Napalm Records Roundup: Amberian Dawn, Serenity & Victorius
Today we’re reviewing the three latest power metal-adjacent albums from Napalm Records’ roster.
Victorius – Space Ninjas from Hell
After a few full-lengths of cliche-ridden, even generic euro-styled power metal that also happened to be simple, hook-riddled fun, Victorius underwent an aesthetic transformation on Dinosaur Warfare – Legend of the Powersaurus. On a deeper level there was no real change, but the band slapped an 80’s/synthwave/retro aesthetic on themselves, wrote a few dinosaur references in their lyrics, every bit as generic as before. All the while- and this is the important point- stripping down the hooks from their songs. Previously their output, despite all it’s shortcomings, had easily challenged the simultaneous output of all the Freedom Calls and Hammerfalls in the world, but placing roughly all of the EP’s weight of vocalist David Baßin’s shoulders, as capable as he is, was a terrible idea.
Except that it worked; their profile rose violently and got the band signed on Napalm Records because of synthwave and dinos. Space Ninjas from Hell replaces the dinosaur’s with shallow, generic Japan references – ninjas, samurai, Nippon, wasabi, you know the drill- but other than that follows right at it’s predecessor’s hind. Somehow, Space Ninjas from Hell is even more cliche-ridden and generic than before. With double-bass beats, chugging rhythms, a handful of thrashier riffs, and, as a new trick, heavily present synths that are mostly just used to double vocal melodies. The guitarists keep busier than on the previous EP but rarely still bust out anything noteworthy or even integral to the compositions.
While it’s a step-up from Dinosaur Warfare, Space Ninjas has done absolutely nothing to break the mold – unless a sample from a YouTube sketch series beaten to death some 25-years ago, Annoying Orange, counts – only painting the band into a narrower corner, and it still isn’t all that fun. It’s yet another album that feels the need to underline how supposedly fun it is without having spent as much time it takes to tell their jokes with refining them. It’s the audio equivalent of Super Mario Brothers, the Pest, and the CGI-fart bubbles in The Spawn. Just as John Leguizamo’s career somehow exists despite all of those and being a notorious asshole, fart jokes will continue to be the epitome of comedy, and Victorius will find more success focusing on “goofy parody aesthetic” than on their songwriting. The penultimate “Cosmic Space Commando Base” briefly flashes the group’s skill at crafting hooks, so maybe there’s still some hope though. Thank god it’s followed by a two-and-a-half minute spoken word piece regarding the album’s concept.
2/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
Amberian Dawn – Looking For You
“Melodic ABBA-metal” with black metal affiliations? This can only be a total and complete trainwreck, or extremely good pop metal. Well, the whole “black metal affiliations” thing is a bit of a stretch, but drummer Joonas Pykälä-Aho is the long time drummer of Azaghal, Lathspell and other such HVNK KVLT bands. Guitarist Emppu Pohjalainen, whose Thaurorod you should very much give the time of day, was responsible for the mastering of my 2018 EOTY #3, Vargrav’s Netherstorm (former members would bring that number up by five more bands). But that’s one way to get you your attention. Having started as a fairly standard, symphonically-inclined power metal band with a classically trained vocalist, that took a too-soon, too-close turn towards a darker sound and a carnival-esque aesthetic on Circus Black before finding their current vocalist Capri, who, despite being classically trained as well, prefers a more regular rock singing style. Amberian Dawn quickly began to make the best of her range, incorporating pop-melodies and flirting with neoclassical shred.
Much, but not all, of that newfound melodic language flirted with ABBA, and by the time Looking For You was written, the band had entirely given in to this influence, now having infused the rest of their songwriting with it as well. The keyboard arrangements are plentiful though not lush, the guitars, bass and drums are largely left to keep the pace, which, considering how moderate it remains throughout, doesn’t seem much of a task, yet no one seeks to deviate from the strict constructs. Capri’s voice is warm and bright, and having completely forgone the classical style on this record, she makes short work of the material at hand. For a group as vocal-centric as Amberian Dawn, less wouldn’t do anyways. The band’s self-appointed genre is so fitting, fleshing out their songcraft feels like a waste of all parties’ time, and there’s even a cover of “Lay All Your Love On Me” included.
A few tracks do deviate from the formula slightly, namely the ballad “Universe,” in which the influence is only prominent and the Fabio Lione duet – “Symphony Nr. 1 Part 3 – Awakening,” reminiscent of their more pompous and grandiloquent material. “Cherish My Memory,” from the first album of new material featuring Capri, has been remastered and thrown in as a bonus track; considering the amount of material the band has previously re-recorded, it seems odd that this wasn’t the case here. It’s a nice song, and of the very first to showcase the band’s growing ABBA influence.
Amberian Dawn was never a remarkable sympho-power unit, but they are a very good pop metal band. It does turn out they’re neither an extremely good one nor the trainwreck of implied facelessness as predicted, though. Looking For You could use more variation, even if the band sounds perfectly comfortable doing what they do, and I’m waiting for the revelation of layering to strike keyboardist/songwriter Tuomas Seppälä’s head and show him it isn’t a necessity for the vocals and instruments to simultaneously play the same hook throughout. Nevertheless, Amberian Dawn’s ninth is an enjoyable piece of easy-going pop metal, with a promise of better things to come. Though I am not yet sure of it’s longevity.
3,5/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
Serenity – The Last Knight
Before pressing play on The Last Knight, I knew next to nothing about Serenity, only that around three years ago, they released a concept album about Richard I that completely failed to address the complexity of his character. I had never listened to the album in question, but laying mine eyes upon the art which adorns it’s cover did stir memories of several reviewers complaining about it, so naturally, an investigation was abound.
It turns out Lionheart was completely focused on the gallant soldier aspect of a man described as a bad son, bad man and a bad king. No mentions of how he only ever spent five months of his entire reign on English soil, that he spoke no English or the massacres that he administrated, sparing no women nor children. Songs of valour and unity, of bravery for the glory of God, refusing to acknowledge the man’s violent, vain and selfish nature. An uncritical, supposedly historical concept album of the crusades and a pious hero whom never existed outside of literature. That, my friends, is an extremely terrible way to make a concept album, and even worse a way to make my acquaintance.
The Last Knight is another historical concept album, this time concerning the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, a character undoubtedly no less complex than Richard I was, but also a man of whom I know considerably less about – only that he was an avid supporter of the arts and sciences, enjoyed decorating armours to the extent that Maximilian armour is known as a concept of it’s own, and that by the end of his life he had been so depressed that he had literally dragged his own coffin with him wherever he went for several years. Lionheart was by no means the first of Serenity’s historically-inspired records and a quick scour indicates that while it may have been the most egregious oversight, such concepts as historical accuracy have never weighed heavily upon the scales of Serenity. And so, I am going to assume that this is the case with The Last Knight as well instead of studying the life of Maximilian I to such an extent that I could with certainty challenge the image of his illustrated by Serenity, and the claims staked, which would doubtless be far more research the band put into this record.
I came to uncover the truth of Serenity’s past as a power metal band caught in the cross-section between Kamelot and Sonata Arctica. Over time, their symphonic tendencies would claim more territory and soon enough, the only remaining relic of Sonata Arctica’s influence had become Georg Neuhauser. The vocalist still retains his striking similarity to Tony Kakko, only with a more powerful, rounded out voice that has not lost it’s edge amidst the seas of time. Though in his melodic language it is not the Laplander, whose voice is foremost heard. The hand of Roy Khan hangs ever about the unfinished notations, imprinting upon them the mark of its master.
A grandiose, orchestral intro which serves as the title track, sets a mood quickly contradicted by “Invictus.” Workmanlike riffs, melodies, and chugging rhythms serve their purpose, but ultimately are mere vehicles of convenience on the route to the next chorus. Though the wrath of Khan may still be evoked, so much Neuhauser owes to him, Serenity has transferred the blood of their compositions from Young to fresh, resulting in even the vocalist daring to stray further from his influences. While The Last Knight does not break free of their obvious influences, “My Kingdom Come” is every bit as classic Kamelot as anything the Floridians have achieved on this decade, and it does serve to establish Serenity as an individual band beyond said influences.
It is on the department of orchestral arrangements that Serenity shines best. In nuance and dynamic understanding they come closer to a modern film score than any given classical composer, always grandiose, and often more so than memorable pieces, a likely result of their chorus-centered songwriting, but never mere fluff. But it is the way they are balanced between the chunky grooves that is never achieved by many who have dabbled in such arrangements. The knowledge of who produced or mixed this record was not relayed to me, but I can only assume the band once again worked with their longtime collaborator Jan Vacik, who’s done a tremendous job in finding the equilibrium between all elements. Though for a band relying so strongly on soaring choruses, it would make sense to let their choruses truly soar, which could have been made easier by not keeping the volume levels steadily loud at all times.
The Last Knight’s stumbling block is the congruence of it’s material. It is very well made, but lacking in personality and memorability. One workmanlike piece after another in almost complete uniformity becoming a vicious circle feeding off of itself. The first few spins it was difficult to tell one song from another, and even though it can be said that the album has grown on me and the songs become more distinguishable from each other, the growth has been marginal and it is largely the choruses which stand out at all. Much could have been achieved with a broader palette, even if it had only meant incorporating acoustic instruments (as they do in the bonus track) to the actual album itself. By giving the compositions room to breathe and further develop them instead of forcing each into the four-and-a-half minute window. The potential is so obviously there, this seems like a conscious choice, but not one for the better.
3/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
Each of the bands’ Facebook pages have been linked above for your convenience, so take a chance and go tell them what you think of them. Or visit Napalm Records on their social media pages or website.