. This sound was further developed and given an even lighter and more cosmic twist by the subsequent efforts of outfits like the short-lived Portuguese symphonic outfit Oratory, as well as Russia’s Ghosthill on their first two LPs and the ongoing, 80s New Wave infused offerings of Keldian.
Perhaps one of the more unlikely candidates to adopt this lighter and loftier approach is Sweden’s Cryonic Temple, a band that was better known during the latter days of the millennial power metal revival as a swords and sorcery outfit after the likes of Steel Attack and The Storyteller, with maybe occasional interludes into social commentary. Nevertheless, following a long period of studio silence after the modern, groove infused flop that was their 4th studio offering Immortal, that is where long founder and guitarist Esa Ahonen and his newly recruited lineup found themselves when 2017’s Into The Glorious Battlecame into being. Though there was an unmistakable familiarity to the game of speed metal infused majesty and noodling guitar leads that characterized said album, there was a notably spacier and more symphonic atmosphere afoot, one that played in quite well with the outtake to the final battle scene of Star Wars: Rogue One that was the album art. The biggest departure in sound, however, came in vocalist Mattias Lilja, who had a deeper and more nuanced vocal delivery that was about as far removed from Johan “Glen Metal” Johansson’s wild, Dickinson-inspired banshee wails that many core fans of the old days haven’t accepted.
With a cover more befitting Tron: Legacy than anything in the Star Wars franchise, one might think that Cryonic Temple’s quick follow up in Deliverance would change things up a tad bit, but overall it plays things very close to where they were a year prior, so much that one might rightly speculate that this material was written during the same sessions as the previous album. It’s naturally not a full out carbon copy, as Lilja does expand upon his somewhat mid-ranged, moderately gravely croon to include a bit more attitude, not to mention a commendable attempt at channeling the iconic Halford shriek during the chorus of the title song “Deliverance”. Likewise, the harder-edged speeder “Pain And Pleasure” goes back to the good old days of In Thy Power by laying on the riffs a bit heavier and also features a guest lead vocalist who sounds a good bit closer to Glen Metal’s bygone gritty shouts. Yet as an overall package, this album relates back to its immediate predecessor in much the same fashion that their first three albums did to each other, emphasizing a degree of stylistic consistency and precision that make it all but impossible for anyone who liked Into The Glorious Battle to dislike this one.
It’s a rather curious thing, but in spite of being dominated by this atmospheric feeling of floating in zero gravity amid the stars, this is an album that wants for little in the impact department. Following the shimmering strings and thematic beauty that rounds out the introductory instrumental, Cryonic Temple grasps back into the late 80s well of Helloween and comes out with a rather obvious though unique nod to “Eagle Fly Free” in “Rise Eternally Beyond”, complete with a bass vs. guitar vs. drums solo duel at its climax. Similarly enthralling excursions through flashy, speed metal territory emerge in the riff happy Judas Priest homage “Knights Of The Sky” and the warp speed thrill ride “Starchild”. Likewise, when things take on a more mid-paced flavor as on “Under Attack” and “Through The Storm”, there is a strong, chunky guitar assault that manages to punch through the airy keyboards and gives things a bit of an Accept feel, while more keyboard-dominated mid-tempo anthems such as “Temple Of Cryonics” and “End Of Days” deliver some truly massive, hook-happy choruses and see Lilja putting a bit more gusto into his vocal delivery. Truth be told, minus the somewhat sappy and dispensable ballad “Loneliest Man In Space”, there isn’t really an outright weak moment to be found here.
During an interview for The Black Sabbath Story Volume II: 1978-1992, the now departed legend Cozy Powell noted something along the lines of every fan having an era of Sabbath (of which there were many by 1992, let alone after) that meant something special to him/her, implying that no one era of said band was necessarily better or worse than the rest. While many die-hard Ozzy and Dio fans would fight to the death against this notion, there is a certain wisdom to it that is applicable to Cryonic Temple’s evolution as a band. Some will likely continue to see this band’s name as implying a throwback to the days of yore when chivalry and jousting duels were the norm that was cryogenically frozen and then revived in the early 21st century, which was the gist of their sound prior to the release of Immortal, but this need not imply that there is no room for a new interpretation of a lone person from the past being frozen by the same means and then awakening to a different world in the distant future where the conquest of the stars is underway. For those who are capable of treasuring the past and also hoping for the future of power metal, Deliverance is the right album at the right time, whether the implied year be 1099 or 2199.
Further down the rabbit hole
Few bands divide the fan base as much as Dimmu Borgir. Not the old Dimmu, because albums such as Stormblåst and Enthrone Darkness Triumphant are widely accepted as among the best in the melodic black metal genre, the more into the here and now they went, though, reactions were not as unanimous anymore. Enter Eonian, their ninth album and the discussions it unleashed were probably the most intense to date.
If one compares their early days of For All Tid and Stormblåst and compare them to their later efforts and even more so Eonian, the question comes up, if this really is still the same band. Where their roots lay in the cold, yet melodic black metal of Scandinavia, modern era Dimmu Borgir have shed much of their prior approach in favour of far more orchestration, bombast and greatly reduced heaviness; resulting in what has been likened to a blackened version of Nightwish, which probably not a whole lot of people would be thinking of when going for a Dimmu Borgir album.
Granted, not many people had very high hopes for Eonian, after the last two albums In Sorte Diaboli and Abrahadabra had not exactly been considered among the pinnacles of their career. In the end what it all comes down to is a matter of perspective, if one approaches it as a fan of their earlier works (like the Stormblåst and Enthrone Darkness Triumphant) or from the other end, their last two albums. Whoever liked their last two will have a pretty good chance to also find a lot to like in Eonian, while the older fans, well, if they hadn’t already given up on the Norwegians, then they will probably give up now, but all in all there is more here than what many would expect.
Sure, opener “The Unveiling” is as unengaging as it comes, because instead of drawing the listener in, it is a bit of an oddball with some odd scales, passages without any guitars (which sounds somewhat weird with Shagrath’s snarls over them) and epic choirs, so for whoever judges an album by its opener alone, Eonian is dead right then and there. And the single “Interdimensional Summit” right after does not bode too well either, with its symphonic catchiness and the choirs, because a) Shagrath’s rough vocals do not fit whatsoever and b) this song is the main reason why Nightwish are being pulled into many reviews, since (rasps aside) it stands closer to the Finns than what the Norwegians had created in the past.
That being said, if one manages to get through these two songs, Eonian suddenly opens up with epic “Ætheric”, where the keyboards at times seem more important than the guitars, but the balance between the band’s symphonic and a bit heavier side seems to jive far better than on the first two cuts. Overall the keyboards definitely DO play a more prominent role than the six-strings, but for some strange reason from here on out things resemble more of what one might rather expect from a DB album.
The heavier section of “Council of Wolves and Snakes” (in itself sounding more like an incantation than a full Dimmu song, but that’s besides the point), orchestral “The Empyrean Phoenix”, and the dynamic duo “Lightbringer” and “I Am Sovereign” remind of actual Dimmu Borgir again before “Archaic Correspondence” almost derails the album with its obnoxiously upfront keyboards. The probably best example, though, that the band assembled Eonian backwards, is the fact that the closing duo “Alpha Aeon Omega” and “Rite of Passage” are easily the best songs of the album, the former epic and heavy and the latter an epic instrumental, which is a pity, since the album probably lost many listeners before they got this far.
Dimmu Borgir had been the cause of many arguments during their heyday and still are, just for vastly different reasons. Eonian will undoubtedly continue to fuel them and receive a lot of derision again, but for what it is, it is a more than decent album, IF one is capable of separating old and new Dimmu Borgir and accepting that the times of “Alt lys er svunnet hen”, “Mourning Palace” or “A Succubus in Rapture” are long gone. If it did not bear the name of Dimmu on the cover, Eonian would fare far better in listeners’ opinions, but the stigma of the band’s style changing will forever be attached to it. Not a great, but definitely still a good album.
Evolution and Revolution
One of Finland’s longest standing and most successful metal exports, Amorphis have gone through quite the evolutions and revolutions throughout their career, having come a long way since their death metal debut The Karelian Isthmus. Always known for change, some people criticized their last few albums as feeling more stagnant, but while it is true that they seem to have left their revolutionary days behind, it does not detract from them definitely having their very own sound and their exploration of the more immediate vicinity as opposed to the grand adventures they used to go out on. Queen of Light is already their 13th studio album (not counting the Magic and Mayhem compilation) and it is yet another more than worthy addition to their already illustrious back catalogue.
As already mentioned for Under the Red Cloud, technically there are no novelties to be found in Amorphis’ sound (and the naysayer will grumble that it has been years since that happened), but the sheer quality of the songs makes it easy to forget this relative “shortcoming”, since they just as successfully avoid the dreaded treading of water or the simple repetition of the same album over again. Sure, their groundbreaking era of Tales From the Thousand Lakes and Elegy was exciting and would take the listener onto an adventure, but despite staying closer to their log cabin these days they are far from just going through the motions.
In times where it can be difficult to discern between bands, Amorphis are one shining example how to sculpt a unique style without having to resort to outerworldly elements or complexity, from the first moments of “The Bee”. To describe the Finns’ sound in simple sub-genres listings is nay impossible, because they unite progressive rock with folk, death metal with sublime melodies, creating amazing dynamics within and when a band has a vocalist such as Tomi Joutsen it adds a completely new dimension, with some of the best growls in metal combined with outstanding clear vocals, there is almost no way not to have a winner at one’s hands.
“Message in the Amber” is one of the best songs Amorphis have written in years (and given the quality of the band’s back catalogue that means something), with a great, playful melody threading throughout the song, utilizing the vocal interplay beautifully to create outstanding dynamics that underlines pretty much Amorphis have stood and still stand for. And the album is chock full of these brilliant moments, be it the saxophone in “Daughter of Hate” (which also has this brilliant melody), the greatly increased heaviness on “Heart of the Giant” that is juxtaposed with a beautiful melody that starts the song and recurs throughout or the female vocals on “Amongst Stars”, even the Amorphis typical Middle Eastern scales can be found on Queen of Time, with “The Golden Elk” and “Grain of Sand” being the two samples here.
The only slightly new element is a stronger role of symphonics and some choir, which definitely adds to the songs and pushes them just that little bit extra. Despite many twists and changes, Queen of Time always remains conclusive and cohesive, showing Amorphis on a continued high, which will seriously compete for album of the year honours. A big album by a big band!
Larry breaks down each album by the German industrial goliaths to decide which one sits on top.
Interview with Mikko Aspa of Clandestine Blaze
Conducted by Colonel Para Bellum of Blackdeath.
Larry rounds up all the decent (and some not-so-decent) thrash releases for the headbang-happy year of 2017.
This was a banner year for death metal by any measure.
Here are some of our favorite death metal releases from 2017.
The diverse spectrum that encompasses metal music’s many sub-genres could be likened to various mythical races united under two opposing banners, staring each other down as they make ready to charge and turn the field red with the other’s blood. From one year to the next, the advantage may tip from one side to the other, but in the grand scheme of their eternal conflict, the forces of light and darkness have tended to be equally matched. 2017 saw the forces of melody and order take the advantage in the eyes of the reclusive bard that tells this end of the year tale, though naturally his is not the final word on such things, and other codices in the grand archives of metallic exploits deserve your consideration. Still, these are the 50 acts of heroism that defined the year, because too much has occurred to settle for a mere 30.
2017 has proven to offer up the tightest race we have seen in a long time in the quest for the gold! So without any further ado, here is the creme de la creme of the year!
December’s still a month, right?