Netherlands

Review: The Gathering – Souvenirs

Location: Nijmegen, The Netherlands
Genre: Alternative rock, trip-hop
Released: February 24, 2003
Format Reviewed: FLAC

By: Kris Kotlarik

Allen Enigma of Metalbite: Obviously the sound of The Gathering has changed greatly since it even began, before you joined and after. What where some of the influences of The Gathering circa 1995 and “Mandylion,” and what influences The Gathering of present day?

Anneke van Giersbergen: Music-wise, we are very much influenced by this new dark pop music. You might call it like Radiohead, Massive Attack, and bands like that. They really influence us because we like the catchiness of this music but also the dark side of this music. But other than that, there is an infinite choice of inspiration. You can find inspiration in just about anything, books and movies and friends, and just leading your life, you know? I think that’s a big change from what we did in 95-96, because then the world was just a little bit more black and white because you’re younger then. But now this whole gray area seems to be an influence on our music these days.

As I had mentioned in my review of their previous album, If_Then_Else, I was already a big fan of The Gathering’s early work, especially Mandylion and How To Measure A Planet? The contrast between those two albums is stark; the former leaned on its doom metal aspects with vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen soaring above it all, while Planet marked their excursion into more electronic-laced alternative rock.

For a while, I thought I wouldn’t like their later albums. But then I gave If_Then_Else several spins and really liked it for its variety. Souvenirs may not have as many different styles on display as that album, but I think it’s actually better. I would go so far as to say that it’s right up there with Planet for their second-best album.

What it lacks in variety, it more than makes up for in coherence and a far more clear sound. Opener “These Good People” has a simple yet chilling bass line that builds up over the first 50 seconds before Anneke’s vocals kick in. That intro is symbolic of this album; it’s not afraid to be led by electronics and enhances the material. Speaking of Anneke, her work on this album shows a vastly improved sense of control over her vocals; whereas Mandylion was a display of her raw power, Souvenirs showcases her range, often in the form of high-low harmonies that are haunting and beautiful at the same time.

Much of the album carries on in this fashion: Various electronic effects that add to Anneke’s vocals. These effects are scattered all over the place, from the breakdown towards the end of “Even The Spirits Are Afraid;” to the distorted intro and outro of “Broken Glass;” and just about all of “We Just Stopped Breathing,” especially its choppy, trumpet-laden instrumental outro that stretches over several minutes. Under most circumstances, I would consider such an extensive usage of these elements to be a copout, but this is the kind of art that should be embraced with this instrumentation.

Souvenirs has two tracks that I would consider to be closer to the traditional “rock” structure: The title track, and “Monsters.” The former features some of Anneke’s best vocals on the album, reminding me somewhat of an evolved Adele at times during the middle of the track. “Monsters” is catchy, looping together a crawling bassline with lyrics that portray a person who is frustrated with life’s shortcomings and just wants to be left alone.

Much like how “Analog Park” served as the “climax” of If_Then_Else, “Monsters” is the heaviest point of Souvenirs. And like its predecessor, the final songs here drag on a little bit too long. While still good, the pacing is too slow, further brought down by the four-minute gap of silence between “Jelena” and closer “A Life All Mine,” a surprisingly interesting track that features Trickster G (Ulver, Arcturus, Borknagar) as a duet counterpart. It’s a highly experimental track with all-electronic instrumentation, and is the kind of track I would expect to sneak onto local alternative rock radio stations if the intro is shortened for the edit.

My pick for the best songs here are “These Good People” and “You Learn About It,” the latter mostly because Anneke’s voice teters on the edge of angelic as she is singing. This is true across the album, but there’s something special about Anneke’s high-end vocals, even when they’re not being belted at full lung capacity.

Out of all of The Gathering’s albums, this is the one I have been listening to the most recently. It’s not their best album, but what it does for me is become the soundtrack to my day; I can take this album and listen to it anywhere. Mandylion doesn’t hold that distinction, as amazing as it is.

Maelstrom: You don’t play with your hi-hat open on the new record. The result is that it’s a lot quieter.

Hans Rutten: It is. It’s all to achieve a crystal clear sound. The bombast is gone. At first we had massive guitars. Those are gone. With an open hi-hat, you fill the entire high spectrum. I come from a doom metal band: Always, our first record, has doom oriented drums. There’s more in life than doom metal. I still love doom metal, but you want to grow and do new things.

Overall: Souvenirs has that perfect balance of being experimental and accessible at the same time.

Rating: 4.0*

Buy physical CDs from The Gathering here. Digital albums can be purchased here.

Pagan Rebellion Columbus: Arkona, Heidevolk, et al.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio
Date: September 12, 2015
Ticket cost: $14/$17
Merch purchased: Arkona hoodie ($45); Heidevolk flag ($15)

By: Kris Kotlarik
Feature photo credit: Mike Ritchie, Covering The Scene

Coincidentally falling on my birthday, I can think of very few things I would rather be doing on such a day than watching a show like this; essentially, this is a quasi-Paganfest, and although I don’t carry a drinking horn around with me, I still have a great deal of fun at these shows. Everyone is in a great mood and ready to have a good time, without the threat of butt metal pit ninjas. With six bands, we got a good look at the local pagan-influenced metal scene, as well as some national touring acts and a couple of global folk metal titans. How did everyone fare?

The Conquering: 1.0*
0.5-point deduction for using backing drum tracks for any reason (even if that reason involves a broken foot)

Watching this band perform, you wouldn’t think they have been together for 15 years; everything from their style (the guitarists were shirtless and wearing corpse paint while the lead singer was dressed in generic black) and their performance were both out of sync. Their brand of black metal just wasn’t working.

The band displayed a good sense of humor, and it was interesting to see their bassist chugging a gallon of water between songs. From a musicianship standpoint, their best track was easily “The Veracity in Our Blood,” which showcases a good midpace riff and some of the vocalist’s harshest vocals. Unfortunately, they were noticeably out of sync during the thrashing instrumental section in the middle of the track, which was disappointing. Get well soon, great drummer! Conquering should be less of a challenge upon your return.

Kingsblood: 2.0*

The group displays a solid stage presence and presents a fairly standard deathrash (how is this not an officially recognized subgenre yet?), but they don’t stand out, especially in this billing. Plus the singer seems to be influenced a little too much by Max Cavalera, a man I have never been a fan of.

Winterhymn: 3.0*

The first “trve” folk metal group of the night, Winterhymn continues to prove that they belong on the national folk metal circuit. Featuring a prominent violinist, the band’s sound was full of energy and generally much clearer than the previous two groups. Virtually the only complaint I had was the sound of their keyboards; they were either virtually inaudible, or way too loud (most notably on “Stand Your Ground”). I also wasn’t overly enthralled with their lead vocalist, whose harsh screams generally sound out of place and occasionally wavered during the back end of their set. But their energy and enthusiasm were more than enough to hold their own on this bill.

Helsott: 3.5*

This group surprised me more than anyone else on this bill. The star of this group is flautist/singer/Simone Simons doppelganger Bri Steiner, who was all over the stage playing various wind instruments and laying down some impressive vocal melodies. Occasionally, however, feedback came from her microphones.

One qualm I had (one that you’re probably noticing a pattern of by now) was with the male lead singer, who was absolutely hammered and also wearing a Dimebag Darrell shirt. I get that the Dimebag shirt was probably a tribute to the late Pantera guitarist who was killed at Alrosa, but he came off as a drunken meathead during their set and that sort of took me out of the mood a bit.

With that said, the rest of the band was fun to watch, the sound was (nearly) flawless, and Steiner could frequently be seen getting into the mosh pit with the audience during the final two bands’ sets. In short, this is a fun folk metal group to watch.

Heidevolk: 3.5*

What other bands have two members, neither of whom are playing any instruments, serving as co-lead vocalists? I can’t think of any. That alone made this an engaging set; Lars Vogel and Mark Bochting complement each other very well with their own performance styles onstage. Their traditional heavy metal sound with pagan influences generally sounded a bit too loud, but was otherwise well-balanced among each member.

Joost Westdijk was highly entertaining to watch on drums; with his stick twirling and other showboating antics behind the kit, one would think that he was back at home in the Netherlands in the band’s practice studio. If there was one drawback to be had from their set, it would have to be the lack of live folk instrumentation; all of it was pumped into the crowd. It’s not the biggest liability, but a live folk presence goes a long way.

Heidevolk goes down as a band whose live performances far exceed the quality of their studio output, which isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. Watching them live is a showcase of why folk metal makes so much sense in a live setting, especially when they’re as on top of their game with regards to stage presence as they were at this show.

Arkona: 4.5*

I had the pleasure of seeing Arkona at Kilkim Zaibu 2012 in Lithuania. This is the kind of festival that Arkona is perfect for; picture, if you will, a typical American Renaissance Faire. But instead of fucking hypnotists and acapella groups that are trying to turn shitass pop songs into “folk” arrangements (the same Renaissance Faire had a “glee” club that attempted to sing Lady Gaga songs. They failed spectacularly), the entertainment is some gritty, in-your-face pagan metal. To this day, that festival was one of the best concert experiences I have ever had. The people, the beer, the authentic display of old Baltic artifacts…if every Renaissance faire was like this, I would hit all of them.

Anyway, enter Russia’s Arkona, a blackened folk metal outfit with an amazingly talented vocalist who goes by the name of Masha Scream. Her clean vocals are enchanting and perfect for this style of metal, and she adds versatility with her growls and uncanny stage presence. In addition to the standard cadre of drums, guitars, and bass, Vladimir “Volk” Reshetnikov handles a number of different instruments, including bagpipes and various flutes.

Let’s cut to the chase here: What Arkona accomplished in Columbus wasn’t good. It wasn’t awesome. It wasn’t superb. It was superior. For one thing, Masha’s live voice has immensely improved since the last time I saw Arkona. It was already great; now it’s on another level entirely. The band’s sound has clearly evolved. Many people criticized their newest release, Yav, because it didn’t fit their expectations for Arkona’s sound. I think Yav was a remarkable stepping stone for the group, as it represents a more evolved sound and a renewed state of purpose, and that was in full effect at Alrosa Villa. Especially memorable was the glorious riff fest from Yav, “Na Strazhe Novyh Let” (On Guard of New Aeons).

Everything about Arkona’s performance was stellar; the sound was fantastic, the lighting fit wonderfully with the music, and each band member fully looked engrossed in their performance. Looking into the crowd, two things were visibly clear:
1: Arkona drew the biggest and most consistent mosh pits of the night by a wide margin. That’s not just a reflection of the amount of booze being consumed; that’s the amount of energy the band was displaying.
2: Outside the mosh pits, I couldn’t find a single person in the audience that wasn’t into their performance. Never mind the fact that 99% of the people in the crowd don’t speak Russian and therefore can’t understand the lyrics; in any direction, you could see shit-eating grins the size of Texas on people’s faces.

By all metrics, Arkona’s display of musicianship and showmanship was a rousing success. Plus their hoodie has amazing back art. Arkona was one of the pioneers of folk metal, and now they’re innovating it, both in the studio and on tour.

Overall: While most of the bands were solid and are worth a look, Arkona should be selling out festival grounds all over the planet. Their performance here is among the top ten I have ever seen, and a top-five show in this country.

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Photo credit: Mike Ritchie, Covering The Scene

Arkona’s setlist in Columbus. Photo credit: Mike Ritchie, Covering The Scene

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*

Review: Melechesh – Enki

Location: Amsterdam, Netherlands
Genre: Black Metal with Middle Eastern Influences
Released: February 27, 2015
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

Melechesh, formerly of Israel, took a genre in black metal that had become relatively bland and decided to do something new with it by incorporating Middle Eastern themes in their instrumentation, melodies, and lyrics. As it stands, they are easily among my favorite bands of the genre, as evidenced by my declaration of Emissaries as an all-time favorite.

Enki, their first album in nearly five years, continues the band’s Middle Eastern themes of mythology. It also sees the return (at least for the studio) of Lord Curse, their original drummer. Ashmedi, who serves as the group’s frontman and has been known to play the guitar with a drumstick on occasion, explains the concept of Enki in this quirky interview.

Melechesh, at least in my opinion, is one of the best bands in metal when it comes to opening tracks. They showed it on Sphynx with “Of Mercury and Mercury,” and again on Emissaries with one of their signature tracks, “Rebirth of the Nemesis.” Amazingly, “Tempest Temper Enlil Enraged” might top both of those tracks. It takes little time (43 seconds, to be exact) to build up before activating rampage mode, subjecting the listener to a barrage of aggression spread out over a wide array of unique melodies. Just when you think the track is about to ride into anarchy, it slows down without losing its punch, throwing even more interesting melodies at you. The more I listen to it, the more I consider it a contender for my all-time favorite tracks by the band.

Of course, the problem with putting such impressive material at the beginning is the fact that the bar is set from there, and it’s hard to keep the material that strong for the rest of the album. The rest of the tracks are generally good, but don’t really come close to the opener. “Lost Tribes” features a cameo appearance from Max Cavalera (Soulfly, Killer Be Killed, Sepultura, Cavalera Conspiracy). My reaction to Cavalera’s vocals usually ranges from indifference to “oh hell, not this guy again.” But his contribution here is quite strong. Sakis Tolis (Rotting Christ) also makes an appearance on “Multiple Truths,” and although I like him and his music much more than Max’s, Sakis doesn’t stand out nearly as well in his part.

All told, my complaints with this album are relatively minor. “Metatron and Man” starts with almost the same riff as “Grand Gathas of Baal Sin,” which would have to pick a bone about if not for the fact that I love that song. “Metatron” is also one of the better tracks, especially after the midtempo tracks that preceded it. “Doorways to Irkala” continues the Melechesh tradition of putting a (long) folk instrumental somewhere other than the end of the album. This is the kind of thing that makes Strapping Young Lad look good for putting “Info Dump” at the end of Alien. This is a pleasing, mellow instrumental, but the album would have survived just fine without it. On the opposite end of the spectrum, “The Outsiders” closes the album at a lengthy 12:48, and while I can see how people think this might be too long, I can’t see anything that needs to be cut from here. It only gets better (and heavier) as it progresses.

The biggest concern here might be overcompression in the mix, which takes away some of the magick. As a whole, however, this is another solid album from one of metal’s more unique bands. It may not be their best, but it is damn good. Or, as Ashmedi might say, “Sonic Magick.”

Overall: A 3.5 rating might seem low, but I would rank this below both Sphynx and The Epigenesis, both of which would likely earn 4.0’s.

Rating: 3.5*

Review: The Gentle Storm – The Diary

Location: Waalwijk, Netherlands
Genre: Progressive Rock, Acoustic, Folk
Released: March 23, 2015
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Upcoming Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

Arjen Lucassen is at it again! To which I say, “thank goodness.”

This is a unique album, even for Arjen, a man who has written many a rock opera about everything from space sci-fi to a story about a scientist that was later made into a movie.* The closest comparison that can be offered is to Ayreon’s Universal Migrator albums; it is widely known that he believed that his fans were divided into two camps: The light, progressive rock camp, and the metalheads. So he put out The Dream Sequencer for the former, and Flight of the Migrator for the latter, releasing both albums at the same time. Although fans, myself included, generally liked both albums, he did figure correctly that some people would prefer one album to the other. I’ve had a draft typed up for a while for my review of Flight of the Migrator, which might make my Top 50 all-time list. The Dream Sequencer would probably rate in the 3.5 range if I were to review it today.

My rambling about these albums is important because The Diary is the same album done twice in two different styles. The Gentle version is very folk-oriented and should be regarded as a treat for those who enjoy modern folk rock bands. There are even some lounge jazz elements in “Heart of Amsterdam” and “Brightest Light.” Meanwhile, in “Shores of India,” Arjen makes use of traditional Indian instruments, making them sound authentic in the process.

The Storm version, in contrast, is significantly heavier and makes use of a choir, as seen in “Endless Sea.” The title track, if it can be called that, is full of symphonic metal goodness mixed with the occasional electronic effect (as seen in “Age of Shadows” from 01011001), and is probably the heaviest track here, like an Epica track written by someone with a significantly better ear for melodies. And yet, this isn’t a “metal” album. It’s a fun listen, but (and this is going to sound strange coming from me) I believe the “Gentle” version is the better disc.

The concept is also unique by Arjen’s already-lofty standards; the (based on a true) story revolves around a couple, Joseph and Suzanne, that is torn apart during the peak of The Netherlands’ golden age of exploration. Joseph is called away to visit India, and while he is gone, the two exchange letters to each other, as narrated by the illustrious Anneke van Giersbergen. This is not the first time the two have worked together; she also had parts on Into The Electric Castle and 01011001. But this is a direct collaboration between the two.

And that’s why I consider the Gentle disc to be the better one. The concept, which has a diverse setting, lends itself better to the array of acoustic instruments that Arjen uses in this project. Furthermore, Arjen, who has a reputation for bringing out the best in the musicians he works with, did a great job utilizing Anneke both discs, especially on the Gentle side. While her voice is powerful in nature, she dials it down considerably, and to great effect. Despite that, the Storm version is also a great listen.

Overall: An ambitious project that should wind up on many year-end album lists.

Rating: 4.0*

P.S.: Anneke, if you ever read this and happen to bring The Gentle Storm to the United States, please play “Strange Machines” like you and Arjen did during the European acoustic tour. Or perhaps “Probably Built In The Fifties?” Oh who am I kidding, any song from The Gathering. Actually, I really just want to see this band play live. Otherwise I’m just going to have to move to Europe, and I don’t think Europe is ready for me yet.

*Wait, you mean Ayreon released The Theory Of Everything a full year before the movie of the same name? I smell a lawsuit! All joking aside, that album is also a good one, albeit even more over the top than usual, occasionally to its detriment.

Star One Sunday: Discography Review

Location: Emmeloord, Netherlands
Genre: Progressive Rock/Metal
Feature: …because why not?

By: Kris Kotlarik

Arjen Lucassen has been a giant in the progressive metal realm for over 30 years, dating back to the formation of Vengeance. And it’s not hard to see why just by looking at him. He is so tall that the Dutch national basketball team (allegedly) called him in for a tryout. Even at the age of 54, he can’t do any worse than the current team, which hasn’t even qualified for the European championships since 1989.

In all seriousness, in addition to Vengeance, Arjen has been creating a variety of music since before I was even born. The Ayreon projects, a series of albums with a tight science fiction concept, are his most well-known. Then there’s Guilt Machine, Ambeon, Stream Of Passion, his recent solo album, and the upcoming Gentle Storm project with the one-and-only Anneke van Giersbergen, as well as other projects I am probably forgetting. With the exception of Ambeon, his music is engaging and top-notch, often featuring an all-star list of singers and musicians. The odds are that if you’re a well-known singer in the metal community, you have either appeared on one of Arjen’s albums, or have a huge ego and won’t work with other musicians. Or you’re Devin Townsend (he and Arjen are perfectionists to the core and therefore mirror images of each other in the studio) or Jorn Lande (who spent half of his time on 01011001 trying to tell the world how great he was instead of being a part of the story).

One knock on Arjen’s music are the lyrics and their cheesy nature. Enter what may well be the nerdiest project ever conceived, Star One. Every single track from the band’s two albums, with the exception of a couple of bonus tracks, are about a science fiction movie or television series. It also features a stacked lineup of singers, with Russell Allen of Symphony X and the terrible Adrenaline Mob; Floor Jansen of NightwishAfter Forever and Revamp; Dan Swano, who has produced or performed on approximately 5.2 billion different projects; and Damian Wilson of Threshold.

So without further use of bold font, let’s dissect Star One’s two albums.

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Space Metal
Released: April 29, 2002

As one might expect by the title, this album’s concept is rooted in space. The synthy space intro lifts off into “Set Your Controls,” themed around Doctor Who. Arjen has a knack for crafting exceptional album openers that follow a short intro, and this is no exception. The best part of this track comes in the second half with a series of guitar and synth leads, with a clever bridge section sandwiched in between them.

The next few tracks are good in bits and pieces; “High Moon” has a nice chorus and a nifty string break before the last chorus, but the verses are rather forgettable. “Songs of the Ocean” is a midtempo plodder, with the intro and outro instrumental sections being my favorite parts. It also marks the first time Floor Jansen sings real lines on this album instead of just providing a couple of words following the chorus. Every singer (except Floor, who is once again seldom used) shines on the uptempo and energetic “Master Of Darkness,” which revolves around the plot of Star Wars Episode V.

“The Eye Of Ra” is Space Metal’s most unique track. It starts very slowly, to great effect, before gradually building up. Russell Allen is stellar on this track, and the four singers unite for a solo at the end. If I were to do a list ranking Arjen’s top 10 songs, this would be in the top 10 or 15, which is high praise given his immense discography. “Sandrider” is relatively similar to “Master Of Darkness” and goes down as a good track. “Perfect Survivor” and “Intergalactic Space Crusaders, meanwhile, is similar to “High Moon,” which means I don’t like it nearly as much.

The closer, “Starchild,” reminds me somewhat of “Into The Black Hole” off of Ayreon’s Flight of the Migrator. They’re not the same track by any instance, but it has a similar vibe to it, as they both have a slow and melancholic feel to them. The lyrics to “Starchild,” however, are more uplifting. This is Damian Wilson’s turn to shine, and Arjen lays down one of the most technical guitar fills I have heard from him.

As for the bonus tracks, some of them, such as the remixes to “Starchild” and the alternate version of “Spaced Out,” as well as the complete joke of a track that is “Intergalactic Laxative,” don’t serve much of a purpose. But the Hawkwind medley is an amazing tribute to one of the true pioneers of space-laced progressive rock. The “War I Survived” segment, in particular, is splendid to the senses. The bastardized (meant endearingly) cover of “Space Oddity” is also a nice touch that could have easily fit on the second disc of Lost in the New Real.

While Space Metal is generally a solid album, it suffers from two things. First, it’s a little uneven. There’s great tracks on here, but they are scattered around the album. The rest range from pretty good to ambivalence. The second factor to consider is Floor Jansen’s sporadic use in what essentially amounts to the role of backup singer. As the world has found out in her recent endeavors with Nightwish, she is capable of so much more than the occasional bit part.

Overall: I feel like Arjen spent much of this album trying to get an idea for how to use the talents of these great singers. All told, a solid album.

Rating: 3.5*

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Victims of the Modern Age
Released: October 25, 2010

This album is centered much more around dystopic and/or apocalyptic movies, and in general, I love this album. Everything on this go-around seems more refined and concentrated, and much heavier.

Everything that was said about “Set Your Controls” stands for “Digital Rain” as well, except for one key difference: It is really heavy. It also boasts an outro similar to that of “The Eye Of Ra.” Hey, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Simply put, I love this track; there is something fascinating about having synths be such a driving force in your sound, and Arjen nails it here, along with Russell Allen. “It All Ends Here,” based on the classic film Blade Runner, is just as heavy but much slower. It’s a titan of a track, and the second half is an almost-legendary display of vocals from everyone involved. There is an especially stellar instrumental just before the vocals really kick in.

Other great tracks include the title track, as well as the uptempo “Human See, Human Do.” Both tracks are the only ones in Star One’s discography to feature growls from Dan Swano, or anyone else. The ones in “Human See, Human Do,” in particular, are great and come in a section that was just begging for some growling.

The weaker tracks, such as “Earth That Was,” “Cassandra Complex,” and “It’s Alive, She’s Alive, We’re Alive,” the last of which is based on one of the best modern movies I can think of in Children of Men, still have some good parts. “Earth That Was” is the heaviest track here and contains an impressive guitar/synth solo with some throwbacks to “Age Of Shadows” off of 01011001. Calling these tracks “weak” is entirely relative, as they would have been in the upper tier on Space Metal.

As for the bonus tracks, it’s a mixed bag. “Lastday” and “As The Crow Dies” are merely average, with Arjen singing lead on the former. On the other side of the spectrum, “Closer To The Stars” and “Two Plus Two Equals Five” are special, and their cover of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Knife Edge” could best be described as glorious. Unlike the cover of “Space Oddity,” it is fairly in line with the original…except heavier.

There are so many driving synth/guitar riffs that it would consume far more time than I presently have available to break them down. But if synths, guitars and nerdy lyrics are in your wheelhouse, you’ll love this album. And Space Metal, for that matter. But the songs here feel so much more organic, in spite of Arjen’s insistence to the contrary in a video from Lost In The New Real. Everything that I addressed as concerns from the first album seems to have been corrected here. Floor is much more prominent, and it shows, especially on “It All Ends Here.”

Overall: If I were to rank Arjen Lucassen albums from top to bottom, this would be right up in the top three discussion with Ayreon’s signature albums. It’s that good. 

Rating: 4.5*

Review: The Gathering – How To Measure A Planet?

Location: Oss, The Netherlands
Genre: Alternative/Progressive Rock
Released: November 9, 1998
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: All Time Favorite Nominees

By: Kris Kotlarik

Disclaimer: Although this is a two-disc album in which the second disc has almost no lyrical/musical concept that links it to the first, I am putting both discs in the review’s score since it was only ever sold as a two-disc bundle (unless you live in Japan). 

Unlike Mandylion, which was unbridled yet more straightforward, How To Measure A Planet? (henceforth: Planet) is a contradiction in that it is highly experimental, but more restrained. Gone are the frequent soaring vocals of Anneke van Giersbergen. Looking for that doom metal fix? You won’t find it here. By this point in their careers, by Anneke’s own words, the band was no longer as young and restless as they once were and had also expanded their influences beyond the scope of heavy metal. Planet serves as the group’s foray into electronic elements and, as you may have guessed from the title, has a broad theme of outer space.

Every song on this record is good to some degree, but there is one pitfall that prevents this from being a surefire lock as an all-time favorite: The metronome always ticks slowly, and there are few moments of true intensity. The moments that do break out from those parameters, however, are nearly unforgettable.

“Travel,” at over nine minutes, closes off the first disc. Written about Mozart, its main melody calls back to an earlier (and similarly stellar) song, “Great Ocean Road.” What really sets “Travel” apart from the rest is its long buildup with Anneke eventually busting out some powerful lines lamenting Mozart’s moments of self doubt:

I wish I knew you; your fit of insanity makes me sad/
I wish you knew your music was to stay forever, and I hope…./
I have no clue if you know how much it matters, and i hope…./

This closing section remains among the most powerful moments ever recorded by The Gathering. “Great Ocean Road” is an all-around stellar track, but doesn’t have the same punch as the end of “Travel.” It is no surprise that “Liberty Bell” served as the album’s single, as it is the only truly uptempo track to appear anywhere on this album. The lyrics are rather repetitive but the song is still fun to listen to. The other song that stands out is “Illuminating” from the second disc, guided by an effective bass line and more stunning vocals by Anneke.

Any critique I would have for the remaining songs would just become tired and long, because they all fit the same general description of being good songs with a low-to-midtempo arrangement and at least some electronic elements. Even though it sounds nearly the same as the others, I have a personal affinity for “Red Is A Slow Colour.” There’s a brief section in “Rescue Me” that is heavier than most other parts on the album. “Probably Built In The Fifties” features an extensive amount of electronics and also boasts a solid several minutes of instrumental material towards the end. The title track, 28:33 in length, is approximately one-fourth jam session and three-fourths electronic ambient noise. I usually do not care for long passages of ambiance, but I found this track to be quite relaxing.

Admittedly, I am not well-versed in The Gathering’s work that followed this album, as well as Anneke’s solo work. But it’s obvious that people have been paying attention. Of all the bands I have reviewed so far, The Gathering and its members’ affiliated projects have the most influence on modern mainstream music. There is no way that, in some form, Lana Del Rey was not somehow influenced by this band; Anneke even went so far as to cover one of Lana’s songs at a radio station performance.

Overall: This was ahead of its time; its only flaw being a near-constant tempo that can get tiring rather quickly.

Rating: 4.0*