Iron Kingdom – Ride for Glory (2015)

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Sounding like an Iron Maiden with the annoying voice from Queensryche’s vocalist from back in the day, Iron Kingdom make melodic heavy metal with the flexibility and propriety of conscious progressive rock. A very clear image of the character, lyrical theme and direction of the music arises through discrete but carefully-considered decisions to express the next clause with a literal musical change to match its change in words.

While the music could be described as progressive upon first impression, the result is closer to an extended and twisted pop-song format in which the pieces and functions are maintained but considerable variety is introduced. While some would object to this description, this is precisely what a progressive music arising from verse-chorus-bridge music should sound like: music that evolves to underpin the lyrical events taking place in the story being told. The vocals are kept within the framework of the music in a unified way through a composition of the melody line that strictly adheres to the moving harmony under it, rather than flying around in opera-like expression that takes a slow-moving support harmony as licence and liberty to stand out on its own. In here, the voice is a melodic instrument working in between the guitars and riding them (see Ozzy Obourne), not jumping on them as if they were trampolines (see Bruce Dickinson, Ronny James Dio).

Succeeding over the grandpa metal with progressive pretensions of post-2000 Iron Maiden by injecting a dose of proper progressive music with the influence of Queensryche, Iron Kingdom give us songs that actually progress and not just long, over-drawn affairs with over-extended bridge sections. While Ride for Glory is undeniably a song collection, the amount of content, its purpose within each song and their consistency track after track in all aspects while giving a distinctive-enough identity to each song give the album a chapters-in-a-story-like feeling of succession that while not altogether literal, can be felt from the music. Obviously an experienced band, Iron Kingdom know exactly what they are doing and more importantly the music is full with purpose, giving Ride for Glory a strong feeling of meaningfulness.

https://www.facebook.com/ironkingdom

Scythian – Hubris in Excelsis (2015)

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Following the example of Kreator in Phantom Antichrist, Scythian unite riffing approaches from different metal subgenres under the banner of traditional heavy metal and growled or barked vocals, with a result along the lines of the so-called melodic death metal.  In contrast with the noteworthy release Thy Black Destiny, by Sacramentum, Hubris in Excelsis does not coalesce into a thing of its own but just floats around as the result of spare parts being put together to form an undefined, impersonal and disparate heavy metal record. In this, and its revolving around the vocals it is more akin to the Iron Maiden – inclined heavy metal which sets one foot on hard-rock land, using disconnected riffs only as rhythm and harmony to carry the voice.

We hear doom metal proceedings and textures typical of black metal, but these are usually encapsulated within sections. These sections are used in conventional rock-song functionality. What determines this rock versus metal approach? Basically, the total relationship of riffs and sections to voice and in between themselves. Rock (and hard rock after it) carries the music after the vocal lines (thus we can see the slight influence of hard rock over Slayer in South of Heaven even though it doesn’t fully give in to the tendency to disqualify it as a metal record). The key tell-tale sign after this is the lack or at least a downplay of motif-relation between parts of the song, the support for main melody or vocal line becoming the most important and prominent element. The effect of this often results in something similar but in the end different from metalcore: disparate parts tied loosely by a certain background consistency (usually harmony for rock and rhythms or motifs drowned in an ocean of contrasts for metalcore).

The plentiful references to many different genres extending all the way to cliche-ridden pagan black metal may throw off the attempts of most to nail down what Hubris in Excelsis actually is, what it consists of and what its essence ultimately is. Hubris in Excelsis is indeed a title that reflects this album beyond their intended concept. Hubris, an excess of self-confidence, often at the expense of prudence and seemliness, is placed in a position of glory, giving way to veiled expressions of ego that disregard any sense of coherence and little consistency beyond the most superficial.

A Comment on Bardic Tradition in metal

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The terms bardic or minstrel metal have often been used to describe bands that usually sing in a clear voice and with anthemic overtones, often imitate medievalesque motifs and write lyrics in the manner of romanticized ancient legends. Generally, the metal subgenre most readily associated with bardic expression is power metal because they advertise themselves as modern-day minstrels and theirs is the kind of catchy and upbeat music most people can latch on to most easily. The bardic spirit along with the culture it transmits, however, requires a sturdier medium that is able to etch its runes indelibly without detracting from the importance of their message.

Power metal could be described as a blend of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden mixed with the energy of speed metal. The influence of Ritchie Blackmore cannot be overstated either. In time, they developed their own tropes and particular voices that set them apart from their Briton godfathers. Bands making music in this style are known for an overt expression and presentation that falls just a little short from that of the despicable glam metal. More often than not, these theatrical habits and indulgences overshadow both the content of the music and the words, both of which come close to becoming only an excuse for narcissistic expression. The persona takes precedence over the message.

A sensible division of terms would be advisable here since the words bard and minstrel actually denote two very similar but different traditions. The bard was said to be an itinerant poet who, with the help of music, kept traditions and values alive through stories and legends written in meter. The minstrel made its most significant appearances in courts. Its main job was to entertain the nobility. The latter job’s description often overlaps with that of a jester whose curriculum included clownish acts like juggling. Here is where we find the most apt description for bands like Helloween or Blind Guardian, who willingly and naively took the latter term for themselves.

In lieu of this minstrel metal, a bardic one, with enduring power to carry and transmit the word by giving it the place of honor, is needed. Firstly, any musical tradition with this aim must achieve an optimal balance between being both evocative and submerging yet enveloping the words so that these are propelled forward, emphasized, given contour and colour. Secondly, this is metal. And as proper metal, the riff must lead.

Delirium – Tiempo, Limites y Espacio

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Delirium was formed in 1990 as Delirium Tremens. In 1995 they debuted with a self-titled album considered to be a Central American classic. It was a particular style drawing influences from many different styles of metal ranging from NWOBHM, Speed Metal, Thrash to punk and alternative rock without falling into the carnival approach of modern metal bands. The influences blend and boil down to form an almost concrete and new street-dirty heavy metal style. A close look at Delirium’s discography shows how the band has evolved through the years gradually taking in more mainstream influences after having parted from a mixture of early Iron Maiden and Metallica. Looking under the hood of post-debut Delirium one can find a weakening of an original voice and the more obvious influence of 1980s Rush and late, prog-bent Iron Maiden.

Tiempo, Limites y Espacio is a collection of acoustic arrangements of older songs. The band retains a professional musician’s touch for pacing and pausing, showing us why they are still one of the leading acts in central america. We find Latin-styled acoustic guitar leads, understated popular drum rhythms along with Latin hand-percussion in some interludes, bridges and intros. Occasional use of maracas for rhythmic emphasis are use in very limited instances. Verses reduce guitar to chords supporting the vocal melody line. Characteristically 1970s synth effects are used for melodies and even a solo on the track Abismo, while the remaining use of keyboard functions are simple and direct organ and piano chord outlining. The refreshing presence of bow instruments grace brief interludes. The aura these exude may remind one of Empyrium’s Into the Pantheon, a personal favorite of the writer. It is also clear that the singer is consciously aiming to emulate the overt style of Adrian Barilari, of the late Rata Blanca, and by extension the style of Bruce Dickinson.

What we find here are original Latin street heavy metal and alternative heavy metal styled songs fine tuned and made ready for mainstream radio exposure for quick acceptance with a mainstream audience. This acoustic release (as is any faithful acoustic arrangement of metal music) is a highlight of the qualities behind the music and the songwriting capabilities of the band.

The album can be downloaded for free here.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wphEkDrQq9Q

Heavy metal as a brand

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Most metalheads, not being of the commercially-minded type, rarely stop to think about heavy metal as a brand. Media sells a certain image with heavy metal, just like Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Jack Daniels whisky, both of which are highly successful brands. Metal forms more of a meta-brand, symbolizing rebellion and bad boy lawlessness. That image can be used to sell a lot of products, since consumers really hate the idea that they are merely being good sheep by buying whisky and transportation.

In commercials, television and movies, rebellious characters are often introduced with heavy metal in the background. Fight scenes in both football and blockbusters often get the heavy riff treatment, as do superhero epics. Bizarrely, House Hunters — a television program about people choosing which house to buy — uses AC/DC style hard rock riffing in the background to its real estate epics. Anywhere boldness, bravery, rebellion and defiance must be shown, heavy metal is the appropriate soundtrack.

Much of this can be seen through the use of well-known bands in movies. Check out how many soundtracks Slayer has contributed to, for example. The royalties from those might even outpace their album sales. At some point in the future, perhaps metal bands will put out albums and tour so that they can sell their music for commercials, television, movies, sports/MMA and house hunting. Now look at AC/DC. Metallica. Iron Maiden. Pantera. Anthrax. Compare to Morbid Angel and Darkthrone.

Ancient Wind – The Chosen Slain

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Properly belonging to the power metal camp that hybridized heavy metal with death metal technique, Ancient Wind plays fast melodic songs with conventional structure in a style influenced by melodic death metal favorites like At the Gates Slaughter of the Soul but also takes its influence from higher-energy bands in that style like Unanimated Ancient God of Evil and Merciless Unbound.

Within that context, this band is highly competent but it is possible to win the battle and lose the war, and unfortunately by managing their technique so carefully Ancient Wind have created the most unfortunate of all metal mis-steps, which is the album of constant intensity. This same disadvantage plagues bands like Perdition Temple and Fallen Christ with an energy that is so incessant it causes the music to fade into the background because of its invariant nature. That being said, there is some quality riffing here although nothing all that surprising, much of which recycles the 1980s era of heavy metal with a focus on Iron Maiden. Bluesy leads with staggered tonal center shifts complete that part of the picture. With all of that considered, it begs the question whether Ancient Wind should keep up the death metal front at all because with more internal tempo changes and a classic Hetfield-style strong male vocal, they could be on the edge of a speed metal revival which not only is a less crowded field than melodic “death metal” — put in quotations because at its heart this is heavy metal or speed metal with death metal technique but not composition — but more accurately represents the inclinations of this band. Liking classic heavy metal has never been a bad thing, but a modern tribute to that style will have to achieve the same distinction that the original had or it fades into the stylistic background much like constant high intensity and similar song structures causes it to flow past like a faucet on “high.”

The Chosen Slain displays many strong attributes including impeccable musicianship through riffs that demand not just precision siting of chords in the technical heavy metal style, but accurate textural strumming in the death metal method. Clearly a lot of effort went into this release. With more tempo changes, song structures that wait to present conclusions until they culminate tension in the music, and a few stylistic adjustments, this could be a really excellent record. As it is now, it faces a difficult struggle differentiating itself in the melodic death metal field despite being better than most contenders. As this band gains more confidence and listens more to their own material, it is likely these changes will come naturally, and an album which strikes the listener as competent but not memorable like The Chosen Slain will give way to something more like its inspiration in Merciless and Unanimated and less like the immensely popular but saccharine and uninspiring drivel that At the Gates put out after giving up on their own art and wanting metal to be a day job instead.

A brief retrospective of Slayer

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Slayer blasted their way into the underground metal scene in 1983. Metal had just shifted; the genre of Black Sabbath got taken over by the Led Zeppelin fans, resulting in glam and arena rock, and was just being taken back by a DIY movement via speed metal. Inspired by that speed metal movement, Slayer took their music in a slightly different direction.

“Heavy metal and British punk, that’s what we are.” The four young men from Southern California shaped their music by instinct, applying the techniques of punk to the most intense moments of heavy metal. Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motorhead, Angel Witch, GBH and Discharge. It all went into the blender and the result emerged more vicious than ever before.

Woodstock – Los Angeles, CA – March 28, 1983

The Keystone – Berkeley, CA – January 27, 1984

The Country Club – Reseda, CA – September 1, 1984

Heavy Sound Festival – Poperinge, Belgium – May 26, 1985

Dynamo Club – Eindhoven, Netherlands – May 28, 1985

The Ritz – New York City – June 12, 1986

Felt Forum – New York City – August 31, 1988

Clash of the Titans – Genk, Belgium September 22, 1990

Show No Mercy reflected more of a heavy metal bias, still hanging on to the grandeur of the 1970s. By Hell Awaits, Slayer forged their own style, inspired in part by the minimalism of the Haunting the Chapel EP. Even more, the band discovered a mythology in Satanic rebellion against a world where the term “good” meant obedient, oblivious and zombie-like in pursuit of individual pleasure at the expense of realism. They hated this world, and branded it with an inverted cross in rage at its existence. This outlook was healthier than the pleading resentment of the protest rock bands and less dead-end apathetic than what punk became. Metal had a new voice.

With the next album, Reign in Blood, Slayer pulled out all stops and most melody to create the ultimate hardcore album. The metal elements infused riff structure and song structure but its energy was pure hardcore punk, the raging album that The Exploited and Black Flag always had wanted to birth. In the 1980s, endorsing Satan and singing about the dark underbelly lurking beneath our happy commercial Utopia was in itself a life sentence of exclusion. Slayer wore it with pride and as people caught on to the new music, the most extreme band in underground metal headed toward the dead center of the genre.

In response, Slayer did what few bands have the guts to do: they backtracked from their nihilistic extreme and made a melodic album, but kept the melody constrained to a sense of dark atmosphere that would not be revisited until black metal exploded four years later. South of Heaven immersed the listener in pure mood and then manipulated it to create an unnerving experience of getting in touch with emotion by leaving behind all that is human. This was the peak of Slayer and represented the end of their emotional involvement with their own music, thus afterwards they pursued ideas that others had made popular and successful, hoping to make their own form of the alien.

Sentenced North From Here: the album that exploded melodic metal

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Back in the chaotic early 1990s, most death metal bands were racing to catch up with albums like Morbid Angel Blessed Are the Sick and Deicide Legion. Bands increasingly experimented with complex rhythms and riffs but eschewed the radio-friendly sound of the last generations of metal, including the melodic harmonized guitar attack of Iron Maiden.

Enter Sentenced. Like At the Gates before them, this Finnish band decided to work with melody in addition to complex riffs, and to do so began to work with lead-picked single-string melodies. After their first album of Swedish-inspired primal death metal called Shadows of the Past, Sentenced improved musically and artistically and took the leap into melodic metal. At this point, almost no bands would touch this style as it seemed an anachronism held over from the 1980s where death metal was forging ahead with chromatic riffs and difficult tempi.

Sentenced took the Slayer approach to songwriting with verse-chorus songs interrupted by transitional riffs for emphasis wrapped around a lyrical concept and added to it the Iron Maiden style harmonized guitars producing a melodic effect. Following a lead from At the Gates, the band also allowed melodies to evolve over the course of a song, creating an immersion in similar sound in which slight textural and phrasal changes could take on greater effect. Along with other bands like Unanimated and Cemetary, Sentenced forged a different path which succeeded because it kept the alienated and dark sound of death metal.

Just a few years later, this sound would explode as bands like Dissection mixed more of the NWOBHM melody and even more abrasive death metal and black metal technique into the mix. After that, clone bands like Dark Tranquillity and In Flames took this style further toward radio metal, but for a few years, this small group of melodic death metal bands revealed the potential of this style. North From Here much like its iconic cover transports the listener to a consciousness beyond the everyday in which union with the empty cosmos and the potential of transcendence of the everyday propels the mind through not only darkness but into a sense of magical light which rediscovers life as a visionary journey. Without losing any of the intensity of their earlier album, Sentenced layered emotion on top of aggression and produced a lasting and unsurpassed testament to the power of this genre.

Metallica’s Lars Ulrich identifies perceived metal class divide

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Attitudes toward metal differ between Europe and the United States with the UK in the middle. One thing remains certain: until metal started prettying itself up with accepted genres like lite-jazz and indie rock, and adopting socially cherished “civilized” attitudes, it got nowhere on a big scale.

In vaunted music magazine NME Lars Ulrich (Metallica) attacks the perceived class divide between hard rock/heavy metal fans and the “sophisticated” mainstream rock audience:

In an interview for BBC 6 Music, the Metallica drummer and founding member complained about the media’s attitude to hard rock. He continued: “People have short attention spans in 2014… They like things broken down into easy, digestible sound-bites. It’s like, Metallica at Glastonbury, what’s the sound-bite? ‘Here comes the big bad heavy metal band to our precious little festival.’ I don’t think it’s genuinely like that… but there obviously are people who snub their nose a little bit at hard rock, and look at hard rock as inferior or lower-class, some sort of lower music form or something, and [think] that the people who listen to hard rock are less educated.”

Speaking about the same festival, the Glastonbury pop fest in the UK, Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden) voiced a similar viewpoint but more from another angle — mainly an angle of attack:

He said: “In the days when Glasto was an alternative festival it was quite interesting.

“Now it is the most bourgeois thing on the planet. Anywhere Gwyneth Paltrow goes and you can live in an air-conditioned yurt is not for me.

“We’ll leave the middle classes to do Glastonbury and the rest of the great unwashed will decamp to Knebworth and drink lots of beer and have fun.”

American fans are used to this. In movies and books we are portrayed as the blue collar dropouts who work in garages and smoke too much dope to compensate for failure at life. This reveals both a snobbery against blue collar labor that is unconscionable, and the pretense of those making the distinction. They like to think they’re elevated to a higher grade of person because they’ve choked down eight years of education and work in office jobs (and only smoke expensive dope from exotic locales).

This stereotype both serves media interests and belittles metal. It enables the media to have an easy cue for its “bad boy” characters and to sell products based on that “rebel without a clue” image, but it also lets them subtly inform the rest of us that they, the writers and producers, are obviously much higher in the evolutionary chain than us neanderthals.

Indie rock and lite-jazz appeal to such people. The more precious and deliberately weird their music is, the more “educated” they assume they are. In the meantime, it’s metal fans out there who not only keep music from falling into an abyss of self-congratulatory clones, but also keep our infrastructure running. Whether we’re blue collar or something else, we’re realists… and we make sure stuff works while the rest of these clowns are posing.

MP banned from Maiden T-shirt in House of Commons

A Conservative MP and music fan was not able to completely fulfil on his pledge to his Hove constituents to wear his Iron Maiden T-shirt in the House of Commons.

Mike Weatherley said he had worn it in Westminster Hall, but added: “It’s not allowed in the Commons, I asked the Speaker if he’d give me permission and he said no.”

He was on the Daily Politics discussing the links between music and politics. – BBC