Thursday, 25 January 2018

Leaves' Eyes' 'Sign of the Dragonhead' - Album Review

Despite never truly breaking through into the upper echelons of the symphonic metal world, Leaves' Eyes have become an enjoyable and reliable band over the years. Since forming in 2003, the band have now released seven studio albums, all of which are enjoyable and bombastic affairs, of which their latest - Sign of the Dragonhead - continues the good work that was started on 2004's Lovelorn. Despite never really releasing a true genre-defining classic, the band have come close a couple of times with 2009's Njord and 2013's Symphonies of the Night (which I reviewed here). In my opinion, these two albums best represent the band's particular brand of symphonic metal. Leaves' Eyes have never gone for the over-the-top production style that many of their peers use, but instead employ a simpler, more folky sound that focuses on the band's vocal melodies; often leaving the guitars to simply provide the songs' rhythms. While the band do of course utilise the usual symphonic metal tropes of choirs and orchestras, these are done in a much subtler way than other bands of the genre to allow the songs' tight rhythms and vocals to really shine. After making that point about the prominence of vocals in Leaves' Eyes' sound, it should be pointed out that Sign of the Dragonhead is the band's first album without founding frontwoman and lyricist Liv Kristine. Kristine and the band parted ways rather messily in 2016, with lots of rather unnecessary public sniping from both parties over social media, and many fans were worried for the future of Leaves' Eyes. Despite the band not exactly being a stranger to line-up changes, after all no two Leaves' Eyes studio albums have been made by the same group of musicians, Kristine was always the band's focal point and it did seem strange to imagine them successfully continuing without her lyrics and presence. I and many others were proved wrong however as the band immediately bounced back by hiring Finnish-born singer Elina Siirala (Angel Nation) who has fitted into the band's ranks seamlessly. While her voice lacks the shimmering fragility that made Kristine such a unique singer, she has a much more powerful delivery and it is this that really helps to give Sign of the Dragonhead it's punch. Despite Kristine's departure, the core writing team of Alexander Krull - the band's harsh vocalist and producer - and guitarist Thorsten Bauer remain and have once again composed all of the music found on Sign of the Dragonhead. Krull has also taken on the role of lyricist too, and his folky tales of Norwegian Viking history are not dissimilar the style of Kristine. Bauer once again handles the band's bass duties, while Pete Streit and Joris Nijenhuis both return from 2015's King of Kings (which I reviewed here) providing guitars and drums respectively. King of Kings is an album that was initially impressive, but my interest in it has waned over time. Sign of the Dragonhead however seems a much more powerful and dynamic album, and Siirala makes a strong impact from the off with her operatic voice.

The album wastes no time in getting underway with the crunching title track opening things in style. Bauer and Streit make their marks immediately with a driving mid-paced riff that sets the tone of the song, and Siirala makes it clear why she was chosen as the band's new singer. The verses are sung with a little floaty-ness in her voice, before she unleashes her full operatic range during the choruses; which are packed with folky melodies. Krull, who has always used his harsh vocals relatively sparingly with Leaves' Eyes, adds a menacing pre-chorus to the song and backs Siirala during the choruses which adds to the overall power of the piece. Folky melodies and a short guitar solo add depth, but this song feels more about definitely introducing Siirala to the band's fanbase. Across the Sea is similar, but with the band's folky influences taking on a bigger role with more acoustic instruments thrown into the mix, as well as what sounds like uilleann pipes. The folky elements give the song a jaunty sea-shanty-esque vibe, which is encapsulated perfectly during the simple, melodic choruses. Despite her more powerful delivery, Siirala still manages to sing these kinds of songs convincingly which will allow Leaves' Eyes to continue to showcase a style at which they excel. Opening with a gorgeous vocal and piano intro, Like a Mountain is a real highlight of the early part of the album. The symphonic side of the band is displayed here, with lots of orchestral stabs and walls to strings to replace the folky melodies that filled the opening two numbers. Siirala really shines here, and you cannot help but feel that this is the type of song she feels the most comfortable singing. There is still a strong metal base for the song however, as the band's guitarists lay down a solid foundation with a chugging riff that has a slight groove to it. The folk is back in Jomsborg, with traditional instruments providing the song's main melodies and Krull providing a bit of a battle cry with his growls. His vocals often surface throughout this song to add some Viking darkness to what is otherwise a fairly jaunty piece with one of the album's best choruses. I often feel that Krull is underused in Leaves' Eyes, and that trend seems to have continued on this album. I thought that now he has more creative control over the band's material he would use this to his advantage, but he seems to be happy with his more limited role. I would have liked to have seen more of his Viking battle chants in this song, as I feel the grit he provides would have been a great contrast to the song's melodies.

Völva again places a lot of emphasis on the traditional instruments, so much so that at times it sounds more like an Eluveitie song than a Leaves' Eyes one! Despite this, Siirala unleashes her full operatic vocal delivery throughout which adds some power to what otherwise could have been a fairly tame song. The guitars are mixed quite low, which does stunt it's power at times, but the vocal performance helps to stop things from become stale. With many of the songs on this album being fairly mid-paced affairs, Riders on the Wind picks up the pace somewhat with a driving drum pattern from Nijenhuis and some urgent folky melodies. Comparisons can be drawn between this song and the folky power metal sound of Nightwish's early work. Tarja Turunen is clearly a big influence on Siirala and there are parts of this song where she sounds like she is trying to emulate her hero. Siirala is not as over the top however, and I think that is ultimately to her credit. Krull barks some lines here and there to spice things up a bit, but overall it is the song's energy that really makes it so strong. I feel that this is a song that Leaves' Eyes could not have made previously, and it is good to see them incorporating some new influences and sounds into their established sonic tapestry. Fairer than the Sun is a ballad, and opens up with some delicate acoustic guitar playing; backed by some strings and traditional instruments; which forms the basis of the song. This is a real showcase for Siirala's vocal talents and she really owns the piece with her emotive vocal delivery. The band subtly backs her up throughout, with a metronomic drum beat keeping everything together and Krull's lush orchestral production enveloping it all. Guitar solos are not commonly found in the band's music, but a short one towards the end - presumably from Bauer - adds an extra emotional punch to the song with his simple phrasing.

Shadows in the Night picks up the pace again and displays some more of that power metal influence while also recalling the sound of the Njord album. This is a song that is instantly memorable, and is one of the album's overall highlights. Despite it's apparent simplicity, it also feels like one of the band's most involved songs musically. The guitars actually provide some lead melodies throughout, particularly during the verses, which makes a change from their usual chugging rhythms. It also takes a heavier turn as it moves along by giving Krull more time at the microphone with an extended harsh vocal part. Rulers of the Wind and Waves is an instrumental piece that focuses mainly on the traditional instruments, but maintains a dark undercurrent with some hollow percussion and sombre strings. Christian Roch, who provides the uilleann pipes and other wind instruments, shines here as he provides most of the song's swooning melodies. This soon transitions into Fires in the North - a song that was initially released in 2016 to introduce Siirala to the band's fanbase. It has found a permanent home here however, and the doomy song adds some bit after a relatively light-hearted few numbers. The guitar riffs dominate here, and the bass rumbles away during the verses to really add weight. Leaves' Eyes has never been the heaviest band, but songs like this prove they can really crank it up when they need to. The gothic end-chorus sections which are dominated by Krull's barks are particularly powerful and show a different side to the band. Leaves Eyes' have always had a slight progressive streak in their songwriting, and the album's closing number Waves of Euphoria showcases this. Siirala's dramatic opening vocals, backed by gothic strings, set the tone; but it is actually Krull that often takes the lead here with a passionate and throat-ripping delivery. It is great to hear him spreading his wings a little more on this song, with it being sung more like a traditional duet than anything else on the album. Siirala still handles the choruses however, and she soars here like nowhere else. This feels like a true closing number, and hopefully this is one that the band will begin to use to end their live shows with. Overall, Sign of the Dragonhead is a great new chapter in the book of Leaves' Eyes. While the sound is not drastically different to what we have heard from them before, it is certainly one of their better albums and it packs a real punch. They have successfully navigated some choppy line-up-related waters, and have come out the other side looking strong and confident.

The album was released on 12th January 2018 via AFM Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Sign of the Dragonhead.

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