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”


Review: Bloodbath – Grand Morbid Funeral

Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Genre: Death Metal
Released: November 17, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Upcoming Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

Who’s ready for another pointless subgenre argument?

Elitist death metal fans having been bitching at each other for years (for all intents and purposes, let’s go with the start of the century) about old school death metal and new, “modern” death metal that relies more on melodic guitars and keyboards. And for some unknown reason, Bloodbath guitarist Per Erikkson (from Katatonia) decided to chime in on this debate when describing Grand Morbid Funeral, saying via Queen Of Steel:

“There can be both equal dozes of speed and heaviness in my opinion, but when it comes to the melodic aspect, I prefer my death metal eerie and/or sorrowful, when melodies become too ‘harmonic’ and cheesy you’re killing the darkness in death metal. I think Bloodbath blends the above very delicately, but contemporary ‘core’ metal fans and purists of melodeath are not gonna enjoy this new album. That’s for sure, but maybe their dads will?”

As legend has it, pretty much everyone who is anyone in the Swedish metal scene, including Mikael Åkerfeldt from Opeth, were all drinking one night and said “fuck it, let’s form a death metal band.” What happened to that? Sure, things have changed; Åkerfeldt is no longer in the band and is writing some nice progressive rock these days. When did they become so serious about this purist attitude? That defies the basis on which this band was founded. Melodic death metal has its merits if done right, just like “traditional” death metal can sound tacky and trite if done the wrong way.

Lyrically, this album is about as innovative as any generic rap song (here’s looking at you, “Hot ‘Boy'”). They are as seeped into death metal themes as humanly possible, to the point of being cliche. And the album title completely gives it away, but at least they’re sticking to what they wanted to do originally.

The music, on the other hand, is a nonstop highlight. New vocalist Nick Holmes from Paradise Lost is a surprisingly strong fit, and his parts are the least important aspect of this record. Jonas Renske, also from Katatonia, crushes the bass guitar, and everything else sounds tight.

As for highlights, I’m not even sure where to begin. If I was able to do so, I would take out the brief sample leading into “Anne,” as it doesn’t contribute much to the overall sound. “Total Death Exhumed” had an ending that would have faded out nicely into the former, but that’s just my opinion. I would start with the back end of this record, beginning with “Beyond Cremation,” as it starts amazingly and only gets better for the rest of the album. The rest should be considered as solid material as long as lyrics don’t matter to you.

Overall: The #1 album for headbanging and/or speeding while driving from 2014. 

Rating: 4.0*

Review: Pain Of Salvation – Falling Home

Location: Eskilstuna, Sweden
Genre: Progressive Rock; Acoustic
Released: November 10, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

There’s a growing trend in which progressive rock/metal bands are releasing acoustic and/or stripped-down albums of their material. Anathema did it with Falling DeeperKatatonia recreated the entirity of Dead End Kings on Dethroned and UncrownedDevin Townsend has been drifting further and further into acoustic territory and has a live acoustic album.

I don’t have anything against this kind of music. It can make for make for a calm listening experience and it’s always interesting to see what artists do with their heavier material, even if it’s just a novelty. The problem is that these albums don’t have much staying power on my rotations, and Falling Home is no exception.

Technically serving as Pain Of Salvation’s ninth album, Falling Home has ten revamped tracks from their discography, two covers, and one new song (the title track). As usual, Daniel Gildenlöw is brilliant on vocals. But the reason this album won’t be spun a bunch of times is because most of these tracks are simply inferior to their original counterparts. More than a few tracks take on a lounge feel to them, and this is best exemplified on their cover of “Holy Diver.” Yes, it would rank as one of the better lounge tracks ever, even if it sounds like something straight from Richard Cheese’s playbook, but lounge music simply does not interest me.

With that said, their cover of Lou Reed‘s “Perfect Day” is beyond solid, and the new versions of “1979” and “King Of Loss” are also quite good, with the latter being the album’s standout in part because of its effective old-time country feel. The title track has vocals that are completely over the top towards the end, almost bludgeoning the listener with their loudness, which is a rarity on here (and for this band in general).

These songs will all sound great to those who are new to Pain Of Salvation, but when you dive into their discography, you will realize that they sound so much better when they plug in the electrics and run with it. “To The Shoreline” off of Road Salt Two is one of my favorite tracks by any band, but it’s merely good here in comparison to its legendary counterpart.

Overall: Much like the aforementioned acoustic reboots. Not bad, but not exciting.

Rating: 2.5*

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: Evergrey – Hymns For The Broken

Location: Gothenburg, Sweden
Genre: Prog/Power Metal
Released: September 26, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

Evergrey has been around for a long time. Nine albums and 19 years later, they seem to be hitting the same wall over and over again.

In a contrast to how I normally feel about most album introductions, I actually had my hopes set pretty high after this short, melancholic piece. It would have set the stage beautifully for a long, emotional concept album, or at least a series of songs united on a loose concept such as loss, like the introduction portrayed. But the next track, “King Of Errors,” is a midtempo number that doesn’t match up with the introduction at all. In general, the vibe is uneven and uneasy. By design? Probably, but it doesn’t work very well.

On top of the uneven flow, there are a couple of glaring problems. First, many of the tracks follow the pattern set by Threshold’s latest effort, in which one could take the chorus from one song and transplant it relatively easily onto another without incident. And secondly, “Missing You” is almost unbearable. It’s only slightly better than Sonata Arctica’s “Love” off their newest album, and that song is entirely unbearable. There are also some cringe-worthy lyrics, including from the otherwise-decent closer, “The Aftermath.”

Most of the tracks are unremarkable (several, such as the title track and “Wake A Change,” barely registered a reaction), but there are a few gems here, all in the second half. “Barricades” is solid and has some serious wanking going on in the guitar solo. “The Fire” is surprisingly heavy, even with the addition of what appears to be a children’s choir, and “Grand Collapse” has some unexpected “chugga” riffs and packs a pretty decent punch. Other tracks, such as “Archaic Rage” and “Black Undertow,” both in the second half, have good moments in the middle but are otherwise uneventful.

If you venture out for the deluxe edition, they contain two piano versions of tracks from this album, including a different take on the vocals, and a piano reboot of “These Scars,” from 2008’s Torn. These covers are a nice spin from those who want to break away from the Katatonia/Sabaton infusion. And there is some Sabaton sound in here. “These Scars,” in particular, is worth a look.

Overall: Another positive to take away is that Tom Englund still has some nice pipes. But the songwriting isn’t up to par, and that really hurts.

Rating: 3.0*