Friday, January 31, 2014

Lost Horizon - A Flame to the Ground Beneath

Sam Jewkowsky

This is another one I don't think I'll ever fully understand.  Lost Horizon, once upon a time, was probably the most hyped power metal band in the universe (at least on the corners of the internet I frequent), and they're still cited as one of the few examples of great Europower from people who can't stand Europower.  Now I, as a noted Europower fanatic (stop lying to yourselves and embrace Rhapsody and Nightwish already, dammit), this filled me with conflicted anticipations.  On one hand, surely they must be one of the most impressive bands in the style if they can transcend fandoms so seamlessly, but on the other hand, there must be something wholly different about them that makes them so easily removed from their geographical scene.  After nearly a decade of listening to this album roughly once a year, I think I can finally speechify my feelings towards Lost Horizon.

They rule, they suck, they're middle of the road, and most of all, they're disappointing.

Honestly, I still struggle to give a concrete answer as to how I view them from a qualitative standpoint.  I think there's a ton of potential at play, and there are some stunningly brilliant moments thrown around from time to time, but there are also long stretches where I find myself checking how much time is left in the song because it's just starting to bore me so much.  The band tends to be both awesome and lame at the same time, and at the end of the day I think the most poignant phrase I can use to describe them is "wasted potential" or "high-quality disappointment".

I know I have a habit of letting hype taint my views of a band, but I'm not even letting that in when discussing Lost Horizon.  They're so disappointing to me because Daniel Heiman is, without a doubt, one of the most talented vocalists I've heard in all of power metal.  Seriously, I don't think I've ever heard a more sublime balance of power, control, and range.  There are guys who have some qualities but lack others, like Joacim Cans of Hammerfall who is magnificently controlled, but wimpy as shit and sports what seems to be a half octave range, or Jens Carlsson of Persuader who sports a fairly impressive range and enough power to provide electricity to a small village, but sometimes flays wildly around like he's just lost himself entirely (in this case I don't view it as a bad thing, but from a technical sense it's not as impressive as Heiman).  Heiman is incredibly strong and incredibly clean at the same time, punctuating his performance with eardrum bursting high notes surprisingly tastefully.  He also uses his voice as a third guitar for many moments, notably "Highlander", where he has several moments of choreographed flourishes where his voice is carrying a melody that most other bands would logically use a guitar for.  I seriously cannot stress enough how impressive he is as a vocalist and how tastefully he showcases his talents.

This is such a bloody shame because the rest of the band is about as by-the-numbers and dull as you can imagine.  This band gets a lot of love from non-Europower fans for odd reasons like "they're Europower without the faggotry" or "they're just better, obviously", when really this is about as gay as any random Italian flower metal band.  I don't know what qualifies as the "gay" elements in the style, but there's no lack of major scale melodies, huge synths, soaring vocal melodies, double bass, catchy choruses, it's all here.  The only difference is that all of it is dialed back to the point of tedium.  The band takes the idea of Swedish/German flower metal and just saps all of the batshit insanity out of it.  There are no booming symphonics, only subtle keys.  There are no obscenely poppy or catchy numbers, just moments where you'll catch yourself subtly nodding your head or tapping your foot.  There are no grand sweeping choruses, only simple melodies that, while effective, just kind of happen at a pedestrian pace and never do much to grab the listener.

But BH! You've basically just described German speed metal, which you always say is your favorite niche scene!

Yeah, kinda, except not at all.  Flower metal is usually just the foundation of that early speed metal I love so much with dozens of layers of sugary fun on top.  Constant double bass, huge melodies and bombastic orchestrations.  The problem is that Lost Horizon doesn't have those superfluous elements, nor do they even have that base.  They're not fast, they're not over the top, and they're not ridiculous or fun.

But BH!  That just sounds like USPM then, since it's based more on riffing prowess than melodies or vocals!

And oddly enough, USPM fans really seem to flock to Lost Horizon.  I can kind of understand why, since (while guitar/synth melodies aren't completely absent  (check something like "Think Not Forever")), the guitars seem to take a rhythmic focus most of the time.  If you take the goddamned immaculate vocals out of the equation, you're left with almost nothing of interest.  The rhythmic showcase is dull as shit because there are almost no interesting riffs to be heard.  This is why I can't fathom the USPM fans adoring A Flame to the Ground Beneath so much.  Blue collar USPM bands like Omen, Jag Panzer, Helstar, Manilla Road, and others are just loaded with neck breaking and creative riffage.  Whenever the pace picks up to a higher tempo, Lost Horizon just does the generic flower metal thing of just simple chord progressions with a ton of palm muting, and whenever it's at a more mid pace (which the band seems to be most comfortable with), it's just dull chugging or uninteresting meandering.  I feel like the band themselves understood that Heiman was the main draw here, and so nearly everything they do is simply a backdrop for his vocal acrobatics.  There is pretty much only one thing I can give the band credit for outside of the obviously brilliant frontman, and that's that the solos are insanely good.  When the guitarists decide to just let loose, holy crap they can really melt faces. 

I keep comparing Lost Horizon to scenes they're not really a part of, but the reason for that is that they come off to me like they're trying to play one style with the vision of another at times.  It's hard to tell which is leading which, but it comes off as kind of awkward.  Are they trying to take the over the top bombast of Europower and filter it through the more sophisticated lens of USPM?  Or are they taking the simplistic, down-to-earth attitude of USPM and putting it through the more grand scope of Europower?  It feels like both at times, and it just comes off as a worst of both worlds.  And really, the only reason I'm trying to compare the two styles is because of where the band's popularity stems from.  The real scene they fit into perfectly is the northern European prog/power scene, with bands like Tad Morose, Morgana Lefay, and Pagan's Mind.  Granted, I don't really like any of those bands all that much for the same reason I find myself so conflicted with Lost Horizon.  Musically, they just bore the crap out of me.  A Flame to the Ground Beneath is loaded with great moments that all involve one member, and the rest of the band does next to nothing interesting or worthwhile.  There are a whopping six real songs that aren't ambient interludes, and half of them are 8 minutes or more.  They're structured creatively and Heiman is entertaining as always, but they just drag on for what seems like forever, and whenever it's at an instrumental section I just find myself yawning, waiting for the singer to come back.

That's the biggest problem with A Flame to the Ground Beneath to me.  It's focused on things like "maturity" and "songwriting", and I'm putting those words in "air quotes" because they so frequently seem like codewords for "boring" and "not at all entertaining".  Maturity is paying your mortgage on time and reading the newspaper every morning over coffee, having fun is spending all of your money on beer and samurai swords and reading fantasy novels before leaving to go join your friends for an all night session of "let's see who can climb this tree and jump into the lake with the most backflips".  I know what I'd rather do, is all I'm saying.  It's no different here, the songs are presented as something like a "thinking man's metal" but it just comes off sloppy and trite until Heiman shows up and wails like a banshee.  The problem is that so much of the album's running time is taken up by mid paced banality, with no instrumental segments seeming to try to break out of the greater whole of mediocrity.  There are moments of great songwriting, like the chorus of "Lost in the Depths of Me" or the final stretch of "Highlander", but on the whole it just feels like filler in between the vocal showcase.  Honestly, all of the most cliche parts (when the band goes for a more straightfoward section with double bass and big melodies) are all the highest points of the album.  This is a band that could benefit from being more predictable and typical.  Honestly, if they embraced the ideals of sugary, over-the-top flower metal, they could easily reign as a top tier band.  I get that fun wasn't really the aim of the band, but this isn't fun to listen to.  There's no sense of entertainment from the vast majority of the album.  Something like, I dunno, The Crimson Idol isn't fun at all, but it's rewarding in some capacity.  A Flame to the Ground Beneath is not rewarding in any way apart from the one obvious element that I can't stop fawning over.

I've been struggling to quantify exactly what percentage rating I'd give this album, and it's really because the good parts are extraordinarily good, but the majority of the album is just not worth listening to.  This was initially going to be part of my Jerking the Circle series (back when it was supposed to be seven reviews in seven days, before I got impatient), but I really can't bring myself to bestow the series title onto this because I kinda like it in a way.  If you took Heiman out of the equation, and replaced him with literally any other vocalist, this would score unbelievably low.  Like 20 or 30 percent.  But that's where the draw of the album comes into play, because he is so damn good that he makes the unbearably dull instrumentals and uninteresting songwriting just seem like a goddamn masterpiece.  But since he is the frontman, there is at least a small amount of enjoyment to be gleaned from the album.  I really, really wish he could find a more energetic and entertaining band to front, because he deserves to be in front of something that can actually get your blood pumping.  So in the end, a score in the fifties will have to suffice.  It's not a negative score, because this isn't a bad album, but it's not really worth recommending apart from the experience of just sitting in awe of Heiman's voice.


RATING - 55%

5 comments:

  1. Wow, someone's got an axe to grind. If the isn't your style of music why are you listening to it? Of its style, it's the best there is (providing you actually like the style), all other reviews from people 'into' it reflect this.
    This is the dumbest review i've ever read. Congratulations.

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    1. Yeah, no. He's a power metal fan, that's obvious if you read some other of his reviews. And I agree with him, this album is not really that great. And all other reviews? Well, nu-metal was very popular at one point and getting good reviews. Popularity means nothing.

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    2. Yeah I'm obviously a fan of this general music, just not Lost Horizon's little subniche. And it's not like I just bashed it to pieces or anything, I gave plenty of credit where I felt it was due. I feel like I was very clear on why I felt taking a more rhythmic focus didn't exactly work here, since the riffs weren't all that engaging and the only real highlight was the vocals. It's okay to disagree with me, I can just as easily think this is the dumbest comment I've ever read, so there's that.

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  2. One of the 10 top power metal albums of all times. Everything is perfect. The voice is out of this world and the songwriting is magnificent. The guy who wrote this review must be into lady gaga or something

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    1. I actually do like Lady Gaga. Girl knows how to pen a hook, unlike Lost Horizon.

      I recently revisted this album and yeah, my opinion hasn't changed. There are some awfully boring passages and the rhythmic focus takes a lot away from what should be an incredible album based on Heiman's performance alone. It's a shame, one of the biggest missed opportunities in metal.

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