Thursday, 26 February 2015

Angra's 'Secret Garden' - Album Review

You do not always think about Brazil being a hot-bed of progressive metal bands, but there is one that stands out: Angra. Since forming in 1991, the band have enjoyed much worldwide success with their string of melodic and technical albums. Despite being from Brazil, their music has always fallen into the European progressive/power metal mould, which has caused them to be quite popular here. While their first couple of albums showcased some traditional Brazilian sounds, this has taken a backseat in recent years with the focus instead being on melodies and lead guitar work. Secret Garden is the band's eighth studio album, and their first for five years. Aqua, released in 2010, is seen by many as a slight disappointment after the excellent Temple of Shadows from 2004 and Aurora Consurgens from 2006. Since the release of Aqua, long time frontman Eduardo Falaschi and drummer Ricardo Confessori have left the band, and have been replaced by Fabio Lione (Labyrinth; Rhapsody of Fire; Vision Divine) and Bruno Valverde respectively. In my opinion, these additions to the line-up have helped to strengthen the band, and have helped them to create their most focused album in years. The addition of Lione in particular has really been a boost for them. He is a true legend in the metal world, and his powerful, operatic voice suits the band perfectly. He comes with prestige too, and his long career with the Italian band Rhapsody of Fire has endeared him to many fans of melodic metal. Valverde is more of an unknown, but his playing throughout this album is superb and I am sure he will have a long and successful career in music. The rest of the band consists of founding guitarist Rafael Bittencourt, guitarist Kiko Loureiro, and bassist Felipe Andreoli - all of whom have formed the nucleus of the band since reforming in 2001. Songwriting is pretty well distributed, with all five members contributing to at least one song each. The main songwriting team of Bittencourt and Loureiro is as strong as ever though, with plenty of musical contribtions from Lione. Bittencourt has also added vocals to his game now, and acts as a second lead vocalists on many of the songs and, in some cases, singing the whole song without help from Lione. His vocals are much more soulful that Lione's operatic cleans, and the contrast between their styles works well.

Opening number Newborn Me is very typical Angra, and sets the listener at ease. The opening orchestrations are subtle, but it is not long before a crunching guitar riff joins them and the songs becomes a strident, lush metal tune that introduces Lione to the Angra fans. His uses his gruffer vocals for the verses, but he soars during the chorus, which is typically melodic. The song has a very percussive feel to it, with Valverde's drumming really taking the lead on many occasions. His off-kilter rhythms and fast footwork stand out on this song, and it makes you realise what a great find he is for the band. A renaissance-style classical guitar solo is another highlight, and really highlights the band's progressive tendencies. Despite it's gothic opening, Black Hearted Soul is a true power metal track. The twin guitar leads are packed with melody, and the verse steams along like a classic Helloween track, with Lione evoking the pureness of the great Michael Kiske. The chorus would not have sounded out of place on a Rhapsody of Fire album, and shows Lione doing what he does best. The mid-section of the song focuses on the band's two guitarists and sees the two trading leads and riffs aplenty which is sure to satisfy those who love fluid soloing. Final Light is more of a mid-paced rocker that is simpler than the album's previous two songs. The guitar tone has a dark, industrial sound to it which suits the crunchy nature of the song. The song does speed up somewhat during the instrumental section, but soon returns to the more controlled pace for a reprise of the chorus that Lione owns. Storm of Emotions is the first ballad of the album, and it is stunning. The ringing bass guitar that opens the song is extremely haunting, and Lione's breathy delivery fits the mood perfectly. Bittencourt's subtle guitar leads, backed up perfectly by Valverde's simple rhythms almost bring to mind classic Pink Floyd, but the song does get slightly heavier as it progresses. Bittencourt also handles the song's bridge, and his voice fits the music perfectly, and it easily distinguishable from Lione's. After a strange cover of The Police's Synchronicity II, we reach Violet Sky. This is a heavy song with a really Sabbathy riff, that Bittencourt sings and sings well. The verses are a little lighter, with a real progressive touch with Valverde's drumming once again standing out. The choruses are based around that same big riff from the intro, and Bittencourt's vocals sit well over it, his melody creating a contrast to the staccato, laboured riff.

The title track is up next, and is sung entirely by Simone Simons (Epica). It seems a strange choice to have a guest sing the whole of a song, but does such a good job that it barely seems to matter. Everyone knows what a great singer she is, and she uses her considerable range to create a varied performance. Sections of the song have a smokey lounge sound to then, while others have soaring symphonic rock overtones. This is never a particularly heavy song, but it still fits with the rest of the songs here despite not being sung by the band's usual singers. Upper Levels returns to the power metal sound found earlier in the album with Lione retaking his rightful place at the microphone. All that being said, this is still a very varied song with plenty of good chances in pace and styles. This is one of the more progressive songs on the album and it grows on you over multiple listens. Lione's masterful vocal performance is enough to keep you coming back, and his final note here is stunning! Crushing Room features another special guest, this time in the form of Doro Pesch (Warlock) and sees her duetting well with Bittencourt. Her voice is quite deep, and it can actually be quite hard to tell the two apart sometimes. This is quite a downbeat song, but the chorus is infectious and will stick with you for a long time after hearing it. Despite the slower nature of the song, the guitar solo here is still flashy. It really elevates the song and creates a nice contrast. The vocal performances during this song are very strong, and Pesch shines with all her experience as a metal singer. Lione returns on Perfect Symmetry for another slab of power metal. The Helloween similarities can be seen here too, with Lione's pure vocals leading the charge with a backing of metal and orchestra. While being enjoyable, there is nothing during this song that really stands out like in previous ones. The melodies are not as big as during Black Hearted Soul and the progressive tendencies of Newborn Me are not as apparent, which leaves the song lacking somewhat. Bittencourt takes the lead for a final time on the album's last song Silent Call, which is an acoustic-led ballad that really showcases his vocal talents. The subtle piano backing really helps to elevate the piece and helps the album to end on a quite note, but the song is so good that it does not matter. Overall, Secret Garden is a great album and easily the band's best since Temple of Shadows. The  has a real focus about it, but contains just enough diversity and progressive tendencies to keep things interesting and fresh.

The album was released on 2nd February 2015 via earMusic. Below is the band's promotional video for Storm of Emotions.

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