New At The Gates! New Devin Townsend! Plenty of underground guys cooking up doom and classic metal and gothic death stuff! That’s what we’ve got in this very interesting week. And believe me; I already have even more awesome stuff lined up for Week 128! Check all of it out!
Devin Townsend – Z2: Sky Blue (2014 SPOTLIGHT) – This first offering from the Canadian musical wizard actually has nothing to do with the Ziltoid storyline, but it seems to be even stronger than the main course! You see, Accelerated Evolution, Terria and Addicted! seem to have come together to form this disc, which begins with the modern electronic meets slight middle-eastern elements of “Rejoice” as the Accelerated Evolution style takes flight in “Fallout” which is definitely a highlight in my book. “Midnight Sun” could be compared to “Rain” although it adds a mesmerizing solo section in addition to Anneke’s vocal touches, which come forth as simply magical. “A New Reign” seems like it could have been on Synchestra, while “Universal Flame” takes the electronic pop-rock approach utilized in Epicloud, making for an ultimately catchy piece that will be reverberating around in your head for days, or even weeks to come. “Warrior” continues the electronics, but adds a bit more metallic muscle to the piece as it unleashes an overall atmosphere. There’s a chorus, but it’s wrapped up in a great deal of mist and keys, which makes it more of a soundscape than anything else. But if you were looking for a catchier and more danceable (and yes, I do mean danceable) chorus, then the album’s title cut will certainly provide that little treat, as you find yourself also enraptured by dance club beats. This is really the first time that I’ve ever heard Devin Townsend’s music so dance floor friendly, but it’s definitely something you wouldn’t mind hearing at the club (you know, besides all that “butt music” they play nowadays.) “Silent Militia” continues to show that Devin Townsend has somehow become influenced by this dance-pop stuff that is on the radio, TV and internet, but it seems like he’s given it muscle, harsh vocals and rock riffs. Yet, I’d much prefer this to acts like Imagine Dragons and Fallout Boy. “Rain City” is the longest track here, as it rolls into thick atmospheres that almost sound like the soundtrack to a holiday commercial for a corporation of some sort. Albeit there are also some Indian elements and total psych-out moments to the piece as well. “Forever” has a certain air of maturity about it, showing that Devin Townsend’s musical range is far more than just that of progressive and extreme heavy metal, as this piece sounds like Danny Elfman being sucked into a black hole. “Before We Die” comes next, pushing its way out of that black hole as a major heavy hitter. This one also features (like several other tracks) the Universal Choir, which is composed of multitudes of sound clips from nearly everyone on the planet. I don’t think it’s humanly possible to discern every one of them, but just consider it the collective of “we” and leave it at that. This is the voice of the Earth itself backing Devin Townsend, on a song speaks for itself. More atmospheres are observed, right before the album’s misty ballad, “The Ones We Love.” It almost sounds like a hymn, bringing a sense of love and passion to the entire disc. This is definitely the sound of a man matured, far from the days of Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing (although I’ll never forget that album) and moving towards something more enlightened and passionate. I recall Devin Townsend saying in a recent interview that if there’s a moment in his career that he would look back on, then Z2 would certainly be it. Yet with an album as monumental as this, I can certainly see why. Sky Blue might not have gotten the recognition that it deserves as being a mere side offering to the Ziltoid story, but this is absolutely no kind of silly little bonus disc. It’s a fulfilling meal that you’ll certainly be going back to for many years to come. If for some reason you thought that Z2: Dark Matter was a wee bit childish, then the real meat of the package is certainly lodged within the confines of this misty masterpiece. Devin Townsend has certainly done it again!
(12 Tracks, 57:00)
Devin Townsend – Z2: Dark Matter (2014 SPOTLIGHT) – This second offering from the Canadian musical wizard is the long-awaited main course of the two disc set, but to be honest it’s a bit bogged down with all the voice acting. Towards the latter half of the disc, the experience starts getting more musical but you have to go through a lot of skits before it gets to that point. “Z2” serves as a terrific little opener to the piece, bringing back those heavy drums amidst a myriad of almost chant-like vocal spectrums. “From Sleep Awake” continues these, until it actually encompasses Z2: Sky Blue territory. This is about as close to the sister disc as it gets though and some might even feel it’s a little misplaced. It’s a nice piece, with light melodies and Anneke’s vocal touches, but I don’t think it’s very “Ziltoid” insofar as the rest of the album. Though to be fair; the first disc introduced us to “Hyperdrive” which was my favorite track from the disc, though I never felt that it fit with the material. I was blown away when Anneke took over the vocal element on the Addicted! version, which is one of my top favorite songs in the history of mankind. Getting back to the album, “Ziltoidian Empire” brings about a dark march, as it fills with all sorts of spoken word bits and some major prog atmospheres. It doesn’t seem like the kind of track you could enjoy so much with the spoken word clips and would work much better in a theatrical element. The disc is very much a metal musical, which of course was the original intent. And yeah, I clearly hear that Yes influence. “War Princess” is where we start to hear the vocal talents of Stolen Babies front woman (damn, she plays the accordion!) Dominque Lenore Persi, who plays the character of the same name. From an acting standpoint, her performance as this character is truly memorable and I believe that if one day the Stolen Babies gig doesn’t work quite out or she wants to do something else on the side, then voice acting may suit her talent. These days, game companies and animation studios are always in need voice actors and I think we’re starting to see here that she would make a perfect fit for either of these. “Deathray” pumps some death metal influence into the mix, as otherworldly soundscapes and laser blasts also appear. It’s definitely one of the heavier tracks on the album and I think people will be more than happy to hear it. But right after that, comes one of the best tracks on the album, “March Of The Poozers.” The groove that emanates from this brings on a sort of circus militarism, which combined with the exquisite vocal work, makes it a definite listening experience. Albeit there is still a bit of toilet humor to be found here, amidst some Muppets references. “Wandering Eye” brings in Fozzy frontman and WWE Superstar Chris Jericho as Captain Spectacular, but it doesn’t really offer so much as a song. It seems more like an interlude that culminates in the massive “Earth” where we hear one of the coolest riff melodies on the disc, right in the very beginning. This is the kind of playing that Devin Townsend is known for and it’s why we’ll keep coming back year after year for another dose of it. The track itself is filled with joy and triumph, as it builds upon neoclassical atmospheres into a sort of cosmic unity that would make Carl Sagan smile. It certainly sounds like a grand entrance, if there ever was one. “Ziltoid Goes Home” thunders into action next, featuring Devin’s soaring vocal lines, which work as a melody in of themselves. Much of the melodic structures and soundscapes utilized on the album revolve around the same spaced-out neoclassical fare, but this doesn’t ever seem to get tiring and is sometimes even subconsciously hypnotic. Some of you might even mistake a few of these passages for the classic Final Fantasy theme, which is really the best way that I can describe these twinkling melodies. “Through The Wormhole” offers a large section of acting performances, showing itself to be a major part of the story. It’s not really necessary after the first listen though, so you’ll probably just wind up skipping it during repeated listens. “Dimension Z” is the last track here, making use of the Universal Choir as it brings a reprise to the album as a whole. This is definitely what a finale sounds like, right before the actors come onto the stage and take a bow. I don’t think it could be listened to as a single piece though, but this really isn’t an album that you can isolate and listen to separately as you could with many of the tracks on Z2: Sky Blue.
Observing the album as a whole, I feel that the disc is a bit cluttered with all of these spoken word sections and it’s really going to irk a few individuals who came for the music and the music alone. Some of those spoken word passages are laid right over the top of interesting musical sections, which make them seem almost unnecessary in retrospect. Additionally, even though the use of guests on the album adds to the flavor of the story, it would have been nice to have heard Dominique Lenore Persi and Chris Jericho actually sing a few bars on the record. Yes, you heard me right – they don’t have vocal lines on the disc at all, aside from their acting performances and that’s a little disappointing. Especially since each is a vocalist in their own respected acts. What I would really have loved to hear though, is a version of this disc without the story. The reason for this is because these songs can work on their own. The clips and effects could all be removed, making for some intoxicating instrumental passages and passionate vocal work from Devin Townsend. I actually really liked the Ziltoid story that he made up on the fly for the live show a lot more than this, because it felt more human, like Ziltoid returning to Earth and having a wife and kids and dealing with real problems. It got a bit more invested than that as well. But it was really just the warm-up for this, which will definitely work better as an onstage performance. I’m assuming that he’ll also be tackling the Z2: Sky Blue in the live setting as well and it’ll be a far more intimate experience than the comedic stage show offered here. This really isn’t one of Devin Townsend’s memorable moments, but maybe it’s because I’m not really keen on the idea of mixing humor and cartoon style voice-overs with what amounts to very well-thought out landscapes and extraordinary vocalizations. Musically and vocally, Z2: Dark Matters is a damn fine album. It’s just been bogged down with so many story elements that some listeners won’t ever want to listen to it more than once. Thankfully, we have Z2: Sky Blue to fall back on, because that’s definitely Devin Townsend at his absolute best. It’s a fun little album, but I’m just not really sure how memorable it will be in twenty years.
(11 Tracks, 60:00)
As Light Dies – The Love Album (2014) – As Light Dies is a Spanish mix of death, black, doom, gothic and on this particular release, there is even a little bit of progressive metal. This third, full-length seems to be a much stronger (according to MA anyway, as the last record Ars Subtilior From Within The Cage received an insulting 45%) and more focused album, since the band apparently dropped the ball about four years ago. The record itself only contains about four real songs, but they’re of reasonable length and constitute to about thirty minutes of the album’s playing time, which is no more than four minutes over a half an hour. In that regard, The Love Album sounds like it might be an exaggerated EP, but I assure you that it is not. After a passionate piano intro, “Orpheus Mourning 7:53” begins the album with a thick helping of gothic metal that zooms right into some tremolos and drum blasts, as progressive landscapes appear and give way into clean vocals. There are a few thundering sections on the track, but it manages to communicate it’s multi-textured sense in a way that is not unlike Opeth. It also shows that the band’s frontman Oscar Martin has an angelic vocal tone, which might be why his growls aren’t quite up to par. He’s obviously saving that singing voice, so there’s not a whole lot of emphasis on the gravel. A bountiful solo comes in, but it is quickly muted by another vocal section. It’s quite beautiful in all of its Opeth worship, but what the hell happened to the solo? Now we have another Hellraiser wannabe sort of atmosphere thingy, proving that these short interludes really don’t need to be there at all and then “Together As One 6:25” comes in with viola backed black/death, along with the same muted growls. I don’t believe there’s one section on the album where Oscar doesn’t try to save his voice, but it’s understandable. A slight section of electronics and atmosphere comes in later, following a section of clean and several thousand other switches afterwards. As I have already explained, the piece is multi-textured and it makes a thirty minute listen appear much longer. After another boring interlude, “Your Wake 7:30” comes into play and by this time, we can pretty much guess where the record is going. It does manage to observe a subtle silence and unleash another memorable solo moment, but the formula remains the same: heavy section with growls, atmosphere break, clean vocal sections and then experimentation up until the end of the piece. Another interlude appears, as “Nemesis 6:55” manages to finally bring something worthwhile to the table. The vocals are either being filtered or he’s really giving it all as the track mixes slight technicality together with drum blasts and all sorts of things in an effort to make the whole thing go out with a bang. There’s one last track, which is an outro and that’s not worth mentioning either. All in all, it’s a considerably strong effort with definite moments here and there. I wouldn’t say it’s solid, but it’s not just a decent release either. If you’re a fan of gothic/black metal and Opeth, then I think you’re going to find something here. Hopefully it will get far better received than the band’s previous outing.
(9 Tracks, 34:00)
Northern Crown – In The Hands Of The Betrayer (2014) – This Floridian two-piece have just released their debut EP In The Hands Of The Betrayer and it’s an extremely good slab of Candlemass and Cathedral worship. Candlemass is certainly the biggest influence here, with Frank Serafine certainly sounding the part and Zachary Randall’s riffs definitely echoing that same style and sound to the note. Something must also be said about Roberto Celentano’s keyboard work however, as it certainly seems more than befitting of the act and truly delivers on epic closer “To Thee I Give An Orchid 11:31.” Sally Gates and Randy Piro of former Tower spotlights Orbweaver are also featured here, putting down some extra bass and lead lines. At first, I didn’t think much of the act, because the album’s opening title cut (4:25) was a bit foggy and tough to hear. Frank’s vocals seemed to be buried in the back somewhere, which lead to a very rocky start for the album. Fortunately, it began to peak after that. “A Perfectly Realized Torment 7:27” brings on pound for pound; the right kind of keyboard laden doom that I was expecting, with a much needed clarity and Frank’s vocals rising much higher in the mix. If you jammed the last two Candlemass records as much as I did, then I definitely think you’re going to love this one. And since there is so much Candlemass worship on the record, the cover of “Crystal Ball 5:29” seems right at home. As you might expect, it sounds like a Candlemass cover act covering Candlemass. There’s a slight interlude and then of course, the closer that I mentioned earlier. As an EP effort, In The Hands Of The Betrayer is quite good. It’s got some promise, especially if you miss Candlemass now that they’re gone. But my only issue with this is that there might just be too much Candlemass worship on the disc (even though God knows I love them) and not enough originality. That being said, Northern Crown is definitely a noteworthy act that just needs to do a bit more than play around its record collection.
(5 Tracks, 31:00)
Mausoleum Gate – Mausoleum Gate (2014) – It’s really hard to go wrong with classic metal, especially when it’s done as well as it is here. Finnish metal act Mausoleum Gate have been in operation for a few years, but this self-titled debut is their first real recording and it sounds pretty damn spectacular to be honest. The production alone is worth talking about, because the very fact that this record sounds like it could have released in the 70’s or 80’s is a truly noteworthy statement in itself. Rolling through the record, we’ll find the Iron Maiden feel of “Magic Of The Gypsy Queen 4:27” which may not be their best performance, but it also reminds me of “Invaders” from The Number Of The Beast, which I never thought was that swell of an opener. But just like The Number Of The Beast, this album also saves its strongest content for much later in the listen. But I will say that the solo featured on the opener is well worth noting. “Demon Droid 4:23” really pounds with 70’s firepower, reminding me of a spacey little acid trip with a metal edge. I’ve heard that The Scorpions began in this fashion, but I’ve never been able to verify it. “Lost Beyond The Sun 9:09” is definitely one of the major standouts here, especially due to it’s amazing solo section and jam-out tendencies right near the end of the track. It imitates a live, unedited performance and that’s just the kind of thing that I like to hear. “Mercenaries Of Steel 6:03” definitely picks back up on the Maiden vibe and I’m sure that all fans of classic Maiden will love this one, especially in that chorus – it’s Dickinson effort if I’ve ever heard one and I’m complimenting it. “There Must Be Demons 5:11” starts out slow but kicks right back into the Maiden style, so I guess you could say that there’s a heavy amount of Maiden worship here. The chorus section I don’t really care for, but the verse is quite strong and it flows well with the leads. The song really gets to jamming right near the end though, so that’s the part that picks it up a little before the really lame chorus effort at the end. The band’s namesake and album closer (11:51) comes next, but it’s actually much lighter and brighter than you might expect. It brings back that psychedelic vibe, allowing guitars and keyboards to run absolutely frantic before it retorts back to the same light-hearted and slightly crystalline approach to classic metal. It’s not quite as hard edged as some of the other songs and maybe it doesn’t quite fit the demon on the album cover, but it definitely works as a closer and fits the band’s music perfectly. It won’t get your head banging, but it’ll leave you with a sense of wonder and in my eyes that’s a very good thing. This debut from Mausoleum Gate is a must buy for all fans of classic heavy metal and Iron Maiden. It sounds like it could have been made years ago and that’s what a lot of people who’ve grown disenfranchised with the current state of metal want to hear.
(6 Tracks, 41:00)
At The Gates – At War With Reality (2014) – About fifteen years ago, death metal heads were throbbing over what was thought to be the final album from these melodic death metal pioneers. That album of course, was 1995’s Slaughter Of The Soul. Well after a fifteen year break, these Swedes are back with a brand new offering and I’m going to be absolutely frank about something before I even start to review it: I’ve never been able to get into At The Gates. Now this seems funny for me, being that I’m a fiend for this stuff; especially when it comes to acts like In Flames, Soilwork, Dark Tranquillity and others. I’m a sucker for melody and the vast majority of these bands (as well as their children, like Insomnium and Scar Symmetry) have proven time and again to deliver just that; so it doesn’t really make sense that I wouldn’t be able to get into a major part of what makes some of the offspring of these bands as great as they are to begin with. You may not notice it, but At The Gates riffs alone are used tremendously on several metal albums, spanning from not only melodic death metal, but to offshoots like metalcore and deathcore as well. They’re a big part of the whole fucking genre to be exact, but my feelings still remained. So what did I do? I went back after many years and re-listened to Slaughter Of The Soul.
Now I see why I can’t get into it. While there were good parts here and there, the entire album seemed to rehash the same song for about the full-length of the record. I felt like I was being barreled by the same track over and over and over again. I felt myself trying so hard to like it, as it’s a classic and all – but I just could not get into the album to save my life. Then immediately after, I started to play At War With Reality an in an instant, I was in complete amazement. This is the exact thing that I wished Slaughter Of The Soul would have been. Not only do we have more than just the same couple sets of leads over and over again, we’ve also got texture, vibrancy and some absolutely spell-binding solo efforts. After a short introduction that we don’t care about (but it does set the tone for the album) come some wonderful fucking leads from Anders Bjorler and Martin Larsson on “Death And The Labyrinth 2:33” which even though seems to roll into core territory (Just calling it like I see it, folks) manages to deliver in the guitar department, regardless of the fact that Tomas Lindberg sounds like he’s in Madball or Sworn Enemy. Then the title cut comes in (3:08) as the melody section really helps to highlight the piece and even throws in a rather meaningful solo. And that’s what I missed on Slaughter Of The Soul. The track contains plenty of chugs (and I’ve certainly heard this in deathcore bands like Heaven Shall Burn, but I like those guys so there’s no problem there) but other than that, I it’s quite a nifty piece and gelled much more with me than last track. “The Circular Ruins 4:27” throws in more texture, as Lindberg’s vocals work to illustrate what almost seems to be a bit of narration before another solo hits and ends abruptly. Killer melody lines come in right near the end of the piece though, so you’re definitely getting your money’s worth there. “Heroes And Tombs 3:59” brings with it a bit of dread, as thick chugs fill the room and eerie riff melodies help to provide a little bit of plague into the atmosphere. “The Conspiracy Of The Blind 3:18” reminds me of Slaughter Of The Soul from the very instant, but I’ll daresay that it’s got more melodic punch than anything on that record ever did. It almost sounds a little like Amon Amarth, but I’ll let that slide. The choice to utilize some acoustic melodies in the track doesn’t hurt either. It’s not something that we’d expect and it works. The track ends with a beautiful fucking solo and I really felt this one the first time I heard it. Definitely a highlight for the record. “Order From Chaos 3:25” starts out light and almost ritualistic, with some spoken word vocals right before an eruption of thumping riffs and Lindgren’s shouts that seem to break in between a little slice of melody for good measure. It’s a bit of an oddity and it feels like more of a B-Side, but apparently they liked it enough to put on the full record, so that’s why it’s here. “The Book Of Sand (The Abomination 4:28)” begins next and after a rather hearty intro, the song immediately rips into possibly one of the heaviest performances that we’ve heard from these guys so far. Yet it also features some experimental passages that I seem to find work very well in the context of the song. At The Gates said that they were experimenting on this one, so I’m glad to see that all of that wasn’t a big bluff. They really did go above and beyond to experiment on this record, making this track yet another album highlight. “The Head Of The Hydra 3:38” also manages to capture that Slaughter Of The Soul atmosphere, but this song really manages to pummel down making for a pit ready piece that not only delivers, but still shows some impressive lines of melody. I don’t know what it is, but these last few songs have really shown these guys on their A-game and I’d recommend the whole album based on them alone. Seriously, these tracks are melodic death metal monuments (No, don’t fade out that riff yet!) and I definitely recommend you give them a listen. After all of that awesomeness, the band figures that you need a break and that’s what “City Of Mirrors 2:05” seems to allow. It’s a light instrumental that slowly grows in expanse, allowing unimaginable amounts of melody to come alive, with leads that manage to shake the earth itself. “Eater Of Gods 3:50” rolls in with some chugs and yeah, that same style that you’d expect from Slaughter Of The Soul. But so far, it’s been sounding more like Slaughter Of The Soul on HGH. I’m sorry, I just had to stop a minute and catch my breath. That fucking solo came out of there like a beautiful big-breasted woman who needs to watch where she’s going with those things. That’s the kind of solo effort that could start a fucking car crash. The song then manages to change shape (as many of them do) and allow for a spoken word piece, right before Lindgren brings it on home. “Upon Pillars Of Dust 2:39” is a pretty short piece that reminds me of The Crown except with more groove elements but it’s not really all that necessary. The chorus section is relatively strong, but I feel that it could have been fleshed out a little more. The final track on this version of the album (if you want the bonus tracks, then you’ll have to purchase the Deluxe Edition when the album is available – I’m sure they’ll be worth it) is “The Night Eternal 5:42” which really ends the album on a crushing and definitely “death metal” night. Both in its lyrical matter and oppressive leads, this one certainly seems to offer a perfect closing argument for the new record, as some of the most beautiful textural melodies that I’ve ever heard from these gentlemen come out of the woodwork allowing me to put all of the doubts that I ever had about this band not being memorable, into the waste bin. There’s no question in my mind that At War With Reality is definitely one of the best records that I’ve ever heard from At The Gates, all things considered. The record offered loads of melodies, textures and experimentalism that will change the way that I think about this band forever. While I may never be able to get into the 1995 classic, Slaughter Of The Soul it’s certain that I’ve found my niche with this album. Needless to say, At War With Reality is hands down, one of the best albums of the year and a definite recommend to melodic death metal fans worldwide. The Grim Tower highly recommends it to the point where I would scream it from a mountaintop, even though it admittedly had a rough beginning compared to the grandiosity that lies in wait. It’s like wandering through a dragon’s treasure hoard. You might first see glimmers of gold and jewels scattered throughout the grimy walls, but as you continue walking you’ll eventually find the treasure… and the dragon. At The Gates is definitely that dragon.
(13 Tracks, 44:00)