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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*

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: Ghost – Meliora

Location: Linkoping, Sweden
Genre: Psychedelic Doom
Released: August 21, 2015
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

This being Ghost’s third album, I could make some cliché statement about this one being the charm if not for the fact that they already had me at their debut, Opus Eponymous. The combination of “Deus Culpa” and “Con Clavi Con Dio,” organ and all, is high on my fictitious list of memorable album openers and the rest of the album was generally pretty good.

Their follow-up, Infestissumam, took some of that sparkle out of their sound. “Year Zero” is a rare distinction in that it serves as a single for the album and is actually the best track on it. So after some legalese regarding their name and the “death” of Papa Emeritus II, the anonymous band created Papa Emeritus III and undertook a slightly different direction under producer Klas Ahlund (who has run the gamut of all kinds of pop music since 1998 ranging from Eagle Eye Cherry to Ke$ha). The easy assumption would be to declare that some shadow writer would come in and fuck everything up for the band and its image, but that assumption would be incorrect.

The production on Meliora is stellar, and the poppy elements of the production lend to some catchy music. What we have here is an album that is fun and has plenty of replay value, but to say that it is a truly great album would be a stretch.

“He Is,” and “Spirit” are both fantastic songs. The former comes across as an extremely well-done parody of a church hymn, while “Spirit” is another solid album opener for the band with a haunted house feel permeating the song, even during the heavier, Black Sabbath-y portions.

The rest of the songs are generally good, but have their flaws. “From The Pinnacle To The Pit” and especially “Mummy Dust” have a solid premise but are repetitive. “Absolution” has an amazing chorus and the most Kansas­-sounding bridge not played by Kansas, but the verses are forgettable. The ballad, “Cirice,” meanwhile, is too long for its own good. One feature that I really like about Meliora is its interludes, “Devil Church” and “Spoksonat.” I normally do not care for interludes, but they flow together well with the album’s main tracks.

Album closer “Deus In Absentia” is another haunting track; the echoing effect at the end of each chorus, as well as the choir section at the end of the song, really hit home. Surprisingly, Ghost’s Satanist lyrics are noticeably tamer this time around, and I think it’s a good look for them. Infestissumam came off as trying too hard with the shock factor, which was a hindrance to the overall package.

Adding some more progressive elements will help on future releases. For those who aren’t particularly obsessed with changing rhythms and melodies, Meliora will be a solid spin many times over with its doomy psychedelia.

Overall: Entertaining, but occasionally repetitive.

Rating: 3.5*

Listen to the official full-album stream with links to purchase Meliora here

Review: The Contortionist – Language

Location: Indianapolis, Indiana
Genre: Progressive Metal with deathcore elements
Released: September 16, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: National Uprising – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

What do you get when you cross Cynic riffs with Haken clean vocals, then add occasional Born of Osiris death growls? Some fantastic music with a few moments that stick out like a sore thumb.

Their first lineup following a series of lineup changes, Language starts off in an almost meditative state. “The Source” is a piano-driven intro with some soothing vocals that are frequent throughout this album. “The Language I: Intuition” carries that mood with a great riff. There are some subtle growls that add to the overall vibe of the track; this also occurs in “Primordial Sound.” Both tracks are great.

“The Language II: Conspire” is easily the heaviest track and contains some “chugga” riffs (and a vibraslap). “Integration” is a solid track that is more in the spirit of “The Language I,” but contains some completely out-of-place growls two-thirds of the way through. On the other side of the spectrum, the growls in “Arise” actually make sense as it matches the overall feel of the track.

In addition to “The Language 1,” the best tracks are “Thrive” and “Primordial Sound,” with the closing two tracks close behind. The production on this record is crisp, but what really stands out is the cohesiveness of the instruments in the mix. No single instrument overpowers the others at any given time, although that vibraslap took a couple of listens to pick up. I’m not sure why that was thrown in there, but I know I heard it. Unlike the lyrics in Iron Reagan’s The Tyranny Of Will, they stand out here. They are easily understood for the most of the part, and take on the spiritual and self-inspiring lyrical themes of Cynic and Haken, among other prog metal bands.

Overall: Aside from those out-of-place growls, this is a surprising nominee for this year’s top 30 albums.

Rating: 4.0*

Review: Iron Reagan – The Tyranny Of Will

Location: Richmond, Virginia
Genre: Punk/Hardcore
Released: September 16, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: National Uprising – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

Iron Reagan is one of those bands that are significantly more live than in studio. That’s not a knock on their studio efforts, which are still highly energetic; they’re just an entertaining bunch to watch.

The Tyranny Of Will, Iron Reagan’s second album in as many years, packs a lot of attitude onto 25 tracks. With the exception of the closer, “Four More Years,” which fittingly clocks in at 4:01, each track is 2:15 or shorter. Often, they are much shorter; my personal favorite track, “You’re Kid’s an Asshole,” is just twelve seconds long. But in my work life, I just want to blast this song on repeat. And playing it 15 times in between class is always a nice luxury.

Tempos range from moderate, latter-day Bad Religion-esque (but not containing said sound) to blazing fast, as seen on “Nameless.” One of the more unique features on this album is the use of various samples from movies and news conferences, something that was present on their Spoiled Identity EP that was released earlier this year. Occasionally, such as on “Your Kid’s An Asshole,” the samples make absolutely no sense, probably by design. Some of the highlights come on the occasional guitar leads, located on the title track, as well as “Close To Toast” and “Bleeding Frenzy.” There’s another brief, quick-moving section on “Obsolete Man” that really stands out as a stark contrast to the rest of the mid-paced track.

The lyrics take a backseat to the music here, as they don’t stand out significantly. The music does a better job of engaging the listener and is generally a good album for those who like punk/hardcore and may or may not have ADD.

Overall: Entertaining and energetic, but somewhat low on replay value. 

Rating: 3.0*

Review: Opeth – Pale Communion

Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Genre: Progressive Rock
Released: August 26, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Upcoming Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

Opeth has done what many thought would be impossible: They somehow released an album that was even less metal than Heritage. So if you hated that album because it wasn’t “brutal” enough for you…well, you’re going to hate this, too, but this review is directed towards people who don’t have their heads stuck in Blackwater Park.

The instant “Eternal Rains Will Come” opens, the listener is greeted with synth and some proggy drums (which are among the best features of this album). It takes another three minutes for Mikael Akerfeldt’s gorgeous vocals (another sterling feature of Opeth, as always) to kick in. Essentially, Pale Communion is a progressive progeny of the bands that made the 1970’s not suck for those who weren’t into disco. 

A track-by-track review of this album is unnecessary as it would get redundant pretty quickly. I will say, however, that while the main riff to “Cusp Of Eternity” is nice to listen to, it essentially repeats itself for most of the track and doesn’t go anywhere. On the opposite end of the spectrum is “Moon Above, Sun Below,” a fantastic and varied track. The aforementioned “Eternal Rains” is another standout, as well as “River” and “Voice Of Treason,” both featuring some brief “metal” moments on top of all the proggy goodness.

This is among the better progressive rock albums of the year, but one gripe I have about both this and Heritage is the comparative lack of dynamic ranges that earlier Opeth albums, as well as Ayreon and Star One, possess. Say what you will about the cheesiness of Arjen Lucassen’s lyrics, but when it comes to putting together a variety of styles, moods, and timbre into a single album, I am hard-pressed to find anyone better. Hell, Akerfeldt even appeared on The Human Equation and only growled on two tracks, and on small sections of those tracks, at that. But the growls were extremely effective because they changed the entire feel of the track. Strong moments like those are by-and-large absent on Pale Communion.

Overall: Slightly better than Heritage, which I liked, thank you very much.

Rating: 3.5*