Amon Amarth – Jomsviking

2016, Metal Blade

Amon Amarth are a shining example of what a band can achieve through hard work and determination. Their sound, style and image have not changed much in 20+ years, but relentless touring and a string of consistently strong albums have led to this bunch of Swedish Vikings becoming one of the biggest metal bands in the world. Suffering a recent setback with the departure of long-term drummer Fredrik Andersson, Amon Amarth have followed the AC/DC template for replacing an important band member: quickly find a replacement (session drummer Tobias Gustafsson, of Vomitory) and record a quintessential album.

Jomsviking, the band’s 10th full-length release, is a concept album featuring an original story about love, loss and revenge, based on the legendary Jomsviking warriors, a secretive group of mercenaries who were sort of like a Viking equivalent of Samurai. Don’t worry if the words “concept album” send alarm bells ringing in your mind; this is by no means a major departure from the band’s usual sound! It is arguably the case though that Amon Amarth have shifted slightly over the years from a pure Swedish death metal sound to one that has a bit more in common with NWOBHM and other more overtly melodic metal styles (whilst still retaining Johan Hegg’s trademark harsh Viking roar); this was particularly the case on their previous album, Deceiver of the Gods, and Jomsviking follows suit with several gentler passages used to convey different parts of the story. Nevertheless, there is plenty here to satisfy old school fans and new converts alike.

The opening three tracks are amongst the strongest the band have ever recorded. Lead single “First Kill” erupts into life with rapid-fire drums and guitar harmonies, leaving the listener in no doubt which band they’re listening to; we’re in familiar, comfortable territory here. “Wanderer” maintains your attention with a bouncy, palm-muted riff (somewhat reminiscent of “Gods of War Arise” from fan-favourite album With Oden on Our Side) and contains one of Amon Amarth’s best guitar solos. A melancholic spoken-word passage segues into third track “On a Sea of Blood”, where axemen Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Soderberg are again on top form with thrashy riffs and Maiden-esque harmonies aplenty. There’s also a deliciously heavy bridge where Johan Hegg sings of a dragon attacking our hero’s ship: “the dragon sweeps down with a roar, sky and ocean shake” (NB: this story is not inspired by true events…). This all drags the listener into the album’s concept with ease, the story fitting the music comfortably.

Other highlights throughout the album include “Raise Your Horns”, “One Thousand Burning Arrows” and “A Dream That Cannot Be”. “Raise Your Horns” is what every Viking album needs: a drinking song! Heavy and catchy, with a guitar melody you’ll be humming/chanting for ages, this will surely find a place in Amon Amarth’s live set. “One Thousand Burning Arrows” is a melancholic and captivating song about a Viking king’s funeral; it’s probably the closest the band ever get to a ballad! And “A Dream That Cannot Be” features a rare collaboration with another artist, in the shape of German metal siren Doro Pesch. Her impassioned vocals contrast with Johan Hegg’s nicely, with the effect being a death metal approximation of The Phantom of the Opera, without being at all cheesy.

It is however very difficult to make a truly great concept album; how do you ensure every chapter of the story is equally engaging? In Amon Amarth’s case, this is magnified by the fact that they have a distinctive, easily identifiable sound. As with several of their other albums, they have struggled to create enough ideas to make their sound captivating enough across all the album’s tracks. Songs like “One Against All”, “At Dawn’s First Light” and “Vengeance Is My Name” contain good riffs and are generally catchy, but they contain several musical ideas found elsewhere on Jomsviking and Amon Amarth’s back catalogue, making them sound somewhat formulaic. Still, there are worse formulas for rock/metal bands to stick to…

In general, Jomsviking is more or less business-as-usual for Amon Amarth and is unlikely to disappoint old or new fans. Yes it’s somewhat inconsistent, but they’ve done a good job of telling a decent story on an album that is not out of place, in terms of style or substance, with the rest of the band’s catalogue. Not many bands make it to ten albums, and there’s enough evidence here to indicate that Amon Amarth still have plenty of fuel in the tank (or mead in the drinking horn; pick your own Viking metaphor…)

Verdict: 8/10

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Spiritual Beggars – Sunrise to Sundown

Inside Out, 2016

Sweden’s Spiritual Beggars, the brainchild of Arch Enemy and ex-Carcass guitarist Michael Amott, is a rare example of a side-project/supergroup that has arguably become as much of a commitment for its members as their respective “day jobs” are. Together for over 20 years now, albeit with a few lineup changes along the way (most notably behind the microphone), they’ve become one of the most respected bands of the stoner/retro 70s rock paradigm, despite (or perhaps because of) their members’ extreme metal backgrounds. Sunrise to Sundown is Spiritual Beggars’ 9th album (and 3rd with current singer Apollo Papathanasio, formerly of Firewind) and, while its overall sound and mood will not be to everyone’s tastes, there is much to applaud here.

The band’s previous album, 2013’s Earth Blues, drew strong comparisons with Deep Purple due to the dominant presence of Per Wilberg’s organ playing. Sunrise to Sundown largely follows a similar blueprint, albeit with a few more psychedelic/early prog elements; it sounds like they’ve been listening to Uriah Heap, The Doors and maybe even The Grateful Dead. All the band members sound like they’re on board with this sound, and the tight interplay throughout the album leads to some positive results. The opening title track features a strong driving, old school riff, with an assured, powerful vocal performance from Papathanasio. “Hard Road” and “Still Hunter” are both catchy, but heavy, numbers where Amott and Wilberg’s guitar and organ intertwine effectively and efficiently, complemented by the tight rhythm section of bassist Sharlee D’Angelo and drummer Ludwig Witt. This is an album that is clearly the work of seasoned professionals.

The two big highlights of the album though are “Dark Light Child” (wisely chosen to be the lead single) and “Southern Star” (the emotional closing track). “Dark Light Child” is a proper “old school” Spiritual Beggars track, with a screeching opening guitar solo, a strong chorus, and a pummelling, spiralling guitar riff. Moreover, the organ on this track is used more for atmospheric purposes, rather than as a lead instrument; the dominance of keyboards throughout the album won’t be to all fans’ tastes, so this track in particular provides a welcome respite in that respect. Conversely, “Southern Star” is perhaps the most psychedelic track on the album. This is a mellow, yet powerful number with a slow, groovy riff and effective use of piano that ends the album on an emotive high; it recalls 60s bands such as The Kinks or Small Faces, though significantly louder!

There are however several points of criticism here, with at least 2 or 3 tracks that are just filler. “Lonely Freedom” and “You’ve Been Fooled” aren’t bad per se (the former has a nice bluesy feel to it) but neither are that memorable. The definite low point is “I Turn to Stone”, which is too slow, dreary and just plain weird; I’ve no idea what they were thinking when they wrote the George of the Jungle/St. Anger dustbin lid drum pattern. Overall though, while the level of songwriting and musical performance is of a more-or-less high level throughout the album, the whole thing does feel fairly derivative. There are of course worse bands to sound like than Deep Purple or Uriah Heap, but it’s a shame that a group of musicians as talented as Spiritual Beggars have resorted to such unoriginal mimicry (check out Michael Amott’s Ritchie Blackmore impersonation on “What Doesn’t Kill You” for starters…). Moreover, while they’ve gotten the balance between organ and everything else right in places, Per Wilberg is much too high in the mix on several tracks (such as “Diamond Under Pressure” and “What Doesn’t Kill You”), the effect being a much softer sound than what many fans would be comfortable with.

To conclude, this is not a bad album, and the highlights mentioned above are particularly noteworthy slabs of stoner/psychedelic metal. But Spiritual Beggars have done much better in the past. Ultimately, Sunrise to Sundown lacks consistency with many derivative and unimaginative elements. This is not essential listening and I would not recommend it as a good starting point for new fans.

Verdict: 6.5/10

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Mastermind: What next?

So, over a year since I applied to be a contender on BBC’s Mastermind, my semi-final episode has finally aired. Naturally I was disappointed not to progress further (after all, everyone wants to win), but I need not be embarrassed with my performance; to appear at all on Mastermind is an achievement (96 contestants are chosen from thousands who apply for each series), so to win one’s heat and make it to the semi-finals is not to be sniffed at.

I am essentially a novice when it comes to competitive quizzing. Before I appeared on (and won) ITV’s The Chase last year, I had taken part in the occasional pub quiz but my experience mainly consisted of playing along with quiz shows at home. My success on TV though has given me the confidence to take my interest in trivia and general knowledge to a more serious level. I have gotten to know many people on the national quizzing circuit by joining various quizzing Facebook groups and by taking part in several national Grand Prix quizzing events over the past few months. Moreover, from analysing my own performances on TV and recognising that I still have a LONG way to go in order to be as good as the Chasers, Eggheads and other prominent talents of the quizzing world, I have taken a much more determined approach to acquiring knowledge.

I have become a fairly decent quizzer by simply absorbing information as I’ve gone through life. I have made no serious attempt to learn trivia; I just remember a lot of stuff that many people tend to forget! I realise though that I could potentially become a VERY good quizzer if I take a more proactive approach to learning facts. I’ve started to read more quiz and reference books than I used to and, conveniently, I received the Mastermind Quiz Book as a Christmas present.

I’ve now read the entire book; there are 62 sets of general knowledge questions and 62 sets of various “specialist subject” categories that have all appeared on the actual show. I made notes as I read the book, keeping track of my scores on each round in order to get a feel of where my strengths and weaknesses lie. From reading this book, coupled with my experiences of watching other episodes of Mastermind and attending national quizzing events, I’ve gained valuable insight into how I can improve as a quizzer; maybe, if I apply again for Mastermind in a few years’ time, I’ll have a good shot at winning it…

So-called “popular culture” subjects are clearly my forte. Each of the rounds in the Mastermind Quiz Book consists of 30 questions, and I scored 20 or higher on the following:

The Star Wars films: 27

Cinema 1910-2010: 23

The Academy Awards: 22

Pop Music of the 1980s and 1990s: 22

The TV Series Blackadder: 21

The Life and Works of J.R.R. Tolkien: 20

I clearly watch a lot of TV! I chose subjects of a similar ilk for my Mastermind appearances, picking the progressive rock band Rush in my heat (scored 12/14) and Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown novels in my semi-final (scored 10/11); both recent, cultural topics that one might consider to be “lowbrow”. I’ve noticed that a lot of more seasoned quizzers sometimes slip up on “lowbrow” questions, so I suppose it’s not a bad thing that such topics are strong points for me. Case in point, at a recent national quiz, I got a question about Game of Thrones correct that most of the Chasers, Eggheads, etc in attendance got wrong!

Conversely, I wouldn’t class myself as bad at more traditional “highbrow” subjects like history, geography and science. But I rarely have deep knowledge of such subjects; I know the basics about most areas, but I seldom have the sort of in-depth knowledge that is expected of top quizzers. I did ok at some of these subjects in the Mastermind book, scoring 18 on “World Geography”, 16 on “Mammals”, 15 on “The Human Body” and 15 on “The Nobel Prize”, but these were exceptions rather than the rule. History in particular is a subject that I always assumed was one of my strengths (I gained an A* at GCSE and A at A Level after all), but scoring 4 on “Ancient Rome”, 2 on “The Life and Reign of Queen Elizabeth I” and a miserable 1 on “The French Revolution” shows there are several big gaps in my knowledge…

My attempts at the general knowledge rounds in the Mastermind Quiz Book show that, while I have a good level of general knowledge, certain gaps mean my performance can be temperamental. Across the 62 rounds in the book, I scored at least 20/30 in 19 rounds, with a high score of 23, and scored less than 15 in 10 rounds, with a low score of 10. It was a fairly even distribution across the rounds, with a mean average score of 17.5 and a median of 17. As I went through the book, I noticed certain holes in my knowledge that lowered my score considerably (India, opera, gemstones/minerals, etc), and so these are areas that I should pay closer attention to in future. It can be pretty difficult to learn information about subjects that you’re not particularly interested in, but no one said this would be easy!

The main piece of advice I’ve received is to do as many quizzes as possible. As you do more quizzes, you’ll notice certain topics and questions cropping up again and again; this repetition increases your chances of retaining information and gives you a good idea of what things you should revise. Also, as someone who watches a lot of quiz shows (The Chase, Pointless, Mastermind, Fifteen to One, etc), I often see a question appearing on one show not long after it had appeared on another; for example, I’ve noticed a lot of questions about the Muses from Greek mythology lately (so am making sure to learn that!)

So it looks like I have a lot of work to do, but it’s not something I’m going to shy away from. I’ve recently been accepted to appear on another quiz show (watch this space for more details) and there are plenty of more quizzing events coming up soon, such as the World Quizzing Championship in June. I should also make more of an effort to go to local pub quizzes in or around Sheffield; I believe there is a quiz league based not too far away in Barnsley, so that’s something to look in to. I’ve received kind praise and good feedback from several top quizzers, so hopefully I can live up to that. Let’s see what the future holds…

Mastermind Round 1 pic

Avantasia, O2 Forum Kentish Town, London, 08/03/16

3 hours, no support, 13 musicians on stage (9 of which are vocalists) AND it’s their first ever headline show in the UK. This all sounds like a recipe for disaster but Edguy frontman Tobias Sammet has already overcome countless other obstacles in order to make his “metal opera” project Avantasia a success. Besides, his love of all things English is well-known (he even wrote a song about it on Edguy’s last album), so the sold-out crowd at the Forum are no doubt confident that the international line-up Sammet’s assembled will be able to deliver the goods.

Entering to Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra” (the famous music from 2001: A Space Odyssey) and with a stage layout containing raised platforms depicting a gothic graveyard, it doesn’t take long for Avantasia to make an impression and grab the audience’s attention. Even though there are many things that could go wrong with such an ambitious production, the mood throughout the show is reasonably relaxed, like an intimate gathering of close friends. Tobias Sammet is a consummate entertainer and Master of Ceremonies, with plenty of banter between himself, the crowd and his fellow singers. In addition to regular collaborators Amanda Somerville and Oliver Hartmann, and new addition Herbie Langhans, on additional vocals throughout the show, a succession of guest vocalists are introduced, each contributing to a handful of songs: Michael Kiske (Helloween), Ronnie Atkins (Pretty Maids), Bob Catley (Magnum), Jørn Lande (Masterplan) and Eric Martin (Mr. Big). Each guest star adds their own unique component, and the effect is that the evening becomes like a metal version of the Royal Variety Performance. As with that event though, not every joke or story properly hits the mark tonight; some between-song chats go on a bit, and Eric Martin in particular is nowhere near as funny as he thinks he is. This is a small concern though, and hardly detracts from the music.

One thing that Tobias Sammet and Avantasia should certainly be commended for is that they’ve made good use of the 3 hour running time here. Despite the epic nature of the music (several songs are 10+ minutes), this is not a prog rock gig where half the time is taken up by tedious drum solos and mind-numbingly boring jams. Tonight, more time = more songs; 24 in total. New album Ghostlights has been generally well-received and so choosing to play 7 songs from it proves to be a sensible decision; “Lucifer” and “Let the Storm Descend Upon You”, both featuring the iron-lunged Jørn Lande, go down particularly well.

However, as with pretty much any other gig by any metal band ever, there are certain people here tonight who just want to hear “the old stuff”. Avantasia’s first 2 albums, The Metal Opera, Parts 1 & 2, definitely feature a more traditional strain of symphonic power metal than all their subsequent albums, but anyone who came here hoping the band would play lots of earlier songs is bound to be somewhat disappointed. To be honest, while I think Tobias Sammet is justified in having confidence in his more recent material, I think shuffling the setlist a bit would have been a good idea. 9 of the first 10 songs are from Ghostlights and its immediate predecessor The Mystery of Time, with most of the older songs crammed in together near the end of the show. Front-ending your setlist with lots of recent material is the sort of thing that makes a lot of long-term fans restless and impatient but hey, you can’t please everyone (and there’s surely no perfect way to coordinate all the different singers!)

Minor quibbles about the setlist and between-song banter aside, Avantasia’s performance tonight cannot really be faulted. Kudos to the band for sustaining a tight, energetic show for 3 hours, and every singer delivers to the best of their abilities. Avantasia’s future is always uncertain due to the project’s logistical complexity but Tobias Sammet assures the crowd that, if they tour again, there will certainly be a return to the UK. I can’t imagine many people here tonight wouldn’t want to return for that.

Verdict: 9/10

Setlist (with singers in brackets)

  1. Mystery of a Blood Red Rose (Sammet)
  2. Ghostlights (Sammet, Kiske)
  3. Invoke the Machine (Sammet, Atkins)
  4. Unchain the Light (Sammet, Atkins, Kiske)
  5. A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies (Sammet, Catley)
  6. The Great Mystery (Sammet, Catley)
  7. The Scarecrow (Sammet, Lande)
  8. Lucifer (Sammet, Lande)
  9. The Watchmakers’ Dream (Sammet, Hartmann)
  10. What’s Left of Me (Sammet, Martin)
  11. The Wicked Symphony (Hartmann, Lande, Somerville, Langhans, Kiske)
  12. Draconian Love (Sammet, Langhans)
  13. Farewell (Sammet, Somerville, Kiske)
  14. Stargazers (Kiske, Lande, Atkins, Hartmann)
  15. Shelter from the Rain (Sammet, Kiske, Catley)
  16. The Story Ain’t Over (Sammet, Catley)
  17. Let the Storm Descend Upon You (Sammet, Lande, Atkins)
  18. Promised Land (Sammet, Lande)
  19. Prelude/Reach Out for the Light (Sammet, Kiske)
  20. Avantasia (Sammet, Kiske)
  21. Twisted Mind (Martin, Atkins)
  22. Dying for an Angel (Sammet, Martin)

-Encore-

  1. Lost in Space (Sammet, Somerville)
  2. Sign of the Cross/The Seven Angels (All)

AvantasiaGhostlightsTour