Saturday, February 21, 2015

Ensiferum - One Man Army


Ensiferum's career trajectory could be described as "wonky" or "inconsistent", but that's odd if you consider the fact that the personal ratings I've given every album increase until Victory Songs reaches the pinnacle and the following two albums score consecutively lower.  I mean, that seems pretty clear cut to me, no?  They started off inconsistent with a penchant for boring filler dullards, got more and more epic, focused, and energetic, and then got slightly experimental before just giving up and making a full album of those boring filler tracks from the debut.  It doesn't matter that my heart tells a different story about how they had numerous peaks and valleys and have experimented with a lot of ideas (not all of which hit bullseye) since day one; they went up and then went down.  Case closed.

In charges One Man Army, which opens with one of the best intro/full song combos they've had since "Ad Victoriam/Blood is the Price of Glory" in "March of War/Axe of Judgment".  I'm not kidding when I say that I was utterly floored by the intensity on display during the opening number.  The band hasn't sounded this hungry since 2007, and man is that a welcome change from the bland trot of Unsung Heroes.  This has been earning some comparisons to the debut album, and at least on "Axe of Judgment", it's absolutely fitting.  The insanely fast tremolo riffing with the soft, heroic choirs over the top, interspersed with jaunty jangling melodies and clear singalong moments can only bring to mind classics like "Windrider" or "Hero in a Dream".  Then the bridge devolves into an uncharacteristically heaving chugging riff, with banging toms and clear fist pumping "HEY!" moments before another crowd rousing gallop and soaring harmonized guitar solo.  This is just not the kind of thing you were ever gonna hear on the last album, and it was the absolute perfect song to open this album with.  It makes a definitive statement right out of the gate that they heard the complaints about Unsung Heroes, and they aimed to correct it.

There's.... well there's a slight problem with that.  It does assuage the sting of the last disappointment by loading this album down with more aggressive, epic, and most importantly, focused songs, but it sort of did exactly what I didn't like about the debut.  Yeah, it's back to being pretty much half fast songs and half slow songs.  Now, this isn't all bad, because some of the slower/mid paced tracks are pretty good, "Heathen Horde" brings to mind the fabulous "Wanderer" and "Warrior Without a War" conveys some great atmosphere, but fuck just drop the Heathen Throne saga already.  It doesn't work, it took up the only boring segments of From Afar and managed to be an agonizingly long 17 minute track on Unsung Heroes.  I don't think I can chalk it up to coincidence anymore that every single track labeled with that subtitle ends up being a pointless listen.  Across the six tracks that's comprised it so far (I don't care what anybody says, "Tumman Virran Taa" is part of it), we're at a staggering 55 minutes of cruddy music from the band.  Just... why?  So yes, as I'm sure you could guess, "My Ancestor's Blood" and "Descendants, Defiance, Domination" aren't particularly good.  They're actually fairly inoffensive when taken at face value (and to be fair, "My Ancestor's Blood" has potential to be one of their good mid paced tracks, but it just falls flat and ends up doing nothing worthwhile), just being boring songs that trot along at mid pace with bland melodies that don't elicit any particularly strong emotions.  But for some reason they irritate me probably more than they should.  Maybe it's just because fuck Heathen Throne stop it seriously.

Okay, so that's like sixteen minutes of the album that I definitively would rather not listen to, does the rest fare better?  Yes of course.  Like I said, this brings to mind the first album, so the dichotomy between songs is really clear and the gap is pretty wide, with "Cry for the Earth Bounds" being a sort of okay but kinda lame mid paced drowse-fest, but the title track and "Two of Spades" just completely slay.  I was pretty vocal early on about how the title track was lame, but within the context of the full album it actually works marvelously.  It's a quick, high octane barnburner with a massive pre-chorus.  The actual chorus lets the buildup down slightly but the massive choirs end up being the part that sticks in your head so it's not so bad. 

"Two of Spades" has been getting a lot of hype during the album's promotional run, and let me tell you, it's completely deserved.  I'm not kidding when I say this may have finally usurped "Battle Song", "Guardians of Fate", or "Victory Song" as my favorite Ensiferum track.  It opens first with a very adrenaline pumping intro reminiscent of "Twilight Tavern", and from there it just picks up speed and the melodies only get stronger.  This is what they're best at, they can intertwine this strong metallic intensity of trad and power metal and throw these unabashedly dorky folk melodies over it and make it completely fucking work.  It all feels like it was born this way, like the two main elements of their sound were borne from the same embryo.  They developed together before being brought into this world together, and it shows.  Now apart from having one of the best choruses the band has ever had, there is one other aspect of this song that's been getting press, and let me tell you how utterly fucknuts wrong people are about it.  I've read a lot of press reviews long before release say that it utilizes "western" folk elements and constantly compare it to "Stone Cold Metal" from two albums ago.  Okay, so it's not something they haven't done before, right?  They already had the banjos, tin whistles, and saloon piano breakdown in that song, they can't really surprise me.  Yeah that's where everybody drops the ball like Jackie Smith.  The band does indeed break down into something they haven't done before, but that thing is a Dschinghis Khan song.  I'm not even kidding, this is straight up dorky late 70s disco music, complete with the "HOO!  HAH!" shouts leading into the verse section.  It's perfect, I can't imagine anything else this stupid being this incredible.  I can only imagine the band, with their signature look of wearing nothing but Finnish flags lining up in a choreographed dance sequence with gigantic grins on their face, punching the air in rhythm and kicking their feet out with glee before Markus takes a step forward and says his one line while the backing dancers yell out their response immediately afterwards.  I'll never get over it, something this dumb should be shunned for the forced randomness but it's just too perfect.  The entire album, to me, hinges on how fucking great the metal parts and how unexpectedly fun the silly parts of "Two of Spades" are.

So yeah, the opening rant was basically just to illustrate that Ensiferum managed to overcome their worrying slide into worthless crap, and while they've emulated their least-good classic album with the self titled debut, the same thing holds true here as it did there; the good songs are so fucking good that the boring shit of the bad songs really doesn't stick with you too much.  "Axe of Judgment" and "Two of Spades" are two of the best songs they've written in eight years, and there are a couple other great tracks scattered throughout.  The only real issue is the inconsistency that plagued their earliest work.  Markus and Jari have shown that they have the exact same problem with songwriting, since they've both been struggling with slow, epic songs and completely nailing fast and melodic ones ever since they parted ways.  So with that in mind, the album starts with a four track streak of fun, goes on a slight dip, picks up again with the flawless "Two of Spades" and frankly only half-good "My Ancestor's Blood" before being skippable at the end.  This isn't the godsend that we were all hoping for after Unsung Heroes, but it's a good pick-me-up and shows that the band does indeed care about pleasing the fans a bit.  They still have some fire left in them, and now lets just hope they can focus it for the next album.

RATING - 79%

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Desolate Shrine - The Heart of the Netherworld

Snoring through Wonka's Boat to Hell

Eh, all that can really be said here is that Desolate Shrine are fairly decent at a fairly decent style and that's really it.  This'll be a short one because despite the album's 60+ minute runtime, you really only get one musical idea.  If you've heard this style of black/death metal that's gotten pretty popular lately, you've heard Desolate Shrine before.

The Heart of the Netherworld isn't a bad album, and I really like some of the elements they tried working with, particularly the very long songs (apart from the intro, nothing is shorter than six minutes and the average length is probably somewhere around nine minutes), and I like that they don't pad out the runtime with spooky atmospheric parts or anything.  They just blast from minute one and never stop.  It's a very filthy, high octane ride through dark, twisted corridors, and with better songwriting I think this could really stand out in the same way Bolzer has.  Now, I'm not much of a Bolzer fan for the same reason (a couple great riffs here and there amidst a mostly plateaued experience), but both bands do the one thing they do fairly well.  I can't really pick out highlights because of the plateau problem I mentioned, but it's a fairly solid romp.  No song is going to dip below "pretty okay", and if you're a marked fan of the style then you'll likely lap this up like a thirsty dog.  But for somebody like me who craves a little bit more variety between songs unless that one idea just absolutely blows me away, this leaves me feeling kind of cold.

That said, coldness is definitely something the band seems to be aiming for, though in a different capacity.  The tone of everything is very distant and alien despite the upfront and punishing nature of the music, and the effect would be cool if it had any smattering of originality behind it.  It might be unfair, but I think that's Desolate Shrine's biggest problem, their timing was just a bit off.  The Heart of the Netherworld was released during such a groundswell of albums in this style that it manages to ride the wave of hype and good will, but not early enough to really stand out in any way thanks to them not really producing any new ideas.  "We Dawn Anew" knocks the tempo down to a sickly crawl, but that one churning number still manages to just blend into the white noise that the rest of the album produces.  Basically it's a Dark Descent release, that's it.  I pick on the label a lot because it's just sort of an easy target thanks to their visibility and rabid fanbase, but really and truly they've never released a bad album (apart from Emptiness's Nothing but the Whole, which I think is just awkward and unfocused, but I'm in a massive minority on that one), but this, just like most of their oeuvre, is a distant, twisted album full of dissonant morbidity that just ends up falling by the wayside since strong songwriting seems often neglected over an overwhelming atmosphere.  And that's what this is, it's overwhelming in its darkness but the meat is undercooked and bland.  It's worth at least a cursory listen and it's far from being shitty, but it's background black/death in the grand scheme of things.  Behemoth may mostly kinda suck but at least they know how to grab your attention.  Desolate Shrine doesn't.

The cover art fucking rules though, so there's that.

RATING - 60%

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Gamma Ray - Empire of the Undead


Man, it seems like Gamma Ray just has no idea what they're doing anymore, doesn't it?  Kai's been running on fumes for nearly a decade at this point, with Majesty thru To the Metal being riddled with blatant plagiarism (though the former still stands as their last great album despite the constant riff stealing) and everything since Land of the Free pt. II: Electric Boogaloo sounding like a calculated exercise in ticking every single trope the band had established as instrumental to their classics up to that point without actually reproducing the spirit of the 95-05 era.  Unfortunately, Empire of the Undead, while teasing some great tracks with "Master of Confusion" and the title track a few years back, ends up as yet another nigh-lifeless retread through moments they'd already perfected twenty years earlier.

Nothing illustrates this more than the opening track, "Avalon".  On its own, it's not necessarily a bad song.  It's got a nice, catchy chorus and a great galloping bridge, those are two things that Gamma Ray has always been at and I could hear them recycle that formula for the next two decades if the songwriting was good enough. And therein lies the problem, it's just not.  Not anymore.  "Avalon" was clearly chosen as the opener purely in an attempt to recapture the lightning in a bottle they nailed in 1995 with "Rebellion in Dreamland".  In all actuality, this wouldn't make the cut on anything up to No World Order.  That's the saddest part about this album really, it's full of songs that are essentially okay, but just so far away from the majesty that the band used to churn out with alarming regularity a decade ago.

Now, I'm being slightly unfair, and I know I should just judge this album on its own merits, but even then all I can really say is that it's a pretty safe and predictable album with only three songs that stand out as above average.  "Hellbent" is a mad thrashing ripper with more vitriol than they've arguably ever showcased.  The lyrics are cheesy and dumb but the message stands tall regardless: "We are here because we fucking love this music and we're going to play it until we drop dead mid-song".  The title track fares about equally as well, being one of the darkest and most aggressive songs they've penned since "Hell Is Thy Home".  "Master of Confusion" stands as the most "normal" song they've written in a while that's managed to rise above mediocre, since it rides on a recycled melody they've used at least twice before and just retreads lyrical themes they've beaten to death over the years, but it's a charming uptempo power rocker that is certainly worth a listen and stands as a highlight.  And I guess I can offer up some props to "Demonseed" for the main riff being a nice jaunty bouncing number with a touch of blues flavoring.  Granted, it's only two notes away from being identical to the outro of Megadeth's "Wake Up Dead", but that's been Kai's modus operandi for a while now so it's almost pointless to hold it against him anymore.

But really that's it, the rest of the album goes by without much consequence.  There's a lot of filler to be found here, even if it's pretty varied in execution.  "Time for Deliverance" continues their time honored tradition of shoehorning in awful ballads on damn near every album and "Born to Fly" makes its mark by being one of the most utterly inconsequential songs ever featured on a power metal album.  I can namedrop songs all day but really Empire of the Undead finds itself being reminiscent of a Hammerfall album in the sense that it has a couple good songs amidst a bunch of boring go-nowhere filler.  And just like Hammerfall, Gamma Ray are sticking to their strengths throughout the duration of the record, the sad truth is just that, apart from Kai's voice (which is just as strong as ever), the band isn't all that strong anymore in the songwriting department.  I remember not really noticing until their live album, but damn near 100% of their best songs feature some sort of epic break in the bridge where the whole band falls out and builds up again for one huge release.  They redid this at least a dozen and a half times to great effect, but it never mattered because it was always awesome.  If they tried that now, it'd be massively noticeable by the sheer fact that there's a very large chance that the song surrounding such a moment would be toe tapping at best and soul meltingly dull at worst.

Maybe Zimmerman's departure was more instrumental to their future than I had initially realized (I'm pretty sure the other three guys did the bulk of the writing, didn't they?), but at the end of the day, Empire of the Undead sees Gamma Ray keep their streak alive of not releasing any out-and-out bad albums or songs, but still ends up being on the bottom end of their oeuvre, despite the darker shift in tone.  Worth a listen for established fans for the few good songs, but most of them will probably leave the experience feeling underwhelmed on the whole.  It's another album to justify more tours, but it's nothing you're going to proudly display in the Heavy Metal Hall of Fame.

RATING - 60%