We are in an era of radical change in areas that range from the social, the political and the area most relevant to this particular piece of writing, the musical. We are seeing well-established bands starting to make music that is well outside of their previous comfort zone as well as their fan’s comfort zones. However, there are those who, instead of throwing everything out of the window and starting from the bottom, are simply interested in adding new layers and expanding upon established ideas or improving in areas that were lacking in one way or another.
For these bands, it’s about adding new shades to accent the older colors. The change does not always have to be radical to be appreciated, but for some bands, it seems that even the smallest of alterations in sound is earth-shattering for listeners in both negative and positive ways. One such band is Veil of Maya, who decided that adding clean vocals to their notoriously heavy sound was something that had to happen for the band to move forward. In this moving forward, they have produced their fifth album, Matriarch. Did their decision help or hinder the progress they have attained four records into their career? The answer to this question lies beyond a simple “yes” or “no.”
When And So I Watch You From Afar released their third album All Hail Bright Futures a couple of years ago, it was a dramatic musical shift that brought along with it the usual and expected amount of conflict among the band’s fanbase. In one camp were the people who saw the album’s unapologetically bright, peppy, and sugary melodies and themes as a surprising and welcome change from the usual fare of doom and gloom often present in both metal and instrumental rock/metal. All Hail Bright Futures wasn’t afraid to be in-your-face levels of gleeful, employing bouncy rhythms, chanting, and instruments not normally found in such music (flute and melodica, anyone?).
It was an approach executed so well though that it was very difficult to not be entranced by it even in spite of some things the band lost in their prior work in the process. Those in the second camp, however, mourned the loss of the more aggressive and technically-focused edge of the band’s prior releases, and criticized the album as too simplified and poppy. All Hail Bright Futures certainly left the band bigger than ever, but the question leading up to their follow-up to that, Heirs, was if they would build upon that success by doubling down on that formula, returning back to their musical roots, or by flipping the script again and doing something completely different once more. Heirs suggests that the band have decided to do all three at once, and the result is a very good album that mostly succeeds in threading the needle of past, current, and future.
Careers. We use that word liberally when addressing a band’s back-catalog or their future prospects. And why shouldn’t we? The progress of a band definitely bears both the intention and the longevity of careers as well as the slow accumulation of skill and momentum. However, there’s a key difference in how we relate to the work of a band and a career: not every moment in a career is expected to be earth shattering, a leap of genius or extraordinary performance. But albums are always weighed against the band at their utmost best, expected to exceed, innovate and elevate the band’s earlier work.
Should we not then assign the same outlook we do to careers to music as well? Enter Leprous. With two incredibly innovative, skilled and magisterial masterpieces under their belt, the band turn their eyes to a fifth album. What do we expect from this release? Are we once again anticipating the amazing shift from Bilateral to Coal, a shift that produced one of the most emotional and intense albums around? If we were, we are disappointed. But if we take into account that not every single point in a band’s career needs to be seminal, we will discover an evocative, compelling album that further establishes Leprous as one of the powers-that-be in progressive metal today.
Managing expectations when you come to review an album is critical. On the one hand, one needs to be familiar with the history and context of the band, in order to better understand departures from established styles or continuity. On the other hand, each album deserves consideration on its own merits and to be judged fairly, free of prejudice. Thus, the approach to Kamelot‘s Haven was rife with questions: can a band who has stuck with their iconic sound for years now produce something original? Will the new album be a good creation in and of itself or will it just be a nod towards the past? The answer to both those questions was yes and no, making this review all that harder to write. But write it we did.
With nearly 20 years of songwriting under their collective belts, Nightwish have transformed from an operatic symphonic power metal act to something in between that and a full-fledged symphonic folk metal band. That isn’t to say this band is the same as a traditional folk metal band, like Korpiklaani or Eluveitie, but the folk influences are shining through more prominently than ever. Though subtle, the transition from 1997’s Angels Fall First to this year’s album have come so progressively that longtime listeners would never notice such a stark contrast unless they listened to the discography bookends back to back.
With Endless Forms Most Beautiful, it seems Nightwish have their most ambitious album since 2004’s Once, an album that heavily introduced the orchestral sound that is associated with their music now. The first album as a sextet, officially welcoming vocalist Floor Jansen and multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley into the familial fold, Endless Forms Most Beautiful is something of a mixed bag, having combined the aggression that has always been present in the music, the soaring orchestration of the last decade, and the aforementioned folk influences that arrived not long after.
While retaining the listener’s interest is a prominent challenge throughout doom metal’s subgenres, this burden is much heavier for funeral doom. Whereas more traditional doom subgenres contain (relatively) shorter songs with more facets and drone doom can lean on trance-inducement as a crutch, funeral doom contains a risky combination of extended compositions with limited variation. There are, of course, a number of excellent bands in this subgenre, such as Esoteric, Evoken and Thergothon, all of whom furnish their songwriting with more than enough detail and efficient pacing in order to awe the listener without boring them. Oregon based Maestus certainly flirt with the compositional skills of their influences on their sophomore effort Voir Dire, but they stumble when it comes to structuring a cohesive and engaging album.
Japan is home to a lot of interesting bands, and Sigh are probably the most well-established act among the country’s many quirky acts. They’ve been around since the late 80s, and they’ve consistently put out quality music, starting out as black metal then over time transitioning into top notch avant-garde metal. Graveward is their tenth studio album, and it has tough shoes to fill. The band’s previous five albums are considered hallmarks of the genre after all. Unfortunately, while Graveward is a fascinating experiment and a good album, it doesn’t exactly hit the extremely high target Sigh have set with their previous records.
Mathcore has one of the most glaring misnomers in modern music’s arbitrary and unhelpful genre game. Sure, there may be great degree of compositional analytics required in order to real the gnashing aural beast into a presentable exhibit. But from a strictly sonic perspective, there is not a single element of the genre that feels remotely calculated, as every raucous moment of a mathcore album batters the listener like an unsolvable problem rather than a manageable problem set. Minnesota natives The Crinn exhibit a clear drive to epitomize this on their latest record Shadow Breather, an album that places them handily within mathcore’s pantheon and presents one of the most jarring genre offerings in recent memory.
Re-working your own art is a daunting proposition. Looking at things you created, be they songs, paintings, poems or any other piece that comes from your heart, presents you with a unique challenge: can you stare yourself in the eye and be different? Can you take something that is such a big part of you and then change it? Two years ago, Katatonia answered these questions with a resounding “yes”. Their album, Dethroned & Uncrowned, re-worked an already masterful album, Dead End Kings. The result was more than anyone could have imagined. A masterpiece in its own right, Dethroned & Uncrowned is an acoustic album for the ages.
But that represented a brief glimpse, a quick look at a specific chapter of the band’s history. Could they, however, apply the same approach to the rest of their career? This is what the band set out to do with their acoustic tour, taking to several beautiful locations in England and producing the album that sits before us, Sanctitude. Recorded at the Union Chapel and containing acoustic renditions of tracks both old and young, it represents a deep, introspective re-working of this band’s masterful career. And the result? The “yes” resounds ever clearer, echoing across the cathedral.
Atmospheric black metal and medieval gothic artwork have a lot more in common than one would expect. The whole aesthetic of both is determined by a strict set of guidelines that must be adhered to, and more often than not, art from both is indiscernible in quality to the untrained ear/eye. The quality of a piece is not dependent on how experimental the nature of a piece is, nor on how much it refuses to adhere to the set rules. Whether or not a piece of atmospheric black metal or gothic art is good is related to how well the artist works within the established guidelines- how much they manage to imbue their art with their personal touch, and how much they manage to create fresh pieces within an almost-constrictive set of rules.