3.5 out of 5 Stars!
One thing I can say about Leaves’ Eyes—despite the occasional lineup changes through the years, the group possesses an unwavering style, and one that is moderately enjoyable, for the most part. This staunch consistency, however, is not without its problems, which I’ll address below, yet on a positive note, it makes the group instantly recognizable. High production standards, complex song arrangements, often-bombastic orchestrations with choirs and the inclusion of whistles, fiddles, bagpipes, and archaic instruments such as nyckelharpas, and stellar musicianship grace each new Leaves’ Eyes’s release, thus allowing fans to know exactly what they will be getting without even having to sample tracks before making the purchase.
Yet when it comes to Sign of the Dragonhead, there is one notable difference, one that had the power to seriously alter the band’s style since the previous album (2015’s King of Kings), and that’s the addition of a new vocalist. In general, a band altering a lead singer is always risky business. I mean, no one generally notices whenever a keyboardist, drummer, bassist, or guitarist is replaced in most groups, unless that particular musician is so utterly unique as to have a trademarked sound. But when a singer, the very voice of the band, changes from one album to the next? Well, things can (and often do) take a drastic turn when it comes to an act’s overall sound. Especially—as in the case of Leaves’ Eyes—a highly recognizable sound, thanks in no small part to singer Liv Kristine, who’d fronted the group since it burst onto the scene in 2004.
Now, although vocalist Elina Siirala is not entirely “new” (having already appeared on the group’s 2016 EP Fires in the North) she’s new to me since I hadn’t heard that particular release. So, with Sign of the Dragonhead being my first exposure to Ms. Siirala voice, I am happy to report that her range, tonal quality, and manner of delivery are in keeping with what I’ve come to expect on all Leaves’ Eyes’s albums. In fact, had I not known prior to hearing this album about the change in lead singers, I might not have noticed anything different. So bravo to the band members for selecting a gifted vocalist who could jump aboard ship (a Viking vessel, no doubt) without causing any serious disturbances in the otherwise calm and consistent waters.
And as always, the material the band chose to record for this new album is often spirited, typically melodic, and generally better than numerous other female-fronted groups in this genre, with several tracks going above and beyond. For me, a handful of tunes really stood out, their choruses and riffs proving happily memorable and annoyingly repeating in my head at the oddest of times.
In my estimation, “Riders on the Wind” is probably one of the finest songs the band has recorded since its inception, with Siirala’s melody lines floating atop both full and rich instrumentation and a driving and head-bopping rhythm. The tune also includes all the bells and whistles (literally) associated with the group’s sound—grand orchestrations and choirs and all those odd instruments the band adores employing, perfectly encapsulating—in the proverbial nutshell—the band’s overall style in the space of only four minutes. Actually, a similar state of musical affairs as described above revolve around “Jomsborg,” “Shadows in the Night,” “Across the Sea,” and the masterful “Sign of the Dragonhead,” all tracks representing everything the band is about within three to four minute bursts, with the title tune especially sounding even more imposing and ostentatious, if that were even possible.
Thankfully, the band successfully toys with dynamics as well, merging both lighter (acoustic piano and guitar) instrumentation with the typical “metallic” grandiosity on the more intricate “Like A Mountain” or the gentler “Fairer Than the Sun,” which add welcomed breathing space to the sometimes-overblown majesty of the other surrounding tracks.
Now, with all that said, there are, however, a few tracks that don’t quite work for me. For instance, the instrumental “And Waves” is basically a celebration of all things Celtic that I feel goes on, even at three minutes, a bit too long. Other tunes don’t ring entirely triumphant as well, such as “Völva,” with a chorus that simply doesn’t grab me, and “Fires in the North,” that seems a tad disjointed with different sections linked together and varying melody lines not quite gelling into anything cohesive or memorable.
Moreover, the album’s closer, the lengthier and ambitious “Waves of Euphoria,” suffers from an entirely different dilemma—and this is one of those negative consistency issues I alluded to in the opening paragraph—the continual inclusion (and an unnecessary one for Leaves’ Eyes and any other band that tragically includes them) of the horrific “grunts and growls” male vocals. Sorry, but these completely unmelodious and indiscernible explosions of demonic vomit simply annoy me to no end and always lessen the enjoyability factor of most tracks on which they appear, especially when they take center stage, which happens on this otherwise engaging epic. If I wanted to hear orcs spewing nonsensical words at me in some guttural foreign language I’d rather replay The Lord of the Rings trilogy, thank you very much.
This last factor played a large part in not only forcing me to instantly lower the volume on my stereo, but also to lower my overall rating of the album. Additionally—and back to the consistency issue again—even though fans of Leaves’ Eyes will likely not be disappointed at this collection of tunes (or even those hellish male vocals) I wonder just how many new followers the band will muster with this release. Sorry to say, but even though most of the tunes are commendable and the musicians certainly know how to write some engaging melodies—and can orchestrate the pants off of many other groups in the Symphonic/Gothic Metal genre—I can’t help feeling that I’ve heard it all before on previous albums by the band. Yes, there is a high level of consistency in the group’s overall sound, and even in the Viking-inspired lyrics, but this begs the question as to whether Leaves’ Eyes is moving forward at all, or is the band simply parroting previous material?
These days, I can’t help feeling it’s mostly the latter since everything does seem a bit too samey from one album to the next. Yes, it’s enjoyable material for the most part, but unfortunately, it’s also nothing truly new.
Album Currently Not Available At Amazon
To Be Released 01/12/18