Evergrey – “Torn” (retro review)

 

Evergrey

“Torn” (2008)

SPV/Steamhammer

Rating: 8.5/10

Ah, Evergrey, everyone’s favorite gloomy bastard offspring of progressive and power metal out of Gothenburg, Sweden. At this point in their career, they have established a distinct sound, and more likely than not, those who have heard them either like them, or have never bought into what Evergrey is trying to accomplish. With the mixed reaction to their previous effort, somewhat more streamlined and song-oriented “Monday Morning Apocalypse”, a change in record label, and an addition of a new bass player (whose pedigree includes much happier-sounding Stratovarius), the expectations were naturally high for “Torn”. The question is, does it deliver?

To answer this question, one has to decide whether they have bought into the entire Evergrey concept to begin with. Tom Englund and the crew have always been a band capable of writing album with subtle (or not-so-subtle) conceptual overtones, perfecting their craft on such excellent pieces of work as “In Search For Truth” and “The Inner Circle”. While they have had numerous standout songs, Evergrey’s music has always worked better when accessed at the level of an entire album; when the conceptual focus was lessened on “Monday Morning Apocalypse”, the results showed. Therefore, a good Evergrey album is more likely than not to embrace the conceptuality, even if at the expense of toning down the impact of some individual songs.

In that respect, “Torn” delivers. Songs like “Broken Wings”, “Fail”, or the title track provide more than enough standouts, while the rest of the material fits nicely into the conceptual framework. While not a true concept album per se, there seems to be a common thread connecting the songs, both musically and lyrically, generally dealing with disappointment, frustration, and other appropriately gloomy topics. Tom Englund’s vocals are a perfect fit for this kind of music, not overly technical and much lower-pitched than the vast majority of his peers, but able to carry the emotion of the songs well. On two of the tracks, the female vocals are used to great effect, accentuating Englund’s rougher delivery on “Broken Wings” and taking lead on parts of “These Scars”.

Musically, “Torn” occupies the middle ground between the song-oriented “Monday Morning Apocalypse” and conceptual pieces such as “In Search For Truth”. That said, the quasi-conceptual thread does bind the music together, resulting in an overall more enjoyable experience than “Torn”’s predecessor. More so, “Torn” sounds every bit like an Evergrey record – melodic, dark, heavy when it needs to be, showcasing impressive degrees of musicianship from the band members when needed, but also knowing when to subside and let the song breathe, topped off with Englund’s instantly recognizable voice. While it does not necessarily touch the best of the band’s efforts due to some of the songs falling prey to overt dramaticism, it is much of an improvement on “Monday Morning Apocalypse”, and is a step in a right direction. Even the lesser moments of Evergrey records are still very good music by the standards of any other band, and there are not many of those on “Torn”. And while it may not be the band’s grand musical statement, it is an Evergrey record through and through, and any who have enjoyed their music before will not be disappointed.

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Deathstars – “Termination Bliss” (retro review)

Deathstars

“Termination Bliss” (2006)

Nuclear Blast

Rating: 8.5/10

File this one under “guilty pleasures”. On their second full-length album, Sweden’s Deathstars have further fine-tuned their style of semi-industrial, gothic metal with periodic injections of pop hooks and sensibilities, and the end result is one of the most enjoyable albums I have heard over the last few years.

The story of this band might confuse some, and lead them to wrong conclusions before they even heard a note of music, so let me put it straight. It is true that two of the members have at one point been in Dissection (one of whom happens to be Jon Nodtveidt’s brother), and at least three of the members, including the vocalist, have once been a part of Swordmaster, a death metal act. Deathstars have nothing in common with Dissection or Swordmaster, or any death or black metal altogether, other than an occasional death/black metal backing vocal here and there. So, fans of the aforementioned bands should not be looking here for a second coming of Dissection, or even anything remotely similar in terms of style. Instead, this is clearly geared for the fans of Rammstein, The Kovenant, or even more commercial offspring of the genre such as Marilyn Manson.

All the necessary elements of the style are here – industrial-sounding beats, heavy rhythmic guitars, deep male goth vocals accentuated with occasional angelic female singing, and enough electronics, samples, keyboards, and the like to remove any semblance of death metal from the mix. Is it particularly deep and engaging in terms of music? Not really, but that was not the point. “Termination Bliss” is a very fun record to listen to, as it hits the mark pretty much spot on, and maintains consistent level of quality throughout.

Sure, maybe The Kovenant did it better at one point, and Rammstein is more renowned worldwide (although, last I have heard, Deathstars have amassed quite a following in Europe), but there is not many things wrong with “Termination Bliss”, and more often than not, it gets the style right, reminding me of how good it can be when done the way it was supposed to.

Another thing that helped Deathstars on their second record is lessening their reliance on aggression found in spades on the debut “Synthetic Generation”, and letting more poppy, melodic elements creep in. In a perfect world, “Blitzkrieg” would have replaced Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People” on the mainstream radio with its driving rhythms and pop hooks, while “Virtue To Vice” is an industrial-gothic version of a “soft”, ballad-like song. “The Greatest Fight On Earth” reminds one of prime The Kovenant with the semi-spoken vocals accentuated by a semi-operatic female choir backing vocals, while “Death In Vogue” is a true hidden gem of the album, a glam-rock song masquerading as industrial or gothic metal track with one of the catchier choruses present.

All in all, “Termination Bliss” delivers on all accounts. Yes, it may not be Music with the capital M, but it is great entertainment, and for that alone it deserves a higher rating than many musically pretentious offerings that do not provide that.

Kataklysm – “Shadows and Dust” (retro review)

Kataklysm

“Shadows And Dust” (2002)

Nuclear Blast

Rating: 8.0/10

 It is my opinion that by now, Kataklysm has become death metal’s equivalent of meat and potatoes. No longer at the forefront of the genre in terms of experimentation and pushing the boundaries, the band seems content with writing albums full of aggressive, punishing extreme metal with just a hint of melody and catchiness, while composing their albums in such a way that they do not overstay their welcome. In other words, with Kataklysm these days, you pretty much know what you are getting. And what you are getting is a relatively short, to the point record of frequently anthemic, yet unashamedly heavy death metal that may not break much new ground, but that will still provide enough quality entertainment to keep the fans coming for more.

If you are looking for the most extreme music on the face of the planet, “Shadows And Dust” is not it; at the same time, despite being insanely catchy for a death metal record, it still retains the aggression and the heaviness associated with the genre. In Flames this is not. Just because Kataklysm might throw in a bit of melody at you to keep things coherent does not mean that they will suddenly start using clean vocals, pop hooks, or try to get their music played on your local equivalent of a mainstream rock station. Some of the songs display elements of all-out death metal groove, and would doubtlessly turn out to be live favorites; yet just when you think that yet another one of the greats has compromised their vision, a vicious (if often overly triggered) blast beat comes in to remind you what you are listening to.

Sure, the lack of additional frills and overt experimentation may turn some off, and the vocals of Maurizio Iacono tend to get into the silly category when he attempts his higher-pitched black metal screams (he is more than competent in the lower-pitched growls), but these are not enough to detract from enjoyment of the album. At this stage, Kataklysm may never be album of the year material, but at the very least, they are bound to provide sufficient entertainment value for your money.

Scar Symmetry – “Holographic Universe” (retro review)

Scar Symmetry

“Holographic Universe” (2008)

Nuclear Blast

Rating: 7.5/10

Melodic death metal has become quite a curious beast. From its humble beginnings as an addition of melody to the extreme metal compositions it has developed to be inclusive of a variety of disparate genres such as hardcore, pop, gothic, and progressive. While some bands still ply their trade the old-fashioned way, Swedes Scar Symmetry are clearly one of the new breed of melodic death metal bands, whose main connection to the genre is the occasional use of extreme metal vocals, and who tend to borrow as much from progressive and melodic rock and metal as they do from the extreme side of their musical heritage.

“Holographic Universe” is Scar Symmetry’s third full-length album, and it represents both a progression from their past works, as well as the element of uncertainty pertaining to their musical future. For the uninitiated, the sound of Scar Symmetry can be described as melodic metal with frequent progressive touches, accentuated by prominent keyboard presence, and dual vocal approach. The vocals range from low-pitched classic death metal growl to clean, melodic voice that would not have been out of place on most prog or power metal records, while the guitarists alternate between a thousand-note-per-second shredding sessions, and hard-driving, aggressive rhythms. There is less in a way of clearly defined, simple melodies and Iron Maiden-like harmonies on “Holographic Universe” than with many classic examples of the genre; the emphasis here is clearly on the technical playing.

Herein lies the main problem with the album. It is definitely expertly played, with flawless performances from all band members. The production is clear and crisp, where every instrument could be heard. The melodies within the songs are often catchy and memorable, and the vocal performance is absolutely amazing (although the vocalist has since left the band, and has been replaced by no less than two singers). However, when all of these elements are taken together, the whole is somehow less than a sum of its parts.

“Holographic Universe” is a sound of a band in the middle of an identity crisis. They are clearly extremely proficient in crafting both progressive metal and death metal, but they appear to be undecided as to which they would like to move towards. There are many parts on the album where the extreme metal influence appears to be almost tacked on just to give a song some appropriate melodic death pedigree – “Timewave Zero” is a good example of it. When the band does hit on all cylinders, such as in an aggressive, quick “Quantumleaper” with its almost Meshuggah-ish verse riff, and melodic chorus, the mixture works, but more often than not, it appears as if they do not know which direction they would like to go in, and as a result, the complete album feels a bit disjointed and lacking in focus.

At this point, Scar Symmetry has clearly transcended what a melodic death metal band is supposed to be – however, they still have not figured the trick of mixing all these elements with their sound, and making it sound consistently cohesive. The album is far from bad, and definitely shows major progression in terms of playing and songwriting, but at this stage, it is not required listening. If they figure out how to incorporate all the progressive and the death metal elements together successfully, they may yet create a classic. As it stands, the final verdict is – good, but not great.

Review Rating Scale and Ground Rules

Before I get too far into the business of posting up music reviews, it would only make sense to make few disclaimers, and to give a little background. First things first. For those of you who prefer getting straight to the point, here is the short version:

What Is The Rating Scale

9.6 – 10 = Classic/Perfect.

8.5 – 9.5 = Great

7.5 – 8.5 = Good

6.0 – 7.5 = Competent

5.0 – 6.0 = Mediocre

3.0 – 5.0 = Bad

0.1 – 3.0 = Terrible

0 = An Insult to Music

The ratings on the border between categories are ambiguous on purpose.

What Will Be Reviewed?

While I enjoy many styles of music, my tastes are more often than not centered around various forms of metal. As such, the majority of albums reviewed here will be metal and related genres.

What About Fiction Writing?

I continue to write fiction, and to work on getting my fiction published. The entire business of writing music reviews is something I would do for fun, to share my thoughts on music, and to practice my writing chops in a low-pressure environment. The two things are not mutually exclusive.

Now that the short version is done with, I will get a little more self-indulgent. With that in mind, here is the long version:

As with most things outside of mathematics, music is open to much interpretation. It will mean different things to different listeners, and any reviewer is in danger of being misinterpreted if he does not take great care. With this in mind, I have devised the following tracking system to quantify my overall enjoyment of an album:

9.6 – 10 – Classic/Perfect. There are very few albums that deserve being rated in this territory, which is reserved for one of two things. A Classic or a Perfect album is either mind-blowingly groundbreaking, amazing, influential, and timeless; or the album is sheer musical perfection, a complete piece of work that has no discernible flaws and provides an exemplar of a genre. These records are timeless classics that have stood the test of time, or that match up favorably against such classics. A classic record is highly recommended to any fan of music, including even listeners who do not normally consider giving the album’s genre a chance. Think “The Wall”, “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son”, “Night of the Stormrider”, “Reign In Blood”, and similarly regarded works.

8.5 – 9.5 – Great. The albums given these ratings are all top-notch, and stand head and shoulders above other examples of the respective genres. These records are certain to be enjoyable, and might be trend-setters in their own right. An album rated within this territory is highly recommended to anyone with even a slight degree of interest in the genre, and may find its way onto many Album of the Year lists.

7.5 – 8.5 – Good. Solid and enjoyable are the key words here. While the albums rated in this category might have some minor flaws or opportunities for improvement, they are generally consistent in quality and deliver good value for your time. Fans of the genre will not be disappointed, although others may find less to enjoy.

6.0 – 7.5 – Competent. These are the releases that are competently played and written, but perhaps lack that special something to make them truly memorable, or to separate them from the crowd. The albums ranked in this category are usually well played and recorded, and might have several standout songs, but do not have the staying power, or contain flaws that are difficult to overlook.

5.0 – 6.0 – Mediocre. A record ranked between 5 and 6 does not have much going for it. While not necessarily bad, it lacks the spark that would warrant further investigation. More often than not, these records suffer from several flaws in either playing, writing, or composition.

3.0 – 5.0 – Bad. These albums have serious flaws that prevent an enjoyable listening experience. Usually this means uninspired and derivative material, or serious problems with performance. The albums ranked in this category range from deeply flawed to downright unlistenable.

0.1 – 3.0 – Terrible. There is no way around it – these records are a chore to listen to, and have very few redeeming qualities. I would usually give a band at least few points for having determination to write and finish an album, but anything ranked in this category should be avoided as much as possible.

0 – An Insult to Music. Just like there are rare unsurpassed classics, there are also rare albums that are so bad, so utterly horrid and devoid of any merit, so impossibly atrocious, that no numerical grading can do them justice. Should I encounter any such sonic abominations, they will be given a score of zero and marked for posterity as truly some of the worst sonic atrocities ever made.

You may note that I have deliberately made the boundaries between the categories ambiguous, and the categories themselves are merely a guideline. The albums that receive a score on the border of two categories tend to fall in that sweet spot in between the categories – for example, an album rated at 8.5 would range between good and great, while an album rated at 8.0 would be squarely within a good territory. Generally, anything rated at 7.5 or above indicates an overall positive opinion.

As a musician myself, I enjoy seeing reviews indicating that the reviewer spent his or her time actually listening to the album, and took time to write a thoughtful review, even if the review is unfavorable. Therefore, I shall endeavor to extend the same courtesy to all bands I review for this blog, or for any other site. More often than not, the people making those records are little different from yours truly, and have put their blood, sweat, and tears into their music. As such, my reviews might be on a longer side, however, I shall try to provide reasonable amounts of detail and critique – both for the readers who might wonder what the album sounds like, and for the musicians who labored to create the album. I will do my best to treat the artists with respect, even if the review is unfavorable.

Bear with me, almost done here.

I will generally not review music in the genres I am not familiar with, or do not enjoy. As such, there will be no reviews of rap/hip-hop, country, radio pop, and several other genres that are not my cup of tea. My taste in music tends to favor melodic metal, including traditional and power metal, melodic death and black metal, and various other genres. That said, I enjoy other types of rock and metal, perhaps with the exception of certain types of gore metal and brutal death metal, so chances are, my reviews will run the gamut of styles.

I will never judge an album on the basis of its genre, but only on the album’s merits within that genre. After all, there are great radio rock albums, and horrible melodic metal releases. Of course, all of that is subjective, and an album’s rating will reflect how enjoyable it is to me. Your mileage may vary. 

As this blog is entirely non-commercial and exists to share my thoughts and writing with the world, I make one final promise – to be honest with my reviews. I will not give an album a good review solely because it is released on a major label, or because I am friends with the band members. I make no promises as to which reviews will be posted, and which will not, but if asked to review an album, I will generally try to post new reviews relatively quickly.

So there! Lengthy post concluded, on to writing about actual music!

Lascaille’s Shroud – “Leaving Earth Behind” EP review

Image

Lascaille’s Shroud

“Leaving Earth Behind”

Independent, 2012

Rating: 9.5/10

Music can be many things to different people. To some, it is a form of entertainment; to others, a type of communication. Some may treat it as art, abstract and yet conveying some of creator’s passion and worldview to intended audience. To others it is a constant companion following side-by-side in all of our trials, triumphs, tribulations, and moments of contemplation.

Whatever one’s personal stylistic preference might be, there is no denying the impact of music on our lives. And yet it is very uncommon that a work comes about that aims for all of these disparate goals and successfully achieves them. Lascaille’s Shroud’s “Leaving Earth Behind” is that uncommon work that merges mood, atmosphere, story, and technical proficiency into spectacular soundscape that greatly magnifies the sum of its parts.

On the very basic level, this one-man project plays progressive death metal, however, this description is far too simplistic to describe the music, and does not do the material justice. Where many of that genre’s luminaries create masterpieces of technical precision and dexterous playing, Lascaille’s Shroud eschews much of over-the-top complexity, unusual time signatures, and shred playing in favor of creating a spacey, atmospheric feeling that permeates every moment of this forty-plus minute release. Instead, “Leaving Earth Behind” sounds like a transcendent science fiction offspring of Opeth’s penchant for writing lengthy songs, Dimmu Borgir’s sense of keyboard orchestration, and Bal-Sagoth’s addiction to writing epic concepts to go with the music.

There are moments where instrumentation steps up to remind the listener that Brett Windnagle, the man behind the project, is indeed a highly proficient player – but those moments never feel forced, and actually enhance the music instead of serving to show off the playing skill. More often than not, Lascaille’s Shroud relies on ambient passages that never feel forced, but instead create lush yet melancholic soundscapes through judicious use of very prominent keyboards. The vocals are primarily death and black metal growls and shrieks, however, they rarely take the spotlight, serving to enhance the music instead of being the focal point.

“Leaving Earth Behind” is built around a trio of conceptual tracks centered around a suitably epic science fiction storyline. While many conceptual efforts fall short due to forcing the music to conform to a story, in this case the results are truly synergic in nature. The music and the story feed off each other, presenting the listener with a cohesive whole that must be experienced rather than merely listened to. At times the album sounds like a soundtrack to a movie of monumental proportions, however, it never cheapens the impact. While this high-brow concept may turn off casual listeners, or may even invite accusations of pretentiousness, the truth of the matter is that Lascaille’s Shroud succeeds in accomplishing a lofty, ambitious objective, and creates a highly remarkable composition that serves as a teaser for the upcoming full-length album, which will reprise the story and fill it with additional songs.

This is the music for long drives through the mountains in the dark, with distant lights and partially obscured constellations as one’s only companions. This is the record for those of us who enjoy being challenged with provocative works of fiction, for those who would lose themselves in existentialist contemplation brought forth by art and literature. This is the celebration of music as art in its purest, most honest form, and the beginning of a journey that takes the listener into places where only imagination and creativity rule unbound. This is Lascaille’s Shroud.

 

NOTE: This review is cross-posted on Metal Archives (http://www.metal-archives.com/reviews/Lascaille%27s_Shroud/Leaving_Earth_Behind/358140/midgardmetal).

Some exciting news

While professional publication of one of my novels or short stories might still be in the works (as in, I am working towards that lofty goal), here is something for those of you who:

A) might have a slight interest in my writing output

B) enjoy music (mostly of heavy metal variety)

I have joined the staff of Power Metal USA, a music review (and then some) site focusing on American bands in the power metal genre. My first two reviews for Judicator’s and Vacant Throne’s new releases are up on the site – check them out!

Enjoy:

Power Metal USA

On a side note, I love music in all its aspects – listening to it, playing it, writing it, and, not in the least, writing about it. As my taste in music tends to be fairly broad, I tend to write reviews that may not always be suitable to any given review site focusing on more defined genres. So, after giving it some consideration, I have decided to post some of my reviews here on this blog.

Now, this will not turn it into a music review site, and I will only post those reviews which are not written to be exclusive to another site. That said, I am looking forward to an opportunity to share my thoughts on music releases both old and new, and to hopefully provide all of you fine folks with some amusement (and reading materials). Expect some more content very, very soon!