Leaves’ Eyes – Sign of the Dragonhead (2018)

LeavesEyes_SignDragonhead3.5 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

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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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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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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Vanden Plas – Chronicles of the Immortals: Netherworld, Path II (2015)

VandenPlas_Chronicles24.5 out of 5 Stars!

Back in 2006, I became aware of this German group for the first time when (on a lark) I purchased the album Christ O, and I instantly fell in love with it. Immediately afterward, I hunted down all five of the band’s previous studio albums I had sadly missed upon their original release and found myself reveling for hours and hours in the glorious and symphonic Progressive Metal the band had unleashed on the world, with each magnificently talented musician performing his heart out and the extraordinarily gifted singer Andy Kuntz adding his recognizable voice to each track.

Well, since those exciting days of discovery, Vanden Plas has released three additional studio albums, this one being the most recent.

And let me tell you, I have never once been disappointed, since each new collection wound up delivering some of the most stunning, most dramatic, most well-written, well-performed, well-orchestrated, and well-produced Prog-Metal on the planet.

And Chronicles of the Immortals: Netherworld, Path II is no exception. Like the previous ten-track …Netherworld, Path I album (the opening salvo in the band’s grand Prog-Metal “Rock Opera”), this release offers nine additional tunes (or “visions” within the opera), awesome and often soul-stirring compositions such as “Diabolica Comedia,” “Godmaker’s Temptation,” “Circle of the Devil,” “Monster,” “Where Have the Children Gone,” and the epic “Blood of Eden,” with each and every track providing myriad moods, luscious melodies, and killer instrumentation, some of the finest in the band’s ever-growing catalogue.

For me, Vanden Plas is beyond amazing, the epitome of professionalism, and easily one of the best, most consistent bands in the Prog-Metal genre, a leader among many. May the band live on forever!

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Leaves’ Eyes – Njord (2009)

LeavesEyes_Njord3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Years ago, when I first discovered groups such as Nightwish, After Forever, and Within Temptation—female-fronted Symphonic/Gothic Metal groups—I also happily stumbled upon Leaves’ Eyes from Germany.

Singer Liv Kristine has a magnificent range and style of delivery. More rock-oriented as opposed to operatic in overall nature, her voice nevertheless soars above the often-grand and occasionally folksy musical arrangements like a songbird in flight. My only pet peeve about this group—the same pet peeve I have with Epica and several other bands in this genre—and the reason I don’t typically rate the band’s releases higher on my scale, is the cheesy, jarring, and annoying-as-hell insertion of undecipherable “growling/beast” male vocals the band continues to employ, which basically destroy much of the beauty that is otherwise to be found on each album.

With that being said, Njord, the band’s third full-length release, still has its moments of greatness, such as on the grand and majestic opening title track, as well as the heavily symphonic compositions “Take the Devil in Me,” “Northbound,” “Emerald Island,” and the lengthy, multi-part “Froya’s Theme.” The band’s lush and dramatic rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” is also quite special. And despite the silly “beast vocal” garbage that pops up on too many tracks, the album can thankfully be savored without too much difficulty.

But a final note to all Symphonic Metal groups: Please, PLEASE, if you truly need to use these male “growling/beast” vocals to satisfy some deep-seated craving of which I am unaware, I beg of you to do so sparingly and give us fans of actual music a break from this unnecessary and insufferable noise. (And my apologies to anyone who disagrees with me on this point, but that’s just my opinion.)

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Silentium – Seducia (2006)

Silentium_Seducia4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I stumbled upon this talented Finnish group when hunting for more music similar to bands such as After Forever, Nightwish, and Within Temptation, and Seducia (Silentium’s fourth studio album and the collection that introduced me to the group) is generally quite superb—ominous Goth Metal atmospheres with full and biting dual guitars, a dynamic rhythm section, and the ultra-lush keyboards so highly associated with this particular genre.

But what sets Silentium apart from the aforementioned Symphonic Metal/Gothic Metal groups is that Riina Rinkinen, the gifted female vocalist (the band’s third and final one), is not at all operatic in her approach, but more Hard Rock oriented. Plus, the band also includes Elias Kahila, a full-time cellist (a rarity in the “rock business”), thus adding an unusual, almost eerie lead instrument to Silentium’s overall style, and definitely places the group slightly apart from the rest of the pack. The sheer goth-drama of the cello is used to wonderful effect on the beginning passages and instrumental sections of the bombastic “Serpentized” and “Empress of the Dark,” or during brief solo spots on “Dead Silent,” when simply accenting verses on “Frostnight,” or accompanying the gentle piano during the introduction to “Unbroken.”

Regardless, from the beautifully orchestrated “Hangman’s Lullaby” and “Children of Chaos,” through to the lengthy and majestic self-titled closing tune, Seducia is a high-quality, well-produced album. Most of the arrangements are quite complex, almost soundtrack-worthy, compared to many of Silentium’s contemporaries. Moreover, the vocals—both female and the less-abundant male “counterpart” vocals—are bright and powerful in the mix, and don’t veer too profusely into that “beauty and the beast” territory that typically destroys the enjoyable factor on so many albums of this nature when overdone, either by the total number of appearances or by the sonic ugliness of the male’s growling and grunting and indecipherable babble. In other words, Silentium keeps things musical when it comes to the male vocals and doesn’t bombard the listener with the unnecessary noisy “demonic” nonsense described above.

Although the band released one additional album in 2008, the equally impressive Amortean, after that, Silentium suddenly fell off the radar (dare I say, “went silent”?). Therefore, since the group had previously released a new album every few years, this current ten-year gap doesn’t bode well for fans of the band like myself who were hoping for new material.


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Veni Domine – Fall Babylon Fall (1992)

VeniDomine_FallBabylon3.5 out of 5 Stars!

To be honest, the first time I heard this debut album from Swedish band Veni Domine, I’d thought someone had slipped on a new album from Queensryche, seeing as how Fredrik Ohlsson’s vocals had a definite Geoff Tate flair, with the same wide range, vibrato, and style of delivery. Be that as it may, the band also liberally incorporated Queensryche’s progressive-tinged metal sound into its music, along with obvious influences from groups such as Black Sabbath to Demon to Candlemass to Iron Maiden, only with the doomy and heavily symphonic atmospheres and dramatic song arrangements acting as a backdrop for Christian lyrics.

And although Fall Babylon Fall offered nothing truly innovative in the world of Heavy Metal, the level of musicianship, creativity, and songwriting prowess—especially on the twenty-one-minute epic “The Chronicle of the Seven Seals,” for example—did make for an enjoyable debut nonetheless.

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Stargazery – Eye on the Sky (2011)

Stargazery_EyeOnSky4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Stargazery is a promising band from Finland that plays powerful Symphonic Rock/Metal, reminding me at times of Jorn, Masterplan, Rainbow, and Firewind, with a touch Tony Martin-era Black Sabbath thrown in for good measure. Heck, the band even does a commendable cover of Sabbath’s “Headless Cross” as the album’s “bonus” track.

Whether on the upbeat, blaring tracks such as “Eye on the Sky,” “Jester of Kings,” “Dying,” “Puppet on a String,” or on the mid-tempo “Judah (The Lion)” or the power ballad “Every Time I Dream of You,” the sound is always full and dastardly, with both layered guitars and symphonic keyboards creating a rich backdrop for the catchy vocal melodies.

And speaking of the vocals, for fans of Michael Schenker, Stargazery includes the gifted Jari Tiura, lead singer on Tales of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the 2006 release from MSG.

Regardless, Eye on the Sky delivers nothing truly new in the world of Heavy Metal, but what’s included on this debut album is done quite well, and fans of the aforesaid groups may want to investigate Stargazery when seeking more Symphonic-Metal material to add to your music libraries.

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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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