Friday, October 4, 2013

Signum Regis - Exodus (2013)

Whether you believe in the Bible or not, or put any stock in the historical accounts it contains, it's an interesting book filled with many stories that have captivated people for centuries.  Among the more famous and interesting is the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, with the familiar story of people in slavery to Pharaoh Ramses, and the various miracles performed by God via Moses, the humble Hebrew who grew up in the lap of luxury with the Egyptian Pharaoh, having been found by Pharaoh's wife and raised as his own son.  Upon receiving a revelation from God, however, Moses rejects his life with Egypt to go back to his Hebrew people and culture.  God then calls Moses to the task of forcing Pharaoh's hand to free the Israelites from slavery, only to confront his former "brother" Ramses and continue to beg for freedom as God ravaged the Egyptian land and people with several plagues designed to coerce Ramses into relenting, and allowing the Israelites to come out of bondage.

Various parts of the Exodus have been fodder for metal lyrics in the past, most notably Metallica's "Creeping Death", an interpretation of the final of the 10 plagues; the plague involving painting the door frames of each house with lamb's blood to avoid the angel of death claiming the life of the firstborn son of each household.  Their excellent one-off track notwithstanding, the only other example of a full concept album involving the Israelite Exodus I'm familiar with is the debut of Amaseffer, a band actually from Israel and steeped in the stories of the Exodus from a cultural perspective.  Their album, "Exodus - Slaves For Life" is purportedly the first in a trilogy of albums about Moses' life, the Exodus of the Israelites, and their entry into the Promised Land.  Having released the album in 2008, however, there has been no follow-up, and I'm beginning to wonder if chapter 2 (currently titled "When the Lions Leave Their Den") is ever coming out.

In the meantime, bass guitarist and band leader Ronnie König (also of heavy/prog metallers Vindex and power metal band Symphonity) has put together the 3rd album under the Signum Regis moniker and has decided to employ several guest vocalists to give the album range and breadth for telling the tale of Moses and the Exodus.  Given the scope of Moses' story that Amaseffer is tackling with their trilogy, it was wise of Ronnie to focus more specifically on the key parts of the story - Moses' call from God and subsequent mission, the struggle for freedom from slavery, the demand to Pharaoh, the exodus and escape from Egypt, and the resulting freedom and life outside of the clutches of Egyptian tyranny.  What is evident from the opening guitar chords of "Enslaved" is that this will be a much different journey than what Amaseffer presents.  Namely, rather than a lengthy progressive metal epic told with a lot of Hebrew language and cultural reference, this will be a succinct power/progressive metal album with a more straightforward retelling of the story.

I'm not familiar with Signum Regis' material prior to this release, but if this album's quality is any indication, it may well be worth looking into.  The use of multiple vocalists is always a gamble, as sometimes it works brilliantly, and sometimes it falls flat.  Here, I'm happy to report that the tactic works pretty well, for the most part.  The songs all have a bit of a different feel, and each vocalist brings a certain tone and feel to their respective track(s), which helps give the album a lot more diversity and makes for an interesting listen.  Had the album been full of more high-profile vocalists, I think the focus would have been too much on those voices, and not on the whole package, so drafting the talent he did was a smart move from Ronnie.  It also means that the sound varies a bit from track to track, with some tracks asserting a more aggressive, heavy style, while some have a bit more sheen and come off as purposefully more epic in sound.  As for the selection of vocalists themselves, they all add something to the album and all fit well within the framework.

As mentioned before, the guitar sound varies somewhat on the album, from the heavier, chunky riffing in "Let Us Go!" to the slightly more restrained tone in a track like "Song of Deliverance".  Guitar work by Filip Koluš and Ado Kaláber is generally excellent throughout, with a handful of solos really shining (like the bendy, effects-laden solo in "Wrath of Pharaoh").  The riffing is more interesting here than in your typical substandard power metal fare, with some interesting riff work that twists about in places, and is more than just power chords strummed fast and furiously.  If you hadn't already heard their work in Vindex, there's no doubt these gents have chops and technique to spare.  Keyboards are provided by Ján Tupý, also of Vindex, and for the most part, they're quite subtle, content to keep the background to provide atmospherics, though he occasionally gets to break free from the scenery and add flourishes here and there that make them more than just wallflowers.  Bass guitar is, of course, handled by Ronnie, and he does a good job propelling the tunes, with his bass in the mix where it's audible and able to be part of the proceedings.  Ronnie doesn't show off too much, and often keeps time with the guitar lines, but occasionally (like in "Last Days of Egypt") he gets to provide the bulk of the rhythm while the guitars go off into whiz-bang mode.  Drumming is courtesy of fellow Vindex alum Jaro Jančula, and is handled solidly.  As with his work in Vindex, he does a good job of providing what the song needs and not getting in the way.  He keeps time well and blends nicely with the group.  His drum sound here is good as well, having a nice combination of well produced, yet still sounding organic.  The drums have some oomph to them as well, so they don't sound overly "clicky" or hollow.

Vocally, the album is quite strong with all the various singers on here.  In the list of vocalists that lend their talents are existing Signum Regis vocalist Göran Edman, Matt Smith of Theocracy, Michael Vescera (Obsession), Lance King (you name it, he's sung for them), Daisa Muhnoz (Vandroya & Soulspell), along with Eli Prinsen (Sacred Warrior, The Sacrificed), Samuel Nyman (Manimal), Thomas Winkler (Gloryhammer & Emerald, neither of which I'm familiar), and Mayo Petranin.  The only vocalists from the list I have real familiarity with are Daisa, Matt Smith, and Eli Prinsen, so I can only guess who sings on the other tracks, but all vocalists sound good on their respective songs and bring a nice blend to the sound.  As for the lyrics, they convey the story of the Exodus from both a personal perspective, as well as simply a storytelling bent, so it's nice to get things from both angles.  The production here is good, as the instrumentation has enough separation so you can hear what's going on with each instrument, though I will say due to the number of sessions it took to record this album, there are some songs that have slightly less polish to the final product, and others that sound as though time was spent sanding off the rough edges to give it that butter-smooth feel like latter day Blind Guardian, where the heaviness is slightly diminished by how shiny it all is.  It's not overly distracting, but still noticeable.

At the end of the day, this is a quality album that will please fans of power metal and especially those who like these kinds of collaborations, because it allows the vocalists to do their thing in their own way.  One almost wonders if the songs were written with some of these specific vocalists in mind, because they come off sounding as though they were designed for a certain vocalist's talents or approach.  Specifically, "Wrath of Pharaoh", "The Ten Plagues", "Song Of Deliverance", and "Sole Survivor" all sound as if they were tailor-made with the vocalist in mind, because they blend so well into those settings.  I'd say too well, in the case of Matt Smith, as his performance sounds just a bit more restrained than he normally is with Theocracy.  "Mountain of God" being the bonus track is a bit strange, as it fits in with the theme (Moses on the mountain receiving the ten commandments), but this is a small thing.  The melodies on the album may not be quite as memorable as I'd like, but the enthusiastic performances, quality playing, and overall great sound partially make up for that.  I'd recommend this for fans of power metal who like more than just speedy, double-bass ridden fodder, and especially to enthusiasts of history and Hebrew culture, and metal fans in general looking for something a bit outside their comfort zone.


Sleeping Romance - Enlighten (2013)

Metal music with women handling vocal duties is nothing new, as bands dating back as far as the late 1970's boasted either women as lead vocalists, or even some all-female line-ups, such as Girlschool or Rock Goddess.  In the last 10-12 years, however, women fronting metal bands has become a bit of a trend, if not an outright phenomenon.  From the rise of Nightwish right around 2000 (then helmed by Tarja Turunen), to the popularization of "gothic metal" by bands like Lacuna Coil (Christina Scabbia), Xandria, and Within Temptation, metal bands sporting a woman lead singer have become commonplace.  The formula is simple: take a talented set of musicians of any gender and pair them with a reasonably attractive woman who can sing, sprinkle in plenty of melody and give the guitars some grit, and you have yourself a female-fronted metal band.  Now in reality, it's not quite that simple, but when looking at the sheer number of bands that have been formed and introduced in the last 4-5 years alone, it seems like all of a sudden, metal bands with women as lead vocalists have come out of the woodwork tenfold.

The problem with this sudden glut of metal bands with vocalists of the feminine persuasion is that, like the glut of "glam metal" bands of the late 80's and early 90's, or the long running glut of European-styled power metal bands, most of the bands don't stand out enough to do more than become part of the landscape, rather than being a hill or mountain that fans of the genre might want to scale to discover more than what's on the surface.  To really make an impact, a band must either have ea unique sound and approach that separates them from the pack, or they have to have songs that really hit home and connect with audiences.  If a band can bring both to the table, they have the best chance to break free from the "scene" and garner a larger listener base.  Is Sleeping Romance positioning themselves to do just that?  Read on!

First things first: the name Sleeping Romance is kind of cheesy, so I want to get that on the table right away.  Not that half the names of half the metal bands on the planet aren't in some way cheesy, silly, or downright awful, but that is a first impression which may deter some listeners.  If the name doesn't put you off to listening to the band, then you're likely to hear a lot of touchstones you've heard before from other groups.  Punchy, bass-heavy guitar sound that shifts back and forth between muscular metal and groovy hard rock vibes?  Check.  Thick, full production that gives the proceedings weight and volume?  Check.  Talented players cranking out reasonably good tunes?  Check.  Vocals that range from Evanescence rocking to Nightwish-lite Tarja Turunen style operatics?  Check.  Is this all starting to sound a little too familiar?  Check.

In defense of the album, it all sounds really good.  The guitar sound is nice, with a real weight and depth to the tone.  It's not overly heavy, though there are a few chugging portions where the heaviness factor goes up just slightly, and it feels a bit more aggressive than it all really is.  When the solos come, you can hear that guitarist Federico Truzzi is a talent, and has some fretboard skill.  I will say that bass guitar is a highlight here, especially in "Soul Reborn" where the bassist does all kinds of runs up and down that provide a more interesting backdrop than the standard "follow the melody" sort of playing that tends to be the case.  Drum work is solid, if nondescript, though there are dynamics here and there which help make things less rote, notably during the softer sections of ballad "December Flower".  Otherwise, the drumming doesn't stand out as much, though that's typical for this style.  Vocals by Federica Lanna are the focal point here, and really, they are quite well done.  She has a voice and style that lands somewhere in between Tarja Turunen's highly operatic style and Christina Scabbia's more laid-back, sultry sound.  She vacillates between the 2 approaches, often within the same song.  This usually looks like a laid back verse vocal, and then a higher register, more urgently sung chorus with more of that overdubbed, operatic feel.  I'd like to hear a bit more emotion and inflection from her, but honestly, it's difficult to overly fault her performance here, because she sounds great and brings plenty to the table.  The male background vocals sprinkled throughout also sound good.

In terms of how I feel about the album, I can say that at first, I was somewhat ambivalent.  The music sounded good, but didn't do much for me, as I felt like I'd heard it all before, and generally done better elsewhere.  As I've continued to listen to the album, however, it has sort of grown on me slowly, with Federica's voice slowly beginning to worm its way into my heart a little.  Not to the point where I feel she's in the top tier of female metal vocalists (she's no Tarja, Simone Simmons, or Floor Jansen), but she has a good voice that she uses well on the record, and that's enough to take this debut up a notch.  Part of my problem here is that musically, they sound an awful lot like label-mates Darkwater with more symphonics and a woman at the vocal helm.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I already have both Darkwater albums, and generally prefer that band when they're playing power metal under the Harmony moniker.  Still, this is a competent album with well constructed songs that eventually begin to stick with you, despite the melody lines being less catchy than they ought to be for this style.  As this is the band's debut, it's hard to give them too much flack, since this is a respectable first effort, and one that I've enjoyed spending time with.  More time spent writing songs that have catchier melodies, or that flex the band's muscle more will help them get ahead.  They're at their best when they're making things more epic, like the excellent "Devil's Cave" at the end of the album, as well as "The Promise Inside" or perhaps "Free Me".  I just don't know how much I'll go back to it now that this review is written, and that's what the band needs to know going forward.  I will recommend this to gothic/symphonic metal diehards, and to those who simply cannot get enough metal with female vocals.  Otherwise, I'd recommend listening to this one first.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

ReinXeed - Swedish Hitz Goes Metal Volume II (2013)

Metal bands covering pop music is nothing new, as the lines between metal and pop have always been a little blurred, at least in some circles.  Some ardent metal fans refuse to accept any semblance of "pop music" in their metal, in part because the "pop" part means popular, and metal was never truly meant to be popular, at least not in the minds of the de facto metalhead.  If I'm over-generalizing, I apologize, but I think any of us heavily into metal can safely admit at some point or another in our musical journey that there are lines we've refused to cross, only to later realize that we were, perhaps, either short-sighted, or just not willing to let go of our own pre-conceived notions of what metal is or was.  The truth of the matter is, traditional forms of metal music are often based around many of the same melodic touchstones that "pop music" is, though with a decidedly more aggressive or energetic bent, and arguably less approachable subject matter.

So while pop elements aren't likely to creep into goregrind or bedroom black metal any time soon, anything rooted in more traditional heavy metal sounds and styles will have a pop underpinning at the very least, due to the reliance on catchy melodies and specifically structured songwriting.  As such, it should be no big deal for metal musicians to pay homage to pop music.  Helloween covered ABBA's "Lay All Your Love On Me" via their "Metal Jukebox" release, and while not every pop songwriter is as brilliant as Benny and Bjorn of ABBA, the fact remains that catchy melodies, sing-along choruses, and verse-chorus songs are a staple in this genre we love so dearly.  I, for one, don't think that's a bad thing, as many a classic metal song over the years would have suffered greatly if not for a quality melody carrying it along.

So with that in mind, Tommy Johansson (or Tommy ReinXeed, if you prefer) has put out a pair of albums, the first in 2011, and now this 2nd volume in 2013, which exemplify that relationship between traditional heavy metal and pop music.  And while the 1st record concentrated solely on 3 Swedish groups, that being ABBA, Roxette, and Ace of Base, this 2nd volume branches out just a bit further.  So while over half the material here is still ABBA (who had a wealth of excellent pop songs), Tommy brings some newer material to the table as well, and most of it works pretty well.  The record occasionally dips under the weight of its ambitions, but never falters so much that it stumbles and falls down.

If you've heard a ReinXeed record, you know what to expect musically: a crunchy, yet clean-sounding rhythm guitar sound, sharp lead guitar, lightly rumbling bass, and time-keeper precision drums, along with keyboards where appropriate, and pristine production that gives the proceedings an almost "too shiny" sheen.  That's not to say that things don't occasionally get aggressive, because "Don't Stop the Music", "Rock Me" and "My Favorite Game" all have sufficient weight to them, but overall, you know you're getting a juicy pop nougat wrapped in a crunchy metal shell.  Since Tommy has a respectable handle on the ballad side of the coin, his interpretation of a song like "One of Us" works well.  Mid-tempo stuff like "Does Your Mother Know" and "Voulez-Vous" also work well, as does his interpretation of non-single ABBA track "Tiger" (a personal favorite from ABBA's "The Arrival" album).  Some of the non-ABBA tracks are quite effective as well, though I must confess I'm less familiar with the other artists.  I will say that Tommy's choice of "My Favorite Game" by The Cardigans was a good one; had he chosen to do "Lovefool", I'm not sure he would have pulled it off.  And I was surprised how well Loreen's "Euphoria" (2012 Eurovision songwriting contest winner) translated - Tommy wisely kept the basic keyboard line as part of the song, and just give it some metal muscle to beef it up a bit.

With as much success as Tommy has here in translating songs, there are only a couple misses.  Sadly, his take on "Dancing Queen" lacks the charm, punch, and soul of the original, and ends up sounding somewhat flat and lifeless by comparison.  Perhaps I'm too big an ABBA fan, and perhaps that particular song is just far too iconic, but Tommy's interpretation just doesn't do anything for me.  And because it opens the album, it brings down the album ever so slightly because it doesn't begin on a high note.  "All About the Money" is a good listen, but as a song it doesn't stand out as much as most of the other material here, so it ends up sounding a bit like a filler track at the end of the album, which is what it becomes.  These minor missteps aren't enough to drag the record down that much, but I just didn't feel that they reflected the quality of the rest of the covers, or the quality of the 1st volume for that matter.

At the end of the day, there are 2 types of people who will buy this album: ReinXeed die-hards, and power metal fans who are also partial to material that showcases a highly melodic pop or rock sensibility.  If you're in either camp, this is a CD you at least should hear, if not own.  For those who haven't discovered ReinXeed yet, start with either "1912" or "Welcome to the Theater", or even their most recent album "A New World" for quality melodic power metal that remains consistently good throughout.  For those looking for something different, or metal fans who enjoy covers albums or interpretations like this (especially of non-metal material), then this is a good CD to show the relationship that exists between pop music and metal.  I would recommend this if you liked Volume I and are looking for more, or if you are willing to entertain something other than tried and true, dyed-in-the-wool metal.


Drottnar - Stratum (2013)

When I was a kid, it was common to see a new record from many bands each year.  With the music industry in what was probably the height of its reign, bands almost had to do so in order to keep themselves relevant, keep new product available, singles on the radio, and keep the tour buses rolling.  Artists who spent years away in between albums either had to rely on a rabid fan base, or just be THAT GOOD, where it didn't matter how long they'd been away - fans were going to eat up whatever they put out.  Today's modern music "industry" landscape is much different.  With the internet allowing bands to connect directly with and market to fans, long stints between albums is no longer a factor, other than the usual "Musical ADD" that some folks have.

I don't think Drottnar has that problem, in part because their music is niche enough to escape the attention of the crop of folks that would suffer from that "Musical ADD".  And to, Drottnar's music has become a unique enough beast that, even if others were copying what they were doing, there's still no substitute for the genuine article.  So while fans who dug the limited release "Anamorphosis" EP (good little release) may have thought 3 years was a long time to wait for the unexpected shift toward the self-dubbed "bunker metal" of "Welterwerk", imagine how much agony those same fans were in during the 6-year wait between that album and this new release, "Stratum"!  Suffice to say, I think the wait was worth it.

Much like its predecessor, "Stratum" is a difficult album to penetrate at first.  There is the standard instant gratification of much metal, in that it's an immediately visceral and intense experience, with grinding guitars, pounding drums, fast riffing, thumping bass, and vocals that could peel the paint off your house.  But beneath the surface, there's a lot going on, and if you're not listening closely enough, you'll miss it.  That's because this is no longer the primitive black metal sound the band was playing on early demos, or even the slightly more tuneful stuff on "Anamorphosis".  No, friends, this is music that requires time and attention to appreciate fully.  And it's time you'll want to invest, because this is a worthwhile conquest.

Right away it's evident that the album, on the whole, is a bit more straightforward than "Welterwerk", at least in terms of the songs.  There are fewer bits that seem to meander, and most of the songs are well constructed and get to the point soon enough, and then don't wander off into aimless territory toward the end like a couple tracks on "Welterwerk" that went on too long.  This is a more refined Drottnar, and for the better.  You may also notice that this album hits harder immediately and sounds heavier, in part because it's louder.  This album isn't going to win the "loudness war" going on in modern metal, however, because it's still easy to get separation of instruments and hear what's going on.  You just won't have to crank up the stereo quite as much before you get the "Memorex" effect of being blown away by it all.

The guitar sound is quite similar to "Welterwerk", in that it mirrors that slightly thinner black metal sound and feel, having more in common with dark thrash than death metal.  The distortion isn't as chunky as you might expect, but the effect is no less scathing, as the riffing and guitar tone still combine to create a heavy experience.  The riffs employ a lot of dissonant and dis-harmonic sounds, much like the previous album, so that adds to the overall atmosphere of the album.  Bass guitar is evident, and provides a nice thump behind the guitar tone, occasionally doing enough of its own thing to prompt you to listen specifically to the bass.  Drums sound great here, with a nice "thumpy" bass drum sound (as opposed to the overly "clicky" sound on many albums), and a snappy snare tone.  Between the slow, groove-based drumming, the blast beats, and the various fills and rolls provided due to the use of odd time signatures, the drum work rarely gets stale or uninteresting.  Vocally, Sven-Erik Lind sounds much as he did on "Welterwerk", with that piercing, raspy black metal styled shriek he has employed.  For those that think there isn't much expression or range in a vocal like that, this album is a good example of how that's just not true - plenty of inflection, emotion, and "vocal shaping" are employed here to great effect.  There are also a handful of moments where choir vocals are used for a bit of atmosphere - it's subtle and not overdone, so it works well here.

In terms of the album as a whole, it's a frenetic experience, from the opening chords of "We March" and the twisting, winding guitar lines of "Cul-De-Sac" (an ironic song title, to be sure), through the album's centerpiece tracks "Soul Suburbia", with its almost movement-like structure, and "Seven Suns Shining" with its odd timed groove and excellent riffing.  On the back side of the experience, the intensity of "Ersatz" and winding sound of "Wolves and Lambs" cap things off nicely.  There's barely a respite moment between songs, either, as many tracks flow right into each other (best exemplified by the lack of a pause between "Lucid Stratum" and "Ersatz"), so aside from a couple spots where the tempo slows for effect, the album doesn't really let up until the final moments of "Wolves and Lambs".  The experience of listening to the album is intense, and after just 38 minutes, you feel as though the journey was longer than that, because it's exhausting and exhilarating at once.

My biggest complaints with the album are minor, but worth mentioning.  As I just mentioned, the album is only 38 minutes long.  A 6-year wait and only 38 minutes?  This is partially muted because the quality of the material is high, and because it means the transition to vinyl is easier (which I plan to take advantage of), but still, it's a little thin.  In addition, the aforementioned lack of transition between tracks can occasionally be confusing, because unless you're paying attention to what track is playing, you may not even realize that you've just listened to 3 songs in a row, rather than 1 really long song.  After repeated listens, this diminishes some, as you begin to learn the songs as slightly more individual entities versus one large blur, but it's still a minor complaint.  Perhaps also worth mentioning is the artwork - the gas mask trope has been overdone in modern metal and rock, and while it's more relevant with Drottnar (because gas masks are a part of their stage presence), it still feels a little "phoned in", like they should have done something a bit more creative than a simple black and white photo with somebody wearing a gas mask, even if it does slightly illustrate the stark and cold nature of the music.

Even with those complaints, I've thoroughly enjoyed listening to this album over the last several weeks, and imagine I'll come back to it more than "Welterwerk", which I think is the indicator that matters most.  "Welterwerk" at times left me cold, not wanting more, but a little confused as to what they were doing.  "Stratum", on the other hand, is a much more focused and effective distillation of the so-called "bunker metal" sound Drottnar have developed, and these songs have thus far impacted me more than any on its predecessor.  That's progress, and that's why I think this is not only the best thing they've done so far, but also a great jumping-off point for the band to really go places.  Bravo to the band for their best album so far, and here's hoping the next one doesn't take 6 years to make.  Recommended.