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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Angra – Holy Land (1996)

Angra_HolyWar4.5 out of 5 Stars!

In my opinion, Angra’s strength stemmed from not only featuring a stellar line-up of musicians—including the highly gifted, soaring, and recognizable Andre Matos on lead vocals—but also merging into its overall Symphonic/Prog-Rock and Metal style the band’s Brazilian musical roots/cultural influences. So when the band incorporated different “Santana-like” percussion, along with acoustic and wind instruments into its songs, and added that Brazilian tang to its rhythms and melodies, it truly set Angra apart from the majority of its contemporaries within the genre. This is what made Angra’s earlier albums (especially Holy Land) quite special.

Therefore, it’s a shame that, as the years passed and each new album emerged, the band slowly seemed to shy away from adding these particular elements, thus eventually diminishing much of Angra’s signature uniqueness.

Be that as it may, Holy Land, Angra’s second studio release, is probably one of my favorites by the band, with forceful Power Metal riffage on songs such as “Z.I.T.O.” and “Nothing to Say,” sweeping Prog-Rock balladry on “Make Believe” and “Deep Blue,” while many of my favorites, such as the title track along with “Carolina IV,” “The Shaman,” and “Silence and Distance,” wedded a hodgepodge of musical styles, with much of the Brazilian influences brilliantly emerging and enriching the pageantry of it all.

Nowadays, although I still enjoy Angra, finding each of its albums generally better than average within the genre, it’s not with quite the same high level of enthusiasm I felt during the band’s early days when Andre Matos still wielded the microphone and the South American flavor proved spicier.

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Mundanus Imperium – The Spectral Spheres Coronation (1998)

MundanusImperium_Spectral4.5 out of 5 Stars!

This band from Norway released only a single full-length album, but what a sizzling and scorching barn-burner it was.

The Spectral Spheres Coronation contains Symphonic Metal at its finest, with numerous Progressive Metal passages, blazing guitars, thundering rhythms, and pomp keyboards. Tracks such as “Distant Conglomeration,” “The Unborn Breathes in Silence,” “If the Universe Transformed,” and “The Life of What You Seek” blaze wonderfully through the speakers with orchestral embellishments, while the album also features a thoroughly stunning cover of Rainbow’s classic “Stargazer” from the Rising album that nearly equals the power of the original track.

And with the melodic and mighty Jørn Lande (Ark/Beyond Twilight/The Snakes/Masterplan/etc.) appearing as vocalist on this album, belting his heart out like there’s no tomorrow, especially on the aforementioned cover tune, how could this not be great?

Sadly enough, The Spectral Spheres Coronation never got the plaudits it so richly deserved. Again, this is Symphonic Prog-Metal at its finest.

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Karnataka – Secrets of Angels (2015)

Karnataka_SecretsAngels4 out of 5 Stars!

Since I’m always on the lookout for Progressive Rock bands with female vocalists (hunting for the next Magenta, my current favorite Prog-Rock band), I took notice recently when I saw postings regarding the band Karnataka and eagerly began investigating the group. To my frustration, I soon realized that the band has been around since the late 1990s, and it has five albums in its catalogue. Why I hadn’t heard of the band before this year is anyone’s guess—and quite annoying—but at least I know of Karnataka’s existence now. And more importantly, after savoring to the band’s most recent album, I now plan to seek out the four previous releases.

Although Karnataka is typically labeled as nothing other than Progressive Rock on most music-related websites, the label is extremely inaccurate and misleading. Indeed, the majority of tracks on this album don’t sound much like Prog-Rock, but thankfully I still enjoyed what the band does offer. The songs range from a union of genres such as AOR meets Symphonic-Prog (“Feels Like Home” and “Because of You,” both occasionally bringing to mind the music of Lana Lane and Within Temptation), to lush and dramatic ballads (“Forbidden Dreams” and “Fairytales Lie”), to melodic Hard Rock or Metal with heavy Symphonic touches (such as the Led Zeppelin-inspired opening track “Road to Cairo” with its “Kashmir” atmosphere, or “Poison Ivy” and “Borderline,” which both fall somewhat into the After Forever or Nightwish territory, only without the operatic vocals).

But the final track, the album’s unrivaled masterpiece, is where the band displays its true calling (true colors). “Secrets of Angels” is a twenty-minute excursion into actual Prog-Rock. Both Celtic and Prog-Folk influences are here in abundance, and the rich and full orchestrations, the varying moods and often-dreamy soundscapes, along with the intricate instrumentation and soaring vocals, come across as a heavier version of bands such as Renaissance or Edenbridge. I couldn’t help listening to the track several times back to back, hoping to absorb all the song has to offer, or wishing Karnataka would concentrate on more tracks like this in the future. Excellent!

So, although in investigating this band, I did not locate the next Magenta (again, the style of music isn’t even close), yet I did discover a talented band nonetheless, only one that shouldn’t be classified as pure Prog-Rock. Be that as it may, there is quite a bit to enjoy on this album. The musicians are superb, the songwriting is commendable, and for me, the vocals of Hayley Griffiths (the newest in a long string of female singers since the band’s formation) are undoubtedly the high point of the album. Her tone is crisp and clear throughout, her pitch spot-on and her melody lines memorable, and her range wide and impressive. With her style and tone being somewhat unique, I can’t directly compare her to any specific singer (which is always a good thing), but she easily falls into the same enviable category of vocalists such as Sabine Edelsbacher (Edenbridge), Linda Odinsen (IOEarth), Sharon den Adel (Within Temptation), or Lana Lane.

Yes, this band has won me over based on this album alone. So now I can only pray the different vocalists on Karnataka’s previous releases have equally enjoyable performances.

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Secret Sphere – Portrait of a Dying Heart (2012)

SecretSphere_Portrait4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Secret Sphere is an Italian band I’ve enjoyed quite a bit since I stumbled upon it about ten years ago, just as its Heart & Anger album (the group’s fourth) appeared on the scene. Since those days, I dove into the band’s archives and purchased the three previous albums, as well as the two subsequent albums upon their release, and never once have I been disappointed with any of the material. To me, Secret Sphere always delivered a perfect cross between sizzling Power Metal, intricate Progressive Metal, and bombastic Symphonic Metal, offered a nice balance between guitars and keyboards when it came to its lush instrumental arrangements, and never lost its edge or creativity through the years. Consequently, at various music review websites, I eventually rated each of the band’s first six albums with 4 Stars. Not a shabby track record (no pun intended) for certain.

But at the beginning of this latest decade, after the band had released the Archetype album in 2010, I learned that Secret Sphere had parted ways with longtime vocalist Roberto “Ramon” Messina. Over the years as the band had produced its six albums, several other members had come and gone, and the group’s sound hadn’t changed, or at least I hadn’t detected it. But we all know what happens any time a lead singer (especially one with a recognizable voice) leaves a group—a “major sound change” is usually imminent, unless a band finds itself miraculously lucky and locates a replacement with a nearly identical tone and vocal style (a rare occurrence). Therefore, I couldn’t even imagine what the future held in store for Secret Sphere and its sound/style. I could only pray the band would hire a suitable replacement for Messina, one that wouldn’t alter its overall sound (the sound I enjoyed) so drastically.

Thankfully, as it happened, I need not have feared. Indeed, I was almost beside myself with excitement when (in 2012) I finally learned that not only did the band find a replacement with a similar vocal range and style of delivery, but Secret Sphere had done so by recruiting the fantastic Michele Luppi, probably one of the most gifted and (of equal importance) one of the most recognizable vocalists of the age. I’d been a fan of Luppi’s, and had purchased everything (at least, I’d hoped so) he had ever done, albums from Vision Divine and Killing Touch (bands quite similar to Secret Sphere), to the AOR bands Los Angeles and Michele Luppi’s Heaven. As I said, the man possesses one of the best voices to have emerged in Rock these past twenty years, and is equally adept at singing so many genres. Not only does he have a truckload of power behind his voice, but a wide range, and a true gift for melody. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait for the next Secret Sphere album, Portrait of a Dying Heart, released later that same year.

And not only was I not disappointed (as usual) by Secret Sphere’s output, but I rated this album 4.5 Stars, higher than any of the band’s previous releases. And the reason is because of Luppi’s presence behind the microphone and his influence on the band when it comes to contributing memorable choruses.

So, not only did Secret Sphere once again deliver killer material performed by its top-notch musicians (just listen to the orchestrated and majestic opening instrumental “Portrait of a Dying Heart” to experience the high quality of musicianship involved), but a nice variety of material as well.

For instance, the tracks “X” and “Secrets Fear” offer driving Power Metal rhythms one moment, then switch to mid-tempo sections the next, then the band goes back and forth between the two as the songs progress, while the instrumentation is both symphonic at times, then light and sparse at other times. And all the while, Luppi is belting out melodic verses and choruses, his wide range on full and glorious display.

Some rather straightforward Power Metal (with chugging guitars, orchestrated keyboards, and slamming rhythms) can be found on “Wish and Steadiness,” “Healing,” and “The Fall,” often reminding me of bands such as Vision Divine (no shock, considering Luppi’s identifiable voice), Sonata Arctica, or Stratovarius, especially during the instrumental sections where some showy and adroit guitar and keyboard solos grace the tracks.

Other songs such as the excellent “Lie To Me,” “Eternity,” or “Union” are not only more AOR-ish—thanks to the stellar vocal performances—but also highly progressive when it comes to the fluid arrangements, the diverse tempos and instrumentation being frequently altered to best enhance and support the melody lines (which are usually chock-full of layered background vocals—damn, Luppi definitely knows how to stack those numerous harmonies).

The album also includes two rather grand and moving Power-Metal ballads in the form of “The Rising of Love” and “Eternity,” showing yet another side to the talented band. And, to my ears, both songs also include Luppi’s best vocal performances overall. (One minor criticism: I might not have placed the songs back to back in the track running order.)

Also note, the final “bonus track” is an alternate version of the song “Legend” (originally released on the band’s impressive second album, A Time Never Come). As much as I liked the original song just fine, this is largely an unnecessary inclusion since it basically adds nothing new. Instead, I would have definitely preferred another new track featuring Luppi.

Be that as it may, this album definitely deserves that extra boost of a half-star to my typical overall rating for Secret Sphere albums. With a new vocalist at the helm, not only has the band not lost anything when it comes to its lofty level of musicianship, professionalism, and creativity, but has gained so damned much in the vocal department, releasing a collection of songs more memorable than any previous Secret Sphere album. To me, the band has always been one of the most consistent and noteworthy groups in the Power Metal/Progressive Metal/Symphonic Metal genres, yet somehow underappreciated. Therefore, I can only hope (with this high-quality release in its catalogue) Secret Sphere can finally get the recognition it so richly deserves.

 

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Gwyllion – The Edge Of All I Know (2009)

Gwyllion_TheEdge4 out of 5 Stars!

What initially drew me to Belgium’s Gwyllion was the singer’s voice. Annelore Vantomme sounds similar to the mighty Floor Jansen (After Forever/ReVamp/Nightwish) in style, range, delivery, and tonal quality. And the band plays a similar style of music to those aforementioned acts, and does so quite well. These similarities are in abundance immediately, with the track “In Silence Enclosed” (a two-and-a-half minute highly orchestrated “grand opening”) lead-in to the song “Entwined.” Here, Annelore blasts forward with her vocals, riding the galloping mile-a-minute beat in queenly fashion. The band is as powerful as a sledgehammer, with the guitarist shredding out the licks and the keyboardist appropriately adorning the background and rhythmic punches with a full range of lush sounds. This two-part opening could have come straight off the final After Forever album or the latest Nightwish release.

“Void” comes next, blasting through the speakers like a charging horse. A momentary break from the frantic pace, however, occurs when a short middle segment—featuring soft grand piano and a melodic vocal bridge section—surprising appears before the song kicks back into high gear. I like how the band shows its diversity on this track when it comes to the arrangement and instrumentation, and thankfully it won’t be the last time either.

“Rage” is another out-and-out slammer in the “Power Metal meets Symphonic Metal” mold, but once again the band provides a momentarily change to catch one’s breath by adding a soft (and again, quite brief) section in the middle before kicking ass directly afterward. This track is one ride through metal mayhem.

A welcome softer pace arrives next in the form of “Beyond Goodbye,” a semi-ballad with diverse instrumentation that really allows Annelore to display the full width of her vocal range and the sheer power of her pipes. It’s an epic-sounding track, to be certain, and one of the album’s high points!

“The Night Awakes” and “Closure” follow, two driving numbers sure to bring smiles to the faces of most Power Metal fans. Both songs also contain a wide range of orchestration and, especially on the latter track, a change in mood in the ending segment that once again showcases Annelore’s awesome voice.

“A Thousand Words” is a track that emphasizes the talent of the band’s rhythm section with some intricate staccato “power beats” that help to drive the song forward, while, at nearly eight minutes, the album’s longest track, “Roots Of Reality,” contains the album’s only real operatic-like vocals, used rather sparingly yet effectively. Needless to say, Nightwish comparisons spring to mind, especially during the magnificently violin-heavy ending section.

Finally, the gentle ballad “Angelheart” closes out the album, featuring nothing but a passionate piano and Annelore’s emotional vocals, again triumphantly shining a musical spotlight on her talent.

Once I finished hearing the album, I couldn’t help thinking that had Nightwish not recently snatched up Floor Jansen as its new vocalist, the band might have considered Annelore for the job. I’m sure she would have fit in just as perfectly.

Be that as it may, this is only Gwyllion’s second album, yet since it was released back in 2009, I certainly hope it won’t be the last we hear from this promising band. Fans of female-led Power Metal/Symphonic Metal/Progressive Metal would do themselves a favor by investigating The Edge Of All I Know. Definitely above average!

 

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End of the Dream – All I Am (2015)

EndDream_AllIAm4 out of 5 Stars!

End of the Dream is a new band from the Netherlands that features a terrific female vocalist named Micky Huijsmans. The material is a combination of Progressive Metal, Gothic Metal, and Symphonic Metal, with the band covering similar territory as After Forever, Within Temptation, and Nightwish, and more. Despite those comparisons, however, Huijsmans doesn’t employ the same operatic vocal gymnastics so common with bands of this nature, but has more of a clean Metal style throughout most of the nine tracks.

Yes, there is grandeur, wonderfully overblown symphonic orchestrations along with some bombastic metal, rich and layered “choirs” in the background on some of the tracks, but the melodies are also quite appealing. Everything I’ve mentioned is immediately evident on the opening track, “Follow the Angels,” which features a lavish introduction that sounds as if it could have come directly off a Nightwish album. Also, Huijsmans displays her full vocal range here, soaring to the heights on the choruses and briefly during the ending section, but never using the operatic vibrato normally associated with female singers in similar bands.

End of the Dream also successfully balances both softer segments with the harder, slamming ones. The song “Away” is a good example of this, where the verses are mellow and beautifully orchestrated with keys behind Huijsmans’s vocals, whereas the choruses are full and dense with guitars galore, while the entire band appropriately pounds away during the middle guitar solo.

One of my favorites, “Shadows Embrace,” is another track that showcases the band’s range of skills, with luxurious keyboard orchestrations acting as the perfect backdrop for the main and chunky guitar riff. The rhythm section adds its thumping drive, while Huijsmans’s vocals shine over the top. Some complex instrumentation in the song’s middle section (including an outrageously good guitar solo) brings to mind several Prog-Metal bands in the style of Symphony X. Good stuff!

Several tracks, “All I Am,” along with “Collide” and “Gone,” the latter two being luscious ballads, further parade Huijsmans’s extraordinary talent to the listener, and are probably the tracks, given their more straightforward approach and lofty melodies, that could easily appeal to the widest audience possible.

But “Dark Reflection” is undoubtedly my favorite. Here, End of the Dream presents its full range of capabilities, again embracing the style of complex Prog-Metal regularly delivered by acts such as Kamelot or Symphony X and merging it with the melodic sensibilities of female-led bands such as Within Temptation or Nightwish. At more than nine minutes in length, with shifts in moods and rhythms and diverse instrumentation throughout, this in an epic track to be certain.

Is there anything new here in the world of Prog-Metal or Symphonic Metal? Definitely not, but who cares since the talented band does what it does so damned well. All I Am is a generally impressive debut album, and fans of all the aforementioned bands will probably appreciate this addition to the ranks of female-led Symphonic-Metal acts as much as I do. I eagerly await more material, and I pray that for End of the Dream, it’s actually only just the beginning of a long and successful dream instead.

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Symphony X – V: The New Mythology Suite (2000)

SymphonyX_V5 out of 5 Stars!

This album, from start to finish, ranks right up there with classic Prog-Rock-Band “must have” albums such as Yes’s Close To The Edge, Gentle Giant’s In A Glass House, ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery, and Genesis’s Foxtrot releases, albeit a much more “modern” and heavier version of classical-influenced rock (very similar, in parts, to Dream Theater and Kansas and Yngwie Malmsteen) yet killer in every bloody department.

Since the band’s second album, Symphony X has NEVER produced a bad record, and, in my opinion, this is their benchmark for excellence. Either add it to your collection at the first possible opportunity or consider yourself a “wannabe” prog-rock/prog-metal fan 🙂

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The Shadow Theory – Behind the Black Veil (2010)

ShadowTheory_BlackVeil4 out of 5 Stars!

Back in 2010, I heard about The Shadow Theory, a semi-supergroup including bassist Kristoffer Gildenlöw (Pain of Salvation), drummer Johanne James (Threshold), guitarist Arne Schuppner (Complex 7), vocalist Buddy “Devon Graves” Lackey (Psychotic Waltz/Deadsoul Tribe), and unknown keyboardist Demi Scott. Therefore, I eagerly snatched up Behind the Black Veil, the multi-national band’s debut album, anticipating a high level of musicianship, yet I didn’t know quite what to expect regarding the music itself and simply wished for the best.

It turns out, the band, while playing a cross between savage Heavy Metal and Folk Metal, with Progressive and Symphonic Metal elements thrown into the mix, sounds rather unique at times. Indeed, imagine a band such as Jethro Tull incorporating a sinister Doom Metal atmosphere into its style, and that’s a fairly apt description of some of the material on offer here. Plus, the addition of Lackey’s occasional flute insertions, acoustic guitar sprinkled throughout, and even a background orchestra on various tracks, just contributes to the illusion.

The song “Selebrate” [sic] is where the Tull influence is in abundance, since the song sounds as if it could have come from a heavier version of the Aqualung, War Child, or Benefit albums. Moreover, the opening track “I Open Up My Eyes,” as well as the bombastic “A Symphony of Shadows,” the eerie “The Black Cradle,” and the atmospheric “A Candle in the Gallery,” are interspersed with Lackey’s flute passages, so again, Tull immediately springs to mind, although one of a dark, thrashy, sinister, and even psychotic nature (just take a gander at the cover art, which mirrors the musical atmosphere). Although Lackey doesn’t sound like Ian Anderson for the most part, there are occasions where some effects are thrown onto his voice and, once again, guess which band comes to mind?—yep, you guessed it, Jethro Tull. And if that wasn’t enough, on the version of the album I have, there’s also a twelfth bonus track of, none other than, Tull’s “Sweet Dreams.” So there!

Regardless, The Shadow Theory is unique if only for the fact that I can’t think of any other “heavy” band that’s so liberally influenced by such a generally “non-heavy” band as Jethro Tull. Of course, other tunes or passages occasionally bring to mind various and diverse Prog-Metal, Doom Metal, or even Stoner Metal groups such as Landskap, Black Symphony, Savage Circus, Orne, and even Pain Of Salvation (no shock there, considering Gildenlöw’s presence), so please don’t be deceived by my “Tull-heavy” review. Nevertheless, if you like the idea of a creepy Prog-Metal version of Tull, with numerous quirky parts included, then you’ll probably enjoy the music on offer here.

Sadly, considering all the years that have passed since the debut’s release, and also that Gildenlöw is now working with For All We Know, it seems likely that Behind the Black Veil may be The Shadow Theory’s sole album. Although I would certainly welcome additional material, I’m unsure if the talented group is still in existence or is now only a memory.

 

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