Cold Steel Dawn – Warm Summer Wounds
With the last of winter finally defeated, Cold Steel Dawn makes its triumphant return and brings you something molten and monumental to help celebrate the fires of damnation and glory alike. Brace yourself for mountain-levelling riffs, and your wallet for last-minute bargains.
Sirocco – The March through Crimson Frost (2007, Independent)
Folk metal in the form most people recognized is more or less just dumbed down heavy/power metal with whatever clumsy assortment of exotic instruments Nuclear Blast executives thought would make porridge-grade songwriting stand out from the crowd. Unsurprisingly it’s not often you find bands that really invest into traditional metalcraft and imbue it with the earthy, pre-modern vibe of the genre. Off of the top of my head I can only think of Greece’s Airged L’amh and Ireland’s Darkest Era. These Irish bards however take it a step further, going for something akin to a mixture of the latter band, Solstice (UK) style bard-like melody, and a fair share of classic NWOBHM-derived dual guitar harmonies, even tinted with subtle hints of thrashy rhythm. It’s a very particular sound, one that was never common before and likely will never be again.
Technically fluent and fronted by throaty bellowed singing, Sirocco’s sophomore captures the more sombre side of the genre and a sense of gritty, grounded human frailty amidst a backdrop of clan warfare, ancient ceremonies, and unforgiving wilderness. While capable of some fairly gutsy riffing, they go for an approach similar to Mexico’s Heaven’s Decay where ornate melodies, frequently harmonized by comparison, guide a song through mystery and majesty alike. There’s moments of semi-technical syncopation at a few key junctions but they’re not particularly emphasized in place of a wide range of melody, from the swelling almost Thin Lizzy style twin guitar interplay of “Winter Solstice” whose bittersweet demeanour perfectly accompanies the desolate lyricism to the subtle polyphony of “At the Serpent Stone” which breaks into a short but sweet harmony between both guitars and sharp basswork hounding closely behind. The singing definitely is an acquired taste but the carefully orchestrated technique and invigorating melodic sensibility gives this an understated power matched by few in this subgenre. Think of it as where Darkest Era might have gone if they weren’t so Primordial influenced.
Inward Path – Labyrinth (GAL Records, 1998)
Finding bands comparable to Psychotic Waltz usually stops after Spiral Architect and I guess Twisted Into Form given the shared members of both but in Ukraine of all places and on a mostly cassette pressing label came this peculiar band. Like the last two bands, they focused on the more technical aspect of Psychotic Waltz as opposed to the psychedelic one, being less riffy but somehow not insubstantial. This is due to the emphasis on semi-Watchtower reminiscent snaking rhythmic patterns frequently woven through with ambiguously toned lead guitar semi reminiscent of prog-era Death (whom they covered for the follow-up). They’ve even included some cheap sounding keyboards in the background but rather than detracting they add to the surreal dream-like mood present, usually playing a backing role to the technical labyrinth-carving that guides these six songs.
They are all quite winding and follow some almost nonsensical structures but there’s enough compelling technique and mystifying vocals that they never really go into Opeth-style stretched out excess. Sometimes as on “Inner Voice’s Wish” the vocals take on a low-key growling nature and a bit of palm muted chug adds an anxious, terrified mood when combined with a dissonant guitar lead, almost like being stalked by some unseen monster in your own dreams. Yet at the same time, they end the album on a surprisingly positive and uplifting note with “After Beginning” going straight up semi-playful with notable fusion touches and outright major key sounding melodies. It sounds dumb on paper but they don’t turn it into a single attempt, still utilizing the same convoluted songwriting but just in a weirdly life-affirming way. If you dig stuff like Cynic and 90’s Fates Warning, this will probably tickle your fancy for cerebral and unusual technically minded progressive metal.
Weaponlord – Hail the Victorious (Independent, 2018)
Riffs are probably the last thing on most people’s minds when somebody brings up neoclassical power metal. However there are a few bands like Texans Helstar (Nosferatu), Last Empire (USA), Dragonship, and Ancient Creation that knew they could have Shrapnel Records style ardent melody and explosive shredding without the often lacking rhythms and sugary indulgences of At Vance or Ark Storm. This year they are joined by this Seattle band, mixing the semi-thrashy inclinations of late 80’s speed metal tinged American style power metal with the poetic lead phrasing gifted from the temple of Malmsteen et al. Baroque style melodies are flaunted as boldly as any fluffy euro-power band in how they imbue the antiquated in the modern. They’re backed by agile punchy rhythms that could trade blows with Liege Lord or Attacker, both teaming up to combine mercilessness and melody with laser-precise songwriting. It is more prominent in the album’s second half (though it does open with an absolutely insane rendition of “Dies Irae”).
It’s quite hooky, moreso than is the norm for the classic American approach to power metal but its melodies are carefully regulated by varied tempos and a powerful mid to tenor range singer whose viscerally satisfying charisma adds a grounded element to this high-adrenaline onslaught. The band can seriously bust out the rhythms when they need to like on the heavyweight bruiser “March of the Weaponlord” or the absurdly awesome crunching chords of “Witch Hunt” and you’ll frequently find yourself rewinding the solos just to hear how those fretboards went from fire hazard to full blown inferno on an MSNBC late night report. If there is one problem it is how the volume and production seems to shift on a few songs later on in the album, almost sounding like demos, though it’s thankfully far from crippling. One of the year’s finest albums and a hell of a debut.
Saber Tiger – Invasion (Tusk Force, 1992)
Riff city. Riff fucking city. That’s the short story. There isn’t really that much of a long one because this is as straightforward as you can get for heavy metal but that sells short the debut of these long running Japanese heavy metal icons. Saber Tiger knew their way around riffs to the same extent your lungs do with oxygen and they have them in the spades. They can pull them out at nearly every tempo and they’re all brilling with so much raw character. “Storm in the Sand” has a skipping rhythm line with lots of cool melodies slicing out of it that really unfurl beautifully in its emotive chorus, one of the best openers I’ve heard in this genre. Oh shit there are hard rocker songs too? Hey don’t stop reading you twat; they’re actually fucking amazing and not throwaway single attempts unlike many 80’s bands. Listen closely at how “Nasty Heart” pauses just enough between its half-bouncing rhythms and the bassline that spaces them out, using that tension to explode into some gripping, threatening harmonies and that one lead motif that whips out to and fro throughout the song. Hell “Under the Control” flaunts this even harder, turning normally stale paused phrases into a fistpump inducing series of swaggering melodies into a wild, bluesy chorus just begging to up the stakes.
Still unsatisfied you nosy piece of shit? “Light-Thunder-Light”, “Fate”, and “Liberate” are all high-octane semi speed metal warmachines, each one packing enough TNT in their bounding energy that they almost sound like they could have been on Hell’s Human Remains albeit without their manic devilry and deranged singing. The second in particular has an almost hopeful prechorus that leaves you completely unprepared for the runaway go-train intensity with the sudden stomping-smashing of its chorus. Slower and moodier numbers are no problem either as the raise-your-lighters and hold-back-the-feels mounting drama of “Back to the Wall” proves and “The Bluster” with its Accept style muscular power chords augmented by the flashes of lightning melody attacking like barracudas for the bridge into the chorus. Yet in their boldest move, they end this masterpiece with the quasi-proggy melancholy of “Misery”, switching gears from classic Schwartznegger film mayhem to gut-wrenchingly melancholy, carefully building up their verses with looping leads quietly flowing like tiny streams, carrying over their sorrowful nature into its truly exhilarating and uplifting choruses. Yes, the solos here are some gorgeous, expressive stuff but they work so well because they capitalize on the rest of the track’s thematic punch so well; it’s like the best ending credits scene music you’ve ever heard. Why the shit are you even reading this part of the paragraph, go bid for this on eBay now or something. I ain’t gotta say more, fuck you assholes and go get this album already, it’s that skull-exploding-ly amazing.
Tarot – Reflections (Swords and Chains Records, 2016)
This is basically a near perfect companion listen for Hallas’ debut album from last year (TovH Stream), existing in a similar category of semi-metallic mysticism themed progressive hard rock. However where those swedes are exuberant and shimmering with colour, Tarot are gloomy and pensive. They’re simpler by comparison but the moods and songwriting are far more cryptic, akin to the leftover Deep Purple and Rainbow elements of Saracen’s Heroes, Saints and Fools crossed with the haunting melodies and foreboding doominess of Pagan Altar. The band are masters of piercing, angular leads that can suddenly shift or direct the momentum of a song or bring songs to a fevered pitch while backed by antiquated moog organ playing so well integrated you almost don’t notice it even when the band amps the intensity. The singing might be a bit of a stumbling block for some as it sounds like what I imagine a garden gnome who also happens to be a Gandalf tier sorcerer might sound with its nasally, high pitched tone but for the offbeat weirdness present here it ends up fitting in the best way possible. It definitely could use a bit more rhythmic punch at a few points as the band rely a lot on the organs to buttress their rhythms and at seven songs, one of which is an interlude, it almost feels like an EP. Still, it’s their best work to date and a great example of the potential still left to explore in this field.
Cover image courtesy of Geoffroy Thoorens.