Saturday, 31 October 2015

Leaves' Eyes' 'King of Kings' - Album Review

While many symphonic metal acts go out of their way to make their albums as over-the-top as possible, Leaves' Eyes have never really seemed to take this path. Leaves' Eyes' brand of symphonic metal has always been deeply rooted in folk, with lots of traditional instruments filling the speakers that sit nicely alongside the crunchy guitar riffs. King of Kings is the band's sixth album, and comes two years after the excellent Symphonies of the Night (which I reviewed here) which was a career high for the band in my opinion. That album brought the metal elements of the band's sound back to the fore after the folky Meredead, and showed that Leaves' Eyes could kick some serious ass! With King of Kings, the band seems to have moved back to the folk side of their sound somewhat, without losing too much of the heaviness that made Symphonies of the Night so good. Harsh vocalist and producer Alexander Krull has kept the sound on King of Kings much the same as the previous work, which ensures this album sounds great, while placing more emphasis on the folky elements. His vocals are still quite prevalent too, which is something that hindered Meredead in my opinion - there were not enough growls! I know that frontwoman Liv Kristine has always (quite rightly) been the main focus of the band vocally, but the 'beauty and the beast' vocal stylings between Kristine and Krull has always been a cornerstone of the band's sound. King of Kings also sees yet more line-up changes within the Leaves' Eyes camp (no two of their albums have had the same line-up). Guitarist Pete Streit (Elis; Atrocity) has joined the band in place of Sander van der Meer who left the band for health reasons, and drummer Joris Nijenhuis (Atrocity) replaces Felix Born. Founding guitarist Thorsten Bauer is still handling all the studio bass guitars on King of Kings. I am not sure what this band have against hiring a full-time bassist, but they have not had one for years now. Bauer also handles the songwriting, along with Krull and Kristine. The band also make use of a couple of guests on this album. Both Simone Simons (Epica) and Lindy Fay Hella (Wardruna) contribute guest vocals to a track each, and regular contributor Christian Roch adds his folky magic with ullieann pipes, whistles, and flutes throughout the album. At a run time of just under 45 minutes, King of Kings is a compact album; but one that manages to cram a lot of quality music in. The modest album length means the album is very easy to get into, and can be listened to at any time. I think this will work in it's favour in the long run.

Sweven opens the album with folky Norse overtones and helps to build tension before kicking off properly with the strident title track. The song is built around a series of big guitar chords that the orchestrations add to to create the main melody. Kristine sounds excellent on this album as always, and her delivery during the verses here is excellent. She has always had a unique and instantly recognisable voice, and this is present here in spades. The chorus is a slow, methodical affair with a big choir singing the main lyrics while Kristine wails over the top of them.  Krull adds some growls here and there to add some variety; and the dynamic ending section to the song is easily the best part. Halvdan the Black opens sounding like an early Nightwish song with dramatic choral voices and a chunky distorted guitar riff. It is a fast metal track that focuses on powerful guitars and a strong lead vocal from Kristine. Krull adds his magic to the demonic pre-chorus, before Kristine leads the choirs through their paces for the epic chorus. The guitar-led instrumental section mid-way through is excellent too, and sees the pace slow slightly and focus on the simple melodies the guitar creates. The Waking Eye opens with a delicate piano line, which continues throughout the song, even when the big wall of guitars also joins in. This song definitely draws comparisons to classic Leaves' Eyes track Elegy, but has a maturer overall sound. The chorus is very memorable, with some really catchy vocal melodies that fit well with the distant piano tinkles. This is very immediate song, which is probably why the band decided to shoot a video for it. I suspect this will be part of the band's live set for sometime. Another folky short instrumental leads into Vengeance Venom which builds on the folky melodies of the interlude to create a jaunty piece with an upbeat chorus and lots of jig-like moments. The guitars are often duelling with the traditional instruments to create a big sound; and the chorus sees Kristine and Krull join forces to create a real Viking sound. The song is over almost as quickly as it began, but it really fills your head with images of Viking feasts, and it is a very enjoyable song overall. Sacred Vow is more in the vein of the classic Leaves' Eyes sound, with calm verses that gradually build with layers of heavy guitars, before a powerful chorus steals the show. Nijenhuis leads the charge with a drum barrage throughout the entire chorus while Kirstine and choirs lay down their angelic voices to carry the lyrics. The instrumental section is good also, with a subtle guitar solo that just about cuts through the dense orchestrations.

Edge of Steel, that features Simons, is a heavier piece with a dramatic riffing intro and anthemic verses that sees Kristine and Simons duetting well while Krull adds his harsh growls as backing. The chorus is a little over the top, and slightly silly, but it is hard not to like the overt melodies and singable lyrics. The verses are the best here though, and the two ladies steal the show with their measured performances. It gets darker as things move forward though, with a heavy section with some excellent growls from Krull that are offset with a backing of ullieann pipes that helps to push the folky side of the band's sound forward again. Haraldskvæði opens with delicate whispering before Kristine sings beautifully over a bed of strings. The song almost has the feel of another interlude to it, because it gradually builds up to the next song without really having it's own identity. The repeating nature of the lyrics is quite effective though, and the choral work here is excellent. The percussion also adds a good rhythm to the piece, which helps build up tension for Blazing Waters, the next song. This is a longer, more epic piece that seems to act as the main focus of the album. Hella adds her guest vocals here, and the song is easily the best of the album. It is a real metal piece, with lots of excellent riffs and heavy verses that feature Krull taking the lead with his deep growls and hog the spotlight for a little while. The choruses are Kristine's though, and her soaring vocals cut through everything else to dominate. About half way through, the choirs really start to dominate as they sing over a heavy drum pattern before the rest of the band take over and impress with their instrumental prowess. Leaves' Eyes have never really been about jaw-dropping guitar work or progressive instrumentation, but the guitars here are excellent and there is a great solo thrown in. This song has the feel of a closing number, but the album is not done yet. Swords in Rock follows and hits you with big melodies from the outset. This is a short, catchy tune that ends the album on a jaunty note after the more involved Blazing Waters. The melodies here are very folky and will not fail to make you smile. It almost has the feel of a bonus track after the epic previous one, but I think it works well to add a little coda to the album. It is relentless and fills your head with classic Leaves' Eyes melodies. Overall, King of Kings is another good album from Leaves' Eyes. While the album is in no danger of rivalling the band's best work, it has a cohesiveness about it that makes it work well as an album.

The album was released on 11th September 2015 via AFM Records. Below is the band's promotional video for The Waking Eye.

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