Blind Guardian

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*


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.

Buy the album at this link.
Listen to Stormbending, Failure, and Secret Sciences on YouTube courtesy of InsideOut Music
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Review: Nightwish – Endless Forms Most Beautiful

Location: Kitee, Finland
Genre: Symphonic/Power Metal
Released: March 27, 2015
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Recent Releases

Third time is the charm, right? With Floor Jansen now at the mic for Nightwish, it just might be.

Finland’s largest cultural export (other than the indestructible Nokia brick phones and Angry Birds) decided to go Dutch by bringing in Floor (After Forever, ReVamp, and a ton of Arjen Lucassen’s projects) after the departure of Anette Olzon (who herself is Swedish). Marco Hietala, the band’s bassist and vocalist, called Floor a perfect fit for the band, and it’s not hard to see why. Although Anette did an admirable job with the more ambitious direction Nightwish wanted to take, Nightwish is at its best with a classically trained soprano on board.

Tuomas Halopainen, the leader of Nightwish as well as the man who brought you The Life and Times of Scrooge, wants the listener to hear this album from front to back, and that goal is reflected in the album’s rich composition. There isn’t a single track here that isn’t at least somewhat enjoyable. I might have made an exception for “Élan,” which served as the lead single*, but it built up into a worthwhile number towards the end. I’m also not a huge fan of “The Eyes of Sharbat Gula,” an instrumental that I’m told was originally supposed to have vocals before the band called an audible, but I don’t have any legitimate complaints about the track other than the desire to hear what Floor can do with this song.

“Weak Fantasy” and “Yours Is An Empty Hope” both have a strong Symphony X vibe to them, especially the latter. The band grabbed Wintersun/Swallow The Sun drummer Kai Hahto to fill in for this album’s recording, which might help explain some of the album’s heavier elements. Floor particularly shows well in “Empty Hope” and a later track, “Alpenglow.” Even the ballads, which have been boring on previous albums, are enjoyable here. “Our Decades In The Sun” holds the flag for the ballads, while “My Walden” has a very interesting male vocal solo in the introduction that sets the stage for the rest of the track.

The biggest standout here is not any particular song (and most of them are quite good), but rather the production. It’s the closest to a flawless production mix that I’ve heard this year, and the balance of folk instruments along with the usual metal instrumentation in the mix is fantastic. The only noticeable slip-up is in the 24-minute (!) finale, “The Greatest Show On Earth,” which has loud bursts of sound in the beginning that sound like they were recorded during a building demolition. That song, while good and powerful in some places, is unequivocally too long for its own good. I understand the Symphony X influence here, but trying to out-Odyssey The Odyssey isn’t going to get you many victories.

Minor gripes aside, this is a by-and-large enjoyable album that should be quite accessible both in and out of the metal community. The general concept of the album, mostly revolving around the meaning of life and how short it is, adds to that feeling of accessibility.

Overall: The best Nightwish album since Oceanborn. Seriously.

Rating: 3.5* 

*What is with this trend of bands and/or labels putting the worst song of the album as lead single? I’ve called Nightwish, Devin Townsend, and Blind Guardian on it within the last five months, and they aren’t the only ones. I thought the purpose of putting out singles was to get people to buy your albums, not bore them into submission.

Review: Blind Guardian – Beyond The Red Mirror

Location: Krefeld, Germany
Genre: Power Metal
Released: January 30, 2015
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

I’ve said it before, and since I probably won’t get another chance to say this again for four years, I’ll say it again: Blind Guardian was my first heavy metal love. There was just something about the Bards’ ability to tell a story that enchanted me for several years. Although their later releases fell short for me (although both At The Edge Of Time and A Twist In The Myth had some good tracks on them), nothing could have prepared me for the craptastic generica that is “Twilight Of The Gods.” It’s a song that I’ve heard a thousand times before, if not more, and it really lowered my already-tempered expectations for this album.

But something unexpected happened, because I actually like this quite a bit. There are a number of memorable parts in most songs, including the opener that might have been entirely forgettable without an array of electronic effects that stand out in a way that adds a complementary contrast with the rest of the track.

What stands out the most to me is Blind Guardian’s attempt at turning nearly every song on this record into an “epic” of sorts; the average length for the eleven tracks (I am counting “Distant Memories,” the bonus track which was slotted as sixth in the limited edition, in this calculation) is almost 6:30 per song. The only songs that go below five minutes are the aforementioned “Twilight of the Gods,” and the token ballad, “Miracle Machine,” which occasionally has some good moments (especially in the chorus) but probably can be skipped.

“Grand Parade” is fittingly bombastic and completely over-the-top as a closer. “Distant Memories” sounds like the band attempting (and succeeding) to resurrect the better parts of A Twist In The Myth. And while there is still a bunch of folksy and/or symphonic parts on here, it still feels more like an actual power metal album (for lack of a better phrase) than their previous two albums. And while it’s clearly a power metal album, it’s much more unique in sound than the other albums that have been pervading this genre in recent years.

Many of the songs are presumably about Sci-Fi or fantasy series; I have not been able to figure out what the themes are about on this album yet. In the past, Blind Guardian has been the gateway to several of my favorite series, most notably The Death Gate Cycle, which was depicted on the song “I’m Alive.” So if you’re more in sync with these genres than I am, the lyrics will probably mean a lot more to you.

The production on this record reminds me a lot of A Night At The Opera, but is executed in a far better way. The chorus to almost every track, which habitually features a wall of Hansi Kursch, is almost flawless. Amazingly, Blind Guardian has managed to maintain their sound and pull off something different from anything they have ever attempted before. At times, it even feels progressive. Keep on progging!

Overall: You all know the Bards and their songs, but this is different. And really good.

Rating: 4.0*

Review: Rise Of Avernus – L’Appel Du Vide

Location: Sydney, Australia
Genre: Progressive Gothic/Doom Metal
Released: January 20, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Diving For Treasure

By: Kris Kotlarik

Sometimes, you pick up an album from a band you have never heard of for no real reason. Maybe the album art looked cool, or perhaps you saw the “for fans of [insert band here]” label on the album’s wrapping. In this case, I noticed that an Australian band had a French album title and decided to give it a shot. Sometimes these endeavors are an abject disaster. This is quite the opposite.

This is Rise Of Avernus’ debut effort, and it’s a fantastic one at that. A glance at the band members’ prior history shows a bunch of bands that I know nothing about. As a whole, I don’t know much about Australia’s metal scene, with the first bands coming to mind being Ne Obliviscaris and 4Arm. Rise Of Avernus has now made the list of bands from Australia to watch going forward.

For a band that is labeled as a gothic/doom metal band, they make a lot of forays into death/black metal and add a lot of symphonic elements to their sound. There is a brief section of “Ethereal Blindness,” for example, that has violin playing over a bass groove and a minimalist percussion style that sounds beautiful. The next track, “Embrace The Mayhem,” makes extensive use of a saxophone that is being played in a jazzy style, and the results are stellar. There’s a false ending on this track that trolls the listener with some smooth jazz stylings from said saxophone. The only other false ending I can think of that I really enjoyed was Blind Guardian‘s “The Maiden and the Minstrel Knight,” and this one trumps The Bards’. Catherine Guirguis, the band’s keyboardist at the time, shines on vocals here. Unfortunately, she is no longer in the band, but they recently announced on Facebook that they hired Mares Refelaeda, a new female keyboardist and vocalist. It will be interesting to see what the band does with her on upcoming releases should they decide to retain her for studio releases.

Guirguis is also effective in “Disenchanted,” which begins as a track that could be mistaken for an early-era The Gathering album before changing gears several times. “An Somnium” may be my favorite track on here; it starts with a nice keyboard melody before blasting the listener with some major-league death metal, with violins clearly in the mix. “As Soleness Recedes” closes the album with the best display of clean male vocals here, and has an overall sound reminiscent of Katatonia. “The Mire,” meanwhile, reminds me somewhat of Arcturus mixed with Septicflesh.

The only two tracks that I didn’t fully enjoy were the opener and the title track, the latter of which essentially amounting to an interlude. The opener, “A Triptych Journey,” has a nice sound to it but feels slightly drawn out in relation to the other tracks on this album. One question that I was not able to find the answer to was whether or not the orchestration is authentic or a product of the keyboards. If it’s the latter, then they did a great job on the mix because it sounds authentic to me most of the time. In any case, this is the kind of music that deserves a dedicated lineup of studio musicians that are skilled in non-electric instruments. If Dimmu Borgir can get a full orchestra to play live with them at Wacken, I hope there’s a few good Australians that would pitch in on music like this.

Overall: With its unique take on the stagnant doom metal genre, this album is a clear-cut top five album of 2014 as of now. 

Rating: 4.0*

Review: Threshold – For The Journey

Location: Surrey, England
Genre: Progressive Rock/Metal
Released: September 19, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest: Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

If you read the Star One review and thought this was the last you would be hearing from any of their members for a while, you have been misled. To be fair, Threshold’s newest release caught me off guard, as I had not heard any news of it being released until, well, after it was released.

At times, Damian Wilson, one of the lead vocalists for Star One, sounds surprisingly similar to Blind Guardian‘s Hansi Kursch, and this is apparent from the uptempo opener, “Watchtower On The Moon.” It’s a nice track with some occasional shades of Coheed and Cambria and has some of the synth and guitar riffs that made Star One take flight. But if you don’t like Hansi, you have been warned. Damian has a much less raspy voice, but the similarities are striking. I’m probably going to take some flak for this comparison, but I am saying this in a complementary way, as I am fond of both vocalists.

The next track, “Unforgiven,” is much slower and starts with an extremely corny “Mirror, mirror…” line that I really would have liked to avoid. Picture, if you will, “New World Order” from Shadow Gallery’s Tyranny, but without any of the emotion and raw energy that makes that particular track special. There’s a nice, energetic guitar solo at the end, but it fades out anticlimactically and drops into “The Box,” which begins with a simple piano melody (but not as forced and boring as Rihanna’s “Stay.” That song is truly terrible). This track is the longest on the album by far, clocking in at twelve minutes.

After a lengthy but fiery movie sample, the tempo gets pushed up a notch. The chorus to this track sounds like the one from the opener, which is a staple in Threshold’s sound. The tempo slows down and the Damian Wilson layering is turned up to 11. Even if the chorus is a little overdone, this is a solid track with a variety of sections to keep the listener interested.

What follows is “Turned To Dust,” an industrial mid-paced chugga tune that feels out of place with Wilson’s vocals. “Autumn Red,” on the other hand, has a lot going for it. It takes the precedent set by “Turned To Dust” and spins it into a much more effective track with some solid riffs and melody changes. The closer, “Siren Sky,” is another midtempo chugger that I would rank in between these two tracks. It has some of the heaviest riffs and easily the heaviest drum patterns in bursts. There is a sample at about the five-minute mark that completely sucks the flow out of the song, and the remaining minute comes across as overcompensating for those lost five seconds.

“Lost In Your Memory” starts much like “The Box” does, but doesn’t have the buildup and payoff that the aforementioned track does. The melancholic solo towards the end of the track is nice but doesn’t redeem it. “The Mystery Show,” in spite of having the same chorus that is all over this record, is the best of the slower tracks, with an intriguingly haunting introduction, fantastic piano-guided bridge section, and a nifty solo.

As for the bonus track, “I Wish I Could,” it’s quite different from the rest of the album, featuring variations of most of the tracks that are on here. It’s as if the band decided to take all the good aspects of For The Journey that worked and threw them all on one track. I’m not sure if it works in a cohesive sense, but there’s a different, unique sound that is a refreshing change of pace.

Overall: While this is a decent effort, it feels too “safe.” The chorus from any one song could easily be placed in most other tracks.

Rating: 3.0*

Top tracks: Autumn Red, The Mystery Show, Watchtower On The Moon, I Wish I Could

Review: One Machine – The Distortion Of Lies And The Overdriven Truth

Location: London, England
Genre: Power/Progressive Metal
Released: February 17, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature – Global Conquest – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

The opening impression I got from the title track, which opens One Machine’s debut album, was that I was about to hear an album centered around Nevermore tribute/worship. This could possibly be a good thing; Persuader put out a solid album this year which could have easily been confused as a heavier version of Blind Guardian‘s Imaginations From The Other Side. In this case, the intro is almost an exact replica of the title track from The Obsidian Conspiracy, and it sounds awesome. The rest of the track is fast and contains some Nevermore-resembling solos.

The opener, along with the three tracks that follow it and the thrashing closer, “Freedom And Pain,” are the album’s best tracks. Unfortunately, the sandwich in between these tracks are all, for one reason or another, not stellar. “Defiance,” “Last Star Alight,” and “Into Nothing” are boring to say the least, dragging on without any semblance of progression. The vocals in “Evict The Enemy” are grating and detract from the song’s solid instrumentation. “One Machine” runs way too long and teeters between awesome instrumental sections and more annoying, screeching vocals.

For those keeping score, we have five solid-to-good tracks and five completely forgettable tracks. The bonus track is an opportunity to push this into solid territory, but it’s an off-the-mark cover of the Phil Collins classic, “I Don’t Care Anymore.” (Look, I’m not a Phil Collins fan, but if there’s a song of his that metal can’t improve, this would be that track.)

Overall: Even at its best moments, The Distortion is unoriginal. At its worst, it can be downright grating.

Rating: 2.0*

Additional Thoughts: While I spoke highly of Persuader’s recent effort, When Eden Burns, the highest rating I could foresee that album being awarded is a 3.5* because, while the album may have a solid sound, it lacks that component of originality that would separate it from the rest of the field. 

ATF Review: Blind Guardian – Tales From The Twilight World

Location: Krefeld, Germany
Released: October 3, 1990
Genre: Power/Speed Metal
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – All Time Favorites

By: Kris Kotlarik

When I saw Blind Guardian in Belgium at PPM Fest 2012, I stumbled into a conversation in which fans were discussing whether Nightfall in Middle-Earth or Imaginations From The Other Side is their most complete album. I only love a few of the songs from each of those albums. I heard some discussion for A Night At The Opera, which has some amazing songs, such as “Under The Ice,” “Punishment Divine,” and the epic “And Then There Was Silence,” but a lot of filler material as well. So, being in a new environment and looking for people to talk to, I said “well, what about Tales From The Twilight World?” I received several blank stares and they suddenly started speaking in German.

I probably differ from the vast majority of The Bards, but I consider Twilight World to be their most complete effort, and by a substantial margin. There is not a single bad track on here, Hansi Kursch is stellar, and the hidden feature is the classical influences that are all over. Those who are more trained in classical will probably be able to pinpoint them much quicker than I did, and while I have an appreciation for classical music I would most likely fail a “which composer wrote this piece?” quiz if it gets any more advanced than the obvious classics.

In general, everything you have ever loved/hated about Blind Guardian is on full display here, but with far less symphonic elements than their later materials. For those not familiar, there are guitar solos everywhere, just about every single chorus is catchy, and the lyrics to every song have something to do with science fiction and/or fantasy. If that’s not your thing, you probably won’t like this, either. I’m rather averse to most power metal bands and albums (read: Sonata Arctica), but this hits the spot.

On an album with no bad songs, the two best songs, “Lost In The Twilight Hall” and “The Last Candle,” really stand out. “Twilight Hall” features a back-and-forth exchange between Kursch and Kai Hansen (Helloween, Gamma Ray) that spans several octaves. “The Last Candle” has the best guitar work here, and everything that was said already about Blind Guardian is at its highest level on this track, with a grand “Guardian of the blind” vocal intro leading the way.

There’s two live staples from Twilight World; “Welcome To Dying” is the heaviest song (although “The Last Candle” may make a claim at that title), and has Hansi’s vocals layered all over the place to great effect. “Lord Of The Rings” is Blind Guardian’s other ballad staple, and even though I believe the version on The Forgotten Tales is better than this one (it’s slower, features more symphonics, and has more Hansi than you can shake a stick at), it fits the overall tone of the album better and is still a solid song in its own right.

“Goodbye My Friend” and “Traveler In Time” are both fine songs; “Goodbye My Friend” is comparable to “Welcome To Dying,” while “Traveler In Time” starts the album off with an acoustic lead that escalates into an almost happy-go-lucky feel to it. The two interludes, “Weird Dreams” and “Altair 4,” are both fun, with the former being an uptempo instrumental and the latter being a followup to the excellent “Tommyknockers.” The edition I have also contains a live bonus performance of “Run For The Night” off of Batallions Of Fear and is simply sublime.

There are just two tiny parts that keep it from being a surefire 5.0* album. The ending of “Weird Dreams” clashes with the calm, acoustic sound of “Lord Of The Rings” and could have used a better transition. And then there’s the ending of “The Last Candle.” I actually love the ending; picture more aggressive shades of “The Prophet’s Song” by Queen, except it’s a Hansi choir (a frequent occurrence on A Night At The Opera). But then, it just suddenly cuts out. I will never understand that. On Memories Of A Time To Come, they remixed it with a functioning ending, but butchered the rest of the song by adding some pointless vocals and taking away the power that makes this version so awesome to begin with. If I had the original version and heard that cutoff, I would’ve probably wondered if my cassette was scrambled. I think a Hansi scream (such as the one on “Punishment Divine,” executed in a similar way to Devin Townsend’s Things Beyond Things“) would have made for an excellent ending.

Overall: There will never be a power metal album better than this one. 

Rating: 4.5*