Shadowkeep – The Hourglass Effect (2008)

Shadowkeep_Hourglass4 out of 5 Stars!

The Hourglass Effect is the third and most recent (the final?) release from Shadowkeep, a Progressive Metal band from the U.K. that delivers a collection of thundering and semi-intricate songs in the style of groups such as Balance of Power, Andromeda, Lanfear, Avian, Section A, and also early Queensryche, thanks mainly to the excellent vocalist with his wide range and dramatic style of delivery.

Although the band has a keyboardist in its line-up, the keys are relegated to the background apart from the beautiful piano-driven final track, “How Many Times Have We Tried to Save the World,” thus keeping the music decidedly guitar-oriented, with the talented lead guitarist being the undeniable star of the overall proceedings.

If this is indeed the band’s final album, at least Shadowkeep went out with an impressive bang!

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Conception – Parallel Minds (1993)

Conception_ParallelMinds4 out of 5 Stars!

To me, this impressive Norwegian band sounded almost like a “prologue” to the group Kamelot, and no surprise considering that the wonderfully gifted Roy Khan was the singer on all four Conception releases in the 1990s before he joined the band for which he came to be most recognized.

Therefore, Kamelot fans will probably enjoy Conception, although the band is generally less grandiose, less heavily orchestrated, when it comes to its arrangements and production. Nevertheless, when listening to hard-hitting tunes such as “And I Close My Eyes,” “Water Confines,” “Wolf’s Lair,” “My Decision,” “Roll the Fire,” and the lengthier closer “Soliliquy,” the similarities between the two groups are way too numerous to ignore.

Although Parallel Minds (the band’s second album) is probably one of my favorites, in truth, all four Conception releases are just about equal when it comes to the high quality of the songwriting and overall musicianship.

(Also, a note for Prog-Metal fans: once Conception disbanded after Roy Khan’s departure, band founder and ace guitarist Tore Ostby went on to form Ark with singer Jorn Lande, a fantastic Prog-Metal group that released two exceptional albums just around the turn of the century before also disbanding.)

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Elegy – State of Mind (1997)

Elegy_StateMind4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Although this creative group from the Netherlands formed back in 1985 and had been releasing albums since 1992, it wasn’t until 1997’s State of Mind (Elegy’s fourth album) that extraordinary British vocalist Ian Parry made his debut with the band, which really boosted the quality level up another mighty notch.

To me, Elegy was a more accessible version of a group such as Symphony X with a touch of influences from acts such as Rainbow and House of Lords, including tighter, more concise arrangements and a greater emphasis on the vocal melodies and background harmonies as opposed to the instrumentation, even though the music still included tons of orchestrated Pomp keyboards, impressive guitar work, a solid rhythm section, with Parry’s forceful yet commercial voice soaring above the top in the tradition of singers such as Ronnie James Dio, Doogie White, Jorn Lande, etc, only with less gruffness.

Unfortunately, this seemingly forgotten group disappeared off the musical landscape sometime after its seventh release back in 2002, yet thankfully left behind some stunning material for Prog-Metal fans to savor for years to come.

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Stratovarius – Nemesis (2013)

Stratovarius_Nemesis4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I’ve been following Finnish band Stratovarius since the mid-’90s, and unlike some fans who believe the group fluctuated wildly in quality just after the turn of the century, with certain albums being rated unjustifiably and unfairly low at several music-related websites, I’ve felt the band has remained almost eerily consistent since 1995’s Fourth Dimension, more so than numerous other groups in the same genre, never veering too far off course. Certainly, some Stratovarius albums lean more toward Progressive Metal than Power Metal, and other albums vice versa, but despite the occasional change in the band’s lineup, nothing in the Stratovarius sound changes so drastically as for anyone to have a mental freak out if an album isn’t an exact carbon copy of the previous one. (Sorry—just a pet peeve I needed to get off my chest.)

Regardless, Nemesis, the band’s fourteenth studio album, is yet another melodic, well-written, varied and dynamic collection of Prog-Metal/Power Metal tracks, with each band member having enough shining moments to push this album toward the head of my “Favorite Stratovarius Album” list.

Tracks such as the blazing and barreling opener “Abandon,” along with “Dragons,” “Halcyon Days,” “Out of the Fog,” “Stand My Ground,” sit comfortably alongside highly pompish mid-tempo rockers “Castle in the Air” and “One Must Fall,” while the ballad “If the Story is Over,” contributes additional variety to the fine mix of styles. Even the two bonus tracks, “Fireborn” and “Hunter,” are exceptional slices of Prog-tinged Power Metal, crammed with sizzling synths and six-string madness.

Tomi Kotipelto’s vocals remain powerful and melodic, and the overall high quality and energy displayed here, plus the typical classy arrangements, instrumentation, and spectacular solos from keyboardist Jens Johansson and guitarist Matias Kupianinen, clearly show a band still at the top of its game even after three decades of being in existence.

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Lords of Black – II (2016)

LordsOfBlack_24 out of 5 Stars!

Lords of Black’s second release is basically a continuation of the same type of music from the debut album—dense and punchy, solid and kick-ass Power Metal (with a slight Progressive and Neoclassical bent) in a style similar to groups such as Masterplan, Thunderstone, Ride The Sky, Astral Doors, Kamelot, and Beyond Twilight.

The band’s robust singer, Ronnie Romero, has a voice from the same “school of rock” as Jorn Lande, Ronnie James Dio, Nils Patrik Johansson, and Bjorn Jansson, so it came as no great surprise to learn that Romero had been hired to front the newest line-up of Rainbow.

Now I’m only praying Romero’s role in Rainbow doesn’t screw with Lords of Black’s plans since I would love to see a third album from this group in the not too distant future.

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Ansoticca – Rise (2010)

Ansoticca_Rise4 out of 5 Stars!

Germany’s Ansoticca released only a single album in 2010 before seemingly disappearing. But I hope not for good. Indeed, the female singer (Carie van Heden) has more than a fair share of talent. She’s melodic and strong, while also appropriately dramatic, within the band’s framework.

Rise is a commendable effort, especially considering Ansoticca’s proclivity for replicating the similar musical stylings of Nightwish, After Forever, Epica, and some of their heavier contemporaries within the same Symphonic Metal and Gothic Metal genres. Indeed, look no further than the brief instrumental opening track “A New Dawn” for an example of this style—fans of the genre wouldn’t be shocked to hear this appearing as the opener on albums by any of the aforementioned groups. But on the following well-produced tracks, including “Endless Sacrifice,” “Our Time,” “Weight of the World,” “Heaven Burns,” and “In Silence,” display the band’s unique signature stamp, thanks mostly to Carie’s vocals, where (unlike the other groups) she employs very little in the way of the operatic, falsetto vocals normally associated with the genre, but is quite straightforward, more Rock/Metal-oriented, in her approach to delivering the melodies.

Overall, I felt Ansoticca had major potential, especially when it came to Carie van Heden’s stellar performances, the seemingly endless layers of grand keyboards, as well as the dark and punchy guitar riffs and pounding rhythms. And thankfully, at least when it comes to my tastes, the band left the typically annoying “beast/growl” male vocals to a minimum.

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Imperia – Queen of Light (2007)

Imperia_QueenLight3.5 out of 5 Stars!

From the city of Amsterdam, Imperia is—what a shock!—another band that falls into the Nightwish/Within Temptation/After Forever category. Thankfully, although Imperia is indeed another one of the zillions of groups that jumped on the “Symphonic Metal With Female Singers” bandwagon in the early 2000s, the band at least has a vocalist who can actually sing flawlessly on key.

Helena Iren Michaelsen has quite the beautiful voice, whether she’s hitting the rafters with her operatic overtures or singing “normally” during the quieter sections, so there’s nothing horrible here, unlike many lesser-known acts in this genre that feature female vocalists who couldn’t find the right key without the aid of a tuner and a compass.

Although occasionally some of Imperia’s songs seem a bit dense—overloaded with thick instrumentation, arrangements far busier than needed, heavy production quality and reverb—the general impression I nevertheless received when hearing Queen of Light (Imperia’s second release) is of a highly competent band with an ear for intricate melody, so that’s not at all shabby.

And the other BIG plus is that this album does NOT include those horrific guttural/growling “beast” male vocals that destroy so many songs by so many other bands in this genre. So for that fact alone, Imperia is far more advanced than the norm and I enjoyed this album nearly as much as the music I own by Nightwish, Within Temptation, and After Forever.

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HB – Frozen Inside (2008)

HB_FrozenInside3 out of 5 Stars!

Hailing from Finland, HB is basically a Christian version of groups such as Nightwish, Within Temptation, and After Forever…the same style of Symphonic Metal/Power Metal only with “God/Jesus Is Love Love Love” lyrics in every song. Generally speaking, not exactly my thing.

Still, despite my initial revulsion to the preachy lyrical content, I must admit to enjoying the music itself, and the terrific female vocalist Johanna Aaltonen, quite a bit. The musicianship is top-notch and the intricate arrangements on many of the songs are right up there with other leading bands of the Symphonic Metal genre.

Therefore, if you’re a fan of Nightwish, etc., and can stomach song titles such as “God Has All Glory” and “The Jesus Metal Explosion” and the never-ending Bible-study lessons within the lyrics, then perhaps this is the band for you.

Although I’m unfamiliar with HB’s other releases (there are seven studio albums in total), Frozen Inside, the band’s third collection of tracks, is worthy of at least one listen if for nothing else than to enjoy Johanna’s better-than-average vocal performance.

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Axel Rudi Pell – Magic (1997)

AxelRudiPell_Magic4 out of 5 Stars!

To me, German guitarist Axel Rudi Pell always seemed almost a cross between Yngwie Malmsteen and Uli Jon Roth, especially since his band produces music in a comparable vein as the other esteemed guitarists. On this album, which also features seasoned vocalist Jeff Scott Soto (Malmsteem/Talisman/W.E.T.), the comparisons between Malmsteen and Pell seem even more appropriate.

Regardless, Magic—Pell’s sixth studio release—is one of my favorite offerings from, what I believe, is his most creative, most exciting period, the later half of the ’90s and into the new century.

With terrific songs such as the epic title track and “The Clown is Dead,” along with driving Power Metal tunes such as “Light in the Sky,” “Nightmare,” “Turned to Stone,” and “Prisoners of the Sea” all showing the band’s high-energy prowess, I find myself playing this album more often than many of his more recent releases, with Magic easily falling into my “Top 5” favorites of Pell’s seventeen studio albums since 1989.

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Tad Morose – Undead (2000)

TadMorose_Undead4 out of 5 Stars!

To me, this enduring Swedish band always seemed a blending of classic groups such as Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, typically producing music with wicked guitar tones and sinister keyboard moods, and as the title of this album alone suggests, Undead is no exception.

Indeed, this release is pure Tad Morose, featuring some of the band’s most devilish riffs and desperately urgent vocals, as well as some of its darkest/doomiest atmospheres, which, along with the group’s Progressive Metal tendencies, gives Tad Morose an easily identifiable stamp.

With tracks such as “Order of the Seven Poles,” “The Dead and His Son,” “Servant of the Bones,” “Lord on High,” and “No Wings to Burn” included, Undead, the band’s fourth studio album, is metal mayhem at its finest, and one of the reasons I originally zeroed in on Tad Morose to become a long-lasting fan.

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