Beautiful Sin – The Unexpected (2006)

BeautifulSin_Unexpected4 out of 5 Stars!

Magali Luyten, lead vocalist for Germany’s Beautiful Sin (and also for the group Virus IV) is, in a single word, terrific. I liken her gruff and powerful voice to almost a female version of the mighty Jorn Lande, which is too perfect for this often bombastic brand of Heavy Metal. Plus, the band’s dramatic, full-bodied sound is often similar to Masterplan (no surprise, considering two of its members—keyboardist Axel Mackenrott and drummer Uli Kusch—were in both bands) as well as acts playing in a similar vein, such as Thunderstone, Heavenly, At Vance, Firewind, and Ride the Sky, so the Luyten/Lande vocal comparisons are even more appropriate.

On The Unexpected, hard-hitting tracks such as “Metalwaves,” “This is Not the Original Dream,” “Give Up Once for All,” “Take Me Home,” “Pechvogel (Unlucky Fellow),” “Lost,” and “The Spark of Ignition,” had me turning up the stereo to revel in the searing and snarling guitars, courtesy of Jorn Viggo Lofstad (Pagan’s Mind), Mackenrott’s often-pompish and regally grand keyboard backgrounds and blasts, and the thundering rhythms, thanks to Kusch and his partner in metal mayhem, bassist Steinar Krokmo. Also included are several ballads—”Close To My Heart” and “I’m Real”—to not only provide tempo variety and assorted moods, but also to further display the true depth and scope of Luyten’s breathtaking vocal talents.

My only gripe is that a pair of instrumentals also appear in this collection, the driving “Brace for Impact” and the laid-back, keyboard-orchestrated “The Beautiful Sin.” Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with either track, mind you—in fact, both admirably showcase the impressive chops of the four gifted musicians—but having these tracks taking up disc space offers two less opportunities of being able to enjoy Luyten “belting out the jams.” And it’s even more frustrating when you consider that Beautiful Sin released no additional material since this 2006 debut.

Therefore, I’m unsure if this band still exists or if it’s merely “on hiatus,” but considering it’s been more than a decade since The Unexpected dropped on the unsuspecting public, I can only assume the worst. Too bad, since Beautiful Sin showed real promise, and there are way too few female-fronted bands of this nature on the Heavy Metal scene.

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After Forever – After Forever (2007)

AfterForever_AfterForever5 out of 5 Stars!

Unfortunately, I discovered After Forever, a female-fronted Symphonic Metal band from the Netherlands, way too late. Indeed, the group announced its break-up a few weeks after I purchased this particular album, which completely blew me away, and also introduced me to the genre of female-led groups that often used operatic falsetto vocals, thus sending me on a desperate quest to hunt for similar-sounding bands. I like to think that had I not stumbled upon (and taken a chance on) this release, I might have never subsequently discovered Nightwish, Within Temptation, Edenbridge, Leaves’ Eyes, Silentium, and numerous other artists of this nature.

Anyway, upon first listen, I fell in love with the extraordinary singer Floor Jansen, who would go on to form another exciting band (ReVamp) and is now the singer in Nightwish. Although after absorbing this album for several weeks, I started digging into After Forever’s back catalogue and eventually decided that none of the group’s earlier albums tops this final, stellar, and self-titled release, yet each deserves a listen since Floor KILLS on each and every album.

Here, the band offers a seemingly perfect combination of bombastic Symphonic Metal, barreling Power Metal, with even a burst of Progressive Metal, thanks to the intricate instrumentation and song arrangements. “Discord” opens the album with a mighty bang, with Joost van den Broek’s keyboards layered and grand, and Sander Gommans’s and Bas Maas’s guitars brutal and beastly. Bassist Luuk van Gerven and drummer André Borgman unleash their own furious backing, their musical foundation substantial and rigorous. And although the band includes some “growling” vocals on occasion (typically an aspect that often ruins many albums of this nature for me), I can tolerate them here since they are not dominant within the mix, allowing Jansen’s wide-ranging and pristine leads to shine through and impress.

Although the album contains plenty of other tunes to match the alluring fury of “Discord”—for instance, “Transitory,” “Who I Am,” “Withering Time,” “Evoke,” “De-Energized” and “Equally Destructive”—other songs follow different paths, offering up diversity. The ballads “Cry You a Smile” and “Empty Memories” offer lighter moments, allow breathing space for the listener from the high-voltage moments, and also thrust Jansen’s soaring and emotional vocals to the forefront. On the other hand, the eleven-minute “Dreamflight,” the album’s longest and most adventurous track, is a full-out foray into Progressive Metal—the myriad segments and divergent passages, not to mention the wide array of instrumentation, shines a fierce spotlight on the band’s formidable orchestrational skills. And then, my favorite track, the luscious and upbeat “Energize Me,” has a breathtaking chorus that repeated in my head for weeks on end, showing that After Forever also had a talent for writing memorable songs.

Overall, the album blazes with a luxuriant beauty that most female-led Symphonic Metal/Gothic Metal acts would kill to possess. About the only band I subsequently discovered that could, in my opinion, occasionally match the sheer nuclear grandiloquence of this material is (ironically enough, considering Jansen’s future) Nightwish, but even that group has never delivered a collection of tracks with such consistent vigor and majesty as this.

Regardless, Floor Jansen has me as a lifelong fan, and this swansong release by After Forever is one album I have never removed from my I-Phone since purchasing it all those years ago. Five Stars all the way!

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Nocturnal Rites – Grand Illusion (2005)

NocturnalRites_GrandIllusion4 out of 5 Stars!

From Sweden, Nocturnal Rites released a string of eight studio albums between 1995 through 2007—most of them containing above-average material, in my opinion—with Grand Illusion being the second to last in the series. Although the band started out as a slamming Death Metal act, Nocturnal Rites quickly developed into one of the most consistent Power Metal groups, always delivering the goods in a highly professional and generally well-produced manner, despite various lineup changes as well as adjustments to the level of aggression and the amount of melodies included on each of its albums, which, in my eyes, always served to keep things from getting too stale. I realize that some longtime fans of the group have their preferred albums or periods of the band’s history; I pretty much like all the albums about equally, although I do seem to find myself playing the latter albums a bit more often these days.

Nevertheless, this collection (like always) features thundering and melodic Heavy Metal/Power Metal in a variety of tempos, with full and sizzling guitars, rich and grand keyboards, a rock-solid rhythm section, and a powerful vocalist who easily falls into the Jorn Lande style of “belting out the jams.” On tunes such as “Our Wasted Days,” “Deliverance,” “End of Our Rope,” “Fools Never Die,” and “Still Alive,” the band often reminds me of artists such as Firewind, Thunderstone, Kenziner, Tad Morose, Masterplan, Sonata Arctica, and At Vance, with memorable riffs driving the catchy material, hints of Progressive Metal included for extra spice, all wrapped up in a bold and bombastic package.

After the band released its next album, 2007’s The 8th Sin, Nocturnal Rites seemingly disappeared from the scene. Since the album received what I eventually decided was cruel and unfair criticism for being “too melodic” or “too keyboard heavy,” I had feared the worst, that the band members had collectively decided “screw it” and had called it quits. But thankfully, Nocturnal Rites returned a full decade later with the 2017 album Phoenix and a new guitarist in the ranks. Now I’m hoping the guys stick around for a good long while.

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Savage Circus – Of Doom and Death (2009)

SavageCircus_OfDoom4 out of 5 Stars!

On occasions when I find myself craving something bombastic, driving, and wickedly savage, I often turn to the German band with the perfect name for delivering the goods—Savage Circus.

Of course, with the band’s strong connection to Blind Guardian (original BG drummer Thomen Stauch initially formed Savage Circus to satisfy his own yearning to duplicate the sound of his former band’s early albums), the music on this release is of a similar nature, only with what sounds like the beasts of hell adding even more demonic aggression to the fury. Ironically enough, however, Stauch didn’t perform on this album due to health problems, but the remainder of the band carried on in the same fashion with a replacement drummer.

Like 2005’s Dreamland Manor, the band’s debut album, Of Doom and Death is loaded with ballsy, riff-heavy tracks such as the ferocious title tune, as well as “Chasing the Rainbow,” “From the Ashes,” “The Ordeal,” “Empire,” and “Legend (of Leto II).” Lovers of “speed-demon” Power Metal, with lightning-quick yet melodic guitar solos, dense and dastardly instrumentation, complex song arrangements, and dramatic and powerful lead vocals with multi-layered background harmonies in the same tradition as Blind Guardian (or even Queen) will likely savor much of the material on offer here.

But be warned: Of Doom and Death is definitely not for the weak of heart, but if you possess long-lasting stamina and a rugged constitution, then by all means, play it loud!

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Withem – The Unforgiving Road (2016)

Withem_UnforgivingRoad4.5 out of 5 Stars!

The Unforgiving Road is the second release from Norway’s Withem, a Prog-Metal band that seems to have just about everything—superlative musicianship, a vocalist with a killer set of pipes, and a knack for skillfully merging memorable AOR melodies with the technical instrumental maturity required for this demanding genre. Not many Prog-Metal bands can pull off this mixture successfully, but on tracks such as “In the Hands of a God,” “The Eye in the Sky,” “Riven,” “Unaffected Love,” and “The Pain I Collected,” the band certainly does.

For followers of groups such as Angra, Wingdom, Circus Maximus, Ice Age, or Sphere Of Souls, fans who prefer hearing lightning-quick yet tasty guitar and keyboard solos, thundering rhythms, crisp and clear vocals that often shoot for the stars, and creative instrumentation within often-intricate song arrangements that are somehow still easily accessible to the average listener, then Withem may just be a band for you to appreciate.

So as far as I can see, the only thing Withem doesn’t have is the worldwide plaudits it justifiably deserves.

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Borealis – Purgatory (2015)

Borealis_Purgatory4 out of 5 Stars!

I’ve always considered Ontario’s Prog-Metal group Borealis as a more brutal, straightforward version of Symphony X, and on Purgatory, the band’s third release, the comparisons again come to the fore.

But there are some differences between the groups. For instance, the vocalist seems an even “growlier” version of Russell Allen, and punchy guitars tend to dominate the proceedings, are usually beefier in the mix, more so than the symphonic keyboards associated with the latter group.

Additionally, instead of finding lengthier “epic-like” compositions on this collection, Borealis’s songs are not as extended, more streamlined, with what seems a higher percentage of heavier moments as opposed to the more keyboard-dominated and airier passages Symphony X employs about evenly. Indeed, driving and bombastic tunes such as “Revelation,” “Destiny,” “Place of Darkness,” “From the Ashes,” “My Peace,” and “No Easy Way Out” kick major ass and make up the majority of the collection, while only “Darkest Sin,” “The Journey (Prologue),” and “Rest My Child” offer the mellower moments, a chance for the listener to catch their breath.

Be that as it may, the similarities in sound and style between the two groups is often quite startling, so I expect Borealis has a legion of crossover admirers like myself.

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Firewind – Burning Earth (2003)

Firewind_BurningEarth4 out of 5 Stars!

To me, apart from the less-than-stellar debut album in 1998, Firewind has been one of the most enjoyable and memorable Heavy Metal/Power Metal acts to have emerged in the past few decades, with not only ultra-heavy riffs, shredding solos, and thundering rhythms on each of its albums from 2002 onward, but also numerous catchy melodies and some of the finest and most powerful lead vocalists in the genre, whichever singer is at the forefront (the band has had several throughout the years).

On Burning Earth, the band’s third studio release, Graham Bonnet-soundalike Stephen Fredrick (Kenziner) once again tackles the vocals and, on tracks such as “I Am the Anger,” “We Have Survived,” “Immortal Lives Young,” “Brother’s Keeper,” and the dynamic “The Longest Day,” proves his mighty worth. Additionally, group founder and long-time guitarist Gus G. (Dream Evil/Mystic Prophecy) shows his considerable six-string skills, offering killer riffs and blazing solos throughout, especially on the wild instrumental “The Fire & the Fury” and “Still the Winds,” a dreamy bonus track guitar showcase, while also adding a few keyboard washes on several tracks to beef up the sound. Meanwhile, the band’s rhythm section of bassist Petros Christo (Breaking Silence) and drummer Stian Kristoffersen (Pagan’s Mind/Trivial Act) construct a solid backdrop in a variety of tempos, several of them (such as on “Steal the Blind,” “Waiting Still,” and “Burning Earth”) fast and furious and storming.

Unfortunately, this would be Fredrick’s final album with the group. Initially I had worried that the band’s sound would change, like it often does with the replacement of a singer, but thankfully the band hired another underrated powerhouse vocalist (Chity Somapala) for its next release (Forged by Fire), thus maintaining Firewind’s fierce momentum in a lengthy string of high-quality Power Metal releases that stretched into the current decade.

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Adramelch – Broken History (2005)

Adramelch_BrokenHistory4 out of 5 Stars!

Italy seems to produce a ton of better-than-average bands (both past and present), especially in the genres of Progressive Metal (or Prog-Rock in general), so there must be some magic in the drinking water since the country definitely has its lion’s share of creativity. And after listening to this album, I’ve concluded that the members of Adramelch have imbibed plenty of whatever mystical brew the country has to offer.

Although I find nothing in particular on Broken History that will likely set fans of the genre into a tailspin of insanity or controversy, I nevertheless savor every moment of what the band has produced. On heavy-hitting tracks such as “Beloved Jerusalem,” “Ten Wiles (Much More Than Begged Mercy),” “Different Times, Different Places,” “I’ll Save the World,” “Darts of Wind,” and the lighter “Heap of Bones,” the performances by all involved are more than commendable. I appreciate the way the musicians and vocalist constructed and orchestrated the various tracks and melodies, maintaining both combustible heat and moodiness to the occasionally epic atmospheres, lending intricacy and variety to the arrangements, and adding unexpected rhythmic shifts throughout, while all the while keeping each song tuneful and spicy.

Therefore, on Broken History, talent obviously abounds, occasionally bringing to mind the classic sounds of groups such as Queensrÿche, Balance of Power, Time Machine, and Iron Maiden. Therefore, to Adramelch, bravo!

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Kenziner – The Last Horizon (2014)

Kenziner_LastHorizon4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Founded by talented Finnish “guitar god” Jarno Keskinen, Kenziner released two enjoyable albums of blazing Heavy Metal in the ’90s, then sadly disappeared.

But in 2012, Keskinen decided to resurrect the group with a new lineup, this one including members of Status Minor and Thunderstone.

Despite the new personnel, however, the band’s overall sound and style changed very little. As on Kenziner’s previous albums, the musicians deliver a consistently hard-hitting collection of tracks on The Last Horizon, including standouts such as “Devour the World,” “I Am Eternal,” “Run For Your Life,” “No Turning Back,” “Heroes Ride,” and “Keep the Flame Alive.”

On all tracks, Jarno Keskinen’s furious guitar riffs and fiery solos, perfectly accented by Jukka Karinen’s lush keyboards in a Neoclassical Metal vein with periodic Progressive overtones, are utterly astounding. Meanwhile, bassist J.J. Hjelt and drummer Make Lievonen create a succinct and thundering rhythm section, and along with Markku Kuikka’s husky vocal performances, the music on The Last Horizon often reminds me of a cross between sundry groups such as Time Requiem, Yngwie Malmsteen, Firewind, Impellitteri, Evil Masquerade, Royal Hunt, and the like.

The Last Horizon is impressive as all hell, and I’m praying the album’s title doesn’t mean this is the last the world will hear from this exceptional act.

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Tarot – Crows Fly Black (2006)

Tarot_Crows4 out of 5 Stars!

For me, being a fan of the group Nightwish, it seemed only natural to investigate Finland’s Tarot, which features Nightwish’s Marco Hietala on both bass and lead vocals.

Apart from Hietala’s presence in Tarot, however—his powerful and instantly recognizable voice, which pops up often on Nightwish albums—and a few nods toward Symphonic Metal thanks to the presence of a keyboardist, there is little to compare the two groups.

For the most part, on Crows Fly Black, Tarot plays rather straightforward Heavy Metal, much of it ultra-slammin’ and head-bangin’, which often brings to mind groups such as Accept, for instance, only enhanced by keyboards ala Deep Purple. Zachary Hietala’s thick-sounding guitar riffs and sizzling solos dominate tracks such as “Bleeding Dust,” “Traitor,” “Howl,” “Before the Skies Come Down,” “Ashes To the Stars,” and the title tune, which are all generally miles outside the realm of the keyboard-heavy, highly orchestrated Nightwish, yet nevertheless share the forcefulness and vibrancy of the other band.

Regardless, of Tarot’s nine studio releases between 1986-2011, Crows Fly Black is definitely one of my favorites…one that deserves to be played F***ING LOOOUUUD!!!

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