Fleshgod Apocalypse – King

Nuclear Blast, 2016

I was initially sceptical about the idea of mixing death metal with classical music, but Italy’s Fleshgod Apocalypse have made a damn good job of making it work. Now onto their fourth album, they’ve carved out a niche for themselves by successfully blending the drama of their homeland’s opera and baroque music styles with the crushing and complex brutality of technical death metal. They’re on the cusp of crossing over to the metal mainstream and, thankfully, King is a strong enough album to make this a reality.

A concept album about an ageing ruler trying to maintain order and integrity despite the negative influences of various figures in his court, King is presented like an opera, with 4 different vocalists delivering a mix of death grunts, clean male vocals, operatic soprano female vocals and spoken word passages against a diverse sonic background. Anyone already familiar with Fleshgod Apocalypse will know that they are not a band to do things by halves. The mix of symphonic and death metal elements works well because neither aspect diminishes nor compromises the other; this album is just as heavy as it is orchestral. This is a band that clearly has a larger affinity for and knowledge of baroque, romantic and classical music styles than many so-called “symphonic metal” bands. The music on King doesn’t merely consist of sticking a few synth sounds in to back up the guitars; there’s piano, harpsichord and dramatic string flourishes that make it sound like you’re actually in a king’s court in the 18th century!

Highlights in the album’s first half include “The Fool” and “Cold as Perfection”. Classical elements are prominent on “The Fool” with drums and guitars playing catch-up to lightning-fast violins and harpsichord, and is a prime example of how well Fleshgod Apocalypse blend clean and harsh vocals, with Paolo Rossi and Tommaso Riccardi duetting with devastating effect. Lead single “Cold as Perfection” is perhaps the album’s high point. A mid-paced doom-laden number, with a star turn by guest soprano singer Veronica Bordacchini, its ferocity is not diminished by its slower tempo, and it defiantly shows that the humble piano has a place in extreme metal; providing a brooding atmosphere to a highly technical degree, keyboardist Francesco Ferrini plays in a way that might convince other death metal bands to recruit a piano player too!

In the second half, we have “And the Vulture Beholds”, a relentlessly intense track that is also one of the more technical and emotive pieces on the album; top-drawer musicianship from everyone here. And the penultimate track “Syphilis” is where the operatic aspects are most evident; with another great performance from Bordacchini, this track is dramatically and apocalyptically climactic, with every member again on top form.

Some fans will no doubt have reservations about this album though. While King is overall an engaging listen, it is not quite as technical as some of Fleshgod Apocalypse’s earlier work; on most tracks, technicality takes a backseat, as creating the right atmosphere to fit the concept seems to be the priority. There’s also a distinct lack of symphonic elements on some tracks, such as “Mitra”, which will displease some. Then again, this is counteracted by the two pieces of pure chamber music: “Paramour” (an interlude at the album’s midpoint) and “King” (which serves as a coda at the end of the album). While I think these simple pieces maintain the rest of the album’s drama and intensity (there’s no denying they show off the high calibre of Bordacchini and Ferrini’s respective talents), I can imagine some people feeling irked that a death metal album would dare to contain tracks featuring no metal elements whatsoever.

In a year that’s already provided its share of great metal concept albums (such as Avantasia’s Ghostlights and Dream Theater’s The Astonishing), King sits nicely alongside them, even though it might not quite satisfy all fans of Fleshgod Apocalypse’s earlier work. If technical, brutal death metal is your thing, you’ll probably prefer some of the band’s earlier albums. But if you’ve ever wondered what kind of music Vivaldi or Mozart would make if they had metal in their day, then look no further. King is an idiosyncratic blend of classical music and extreme metal that should hopefully attract many new fans. Fleshgod Apocalypse have shown that they have great ambition; wider acclaim and prominence surely awaits them.

Verdict: 8/10

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Dream Theater, The London Palladium, 19/02/16

Ushers with waistcoats and bow-ties telling people to put their cameras away, pictures of Bradley Walsh on the walls, champagne popsicles on sale in the foyer, and little pairs of binoculars to see the stage better. Suffice to say, the legendary Palladium theatre in London’s West End is not your typical metal concert venue. Then again, Dream Theater has never been your typical metal band.

Such a special venue is required in order to reflect the ambition of what Dream Theater are attempting here. New album The Astonishing is their most ambitious project ever and trying to perform its 34 tracks, lasting 130 minutes, live in their entirety is no small undertaking. The album has divided opinion and most people here tonight would have bought their tickets before they’d heard it, so there is certainly a sense of scepticism in the air. So, has the band bitten off more than they can chew?

Well first of all, this is a very visual show, with banners on stage depicting the flags of the “Great Northern Empire of the Americas” and the “Ravenskill Rebel Militia” (the two opposing sides featured in the dystopian sci-fi tale) and large screens depicting the story throughout. Similar to when they toured their previous concept album, Metropolis Part 2: Scenes from a Memory, these animated sequences are invaluable in helping fans decipher and follow the story, and thus people who had not quite been able to “get” the complex album just by listening to it will hopefully understand it a bit better now. Being such a highly conceptual project, the story and music go hand in hand, and so this live setting is the perfect way to fully appreciate it.

Another great contributing factor to tonight’s success is the Palladium’s brilliant acoustics; this is not the first time that this 100 year-old hall has had to withstand such loud volumes. From the opening discordant sounds of the NOMACS (the flying robots who create electronic music in the story, and who look truly imposing on the 20ft high screens) to the closing triumphant crescendo of the album’s title track, every note is loud and powerful, yet clear. A criticism some have levelled at The Astonishing is the dominance of keyboards and acoustic instrumentation at the expense of guitars and drums, but this is much less of a concern in this live setting. Every band member is firing on all cylinders, with the live mix being much more balanced than what you can hear on record; guitarist John Petrucci and drummer Mike Mangini are not happy to just sit back and play a minor role, so their presence is strongly felt. Essentially, any of the fans in attendance who didn’t think The Astonishing was a heavy enough album should be more satisfied with its live interpretation.

I do have some small points of criticism to make though. Dream Theater, as expected, have clearly rehearsed the music to death and I can’t fault their performance from a technical standpoint whatsoever. I was particularly impressed with James LaBrie’s vocal performance, as it was hard enough singing all the different characters’ voices on record, so the fact he managed to replicate it all live without his voice faltering is, well, astonishing; he showed a level of vocal stamina many singers half his age would envy. However, while Dream Theater are arguably the most preeminent live rock musicians of their generation, they are not the most theatrical or animated live act. Put bluntly, as good as the music sounds and as effective as the screens and banners are, Dream Theater’s performance of The Astonishing does not rival Pink Floyd’s The Wall or Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway in terms of prog rock theatricality.

Maybe this is just because it’s only the second night of the tour; perhaps they’re concentrating on playing the music correctly for now and will add more elements to the stage show later? Or maybe the budget’s not high enough to do anything else? If it was up to me though, there’d be a lot more going on onstage; sets, props, actors to play the different characters, pyrotechnics, and costumes for Johns Petrucci and Myung to break the monotony of their usual “any colour so long as its black” stage attire. Hopefully, they’ll add some of these elements if they tour the album again in future, or maybe I’d just be better off going to see KISS or Rammstein live instead…

In summary, any concerns that Dream Theater would be unable to play The Astonishing live have been firmly put to bed by this performance; quite simply, the album sounds better live than on record, and the visual aids on stage and screen do a decent job of telling the story. It’s perhaps not quite as theatrical a performance as some people (i.e. me) would have preferred, but that’s not why people go to see Dream Theater live anyway. These are thoroughly professional live musicians at the top of their game and anyone who was previously unsold on The Astonishing as an album should now hopefully realise what a triumph it is.

Verdict: 9/10

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Myrath – Legacy

Verycords, 2016

Metal fans have long known that our music has the power to transcend all cultural boundaries; headbangers come in all shapes and sizes, from all corners of the globe. It’s only in the last 10 years or so though, with the advent of social media, YouTube, etc., that we’ve fully been able to sample all of metal’s international flavours. Many bands from Asia and Africa, who previously might not have had the support of strong local scenes, have been able to make a name for themselves on the international stage, introducing fresh elements to tired and clichéd styles. And few bands have done this as effectively as Tunisia’s Myrath.

Their fourth album, Legacy is their first release for 5 years and is clearly, as a result, an intense labour of love. Essentially a self-titled album (Myrath means “legacy” in Arabic), this is a strong statement of intent, neatly encapsulating their signature sound and serving as a good introductory album for the uninitiated. Myrath call their sound “Oriental Metal” and if I was to sum it up (albeit crudely and simplistically), I’d describe it as various elements of prog, folk and power metal mixed with the Lawrence of Arabia soundtrack. Replacing European folk melodies and fantasy themes with Arabian phrases and more introspective, philosophical lyrics gives this genre of music a much needed kick up the arse.

Luckily Myrath have the technical and compositional chops to do their interesting style justice. Instrumental opener “Jasmin” immediately transports you to a marketplace in the first Assassin’s Creed game, with terrific tension built by frantic tribal drumming, strings, chants and whistles. This spills over into second track “Believer”, which is full of densely layered Arabic melodies, pummelling rhythms and soaring, impassioned tenor vocals courtesy of frontman Zaher Zorgati.

Drummer Morgan Berthet makes his Myrath debut on Legacy and he is not at all shy about making his presence known. His polyrhythmic, eastern-influenced, and somewhat tribal, drumming is perhaps the main musical element that distinguishes Myrath from other prog/power metal bands; it’s a source of subtlety and intrigue in a genre that all too often is obsessed with superfast speed. This is most keenly felt on “The Needle” and “Get Your Freedom Back”, which are both full of chugging riffs over rumbling bass drums, a la Tool or Meshuggah.

While there is plenty of crushing heaviness on offer here, most of the melodies on Legacy are courtesy of the synthesised, layered Arabian strings supplied by keyboardist Elyes Bouchoucha. This is the sort of thing that would put off many metal purists, but it does tend to complement the more traditional metal elements to great effect. This is most notable on “Through Your Eyes”, where the cinematic synths and frantic percussion combine with a catchy chorus to produce an epic atmosphere, and the ballad “I Want to Die” which, thanks to the impassioned vocals and gutsy, layered guitar solo, manages to be somewhat uplifting despite its introspective, melancholic nature.

One criticism that must be pointed out though is that there is ultimately not a lot of variety here. Many of the tracks here blend into one another; of the 5 tracks that I’ve not mentioned thus far, I don’t really have anything to say besides what’s already been said about the others! Does this mean Myrath are a band lacking in ideas? You might say that, particularly as they are, to all intents and purposes, a progressive metal band, but I personally would just say that they’re a band who’ve been lucky to find a signature sound that’s got a lot of mileage; after all, who cares that AC/DC have made a career out of writing the same song over and over again!? The important thing is, despite the lack of diversity, Legacy remains exciting and engaging throughout its 50 minute duration.

In short, some prog metal fans might bemoan the lack of diversity here but, if you like your folk and power metal yet want to try something a bit different, Legacy is a window into an exciting new world.

Verdict: 8/10

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Symphony X + Myrath + Melted Space, Monday 15th February 2016

This was a transcontinental affair at Corporation, with melodic/progressive metal from Europe, Africa and North America all on offer.

7pm on a Monday evening is not your typical gig time, and thus it’s a sparse crowd that welcomes France’s Melted Space. A “metal opera” band in a similar vein to Avantasia and Ayreon, their 3 vocalists (clean male, harsh male and operatic female) work together nicely and the band’s enthusiasm is admirable in the face of a lukewarm reception. Their layered, intricate sound is also somewhat muddled by the Corporation’s poor acoustics so, through little fault of their own, their set is ultimately disappointing.                                                                                                                                                       Verdict: 6/10

Tunisia’s Myrath, on the other hand, fare somewhat better. With a set largely taken from their new album Legend, their catchy blend of crushing progressive rhythms and Arabic folk melodies goes down well with the crowd. It’s a sound that many people here won’t be familiar with, but it doesn’t take long for them to be converted; the increasing globalisation of metal in the social media age has brought greater prominence to many sub-genres and regional scenes, and Myrath’s brand of “Oriental folk metal” is a notably strong example. This is a confident, yet modest, performance from a band whose star is firmly in the ascendancy; expect to see them back in the UK soon, headlining.

Verdict: 8/10

Early in their set, Symphony X frontman Russell Allen self-deprecatingly acknowledges that his band doesn’t tour very often as they take ages to record their albums. The US fantasy prog-metallers last toured the UK 5 years ago, and the rapturous response they receive indicates it’s been worth the wait for many. Their recent album Underworld is played in its entirety at the expense of a lot of earlier material (a la Iron Maiden’s A Matter of Life and Death tour), but there are few grumbles from the crowd, as it’s thankfully one of the strongest albums they’ve made in years, with crushing heaviness, technical dexterity and Allen’s rich, soaring vocal melodies complementing each other harmoniously.

However, despite the undeniably precise performance from the band, the mood throughout is distinctly flat. The venue’s half-full at best, a case of preaching to a small group of die-hard fans (many of whom sound like they still have the Monday blues) rather than reaching a wider audience. There’s plenty to celebrate about Symphony X’s uplifting take on progressive metal, and they’ve certainly carved out a niche for themselves over the past 20 + years. It’s clear though that that niche is evidently not big enough; it’s a shame that they’re not big enough to fill arenas, as their soaring sound would no doubt translate well in such an environment. As it stands, there’s a distinct incongruity between the music and the surroundings; this is a cold, rainy Monday night in a half-full, sticky nightclub in northern England and, even though the band plays well, they seem noticeably deflated by such surroundings. Die-hard fans here would surely pay no attention to such concerns, but the lack of a suitably uplifting atmosphere will not have endeared Symphony X too well to more casual listeners.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Verdict: 7/10

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Avantasia – Ghostlights

(Nuclear Blast, 2016)

What started as a bit of fun for Tobias Sammet and friends with the Metal Opera albums 15 years ago has arguably now become more popular than his “day job” with German power metallers Edguy. Avantasia has become a project that doesn’t just appeal to Lord of the Rings-obsessed power metal fans; the blend of hard rock, symphonic elements and musical theatre has reached a large, worldwide audience. Ghostlights, their seventh album, is one of Avantasia’s strongest, with a diverse range of well-executed songs that should see their audience expand even further.

Things kick off in typically bombastic fashion with lead single “Mystery of a Blood Red Rose”. This is an upbeat piano-led rocker that Meat Loaf mastermind Jim Steinman would be proud of. At the time of writing, this song is in contention to represent Germany at Eurovision, and it neatly captures the fun and spirit of such an occasion, with little of the cheese.

Ghostlights is a sequel to previous album The Mystery of Time, continuing the story of Victorian scientist Aaron Blackwell, played by Sammet, but it is far superior to its predecessor. The Mystery of Time, while full of good songs, lacked bite, with many fans dismayed at the absence of regular guest vocalist Jorn Lande, of Masterplan fame. Never fear though, the iron-lunged Norwegian is back and he immediately makes his presence felt on second track “Let the Storm Descend Upon You”. 12 minutes long, this naturally serves as a centrepiece of the album and manages to maintain momentum throughout, with an effective vocal battle between Sammet, Lande, Pretty Maids’ Ronnie Atkins and newcomer Robert Mason of Warrant.

The album as a whole has a much darker atmosphere than previous Avantasia albums. “The Haunting” is a gothic lullaby, not too dissimilar from previous songs “The Toy Master” and “Death Is Just a Feeling”, where Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider plays the creepy clown persona to perfection. We also have something a little different with “Draconian Love”, a driving track with a distinct Type O Negative feel; Sinbreed’s Herbie Langhans does his best Andrew Eldritch impression and the light/shade contrast between his and Sammet’s vocals works brilliantly. The heaviest, darkest song on the album though is “Seduction of Decay”, featuring former Queenryche singer Geoff Tate. While it has a great, mystical feel to it, it is admittedly a slight misfire; it’s overly long, and the fact of the matter is that Tate has not sounded his best for 25 years, so this could have been much better.

There are no worries about being past one’s prime with Michael Kiske though. The ex-Helloween singer and frequent Avantasia contributor’s balls-in-a-vice-grip falsetto is as glorious as it ever was on the album’s title track, which is one of the few overtly power metal songs here. There’s more traditional fare elsewhere too. “Master of the Pendulum” has a savage, thrashy edge to it and suits Marco Hietala’s voice nicely as it has a similar tone to many recent Nightwish songs. “Babylon Vampires” is the most Edguy-like track here. Sammet is understandably in his element on this stomping glam number, with Robert Mason adding a healthy dose of L.A. sleaze and there’s excellent triple-guitar work from ex-KISS axeman Bruce Kulick and regular Avantasia guitarists Oliver Hartmann and Sascha Paeth. It’s not all perfect though, with “Unchain the Light” being slightly flat. It’s perfectly performed, with Sammet, Atkins and Kiske all on fine form, but it’s the only occasion where the power metal clichés are a bit too prominent for comfort.

Ultimately, the lighter moments on Ghostlights are the real highlights, as this is where Tobias Sammet’s talents as a composer and arranger are most clearly evident. Power/symphonic metal ballads have a tendency to be unbearably cheesy and boring, but Avantasia’s have long been the envy of other bands. “Isle of Evermore” sees a welcome return for Within Temptation’s Sharon Den Adel, making her first Avantasia appearance since the Metal Opera albums. This ethereal ballad has gothic and post-punk elements reminiscent of Kate Bush at her best, so suits Den Adel perfectly. “Lucifer” is primarily just Jorn Lande accompanied by nothing but a piano and some strings, but he could sing the dictionary and it’d be more captivating than the output of 90% of European power metal bands, such is the power of his leonine roar. The song bursts into life halfway through with a blistering solo from Bruce Kulick leading to a triumphant crescendo. And last but not least we have closing track “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies”. It wouldn’t be an Avantasia album without an appearance from Magnum frontman Bob Catley, and he brings a touch of class to proceedings to end the album on an emotional, celebratory note.

Ghostlights is an album that will satisfy all fans of melodic, symphonic or progressive hard rock. Tobias Sammet has made one of the best albums of his career, and this is probably the strongest set of musicians to play together under the Avantasia banner. For all its excesses, this is actually fairly unpretentious music; this album is, more than anything else, a consummate demonstration of what can be achieved when you have good, honest songs and talented musicians who thoroughly enjoy performing them.

Verdict: 9/10

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Dream Theater – The Astonishing

(Roadrunner Records, 2016)

Concept album: two words that will have many people running for the hills in terror. But The Astonishing is no ordinary concept album. This is a Dream Theater concept album, so it’s a 2-disc, 34-track, 130-minute behemoth; the above-mentioned people would no doubt rather drink liquid nitrogen than even attempt to give this a listen.

It is understandable to be sceptical about what’s on offer here. Dream Theater guitarist John Petrucci has created a futuristic dystopian story where a totalitarian government rules a society where music is artificially created and personal expression is strongly discouraged. Sounds a lot like Rush’s 2112, and there are also elements of Hunger Games and Romeo & Juliet. This is a ridiculously ambitious and daunting prospect by a band that, for many, is the epitome of all the worst excesses and pretensions of prog rock.

The ironic thing is, despite the conceptual nature of this project, The Astonishing might actually gain Dream Theater several new fans, as it is arguably the most accessible-sounding album they’ve ever made. Things start off in typical fashion, with “Dystopian Overture” acting as a bombastic, frantic run-through of the album’s major themes before lead single “The Gift of Music” kicks things off properly with a fast pace, backed by choirs and strings, that recalls Dream Theater’s earlier conceptual piece Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. But throughout The Astonishing, the usual, widdly excesses are in startlingly short supply. There has most definitely been a conscious decision to focus on accessible, shorter songs (the longest is just 7 minutes) that carry the story effectively, with the emphasis on vocals, piano and strings as opposed to guitar and drums.

Now, for many Dream Theater fans, this sounds like a disastrous state of affairs, and I can understand the frustration. Many of the songs here are essentially ballads, devoid of much of the technicality that typifies most of Dream Theater’s music, but I’d argue some are amongst the best ballads they’ve ever written. “When Your Time Has Come” has a great synth-laden atmosphere that perfectly fits a key moment in the story, when the star-crossed lovers Gabriel and Faythe meet for the first time. There’s also “Chosen”, which is introspective yet powerful, and “Hymn of a Thousand Voices”, a melancholic fiddle-based folk song that’s quite unlike anything Dream Theater have recorded before.

There’s no lack of bite here though. The music on The Astonishing varies to suit each character in the story, with darker, heavier passages fitting the more dramatic and tragic elements. An ominous fanfare heralds the entrance of villain Emperor Nafaryus in “A Savior in the Square”, and the crushing “Moment of Betrayal”, which sets up the tragic events in the latter part of the story, is the album’s heaviest song. We also see variety in “A New Beginning”, which is one of the few songs to have Dream Theater’s usual length and complexity, and in the upbeat rocky number “Our New World”.

Despite the accessible nature of many of the songs here, The Astonishing is ultimately far from perfect because it asks an awful lot of its listeners. To fully appreciate it, you need to listen to the whole thing in one go and pay close attention; most of the music here sounds better when you consider the role it plays in describing the characters and advancing the story. In that respect, the whole thing has more in common with a stage musical than a standard rock album, and this unorthodoxy simply will not be to everyone’s tastes. Also, Dream Theater have done the whole concept album thing much better in the past with the seminal Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From A Memory. There are many good points to The Astonishing, but it does not flow or effortlessly engage the listener as well as Dream Theater’s previous attempt at rock opera did.

If you’d hoped that Dream Theater’s new concept album would be as good as Operation: Mindcrime or The Wall, then you will be disappointed here. To be fair, those albums, along with Dream Theater’s own Scenes From A Memory, are masterpieces that are near impossible to equal. Dream Theater should be applauded for attempting something of such scope and ambition; they’ve created a decent story, complemented by good music, and, when all is said and done, it’s nice to see a band that’s been going for 30 years still willing to try new things. Be patient and attentive, and you’ll realise that The Astonishing is a rewarding listen indeed.

Verdict: 8/10

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