Thursday, 11 May 2017

Pyramaze's 'Contingent' - Album Review

Pyramaze were a band that I took a blind chance on a few years ago and it is fair to say I have not looked back. There are a couple of good second hand CD stalls in Plymouth's indoor market and I have made many worthy purchases at them over the years. On one such visit I noticed a copy of an album called Legend of the Bone Carver and was taken in by the fantasy-inspired artwork. At the time (we are probably talking about 8 or 9 years ago) my knowledge of metal music was nowhere near as extensive as it is now so the name Pyramaze meant nothing to me. I took a chance on the album and was immediately impressed. At the time I was becoming a big Iced Earth fan, and found the band's heavy, but melodic, form of metal to be somewhat similar to that American band's style. This was before I knew that long-time Iced Earth frontman Matt Barlow had contributed to one of the band's albums, in fact it was probably around the time of 2008's Immortal's release, the album that Barlow sung lead vocals on, that I stumbled upon Legend of the Bone Carver in Plymouth Market. Legend of the Bone Carver, which was released in 2006, remains my favourite Pyramaze album. It soon became clear that I became a Pyramaze fan at the wrong time, as after a short tour supporting Immortal's release, the band went into a deep slumber with founding member and main songwriter Michael Kammeyer leaving the band. The band's fans waited patiently and finally, in 2015, the band's fourth album Disciples of the Sun (which I reviewed here) was released. The album's release came as a bit of a shock to the metal world, but the reviews were universally excellent. This was a new-look Pyramaze with a new sound, but the songwriting and performances were up there with their three Kammeyer-led albums. The band's heavy power metal sound was replaced with a more cinematic and soaring brand of progressive metal that at first seemed strange but soon became accepted. Jacob Hansen, who is more known in the metal world as a producer, stepped into Kammeyer's songwriting and rhythm guitar shoes and Pyramaze produced a belter of an album that still receives regular plays here and is my second favourite album of the band's behind Legend of the Bone Carver. The band's fans were not made to wait quite as long this time for new music however, and just under two years later the band have now unveiled Contingent to the world. Contingent is the first Pyramaze album to feature the same band line-up as the previous album, and this stability has helped. This is a much more collaborative album with lead guitarist Toke Skjønnemand and founding keyboardist Jonah Weingarten, who had made modest songwriting contributions previous, taking on a greater songwriting role along with Hansen. The result is a varied and dynamic album that takes the smoother sound established on Disciples of the Sun and really runs with it, turning everything up to 11! The album is more bombastic than it's predecessor, which definitely brings back memories of the band's earlier albums, but the strong and melodic songwriting remains. It is frontman Terje Harøy, now on his second album with the band, who is the real star of the show here however, with a hugely impressive vocal performance that shows just how much he has grown in confidence over the past couple of years.

Breaking with tradition Pyramaze forego the traditional cinematic intro piece and get straight down to business with the hard rocking opener Land of Information, which is one of the most instantly memorable songs on the album. A keyboard-heavy intro soon gives way to a crunching, mid-paced verse and shows the newly-acquired grit that Harøy's voice now possesses. While the song is not as heavy as the band often is, the melodies are extremely strong and constantly shine through. The chorus is one of the album's most catchiest, with some soaring vocal melodies and fluid keyboard leads from Weingarten that provide an excellent counter-melody. Weingarten seems to be higher in the mix on Contingent than he has been on any previous Pyramaze album, and that really contributes to the epic, cinematic feel of the album. Not to be outdone however, Skjønnemand lets rip with a short solo towards the end that shows off his skills as a guitarist. Kingdom of Solace is another keyboard-heavy song, but the crunching riff that drives it gives it weight and is backed up by some sledgehammer drumming courtesy of original member Morten Gade Sørensen. This song is very reminiscent of the smooth sound created on Disciples of the Sun so fans of the band's modern sound should really appreciate this. Harøy's voice is less gritty here and he really oozes out of the speakers as he sings the chorus melodies. He does not posses the greatest vocal range of all time, and does not have as much of a distinctive style of previous vocalists Lance King and Barlow, but his voice is perfect for this version of the band and the style of music they are creating. The highlight of the song however is an impressive instrumental section which sees Skjønnemand and Weingarten trading fast leads without each other to great effect. Despite a piano-based intro, Star Men is more of a guitar-driven number. Skjønnemand's snaking main riff, backed up by Hansen's tough rhythms, drives the song and forms the basis of the verse which is accentuated by Sørensen's off-kilter drumming. The song is almost a power ballad, but with too much crunch to really be worthy of that label. Whatever the song is, it is very strong and possesses another instantly memorable chorus and a lengthy guitar solo. The new era of Pyramaze does not seem to give too much time over to soloing, instead choosing to focus more on the song's overall melodies and impression, but the few occasions when Skjønnemand gets to really cut loose he proves himself to be an excellent guitarist. A World Divided, which the band filmed a video for, starts out with a moody piano melody but then the rest of band come in and the song morphs into a real thrashy, power metal anthem which definitely brings back memories of the band's early albums. Sørensen's double bass drumming really drives the song, and the band's two guitarists riff it out together with some tight and heavy playing. Harøy's performance here is particularly strong and really demonstrates here why he is the man to take Pyramaze forward vocally. Nemesis carries on the somewhat heavier feel, but mixes the pummelling metal sections with soaring cinematic ones to great effect. A razor-sharp riff drives the chorus, which is backed up by a matching drum beat. The production is perfect and the band has never sounded as tight! The chorus is more keyboard-based, with another soaring vocal performance and layers of warm synths. The first half of the album is brought to a close with the short, keyboard-heavy instrumental Contingent - Part I: The Campaign which leads nicely into the album's second half.

20 Second Century follows on perfectly from the instrumental and is another song that is instantly memorable. It is another heavier song, with a really powerful main riff and a real headbanging vibe throughout with prominent guitars and a strong drumming performance. The song's chorus is once again reminiscent of the band's early days, with big power metal melodies and a fast double bass drum pattern. Weingarten's keyboards take more of a backseat here, but constantly provide a melodic halo to proceedings, and occasionally subtle piano melodies break through which add depth. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the song of this nature, there is another lengthy and flashy guitar solo here from Skjønnemand that takes the energy of the rest of the song and really runs with it. Obsession opens with a really groovy guitar riff that is doubled up with some really symphonic keyboards from Weingarten. His playing really comes to the fore again here, be it that playing in the intro or the many piano breaks that are scattered throughout which sit perfectly atop the mid-paced groove. This song is another which really emphasises the band's modern, keyboard-heavy sound well with the smooth vocals of Harøy and a strong cinematic atmosphere. Heir Apparent also has that strong modern feel, emphasised by the piano backing to the song's tight main riff. This song is a little more laid back than the last few numbers, but is no less enjoyable. The chorus in particular is the song's crowning moment with some really catchy melodies and plenty of strong vocal harmonies. Weingarten really plays out of his skin here with lots of beautiful piano motifs throughout and lots of soaring synth sounds which add depth while the song's main, slower riff is playing. The second part of the album's instrumental title track follows, which is again a keyboard-driven piece that is heavy on moody atmosphere and sets up the last part of the album nicely. Under Restraint picks up the heaviness again somewhat with a tight and heavy opening riff that leads into a crunchy mid-paced verse. I particularly like Skjønnemand's hypnotic guitar leads during the verses here, which are a little low in the mix but really help to enhance the overall mood perfectly. Where keyboards are used elsewhere in the album to provide subtle colour and mood, the guitars performs that role perfectly here with lots of little effects-heavy sections that make the song stand out. While the chorus here is still memorable, it is a little too similar to other choruses on the album to really make it's own impact. The guitar solo is excellent however, and really elevates the song despite the weaker chorus. The Tides That Won't Change is the album's only true ballad features the guest vocals of Kristen Foss who duets well with Harøy. The song is piano-based and enjoyable, but fails to reach the heights of the band's previous ballads, in particular the excellent She Who Summoned Me from Legend of the Bone Carver. It is a little predictable, but the vocal interplay between Harøy and Foss is strong and the two harmonise together very well. After the lull from the ballad, the album has one more trick up it's sleeve with the heavier closing number Symphony of Tears. It is a mid-paced rocker, but is one of the most memorable songs on the album with instantly singable melodies and soaring vocals. I particularly like the way the song speeds up during the chorus, which gives the song a real tangible energy. Usually choruses in metal are slower than the main song to make use of epic vocal melodies, but the reverse contrast here works very well and keeps the album surprising the listener right to the end. Overall, Contingent is another successful chapter in the Pyramaze canon and is one of my favourite metal releases of 2017 so far. The mix of all the band's previous sounds works well, and makes for a progressive and thoughtful album that really delivers with repeated listens.

The album was released on 28th April 2017 via Inner Wound Recordings. Below is the band's promotional video for A World Divided.

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