Friday, 5 May 2017

Labyrinth's 'Architecture of a God' - Album Review

Italy seems to be a hotbed for power metal, with many great bands coming from the European country over the years. Rhapsody of Fire (and all of their incarnations and spin-offs) are the undisputed kings of Italian power metal, but I would argue a case that Labyrinth are the best! My history with Labyrinth goes back to 2011, when I saw the band live in Wolverhampton supporting Sonata Arctica. It is fair to say that Labyrinth blew me away that night with their highly melodic brand of power metal, and the vocal gymnastics of dynamic frontman Roberto Tiranti. To this day I do not think I have seen any man hit notes as high as Tiranti did on that night in Wolverhampton, and it remains one of the best live vocal performances I have ever seen at a heavy metal concert. Despite this display, it took me a long time to warm to the band's albums. I bought their second album, 1998's Return to Heaven Denied, not long after the show but it did not immediately grab me. It is seen as a bit of a classic in the power metal world, and I have grown to love it over the years, but at the time it fell flat compared to the excellent live display I had seen. In fairness, I lost interest in Labyrinth in the years since that show. Live appearances were extremely sporadic and then, in 2014, Tiranti announced he was leaving the band. Mark Boals (Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force; Ring of Fire; Royal Hunt; Dokken) was announced as his replacement, but Labyrinth never toured or recorded with the American and it seemed the band was totally dead in the water. This all changed last year when the Italian record label Frontiers, who seem to good at convincing bands to re-unite and record new material, announced that Labyrinth would be re-grouping with a new line-up and releasing a new album in 2017. Architecture of a God is the band's eight studio album and the first since 2010's strong Return to Heaven Denied - Part II: A Midnight Autumn's Dream; which is arguably the greatest 'sequel' to a classic album that any band has produced and was the album the band was supporting on that 2011 tour. Founding members, guitarists, and songwriters Andrea Cantarelli and Olaf Thörsen, who started working together again in 2009 after Thörsen's seven-year departure, returned to their power metal roots on Return to Heaven Denied - Part II: A Midnight Autumn's Dream. The Thörsen-less Labyrinth moved down a heavier, more progressive direction in his absence, but the return of Thörsen saw the two guys who were behind the success of the original Return to Heaven Denied and 2001's Sons of Thunder working together again and creating high quality power metal. That trend has continued on Architecture of a God, and the results are very strong. Tiranti was convinced to come back on board again, and therefore completes the songwriting triumvirate which has produced much of the band's best work. The other three current members of the band are all making their Labyrinth debut on Architecture of a God. Keyboardist Oleg Smirnoff (Eldrich; Death SS; Vision Divine), who previously worked with Thörsen in Vision Divine has fit right in with the band's grand and romantic sound perfectly and has made a few choice songwriting contributions too. The rhythm section is made up of bassist Nik Mazzucconi (Edge of Forever) and the journeyman American drummer John Macaluso (Ark; TNT; Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force; Jorn).

Despite a lengthy keyboard intro, which introduces Smirnoff to the Labyrinth fans perfectly, Labyrinth waste no time at all with the hard-hitting opening number Bullets. A great twin-guitar riff, backed up by some frantic drumming from Macaluso, gets the song proper underway. Despite being a power metal act, Labyrinth have never been one to play at fast tempos all of the time for the sake of it, and this song moves along at a solid mid-pace throughout it's duration and is spearheaded by a great vocal performance from Tiranti. The choruses are quite dramatic, with a tough guitar backing, but it is the choruses where the song comes live. Fluid keyboard leads dominate the chorus' sound, and Tiranti's romantic and smooth vocals really ooze out of the speakers. Both of the band's guitarists, and keyboardist Smirnoff, get a chance to solo during an explosive instrumental section part-way through the song that really highlights the musical prowess of the band early on. Opening with a powerful bassline from Mazzucconi, Still Alive is another strong mid-paced song with plenty of crunch. The main riffs are simple, but solid, with a strong keyboard backing, but the verses take on a mellower feel, with prominent acoustic guitars and a slightly more toned down vocal performance. The song is pretty varied throughout however, with a more upbeat chorus with some really gorgeous melodies, and some excellent keyboard-led instrumental parts with some faster double bass drumming. All of the different parts fit together nicely however and things never feel contrived or bolted together. After two somewhat measured songs, Take on my Legacy really hits the ground running and is the first real dose of power metal on the album with a really fast drum beat that never seems to let up throughout. While I feel the more mid-paced material suits the band's overall style better, it is still great fun to see the band cut loose like this with some slightly thrashier guitar riffs to suit Macaluso's drumming. As you would expect, the guitar solo section is a real shred fest. Thörsen starts the instrumental section off before Cantarelli takes over; with both delivering some excellent fretboard pyrotechnics. A New Dream returns to the more measured approach of the opening two numbers and has the appearance of a quasi-ballad, although it does get somewhat heavier as it goes along. A strong acoustic guitar opening soon gives way a lush metal backing with plenty of keyboard textures and a really smooth vocal delivery. The chorus is based around simple melodies, but is delivered with so much conviction that it immediately stands out. Someone Says is another song with a strong power metal vibe, but this time relying on heroic melodies rather than speed. A great harmony guitar intro gets the song off to a strong start, with a driving rhythm to back it up, before acoustic guitars once again dominate the verse. The vibe still remains a very metal one however, as Tiranti's cuts loose a little more vocally and delivers a really memorable performance. The song does not stay acoustic-based for long, and the choruses in particular are heavier and retain that driving beat from the song's opening. A short, but sweet, guitar solo section is followed by a piano-led movement that really helps to shake things up a bit and provide some variety in what is mostly a guitar-dominated album. Smirnoff's playing is once again featured heavily on the short instrumental piece Random Logic. It is essentially a piano piece, with some excellent booming chords and ominous melodies, with a ghostly spoken-word piece placed on top. It acts as an extended intro to the album's title track which is up next.

Architecture of a God is the album's longest song and, unsurprisingly, it has a rather progressive feel. Lots of different sections are pieced together here to create an epic song that is packed full of atmosphere. Acoustic guitars and haunting keyboards are the order of the day for the opening section which really sets the mood with some stunning vocals from Tiranti. Heavier sections follow, which all start with a strident power chord riff that really kick the song into action; but it is the mix of light and shade that make this song so enjoyable. The acoustic-led sections sit well alongside the heavier moments and the song really feels like is contains all of the best parts of Labyrinth's sound. For this reason, I feel that it is probably the strongest song on the album and a really excellent slab of progressive power metal. Another instrumental piece, Children, follows and continues the band's early tradition of covering an Italian synth-pop song on their albums. Both Return to Heaven Denied and Sons of Thunder had covers of this nature, and Children is another interesting metal take on a piece of music which is probably as far from metal as you can be! It is essentially centred around guitar solos and melodies from the band's two guitarists, but Smirnoff's keyboards also dominate in places with some excellent synth sounds to balance out the heaviness of the guitars. Those Days is more of a typical fare for the band, with gorgeous acoustic guitar melodies and a soaring guitar intro from Thörsen that is packed full of tortured emotion. The song is another pseudo-ballad, with lots of downbeat and mellow sections, but the band does raise the energy at certain points throughout like during the heavier choruses. This is the sort of song I associate with Labyrinth the most, as they seem to be able to make these slightly mellower songs work a lot better than many other power metal acts do. Tiranti's vocal style is a large factor in this, and the band a certainly a stronger force when he is in the ranks! We Belong to Yesterday is a heavier song with a strong chugging guitar sound throughout and a really powerful drumming presence. Again, the song sticks mainly to the tried and tested mid-paced metal sound the band is comfortable with but still manages to pack a punch with plenty of soaring melodies and a fluid bassline throughout. The heaviness really picks up towards the end with some really doomy riffs that soon give way to another impressive solo section again featuring bot guitarists. Stardust and Ashes is another fast song, and this one really hits the spot with a great galloping feel and some excellent drumming throughout. Tiranti cuts loose a little more again vocally with some higher notes reached and a more in-your-face delivery used overall. The song is not as catchy as many of the band's other numbers, but as far as giving the album a late kick musically this really does the job. I would say it is one the better faster songs the band have done in their career so far and having the veteran drummer Macaluso in the ranks now probably helped give this song the boost it needed. There is even a short, melodic bass solo towards the end! The album comes to a close with the short Diamond that shimmers with lots of different keyboard textures and spacey guitar sounds. It has an odd sound, but works surprisingly well as an album closer with Tiranti's slightly mournful vocal added. Overall, Architecture of a God is a very strong comeback for the Italian band and is easily their best work since Return to Heaven Denied. There is a good mix of styles here, but the songwriting is strong enough to make it all work together nicely and still produce a powerful and cohesive album.

The album was released on 21st April 2017 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Bullets.

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