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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Time Requiem – The Inner Circle of Reality (2004)

TimeRequiem_Reality4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Led by keyboardist extraordinaire Richard Andersson (Space Odyssey/Adagio/Majestic), Sweden’s Time Requiem never got the recognition it so richly deserved, in my opinion. Between 2002 and 2006, the band delivered a trio of dynamic and dramatic near-perfect studio albums, with The Inner Circle of Reality (the second release) also featuring the brutally powerful Apollo Papathanasio (Majestic/Firewind/Evil Masquerade) on vocals, unheralded guitarist Magnus Nordh, and the always-stellar rhythm section (from The Flower Kings/Karmakanic) of bassist Jonas Reingold and drummer Zoltan Csorsz, both playing outside their “normal realm of Prog” in hard-hitting fashion.

As with each of the band’s releases, The Inner Circle of Reality presents complex yet highly melodic Prog-Metal/Prog-Rock of the Neoclassical variety. Compositions such as “Hidden Memories,” “Reflections,” “Dreams of Tomorrow,” “Definition of Insanity,” and the nearly twelve-minute title track contain outstanding, often breathtaking musicianship throughout, especially when it comes to Nordh’s sizzling guitar leads and Andersson’s delicious keyboard fills and wickedly speedy solos. Any fans of artists such as Symphony X, Harmony, Yngwie Malmsteen, Artension, Stratovarius, and Royal Hunt will certainly savor the jaw-dropping proficiency on display here and, probably like me, wish the album contained more than just seven tracks (not counting the eighth tune, “Bach Prelude Variation,” the horribly brief album closer that would’ve likely had Johann Sebastian Bach himself smiling proudly and begging to hear more).

Although Time Requiem, after suffering major lineup changes—most noticeably with the gifted Goran Edman replacing Papathanasio on vocals—released its somewhat more commercial third album (Optical Illusion) in 2006 and seemed on the brink of gaining wider recognition, the band suddenly vanished without a trace. Even worse, founder/mastermind Richard Andersson, apart from popping up as a “guest keyboardist” on several albums through the subsequent years, has kept a sinfully low profile, while all the while I’d prayed he’d once again put together another band to showcase his enormous songwriting and performing talents.

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Gravity Rain – Artifacts of Balance (2016)

GravityRain_ArtifactsBalance3.5 out of 5 Stars!

From the Russian Federation comes Gravity Rain, a relatively new band that plays melodic Progressive Metal in a similar vein as Fates Warning and Redemption. Indeed, overall, the vocalist (who sings in English with no detectable accent) sounds similar in style, tone, range, and delivery as Ray Alder from the aforementioned groups.

I wouldn’t say, however, that Gravity Rain is as Progressive as those other bands. For the most part, tracks such as “Ikameshii (Jotun’s Rage),” “Temple of Haste,” “M.A.D,” “Closer,” and “Sunfire” contain a fairly “traditional” Metal sound, yet both Symphonic-Metal and Progressive-Metal touches do blaze forth from time to time, while the musicianship is typically at a high level. The riff-driven material is fairly thick with crunchy guitars and pounding rhythms, and although keyboards are included, they are basically added for only tinsel or atmospheric enhancement, relegated mostly to the background with only occasional piano or synth fills brought to the forefront.

One criticism I have, though, is that the majority of the ten tracks included on Artifacts of Balance are mid-tempo and composed in the same key, thus giving several of the tunes an almost “samey” feel. This is why I appreciate the occasions when the band employs those Symphonic and Progressive influences I mentioned, which lends some periodic distractions and keeps the album from becoming too mundane. Regardless, should Gravity Rain further develop its skills, include more diverse tempos and extra alterations in chord patterns regarding its songwriting, even experiment with more adventurous arrangements on future releases, the band apparently has the talent to give those aforementioned Prog-Metal bands a run for the money.

Nevertheless, Artifacts of Balance, the band’s first album (not including a three-song EP from 2014 called The Shining Silence, with which I am unfamiliar), is a fairly good introduction for an act with a ton of potential.

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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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Andromeda – The Immunity Zone (2008)

Andromeda_ImmunityZone4.5 out of 5 Stars!

A few years after the turn of the century, while investigating new Progressive bands on the Scandinavian music scene, I happily stumbled upon two terrific groups that had a similar style. The first was Ark, an act out of Norway that included the exceptional vocalist Jorn Lande. And the other was Andromeda, a band hailing from neighboring Sweden that had just re-released its first album after having replaced all the original “demo” vocals with fresh ones performed by its newest singer, David Fremberg. Not only did I fall in love with both vocalists, but also both bands, seeing as how all the musicians were awesomely adept at their craft and had produced albums of such high quality. Therefore, whether fairly or not, Ark and Andromeda are forever linked in my head, not only because I discovered them on the very same day, within minutes of each other, but because their styles were so similar, and their material shared that “amazing factor” often lacking in the Progressive Metal genre.

Unfortunately, after releasing only two albums between 2000 and 2001, Ark had already disbanded by the time of my discovery. But thankfully, Andromeda had not, and since 2001 has released a total of five albums, with The Immunity Zone (the band’s fourth release) being my favorite among them…although the other releases aren’t too far behind.

Here, on compositions such as “Another Step,” “Slaves of the Plethoria Season,” “Shadow of Lucent Moon,” “Worst Enemy,” and “Recognizing Fate,” the band delivers wonderfully complex arrangements, each instrumentally impressive, thanks to stellar soloing and riffing by guitarist Johan Reinholdz and keyboardist Martin Hedin, plus the ultra-dynamic rhythm team of bassist Fabian Gustavsson and percussionist Tomas Lejon (also a member of A.C.T, another of my favorite Prog-Rock bands). Moreover, the presence of Fremberg as lead vocalist ensures each track is highly melodic and the band is instantly recognizable.

It is, however, the inclusion of the final track, the seventeen-minute “Veil of Illumination,” where the band shows creativity far superior than most every other band in the genre. On a 5-Star rating scale, this track alone would earn at least a 10, simply since the musicianship is wholly breathtaking. On this epic tune, each band member fully showcases his individual skills, and during the song’s instrumental middle section, with the insanely monstrous guitar and keyboard solos and the magnificent rhythmic play that would likely make musical geniuses like Frank Zappa and members of the legendary Gentle Giant plotz in wonderment, Andromeda provides an impeccable example of what the Progressive genre is all about. Any musician who dares to dabble in the Prog-Rock universe needs to experience this track at least once in their lifetimes, and when lacking inspiration in their own work, experience it again and again. Simply stunning!

Therefore, with such an accomplished singer and the presence of slamming musicians who seriously know their business, Andromeda is undoubtedly one of the best bands in the genre. Each album is an enjoyable foray into Prog-Metal territory, with The Immunity Zone (thanks to “Veil of Illumination”) being a full-out journey into melodic, rhythmic, and scoring inventiveness!

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Odd Logic – Penny for Your Thoughts (2016)

OddLogic_PennyThoughts4 out of 5 Stars!

From the Tacoma area of Washington State, Prog-Metal band Odd Logic came to my attention about ten years ago with the impressive and sophisticated Legends of Monta: Part 1 album, and since then I have snapped up every new release by the group.

Despite the rather goofy yet eye-catching cover art, 2016’s Penny for your Thoughts features more of the same sophisticated Odd Logic style—wonderfully melodic and varied Progressive Metal on tracks such as “Life, Lore, & Love,” “Mr. Compromise,” “The Traveler,” “The Island,” and “Court Of Ancient Rulers.” The clean, crisp, and wide-ranging vocals, the creative musical arrangements and instrumentation, stellar production values and a moody atmosphere, all make for an enjoyable listening experience.

Please note that, up to this point, I’ve used the words “band” and “group” to describe Odd Logic, but truth be told, the actual “band/group” on this album consists of a single member, Sean Thompson, who provides all the vocals and instrumentation. So in essence, Odd Logic is merely the moniker used for Thompson’s solo projects (the band’s original trio of musicians when it formed back in 2003, including Thompson, having disbanded after the debut album). Therefore, apart from several releases where Thompson enlisted the aid of a few individuals who added vocal bits or instrumentation, Thompson typically writes and performs all the material himself, which makes the resulting albums, including Penny for Your Thoughts, even more impressive.

Regardless, fans of other classy Prog-Metal groups such as Andromeda, Dream Theater, Threshold, Circus Maximus, and Poverty’s No Crime should certainly investigate this highly talented act/solo project.

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Royal Hunt – X (2010)

RoyalHunt_X4 out of 5 Stars!

Since the early ’90s, Denmark’s Royal Hunt has been a fairly consistent and recognizable band when it comes to its signature sound/style—Heavy Prog-Metal with rich and layered Pomp/Symphonic keyboards and a touch of Neoclassical Metal thrown in.

Despite several changes in vocalists and other chief players through the years, that sound hasn’t altered too much, undoubtedly thanks to keyboardist André Anderson, group founder and sole original member, who seemingly provides the “musical Super Glue” when it comes to keeping the band’s style relatively intact.

And on this album, with vocal powerhouse Mark Boals (Yngwie Malmsteen/Ring of Fire/Mattsson/Etc.) behind the microphone, the group once again delivers some melodic, grand, and driving Metal with a glorious symphonic approach. Tracks such as “End of the Line,” “Army of Slaves,” “Blood Red Stars,” “King for a Day,” and “Shadowman,” with their often-complex instrumentation, are occasionally bombastic and explosive, filled with blasts of keyboards and guitars, rumbling bass and thundering drums, along with undoubtedly one of the finest singers in the genre belting out his heart.

Unfortunately, this would end up being Boals’s final release with the group, and for the next album, singer D.C. Cooper would return to the fold after a thirteen-year absence. But again, despite the change in personnel, the band’s sound would remain consistent, thanks once again to that aforementioned “musical Super Glue” provided by André Anderson.


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Heart of Cygnus – Over Mountain, Under Hill (2009)

HeartCygnus_OverMountain4 out of 5 Stars!

From Los Angeles, Heart of Cygnus released four albums between 2007 and 2012. Over Mountain, Under Hill, the band’s second collection, contains energetic Progressive Rock with both Metal and Symphonic touches throughout. I couldn’t help but imagine a merging of groups such as Iron Maiden and early Rush with more modern Prog-Rock and Prog-Metal bands.

The singer has a wide range (occasionally reminding me of Geddy Lee without the shrillness) and tracks such as “Over Mountain,” “Under Hill,” “Lost at Sea,” “Revelations,” and “The Mountain King,” feature often jaw-dropping musicianship, thrilling guitar solos, and wildly diverse tempos, with creative musical arrangements galore.

Were this a perfect world, Heart of Cygnus would have received greater attention from lovers of the genre. Now, since the band’s most recent album came out back in 2012, I’m praying the band is still active and creating new material.

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Subsignal – The Beacons Of Somewhere Sometime (2015)

Subsignal_Beacons4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I’ve always had a special fondness for Subsignal—a German group formed out of the ashes of Sieges Even—that has released a string of four classy and enchanting albums in the Progressive Rock/Metal genre.

The Beacons Of Somewhere Sometime, the band’s fourth and most recent release, is quite similar in substance to the previous three albums, containing Neo Prog-style Progressive Rock. The music is often melancholy and dreamy, yet deceptively intricate, with tricky time-signature changes, and containing luscious melodies, stacked vocal harmonies, and rich orchestration, including the occasional flute, sax, violin, etc. The band also mixes in heavier passages, chunkier guitar blasts and rhythms, that could certainly be classified as borderline Metal, but its not overblown in scope and used mainly to great dramatic effect. Aside from the brief instrumental opener, each of the lengthier vocal tunes, from “Tempest” to “Everything Is Lost” to “And the Rain Will Wash It All Away” to the wonderfully grand and moody four-part title track, incorporates enough levels of excitement as to keep most lovers of Progressive Rock fully engaged and enthralled.

For fans of groups such as Knight Area, Dreamscape, Karmakanic, Doracor, modern-day It Bites, and a host of other acts that seamlessly incorporate ethereal sections into its compositions, that happily sprinkle both acoustic and electric guitar into its arrangements, Subsignal might be a band you’d appreciate.

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