Tag Archives: Metal

Lamb Of God – Resolution

This year marks Lamb of God’s 18th birthday – counting their fledgling days as Burn The Priest – and the band’s nothing if not persistent, earning their massive fan-base the old-fashioned way: by absolutely refusing to play anything but eardrum-pounding, southern-fried Groove Metal. Not to say the band hasn’t evolved, but by this point they know exactly what their fans want, and how to subtly tweak the formula with each subsequent release. Shedding even 2009 release Wrath’s more melodic ambitions, Resolution takes Lamb of God to heavier planes without sacrificing listenability or their trademark grooving stomp and, as they clearly intend, effectively bolts another layer on top of their established reputation. They certainly aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel here (though singer Randy Blythe apparently wants to reinvent America), but what results is rock-solid, comfortable Lamb of God that proves as accessible an entry point for neophyte fans as it does a new idol for their legions of followers to worship.

Resolution isn’t a concept work, it isn’t Lamb of God’s exciting new progressive album, and it certainly isn’t paying Christian Metal any accidental homage when it exclaims “I’ve held the hand of God and I’ve sung the Devil’s song” (“To The End”). It’s mostly unpretentious, mildly political, and generally misanthropic towards those people it feels to be disingenuous or socially parasitic; in other words, it’s a Lamb Of God album. Straight For The Sun” kicks the album off with a pair of vocal cannon-volleys courtesy of Randy Blythe while sludging guitars meander underneath, and stomps slower than anything to follow (save intermission/breathing break “Barabarosa” halfway through). “Shoot me straight for the sun/I wanna be the only one left/Misdiagnosed condition/Burnt beyond recognition”  Blythe screams in a voice like a white-noise battering ram, and Resolution holds the fort, stylistically and sonically, from there. “Desolation” follows and doubles the opener’s tempo, lashing out at double-speak when it screeches “Spoken sideways and indirect/Without a single word left unchecked” – it’s hard not to get caught up in the energy when they roar “All that for nothing what a fucking waste of time” (the first of many punky chants that pass for choruses on Resolution). “Ghost Walking” has a really neat acoustic opener, and then crushing technical drumming and riffage (and a wild music video). “Guilty” is structured like a hardcore punk track (as is “Cheated”) with added crushing technical drumming and riffage. “The Number Six” actually has a sung chorus, which ought to remind you of Mastodon, but can’t help feeling a bit cheap after all the brutality of the other tracks (especially when “Terminally Unique”, which also has a chorus, bounces bass-guitar off the walls so nicely)… however, of course, it too features crushing technical drumming and riffage, rescuing the track.

So, yes, it all sounds pretty similar – thankfully, that doesn’t result in sheer repetition, which is what Resolution could very easily have done had it not insisted upon subtle stylistic oscillation between tracks. “Ghost Walking”’s acoustic opener works, it’s a 5-second oasis from all the double-kicks. “The Number Six”’s sung chorus isn’t doing it for me, but the spoken-word sections that mute the rest of the band work really well. Even the album’s progressive(!), bizarre, and self-attacking closer “King Me” proves a brief foil to the rest of the album, incorporating everything from female choral vocals (!!) to, apparently, a string orchestra (?!). Amazingly, those all work, though it gets a tad self-indulgent during the spoken word sections – which is exactly why Lamb of God has the good sense to cut them short, stomping the monologue out with a surprise riff-drop. It works and it’s surprising, and of course it doesn’t hurt that their collective metal virtuosity is always going to trump whatever stylistic decisions don’t quite stick.

Resolution is clearly designed for a particular listener in mind, and that listener likely already owns Lamb of God albums. Resolution sprawls, and non-metal listeners will most definitely have issues picking out each track’s eccentricities; it feels overlong and could stand to lose a couple of those back seven tracks. “King Me”’s general oddness could have been expanded to great effect (at the expense of Resolution’s focus), and the ‘big three’ stylistic tracks that form the album’s core (“Guilty”, “The Undertow” and “The Number Six”) may not necessarily stick for you – I know they didn’t overly impress me (which is why “Ghost Walking” and “Terminally Unique” exist). That said, “Invictus” has a hell of a guitar solo, Lamb of God know exactly what their fans want, and they’ve delivered a cleanly-produced, punishing product, no frills attached. Do you like crushing American metal with a heavy groove and shout/mosh-along choruses? You’re in good hands.

8.0

Published right here, January 2012

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Alcest – Les Voyages de l’Âme

Well that was a pleasant surprise. Alcest toured my home-city of Vancouver just this last year, accompanied by Enslaved and (I believe) Ghost – a show I skipped because I am an idiot and ought to be fired. Anyways, as a result of their touring companions’ respective styles, I acquired Les Voyages de l’Âme expecting to hear something akin to Enslaved’s wall-of-prog Black Metal assault (a taste I’m partial to), and instead was faced with something much more, well, pretty. Alcest’s closest musical cousin – in my catalogue, aside from Agalloch – is Isis, a band I’ve once heard described as “the sound of two guitars conversing”. That’s more or less accurate for Isis – once you factor in the double-kicks and the sludge pedals – and like Isis, Alcest is a band driven by instrumentalism, culminating in a sort of aural haze whose vocals, while certainly emphasized, sink deep and end up a part of the audio scenery. In terms of genre, the two share common roots in Black Metal and Shoegaze, and they push their echoing soundscapes out to epic proportions while evoking Shoegaze’s trademark trance-state in the headphone-equipped listener. It’s engaging stuff if you’re in the mood (and in Vancouver’s slushy rainscape, you ought to be), but Alcest would be nothing without their defining, differentiating feature: they’re really, really French.

Straight out of Bagnols-sur-Cèze, Alcest’s music is certainly in French, but their aesthetic goes deeper than that. Les Voyages de l’Âme is pastoral and imaginative, it explores a longing for a lost childhood world of wonder and magic – and so it comes as no surprise that its name means “The Voyages of the Spirit”, or that track titles vary from “Makers of Worlds” to “We Are The Emerald” and “There, Where New Colours Are Born”. There’s an entrenched sense of non-religious spirituality here, born of a fascination with nature and the yearning of band-leader Neige’s sense of childhood peace amongst “Ses prairies eternelles”. Alcest is one man’s vision of the imagined reality he explored as a child, realized through the expansive and often heavy-handed imagery of his lyricism which, although it will be lost on the majority of North American listeners, intentionally recalls Baudelaire as it meanders from “the call of another universe” to “harbors unknown; linking sky and earth”. Les Voyages de l’Âme is frequently beautiful as it undulates from comforting clouds of noise to Niege’s odd, muffled screams on “Faiseurs de Mondes” (which really recalls Enslaved and Isis). It’s going to prove too self-indulgent or outright silly for some, but if you’re in the dreamy mind-state that Alcest demands, Les Voyages de l’Âme is a strange and rewarding listen, owing far more to Shoegaze than the Black Metal touches it occasionally displays. It’s poetic, and Alcest makes the most of their limited armory (no synthesizers here!), melding acoustic and electric instrumentation into a distinctly dream-like listening experience.

I’ve really enjoyed this one: from its anger-less yearning of its screams to the universality of its subject matter, Les Voyages de l’Âme is easy to recommend. Yes there’s a language barrier, but it’s minimal – if you know the album’s title, you know the content of the lyrics, and can safely let the intonation and earnestness of Neige’s frequently-clean vocals take you from there. Knowledge of the French language isn’t an asset here; appreciation of French artistic aesthetics, magical realism and a strong sense of imagination absolutely are. Les Voyages de l’Âme has been on heavy rotation here at the Transylvanilla Office/Coffeehouse lately, and for good reason: Alcest is working hard and making some really good autumnal music. It isn’t going to blow you away with its track-variety, or the ambition of its instrumentalism, or the depth of its metaphysical analysis, but Alcest doesn’t give the impression that they’re aiming for that anyways – they’re intentionally sleepy and dreamy and, yes, self-indulgent. Les Voyages de l’Âme is melancholy and artistic stuff, and if you dig your Black Metal hazy with some thought behind it, there’s no reason this won’t capably last you until our annual slush-storm wears off sometime around August. Or until the next Agalloch release drops.

8.0

Originally published right here, January 2012. 

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Nightwish – Imaginaerum

Time for another album by that band, with the operatic female singer, with the mythological imagery, with the symphonic arrangements and the heavy-metal guitars! Evanescence! Okay, it’s Nightwish, but you get the joke – a band has to work real hard to make a case for itself in female-led symphonic metal these days. When it comes to bands like the two above, the similarities are multitude (though Evanescence technically beat Nightwish to the table by a year): female vocalist, heavy orchestra, operatic vocals, mystical imagery, and a penchant for power chords. The defining make-or-break difference, of course, is ambition: Nightwish is Finland’s most profitable musical export, they were a foundational influence to bands like Epica, they’re charged with crystallizing the female-led symphonic metal genre – in a real sense they helped open symphonic metal to a female audience (and girl vocalists!) without letting it suck. For their last two albums they’ve recruited Pip Williams – the noted orchestral director whom at this point might as well be a band-member – and while doing so mysteriously and ceremoniously dumped vocal powerhouse Tarja Turunen for Anette Olzon (at 40, six years her senior), to the chagrin of many a longtime fan. Imaginaerum is Olzon’s second album with the band, after 2007’s just-okay Dark Passion Play – which included one of the most epic female-led symphonic roller-coasters out there – but here on Imaginaerum she really hits her groove; to hear Metal Hammer tell it, this is Metal Album of the Year. To hear the sales figures tell it, Imaginaerum went double-platinum in Finland on the day of its release. High praise, indeed – so is Imaginaerum Nightwish’s finest hour, and symphonic metal album of the year? If you know what you’re getting into, and you don’t mind the odd timpani-drum or song about mermaids, it just might be.

For many, as on Dark Passion Play, Olzon’s inclusion is going to be the major sticking point of this album: Tarja was a vocal juggernaut, her super-operatic voice overflowing from tracks and helping to make Nightwish one of the most idiosyncratic symphonic metal bands out there (even while unbalancing a large part of their efforts). Some of that idiosyncrasy is indeed lost with Olzon, and at times her considerably more-conventional vocals do tend to take backseat on these tracks, at times lost in the bombastic choral and orchestral arrangements (when she isn’t thoroughly over-dubbed) – and this would be a huge problem if she didn’t recognize her weaknesses and tune her presentation accordingly. When Olzon connects, the results are absolutely some of Nightwish’s coolest moments yet: “Slow, Love, Slow”, of all things, was inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and emerges as a slithering bluesy romantic meditation (written by Audrey, we can only assume). “Storytime” is almost an homage to their old ways, stomping out of the gate accompanied by Nightwish’s trademark power-metal riffage and an orchestral arrangement that vaults Olzon’s multi-tracked love-letter to Literature into Imaginaerum’s obligatory Finnish chart-topping single, and features a poppy chorus the likes of which Tarja could never have brought us (with a video that begs us not to take them seriously). “Taikatalvi” gives us exclusively male vocals in Finnish, a rarity and a lullabye (and a Moomin tribute) whose orchestrations are subtle and beautiful. When Imaginaerum falls into place, as it often does, it reveals itself as Nightwish’s most thematically and instrumentally confident work yet.

Speaking of cohesion, would this be a Transylvanilla review if Imaginaerum weren’t a concept-album? Of course not: loosely (or tightly, if you ask the band), Imaginaerum is the story of a dying composer imaginatively reliving key moments of his life, which was apparently a Tim Burton film. That isn’t a dig or a joke either: Imaginaerum really is an upcoming film (by “The Islander” director Stobe Harju), and the band has expressed its heavy reliance on a trifecta of influences including Tim Burton, Neil Gaiman and Salvador Dáli (let’s call this The Holy Gothic Trinity, eh?). These influences do emerge as well, with Pip Williams’ Elfman-tinged orchestrations doing an fantastic job of bringing life to the otherwise now-generic Nightwish formula of blasting horns and choral refrains – in fact, the bonus disc contains nothing but his orchestrations. It stands handily on its own, too – for Tarja devotees, the bonus disc may prove a far superior album. Good luck actually following the storyline (they swear its in there!): lyrically this is very much a Nightwish album, all magic and fantasy and imagination, and I can’t say that even after several listens any track is jumping out at me lyrically the way “The Islander” did back on Dark Passion Play, though their dabbling in intertext certainly appeals to me. Despite this, some tracks still jump the shark entirely – the 13-minute “Song of Myself” is, as my significant other described it, “an abomination and an insult to Walt Whitman,” and while I might not completely agree, it certainly positions itself as an homage (to the point that some are confusing it for a read-through of the famous poem itself). Sadly, if you know Whitman, it entirely fails to stand up under close lyrical inspection. Mind, if you don’t know Whitman (or ignore the reference) at thirteen choir-filled moments it certainly positions itself as the album’s apex, and is at this point prototypical of their style (which means good). Like all Nightwish releases, Imaginaerum stands up for itself most effectively when it’s shoving power-chords under its enormous orchestral, folk, and mythological influences, which thankfully it does on every single track.

So, is Imaginaerum Nightwish’s greatest work? Does it deserve Metal Album of the Year in a world where bands like Agalloch and Amebix exist to make music? Well, not necessarily. Make no mistake, Imaginaerum is Nightwish’s most musically diverse entry yet, to the extent that Pip Williams was given free license to craft this for the album’s closer and came up with a practically Disney orchestral sing-along of every track on the album (beautiful, silly). Speaking of Disney, like much fantasy and mythologically-entrenched work, it can be very hard to take Nightwish seriously, especially during their more heady narrative moments or when you find out they inked an endorsement deal with a Disney Comics Magazine to promote the album’s most potentially pretentious and boring, poppy track, “The Crow, The Owl and The Dove”. The extensively fantastic lyrics (in the fictional sense) can be exhaustive and occasionally threaten to fall flat on their mystical faces, as on the power-metal “Last Ride of the Day”. If you’re a big Walt Whitman fan (or a scholar), you’ll need to acquire the orchestral mix of “Song of Myself” and swap it into the album’s playlist to retain your sanity. As with all Nightwish work, Imaginaerum is over-the-top, bombastic and carries very little of what might pass for subtlety. Then again it’s Nightwish, dammit, and whether or not this is a problem for you will depend almost entirely on whether or not you wish Evanescence would be more fantasy-oriented, more sensory-overloading with their instrumentals, and whether or not you can stomach anyone but Tarja (the-vocal-Atom-Bomb) on the mic.

If, as a listener, you don’t approach Nightwish just so, you’re going to laugh it off as poppy faux-literature – which is fine, as the entire symphonic metal genre seems to labour under that yoke. Yes, they’re a new band now, and that turn is going to be a bit jarring to anyone that disliked or flat-out avoided Dark Passion Play; Nightwish isn’t Tarja’s house any more, and hasn’t been for six years. If, however, you’re prepared to listen to what might be Nightwish’s most ambitious, thematically cohesive and orchestrally exciting work yet, then yes, there’s a very good chance you’re going to love it. You’ll probably even give it Symphonic Metal Album of the Year. Take Imaginaerum at face value, remember it’s alright to have fun with your fantasy tropes and your fantasy music. There’s nothing wrong with re-reading The Golden Compass or Bay Wolf while you’re at it. Pretend you’re a wide-eyed kid again, that things like snow-covered crows’ wings and a number called “Turn Loose the Mermaids” don’t have to be condescending or hokey. Christmas is coming, and fantasy just seems to fit the mood: if you aren’t religiously inclined (or are symphonic metal inclined), let Nightwish dethrone Trans-Siberian Orchestra as your twinkling Festivus music this year. They’ve worked hard, they’ve earned it.

8.5

Editorial note: Yes they’re a guilty pleasure. No, it isn’t my favourite Nightwish album. “Oceanborn” is, duh. This doesn’t come out in North America until January 10th, 2012, so don’t go looking for it on store shelves. How did I get ahold of it, you ask? Haahaha Vancouver is in Finland, silly. Hyvää joulua!

PS. You and me? We’re seeing this movie when it comes out. 

Originally published right here, December 2011.

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