Moonlight Prophecy – Heat Lightning Review

Score8/10
GenreProgressive Metal/Shred
CountryUSA
Runtime17:56
Release Date19 July 2019
Record LabelIndependent

I’m usually not a huge fan of one-man show albums (like Devin Townsend, for example). They always seem to have something missing from them. One of the most important elements of a successful band is the heart that each different member brings that, even through studio recordings, makes its way into the music so that you can sense a real connection and cohesion from the band. And more often than not, one-man projects lack this heart.

That being said, Moonlight Prophecy’s latest EP, Heat Lightning, is a damn fine piece of instrumental shred. It isn’t entirely a one-man show (as there is a bassist), but everything else is covered by multi-instrumentalist Lawrence Wallace. Its arrangements are lively, the drums are killer, and the shredding is, well, as shredded as Shreddies that have been in the bowl for too long. While there isn’t a whole lot of variety covered within its four tracks, but there’s enough variability to make it a really fun listen.

If there’s one area that Moonlight Prophecy suffers, it’s in the melody department. A lot of the space between solos is filled by repeated arpeggiations and the lead guitar doesn’t show a lot of restraint or tastefulness (which are he marks of an excellent shred album), except for the last half of ‘The Magic Carpet’, which shows both of these things very well.

And don’t even get me started on that fucking album artwork. God damn. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen worse; it looks like something an edgy 14-year-old would make on Microsoft Paint to promote his shitty YouTube channel. It’s so bad that it actually pains and amuses me all at once, so, while it has absolutely no bearing on the score, it should actually garner some bonus points, if anything.

Anyway, if you’re into five minutes of straight facemelting (or seventeen, if you tackle it all at once), this album kicks all sorts of ass. There are some really sick licks about a minute into ‘Oddities’ and ‘Heat Lightning’ carries some marks of late-2000s John 5. And ‘The Magic Carpet’ is just fucking insanity in its first half. Additionally, as I mentioned before, the drumming is right on par with the fury of the guitars, so there’s plenty to enjoy upon consecutive listens.

Any fan of guitar feature albums, and especially of Steve Vai and John 5, should give Heat Lightning a spin. Actually, make sure to check out some of Moonlight Prophecy’s older material, too, because this EP isn’t even the best.

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Narnia – From Darkness To Light Review

Score8/10
GenrePower Metal
CountrySweden
Runtime45:31
Release Date2 August 2019
Record Label Sound Pollution

In the second album since their hiatus, Narnia are back with From Darkness to Light. Compared to pretty much all of their previous albums, From Darkness to Light dials the neoclassicalism (is that a word? Fuck it. It is now!) to a point where it’s nearly non-existent. Additionally, Narnia have traded a good portion of their power metal energy for heavier riffs, a bit more variety, and a more prominent prog influence. They still have some killer synth tones, like “80s Fanfare Cheese” and “Black Dude Jazz Fusion”, so I’m not complaining.

From Darkness to Light begins with such fucking fire that I was immediately expecting the world from this album. That cheesy, epic 6/8 synth fanfare intro of ‘A Crack in the Sky’ stole my attention right away, and the rest of the track carried that excitement all the way through. However, all of this momentum is halted by the mediocrity of ‘You Are the Air That I Breathe’, which sounds like one of those poppy worship songs you got beat over the head with when you were dragged to church as a kid (well, if you were a kid any time since the late 90s, anyway).

Speaking of church, if you didn’t figure it out by the band name, Narnia is a Christian band. Now, while I do nearly burn from the inside out when I hear Christian music, the lyrical content has pretty much nothing to do with how I critique music. After all, this is coming from somebody who listens to songs about dragons and space battles. I just figured it was my duty to mention that before, you know, you find yourself victim to a surprise exorcism or something.

Anyway, don’t lose hope in this album just yet, because, despite a few duds (like the aforementioned ‘You Are the Air That I Breathe’ and ‘Has the River run Dry’) there are some awesome tracks on this record. Aside from the beginning track, ‘MNFST’ and ‘I Will Follow’ have some beastly riffage and fantastic facemelters. Then there’s ‘The Armor of God’, which is a more typical power metal tune, and ‘From Darkness to Light (Part 1)’, which has a massive, cinematic intro before backing off into light, acoustic reflection, which is really well done. Evidently, aside from a bunch of cool tracks, there’s a great amount of variety, too.

Even though it’s in a very different realm that its predecessors, From Darkness to Light stands as a great album; it carries a solid, driving vigour in most of its tracks. Narnia have proven their talent once again and, while it may not be their best, this album still kicks all sorts of ass. If you don’t usually partake in Christian metal, I urge you to delve into this one; you won’t be disappointed.

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Mighty Thor – Ragnarok Review

Score8/10
GenrePower Metal
CountryMexico
Runtime47:36
Release Date17 June 2019
Record LabelIndependent

Mexican powerhouses Mighty Thor have thundered in once again to bring us their third record: Ragnarok. Their first effort in six years, Ragnarok features a new lineup and a much-needed makeover in both sound and mixing. On top of that, the band’s songwriting has matured greatly in this time off, which allows for massive and dynamic arrangements.

For an epic power metal band, the variety that Ragnarok offers surprised the hell out of me. Most of the tracks do have a certain predictable intensity to them, but there’s not a song on the record that comes close to repeating another. Additionally, the orchestrations don’t overpower the band but instead boost the sound high into the heavens.

In the wake of all of this, though, there’s nothing revolutionary happening here; the metal elements are heavy and fast, there are countless symphonic parts, and the feel is uplifting and, well, powerful. However, Mighty Thor have nailed the songwriting and execution of such an outfit, so they manage to stay a step above your run-of-the-mill epic power metal band.

Fueling this metal machine are musicians that are worth their weight in steel (which might mean less in a real-world sense, but you get it). The rhythm section, including newcomers Jean Pinet (bass) and Moises Flores (drums), pounds the fuck out of every song (except in the ballad ‘Mi Refugio’, where it pulls back so that some truly beautiful developments can take place). It’s also really nice to actually be able to hear the bass in the mix, as the previous Mighty Thor albums were so muddy that I had no idea what the shit I was hearing half the time. New frontman Uidemar Cuevas suits the band’s epic sound perfectly and balances his soaring vocals well with the raspiness in his voice and the guitarwork, courtesy of axemen Mario Dorantes and Eduardo Gutierrez, is simply killer.

Where their former works often sounded messy, tinny, and needlessly loud, Ragnarok is an absolute blast to listen to, and I enjoyed pretty much everything it threw at me. Between the mighty orchestrations, choruses, and riffs, there’s enough pump-up fuel here to energize even the mighty Mjolnir.

Mighty Thor – El Regreso del Rey

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TIR – Metal Shock Review

Score8/10
GenreHeavy Metal (Traditional)
CountryItaly
Runtime44:52
Release Date10 May 2019
Record LabelGates of Hell

Surfacing from the depths of the underground for the first time in eight years, Italian classic metal legends TIR have released their second album, Metal Shock. You might be thinking, “Come on, they can’t be that good if it’s taken so long to release just their second album.” Let me assure you, though, that TIR are worth their weight (which is fucking heavy, by the way) in gold. While they did form all the way back in the 80s, TIR have always preferred to focus more on live shows than to bust out an album every two years to acquire commercial success. As a result of this exclusive, in-person approach to heavy metal, their shows are hotly anticipated in their hometown of Rome.

So, it’s pretty fortunate that we, the international metal community, have the opportunity to get our hands on Metal Shock. The old school, melodic, unadulterated heavy metal that is found within will be an instant hit with fans of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and DIO (which had damn-fucking-well be all of you out there).

For most traditional metal albums, I find myself scoring them either a four or an eight, with any variance being pretty rare. Since the entire point of the genre is to basically do what’s been done before, my criticism tends to be limited to either “they executed it well” or “it’s derivative bullshit”. TIR’s Metal Shock is no exception to this, but it does come out on the positive side.

The dual guitar work is great and the drums are actually reasonably adventurous rather than getting locked into the same shitty 4/4 beat the entire time. The vocals kick ass and the basslines are clear. Using the premium fuel that the band produces, each song is energetic, catchy, and has a high degree of headbangability behind it. Beyond all of that, however, I don’t have much else to say about this record.

There’s nothing exceptional about Metal Shock and it’s pretty lean in the variety department but it’s classic metal done well, plain and simple. Make sure you bang out Metal Shock at least once, because it’s a sick ride.

TIR – Lasciateci Fare

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Antonello Giliberto – The Strategy Of Chaos Review

Score8/10
GenreNeoclassical Power Metal
CountryItaly
Runtime56:17
Release Date30 April 2019
Record LabelIndependent

If you’re at all like me, you’ve been left with a bit of a void in your soul since seeing the awe-inspiring badassery of Avengers: Endgame. You’ve probably been looking to get your next colossal action fix but have had no luck in doing so. Never fear, however, because the gods (or rather, the Italians) have delivered unto us an instrumental metal soundtrack of epic, Earth-shattering proportions. As the third installment to guitarist/composer Antonello Giliberto’s solo project, The Strategy of Chaos bellows with a massive intensity from the very beginning of the opening track until the until the god damn grand finale that is ‘Odissea Veneziana’.

Accompanying Antonello on this perilous journey are bassist Dino Fiorenza, who has played with the likes of Zakk Wilde, Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteem, and Paul Gilbert, with Salvo Grasso (who’s a fucking musical monster, by the way) on the drums. Both are bandmates in the Christian power/prog outfit Metatrone. Delivering support for keyboard solos and piano is Gabriele Crisafulli, who lends his hand in ‘Threat and Redemption’, ‘Wrath of the Northmen’, and ‘The Depths of My Soul’. Beside these exceptional musicians are loads of booming orchestrations and chanting choirs.

Within this epic shell are many layers of variety. There are numerous intense dark songs and some more typically uplifting power metal bangers, but there are also many beautiful and mournful moments, such as the ones in ‘Forgotten Mists’, the ballad ‘Beata Beatrix the Beautiful Vision’, and ‘Alone in the Empty Space’ (in which there is some truly tasteful Spanish guitar lines). The violin takes the stage in many of these softer sections, which adds a deeper and sadder effect.

There’s not a whole lot wrong with this album considering how tricky it is to make a decent instrumental album, nonetheless one that has a central theme of such tremendous grandeur. At times, the orchestrations are too plentiful and drown out some of the other instruments, but this is rare. Additionally, some of the transitions are weak (especially between ‘Iron Shadows in the Moon’ and ‘Forgotten Mists’) and the orchestral arpeggiations are pretty predictable, but in the grand scope of the album, they don’t take away too much from the music.

If this album (and project) were previously unknown to you, do yourself a favour and check out what Antonello Giliberto is capable of. Not only can he shred like a madman, but he can fashion lively, memorable guitar melodies, as well as an incredible record. The sick drum beats, virtuoso guitar and key solos, and rich background parts create a soundtrack that is practically alive. This is a must-listen for fans of Yngwie Malmsteen, Galneryus, the soundtrack scores of Two Steps from Hell, and epic fantasy movies.

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Valence – Cognitive Dissidents Review

Score8/10
GenreProgressive Metal/Fusion
CountryU.S.A.
Runtime50:11
Release Date12 April 2019
Record LabelIndependent

Prog is a tricky thing. On one hand, being all over the map with regard to time signature, riffs, or melody tends to be a typical trait at this point. However, unless there’s some cohesive force or technically skilled execution, bands are doomed to fall into the abyss of the commotion that they created for themselves, never to be discovered in the ocean that is progressive metal. This is especially a problem for instrumental bands (and this goes for fusion and prog rock, too) who think that just because they play in weird modes or stick a flat seven on a chord they’re hot shit.

Luckily, that isn’t a problem for Valence, and they’ve proven that once again in their second record: Cognitive Dissidents. There’s not a moment when their musical ideas sound jumbled, despite the explosive riffage that ensues as soon as the record starts in ‘Damnit, Lana!’ and relentlessly carries through the rest. The whole album has a fun, bouncy feel to it and is stylistically closer to jam/jazz fusion in the breath of early Snarky Puppy, but obviously much heavier. Regardless of genre, you can tell that these guys absolutely love what they’re doing.

There’s no doubt that this is an incredible group of musicians. The fat guitars shred like there’s no tomorrow and Michael Buonanno (guitar) and Wilhelmus Sapanaro (bass) even pick up the violin, viola, cello, and double bass parts rather than resort to samples. The drumming is some of the best I’ve heard in a band like this and, to top it all off, the hugely dynamic songs manage to master immense ferocity, found in ‘Walrus’, and laid back, inquisitive moments as in ‘Prelude: Parlance of Our Time’.

The only thing keeping Cognitive Dissidents from scoring higher is the shortage of any truly exceptional moments. This is a great album and there’s really nothing I dislike about it, but I was, after every listen I gave it, still a bit hungry. From a band who so easily conveys a synergistic joy through their music, I wanted something to smack me in the face and make me wonder what the fuck just hit me. Some parts come close, like the end section of ‘Red Sky at Morning’, which builds and builds into a climax of holy choirs and rushing cymbals, but there needs to be just a bit more. Valence is clearly a team effort, but that extra push would have been all the album needed to become glorious.

(Also, I don’t really know what’s up with the Archer and Big Lebowski references in the titles, so maybe I’m missing out on some musical secret, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.)

Valence – Damnit, Lana!

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Queensrÿche – The Verdict Review

Score8/10
GenreProgressive Heavy Metal
CountryU.S.A.
Runtime44:14
Release Date1 Mar 2019
Record LabelCentury Media

For a band that’s been around as long as Queensryche, a steady decline in quality is to be expected with each new release (especially when there was nothing but drama and bullshit in the late 90s/00s, when former frontman Geoff Tate was still part of the show). However, Queensryche’s comeback in 2013 with their self titled album was mighty, mainly due to new vocalist Todd La Torre. Fortunately, The Verdict continues the momentum that began with Queensryche and through Condition Human, leaving us with a solid piece of metal that earns its place among Queensryche’s classics.

The band is tight and the songs are, in a word, dynamic. Each track is an adventure all on its own because it’s impossible to know where it’ll take you. The keyboards are only sprinkled throughout, usually to highlight instrumentals or back up transitional sections: an attribute that makes the entire album seamless and enthusiastic. Less is definitely more in this regard.

La Torre proves himself as quite the force; with regular drummer Scott Rockenfield on hiatus, La Torre also mans the drums and does a damn good job, to say the least. He lays down tasty groove after tasty groove (especially in the choruses of ‘Light-Years’, where the pattering is nonstop) and rarely carries a monotonous beat.

In addition to dynamic songs and impressive musicianship, this album offers plenty of variety. ‘Dark Reverie’ is relatively light but still carries a steady energy. Going a step further, the closer, ‘Portrait’, is very laid back and atmospheric. There’s also ‘Launder the Conscience’, which has so many ups and downs that it’ll keep you on your toes, and the steady beating of ‘Man the Machine’ is lively and features some awesome shredding.

The Verdict proves once again that cohesion is far stronger than any amount of skill or experience. For a progressive/heavy album, while not exceptionally technical, it flows incredibly smoothly, with each song transitioning into the next with an ease that’s akin to a concept album. It’s blindingly evident that Queensryche’s current lineup is a match made in Hell that will likely only get better with time.

Queensryche – Man the Machine (Century Media)

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Stonecast – I Earther Review

Score8/10
GenreHeavy Metal
CountryFrance
Runtime47:19
Release Date8 Mar 2019
Record LabelPitch Black

Stonecast rocks seriously fucking hard. Their strong energy will draw you in and their anthemic hooks will make you stay. Their third album, I Earther, is no exception. This earthy metal is sturdy and its sound is nothing short of mountainous. There’re incredible performances by all of the bandmates, but Franky Costanza’s (ex-Dagoba) drumming is something else. His grooves are always colourful and complement the rest of band perfectly.

The first three songs are exceptional. I Earther begins with some weird spaceship samples but quickly proceeds into a chugging beat in the opener, ‘Captors of Insanity’. It’s definitely the best song choice to kick off the album; the vocal variety is shown, from lower rough vocals to powerful shrieking, there’s some solid riffage, and the chorus is catchy. ‘Goddess of Rain’ delivers ridiculous shredding power and is the first taste of “Flying” Saliba’s insanely impressive soloing.

The best song on the album, however, is the third song ‘The Cherokee’. It contains so much in its eight minutes, with mighty war cries from “Kanon” Ghirardi and more impressive soloing. The real highlight of the song, though, is the rhythm section. Every one of the riffs and grooves are skillfully done and the drums don’t fucking quit. Similar to the rest of the album, the beats have some intricate details sprinkled in that separate Stonecast from being just another heavy metal band. Oh, and the ending is one of the best endings to a song I’ve ever heard; it’s actually an ending section, rather than just the final chord of the progression being dragged out or a lazy tagline.

The rest of the album is great, except for the only song that I can’t seem to enjoy: ‘Resistence’. It’s relatively slow, drags on for a couple minutes too long, and, especially when compared to the rest of the record, is pretty messy. It’s the only point of the album that the lo-fi production quality really bothers me, because the combination of the song and mastering make it pretty rough.

Aside from that, however, this is a phenomenal record. It’s got great musicians, excellent songwriting, and has massive replayability. Stonecast is rock-solid when it comes to metal, and they’ve pounded their way into my heart.

Originally written for metal-observer.com

Stonecast – Goddess Of Rain (Pitch Black)

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Darkwater – Human Review

Score8/10
GenrePower/Prog
CountrySweden
Runtime1:16:08
Release Date1 Mar 2019
Record LabelUlterium

It’s no secret that the world of prog metal has been dominated by the U.S.A. for nearly the past thirty years, largely due to the titanic time-changing Dream Theater, as well as bands such as Tool, Fates Warning, and Symphony X. As such, the genre as a whole tends to have a more typically American metal sound, relying more on heavy grooves and riffs rather than melody and vitality.

However, the Scandinavians have a knack for taking any music ever and turning it into their own lively, melodic brand. Darkwater’s Human is still very American-sounding at its core (or, should I say, late-Dream-Theatery at its core), but this adaptation is apparent and gives the album a far brighter feel. The hooks are catchy and the numerous symphonic, choir, and keyboard tracks that are consistently scattered throughout the album add a lot of depth and colour. The production quality is squeaky-clean and couldn’t be more well-balanced.

The musicianship on the record is great, but as far as prog bands go, it’s nothing exceptional. The solos and grooves are pretty tame by comparison but these guys do an excellent job at proving that you don’t need to be shredding like a fucking madman for an entire ten minute song in order to be a successful prog musician. I also absolutely love how the time changes feel so natural and aren’t overdone. The entire experience is fluid and cohesive.

Not a whole lot sticks out on this album, not because of lack of skill, but quite the opposite. That being said, there are a few specific parts that I really like. Henrik Båth’s vocals are simply perfect for this kind of band: expressive, clean, and not too overbearing. ‘Insomnia’ is probably the most power metal track on the album as well as my favourite (largely because of that mean synth solo). Another part that sticks out is the solo section in the final song, ‘Light Of Dawn’, which is mouth-wateringly tasteful.

This is a phenomenal prog album. It’s full of life and its musical anatomy contains many intricate and detailed parts, and everything works together in unison. As a result, the entire album flows like a powerful river.

Originally written for metal-observer.com

Darkwater – Alive (Pt. II) (Ulterium)

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Fenrir – Legends of the Grail Review

Score8/10
GenreFolk Metal
CountryFrance
Runtime46:17
Release Date18 Jan 2019
Record LabelIndependent

It’s been many years since we last heard Fenrir’s howl. Seven years, in fact. However, I’ve always thought that it’s far better to forge great music less often than to have frequent releases of deteriorating quality. Legends of the Grail is proof of this; its musicians are excellent and its knightly tunes are vivid and bright.

The album kicks off with the typical instrumental track and then jumps straight into an energetic guitar riff in ‘A Red Sun Rises’. This opening song sums up the rest of the album perfectly; it’s not exceptionally heavy and has soft, smooth vocals and a vibrant, medieval atmosphere. The balance of instruments is near perfect for a folk metal band, as it never leans too far to either side. The mixing allows for the violins to be heard just as well as the guitars and there aren’t many moments when it sounds messy or muddled.

Although Legends of the Grail doesn’t often get too heavy, songs such as ‘Morgane’ and ‘Conquest of Britain’ have heavy riffs and rough vocals, and the incredible drumwork throughout the album adds a considerable amount of weight. Kévin Keiser’s pattering double kicks run rampant and his grooves add significant intensity to the music.

One of my favourite tracks is the lively instrumental ‘Brocéliande’. The skillful violin work is impressive and exciting and makes me want to get up and dance. Another great track is the following ‘The Son of Pendragon’, which begins fiercly and features an awesome guitar solo. There aren’t too many guitar solos in Legends of the Grail, so when they do come around they attack with an extra special oomph.

My only problem with the album is the fact that Elsa Thouvenot exclusively sings in a sweet, airy tone. She’s not a bad vocalist (in fact, she’s the opposite), but there’s not much of a change of intensity to highlight the choruses or certain melodies. That being said, it’s a relatively minor issue in an otherwise stellar album. All in all, Legends of the Grail is a notable piece of folk metal and is truly worthy of knighthood.

Fenrir – A Red Sun Rises

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