Symphony X

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.

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Review: Level 10 – Chapter One

Location: International (United States/Germany)
Genre: Heavy/Melodic metal, hard rock
Released: January 27, 2015
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

Remember when Russell Allen was universally respected as the lead singer of Symphony X, a band that is capable of writing 23-minute songs about The Odyssey and an entire album about the perils of our society being overly dependent on technology? Let’s just say his reputation has taken a bit of a hit recently.

When he’s not putting together solid-to-amazing bandmates, he can be seen collaborating with the masturbatory Jorn in the soulless Allen-Lande project. There’s also the disaster that is Adrenaline Mob, a band that was terrible to begin with and has only gotten worse with each release.

The 2015 version of mediocre Allen comes in the form of Level 10, a collaboration between Allen and Mat Sinner, as well as various members of the German power metal band Primal Fear. And when I say this is mediocre, I am not exaggerating. This is run-of-the-mill heavy metal with some decent vocals behind it, but it often teeters on the edge of excessive cheese. “All Hope Is Gone,” for example, is a Sonata Arctica ballad in disguise.

The only songs that stood out in a positive way for me were “Demonized” and “When the Nighttime Comes,” both for various riffs that had potential but weren’t explored upon further. “Voice of the Wilderness” has some interesting vocal parts from what might be an outside choir that warrant several more listens. Everything else about this is completely forgettable.

Please, for the love of Krishna, get back to Symphony X.

Overall: This is what I think of when I picture music that I could listen to in the car if the only other option was listening to 107.5 or 106.7. Not familiar with Columbus radio stations? Don’t look them up. 

Rating: 1.0*

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*