Asgard – Ragnarøkkr Review

Score3/10
GenreProgressive Folk Metal
CountryItaly
Runtime
Release Date15 May 2020
Record LabelPride & Joy

I was previously unfamiliar with Italy’s progressive folk metal group, Asgard. The band released five albums between 1991 and 2000, so it’d be unsurprising if they’ve flown under a few other radars, too. But, for reasons that’re unknown to me, they’ve chosen 2020 as the year they release their comeback album! Entitled Ragnarøkkr, if this is anything to judge Asgard off, I really wasn’t missing much by never hearing them.

Ragnarøkkr‘s overall sound can be compared to a cheery, wannabe folk Blind Guardian. Aside from the simple highland melodies, the production quality and rawness are similar, and it tries to be dynamic and emotive (plus it’s clear that the vocals strive for a Hansi Kursch approach). Unfortunately, it fails time and time again. Every time a decent musical idea pops up, it changes direction for no real reason other than to change direction, with no effort at all on transition or musicality. The fucked up thing is, though, that there’s no real technicality going on to explain all of these transitions, either, so you can’t even dismiss it as a prog band doing prog things. It’s more like a bunch of amateur musicians just discovered that songs could have multiple sections and went, “Hey guys, what if instead of writing a cohesive song we crammed fifty clashing feels together, back-to-back, with no warning?” Yeah, great fucking idea, right?

Anyway, if the bad songwriting wasn’t enough, the melodies are all really weak, the vocals are uninspired, the guitarwork is subpar, and the organs are. . . good enough, I guess. If I had to pick a specific least favourite part of the album, it would have to be the end of the final track, ‘Ragnarøkkr’; the song is about to end when, as if culminating every shitty transition the album features, it fades out while at the same time the chorus fades in again. I mean, seriously. What the fuck is that? As if the album wasn’t already messy enough, they just had to go and basically say, “Yeah, we KNOW it’s messy, so let us just leave you with this sour taste in your mouth,”.

One almost-redeeming quality in Ragnarøkkr is the use of a recurring melody, which is introduced in ‘Kali Yuga’ and returns in the closer. It’s kind of a shit melody, but hey, at least they tried. Some of the drumwork is good, too, so it’s not entirely a lost cause. Aside from that, there are a couple decent solo sections, like in ‘Visions’, but there’s a really jarring halftime cut in that one that throws off the entire thing.

Like I said, before Ragnarøkkr, I had never heard of Asgard, and, in all honesty, I’d be better off if I never did. This is one album you can judge by its cover: messy, confusing, and kinda crap.

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Leaves’ Eyes – Black Butterfly Review

Score3/10
GenreSymphonic Metal
CountryInternational (Germany, Norway)
Runtime15:40
Release Date6 December 2019
Record LabelAFM

International symphonic metallers Leaves’ Eyes have released seven records since their founding in 2003. The band was formed by vocalist Liv Kristine and the enigmatic metal band Atrocity, but, after Liv parted ways in 2016, Elina Siirala of Angel Nation has been its frontwoman. For the most part, their sound has been pretty generic as far as female-fronted symphonic metal goes: melancholic, operatic vocals, a bit of rough vocals, gothic overtones, that sort of thing. Despite being their second release with their new vocalist, as well as the first to feature guitarist Micki Richter, Leaves’ Eyes’ latest EP Black Butterfly offers absolutely nothing new except for a mopey vocal feature of ‘Stille Nacht’ (‘Silent Night’) because, you know, it’s Christmastime.

Actually, I shouldn’t have said that the EP offers nothing new. Let me correct myself; Black Butterfly actually offers, well, nothing at all. The sound is bland, the arrangements and songwriting is bland, the musicianship is bland. It’s actually kind of fucked up how a band consisting of five people could sound so consistently boring. I mean, no single aspect here is necessarily bad, but they’re so plain that it’s painful.

I really wish I had more to say about this one, but I don’t, so let me offer an anecdote. A few years ago, I saw these guys open for Sabaton in Vancouver. As my first show (and considering that Battle Beast were also playing support), I was primed and fucking ready when Leaves’ Eyes took the stage. But, to my dismay (and pretty much everyone else’s in the venue), my excitement had all but evaporated about three minutes into their set. If killing a crowd that isn’t even alive yet doesn’t give you an idea of how monotonous this band is, then I suppose you’re just going to have to dive into their material and see for yourself, although I don’t recommend it.

So, yeah. Especially considering the obvious amount of effort that went into making and mixing this album to sound clean and modern, it’s not worth anybody’s time. The playing isn’t bad, and the songwriting isn’t bad, but it’s about as one-dimensional as you could possibly make a symphonic metal album. However, if you want to listen to the equivalent of staring at a featureless white wall for fifteen minutes, then Black Butterfly will be right up your alley.

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Ethereal Kingdoms – Hollow Mirror Review

Score3/10
GenreSymphonic Metal
CountryDenmark
Runtime43:15
Release Date11 October 2019
Record LabelMighty Music

Symphonic metal is a little pretentious on the best of days, but Ethereal Kingdom are in another realm entirely. Their debut album, the aptly-named Hollow Mirror, is about as hollow as it gets, but it’s pretentious enough to make even a bitchy blonde trust-fund girl seem humble. Seriously. The band’s whole schtick rides on the back of juxtaposing tranquil lows with dissonant highs as if it’s a revolutionary idea (which, if you’ve ever listened to symphonic or gothic metal, you’d know it isn’t).

To be clear, though, it’s not this dark/light idea that is responsible for Hollow Mirror‘s downfall. No; it’s far, far more than that. The culprit here is, well, damn-near everything. The execution is bad, the songwriting is bad, the melodies are crap, and the vocals are in their own, keyless world.

But, before I tear this poor album to shreds, I’d better get the good stuff out in the open. The drums are actually pretty good to the point where they far out-perform every other aspect of the album combined. They craft some solid grooves and vicious blast beats but they also manage to keep everything more-or-less tied together, despite some awkwardly structured songs and messy backing keyboards. Additionally, the rhythm guitars, while very straightforward, aren’t bad at all.

But, yeah. That’s it. Think the album’s hopeless now? Well, until you hear it, you’ll have no fucking clue just how hopeless it is. It’s almost as if Ethereal Kingdoms intentionally tried to make a shitty album. All you have to do is listen to one of the many passages with rough vocals and this becomes ever clearer. Courtesy of the band’s vocalist Sofia Schmidt, they sound like they were sung by someone who was trying to make fun of screamo, and that’s putting it nicely. But the vocals don’t stop there; Miss Schmidt also sings the finest out-of-tune soprano I’ve heard in a while, in a manner so boringly that it’s almost impressive. It also doesn’t help that the vocal lines are written like crap to begin with.

Aside from awkward, jagged, uninspired songs (especially ‘Endings’ and ‘Apparition’. Jesus Christ.) and an awful lead, the album has two more crucial pitfalls. The first is the incredibly dissonant violin (which I think might actually be fucking intentional, for whatever reason) which I’m convinced is played by a seven year old. The second comes in the form of spoken sections in most of the songs which try to tell some sort of story. Although, even after numerous listens, I have no idea what that story is because I spent equal amounts of time laughing and cringing while listening to it.

Needless to say, I don’t recommend Hollow Haze. That is, unless you’re looking for some scarily-bad music to play at your Halloween party, in which case it’s exactly what you need! All jokes aside, Ethereal Kingdoms have entered the metal world on such a low note that, if they decide to actually pursue a second album, they have nowhere to go but up.

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Sonata Arctica – Talviyo Review

Score3/10
GenreProgressive Metal
CountryFinland
Runtime56:09
Release Date6 September 2019
Record LabelNuclear Blast

This was a tough one. Seriously. Aside from the fact that I just really dislike this album, it took me half a fucking hour to even come up with something to put in the “Genre” tab up top (and I’d sooner snap my laptop in half before I call Talviyo power metal). Honestly, it’s not even really a metal album. While it’s true that metal music is expansive and encompasses many different sounds, I can barely justify calling this metal. At this point, we should expect some genre-bending from Sonata Arctica, but this is a real stretch.

So, as a result of all that, I tried really hard to not judge Talviyo as a metal album, but as a contemporary work on its own. I just really want to emphasize that I don’t dislike this album due to its unmetalness. I dislike it because it’s boring, lacks any substance, and plays like a late assignment that was finished the night before a deadline.

The album begins at its highest point (but even then its not that high at all) and steadily gets worse as it continues; whether that’s because of my steady exhaustion or the quality of music is up for debate. Talviyo begins with ‘Message from the Sun’, which is a light, fluffy, straightforward song that carries more power metal air than any other song on the record. It’s not a terrible track, but between questionable vocals, sub-par production, and wonky songwriting, it’s satisfactory at best. After this, though, each song just kind of fades into the next, offering very few moments worth talking about. ‘Demon’s Cage’ and ‘Ismo’s Got Good Reactors’ show some moments of redemption, but they fade back into oblivion before any good idea can be fully materialized.

There are a few reasons for these shortcomings. The most prominent would be the hugely-inconsistent vocal delivery, which can be good one moment and ass-backwards the next. And then we get to the guitar tones, which are also rather inconsistent (and sometimes tinny), which is likely a symptom of the piss-poor production quality. However, the biggest contributor to Talviyo‘s downfall is the songwriting itself. It tries to be a bit experimental, and I can respect that, but it comes off only as amateurish and poorly-constructed.

Despite being such a trainwreck, I did manage to find some positives within Talviyo‘s frozen, lifeless form. To start, there’s a noticeable and consistent wintry atmosphere over the music, so bonus points there for an actual coherent musical idea. The bass playing is also great, especially in ‘Whirlwind’, and there are, as I said before, a few cool gems, if you’re patient enough to wait for their arrival.

If you like light, reflective, more acoustic music to throw on in the background, you might get something from Talviyo. But, for those of you who prefer a little bit more effort in your music, you’re not missing much. It’s truly a shame that Sonata Arctica have fallen down to such a level as this. After the overwhelmingly-negative reception of The Ninth Hour, they had two choices: shift back to something they know they could do well, or try the same thing again. Well, there’s no need to say which they chose, because this disaster speaks for itself.

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Mystery Blue – 8RED Review

Score3/10
GenreHeavy Metal
CountryFrance
Runtime50:11
Release Date20 September 2019
Record LabelMassacre

France’s long-running, female-fronted classic metal band Mystery Blue have released their eighth album after a seven-year break from their previous. 8RED (which I can only assume is a play on the word “hatred”, and also maybe on the “Blue” of the band name) was promised to be “a collection of unforgettable metal hymns and in-your-face rippers, alongside epic, original and melodic pieces”, but it falls short on all counts. There are no rippers. It’s all but epic, and, for anybody who’s been around heavy metal for any amount of time, it’s not original, either. It is, in a word, forgettable.

What we get instead is an album full of slower, darker songs. Which would be fine, except for the fact that they’re not great and that the band teased at just the opposite. There are a couple more upbeat tracks, like ‘Throwaway Society’, ‘Final Fight’, and ‘Vikings of Modern Times’, but 8RED begins and ends with too many laid back tunes. To make matters worse, most of the songs are longer than five minutes, and waiting for the next song to play gets painful at times. ‘Final Fight’ is probably the best song on the album (it’s actually really good), but every other track is plagued by at least as much bad as it has good.

8RED, to say it kindly, was hard to get through. And, unfortunately for my sorry ass, I got to do it three whole times! I may as well have not even bothered, though, because there’s nothing to be gained by listening to it any more than once. It’s straightforward and offers nothing new upon consecutive listens. No hidden background parts, nothing to really break down. It’s just bland.

However, there’s always (usually) a silver lining. One thing to like about this album are the guitar riffs. They’re nothing special, but they’re the strongest part of the album and they keep the energy flowing as much as they can. Some of the better guitarwork can be found in ‘Vikings of Modern Times’ and ‘Killing Innocence’. The drumming is also pretty good, but the one-dimensional songwriting and monotonous vocal lines prevent the rhythm section from elevating the music very high on its own.

The biggest problem with 8RED is that it sounds like an inexperienced highschool band. Now, this wouldn’t be as big of an issue as it is if the fucking band hadn’t been around for, oh, I don’t know, MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS. Yeah, there was a six year break in the 90s and they’ve gone through numerous lineup changes, but there’s no excuse for a band that’s run for this long to sound the way it does. It’s uninspired heavy metal with weak melodies, wonky vocals, and amateurish tropes.

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Hexvessel – All Tree Review

Score3/10
GenreFolk
CountryFinland
Runtime46:07
Release Date15 Feb 2019
Record LabelCentury Media

The thing about softer albums is that, in order to prevent the listener from losing all interest, they have to be very well done. Unfortunately, Hexvessel’s newest release All Tree almost completely misses the mark. Each simple song fades into the next (with the exception of maybe two) with a frustrating lack of variety.

All Tree quickly wears out all the psychedelic charm of Hexvessel’s earlier works and the whole record sounds more like something Ed Sheeran would release after going camping for a week. None of the musicians seem to be excited or even invested in the music, and continuously seem to be as disinterested as I was listening to it.

There are four instrumental tracks throughout the album, but they fail to emphasize the transitions they intend to, mostly because they just get lost in the rest of the album. If the songs in between were a bit stronger, the instrumentals would get the job done, but they don’t have enough substance to have any real effect.

Now, let me clarify something: I’m not saying that every album needs to be balls-to-the-wall the whole time or upset the feel of the album by including a fun song that doesn’t belong. Power metal may be my favourite, but I love many kinds of music, and plenty of slow records. I am saying, however, that even a calm, atmospheric pagan album that sings of the woods and rivers needs to have some extra flavour. There are minor changes in tone throughout All Tree, namely in ‘Ancient Astronaut’, ‘A Sylvan Sign’, which is uplifting, and ‘Wilderness Spirit’ (the only song on the album that I would actually call good), but it just isn’t enough to break free from the monotonous cloud that almost bored me into killing myself.

As I just stated, ‘Wilderness Spirit’ really is enjoyable. By the time I reached the eighth track, all hope seemed lost. However, it seemed that the Wilderness Spirit had mercy on me and actually breathed new life into my dying soul. All in all, it’s a fun tune. It’s a song that could very well be sung for a campfire dance, and the instrumentals in the last half have a nice flair.

As much as I hate to, I really can’t give Hexvessel’s All Tree anything more than a 4/10. The album quickly gets dull and just drones on and on and on (and on and on). On their own, many of the songs are bearable, but in the context of the album there were very few parts that I really liked. I’m hopeful that their next release will be of similar quality to their prior albums.

Originally written for metal-observer.com

Hexvessel – Old Tree (Century Media)

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