A long time ago, a friend and I were sitting in a bar having a 5,397 hour discussion about the many merits of heavy metal when he asked “What the Hell is it about power metal that you like so much?” My answer was simple: “Are you just gonna sit there on your gigantic ass like a dope, or are you gonna buy us a couple more tall cans?”
Part one of this editorial kicked off yesterday with an extended intro, a nod to some of the more recognized releases, plus the back half of the top ten power and prog/power albums for 2016. If you missed it and don’t feel like giving your eyeballs the workout, here’s how 10-6 shook out:
10. Thunderstone – Apocalypse Again
9. Sunburst – Fragments of Creation
8. Universal Mind Project – The Jaguar Priest
7. Dynazty – Titanic Mass
6. Dyscordia – Words in Ruin
Pushing forward, part two will open with me getting my assholishness out of the way early so we can focus on the top five. Like the Dalai Lama says, “if you’re going to harsh people’s buzz, it’s best to get it out of the way early so they can get another buzz going right afterward.” Actually, maybe that was Chong. One or the other.
Two highly anticipated releases ended up missing the target for me in the first half of the year. It’s important to note, however, that “disappointing” doesn’t necessarily equate to something being outright BAD, and I would say that’s the case for the two following examples:
Taberah – Welcome to the Crypt. EPs are often released for the express purpose of giving a little tipple of what’s to come for a band, plus some bonus material that normally wouldn’t hit a proper full-length. In the case of Welcome to the Crypt, I sincerely hope the taste of the future rests mostly on the shoulders of “Battle for the Sun,” because that’s a really great song that expands on the goodness Taberah threw down with 2013’s promising Necromancer. The disappointment settles in with the EPs back end, which is basically 15 minutes of average acoustic covers of their own songs, plus one really awkward blues closer that all howls mockery at that sweet cover art.
Wisdom – Rise of the Wise. The Hungarian Hammerfall has returned after a three year pause, and apparently they’ve decided to subject the public to the most pedestrian return to a routine formula you’ll hear this year. It’s not a terrible record; the riffs are solid, the vocals are functional and the solos are passable, but nothing about Rise of the Wise does much to make you overly animated about its arrival. A band like Manowar released very “Manowar sounding” records from Fighting the World to Kings of Metal to The Triumph of Steel, but each of those albums threw in unique elements to help set them apart. Wisdom would be wiser to learn from the masters. Still, it might be worth picking up just to hear the lengthy spoken word bit about werewolves, sorcerers and enchanted goddamn girdles.
Onward and upward. Next, the top five…
5. Arrayan Path – Chronicles of Light
Band HQ: Lemesos, Cyprus
Label: Pitch Black Records
Release date: February 5, 2016
Genre: Power with a strong classic metal foundation
Discography note: Fifth full-length
Buy it: Pitch Black Bandcamp. Also available through Spotify.
I have been singing the praises of Arrayan Path for the better part of the last five years, particularly with regard to vocalist Nicholas Leptos (also of Warlord (USA) and Astronomikon). The band has built an impressively consistent catalog of flawed classics, and album number five is really no different.
Of particular interest to me is the fact that the six Cypriots behind Arrayan Path represent the closest thing to a Greek version of Lost Horizon without really sounding like Lost Horizon that one could expect in 2016. Similar to the perpetually “on hold” Swedes, these dudes elect a route that gives each player ample time in the spotlight on nearly every song, and both blend diverse moods and tempos and a perfect harmony between light and heavy within a bombastic crux that’s lofted into the stratosphere by virtue of one of the most gifted voices in the genre today.
What sets Arrayan Path apart, however, is the stronger emphasis on traditional metal, plus a greater prominence placed on POUNDING an infectious chorus into your head, something that also serves as one of the band’s chief detriments. If you thought a record like Maiden’s Brave New World showcased overly repetitive refrains, wait until you hear “Scorpio” and “Lex Talionis” from Chronicles of Light. Still, this snag doesn’t fully detract from the goodness of an album such as this, mostly because it doesn’t happen all the time, and when it does, it’s still really infectious.
Plus, there’s the little windfall that is Nicholas Leptos’ voice that adds to heart of this victory. Leptos continues to exude a confidence and level of intense emotion that other power metal vocalists should aspire to, and he absolutely lights up every song on Chronicles of Light.
Bottom line: Rewarding power metal with a deep appreciation of classic metal that’s (at times too) infectious, heavy and durable.
4. Almanac – Tsar
Band HQ: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Germany, Belarus, Spain, United Kingdom
Label: Nuclear Blast
Release date: March 18, 2016
Genre: Pompous Broadway power metal
Discography note: First release
Buy it: Nuclear Blast. Also available through Spotify.
If I had to pinpoint one trend in power metal that mystifies the living bejesus out of me, it would be bands’ unrelenting fascination with throwing about ten different vocalists and various guests into the mix. Hey, I loved Hear N’ Aid’s “Stars” as much as the next guy, but more often than not, the power metal records that feature three or more vocalists and umpteen guests mostly sound like records that might’ve been better if there weren’t three or more vocalists and umpteen guests. Maybe bands in this particular genre spend an inordinate amount of time dreaming about a day when they’ll hear “And the Tony Award goes to…Tobias Sammet’s AVANTASIA!”
I realize that’s a pretty shitty attitude to have, and it certainly played a part in my walking into Victor Smolski’s Almanac with both barrels primed, but Tsar turns out to be a damn fine record. Sure, it feels a bit like a dramatic Broadway musical featuring Ivan the Terrible shredding on a signature Siggi-Braun, but show me a person who wouldn’t want to see Ivan sweep arpeggio his way through the 16th century and I will show you a LIAR.
Similar to the U.M.P. covered yesterday, Tsar‘s opening title track is the only song on the record that feels a bit awkward. But things quickly settle into an impressive groove once “Self-Blinded Eyes” hits, then it’s all smiles from that point forward. Victor Smolski (best known as a long-standing ex-member of Germany’s Rage) pulls out all the stops, with guest spots from the Orquestra Barcelona Filharmonia and White Russian Symphony Orchestra to arrange the grandiose symphonic elements, and shared vocals from Jeanette Marchewka, David Readman and Andy B. Franck (Brainstorm) to provide the proper voices to help push the story.
Smolski drops a lot of really interesting, creative riffs throughout the record (3:05 into “Children of the Future,” for example), but beyond his ability to engineer such a swirling, epic concept, his biggest asset is his soloing, which is immaculate and complex without coming across as excessively noodly.
Bottom line: Symphonic, histrionic & historical power metal with multiple vocalists that hits hard enough to make you wonder if you’ve finally turned the corner on symphonic, histrionic & historical power metal with multiple vocalists.
3. Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Band HQ: Sacramento, California, USA
Release date: February 15, 2016
Genre: Power metal
Discography note: First full-length after one EP
Buy it: Bandcamp. Also available through Spotify.
The tendency in power metal to spotlight a voice that sounds as if the singer is attempting to nail an audition for Xfactor can grow pretty tiresome. Oftentimes, the men are the most egregious offenders, coming across like a grisly wreck between Creed and modern Queensrÿche. As for the ladies… Well, let’s just say that the U.S.F. Evanescence was a ship I very gladly watched set sail from several hundred miles away with my back turned.
In short, I love and appreciate a splendid voice, but I need, you know, POWER over pop, plus a little grit. Ida Haukland of Triosphere is a solid example of a modern day power metal singer who understands the virtue of such a balance, and singers like Sarah Teets of MindMaze and Heather Michele Smith of Helion Prime do as well.
Since this is obviously Helion Prime’s turn in the spotlight, Smith’s fluid voice is justly highlighted throughout this splendid debut full-length, even if I do think the songs are a tad too vocal-centric at times. What that means, simply put, is that the music going on behind Smith didn’t fully jump out during my initial run-throughs. As it turns out, the rest of the band is just as talented, and that detail really shines once a familiarity with the music begins to develop. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t necessarily want to hear less vocals on future releases, just more of everything else. Helion Prime’s riffs are bold, weighty and modern without being too “modern”; the solos are fairly scant, but fiery when lit; and the overall clip pushes a brisk, HEAVY pace that’s well-suited for chasing down cosmic dinosaurs with bionic appendages alongside your laser-toting homies. Triumphant, ballsy power metal, pure and simple.
Bottom line: Don’t let the (terrifically awesome but) slightly goofy album cover fool you – Helion Prime means business, and their self-titled debut full-length is absolutely essential for fans of power metal.
2. Eternity’s End – The Fire Within
Band HQ: Bad Neustadt an der Saale, Bavaria, Germany
Label: Power Prog Records
Release date: March 25, 2016
Genre: Aggressive neoclassical power/prog
Discography note: First album
Buy it: Bandcamp. Also available through Spotify.
The only thing some will need to know about Eternity’s End is the fact that the band is led by guitar lord Christian Münzer (Alkaloid, Spawn of Possession, ex-Defeated Sanity, ex-Obscura, ex-Nightrage, ex-Nader Sadek, ex-About300otherbands). Apparently Mr. Münzer counts neoclassical power metal as one of his favorite genres, and this record showcases that love with 100 levels of shredding fury to slam home its greatness.
For the most part, The Fire Within is a briskly paced, beefy power metal record that could have easily found its way on the same Shrapnel Records roster that threw down releases from Racer X, Cacophony and Chastain in the mid-to-late 80s. As such, the record is packed to the rafters with tuff riffs, endless leads (including oodles of guitar/keyboard battles), and plenty of chorus hooks delivered via a dude whose gravelly inflection sounds scarily similar to Nils Patrik Johansson (Astral Doors, Civil War, Wuthering Heights).
The overall speed and aggression are obvious boons, but the band displays great skill during the slower tunes as well. “The Dark Tower” and the closing “The Fall of the House of Usher” both ease back on the pedal a bit, allowing a little Andy LaRocque flair to bubble to the surface – obviously never a bad thing.
Bottom line: Great aggressive power metal ideally suited to prove to your friends that this genre ain’t just for elves. Must buy!
1. Iotunn – The Wizard Falls
Band HQ: Copenhagen, Denmark
Release date: February 18, 2016
Genre: Holy fucking shit metal
Disography note: Debut release
Buy it: Bandcamp. Also available through Spotify.
Oh God, I’m a cheater. A little bit. Maybe more than a little bit.
Basically, Iotunn (“Giant”) have thrown heavy metal a great curve ball. Some of you will question whether or not an EP such as this belongs in an editorial about power and prog/power metal. Some of you might be right, but you are also wrong. The truth of the matter is this: Iotunn’s brand of metal occupies multiple realms, and they push the envelop of each of the genres they inhabit with skill. As far as the power end is concerned, The Wizard Falls lands within a similar design as, say, Persuader, but their overall effectiveness is to the tenth power. Add the evidence that there be wizards and hammers afoot, plus the truth that bassist/vocalist Benjamin Jensen has a way of recalling the raw, belting enthusiasm of the power vocalists of yore, and we’ve got ourselves a valid challenge to power metal’s often all-too-strict confines. And Lord knows, power metal’s confines have needed some challenging for quite some time.
Now that we’ve got the cheating bit out of the way, not only is this my favorite release in and around the power realm, it’s begun to make a case for itself as one of my favorite releases of the year period. It’s as if Iotunn snuck into my brain while I was asleep, chucked out all the miscellaneous visions about animals, nachos, Yngwie Malmsteen and Frank Frazetta women, then molded all the remaining thoughts about what I’ve been missing in metal lately into an ideal musical blueprint.
The Wizard Falls is aggressive, exceedingly epic, exhilarating and melodic as balls. You want memorable leads? The solo that rips through the slow point of the title track is ridiculous. And the way the song slowly moves from that measure into a beautifully violent and rousing close is just jaw-dropping. The ensuing “The Hammer of Injustice” is just as good. Not only does it find Jensen hitting the peak of his vocal range, it also throws genuine hails to Ride the Lightning once the blazing lead at its midpoint takes flight – an observance that clicks even harder once you discover that this EP was mixed and mastered by the same guy (Flemming Rasmussen) who engineered that record for Metallica. Say what? You bet your boiled leather jerkin, jack.
Honestly, there’s enough jubilant intensity happening during these 26 minutes that I’d rather let people discover it themselves. Suffice to say, I’d almost forgotten how good it feels to have a relatively unknown band wallop you to the dirt with their debut, and that happened here. Whether or not you’d rather highlight Iotunn’s power, thrash, traditional, prog or whatever-metal tag, it all boils down to one simple truth: The Wizard Falls kicks all kinds of ass.
Bottom line: Buy this damn thing, please.
That’s it. Thanks for coming. If you made it this far, you’ve already read enough of my words to be rewarded with a less rambling outro. If I missed any of your favorite power releases, or if you’re interested in knowing the other albums that didn’t quite make the cut, hit me up in the comments section.
Hopefully the next six months will be filled with enough good releases to warrant a return of this editorial sometime in late November. Until then, here’s a look at my most anticipated power record for 2016’s back half:
Judicator – The Last Emperor
And remember: Listen to what you love, be loud about loving it, and don’t worry if others will love it right alongside you.