Issue 2019-061: Prog Metal Special
Reviews in this issue:
Arctic Sleep - Kindred Spirits
Arctic Sleep began life as a duo back in 2005, releasing their first album in 2006 after recording it in a friend's basement. From the start, they have been aiming for emotion and atmosphere as evidenced by the 17-minute opening track on their debut. Now, 14 years later and Arctic Sleep functions chiefly as a solo project by Keith D. For this, the band's seventh album, Keith welcomes back drummer Nick Smalkowski and the 11 tracks feature guest appearances from vocalists Craig Cirinelli and Bridget Bellavia.
The album strikes me as quite an interesting one. The style weaves between the melodic prog of Devin Townsend, to some heavier riffs more akin to your typical doom metal, while also incorporating riffs and licks that wouldn't go amiss on more extreme types of metal. In particular, Maritime Delusion features an intro that you could almost expect on some black metal releases, while the opening track Meadows could easily have been a Townsend B-side. On the flip side, Connemara Moonset is more of a tribal instrumental to keep the listener guessing. It is a welcome break from the normal tone of this album, but it fits in well and helps the album stay unpredictable.
The most striking thing for me, however, is how these different styles are not at odds with each other. Maritime Delusion being a prime example of a melding of black, doom and melodic metal, all coming together to create something that is heavy, powerful, accessible and atmospheric.
According to the band's Facebook profile, they also like music from the likes of Candlemass, Obituary, Dream Theater, Pink Floyd and Midnight Oil (to name a few). This wide range of influences has resulted in what is a truly enjoyable album that kept me guessing and pleasantly surprised throughout.
If you have the kind of music taste that spans these genres, definitely have a listen. At the very least I think you'll certainly appreciate the intricacies of the album.
Carthagods - The Monster In Me
Carthagods emerged out of Tunisia in 1997, and remain the country' longest-serving metal band. Having rubbed shoulders with some of the greats such as Dark Tranquillity, and even had some support from the likes of Kiko Loureiro (Megadeth/ex-Angra) and Marcel Coenen (who has played with Ayreon) plus jam sessions with past and present members of numerous important bands in the worldwide metal scene. The Monster In Me is the band's second album, following their self-titled debut in 2015.
Initial thoughts of the album are that is has all the hallmarks of one of those bands that sits in the grey realm between power, prog and straight-up heavy metal. It is easy to see why they have played with Dark Tranquillity and opened for Blind Guardian on their Beyond The Red Mirror tour.
Powerful, gruff vocals from Mehdi Khema give the album an aggressive yet highly melodic edge; think Hansi Kursch but rougher and you'll get the idea. The music itself has an astounding range, from heavy and technical riffing, reminiscent of a more polished “Gothenburg Sound” of death metal, to more atmospheric and ballad-like power/prog styles.
The album itself doesn't break new ground in the heavy prog scene. Fast, technical riffs? Check. Blistering solos? Check. Soaring vocals? Check. Ballad halfway through the album? Check.
However it is superbly written and the sheer talent of the band and the immense presence of the vocals fire it straight up to one of my favourites releases this year.
I was genuinely surprised to find the album to be so good. Having found a new appreciation for this style of heavier power prog after watching Blind Guardian at Bloodstock Festival, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the album, (having to pause and go back at several points after finding myself air guitaring and drumming along and loosing track!). It is heavy, powerful, soulful, aggressive and just an all-round fantastic album.
If you like newer Dark Tranquillity, from the Construct album sort of style, or Blind Guardian and Ayreon, or even works by the likes of Seventh Wonder, you will probably fall in love with this album. I'd highly recommend it.
Rendezvous Point - Universal Chaos
The fans of Rendezvous Point have had to wait for four years for a follow-up to the successful debut album, Solar Storm, by this Norwegian quintet. Finally the wait is over.
The first time I heard about Rendezvous Point was in 2015 when they toured with Leprous. I had a chance to see them live in the Belgian city of Maasmechelen during that tour and their performance was flawless. I think the drummer Baard Kolstad and the guitarist Petter Hallaråker deserved extra applause for that night's work, as they also played with Leprous with a tip-top performance. For those who are not familiar with the band, Baard Kolstad is a permanent member of Leprous.
What I like the most about this new album is that there are more guitar solos than the debut. Not everyone likes guitar solos nowadays, but Petter Hallaråker is an extremely skilled guitarist and his solos take the songs to another level.
The band has equally enhanced the usage of all instruments in Universal Chaos, compared to their first album, and the singer Geirmund Hansen has made a great job with his unique voice once again. As a whole, the album is good, however, some of the songs are not very "easy-to-digest". There are not any bad songs, but some people may need more time to get used to the rhythmic structure of some of the tracks.
The band published two videos before releasing the album, for the songs Apollo and Universal Chaos. The album starts with their first video release Apollo. In terms of the structure and general flow of the song, it is a great opening for the album. It starts with a clean and ambient vibe, but the tension constantly increases throughout the song.
I think it is safe to say that Digital Waste is a typical Rendezvous Point song as it has some connection with the first album in terms of the atmosphere and composition. The song ends with a face-melting guitar solo.
The album continues with the title track, which starts with great drum and bass team play. The bass player Gunn-Hilde Erstar shines in this song. This is one of the most aggressive songs in the album. The vocals make the listener feel an insurrection, while the instruments carries the chaos. The song has a splendid keyboard solo followed by a guitar solo serving as an outro.
Pressure is very groovy, yet one of the hard-to-digest songs of the album. I have had similar feelings with some Leprous songs when I heard them for the first time. I would say this is caused by the extraordinary drum work and one needs to get used to it in order to enjoy it. It certainly is not for everyone, but amazing for those who like it.
The Fall starts with a gentle piano part and dreamy vocals. The soft atmosphere created by the piano and vocals are carried by complex bass parts. Although the song has a down-hearted feeling in general, it translates to anger later on with the help of a cleverly written keyboard solo by Nicolay Tangen Svennæs. The song ends with dark chords played by guitar and strings, which makes the listener feel "the fall".
The album keeps the slow pace with the song The Takedown. This song also has some connection with the band's previous album in terms of feeling, before Unfaithful changes the atmosphere with a more uptempo, simple, yet powerful vibe. The fusion flavour in the guitar solo displays the versatility of the composers.
The last two songs, Resurrection and Undefeated close the album in the best possible way. Both songs are carrying the dark atmosphere of the album but they are drawing a path to the end in a hopeful way.
In conclusion, Universal Chaos is a powerful, dark-themed album. It is a very good example of modern progressive rock/metal in terms of composition, instrumentation, and the performance of the musicians. Rendezvous Point has already found its unique style judging by the similarities between their two albums. Though the music industry and the behaviour of the audience forces the musicians and bands to place their most promising songs in the beginning of the album, Rendezvous Point have made an album keeping the attention of the listener until the end.
Scenariot - Worlds Within Worlds
We all have albums in our collections, where one is left thinking: "I wonder what would have happened if that band/artist had ever made another record?"
If you are happy to define "hit" as a record that you still reach for 15 years after its release, then the debut and sole album from Australian band WithoutEnd is definitely one of my one-hit-wonders. The self-titled debut from that Melbourne-based outfit (sometimes found under the moniker Without Ending) garnered many positive adjectives when I reviewed it for DPRP back in 2004 (review here). After which, contrary to the aspiration of their name, the band seemed to disappear without trace.
That was the case, until I received this album out of the blue. Scenariot is a progressive rock/metal band, also from Melbourne, Australia. Worlds Within Worlds is their second release, two years after their self-titled debut (available from their Bandcamp page here).
After a couple of spins, I noted more than a passing similarity between the sounds I remembered from WithoutEnd, and those presented some 15 years later by Scenariot. Further investigations revealed a name-in-common; that of chief song-writer Michael Totta.
Michael also plays guitars/keys, Dan Swan is on vocals and JP Glovasa on bass, with the recent addition of drummer Greg Stone.
Musically this sits between heavy prog and prog-metal-lite, bringing in influences from across the spectrums of alt-rock and melodic hard rock, with touches of jazz and electro adding extra flavours. This is a band not afraid to freeway between genres, with each track retaining a clear identity, with a catchy melody always at the centre. It is musically and artistically adventurous, yet all eight tracks are easy to enjoy.
Singer Dan Swan has a style and a tone that will not be to everyone's taste. I like it, but the parts that work best, are where he stays within a mid-range and a more conventional delivery style that he is comfortable with. At other times, he is clearly pushing towards his limits. A good example is Upsilon-7 where the main verse and chorus work perfectly but the bridge section (just before the four minute mark) and the distorted vocals at the end are less comfortable.
Favourite tracks are the hard-rocking Sea of Fire, the contrasting dynamics of This Hope and the galloping pace and wonderful hook of The Vortex. Mysterious Skies / Afterlife is probably the most complex of the tracks, with some clever changes of rhythm and lovely synth touches. A great way to close proceedings.
Overall this has been a great discovery. Those who enjoy albums that straddle the lines of heavy prog and prog metal, whilst retaining their ambition and variety, amidst a great blend of guitars and synths, should check out Worlds Within Worlds.
Seventh Son - Arc Of Infinity
Japan is a country well known for its history, sushi, silky smooth whiskies and, within our context, progressive rock by the likes of Vienna, Gerard and Ars Nova. And although some of the groups in the Japanese progressive field have gained some success overseas, the progressive metal export outside of Japan is relatively small. Apart from Loudness and Vow Wow, which are more metal anyway, other well known bands can probably be counted on one hand.
Which seems odd, for the amount of bands playing this style of music in Japan is almost infinite. Judas Priest's iconic live album Unleashed In The East, was one of the first showcases for the affection of the Japanese audiences towards melodic metal bands. The melodic rock / hair-metal and hard rock from the seventies and eighties, was also immensely popular in Japan, and spawned many bands in it's wake in Tokyo. With a population of almost 40 million people alone, the question then quickly arises how (talent aside) some of these bands can stand out of this immense crowd.
One way to achieve this, a merit mark on Seventh Son's account, is through the hard work and labour needed to gain the interest of a European label, enabling them to re-release this, their third album some three years after it's official Japanese release. The combination of attractive artwork and a press statement mentioning large Rush and Dream Theater influences, and a slight change of style, should then do the rest. The truth is however a slightly different matter.
When applied to this album, the press-references are largely exaggerated, and only hinted at occasionally. A more accurate description would be melodic progressive (power) metal with hints of Iron Maiden, Angra, Queensryche and hardrock in the vein of Y&T. The small pieces of evidence found on Youtube confirm this, showing a band playing with a NWOBHM approach. Whether this album is indeed different from their previous work remains to be seen.
The band was formed by Yasumoto Ohtani (guitars), Tai Syoda (drums) and Suzuki (bass) in 2000. With the addition of Yasuhiro Yamazaki (Yama in short) on vocals, they recorded an EP in 2008 (Judgement Bells) and released a debut album (Fates For Destination) in 2013. This third effort features guest keyboards by Yoshinori Kataoka and Takuo Kobayashi, and has Saeko Kitamae guesting on vocals on three tracks. Any further info, apart from what's to be found in the booklet is beyond me, for their website with .jp extension doesn't function and their Facebook account is largely in Japanese, which is not my forte as such.
In order for this type of music to work, the vocals need Bruce Dickinson chops, Rob Halford screams, Jeff Scott Soto's punch, Geoff Tate's delivery, paced gutsy blues chords like Dave Meniketti or a mixture thereof. And although vocalist Yama tries, and has a distinctive voice, he possesses only fractions of these elements, managing to yield a desperate Halloween resemblance at best. A aquired taste, which in combination to the linguistic strangeness and pronunciation of words (see video), will divide the crowd. I frequently asked myself what language he is singing in, as one can barely make out any structural English sentences.
In direct contrast to this, the musicality is competent and a point of strength, delivered with forceful bravery throughout the album.
Seventh Son tend to get to the matter at hand in short order, with In Your Heart. A soft intro with spoken female vocals ignites into Dream Theater flashes, blasting off into well known progressive territories. Behind Their Smile rocks indefinitely and the blasting keys are a delight, provoking thoughts of Queensrÿche and a heavier AOR-like Jester. By the time Silent Truth is finished, again steeped deep in early progressive Queensrÿche and Without Warning, hardrock takes more and more control.
Another strong point is the tight and solid rhythm section which is guided by the excellent guitar work of axe-slinger Ohtani, making the musical foundation one of solid steel filled with great riffs, powerful shredding solos and technical, intertwined melodies. A weak point is the originality of the music, which for the most part is minimal, although the compositions do have an appealing, natural flow.
Still, it's always better to be a good copy than a bad original, confidently shown in Blaze In The Dark and Children Of The Earth; both are quality carbon-copy interpretations of the Angra formula, reminiscent to Run To The Hills by Iron Maiden. The ballad Camellia oozes Y&T (Wind Of Change-era) with some great melancholic, spine chilling guitar work, while Eternal Spiral flashes by, packed with catchy, competent eighties hard rock.
Master is a fine ballad filled with emotive Metallica riffs, whilst the musical identity exposed in Fallen In Love addresses the playful, folkloric interplay of Angra, most effectively through virtuous drums. Here the sparse, accentuating vocals by Saeko Kitamae add another layer of depth.
With the epic closer In My Heart we finally get some proof of Dream Theater complexities, moulded within a Rush environment (Permanent Waves-period) complete with supportive keys, acoustic guitars, piano, a slow build up and a forceful middle section. Regrettably organ is barely audible in the mix but touches of La Villa Strangiato (Rush) flying by, instantly make you forget. It erupts into a superb shredding solo by Ohtani to be concluded by Saeko Kitamae, delivering the best vocal display on the album, eventually harmonising with Yama. The outro finally takes the album full circle, fading gently into the intro sounds of In Your Heart.
This first encounter to a Japanese prog metal band turned out to be a nice trip down memory lane. Decent tracks, good interplay and a strong sense of melody is to be found, with a direct likeability attached to them. In My Heart is the all-encompassing opulent track, and if they can keep up that level of compositional skill, musicality and expertise, my bet is we haven't heard the last of them yet.
The first step in enrichment of their sound has been taken by the recent steady acquisition of Takuo Kobayashi on keys. The question remains though whether the vocals by Yama will gain them success. More harmonics, preferably with Saeko Kitamae, can aid in masking his shortcomings. For now let's see where it takes them, for the music is sufficiently enjoyable, with lots to admire if you like old fashioned progressive metal with a hard rock vibe.
Teramaze - Are We Soldiers
It has been many, many years since a prog metal release has grabbed me by the unmentionables, and squeezed and spun me around by them in the way that Teramaze's Are We Soldiers has done over the last few weeks. The last time was way back in late 1998 when Threshold exposed the world to their classic Clone album. As Threshold's Karl Groom filled the dual roll of guitarist and producer, Teramaze's Dean Wells fills the same rolls within Teramaze.
Teramaze first came to my attention when I kept reading glowing reviews of their previous 2014 release Her Halo. When I managed to get hold of a copy, it was clear such reviews were well deserved. This cemented Teramaze as one of the recent new breed of prog-related bands originating from Australia, along with the likes of Karnivool and Caligula's Horse.
When the opportunity to review Are We Soldiers presented itself, I jumped at the chance. After playing the disc, the quality far exceeds any preconceived expectations I had before listening. Are We Soldiers is just oozing quality, bleeding melody, dripping passion and pounding with power. A hazard warning should be attached to the cover, making anyone who dares to put this disc into their CD player aware they may never take it out. Yes, Teramaze have unleashed a classic upon the unsuspecting masses.
With Are We Soldiers, Teramaze have taken the best of the original technical metal bands of the 80s and 90s, the most obvious comparisons being Queensryche and Iron Maiden. Dabbled with the melodious symphonic metal sounds of bands the late 90s and 00s, such as Nightwish and Within Temptation. Added a pinch of the modern djent sound with touches of Tesseract. Finally they have mixed in the pop rock sensibilities of Muse.
The album itself carries a message, again similar to the aforementioned Clone album, so Are We Soldiers could be loosely considered a concept album. If you regularly read my reviews, you will know I love a good concept album. The theme appears to be taking a look at the current world situation and adding an Orwellian twist.
Fight Or Flight opens the album with lavish keyboards, before the guitars kick in with a riff similar to early John Petrucci. Singer Brett Rerekura announces his return to the band in suitably majestic fashion. His voice helps the music feel fresh and modern with his clear annunciation and by refraining from being over dramatic or pushing his voice beyond its limits.
The title track lets Dean Wells produce an absolute storming guitar solo that begins slowly and gradually builds into a frenetic conclusion, but all the time maintaining wonderful melody and tone. The track ends with drummer Nick Ross demonstrating double bass drumming that would not go amiss in Dragonforce.
Teramaze are not just metal. Control Conquer Collide goes through many tempo changes, one moment a lush ballad, the next full pomp chorus, the next entering full prog mode with guitar and keys taking turns in trying to outdo each other.
From Saviour To Assassin opens with one of those, once heard it you can't unhear it, moments. The opening few notes immediately made me think of Scarborough Fair. It may be a coincidence that Queensryche covered this track, but the next song on the album is possibly the best song Queensryche never wrote and would not have been out of place on the Empire album. Orwellian Times features the catchiest chorus I have heard this year. This is helped with some well thought out backing vocals.
Even though the album's concept could appear dark, it holds a positive message. Like all of the best concept albums, Are We Soldiers ends with an epic track, Depopulate. Weighing in at well over ten minutes, the song goes through many phases and ends with an uplifting singalong section to close proceedings in suitably majestic fashion. After nearly 70 minutes it left me breathless, and as a result, the repeat button has nearly worn itself out.
Brilliant. I can't recommend this highly enough. I have therefore awarded this album my first 10. Even though I am new to this reviewing job, I imagined it would be some time before I gave a maximum, but thanks to Teramaze it has not taken that long. So, sign up, for we ARE soldiers.