Manowar – The Final Battle I EP Review

Released in 2019, Manowar’s The Final Battle I is a four track EP that accompanied the band’s farewell tour and which is presumably part of a set of future EPs (ala Down IV). It was produced by bassist Joey DeMaio and released on the band’s own label Magic Circle Entertainment.

Since the band reached their apex with the classic Kings Of Metal album in the late ’80s, all of their albums have been more or less in a certain style, just leaning a bit more or less on certain aspects of that style. This EP almost works as a deconstruction of that style. Four of the key aspects of Manowar’s formula are represented individually.

The first track, ‘March Of The Heroes’ is an instrumental, orchestral, bombastic film-score esque piece. They’ve done lots of these over the years, arguably starting on side two of 1988’s Kings Of Metal, and especially prominent practically all the way through 2007’s Gods Of War concept album.

Next up, comes ‘Blood And Steel’ which showcases my favourite part of the Manowar formula. Heavy Metal with ringing chords, boasting lyrics (bonus points for self-referencing previous material), simple but thundering drums, chanting backing vocals and an energetic guitar solo. This is what I would consider the core modern Manowar sound. A track in the vein of previous works like ‘Slepnir’ or ‘Thunder In The Sky’ or ‘The Gods Made Heavy Metal’ or ‘Hand Of Doom.’

Following that, is ‘Sword Of The Highlands’ an overly earnest ballad, with sentimental vocals, film-score-esque music underneath aforementioned vocals. (Sometimes they do this on its own, or sometimes it evolves into a big mountain-top sounding power ballad. In this case it does).

Finally; there is a fat, groovey, doomy, Sabbath-inspired slow song. This not only channels previous doomy tracks like ‘Pleasure Slave’ and ‘The Demon’s Whip’ but in the middle, it actually starts sounding a bit like the more explorative moments on their sophomore effort, Into Glory Ride (only modernised).

There’s not much more to say here really, as there are only four tracks of Manowar doing what Manowar do.  Every track on here is individually good, but as a whole it feels a little bit unsatisfying. Its like eating the toppings off of a pizza but then not finishing it. I can only hope for The Final Battle II and or III to complete what was started here. (Initial press releases prior to the release of this suggested a trilogy, but then Down did suggest four EPs, one of which was acoustic, and only made two, neither of which were acoustic, so who knows)

Helloween Albums Ranked

In honour of the release of the Alive United live album, I’m taking a moment out to highlight some of the best moments from the ultimate cheese masters Helloween, ranking their studio albums from best to maybe-don’t-buy-that-one-first.

JOINT NUMBER ONE:

Keeper Of The Seven Keys parts 1 & 2. (1987 & 1988)

I always say ‘’If you only get one Helloween album, get these two!’’

It almost doesn’t need said, but the Keepers are two of the finest metal albums in history. Beyond iconic. Near flawless. Immensely repayable. Instant, but rewarding on repeat listens. The best albums of the Kiske era.  What Reign In Blood and Master If Puppets are to Thrash, the Keepers are to Power Metal. If you want to try Helloween, this is your starting point. If you have any interest in the ‘weenies, this is the must have moment, the pinnacle. Recent studies at the university of metal have shown that it is medically impossible to like Helloween and not like these albums. And hey; If you really only want to buy one album, they do also sell both of these albums together in one package, so that’s almsot like buying one album.

NUMBER TWO:

Time Of The Oath (1996)

After the Keepers, Helloween made a few, questionable decisions. It wasn’t until the album prior to this, Master Of The Rings, that things started getting back on track. When they actually GOT back on track however, is Time Of The Oath. The crown jewel in the Andi Deris era. No, its not just the album art. This is the most straight ahead classic Power Metal album since the Keepers stylistically, but more importantly, the best set of songs they ever concocted outside those peerless two classics. Tracks like the mighty ‘Kings Will Be Kings’ and ‘Steel Tormentor’ are brilliant and the album contains one of the band’s all time best tracks, ‘Power.’

NUMBER THREE:

7 Sinners (2010)

If you thought the band’s best material was confined to the late ‘80s and mid-‘90s, you’d be wrong. 2010’s 7 Sinners album stands tall and proud in the upper echelons of the band’s discography. Stylistically, this one is a deliberate effort to be heavier and more metallic. The guitar tone is thicker and crunchier than usual. The toms are pounding and the kick drums are thunderous. Its such a great mix of catchy, heavy and diverse. The opener ‘Where’s The Sinners Go’ is mid paced and modern, whereas ‘If A Mountain Could Talk’ is classic ‘80s style Helloween and ‘Raise The Noise’ is a melodic gem like ‘Power’ only with a Jethro Tull style flute solo.

JOINT NUMBER FOUR:

Walls Of Jericho and Helloween EP.  (1985 & 1985)

Like the Keepers, these two are similarly linked and the only releases in the Kai Hansen era. Like the Keepers these two are often packaged together too. Stylistically; You can see how they would come to develop into the style they are more known for it, there are touches of it here and there, but they are rawer, thrashier and less melodic than most Helloween albums. My personal favourite track  on ‘Jericho is the catchy as hell ‘’Heavy Metal (Is The Law)’’ and it features other memorable moments like ‘’Ride The Sky’’ and the 7 minute long ‘’How Many Tears.’’

On the EP, tracks like ‘’Starlight’’ and ‘’Victim Of Fate’’ show that these Germans were onto something great from the very start. The only downside is the production and vocals aren’t as smooth as on later albums.

NUMBER FIVE:

Gambling With The Devil (2007)

I wonder what it is about this band and the number 7. Anything with 7 in it turns to gold. 7 Keys. 7 Sinners. ‘’The Bells Of 7 Hells.’’ Aforementioned hell themed track is one of my all time favourite Helloween moments.  

Like the 7 Sinners album, this album sees a diverse yet consistent Helloween with a focus on heaviness, but willingness to diverge. ‘’As Long As I Fall’’ for example starts off as a commercial semi-ballad and ends up as a masterclass in lead guitar. Opener ‘Kill It’ has one of the band’s most savage choruses since the Kai era.

NUMBER 6:

Master Of The Rings (1994)

The first album with Deris in the band. It would be a nicer story to say this one was the stylistic return to form. Well, it was partially. Tracks like ‘’Sole Survivor’’ and ‘’Still We Go’’ give the fans what they want.  However; This album had bigger plans in mind than just getting the old fans back. They’ve got eyes on a whole new audience. Van Halen alike tracks like ‘’Take Me Home’’ see the band diversify. Big commercial pop tinged tracks like ‘’Perfect Gentleman’’ and ‘’Why?’’ helped the band reach a new audience.

NUMBER 7:

Rabbit Don’t Come Easy (2003)

I’ve heard a few people weren’t keen on this one, but aside from the annoying ‘’Never Be A Star’’ that’s too cynical a recreation of ‘’Perfect Gentleman,’’ this album is probably one of the bands most consistent albums from beginning to end. Its chocked to the brim full of happy melodic choruses, relentless double kicks and lead guitar majesty. I think it may be the best set of lead guitars and guitar solos on any of their studio albums yet. Stand out tracks include the single ‘’Just A Little Time’’ (even with its Blink 182 level erection jokes), and the amazing ‘’The Tune’’ and ‘’Hell Was Made In Heaven’’ which both show the band at their melodic best. Also of note is ‘’Liar’’ which has the kind of heaviness introduced on The Dark Ride and perfected later on 7 Sinners.

NUMBER 8:

Straight Out Of Hell (2013)

One of the band’s most eclectic and varied albums since Master Of The Rings, Straight Out Of Hell tries a range of different ideas on for size, and sees the band not content to just repeat themselves over and over, without going the Chameleon route of straying too far from what fans want. This was the first new release from the Pumpkins in my time as a fan and has a special place in my heart for that. At the time there was a big buzz about them going back to sounding happy, after the heavy material, but in hindsight I do prefer 7 Sinners. This one is good, but not 7 Sinners good.

NUMBER 9:

My God Given Right (2015)

The follow up to Straight Out Of Hell. Sort of more of the same. The album is less experimental, but more consistent. It’s a smooth a perfect distillation of modern Helloween, with nothing to complain about. A very solid album. The best songs, like ‘Russian Roulle’ and ‘If God Loves Rock N Roll’ are solid and a good addition to the catalogue, and there’s no weak moments of obvious filler. Only not higher in the list due to lack of a real stand out. Its all good, but its missing anything extra-special.

NUMBER 10:

Better Than Raw (1998)

Terrible album artwork, but decent record. There are few really memorable moments, like the Latin ‘Laudate Dominum’ as well as ‘Push’ and ‘Hey Lord!’  I feel like this album was a moment of maturing and modernisation for the band. For me it wasn’t as good as ‘Time Of The Oath’ and I resented it a bit for that, but upon recent re-evaluation I have found it to be much better than I remembered it. It isn’t their best album, but it is not one to be overlooked either.

NUMBER 11:

The Dark Ride (2000)

In some ways, a continuation of the modernised matured direction of Better Than Raw, but with a big dose of heaviness added in. Its not really what you expect to hear from the band who made the Keepers, and definitely what you expected from the band who made ‘Jericho. But its not without its moments. The title track is pretty great. ‘Escalation 666’ is nice and heavy.  As much as I want Helloween to just write straight Power Metal all the time, you do have to admit that the power ballad ‘If I Could Fly’ is a good tune, even if it isn’t what you want.

NUMBER 12:

Keeper Of The Seven Keys: The Legacy (2005)

A lot of Helloween fans dislike this one. Its not without merit, but its not their finest hour either. Its one of those classic ‘’the double album would’ve been better as a single album’’ situations. Its also one of those classic ‘’the sequel isn’t as good as the original situations.’’ I get why they did it, but it also feels like a bit of a step backwards. Definitely don’t start with this one, save it until your already a fan.

NUMBER 13:

Pink Bubbles Go Ape (1991)

Well, really this isn’t what anybody wanted as a follow up to two of the finest albums in the history of power metal. I guess it was their attempt at a ‘Black Album’ but it falls short. Its not without merits, in fact I may even get defensive if it gets an out and out bashing, but this should never be anyone’s first Helloween album.

NUMBER 14:

Chameleon (1993)

The only one I don’t like or own. Critically reviled. Stylistically confused. Not at all metal. Not what the fans wanted. Not what their own drummer wanted. A mix of prog, pop and featuring children’s choirs. Pretty much universally agreed as the worst Helloween album. For collectors only.

Helloween – United Alive Blu Ray Review

Imagine a Judas Priest show with both Tim Ripper Owens and Rob Halford singing together. No wait… Imagine a Sepultura show with both Max Cavelera and Derick Green singing. No wait, that’s not even it. I’ve got it… Imagine an Iron Maiden show with Paul Dianno, Bruce Dickinson and Blaze Bailey all singing. Well, maybe, if Dickinson had left after four albums and Blaze had been there ever since. Ok, Now swap out the zombie mascot for some comedy pumpkins and you’re approaching the situation here. Helloween, one of Germany’s biggest and most important bands, one of the most iconic Power Metal bands in history, with one of the most impressive family trees (Gamma Ray, Masterplan, Freedom Call, Unisonic, Iron Savior etc) make one of the most anticipated decisions in the history of the genre.

Who is your favourite Helloween singer? Is it Kai Hansen, the heaviest singer and the original? Is it Michael Kiske, the most technically accomplished and the one from their most iconic record? Or is it Andi Deris, their best frontman and the singer on the most albums? – Turns out, now you don’t have to choose. United Alive, the live video from the Pumpkins United tour sees all three join the stage together, cracking out a career spanning mixture of material from the earliest thrashiest material to the modern gems, with all the iconic genre defining masterpieces from the peerless Keepers’ era sprinkled in too. 

There are over 20 tracks here (some are intros and solos, and some are medleys/combinations, but still…) that’s a lot of Helloween. All three singers take it turns to sing. Sometimes not even a song each, but rather dividing it up section by section inside each song, or all at once. It is very welcome to hear them back on some of their own tracks like ‘Heavy Metal Is The Law’ after not hearing it on the other live videos, or ‘Dr. Stein’ after having heard only Deri’s take on it previously. Conversely it is very interesting to see Kai or Kiske sing on some of the big commercial ‘90s/’00s hits like ‘Perfect Gentleman’ or ‘If I Could Fly.’

There are often 7 members on stage at the one time (or 8 if you count the keyboardist, Eddy Wrapiprou). There’s Weikath and Grosskopft on guitar and bass as always. Sascha Gerstner and Daniel Löble on guitar and drums like the last several albums. And the three aforementioned singers (with Kai also playing guitar).

There’s a mix of footage, ranging from headline shows in Madrid, Spain to festival appearances at Wacken and in Brazil.  Sort of like they did already on their previous ‘Legacy World Tour 2005/2006 DVD.

Normally I really prefer a concert DVD to come from one single show, rather than complied from a series of different dates in different places with different lighting, sound and camera work, but given that the band itself is now a compilation of past and present members and some of the songs included are medleys, I don’t know why but it just works here.

The band put on a great show. There’s a lot going on. There’s video screens, a big pumpkin stage set piece around the drum kit (which has 4 kickdrums for some reason, just to add to the over-the-top feel of it all), a light show, and a few cheesy moments like members coming out dressed in a top hat and cane, or raining pumpkin balloons.

Deris, ever the consummate front man is great at revving up the crowd, and then the different members get spotlights for certain tunes and join up on others, there’s prolonged solo segments, a tribute to late drummer Ingo Schichtenberg, its all very diverse and entertaining. They even do a stripped-down bare bones version of the ballad ‘Forever And One’ straight after a super heavy Walls Of Jericho/EP medley, which pretty much shows both polar opposites of the band’s varied discography.

There’s multiple different ways you can buy it. DVD, Blu Ray, combinations thereof. Versions with CDs. The version I got it two Blu Rays. One with the concert and one with a load of extra footage. There’s a few extra songs (Including the underrated ‘Kids Of The Century’ from the oft maligned Pink Bubbles Go Ape album). There’s a bunch of behind the scenes footage looking at various aspects of the tour and production. It comes in a nice shiny digi-book with some brief liner notes and a glossy photo booklet. You know, just as if it wasn’t value for money enough already with an almost three-hour concert of a Helloween fan’s wildest fantasy line-up.

As a concept you really have to hand it to them; its quite a clever move to reuinite with past members without losing current members as some fans never got over Kiske leaving the band or only ever even tried the Keepers albums. Some fans really love the Kai era and you never get to see Helloween play much material from it anymore (you only really get the chance if he chucks one in to a Gamma Ray show some time). Its a great idea to reel them back in and show them how great the Deris era can be too. Come for ‘Halloween’ and ‘Future World’ but stay for ‘Sole Survivor’ and ‘Power’ then learn to love the Deris era if you don’t already.

Thankfully though, its not just the concept that’s good. The whole package is good. The sound, footage, editing and bonus material. Most importantly though, the performance. It doesn’t come across as a novelty cash grab, it really feels like a jubilant celebration. As they say in the opening track ‘Halloween’ ”There’s magic in the air.” This may be cheesy to say (but hey, if you like Helloween, you better be used to cheesy) but it really is a heavy metal dream come true. Buy it!

Edguy – The Savage Poetry Review

The_savage_poetryEdguy were in an interesting position at the turn of the millennium. Starting the group as a bunch of wide-eyed teenagers in the early to mid ’90s, Tobias Samet and the rest of the boys who would go on to become legends of German Melodic Power Metal, were initially a rough an ready influences-worn-on-sleeves kinda band. They released a demo quality debut album called Savage Poetry in 1995 and then through years of practice and touring went on to become a leading force in Power Metal and one of the finest to be doing it at the time. After releasing their absolute magnum opus Theater Of Salvation in 1999 and being considerably more famous and beloved, fans kept asking if they would reissue Savage Poetry which had long since been out of print. Doing them one better, the band took all the talent, skills and confidence they’d been developing over the years and remade the album. No reissued, not re-recorded, but remade entirely.

Everything is different here, new artwork, new logo, new track order, new guitar solos, heck even the bassist and drummer are new when you think about it as neither were on the original version. They added a ‘The’ to the title as well, that’s new. Essentially, what happened was the band listened to these old songs and then wrote them again in 1999 as only the band who had released Theater Of Salvation could have. What resulted was a mix of old and new, that ticks all the right boxes to sound classic and modern, naive and accomplished, charming and sophisticated. There’s a duality to it that works as well as your go to metaphor (be that chocolate and peanut butter, tits and dragons or whatever people are saying these days, the point is the two compliment each-other despite seeming like different worlds).

For most people this is just some handy background information for a pub quiz however because unless you go out of your way, you aren’t hearing the 1995 version easily and the differences between the two versions are therefore largely academic. Regardless, because this is Edguy in 1999 we’re talking about here, this is an absolutely superb album not to be missed by Edguy fans, or indeed anyone with an interest in this style of music. If you listen to Gamma Ray, Helloween, Hammerfall, Blind Guardian, Freedom Call, Sonata Arctica, Stratovarius or anyone of that nature, you really want to get up on this album. I would be so bold as to say The Savage Poetry is either the band’s second best, or sometimes if I’m feeling generous, joint-first best studio album.

There are a lot of similarities between this and Theater Of Salvation. They were both recorded around the turn of the millennium at Rhoen Studios in Fulda, Germany, and were both self produced by the band, with the same line-up. They both feature a mixture of Maiden and Priest influenced speed metal sections, bombastic grandiose sections with pianos and choral singing, and then some occasional ballads, and happy Helloween-influenced melodies. They both come before the band went a bit more Hard Rock in direction and they both come before the band started letting their humour play a big part.

Highlights include the speedier more metallic tracks ‘Sacred Hell’ and ‘Misguiding Your Life’ as well as the slow stompy Hammerfall-esque opener ‘Hallowed’ and possibly best of all, the diverse multi-faceted ten-minute ‘Eyes Of The Tyrant.’

The album works really well from start to finish, the two ballads break things up (and are surprisngly tasteful), the longer tracks take you on a little journey and then the rest of the album gets its head down and delivers exactly what you love about the band perfectly, only with a little bit more of a NWOBHM gallop than usual.

Overall; be sure not to miss out on one of the band’s absolute finest hours. If you like the glorious melodic guitar lines, crunchy riffs and pounding drums of Edguy at their most metallic, this is seriously up there as one of the finest examples of that. If you like the band being adventurous and writing long complex stuff, that’s here too. If you like them when they drop some ballads, these are some of the band’s best. If you’re tempted by the band but scared off by the more commercial Hard Rock stuff or the comedy stuff there’s none of that here. This is the band at their best, with some damn fine songs and a sterling production job, updating some charming old songs into an absolute beast of an album. Highly recommended!

Stratovarius – Intermission Review

220px-Intermission_(Stratovarius_album)_coverIntermission is a mish-mash compilation album by the Finnish Power Metal band Stratovarius from 2001. It was released as a stopgap between their commercially successful Infinite album from 2000 and their ambitious and slightly Prog Metal double album series Elements Parts 1 & 2 from 2003.

Its got linear notes from the band about the release and a very well designed cover art referencing previous albums (kind of like Pink Floyd’s Echos compilation does).

The album opens up with four brand new songs, first of which is the slightly power ballad style ‘Will My Soul Ever Rest In Peace?’ Its nice solid melodic Hard Rock stuff. Next comes ‘Falling Into Fantasy’ which starts off with a shimmering Empire-era Queensryche style vibe. Think ‘Della Brown.’ It sounds like the sort of stuff the band were doing on the popular Destiny album. Speaking of Queensryche the chorus is quite reminiscent of ‘Jet City Woman’ too actually. The song livens up further with a nice energetic guitar solo and a fun drum pattern underneath with a very nice tom fill at the end of the solo. At the start you thought it was just another ballad (Statovarius do a lot of ’em) but really it turned out to be one of the best songs they do in this particular direction, if a little derivative of Degarmo and company (for me that’s a good thing really).

That’s followed up by the traditionally power metal track ‘The Curtains Are Falling,’ a speedy double-kicks-a-flailin’ headbanger with a catchy chorus and memorable neoclassical keyboards. Its got a lot of energy and probably would have been the smarter choice to open the album with, I think. Probably would’ve worked better going from most to least energetic, but hey, its sequenced how its sequenced folks, I don’t make the rules.

Finally there’s a track called ‘Requiem’ which is essentially just a typical instrumental intro or outro. The sort thing most people will skip after the first few listens. A slow, keyboard driven atmospheric build up with no Heavy Metal payoff.

That’s it for the brand new specially written for this songs. The rest are gathered from mixed sources during their classic period. There’s two demos ‘Neon Light Child’ and ‘Freedom’ both of which are OK but forgettable (just the same as the final versions but with less polished production really). Then two live tracks, ‘Hunting High & Low’ (their very fun hit single) and ‘I Surrender’ (which is actually a Rainbow cover, and very fun, if a bit out of place), which are nice but kind of pointless on a compilation as opposed to a proper full-length live album. There’s two studio cover songs; ‘Bloodstone’ originally by Judas Priest (which they nail) and ‘Kill The King’ originally by Rainbow again (which has been done better by other bands, but its decent if you aren’t over-familiar with it).

The majority of the rest is all the bonus tracks from deluxe editions of the last few albums etc. ‘Keep The Flame’ is a very somber and emotional piano ballad. ‘Dream With Me’ is a power ballad that gets very jaunty towards the end when the solo kicks in. Then there’s another power ballad called ‘What Can I Say?’ which is slightly similar to track one, but with a bit more bite to it. OK yes, sensing a theme here? There are a lot of ballads on here. Its not all ballads though…

‘Its A Mystery’ is a very strong more commercial Power Metal tune in the vein of ‘Hunting High & Low’ which sounds like it would’ve fit perfectly on Infinite and probably would’ve made a great single if they’d released it that way. Its one of the best songs on this compilation. ‘Why Are We Here?’ the bonus track from Infinite is similarly just another really strong track from them in their commercial direction, and also baffling that it wasn’t a big single either. ‘Cold Winter Nights’ is typical perfect up-tempo Stratovarius, with that sort of Judas Priest’s Electric Eye vibe only with more keyboards and melody. Its also one of the best songs here and a nice surprise if it wasn’t on your version of Destiny already. ‘When The Night Turns To Day’ is a stomping mid pace track with a whiff of Queensryche’s Empire about it, just like the new track mentioned above. It would also have fit best on Destiny (even though it was initially from as far back as Episode, if you can believe that).

As you can imagine, Intermission is just a jumble of odds and ends with no particular theme or flow or consistency. Its not a must-have release or anything. Hey, if you like ’em doing ballads and covers you’re quids-in. If you want ’em doing more of a Speed Metal thing there’s not so much of that on here though, so maybe don’t start here if you are new, pick up one of the records in their glory run from Episode to Elements Part 2 instead.

If you like the band already though, and just want a cheap, easy and quick way to get the bonus tracks and b-sides in one place then this is great for that purpose, and hey there’s four solid new songs too to flesh it out. Nothing life changing, but worth a look if you’ve ran out of other Stratovarius products to check out from this era.

Edguy – Theater Of Salvation

Theater_of_salvation.jpgAsk me what either the best or my favourite album by Edguy is and nine times out of ten I’ll tell you its Theater Of Salvation (the other one time its the 2000 remake version of The Savage Poetry). Ask me what my favourite Edguy song is and one hundred out of one hundred times I’ll tell you its ‘Babylon.’ Heck, I’ll probably tell you that uninvited most days because I’m just that enthusiastic about it.

Something magical was in the air in 1999 when the German Power Metal band burst out of Rhoen Studios in their homeland of Fulda. Their first two albums showed potential. Vain Glory Opera saw them truly find themselves. Then they absolutely cemented their legacy with this magnificent release. Talk about knocking it out of the park. It was their first record with the famous rhythm section of Tobias Exxel and Felix Bohnke on bass and drums respectively, who’ve been there ever since.

The album begins strongly with the aforementioned ‘Babylon’ and ends on a high with the 12-minute diverse mini-epic Title Track. There’s some nice speedy heavy Power Metal tunes in ‘Arrows Fly,’ ‘The Headless Game’ and the excellent ‘Falling Down’ (another of the must-hear tracks here). There’s some slower quieter moments too with ballad ‘Another Time’ and power ballad ‘Land Of The Miracle.’ If you only like Power Metal at its most pounding and chest beating, these two might be a bit wet for your tastes, but they add variety.

As you can see from a lot of those titles, there’s a sort of religious theme going on here. It doesn’t just show up lyrically but also in the keyboards and vocals a lot. You know how ‘Suite Sister Mary’ by Queensryche has a sort of religious sound to it? That sort of thing, but if that was dark, this is very very bright and colourful and shiny. You may think, “well how the heck does that fit into Power Metal? I can’t imagine a mixture between the background music in The Borgias and the galloping of Iron Maiden” but I assure you it gels really well with these particualr songs and how the band have constructed them.

Speaking of vocals, these would have to be in the running for a career best from mainman Tobias Sammet. Its a very different style to whats used in their later more hard rock albums like Rocket Ride and Tinnitus Sanctus, and slightly less adventourous than his work in his other project Avantasia, but it is really one of the finest recorded examples of the pinnacle of him/the band doing this style of music.

There are other Edguy albums that show off raw charm, that show off adventure, or that go down fun and silly routes. If you want them at their absolute perfect core, with their absolute best set of brilliantly made and catchy, memorable and musically impressive songs, then go for Theater Of Salvation every time. This album for me is up there in the pantheon of absolute Power Metal greats. When I’m thinking of Keeper Of The Seven Keys, Nightfall In Middle Earth, Land Of The Free, Glory To The Brave and their likes, I’m definitely thinking of Theater Of Salvation too.

Sonata Arctica – Ecliptica Review

220px-SonataArctica_EclipticaSonata Arctica are a Finnish Power Metal band, starting their career in the late ’90s, and Ecliptica is their now-classic self-produced debut album from 1999. This is back before they started getting orchestras and turning progressive, before their concept albums. This is the band dealing purely with the basic, glistening, unaltered, raw and pure perfect formula without experimentation.

In terms of musical direction the material is very much in the style of their fellow countrymen Stratovarius. Very melodic, speedy European-style Power Metal with plenty of doublekicks, keyboards and sweet falsetto vocals. The band have toured with Stratovarius and covered their material so its very much influences on sleeves here. However, just like Airbourne and AC/DC’s sonic relationship, just because they are very similar to someone else’s style doesn’t mean they aren’t doing a damn good job at it. On this album they do that pounding speed metal with keyboard solos and gorgeous melodies thing as well as any of the originators of the scene. The band have such joy, enthusiasm and energy that just sparks off every chorus and solo. Its very pleasant listening. Its like somebody captured smiles and sunshine in audio form. There’s a reason cynics call Power Metal ‘Happy Metal’ and bands like Sonata Arctica play a big part in that.

The songs here are some of the finest examples of the formula in the history of the genre. ‘Blank File,’ ‘Destruction Preventer,’ ‘Kingdom For A Heart’ and the lead single ‘UnOpened’ are all particularly strong. The bouncy powerballd ‘Letter To Dana’ is memorable. (Also the bonus track ‘Mary-Lou’ if you get that version, is very enjoyable). The album is really strong and consistent without much filler and nothing you would want to skip immediately. It is succinct, memorable, flows well and works well as a whole. You can play it from start to end and stay entertained the whole time.

If you scoff at ‘Flower Metal’ and all its cheese, then maybe this will confirm all your worst fears (apart from maybe songs about wizards and dragons and fairies). But if you are a fan of Freedom Call and Stratovarius its hard to see how you wouldn’t love this band and this album.

Tony Kakko has such a strong voice and his contributions on keys add great colour to the material. He conveys such emotion. If you don’t usually like this type of music you may find him a bit too flowery but if you are into this music there are only a handful of singers on the planet who do it as well.

Its almost amazing that the band started off with such a strong debut right away. A lot of bands took a while to get their style down, especially in Power Metal where a lot of bands started off as Thrash or Heavy Metal bands and took a few albums to get where they were going. I guess having other bands already blaze the trial beforehand helped. But much like Hammerfall; even though they didn’t start off in the ’80s like Blind Guardian or Helloween or Running Wild, they just arrived seemingly out of nowhere and dropped a rock-solid gem of a debut, coming out of the gate already formed. The band would go on to very different things with complex concept albums and musical exploration, but this debut finds them focused into the absolute perfect basic speedy melodic Power Metal formula and doing it as well as any of their peers or indeed any of their idols.

Overall; this is an absolute banger of an album. The speed, the melody, the sentimental ballads are all exactly what you want from a Power Metal group and Sonata Arctica have absolutely mastered the form. If anyone were to sling any criticism at the album it could only be that it sounds a lot like Stratovarius, but that can equally be praise because its a difficult thing to achieve, and they do it so well, so consistently and very memorably indeed.

Stratovarius – Episode Review

Episode_(album)_coverThis is where things just start to go right for Finnish Power Metal legends Stratovarius. Some bands just take a while to really get it right. They formed all the way back in 1984 and gradually mutated with experience and line-up changes from being a solid but forgettable underground Heavy Metal band that didn’t even tour to one of the world’s premier Power Metal bands. Their first three albums were respectable efforts with main guitarist Timo Tolkki on vocals and stylistically lacking much of the melodic Euro flavour or symphonic pomp of their more famous material. Their fourth album saw them add a new lead vocalist in the iconic Timo Kotipelto and start gearing up to become the band they always had the potential to be.

In 1996 the band exploded in terms of quality, memorability, confidence and power. They released the Episode album, their fifth studio long-player, and the first to feature the ‘classic line up’ with the aforementioned Kotipelto and Tolkki (and not forgetting bassist Jari Kainulainen) now joined by the new additions of German Jörg Michael (of Rage fame!) on drums and Swedish Jens Johannson (of Yngwie Malmsteen fame!) on keyboards. This line-up just all compliment each other’s styles really well and bring the best out of each other.

The thundering double kicks of Jörg perfectly suit Tolkki’s Priest-meets-Scorpions-meets-early-Queensryche style riffs. The guitar and keyboard trade-off solos between Tolkki and Johannson are some of the best in the genre and take what Blackmore and Lord were doing in the ’70s and both modernize and metalize it. Kotipelto’s soaring vocals are finely accentuated by background keys from Johannson and are given the room to breathe by the long ringing chords that Tolkki drops over that perfectly-synced rhythm section. This is perfect musical harmony exemplified.

The album contains some of the band’s absolute finest work, such as ‘Father Time,’ ‘Tommorow,’ ‘Will The Sun Rise?’ ‘Speed Of Light’ and the furious instrumental ‘Stratosphere.’ How many bands has this stuff influenced over the years?! You can hear it absolutely dripping down through history to bands like Sonata Arctica and Dragonforce and so, so many others. Hell, even the ballad is great. Sometime I get a bit sick of Power Metal bands doing ballads but ‘Forever’ on this album is absolutely beautiful, so simple and sweetly and perfect.

There’s a bit of variety too, on the slow and pounding numbers like the ominous and threatening sounding ‘Uncertainty’ which sounds like if someone took Metallica’s ‘Wherever I May Roam’ and Queensryche’s ‘Roads To Madness’ and mixed them together. There’s the eastern tinged ‘Babylon’ and the almost eight minute long multi-part, multi-tempo, mutli-mood ‘Night Time Eclipse’ which would foreshadow the band’s slow transition into progressive territories. ‘Season Of Change’ sees the band work with a full orchestra and gives them a symphonic feel similar to Italy’s Rhapsody.

Overall this album was a real triumph for the band, it is a diverse and entertaining journey of an album full of depth and character and indeed some absolutely off the chain virtuosic (yet perfectly balanced) musicianship. It was the beginning of a solid run of really great records with the so called classic line-up and a record that no fan of either the band nor the genre should overlook. Visions might be the first Stratovarius album new fans should check out, but Episode should swiftly follow!

Edguy – Vainglory Opera Review

Vain_glory_operaWow, what a change! For German Power Metal luminaries Edguy, the third time was a charm and every other cliché you can throw. The band started off at a really young age, their previous two albums were Maiden, Priest and Helloween worship with very demo-esque production jobs and not so confident performances. You could tell it was good but it didn’t grab your shoulders and shake you.

The third album they unleashed (y’know if you count 1995 version of Savage Poetry) changed that in a big way. Vainglory Opera, from 1998 is a whole other level of professional and inspired. Maybe its partially due to the much greater production job making things sound much more mature and slick, maybe its partially due to the songs themselves being a bit more stripped down, or maybe its just a sheer undeniable spike in confidence and talent…but this album just has that ‘x factor’ that elevates it high. The vocals, man, the vocals! Tobias Samet has such a majestic and gigantic voice. The guitar solos! They siiiiing. Its not even that flashy but its so sweet-spot memorable, y’know?

Then there’s the songs. Ok, there’s two ballads (an orchestral one and a powerballad), there’s a cover song (an almost unrecognizable reworking of an old Ultravox tune jammed through a sort of Stratovarius filter) and there’s an obligatory intro. There’s the title-track which serves as the album’s high point and is a semi-epic that most bands would use as an album closer. To me, it sounds like ‘Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter’ and ‘Mother Russia’ by Iron Maiden had a baby that then got stuck in the machine from the movie The Fly with Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s ‘Trilogy’ and the background music from a documentary on the Christian Church’s history. Its spiced up even further by the guest appearance from Hansi Kürsch of Blind Guardian.

The main bulk of the rest of the material is a mix of two themes; songs with fast double-kick drums that sound like what Helloween would’ve come up with if they had tried to replicate the style of Metallica’s The Black Album in their own unique way, and slower stomping songs reminiscent of Hammerfall when they go mid-paced, but with huge religious-sounding choruses (something they’d explore even more on their next record). The best two for my money being ‘Until We Rise Again’ and ‘No More Foolin.’ Also worth mentioning is ‘Out Of Control’ which features guest guitar work from Stratovarius virtuoso Timo Tolkki.

Its certainly a unique album. Within the genre and within the band’s discography. There aren’t a million other Vainglory Operas out there. Nobody else sounds like this. I don’t think anybody else would either be able to pull it off or be fool enough to try. In the first half of the band’s career when they were still unashamedly Power Metal without the hard rock tinges and before they started adding in all the humour, Vainglory Opera is the band’s attempt at doing the classy grown up mature album. Its real nice to hear the band exploring this ground.

On their next album, the fan favourite classic, Theater Of Salvation, the band would unleash their golden album of absolute pure Power Metal perfection. This album was a perfect stepping stone from their humble youthful beginnings to their zenith, along a not repeated path, but man, while they were here, they nailed it!

Primal Fear – Nuclear Fire

220px-PfnuclearfireDo you know what one of my absolute favourite Power Metal songs of all time is? ‘Nuclear Fire’ by Primal Fear. Its up there with ‘When The Dragon Lies Bleeding’ ‘Eagle Fly Free’ and ‘Babylon’ by Hammerfall, Helloween and Edguy respectively as one of those songs I’d play to someone who wanted to know what Power Metal is, why its so good, what makes it a different type of music than NWOBHM or Thrash or whatever else and where it fits in the tapestry of Metal overall. That and it just plain rocks. Over the years I’ve tried to move away from just going with my gut or with cliches like ‘this kicks ass’ …but boy oh boy does ‘Nuclear Fire’ by Primal Fear kick some serious ass! Its the title-track from their 2001 album of the same name, one of the best in their back catalogue.

Primal Fear are a damn fine Metal band, connected to the ever growing Helloween extended family tree through Ralph Scheepers of Gamma Ray fame, who formed this band after Judas Priest auditions didn’t work out for him. Seemingly he just said, “fine then, I’ll make my own Judas Priest album, with blackjack and hookers” and started screeching his way to stardom over some seriously high quality music. Well, needless to say if you like the direction Priest took on Painkiller you’ll probably like this. There’s more to this than just ‘what if Painkiller was a whole band’ (tonnes and tonnes of Accept influence for a start) of course, but this over the top fist-pumping take on pure Heavy Metal does tickle the same part of the brain.

Check out ‘Red Rain’ ‘Angel In Black’ and ‘Kiss Of Death.’ If you want take your-shirt-off, screaming-from-a-mountain-top, majestic Heavy Metal this is dripping with it. Do you want the heavy chug of Thrash, the melodic moments of NWOBHM and classic Heavy Metal, thundering kick drums and seriously delightful guitar solos? Its all here and perfectly balanced. There’s no songs about elves and no keyboards to scare off new-comers to Power Metal, but all that fantastic grandeur it can summon up is here in abundance just done in a hard and satisfying way. ‘Fire On The Horizon’ for example just pounds it out like its trying to prove a point, it just sounds…determined. This album is so self assured and intense and well, Powerful! ‘Fight The Fire’ (three songs about fire on one album!?) sounds like a TV advert for an ’80s Action Movie Marathon.

Their first album was them searching for who they are, their second album was them finding who they are and this album is the crystallization and perfection of that formula. A perfect set of songs in that formula. Even catchier choruses, even better guitar heroics, even crunchier riffs. Arguably some of their best ever songs (especially ‘Nuclear Fire,’). This album just succeeds on every level. Its not overlong, its not repetitive, there’s no filler. For my money, one of their absolute best records and an absolute, unquestionable must own for any fan of the genre (and a damn good taste-trial for skeptics afraid of the flowers and goblins reputation of the genre).