We Have the Power: Part I

Power and Prog/Power Metal for The First Half of 2016

posted on 6/2016   By: Michael Wuensch

Escapism: One of the principle elements of power metal that has kept me in its corner lo these many years.

More so than any other off-shoot, power metal demands a predilection for escapism from its listeners, an ingredient that’s become even more vital during an age when people are forced to spend more and more hours toiling under the yoke of mundane jobs and amidst the horrors of deadly crime, terrorism and political shitbaggery. Yes, people can obviously “escape” via virtually any style of music, but power metal and its prog/power cousin stroke the fantasy/sci-fi nerd’s compulsion for a story more emphatically than any other genre, and that's a trend that isn’t likely to change at any point in the future.

The genre doesn't only provide an escape through lyrical themes, however. Power metal also appeals to those who feel the need to seek out an occasional (or constant) hiatus from the rest of the realm's ceaseless obsession with pushing “extreme” to a terminal level of darkness and harmonic pandemonium. But what I’ve always found interesting is how often I come across extreme metal fans who compensate their lethal doses of death/black/grind/etc. misery with pop music that’s as far from metal as a glockenspiel, and then choose to mock those of us who revel in power metal’s flight. One man’s trash is another man’s Triumph of Steel, I suppose.

The purpose of this piece, as it has been in the past, is to shine a much deserved light on the power and progressive/power metal that’s been released the first half of the year. Last Rites has always supported this style, even if it comes mostly in chunks like this, and I covet a day when more major publications and ‘zines Stateside might do the same. There are a few exceptions, of course – our friends at Angry Metal Guy, for example – but by and large, power metal gets glossed over in favor of whichever hooded garroters have the neatest disguises this week.

First things first: I would rather use this opportunity to focus on the gems buried a little further down in the sand, but I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention that new releases have already dropped from higher-profile acts such as InnerWish, Mystic Prophecy, SinBreed, Primal Fear, Iron Savior and Mob Rules, and most all of it has garnered positive reactions from their fans. The only one of these I have not had time to explore is Iron Savior’s Titancraft, which, according to trusted sources, is extremely Iron Saviory and perhaps the most Iron Savory thing they’ve released since…well, maybe their last record. The rest of the releases offer up a mixed bag, as far as I’m concerned. The Primal Fear is solid, but I had a difficult time sitting through much of the material from InnerWish, Mystic Prophecy and SinBreed without getting fidgety enough to seek out dishes to wash, bills to pay or paint to dry.

Mob Rules, on the other hand, has released a gem with Tales from Beyond. Sure, kicking off an album with a song called “Dykemaster’s Tale” is sort of hilarious, but the strong nod to mid-era Iron Maiden is very strong on this song (and throughout the record), and the band definitely uses such Maidenisms to their power advantage. We also get some sweet moog noodling (ala Amorphis) in “The Healer,” and the three part closer “A Tale from Beyond” throws just enough of an Operation Mindcrime vibe to make you wonder why more bands don’t throw down an Operation Mindcrime vibe in 2016. Overall, it’s still a very Mob Rules-sounding melodic power metal record, but it’s adventurous enough to place it on a shelf above the rest of the higher-profile releases, at least until I get the Iron Savior under my belt.

Into the arena.

 • • • • • 

THE TOP 10 POWER & Prog/Power METAL RELEASES: FIRST HALF OF 2016

I listened to thirty 2016 albums to prepare for this editorial. That’s a three and a zero, friends. A mammoth three and zero. Once the dust finally settled, I was left with a handful of really solid records and an even more profound handful of grievous misfires.

One of the primary things that came to mind after a solid month of listening was this: The hole left behind by the sadly short-lived Lost Horizon continues to become more significant as time pushes forward. What I loved most about those Swedish oddballs has to do with the fact that they were brazenly bombast AT ALL TIMES with regard to every facet of their music. Why have one great solo in a song when five ripping leads spread across seven minutes is an option? And sure, a serviceable voice would probably be fine, but why not track down a guy whose vocal prowess is so huge, he continues to remain unmatched, even after more than a decade later. (Seriously, the fact that Daniel Heiman continues to throw his ample talent to feeble modern rock – and the occasional Harmony record – is just a travesty.) In short, we have enough bands emulating Blind Guardian and Helloween in 2016, give me more Lost Horizon.

The progressive end of the spectrum has been a little more enterprising, but the last time I recall being blown away by a modern prog/power record from the underground was probably Eumeria’s grievously unheralded Rebel Mind from 2011.

That said, I was able to cut away enough chaff to offer up ten good-to-great records, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that any of these tops someone's list. Pile the lot of them together and you'll get a fine playlist for any power enthusiast looking for something to obsess over for the foreseeable future.

• • • • •
 

Part I: 10 through 6.

10. ThunderstoneApocalypse Again

Band HQ: Helsinki, Finland
Label: AFM Records
Release date: April 1, 2016
Genre: Progressive power metal with a hard rock touch
Discography note: Release number six
Buy it: Laser CD. Also available through Spotify.

 

 


Thunderstone is one of the most consistent – and consistently unsung, at least in the U.S. – bands working in power metal today. If you're still unfamiliar and need a quick and dirty point of reference, get them into your life if you count yourself a fan of the first two Masterplan records. (Although I think Thunderstone might've been doing Masterplan before Masterplan.)

Vocalist Pasi Rantanen sounds like an ideal collision between Jørn Lande and Rick Hughs (Sword (CAN)), so those who appreciate a warm grittiness will be particularly pleased with the infectious choruses strewn across the full 40+ minutes of Apocalypse Again. The rest of the band is equally top-shelf, dealing a perfect blend of hard rock and prog/power that’s augmented by some of the better uses of keyboards you'll hear in the style today.

Finicky eaters will have to get past the fact that there’s a (relatively slow) song called “Days of Our Lives” present, and no, to the best of my knowledge the song has nothing to do with any sort of drama that might involve so-and-so accidentally sleeping with what's-his-name's wife while who's-her-face was in a coma after that dramatic crash while driving up the coast.

Truthfully, there really ain’t a bad song on this record. Great vocals, beautiful leads, nice atmosphere, and just enough bounce to get you up and moving. Just a really solid Thunderstone album. Again.

Bottom line: Meat 'n' taters power/prog/hard rock that pairs nicely with speeding up the coast at a terribly dangerous speed.

• • • • •

9. SunburstFragments of Creation

Band HQ: Larissa, Greece
Label: Inner Wound Recordings
Release date: February 24, 2016
Genre: Power metal with a touch of thrash
Discography note: First release
Buy it: Amazon. Also available through Spotify.

 

 


Let me start off by saying Gus Drax (Paradox (GER), Suicidal Angels) is an absolute beast on the guitar. The riffs on Fragments of Creation are very good, and his lead guitar work throughout this record makes it worth the price of admission if you're partial to sharp, guitar-dominated power metal. Allow the instrumental “Beyond the Darkest Sun” to pulverize your horrible face if you doubt my words, then check back once you’ve got yourself sorted out again.

Drax’s long-standing participation in thrashier outfits also gives Sunburst a really solid pop in the arm, which is welcome, because vocalist Vasilis Georgiou, while quite good in his own right, has a lighter approach to his delivery that softens the band's overall concept. It’s not a wimpy voice, mind you, he simply relies on an elegance that lends the album’s softer fare – “Lullaby,” for example – a vulnerability that might shake a few folks off the trail. Occasional tenderness and orange juice brand name aside, Sunburst's Fragments of Creation admirably balances punch & pleasantness into an impressive debut that should ping on any fan of the genre's radar.

Bottom line: "You like-a da guitar, eh? Da guitar is very good, eh? I get you more guitar."

• • • • •

8. Universal Mind ProjectThe Jaguar Priest

Band HQ: International
Label: Inner Wound Recordings
Release date: April 29, 2016
Genre: Power metal with every goddamn trick in the book
Discography note: First release
Buy it: Amazon. Also available through Spotify.

 

 


Of all the albums that made their way into this top ten, The Jaguar Priest is the squirreliest by a significant margin. “Squirrely" in that you really don’t know what the hell to expect from one moment to the next. Heavy, soft, dark, light, Xfactor fluffiness, deep growls, shreddery, cosmic trippery, triumph, tragedy, etc. etc. etc., and all to a level of pomposity that would make Yngwie Malmsteen blush for a week. Okay, maybe not that last bit, but you get the gist.

The Jaguar Priest is all music. It is everything. For every foible that might drive a person up the wall during one moment, the record offsets it five seconds later with something that will make the same person happier than a puppy with two peters. It is progressive power metal that includes the kitchen sink. The only thing missing is Sin Nanna wriggling up from beneath a rotten stump to curse the sun.

Universal Mind Project (unfortunately shortened to UMP) is primarily the brainchild of one dude, guitarist Michael Alexander, who apparently woke up one day and decided to cobble together about a hundred people to help deliver his vision of enlightenment, spirituality, and…well, Jaguar Priests, apparently.

Alongside Alexander are Alex Landenburg (from about a million bands) on drums, plus the shared vocal duties of Henrik Båth and Elina Laivera. The guest list, which is substantial, is balmy enough to steam up even the coolest power/prog nerd’s glasses: Charlie Dominici (Dominici, ex-Dream Theater) - vocals, Nils K Rue (Pagan’s Mind) - vocals, Mark Jansen (Epica) - death vocals, Diego Valdez (Helker) - vocals, Emanuele Casali (Astra, DGM) - keyboards, Mike Lepond (Symphony X & 100 other bands) - bass, Alessandro Bissa (Sound Storm) - drums on “Truth”, and Johan Reinholdz (Andromeda) - guest guitar solo.

I probably don't need to remind you just how easily a melding of minds such as this could lead to a blistering mess, but ol’ Mike really understands how to pull together talent from endless angles to make an immense vision that initially comes across as OVERWHELMING into an hour’s worth of impressive, vigorous power/prog.

The first song out of the gate comes across as the most awkward, but the album gains positive momentum from “Truth” forward. “The Bargain of Lost Souls” (featuring Nils K Rue) is fantastic, as is the moody “Awakened by the Light,” but the last 25 minutes that is “Seven,” “The Jaguar Priest,” “The Force of Our Creation,” and “Xibalba” represent the pinnacle of this theatric slice of power/prog bedlam.

Bottom line: You gotta be able to LET GO a little in order to fully absorb the goodness here, but it's worth it. Check with me in a month and it might creep a little further up the ladder.

• • • • •

7. DynaztyTitanic Mass

Band HQ: Stockholm, Sweden
Label: Spinefarm Records
Release date: April 15, 2016
Genre: Progressive power metal with a glammy touch
Discography note: Fifth full-length
Buy it: Amazon. Also available through Spotify.

 

 


Titanic Mass
is nearly top five material based purely on the song “I Want to Live Forever” alone. The rest of the record is also solid, but “I Want to Live Forever” is one of those songs that should serve as a definitive guideline for "How to Write a Meaningful and Moving Slow Power Metal Song Without Sounding Like Dan Fogelberg." It's slow, but not really a ballad – just a beautifully sweeping ode to living even longer than Abe Vigoda. The chorus will seep into your DNA, and the way the song moves from its acoustic midpoint into a heroic solo and then back into the refrain is just goddamn magical.

The remainder of Titanic Mass is more lively and dependent on progressive riffing reminiscent of modern Pagan’s Mind. At times, the riffs sound a little too new, if you catch my drift, but every song is slammed home with a crazy-contagious chorus and one or two blistering leads for the fretboard junkies.

The biggest short-coming is the fact that too many of the songs rely on the same approach of hitting heavy with a brisk gallop, upping the energy in the refrain with a golden hook, hitting heavy with a brisk gallop, upping the energy in the refrain with a golden hook, repeat. Samey-same in this regard ain’t an unforgivable offense, but it would be nice to see a little more deviation on future releases, particularly when the band shows such a knack for a powerful slower song.

Bottom line: Life affirming, infectious progressive power metal that sounds and feels great when cranked to 11. Nils Molin has a killer voice.

• • • • •

6. DyscordiaWords in Ruin

Band HQ: Kortrijk, West Flanders, Belgium
Label: Road Mark Productions
Release date: March 5, 2016
Genre: Smooth and growly progressive power
Discography note: 2nd full-length
Buy it: Amazon. Also available through Spotify.


 


Much to the chagrin of the power purists out there, more and more bands in this realm continue to spice the stew with extreme vocals. Few do it as effectively as Belgium’s Dyscordia, however. The key to the success here is that the growls aren't overused or overbearing, and when they do pop up, they give a mellow melodeath flavor and sound quite similar to Johan Hegg. Once “Bail Me Out” hit, I spent the entirety of the song scouring the internet for a credit thrown Johan’s direction. Alas, they’re apparently barked by one of the members of the band who’s obviously pretty Heggy.

Also working in Dyscordia’s favor is the fact that the band boasts three guitarists, and Words in Ruin uses them all to great advantage. There’s a strong insistence here on hitting the listener over the head with a warm, pleasant profusion of melody, and that adds to the irresistibility of the record. If you can sit through the beautifully melodic “Reveries” and not feel good, or without at least being impressed with the manner in which Dyscordia weaves three hustling guitars together in such a smooth manner, then I suppose you and I have a different idea about the merits of heavy metal.

The overall mood shifts to a lighter atmosphere during the last three songs, which obviously isn’t the worst thing a band could do, but the band does shine with the moodier numbers in the front half of the album. Plus, Vocalist Piet Overstijns’ fluid baritone is a perfect match for the darkness, and he delivers a particularly affecting performance on the quietly crushing “Sacred Soil of Souls.”

Bottom line: Clean and refined might not be the first things a number of people look for in a metal album, but Dyscordia does it with just enough vigor and melodic pizzazz to make Words in Ruin worthy of any fan’s attention.

 • • • • •

Tomorrow: Part II wraps things up with the top five of the first half of 2016. Plus, two of the year's biggest power metal disappointments thus far, because I'm a prick like that.

Until then, get out there and give your local and international power metal some love and attention. Play it loud and proud, you filthy bangers.


TAGGED Progressive,Power,Dynazty,Thunderstone,Universal Mind Project,Sunburst,Dyscordia