Thursday, 23 October 2014

Threshold's 'For the Journey' - Album Review

Progressive metal does not really seem to be a British thing, but Threshold have been making it theirs since releasing their debut album Wounded Land in 1993. Various members have come and gone over the years, but main songwriters guitarist and founding member Karl Groom and keyboardist Richard West have been producing finely crafted and polished progressive metal albums for two decades now. Last month saw the release of the band's tenth album For the Journey and fans of the band will know what to expect. The band's formula has rarely changed over the years and those who have enjoyed anything the band has had to offer in the past is sure to enjoy this album too. As usual, the songs are written from a melodic stand-point, focusing on big choruses, soaring lead guitar, and walls of lush keyboards. There is very little technical showboating in the band's sound, even in the longer pieces, and what is present is always there for the benefit of the song. The line-up on this album is the same that was featured on 2012's excellent March of Progress. Frontman Damian Wilson (performing on his fourth Threshold album in three stints with the band) really shines on this disc. He has one of the purest voices in metal today, and some of the work on this album probably ranks with the best vocal performances he has ever put to disc. The long-time rhythm section of bassist Steve Anderson and drummer Johanne James is as solid as ever; and the band's latest recruit, guitarist Pete Morten, once again proves his worth with an excellent songwriting contribution and an accomplished performance overall. During the build-up to the release of this album, I seem to remember reading something about this being the longest Threshold album to date, as it clocked in at around 70 minutes long; but this turned out to not be the case, as instead the album is a more reasonable 50 minutes in length. I for one am glad that this is the case. All to often these days albums are just too long for the sake of it, so I glad that some restraint was shown here. I would say that, overall, this album is slightly darker in tone than most of the band's previous work. The huge, uplifting melodies are still present here in spades, but the riffs and overall atmosphere seems a little bleaker than previously.

The album kicks of with Watchtower on the Moon which is a quintessential Threshold song. From the simple yet catchy opening guitar riff, the gothic washes of keyboards, and to Wilson's dramatic vocal delivery; this song is everything that every Threshold fan expects when popping in their new album. Stylistically, this is very similar to the formula used on Threshold albums since about 2004's Subsurface (although traces of this can be heard throughout their discography). Duelling keyboards and guitars dominate the latter part of the song, while crunching rhythms and James' clean drumming keep things moving along. Unforgiven follows and this is where the darker elements of the band's sound really shine. It is quite a drawn-out piece with a very pulsing verse with added keyboard sparkle for colour. Wilson almost howls the chorus, and injects plenty of emotion into his performance. He can come across as a bit melodramatic at times, but he always manages to sound genuine. This song's chorus is an excellent example of this, and a lesser vocalist might make this sound contrived. Up next is the  near 12 minute epic The Box which is a real progressive gem. It opens with delicate piano and acoustic guitar, but Wilson soon joins in and it is not long before the rest of the band kicks in and the song turns into a fully-fledged progressive metal piece. It moves through many movements in a short space of time. One moment we have flashy, shred-keyboards and the next moment the soundscapes return and Wilson's staccato vocal delivery along with similar drumming from James helps to create a real groove. The chorus, and overall feel of the song remind me of The Art of Reason from the Subsurface album which is no bad thing as that is an excellent song! Wilson uses many sides of his voice here, and his performance is stunning. West also stands out with lots of excellent keyboard textures, including a really melodic solo part-way through. Towards the end of the song, the melodies from the song's acoustic intro return, but with a full symphonic backing - it is truly stirring stuff! Turned to Dust is much simpler. This song, with it's heavy riffing and soaring chorus is very reminiscent of the songs that filled up March of Progress and gives you a nice headbanging piece after the more complex The Box. That is not to say that this song is not good however, as it is classic Threshold and boasts a really solid chorus of it's own!

Lost in Your Memory is a slower ballad, based around a really nice piano line. There is definitely an influence of 1980s AOR throughout this song with very prominent keyboards, clean guitar lines and lots of backing vocals to help Wilson. There is a really melodic guitar solo too that make use of note bending in a very classic prog way! Autumn Red is up next and it is probably my favourite song on the album. When I first heard it, the guitar line in the verse really stood out to me, and it was swimming around in my head for days after. That simple guitar line still does this, and it has proves to be one of the most memorable things on the album. Wilson sounds fantastic during this song's verses, and the chorus flows like only a Threshold chorus can. James also really stands out during this song. He is always more restrained on record, or than when he plays with his other band Kyrbgrinder, but for a short section after the song's guitar solo he really lets rip! The Mystery Show sounds a little like a sequel to The Box in some ways sound-wise. The introduction uses lots of effect-drenched guitars and vocals, but soon morphs into another progressive piece, albeit much shorter than The Box. The chorus has that similar, drawn-out structure to it and sees Wilson sounding his most theatrical as the song draws to a spooky close. The album's final song is the stunning Siren Sky, written by guitarist Pete Morten. He already showed us how strong of a songwriter he is with Coda and bonus track Divinity from March of Progress, but this is his best song yet! The song opens with hypnotic keyboards but crunching guitar riffing and double bass drumming soon kicks in and the song becomes a really heavy beast with some really rhythmic guitar playing. Like all Threshold songs though, melody is always king - and the chorus section is truly heavenly. There is also a rather spacey guitar solo that relies on atmospherics as much as technical skill. It has a little of Marillion's Steve Rothery about it, and helps to reinforce that progressive vibe. This song is majestic, and one of the best songs the band have ever produced, seriously. Overall, For the Journey is a really stunning piece of work. Every song here is really enjoyable (including the bonus track - a cover of Kyrbgrinder's I Wish I Could) and the album hangs together really well. After the five year delay between 2007's Dead Reckoning and March of Progress; plus the tragic death of former frontman Andrew MacDermott, the band have bounced back with two excellent albums in two years. Threshold are one of my favourite bands for a reason, and these albums are part of this.

The album was released on 22nd September 2014 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Watchtower on the Moon.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

In Flames' 'Siren Charms' - Album Review

In Flames are one of those bands that I have always been aware of, but have never really properly listened to. The only album of theirs that I am fairly familiar with is 2011's Sounds of a Playground Fading which did not sound like what I was expecting to hear. In Flames are often regarded as one of the biggest bands in the so-called Gothenburg Sound scene, or melodic death metal to you and I. What I expected to hear when popping the In Flames album in was more along the lines of At the Gates and Arch Enemy, but what I got instead was an album that sounded like a cross between Killswitch Engage and modern alternative rock. After that initial shock, I discovered that there were actually quite a few good songs on that album and, as a result, Sounds of a Playground Fading is an album that I enjoy. I have also learnt that long-time fans of the band have been very disappointed with the way the band's sound has evolved over the years. Heavy metal fans are often known for their staunch dislike of change, so it is refreshing to see a band just making the music they want to make; and if anyone else likes it then that is a bonus! Well, Siren Charms, eleventh studio album will probably not pull many disgruntled fans back in. It follows on from the unique sound created on Sounds of a Playground Fading, but polishing it up even more and creating something that is very catchy, yet rather simple. This album focuses on good, crunching riffs and catchy, yet melancholic choruses that seep into your conscious after repeated listens. Despite the catchy nature of the material, I find that this is an album that reveals itself gradually over time. That might seem like a contradiction, but that is what the atmosphere of the songs here suggest to me. I think that this is an album that will be dismissed off-hand by many, but those who stick with it will find a lot to enjoy. The production sounds very sterile, with lots of strange electronics surrounding the very dry sounding guitars, but I think this helps the overall sound of the album and helps it to stand out from the crowd. Frontman Anders Fridén uses a good mix of clean and harsh vocals throughout the album, and the guitar duo of Björn Gelotte and Niclas Engelin have their share of moments in the spotlight. Interestingly, this is Engelin's first album with the band, despite having a few small stints in the band over the years.

The album gets off to a good start with the swirling atmospherics of In Plain View, but it is not long before a nice dual guitar riff kicks in and the metal is in full flow. The verses gradually build up over a rising drum beat from Daniel Svensson, which sees Fridén see the lower end of his clean vocal delivery to create an excellent atmosphere. The choruses are much heavier, with a slightly thrashier tone and some more aggressive vocals to fit that mood. Everything's Gone starts out with a much more traditional melodic death metal-type riff before a chugging verse comes in and creates something that sounds very doomy. This song is definitely heavier, and fans of melodic death metal are sure to find lots to enjoy here. The song moves through lots of musical styles in it's short length, ranging from the aforementioned doom the the more metalcore-influenced chorus complete with excellent harsh vocals. Paralyzed sees the return of the electronics from the beginning of the album and they dominate the verses along with Peter Iwers' pounding basslines. There are some nice dual guitar riffs dotted throughout the song, but it is one of those songs where it is more than the sum of it's parts. No performance really stands out here, yet the song remains solid. The chorus melodies soar, and they draw you in. Through Oblivion is a much slower song, that is probably the best on the album so far. It is a sort of ballad, that is full of heartfelt vocal delivery and deep melodies. The verses are built around a very simple guitar riff and basic drumming; but the chorus builds up around Fridén's gothic vocal tones. The song does not last for very long, but it has a very serene atmosphere to it that really relaxes you while listening to it. That mood is slightly carried over to the next song With Eyes Wide Open. Although this is a heavier song overall, with more traditional metal riffing, the chorus still maintains that deceivingly gentle atmosphere. There is something very heartfelt about this pair of songs, and shows that metal can be delicate as well as abrasive. The title track is next and the energy ramps back up again during parts of it. The clean guitar riffs and Fridén's vocals give the verses here a Muse-like vibe, but the rest of the song is heavier with Svensson's double-bass drumming and sets the tone for the rest of the album.

When the World Explodes is probably the heaviest song on the album so far with a really thrashy atmosphere and some really strong harsh vocals. The chorus then bowls a googly at you as Emilia Feldt's smokey vocals come in and the song once again descends into a gothic vibe. It works so well, and Feldt's vocals mix well with Fridén's deep clean voice to create something of an early Lacuna Coil-type sound. This is probably my favourite song on the album, and the light and shade it creates is exceptional. Rusted Nail is up next and it is another really excellent song. The guitar riffing throughout this song is excellent, and use of keyboards to bulk out the sound works really well. The dual guitar Iron Maiden-like parts are good fun, whereas the bass-led parts sound really modern - it is a good mix of old and new. There is also a really excellent guitar solo, that uses traditional the blues style of emotion through note bending than excessive speed. Dead Eyes is a slightly longer song that really makes good use of the melancholic trappings that have been heard throughout the album. The chorus is full of emotion, and an excellent instrumental section towards the end mixed guitar and keyboards together really well. It is not quite as catchy as previous songs here, but the mood it creates is excellent. Monsters in the Ballroom is another heavier piece. The main riff is right out of the metalcore school and mixed melody and harshness together well. The verses makes use of Fridén's more aggressive vocals, before the chorus once again is extremely melodic with his strong cleans and plenty of lush keyboard to back him up. It is another one of my favourite songs on the album as it mixes the best elements of everything that has gone before it and goes through many different styles in it's short length. The album's final song is Filtered Truth. It makes really good used of dual harmonised guitar lines throughout and Fridén's gut-wrenching screams are powerful and sit well over the melodic guitar work. It is not the most interesting song here, but it has power and ensures that the album ends with a bang. Overall, this is an album that has plenty of strong moments and goes through quite a few stylistic changes throughout. This is certainly a mature album, and one for people who are going to sit with it and properly digest what is being offered to them. Those who do give it time, will find plenty of really get their teeth into!

The album was released on 8th September 2014 via Sony Music. Below is the band's promotional video for Rusted Nail.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

HammerFall's '(r)Evolution' - Album Review

HammerFall have been churning out high quality power metal album for the past twenty years now and certainly part of the furniture in that scene. Influenced by bands like Judas Priest, Saxon and Pretty Maids, HammerFall's brand of power metal is far more rooted in classic heavy metal than many of their peers'. Making limited use of keyboards, HammerFall instead focus on a twin guitar attack that relies on crunching riffs and melodic lead lines. Frontman Joacim Cans does not posses the huge range that other power metal singers have, but his power makes up for it. These things combine well to make a simple, yet ballsy sound that has been the staple of their work throughout their career. (r)Evolution is the band's ninth studio album and comes off the back of a planned two year hiatus to recharge their batteries. The band's last album, 2011's Infected, was met with a lukewarm reception when it was released which must have affected the band when they came to writing the eventual follow-up. I must say, I have always enjoyed Infected, but I can see why some fans would not enjoy the more plodding tracks featured, and the shift away from the fantasy-inspired lyrics and artwork. (r)Evolution, as the title suggests, sees the band attempting to recreate their classic sound once more, and to a certain extent they have succeeded. The album's artwork seems to be a tribute to covers past, and the fantasy lyrics are back in full force. The band's decision to work once again with Fredrik Nordström, who produced their first two albums 1997's Glory to the Brave and 1998's Legacy of Kings, was clearly done to try and recapture some of their early energy and sound. What this album is not however is Legacy of Kings part two. Elements of the band's early sound are present, but so are the heavier more mid-paced elements from the band's more recent work. In essence, this album is a mixture of all eras of HammerFall, and fuses all the facets of the band's sound together. Those fans who were hoping for a total reversion to the early sound will be disappointed; and certain press released which seemed to give that impression could easily confuse people; but if (r)Evolution is listened to with an open mind, I am sure that most HammerFall fans will find something to enjoy here.

The album starts strongly with the melodic feast that is Hector's Hymn, about the band's famous mascot. Straight away we are treated to a barrage of 1980s inspired metal riffing with Anders Johansson's precision drumming to drive them all along. The lyrics make plenty of references to HammerFall songs past, and Cans sounds the most inspired and diverse that he has in quite a while. This song certainly has big doses of old-school HammerFall, and the big chorus is the icing on the cake. The album's title track follows and this smacks of mid-period HammerFall and would have fitted nicely on 2005's Chapter V: Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken with ease. The verses are quite laid back, with guitarists Oscar Dronjak and Pontus Norgren making use of some nice clean guitar tones before the song slowly builds up, culminating in a gang-vocal-led chorus with plenty of catchy chanting. A bluesy guitar solo is another high point of the song, which makes a change from the usual, faster guitar-led instrumental moments. Bushido was the first song released from the album, so most fans will probably have heard it already. The opening guitar line is classic 1980s metal in the vein of Judas Priest, and Cans' vocals drive the song as, like the previous number, the song builds up around him. It is a powerful mid-paced number with an interesting stop-start rhythm that helps to keep the song interesting. The anthemic chorus is a winner too, and this song is sure to become a live staple for years to come. The next two songs are again in that mid-period HammerFall vein like the title track. Live Life Loud begins with a perfect headbanging rhythm and a simple riff that sticks in your brain and make itself hard to forget. This forms the basis for the song's chanted chorus; while the verses are built around a more modern sounding almost toned-down metalcore riff. It is a short song that is over almost as soon as it has begun, but the infectious nature of the piece makes it stand out. Ex Inferis is a much slower, more grinding piece. This has been a big part of the band's sound since their inception, and shows how the band are influenced by classic heavy metal more rather than more upbeat bands like Iron Maiden or Helloween. The chorus once again has that chanted quality to it, while Cans uses his powerful mid-range to sound actually pretty sinister throughout this song.

We Won't Back Down picks up the pace again and takes you back to the early days of the band with upbeat drumming, twin lead guitar harmonies, and a soaring chorus that demands to be sung. Old-school fans of the band will really appreciate this song, as it is one of the more purer power metal moments on the album. There is plenty of flashy guitar showboating during the solo section too. Winter is Coming is the album's obligatory ballad. In my opinion, ballads have never been HammerFall's strongest suit - but this song is not too bad at all. Cans manages to inject a fair amount of emotion into his vocal delivery, and Johansson's big drum sound helps to give the song a big booming sound, despite it's gentler nature. Origins is much stronger and ramps the pace back up. It is probably the most classic-sounding song on the whole album, so this one is likely to become extremely popular with the fans. The fantasy lyrics are very prevalent here, and the twin-lead guitar instrumental section is epic - before it explodes into a much speedier solo. It soon returns to the slower, harmonised section once again and this makes for probably the best instrumental passage on the album. This power metal at it's best, so all fans should check this song out! Tainted Metal is much ballsier and brings the band's more recent work to mind. I like the song though, and there are plenty of excellent riffs here to enjoy. Listen out to what is going on behind Cans' vocals, as the guitar work here is deceivingly complex and helps to keep the song interesting. This is a song where the instrumental work shines about the more obvious vocals and shows that the band can produce more than just simple, catchy metal songs. Evil Incarnate is probably the least interesting song on the album but still boasts a strident verse section. Efforts at harsh vocals later on during the song just end up sounding contrived but do not dominate the song, so that is okay. It is just a shame that the second half of the song basically just repeats the same chorus over and over again, which starts to become tedious after a little while. Wildfire is the album's final song and sounds more like speed metal than anything the band have done before. It really rocks and ensures the album ends on a strong note. The furious 'chorus' has a very thrashy feel to it, but the more melodic guitar solo section reminds you that this is a HammerFall song, despite the high speeds of the rest of it. Overall, this is a really solid album from a well-established band in the metal community. Some people might be disappointed that it was not a true return to the band's roots, but there are enough good songs on here to please those who like a good tune!

The album was released on 1st September 2014 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Hector's Hymn.