Sweden

Black To The Future Tour: Ghost w/ Purson

Location: Columbus, Ohio
Date: September 23, 2015
Ticket cost: $27.60 ($40.30 with Ticketmaster’s asshole-ish convenience fees)
Merch purchased: None

By: Kris Kotlarik

I think it’s about time for a pre-review rant about concert ticket prices. Shows that are at Alrosa Villa or Ace of Cups and/or promoted by Columbus Events Group are very reasonable in terms of cost with minimal advance fees. But then there’s Promowest Live and Ticketmaster. How do they think that adding a 50% markup on ticket fees is acceptable? Why even bother working with the evil empire that is Ticket[ass]master in the first place? There are plenty of good shows both at the Newport and the LC Pavillion, but these fees price me (and probably others) out of their shows.

That didn’t stop the Newport from nearly selling out last night, easily eclipsing the Decibel Magazine 2014 tour stop for the largest crowd I have seen at this venue, approaching upwards of 1,700 strong. With more than a handful of audience members dressing up in their Papa Emeritus garb, Ghost put on a stellar show that engaged the entire crowd. But was their performance worthy of an all-time favorite designation? What about Purson? Read on, together as one.

Purson: 3.0*
Set length: 40 minutes

This might be one of the few occasions where I can say with a straight face that the opening band sounded better than the headliner. …why are you chasing me with pitchforks? At least give me a chance to explain.

Perhaps it was because they had one less member to work with; they had pretty much the same makeup as Ghost, running two guitars (with founder Rosalie Cunningham handling the lead vocals), one bass, the drums, and a set of keys. Having even one less person to mix can make all the difference in terms of sound quality; I took my usual perch on the balcony towards the center of the venue*, and their take on 70’s style psychedelic progressive rock sounded pristine. It was like I was watching them play in their practice space. The only issue I had with their sound was with the somewhat soft backing vocals, and half the time, it just looked like the person who would be singing backing vocals just had their mouth up towards the mic while playing his instrument, which brings me to my next point:

While that kind of intimate feeling in a large venue can be a good thing, the drawback here is that Purson lacked any semblance of stage presence, spending less than a minute talking to the audience over the length of their set. The band didn’t move around on stage and, with a few exceptions, showed little visible energy. The lighting was consistently dark and brooding, and their song selection was also puzzling; their last song, even with a brief uptempo section, was easily their slowest of the night. All of that adds to listener fatigue, at least from my perspective.

Two audience members who were more familiar with Purson than I was told me that they heard the band’s full studio releases and felt indifferently about them, but said they sounded significantly better live than on tape. After taking another whack at their music, I can’t help but agree. Their latest EP, In The Meantime, is solid, but the sound on stage is vastly superior. Even so, I’ll be looking forward to their next release, Desire’s Magic Theatre, when it drops in the near future.

They could also stand to lower t-shirt prices. I have a hard time paying $35 for a t-shirt for any reason, but that goes double for a band that I’m not especially blown away by. They’re good, but not “$35 for a t-shirt” good.

All that said, Ghost picked an ideal touring mate for their jaunt around North America, as Purson is a great complementary counterpart to Ghost.

Ghost: 4.0*
Set length: 110 minutes

Ghost has the art of stage presence down to a science. With Papa Emeritus leading the five Nameless Ghouls, the band’s performance took on a life of its own. Even before the set started, anyone who was, for whatever reason, unfamiliar with Ghost quickly got their answer as to what they got themselves into; with a large satanic alternate cover art banner in full display and church choir music blasting on the speakers, everyone knew they were in for a night of occult counter-culture shenanigans. And for those still confused, the crowd was chanting “Satan! Satan! Satan” shortly before they started.

Once the band took the stage and roared into the spooky “Spirit,” it was all smiles from the audience, and rightfully so. And while I greatly enjoyed their set, I had a few nitpicks with it. The obvious first complaint is that the band was a little bit too loud across the board. One of my favorite features of Ghost’s studio albums is the subtle mix of the drums, but that is nixed here in favor of a straightforward drum blasting. This was especially noticeable on “Con Clavi Con Dio,” arguably my favorite Ghost song.

Papa Emeritus III, meanwhile, was somewhat flat on his lower notes on occasion. And while all of the new tracks they played (the only one that wasn’t played was “Deus In Absentia”) sounded great, I was shocked at the largely ignored Kansas-esque keyboard riff in “Absolution,” and further puzzled by the use of a keytar on “Mummy Dust” instead of the former.

There was also the small issue of Papa Emeritus taking off his anti-papal cloak during “Cirice” midway through the show and leaving it off for the rest of the show. I’m not sure if that’s normal, as this was my first time seeing Ghost live, but it was baffling to see him perform without that garb. But that doesn’t take away from how great of a live song “Cirice” is.

Minor shortcomings and/or question marks aside, this was a pretty special show; most notable was the debut acoustic performance of “Jigolo Har Migiddo,” adeptly showing off the skills of the Nameless Ghouls. Papa Emeritus III also gave several small percussion instruments to fans for them to play during this song.

Watching “Year Zero” was a spectacle in and of itself, and I was thoroughly pleased with “Ghuleh/Zombie Queen,” a song that I was already highly fond of and is currently stuck in my head. “Ritual,” “He Is,” “Stand By Him,” “Per Aspera Ad Inferi,” and “Mummy Dust” also stood out among their best songs as tracks that translate extremely well into a live setting.

Closing out the show with “Monstrance Clock” was simply masterful; it seems like an odd choice until you realize that there are few things better in a concert setting than having a huge crowd singing along with a backing track choir as the band exits the stage: “Come together; together as one. Come together, for Lucifer’s son.” Fucking genius.

Above all else, Ghost is right up there with Devin Townsend in terms of personally engaging with fans during the set. I counted at least ten instances where Papa Emeritus singled out a specific fan who said something to him, and there were nothing but smiles coming from those fans. It was a high-energy set that should be considered a must-see for any metal fan.

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*If you go to the Newport and are looking for the best possible sound quality, stand as close to the sound booth as possible, located behind the main concert floor and next to the bar. 

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Review: Sabaton – Heroes

Location: Falun, Sweden
Genre: Power Metal
Released: May 16, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Traveler In Time

By: Kris Kotlarik

I almost forgot about this one. Sabaton thought they could pull a fast one and release a “deluxe” version of Heroes in 2015 with a bunch of live tracks, except I already had the “deluxe” version of this album when it was released last year. In this version, the second disc consists of three covers that I could have done without listening to (including an awful cover of Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls”) and two “original” tracks, one of which is another one of Sabaton’s metal tribute songs (this one to Manowar) and the other being a remade song from a previous album. So really, let’s just skip that disc, shall we?

At this point, Sabaton has three things going for them:

-In terms of entertaining metal bands in a live setting, few can rival them.They also tour at a brutal rate; the only other band that I can think of to hit Columbus as often as Sabaton has is Kishi Bashi.

-With respect to lyricism, most of their tracks revolve around very specific events in warfare. In Heroes, they decided to look at individual war heroes who were heroic in different ways. For those who think that metal lyrics are nonsense, this band may help change your opinion.

-I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the production from this album is an immense improvement over their previous album, Carolus Rex. They seem to have gotten the memo that making your albums unnecessarily loud might be a liability, and that shows in this mix.

All that said, the band’s songwriting peaked during Carolus Rex, which I regard as a fluke since Coat Of Arms marked a significant decline from their best album, The Art of War. Most of the “power” elements that made The Art of War and Primo Victoria fantastic power metal works have been stripped away. Occasionally, this is effective; “To Hell and Back” features lengthy nontraditional metal instrumentation that blends in quite well with the usual Sabaton sound. Then there are songs like “The Ballad of Bull,” which is adequately described by its name (unfortunately for Leslie Allen), and is so unbelievably cheesy that it just overtook Wisconsin as the leading cheese producer. Similarly, “Inmate 4859,” a song about the story of a man who voluntarily went to Auschwitz as part of the Polish resistance movement, is a plodding borefest.

Everything else is somewhere in the middle; “Soldier of 3 Armies” sounds like the perfect idea for a Sabaton concept album and has some potential, while the intro to “Night Witches” initially had me thinking I was about to listen to some kind of “dance metal” album. There’s a lot of decent and catchy material, but much like fellow Swedes Amaranthe, it’s largely forgettable.

Overall: Preserving history does not excuse unoriginal songwriting.

Rating: 2.0*

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: Soen – Tellurian

Location: Sweden
Genre: Progressive Metal
Released: November 4, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Upcoming Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

I happened to be at Soen’s first-ever concert, a performance at the Finnish Metal Meeting in 2012. They put on a solid set that drove me to purchase their debut album, Cognitive, which quickly became one of my favorite albums of the year, if not ever.

Tellurian is the group’s second album. To paraphrase a quote from Archerthis group is like if Opeth‘s Mikael Akerfeldt and Tool‘s Maynard James Keenan had a baby and named it Soen. The comparison makes sense, especially given that their drummer, Martin Lopez, spent ten years as Opeth’s percussionist and even spent a couple years as Amon Amarth’s drummer from 1996-1998.

The comparison to Opeth and Tool is meant to be taken as a compliment, although I can see how some people would want to run far away from this band based on that description. The sound Soen possesses is more powerful than Opeth’s recent efforts, however, so this should still please some of the “Opeth is all cheesy progressive rock now. I want Blackwater Park 2” meatheads.

To be frank, however, my first listen to this record was decidedly indifferent. It felt like every track was too similar to the previous track and the songs didn’t progress on the first go-around, especially on the first half of the album. The entire second half, starting with “Koniskas,” stood out as a much more dynamic chunk than the first half did. But by the time I got to the second half, I was already weary.

Additional listens proved to be much more rewarding, though; the production is air tight, but not robotic. The bass clearly stands out in the mix, and the always-clean vocals are just as gorgeous as they were on the debut. Especially noteworthy is “The Words,” a shining display by vocalist Joel Ekelöf that is rather minimalist in that there is an extensive amount of this track that features little-to-no percussion. If you’re looking for two tracks to try out before diving into the rest of the album, I would pick the last two (“Void” and “The Other’s Fall”), which are the longest tracks on the album by a considerable margin. There is a lot going on in each of these tracks that would consume far too much space to describe and wouldn’t do them much justice anyway.

As a whole, I am impressed with the progression Soen has made from their already-strong first album. This wasn’t phoned in at all; this is a group of musicians that appears to be dedicated to making music that makes people think, especially with regards to the lyrics. Even the album cover art gets your attention, making you wonder: “I wonder what this means?”

Overall: May take several listens to sink in, but worth the wait. As of right now, safely in the top 20 albums of 2014. 

Rating: 4.0*

Review: Amaranthe – Massive Addictive

Location: Gothenburg, Sweden
Genre: Power Metal, Metalcore, Pop
Released: October 21, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

Back in 2012, when I was studying in Tampere, Finland, I caught a show at Klubi (the smaller of the two venues in the same building that usually host metal shows in the city) with Amaranthe and Amoral as the main bands on the bill. Amaranthe was definitely the better of the two bands; Amoral unfortunately went off the tracks long ago. At that point in time, Amaranthe had just started to gain popularity in Europe following the release of their self-titled debut in 2011. While I won’t go so far as to say it was a fantastic album, their set was a pretty good complement to their album and had a certain energy about it that made me want to listen to more of them.

Since then, Amaranthe has released two more albums, and this latest one, like Amoral, went off-course in a hurry. It all starts off with “Dynamite,” a tune that sounds way too much like In This Moment, and just gets worse from there. The good spots are hard to find; “Skyline” would be a low-end Epica song at best, and “An Ordinary Abnormality” is the only track that is consistently listenable with its thrashing sound. There are other bits and pieces of decent material as well; a well-executed breakdown in “Digital World” saves that song from being a complete train wreck, and the chorus to “Drop Dead Cynical” is quite catchy. That’s about all I can find in the positive territory.

So what’s wrong with this album? It has nothing to do with the band members; two of the singers have sang live for Kamelot, and the deliverer of the harsh vocals sounds like he could actually hold the same position for Epica in a pinch because their voices are quite similar. The problem here is in the songwriting and production. The lyrics, while not completely banal, lack flow to them. There is too much chugging, as well as a lot of electronics and dubstep stylings that just don’t work. The pop elements that can bring out the best in some albums come off as a giant cliche here. There are also two unbearable ballads that accomplish nothing: “True” and “Over And Done.”

Again, their self-titled debut was not a sonic gem with songwriting that could keep everyone captivated for days on end, but it was an entertaining debut that was listenable several times over. Several additional listens of Massive Addictive failed to progress past “True,” which is the sixth track and halfway point of the album. The ability for an album to be replayed is an important factor in my ratings, and this album fails on every metric to maintain my attention.

Overall: Aside from “An Ordinary Abnormality,” this feels lifeless over 90% of the time with just glimpses of promise that fade quickly. 

Rating: 1.0*

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*