Saturday, April 4, 2015

Ancient Rites - Laguz

Ancient Rites has had a long and illustrious career spanning more than two decades. Starting out as a black metal band with really early material bordering on Celtic Frost worship they seem to be overlooked when it comes to early black metal, and that's a shame because they were doing it right around the second wave was in full bloom. The future would hold something quite different for these Belgians as they went into a more epic viking metal direction starting with 1998's Fatherland and peaking with 2001's Dim Carcosa. It's been almost a decade since their last album, Rubicon, has graced our ears and finally we have their newest opus, Laguz, and man was it worth the wait.

Sometimes, you never know what you are going to get when there is such a long time between releases. It could either be really good or really bad. In the case of Ancient Rites, the result is an excellent epic metal album that picks up where the last album left off without it ever feeling like there was a nine year lull in hearing from this band. The band's consistency is due to the one constant in the band, bassist/vocalist Gunther Theys. It shows that his influence in the songwriting is all over this album. After an instrumental into we have "Carthago Legenda Est." This song is proof that, once again, we will get another history lesson from this band as this song is about the Punic wars that waged for over one hundred years in the third/second century B.C. As one would expect with this kind of lyrical content that this would be another killer epic from this band. The song is brilliant in it's epic feel as the orchestrations are real. The musician ship is just top notch here. The orchestrations are prominent but the riffs and the blast beats drive this song. Gunther's vocals are a cross between a black metal rasp and an almost narrative tone. He's telling a story set to music. The melodies in this song are quite infectious and culminate with a nice solo at the midway point in the song.

These guys also prove that you don't always have to write eight or nine minute songs to be epic as fuck. Most of the songs on this album straddle the five minute mark but seem to pack so many elements into these songs. Each one tells it's own story but the music stays within that epic theme. "Under the Sign of Laguz" brings us back to the viking age with killer blasts, serious tremolo riffs, and bombastic orchestrations. There's a lot of metal out there labeled as symphonic metal but, in my opinion, this is the epitome of symphonic metal. Less than five and a half minutes long, this song takes you on a musical journey through the ancient north lands and ancient Nordic mythology with Gunther's signature way of "narrating" the story that this song tells. It is at this point that it hits me that even the band's name matches their music. "Apostata" starts off with an almost eastern feel in the orchestrations then kicks in with the heavy guitars and some killer eastern feeling lead riffs driving the song along with the bombastic orchestrations. This is the longest song on the album and is just epic from beginning to end. There are so many elements to this song that a proper description would be pointless, let alone impossible.

"Umbru Sumus" is another song that needs mention here shut due to it's sheer brilliance. From the opening riffs you get the feeling that this song is something special. It opens with some serious tremolos and blasts but transitions to be so much more. As with every song on this album, the orchestrations are there and this song adds another layer with some prominent piano involved. This is one of those songs that just defines this band and their own special brand of epic metal that only these guys can do. This song is heavy, melodic, bombastic without being pompous or pretentious. It leads right into the last proper song on the album, "Frankenland." This song is less than four and a half minutes but seems to pack just as much bombastic epic metal as the longer songs. This song has that special something that makes it one of those songs that gives me chills while it is playing. Gunther's narrative giving us another history lesson is part of the magic that is Ancient Rites. A brief narrative over piano and acoustic guitars rounds out the album with a short song, "Fatum." It's the perfect way to end a perfect album.

Once again, this band has not let me down. There is no song on this album that is out of place or drags this album down. Each song flows to the next with precision and sheer brilliance. Hey, how can you go wrong with an album that has a photo of the original Sutton Hoo helmet as it's cover art? If you are a fan of this band and have been wondering where they've been for the last nine years, this is your answer. Does it take nine years to create perfection? Maybe it does because this album is just that, perfect.


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Nightwish - Endless Forms Most Beautiful

Well here we have the return of Nightwish with their newest vocalist, Floor Jansen, best known for her vocals in the symphonic power metal band After Forever. Now I know that this band is basically under the dictatorship of eye liner wearing Tuomas Holopainen; who I will henceforward call Uncle Scrooge since he made a symphonic rock album called The Life and Times of Scrooge that had a picture of Scrooge McDuck on it; so I did not have high hopes for this album. I mean, Uncle Scrooge? Seriously? But I did have higher hopes for the performance of Floor Jansen. Her work with After Forever was nothing short of brilliant so maybe we would have the return of operatic vocals in Nightwish....

....or not! Now, this album is actually not as bad as I thought it would be. I truly thought that Uncle Scrooge would continue on the road of lifeless, riffless goth metal. It's no Oceanborn but it really is not as bad as the two last turds produced under the Nightwish banner. Is it worth the circle-jerk it's receiving? Absolutely not and I'll tell you why. Because Scrooge McFuck and his dictatorship decided on Floor Jansen's sound instead of allowing her to use her full potential. Do we see a pattern forming here? He did the same thing to Tarja staring with Century Child. She's a thousand times better than Anette Olson, who I just recently found out could sing better than Scrooge "allowed" her to. This reminds me of Gene Simmons humming lead guitar solos to Vinnie Vincent because they did not want anyone to take the spotlight off of Gene and Paul. Floor is better than this, much better than this. "Shudder Before the Beautiful" is the opener and a rather good epic metal song. It's got good hooks, a nice chorus, and a bad ass solo. But Floor sounds like she's holding back. Again, where's the operatic vocals that she is capable of? That would have sent this song over the top to make this a true return to form. I'm sorta pissed by this point.

Like I said, a few of the the songs appear to have much more meat to them than anything on the two previous albums. "Weak Fantasy" is another good song with some crunchy guitars and a nice acoustic section during the verse but Floor is sounding like a fucking rock singer you'd hear on the radio rather than being part of a band that once had the voice of Tarja Turunen. Hel, she sounds more like Lita Ford in places than herself on this song. It does not make sense to me. She hits some cool notes here and there but other than that, it's nothing special. Then you have the single, "Elan" which is a snoozefest from beginning to end.  It's not one of their better songs and Floor sounds like she is phoning it in. Again, I heard this voice do much better. If you have a voice like this in your band, why the fuck would you hold her back? Ahhhh, that's right, the keyboard player is the leader. Who pays attention to the keyboard player, unless he wears eyeliner? I could be drawing conclusions here but anyone that dictatorial in a band down to the point where he actually dictates the vocalist's sound must be seriously questioning their own importance in this band.

I must mention the song "Alpenglow" since it could be one of the best songs Nightwish has made in over a decade. It's riffy and catchy with some serious hooks. Uncle McFuck is almost making her whisper on this one but that only takes a little from this song. I can only imagine how powerful this song would have been if Floor were allowed to...well allowed to actually be Floor! To listen to this you would almost not recognize her as the same person who sang "Monoliths of Doubt." I just don't understand it. Musically this is the best album Nightwish has written in years but with the lackluster vocal performance, by an artist I know can do better, just makes it obvious that she was reigned in by design and that just lets out all the air I had in my tires for this album. What a shame because this could actually have been the comeback of the year. Nice going Uncle Scrooge. Which leaves us with the elephant in the room, the twenty four minute closer, "The Greatest Show on Earth." There's maybe nine to ten minutes of this song that is actually worth anything and Floor actually gets to belt some shit out. Nine minutes out of twenty four minutes that actually do anything. It actually does almost nothing for the first six and the last seven fucking minutes of the song!

Wow, just wow. If only the person dictating what goes on in this band had an actual clue. This album could have been so good if Toumas would have just stuck with the songwriting that made them great. He almost did it in some places here but you do not put the brakes on the best vocalist you've had in this band in over a decade. If you have Floor Jansen singing in your band don't fucking hold her back! What the fuck was he thinking? And you do not put a twenty four minute song on your album that has less than ten minutes of anything remotely musical. I don't want to hear five minutes of narration. I'll get an audio book for that. This is the best they've done since they booted Tarja, but unfortunately that's not saying much. Don't be fooled by the hype, it's nowhere near as good as it could have been.