progressive metal

Devin Dissection: Holding Patterns

Location: Vancouver, Canada
Genre: Progressive metal
Released: September 9, 2016
Format reviewed: FLAC

By: Kris Kotlarik

Holding Patterns is the bonus disc to Transcendence. It has no continuity, which doesn’t really make it an album, but it’s still worthy of a review. Let’s go track by track, bolding some of the best ones. All claims I make about the tracks can be fact-checked by reading the album liner notes unless otherwise stated.

Gump: Apparently, this song was quite contentious among the band members, as many of them thought it was one of the best songs on the record, but Devin couldn’t crowbar it into the main disc. The riffs on this midtempo track are infectious and this track could have easily found a home on the back end of Synchestra. The instrumental riffage midway through is this track’s highlight.

Celestial Signals: Grandiose layered vocals throughout the track give it an epic feel, but the song doesn’t really go anywhere.

Support the Cause: I’m not exactly sure what the cause is, but this is similar to the title track of the main disc in that it has a march beat vibe going on. The notes from Devin say it has a Scorpions vibe, which I kind of get (same rhythm and tempo as The Zoo). I really like the section starting at 1:48, and the song ends with a slightly heavier version of this. I disliked the track when I first heard it and still don’t care for the vocal intro, but it has grown on me somewhat over several spins.

Into the Sun: This is an interesting thought: Devin Townsend re-imagines Dethklok. Just picture a bunch of murder and mayhem while listening to this and you’ll see what I mean if you give it a couple of spins. The song is alright, but hasn’t done much for me so far.

Time Overload: A relatively straightforward hard rock song with some industrial tinges to it, it’s rather repetitive and holds little to no replay value.

Lexus: More than anything else, I love the chorus. Che’ Aimee Dorval appears to throw down the most rock-based vocals I’ve heard from her to date in the pre-chorus, and it works surprisingly well. But that chorus just resonates with me in this strange way that constantly makes me want to listen to it. I’m pretty sure it’s Devin’s self-harmonization that is doing it for me. The rest of the track is fine and on the heavy metal end of the spectrum; with a smoother touch it could have gone onto Epicloud after “More.”

Farther On: A short track that sounds like it could have evolved into something if it were expanded upon a little further in production or collaborative writing. Not sure if it could find a home on any of Devin’s recent albums, but this song is fine.

Victim: Originally recorded on Physicist, this was among my least favorite tracks on that album. I’m not sure what the appeal is to this one over any number of other tracks that could have been remade; “Namaste” and “Material” are significantly better candidates. I will say that this version sounds better than the original; the verses were the biggest problem in the original, and are still a problem here, but it sounds less grating.

Monkeymind: Heavy metal instrumental! It features some interesting riffs and a couple of solos, notably at 2:00 when it goes full Willy Wanka. Yes, I said Wanka. Get with the program.

Canucklehead: Strictly a joke song in the vein of Punky Bruster. It’s also very similar to “Sunshine and Happiness” from Synchestra, but with funny lyrics.

Loud: Deliciously soothing. Devin says this could have been on Sky Blue but couldn’t find a home for it; I get where he’s coming from and I’m glad this song sees the light here. It shows Anneke van Giersbergen’s softer side while showing off Devin’s ability to replicate a vibe similar to the softer parts of “Where We Belong,” one of the best songs off of Epicloud.

OVERALL: Holding Patterns is an oddball collection of assorted (or ass-sordid) demos from different eras of the DTP. It’s worth getting if you’re a Devin fan, especially since the double-disc edition costs about $3 more, but don’t expect across-the-board greatness.

Rating: 2.5*

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Devin Dissection: Transcendence

Location: Vancouver, Canada
Genre: Progressive Metal
Released: September 9, 2016
Format Reviewed: FLAC

By: Kris Kotlarik

“I really wanted to knock (Transcendence) out of the park in terms of, this is what I’m trying to do with DTP. It may not be as vital as Ocean Machine, because that’s not where my mind is at, but all those things that make it what it is are in place now. I was able, through a real conscious decision, to exercise and go do a bunch of things that are outside of my comfort zone. I was able to really get some great material, emotionally, to draw from. And the whole record, Transcendence, is about getting over it and moving past it. It’s still there. It’s great. But dude, what are you going to write about next? I’ve exhausted the whole alien-coffee-drinking-puppet angle.”

-Devin Townsend in an interview with Greg Hasbrouck, found in the ProgPower USA XVII festival magazine.

First of all, let me begin this review by saying that if you live in the US and did not see the greatness and/or hilarity that was Devin’s performance at ProgPower with Anneke van Giersbergen, you missed out. But you can look at some behind the scenes shenanigans thanks to the tour’s daily mini-documentaries.

I’ve been out of the album review scene for a few months while working on other stuff (read: actual work, unfortunately), but reviewing Devin’s music as an unabashed yet objective fanboy is something that I can always get out of bed for. I’ve been listening to the album in some capacity or another frequently for the last two weeks, and now that I have officially received the CD and put it in FLAC (and listened to it another six times), I think it’s time to break this thing down properly.

The super-short version of this review would be to say that Transcendence is an amalgamation of Epicloud and Sky Blue that results in a marked upgrade over both albums. The former has this bombastic element to it but occasionally fizzles out (like on Divine, for example), while the latter is a solid effort with a melancholic atmosphere that hasn’t held up over dozens of listens as well as other Devin albums have. I think Transcendence has the right blend of bombast and dreamscape atmosphere to go along with a master-craft production across the board.

That blend is exemplified on “Stormbending,” a track that I haven’t been able to go more than a few hours without listening to since I first got it. With the winding instrumental that carries the girth of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the delightful and soothing tones of Devin’s vocals on the verses, and his operatic vocals put on full display in the outro, I can say with full confidence that this would make the top twenty list of best Devin Townsend’s songs if it were drawn up today, an achievement that should not be taken lightly.

Not far behind that beautiful track in terms of quality is “Higher.” Clocking in at nearly 10 minutes, it essentially starts off as “Grace” before turning into Devin’s proggiest track since the release of Deconstruction. A walking, talking highlight reel in its entirety, some of the best parts include:

  • The screamed “I, the destroyer!” section at about 4:15, as well as the directly contrasting “change direction” section starting at 4:55.
  • The breakdown starting at 6:05 that leaves the entire track hanging in suspense before Devin comes in with a lyrical callback to “Fallout.”
  • The instrumental section that comes in at 7:27 that sounds a bit like the end of the intro to “Love” by Strapping Young Lad. Am I the only person who hears it? Regardless, I love that sound.

And then there’s the chorus, where the drums and guitar get heavier with each progression. “Higher” is truly a stellar track for anyone that has the patience to invest ten minutes into a song (dozens of times).

The title track took a while to grow on me; it begins with a march beat and takes quite a while to build up with a male choir before Devin asks that poignant question: Who transcends this? Sung in an operatic voice slightly lower than the ending of “Stormbending,” the chorus is great, but that’s not what makes this song stand out; it’s the ending over the final 1:15 that is relentless and makes the prolonged buildup much more meaningful to me.

Anneke van Giersbergen is used much more sparingly in this album than she was on any of her previous three appearances with the Devin Townsend Project, as she is mostly relegated, albeit with great effect, to providing vocal fills and ambiance in songs like “Secret Sciences” and the ending to “Stars.” But she does get one song on lead vocals; “Offer Your Light” is the “Silent Militia” of the main disc. That could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you feel about cheese; whereas Silent Militia was kind a revamping of “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” by Dead Or Alive, Offer Your Light is more of a power metal number that, like Silent Militia, is extremely difficult to get out of my head. Anneke sounds excellent here, even with rather simplistic lyrics, but the production around her blends marvelously with her voice.

The final two tracks could be where the album falters for some people; they combine to take up 16:50 in length and nine of those minutes are ambient sections that close out each song. To top it off, one song is a cover and the other is essentially an 80’s ballad that borrows its structure from a Hindi meditation track by Krishna Das. And yet, both tracks still have some solid moments; the chorus and outro to “From The Heart” is sung in Hindi with a beautiful vocal line that is inescapable. What follows the prolonged final chorus is a luscious ambient jam that was apparently done in one take and is worth a few listens.

“Transdermal Celebration” is easily the least interesting track on the album, this in spite of the fact that I am quite partial to Ween. It’s a fun way to close off the main disc, but otherwise doesn’t do all that much for me. The best part of this track is the ambiance that comes after it, with Devin adding some soothing vocals and a small section of spoken words on top of it. Other tracks I’m not overly fond of include “Secret Sciences,” mainly because it takes too long to build up with only a modest payoff, and “Stars,” the ToonTrack demo that is gloriously poppy and is starting to grow on me, but has a limited ceiling. The distinction between “least interesting” and “most terrible” is important, as there are no bad tracks on this album, and many other fans have liked the aforementioned tracks. Tomato, potato, gazebo, am I right?

Much has been made about Devin’s decision to re-record Truth from Infinity and open Transcendence with it. While I would never have changed a thing from the original recording, the new version makes a lot of sense in the context of the album. The unrelenting grandeur of the “Hallelujah” section was replaced with more subtlety, but the overall production is airtight, and that new ending induces goosebumps. It was the first of several such moments, an effect that only a select few artists can achieve on me. Devin does it over and over again.

OVERALL: Perhaps the best DTP album to date in close competition with Addicted, as well as the best production from a Devin Townsend album since Ghost (or Casualties of Cool depending on whether you count the collaborative project with Che’ Aimee Dorval, who makes an appearance on the second disc, as a traditional Devin Townsend release).

Rating: 4.0*

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Who transcends this? The Devin Townsend Project, that’s who. The digipak and booklet were signed by all five members of the DTP at ProgPower USA in Atlanta on September 10, 2016. The show was the first to have Anneke van Giersbergen join the band on stage in the United States and, despite some technological hiccups, the set was a great way to cap off a stacked four-day lineup featuring Haken, Green Carnation, The Gentle Storm, Blind Guardian, Spock’s Beard, and Stream of Passion, among numerous other great acts.

Coming soon: a review of Holding Patterns, the second disc of this album.
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Buy the album at this link.
Listen to Stormbending, Failure, and Secret Sciences on YouTube courtesy of InsideOut Music
Featured image accessed via blabbermouth.net

 

 

Live Show Review: Ne Obliviscaris

Location: Columbus, Ohio
Venue: O’Shecky’s LIVE
Date: February 6, 2016

Ticket cost: $10/$12 door

By: Kris Kotlarik

This show represented a number of firsts for me. The most important of those firsts, by a wide margin, was seeing Ne Obliviscaris live. Following their release of Citadel, anticipation was at a fever pitch, so my reaction to them performing a 90-minute set in my city included a dropped jaw followed by a bunch of overly excited obscenities.

This is also the first time I have ever been to O’Shecky’s, a relatively small venue off the highway on the north side of Columbus. After last night’s show, I have mixed feelings about the venue; I was tempted to deduct a half a point from each band because all of them had to deal with crackling vocal mics (and I believe Ne Obliviscaris was also having a crackling snare mic, in addition to the drummer constantly asking for lighting). But beverage prices are very reasonable, and they have two stages that otherwise sounded great and expedited tonight’s five-band lineup.

As always, I’ll be going down the line from the opening band to the headliner to discuss their performances. Let’s begin!
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Kyrmzon (Mansfield, Ohio)
Rating: 2.0*

This being my first exposure to Krymzon, I didn’t come away from this show with a particularly favorable (or unfavorable) impression of them. Their blend of thrash and death metal wore me out fairly quickly, due in large part to vocalist Ron Wise’s constant screaming and the band’s gratuitous use of breakdowns towards the end of their set. Wise was constantly urging the crowd to come closer and to fuck shit up with little to no success. Also, Ryan Arter was remarkably stoic for a man laying down some heavy blast beats on the drums; he would go several minutes at a time without changing his facial expression, which appeared to look like either boredom or annoyance (my guess between the two options is the latter given the occasional technical difficulties, although for all I know, that’s just his game face).

That’s not to say that I hated their performance; Wise, along with guitarist Joey VanDine and bassist Adam Anderson, all played with a lot of energy. Perhaps Krymzon just isn’t my style. And that’s okay.

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Others By No One (Dayton, Ohio)
Rating: 3.5*

These guys surprised me. This is a very young progressive metal band with touches of avant-garde (and the occasional splash of Maximum The Hormone). Just about the only technical flaw I can point out in their performance came from lead vocalist Max Mobarry, who frequently sang away from the microphone and was occasionally inaudible as a result.

With that out of the way…wow. I can’t think of any other opening act, save for some droning black metal band or something like that, to play a 15+ minute song when they are allotted just 30 minutes. That kind of behavior has the potential to piss off approximately 90% of the audience. It only makes sense, then, that Others By No One is undoubtedly influenced by Devin Townsend (as evidenced by drummer Sam Ruff wearing a Z2 shirt). The opening lick of that marathon track featured a riff that was eerily similar to the melodic part of Devin’s “Color Your World” (or the title track of Ki, if you prefer that album). Later on, they slowed down the track so that Mobarry could sing the lyrics “let’s go down to the beach,” similar to “Two Weeks” by Strapping Young Lad or “Disruptr” from Ki.

The most unique attribute about this band, however, is that this is not just a Devin Townsend worship band (that already exists in the form of The Omega Experiment); they played “Gravity of the Bulls,” a track that has elements of modern hardcore. Their music also contents elements from other prog acts like Animals As Leaders or Scale The Summit. As an added bonus, there is no question that out of all the bands that were playing tonight, Others By No One was having the most fun. Bassist Quique Bocio, in particular, reminded me of the performance For The Imperium put on at the 2012 Finnish Metal Meeting; he was all over the place and jumping around the stage as if nobody was watching, and that was extremely fun to watch.

Make no mistake: Others By No One is still raw to the bone, but they are dripping with potential and will make Ohio proud in short order. Please bring merch the next time you come here.

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The Conquering (Columbus, Ohio)
Rating: 3.0*

I’ve seen The Conquering more than enough times to know that their brand of black metal will most likely never appeal to me. But this performance was immensely better than the last time I saw them perform; they got their drummer back after he was forced to ride the pine due to a fractured foot, and the band was markedly better as a result. Plus, Dan Rivera is still rocking that big jug of water in addition to his bass. Needless to say, their chemistry is back.

Completely unrelated to the music of this band, Christopher Wiford on the vocals is starting to pull off the Devin Townsend skullet circa 2004. My advice? Keep it.

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Mithridium (Columbus, Ohio)
Rating: 2.5*

Like The Conquering, I’ve seen Mithridium a number of times opening for other touring acts. They’ve got a fun deathrash style that makes for solid entertainment, although arguably the most entertaining aspect of this band’s performance was the band’s banter with the sound guy. Out of these first four bands, there is little question that Mithridium was the most polished group. They put on a good performance, albeit not necessarily one that stands out on a nightly basis.

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Ne Obliviscaris (Melbourne, Australia)
Rating: 4.5*

My advice for anyone seeing another show at O’Shecky’s would be to get to about the third row. I started off right up in front and quickly took note of just how engaging all six members of Ne Obliviscaris is with the audience, but from up front I couldn’t hear the violin worth salt and the guitars were virtually buried. So I had to move back a little bit and the sound quality was significantly better, and I didn’t miss any of the band’s craziness. Of course, I got greedy, grabbed a chair, and parked it right next to the sound booth for the rest of the show. What I got was exactly what I wanted: One thousand ounces of pure audio gold.

It will never cease to amaze me how talented this progressive death metal group is. Tim Charles is a wizard on the violin and even jumped off the stage to get better acquainted with the crowd while playing. Xenoyr’s growled vocals were relentless through the duration of the set, and Daniel Presland was an absolute monster on the drums. But this review isn’t about individual performances; this is about a band coming all the way from Australia to play in a bar with a maximum capacity of 400 people and playing as if they were back at home playing at the Soundwave Festival (rest in peace, Soundwave!).

The fact that they were able to put together an 80-minute set with just two full albums, and only for a handful of headlining shows, is a stunning feat. They also stayed after the show to talk to fans without dealing with any VIP nonsense. It’s quite clear that not only is Ne Obliviscaris passionate about their music; they also take great pride in their fans. This ranks just behind Devin Townsend’s 2011 show at the House of Rock in Eau Claire, Wisconsin on the list of best small-venue shows I have ever seen.

Ne Obliviscaris is easily among the best modern metal bands going today and they were overdue for some recognition in the United States. With any luck, we will be seeing a lot more of them in the future.

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Review: Amadeus Awad – Death Is Just A Feeling

Location: Beirut, Lebanon
Genre: Progressive Rock
Released: August 20, 2015
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

I needed this.

It’s been a long summer; my writing pursuits have been hindered by a series of internal and external tribulations combined with standard 20-something existential malaise. It’s hard to feel inspired when life bears down on you.

Few people know this better than Amadeus Awad, who has repeatedly been dubbed as “the Arjen Lucassen of the Middle East.” I don’t buy that; I think Awad’s music better resembles that of Steven Wilson, and Death Is Just A Feeling draws a direct comparison to the latter’s most recent album, Hand. Cannot. Erase.

The lyrical concept for Death revolves around Awad’s personal experiences with attempted suicide and the death of several loved ones. This might be the best-executed example of using personal experiences as a concept for an album I have ever come across. Lyrically, this works in a way that few concept albums can claim.

Awad brings with him a marquee lineup that brings together a number of Awad’s influences; the most important (and best) guest contribution is Anneke van Giersbergen delivering another powerful vocal performance. It’s not quite the powerhouse display she put on The Diary by The Gentle Storm, as well as on Devin Townsend’s recent albums, but it doesn’t have to be; Anneke’s vocals are still quite evocative here.

Not far behind her is drummer Marco Minneman (The Aristocrats; Necrophagist; Steven Wilson), who particularly shines during the instrumental sections of “Monday Morning.” Arjen Lucassen also jumps on board as a cameo vocalist in the closing track. Elia Monsef, meanwhile, takes the male lead vocals on “Tomorrow Lies.” His vocal delivery reminds me of a combination of Pain Of Salvation’s Daniel Gildenlow and Katatonia’s Jonas Renske, and his performance here makes me want to look into more of his own music.

Now, back to my original point of comparing Death to Hand. Both albums deal with death and life’s hardships, although Wilson tells his story through the lens of another real person. Both artists use expositional narration to fill in story gaps (whereas Arjen has his characters sing in dialogue). And although they go about it in different ways, both artists effectively make their point, with Wilson opting for a more nuanced approach as opposed to the direct shelling dealt by Awad. So how do these two albums stack up against each other?

The short answer is that Steven Wilson wins by a slight margin, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. I reviewed Hand. Cannot. Erase. when it first came out and gave it a lukewarm 3.5 stars because it came across as robotic to me. I took some flak for this and I stood by it at the time, but Awad’s work inspired me to revisit it. I can now say that I was wrong, and Hand deserves all the praise it has been given by fans and critics alike. Consider this an official revision to 4.0 stars.

In reality, Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a slow builder that took about ten additional listens after that review to really grow on me. To Awad’s credit, the fact that his work made me want to revisit Steven Wilson should put him in high regard. Lyrically, I would rank the two albums in a dead heat with each other, with the exception of a section of album opener “Opia,” in which Awad has Anneke break the fourth wall by singing:

You might be wondering why I wrote this song/
It’s not a lullaby for the broken/
It’s a breathless gasp from the depth of the weakest lung/
My nightmares, unspoken.

I get the approach that he was trying to make here, as this album is autobiographical in nature, but there is something about people writing themselves into their own lyrics in this way that drives me nuts whenever I come across it. With that said, Anneke sounds fantastic, her vocal delivery soaring over the melancholy melody.

The main reason I award this fictitious battle of the bands to Wilson is his superior use of dynamics. It’s hard to fault Awad here; Wilson was doing this before I was even born, and put out the first Porcupine Tree album when I was just a wee toddler. However, In “Lonesome Clown” (which is an amazing song title, by the way; Awad could have easily made this the title track, but didn’t, and I appreciate that), which serves as the album’s climax, there is a particularly beautifully-written bridge that builds tension. The way the bridge picks up steam, it should explode into the final chorus, but it’s a bit of a letdown. It could have benefited from a heavier production mix or a different drum pattern. Whereas in Hand, “Ancestral” serves as that album’s climax and nails it in every way imaginable. It’s only 50 seconds longer than “Lonesome Clown” but packs a dynamic range that should knock anyone out on the first punch.

“Temporary” closes out Death with a slightly more upbeat anthem about the temporary pains of existence than I would have expected, but with Arjen Lucassen on the vocals it wouldn’t have worked if he tried to do it in an overly serious way. I like the way the ending dialogue loops together with the beginning of “Opia.” The ending to Hand leaves you with tears in your eyes (that is, assuming that you’re not a robotic critic who doesn’t get it), sticking to the album’s overall tone, which is something I would have preferred to see here as well. But the ending loop is a nice touch as it also lines up with Lucassen’s portrayed character.

At this point, however, I’m just nitpicking. Death Is Just A Feeling is a powerful album with solid songwriting and a series of great performances from amazing musicians. At roughly 46 minutes in length, it’s nearly perfectly timed and doesn’t overburden the listener, giving it higher replay value than Hand. Cannot. Erase., which is significantly longer in addition to being an emotionally draining album. Awad also included two bonus tracks from a prior EP. And while both of those songs, especially “Poetry of Time,” are good, they serve as a reminder of how much of a leap Awad has taken in his songwriting prowess with this release.

Overall: A must-own for prog enthusiasts and fans of Anneke van Giersbergen.

Rating: 4.0*

Buy the album here

Behind the scenes clip

Video for “Monday Morning”

ATF Review: Gojira – From Mars To Sirius

Location: Bayonne, France
Genre: Progressive/Extreme Metal
Released: September 27, 2005
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: All-Time Favorites

By: Kris Kotlarik

Have you ever seen Gojira live? No? Here you go.

They rank as one of the few bands that I would go to great cost to see live if they aren’t playing in my home city, and with great reason. They kick just as much ass live, if not more, than in the studio. And when it comes to Gojira’s studio albums, From Mars To Sirius is at the forefront of Gojira’s five albums.

This album feels like your birthday, and every single gift you get is a $50 gift card. Most of them are for places that you can find a lot of use for, some of them are just met with a reaction of “fine, I guess I’ll spend it.” Your mileage may vary. Like the gift cards, many of the songs gain their mileage from one ginormous riff, but they exploit it in such a captivating way that it doesn’t feel like you’re listening to the same riff. It’s like getting $500 for the price of $50. Prime examples come in the middle of the album; “Where Dragons Dwell,” “The Heaviest Matter in the Universe,” and “Flying Whales,” along with the opener, “Ocean Planet,” all ride one big, huge riff to glory. “Dragons” and “Whales” are quite similar in particular, both featuring brief mellow interludes before kicking into gear, but it works surprisingly well from a technical standpoint and is extremely fun to listen to.

“Backbone” and “From The Sky” both have some truly extreme riffing in brief sections; the part in “Backbone” from 1:12 to 2:28 is immense. It basically comes out of nowhere and smacks you upside the head, but arguably the best part is the measure at 1:39 with four tightly played crash hits that signifies another round. The rest of the song is great, too, but if you’re not banging your head to that section, you may be listening to the wrong genre.

“From The Sky” is heavy and chuggish through out, but it crescendos into a ball of fire following a brief calm period. This ball of fire features yet another titanic riff and an excellent display from drummer Mario Duplantier in which he pounds away on his double bass pedals for over a minute without so much as breaking a sweat. His brother, Joe, is the guitarist and lead vocalist; the band’s current lineup has been intact since 2001, and it not only shows on this album, but their later ones, including L’Enfant Sauvage, their most recent effort. Word on the street is that they are recording a new album, and I’ll be waiting in great anticipation for it.

This is probably the closest I have given to giving an album five stars in a long time. However, it suffers from City Syndrome in that it loses a lot of the steam it had picked up by the time we get closer to the end of the album. That’s not to say songs like “World To Come” and “Global Warming” are bad songs, but both of them (especially the former) lack the punch that makes the front end of the album stand out as much as it does. Interestingly, back in 2007,* Joe Duplantier listed “World To Come” as his favorite song from this album. However, he later talks about “Backbone” as a song that sums up his life, as he sees humanity and himself as more than a physical state, something that can’t be destroyed by things like age.

Lyrically, many of these tracks are about the environment in one capacity or another, which is a very odd topic for an extreme metal band to cover. The band has been known (as mentioned in the aforementioned interview), to give money to Greenpeace, but Joe also says the band does more with their lyrics than merely saving Mother Earth from the humans; their themes also revolve around spirituality, which in and of itself is an interesting topic to sing about.

Lastly, the production on this record (and Gojira records in general) is fantastic. While many records either drown out the bass or put way too much of it into the mix, it’s right on point here. Everything is balanced out and dynamic, which makes even the songs that I don’t particularly enjoy at least listenable in a full album setting.

Overall: If you’re debating whether Gojira is better in the studio or live, the answer is yes. 

Rating: 4.5*

*Apparently, Gojira was behind Job For A Cowboy in a 2007 North America lineup. That’s cute.

Review: Artaius – Torn Banners

Location: Sassoulo, Italy
Genre: Folk Metal
Release: May 19, 2015
Format Reviewed: mp3 (160 kbps)
Feature: Global Conquest – Upcoming Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

The quickest way to summarize my opinion of these Italian folk metallers is this: If you like Epica and Eluveitie with shades of Ensiferum (egads! E’s everywhere!), this should be an album that you will want to check out.

Of course, life is never that simple; Artaius has shown some significant songwriting growth in their second record, and although I would hold off on calling them a “progressive folk metal” act as they have been described, they occasionally show some remarkable flashes of musicianship. This is especially noticeable on the back end of the album (with the exception of “Pictures of Life,” an entirely uneventful ballad). “Pearls of Suffering” carries a hint of Children of Bodom and other melodic death metal bands in the intro, electing to go full synth, while also displaying elements of 70’s prog, especially Jethro Tull thanks to its use of a flutist. There’s also the lengthy synth instrumental in the middle that could have just as easily come from an Ayreon album.

“Dualita” is another solid track with a blasting start that is sung in Italian. Other solid cuts include “The Hidden Path,” “Leviathan,” and “By Gods Stolen,” all of which showcase a wide array of stylistic influences for the band. Where this album falls short, however, is an occasional lack of cohesion coupled with some unclean mixing. This is especially noticeable on “By Humans Reclaimed,” where lead vocalist Sara Cucci, who is solid for most of the record, clashes in sound with the rest of the instrumentation. Something about it just sounds like she was forcing the vocals too hard and paid the price for it as a result.

One last point of interest to look out for is the cameo appearances by Italian singers Lucio Stefani and Dario Caradente, as well as Tim Charles (Ne Obliviscaris). However, none of them really stand out in their performances, which happens occasionally. I get that. But I was under the impression that anything Tim Charles did would basically be a touch from heaven (or, you know, Australia). That was a little disappointing.

In any case, much like a football player making the “big leap” in between their second and third seasons, I expect Artaius to make the leap on their next release. They showed some solid ideas on this one; now it’s all about putting it together.

Overall: Excellent at times; rough on occasion. 

Rating: 2.5*

Review: Ayreon – The Theory of Everything

Location: Waalwijk, The Netherlands
Genre: Progressive Rock/Metal
Released: October 28, 2013
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Traveler In Time

By: Kris Kotlarik

In the review for The Gentle Storm’s The Diary, I made a funny about how The Theory of Everything (the movie) ripped off the plot from the Ayreon album of the same name. Honestly, I don’t think that is much of an exaggeration. The story revolves around a genius prodigy with a mental impairment and features a smart but neglectful and self-centered father, a caring mother, a love interest, an asshole of a rival who eventually works with the prodigy, and a teacher who guides the prodigy through the toughest of life’s problems. It has all the cliches for a blockbuster movie, right? The rival drops some especially cornballish lines that only someone like Arjen Lucassen could/would pull off. And yet, at least for the most part, it works.

Depending on how you feel about occasionally cheesy lyrics, there are two other possible weaknesses that could detract from your enjoyment of this album. The first is the over-the-top nature of the vocals; there are so many high-pitched climax-sounding notes that it’s often hard to tell where you are in the story. The second is that this album is long. About an hour and half long, spread out over 42 “tracks.” These tracks are more like segments of a significantly longer track, of which there are officially four. The continuous flow makes this feel overwhelming; even now, I still have a hard time listening to this in its entirety. Part of that stems from the expositional nature of the first disk, which takes its time in establishing the characters and the plot.

Like most Ayreon albums, a singer is cast as a singular character. There isn’t all that much star power here, at least in comparison to previous albums; Tommy Karevik (Kamelot, Seventh Wonder) does a sensational job in the prodigy role, while Marco Hietala (Nightwish, Tarot) goes toe to toe with him as the rival. Sara Squadrani (Ancient Bards) and Christina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil) play the girl/love interest and mother, respectively, but sound too similar to each other and often have to be deciphered based on their lyrics instead of their sound. Scabbia, however, is a star on the second disc, especially in the closing tracks. She also belts one for the ages at the end of “The Argument 2.” Yes, there are two “arguments.” But the first argument, which is on the first disc, isn’t that much if an argument. Maybe that’s exactly what Arjen was going for; the second disc has much more intensity than the first.

Since there are so many tracks to listen to, if you’re short on time and want to just listen to one song, I would pick “Collision.” It’s basically a vocal dual between the prodigy and the rival with strong energy to it. There’s also “Progressive Waves,” an instrumental that I am fairly certain was included only to showcase the godly synth talents of Keith Emerson (Emerson, Lake & Palmer), who plays the most ELP-esque solo ever recorded, as well as Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater). Also making a cameo appearance is Rick Wakemen (Yes) on “Surface Tension” and guitarist Steve Hackett (Genesis) on “The Parting.”

Those who know what Ayreon is all about already know what they are in for: A lot of classic prog melodies in the form of a rock opera. That said, this feels different from albums such as 01011001 in part because of the realistic nature of the story. There aren’t any space aliens here; no crazy extraterrestrial trials or tribulations that the main characters must face like Into The Electric Castle; and no time traveling using a dream sequencer from which you drink the fluid from the left terminal. We may not all be scientists (I sure as hell am not), but Arjen poses what could have been an impossibly complex story into something that most people can connect to. This may take several listens to get into, but it’s worth the wait if you give it time.

Overall: In the higher end of Ayreon’s albums and one of the best from 2013.

Rating: 4.0*