Dexter Ward – III Review

Score8.5/10
GenreHeavy Metal (Traditional)
CountryGreece
Runtime45:58
Release Date13 March 2020
Record LabelNo Remorse

Greek heavy metal force Dexter Ward have returned after four years with a third album of classic anthems and colossal riffage. This epic, gritty onslaught of medieval glory easily stands among the mightiest of axe-wielding metal knights. Within are eight tracks forged of metal worship and mighty tales.

Overall, III treads closely to the root Dexter Ward sound, kind of a combination of bands like Visigoth and Iron Maiden, with a touch of Running Wild. Along the same lines, the sound stays true to classic metal through the use of memorable riffs and a fair deal of facemelting. The vocals, while nothing to scoff at, are more dialed down than the usual belting of modern metal bands, instead taking a more Manowar (or to a lesser extent, Dio) approach to things.

For me, the highlight of III is the guitarwork. I could go into detail or pick songs (maybe ‘The Dragon of the Mist’ is on the upper end?) but I’d just end up saying the same shit over and over so I’ll just leave it and say the guitars are fucking killer, inside and out. The classic-inspired anthems of the choruses also take a stand as a high point, and the drums are far busier than in your usual classic metal band.

But, the real reason III kicks so much ass is its variety. The songs are all dynamic, with sick solo sections in some and chugging grooves in others. Fitting in with the whole sword-and-sorcery theme, a lot of the album is based around up-tempo gallops and 6/8, but there’s a good mix of musical feels, so playing the record front to back is no problem.

Fans of Greek power metal and classics like Iron Maiden and the aforementioned bands should definitely give III a spin (and the rest of Dexter Ward’s stuff). It’s one of the stronger albums in the genre I’ve heard in the past months, and I’m finding it hard to get sick of.

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Ivanhoe – Blood And Gold Review

Score8.5/10
GenreProgressive Metal
CountryGermany
Runtime38:33
Release Date20 March 2020
Record LabelMassacre

German prog veterans Ivanhoe have returned with another prog piece that hearkens back to the classic prog of the late 80s/early 90s. Blood and Gold is the band’s eighth full-length release in their thirty-five year career, but it holds true as one of their most essential releases ever. This compact, groove-driven style of prog will especially be a hit for fans of golden-age Queensryche and Fates Warning.

Blood and Gold does a lot of things right. First and foremost, the runtime is short and sweet (and the songs are all around the four-minute range); there’s no fat around the edges, it’s just no-bullshit prog with experimental, time-changey grooves and sick facemelters in a manageable space. As such, it’s perfect for prog fans who don’t have the attention span to be serious prog fans. Next in line are the drums, which are absolutely killer from the very first song, courtesy of the band’s brand new drummer, Bernd Heining. His fills are great and his beats are many, which is the crucial element in keeping the more laid-back tunes interesting (which is like two thirds of the album). It’s also worth mentioning that the mixing is perfect for an album like this. The guitars and drums sound closer to traditional metal than the colossal, crisp onslaught that most modern prog delivers. Don’t get me wrong, I live for clean and disgustingly heavy, but the softer, more lo-fi production quality has its place, too.

Outside of just comparing it to “early 90s prog”, the overall sound of the album is pretty melancholic, putting a greater emphasis on emotional hooks and guitar countermelodies than explosive riffs. There’s a serious level of technicality, though, most evident in the songs ‘Solace’ and ‘Perfect Tragedy’ (both of which are my favourite tracks), where the time changes are many and the rhythm section is on fucking point.

Between strong songwriting, great musicianship, and that classic feel, Blood and Gold is definitely worth checking out. Also, make sure to keep your ears open, because there’re a ton of little details in the album which I didn’t even touch on (like a sax solo in ‘Shadow Play’).

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Serious Black – Suite 226 Review

Score8.5/10
GenrePower Metal
CountryInternational
Runtime46:50
Release Date31 January 2020
Record LabelAFM

European power metal supergroup Serious Black have returned with their fifth full-length album, Suite 226. While there’s noticeable foundation of 90s power at the forefront, the album also brings elements of hair metal as well as a modern heaviness that turns out to actually be really refreshing. With the crisp vocal talents of ex-Bloodbound vocalist Urban breed belting out intense melodies and a band that spits out nothing but energy, you can be damn sure that this is a must-listen.

Suite 226‘s sound is a bit like early/mid Sonata Arctica, but with a bit more variety. It has everything from lively double-time tracks to slower, mournful tunes like ‘Come Home’. The eight-minute finisher, ‘Suite 226’, is also very well done and wraps everything up by re-exploring the album’s many moods. Additionally, there’re a ton of interesting keyboards and retro sfx, which peak in ‘Way Back Home’ and ‘Fate of All Humanity’.

One of my favourite things about the album is how well it flows. Among so many ups and downs, each song leads into the next without any choppiness. As far as songs go, my favourites would have to be ‘We Still Stand Tall’ and ‘When the Stars Are Right’. Both have fucking KILLER choruses and exciting arrangements, which, unsurprisingly, is right up my alley.

This melody-driven, guitar-chugging asskicker of an album is perfect for fans of 80s metal and late 90s/early 00s power metal. It has spirit, heart, and a healthy dose of not-so-in-your-face cheese.

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07 retro sfx
08 sick PM drive. Some orchestrations. Killer chorus.
09 ballad, retro sfx

Ancient Knights – Camelot Review

Score8.5/10
GenreNeoclassical Power Metal
CountryItaly
Runtime27:37
Release DateJanuary 2020
Record LabelDiamonds Productions

One thing that’s missing from modern power metal is a strong neoclassical outfit. Most bands either go the super-clean, super-fast route a la DragonForce, towards catchy commercialism, or symphonic metal. Now, this is no problem for me, because I eat, sleep, and breathe power metal, but the days of good neoclassical metal seem to have died out by the mid-00s. Bands like Narnia and Dark Moor have long since moved away from their glory days, and new bands either lack the quality or the skill necessary to actually make an imprint.

However, Italy’s latest effort of neoclassical metal makes quite the statement. Formed in 2018, Ancient Knights deliver a sound that’s actually very similar to pre-Dark Moor Dark Moor, minus a few bpm. Their first album, Camelot, is a seven-track (five, if you disregard the orchestral intro/outro), but also comes with three bonus tracks, which are alternate language versions. As the title suggests, you can expect to be serenaded with cheery, magical King Arthury tales of wonder and mystery, highlighted by tasteful orchestrations.

Fortunately, the music holds up. Despite the main portion of the album only consisting of five songs, there’s a good amount of variety. All of the songs are snappy and exciting, so there’s no need to skip anything. Additionally, while the guitarwork isn’t quite on the level of an elite virtuoso band, it’s still damn impressive. Both the rhythm stuff and soloing are excellent, with some of the best of both coming in ‘Usurper’ and ‘Prophecy of the Magic Kingdom’. Likewise, the drumming is fucking killer. The beats are intricate and dynamic and keep the music exciting, despite having a slower tempo than you might expect from this style of music.

And then we get to the vocals. While they don’t outshine the other instruments, there are some huge names here that should be enough to get you excited about the album. Included in this massive list of guest vocalists are the mighty Fabio Lione (Rhapsody), Elisa Martin (Dark Moor), Chiara Tricarico (Moonlight Haze), Gabriel Tuxen (Seven Thorns), and Roberto Tiranti (Odyssea). As you might have guessed, a lot of Camelot‘s sound rides on nostalgia, but that’s not a bad thing at all. These vocalists, combined with Ancient Knight’s own Matt Siddi, provide the best possible face over already-masterful arrangements.

My favourite track has to be ‘Prophecy of the Magic Kingdom’. Aside from the incredible guitars and rampant drums, it also features Elisa, who happens to be one of my favourite vocalists. Combine this with the best solo section on the album and an energetic double-time beat and you get the best Dark Moor song since 2002.

My only complaint with this album is how short it is. In all honesty, I don’t know why the fuck the band doesn’t consider this an EP, but I suppose it’s long enough if you count the three alternate tracks. I really hope that Ancient Knights don’t end up just being a one-release band, because the potential here is limitless. Any fan of old school power metal should be eager for this one.

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Cathubodua – Continuum Review

Score8.5/10
GenreSymphonic Metal
CountryBelgium
Runtime59:25
Release Date25 October 2019
Record LabelMassacre

The time has come for Belgium’s female-fronted symphonic metal outfit Cathubodua to unleash their devastating debut album: Continuum. Featuring folk, symphonic, death, and power metal elements, Continuum wastes no time in displaying its melodic, balls-to-the-wall epic onslaught. After a short instrumental, we’re welcomed with an intense trifecta in ‘Abyss’, ‘Hero of Ages’, and ‘Hydra’ which start the album at its highest point.

It’s hard to pinpoint where Cathubodua’s sound lies because it’s so dynamic and fairly unique, too. At times they show some likeness to Elvenking, and it isn’t a huge similarity, but that’s really the closest comparison I can come up with. Not like any of that concerns me anyway because the sound is sick, the lead is sick, the drums are sick (see: ‘A Treacherous Maze’ and ‘Hero of Ages’), and everything else is, you guessed it, super cool. Numerous interlude tracks act as good transitional pieces, so the album also has a fair amount of fluidity going for it.

One thing (albeit a small thing) that gives Cathubodua an edge on a lot of other symphonic acts is that the operatic vocals are used pretty sparingly as a highlight rather than as the main vocal style. Like rough vocals, I think this more limited approach to operatics works way better than having them at the forefront all the time. It allows for more varied expression and really allows Sara Vanderheyden to attack with every vocal delivery she has, be it aggressive, tranquil, folky, operatic, powerful, or otherwise.

As with most albums, Continuum does have some things keeping it from being perfect. There’s a bit of excess that could be trimmed, namely the track ‘Deified’, which is pretty messy and a huge drop in quality compared to the rest of the album. And then there’s the way in which Cathubodua finish the album, which is with another instrumental. The second-to-last track, ‘Apotheosis’, would have ended the album perfectly, but the ending we get does the same thing ‘Apotheosis’ did but with a quarter of the impact.

But, as I may have hinted at, Continuum has a lion’s share of excellent tracks. My favourite, ‘Hydra’ has one of Vanderheyden‘s best performances on the album, showcasing both her ferocity and beauty, and the overall power from this track is great. There’re also some instrumental breaks that hearken to Elvenking’s ‘King of the Elves’ that are a nice touch. And then there’s ‘A Treacherous Maze’, which has an Eastern flavour, rough vocals, fucking crazy blast beats, killer instrumentals, and so much more going for it. Finally, while ‘Hydra’ is my favourite song, my favourite moment in the whole album is found in ‘Apotheosis’, where the melody from ‘Hero of Ages’ comes back to give you the ultimate, spinetingling goose-bumps experience.

I haven’t even touched on the great riffs or shredding solos, but hear me when I say that Continuum contains some of the best symphonic metal of the entire year. While it’s not without a few flaws, it’s a beast of a debut album (and an album in general). It’d be an understatement to say that I’m excited to see what Cathubodua come up with next, because this immensely talented group have limitless potential.

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Yurei – Saudade Review

Score8.5/10
GenreProgressive Metal/Fusion
CountryCanada
Runtime39:52
Release Date4 October 2019
Record LabelIndependent

Yurei is the instrumental progressive metal project helmed by the Brazilian-born composer/guitarist Gabriel Castro. As you can imagine, this brand of prog is largely influenced by latin music. Their full-length debut, Saudade, is no exception to this; it brings all the rich vitality that latin jazz offers but with a massive metal bite. While this combination isn’t necessarily anything new, especially considering the recent influx of fusion-styled instrumental prog that’s almost become an expectation of modern prog at this point, the arrangements are fun, the technical skill of the musicians is through the roof, and the drumming is a fucking godsend.

One of the things I like the most about Saudade is the fact that it’s a great album whether you’re just a casual listener or a musician. Yeah, fancy jazz chords and complex rhythms are super cool, but a lot of prog artists forget that technicality isn’t everything. Fortunately, you don’t need to know dick-all about music theory to enjoy this album, but you’ll still love it if you do.

Upon the first few minutes of listening, an overtone of early/mid-00s fusion is created and remains for the entirety of the album. To paint a bit of a picture, Saudade sounds similar to Dave Weckl‘s 00s stuff combined with whatever the fuck Japan was doing with GameCube soundtracks at the time (but without all the symphonic stuff). Needless to say, Saudade is served with a pretty hefty dose of nostalgia. Nostalgia that listened to way too much funk drumming.

But don’t let all the jazz/fusion comparisons be the only thing that forms your opinion of Yurei, because these guys are just as much metal as they are fusion. Saudade‘s melodies are led by some killer lead guitar work on top of super heavy, syncopated grooves. The hefty guitar tones allow for a good amount of aggression, but the expressive lead guitar keeps the sound from becoming too dark. There’re also various synth tones scattered throughout the background, which are mainly used to create fluid atmospheres rather than to pull any attention away from the guitars and drums. All in all, the album contains a fair balance of groovy jams and floating, emotional ambiance.

Any fan of prog metal, jazz, fusion, or videogame soundtracks will dig Saudade a lot. Between fantastic metal riffage, soaring solos, reflective synths, and ridiculous drumming, there’s no reason not to check Yurei out.

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Centurion – Centurion Review

Score8.5/10
GenreProgressive Heavy Metal
CountrySerbia
Runtime01:16:16
Release Date13 September 2019
Record LabelIndependent

Labelling a band as “progressive heavy metal” is usually, in my experience, just a desperate effort of a prog band that has low production quality to appear more legitimate. Fortunately, that isn’t the case in Centurion’s self-titled debut. Instead, we get a solid traditional metal experience with all the flare, technicality, and versatility of a prog album. Right off the top, these Serbs prove that they aren’t just another lo-fi prog outfit by making an actual decent introductory track.

After a tasteful build in intensity, one thing becomes clear: Centurion is an insatiable riff-beast, ready to prey on the ears of all who are close enough to listen. Not only that, but we’re also attacked with an onslaught of powerful melodies, facemelting solos (especially in ‘Ruka Sudbine’ and ‘Virtuelno Ognjiste’. Holy fuck.), and drumming that never settles for satisfactory. Seriously. This is one damn impressive group of musicians who are as mighty as the badass warriors on their album cover.

If there’s one area that Centurion slightly suffers in, it’s the vocal department. While they certainly aren’t bad, there are a couple areas (mainly some the verses) where a bit more expression would go a long way. That being said, vocalist Miloš Marjanović has a great range and I don’t think there’s a single chorus I didn’t love. Aside from this, the runtime (which clocks in at more than 75 minutes) could be trimmed down a bit but, all things considered, these aren’t huge issues.

On the flip side, such a long runtime allows for a lot of potential variety, which we certainly get. There’s a good range of highs and lows, as well as tons of songs that have your usual prog changes, namely ‘Hodocasnik’ and the Mediterranean-flavoured ‘Janjicar’ (and, if we’re being completely honest here, every other song, too). There’s not a moment where I felt the transitions were bad, either, so bonus points there.

If you had no idea of these guys’s existence, like me about a month ago, then you owe it to yourself to check this album out. If you like your metal heavy, gritty, melodic, and dynamic, Centurion is right up your alley.

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DragonForce – Extreme Power Metal Review

Score8.5/10
GenrePower Metal
CountryEngland
Runtime52:51
Release Date27 September 2019
Record LabelMetal Blade

Between relentless speed, over-the-top solos, and enough positivity to make even a reggae guy sick, let me come clean and say that I’m a huge DragonForce fan. After all, ‘Through the Fire and the Flames’ was the very first power metal song I ever heard. These guys are single-handedly responsible for planting the seed of undying love of power metal in my soul eleven years ago, as they did for many others, and I still crank out most of their albums on a regular basis. My favourites are the four albums from the ZP era, and I like their 2017 release, Reaching into Infinity, almost as much. The Power Within and Maximum Overload, however, were really hit-and-miss for me, but there are a few killer tracks from both. Fortunately, Extreme Power Metal is a hit for me and, despite having a few imperfections, it’s their best album since Ultra Beatdown.

One thing EPM does better than, well, every album up to Reaching into Infinity is variety. It has your typical, fast-paced power metal bangers like ‘Troopers of the Stars’ and ‘Cosmic Power of the Infinite Shred’, as well as a surplus of more commercial, poppy songs. There are a few songs that aren’t driven solely by spine-splitting speed, such ‘Remembrance Day’ and the excellent cover of Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’, but the intense dragon energy is never lost. There are also a lot of instrumental breaks that utilize strings, folk instruments, and the usual videogame SFX that are so characteristic of DragonForce. These video game themes run strong, with most of the songs having retro synth (or outright 8-bit) intros. Unsurprisingly, ‘The Last Dragonborn’ is the most videogame-fueled of them all, albeit more in content and less in sound.

Alongside their trademark speed/positivity/insanely-long-solos combo, there’s also a dose of 80s pop and glam metal influence (which, in all honesty, is far less pronounced than I expected it to be, based on the album cover). There are a lot of cheesy synth tones that highlight the melodies as well as straight-up hair metal choruses, especially in ‘Heart Demolition’ and ‘Strangers’. However, where bands like Beast in Black are full-out 80s melodic metal bands, DragonForce maintains their familiar modern sound while keeping the 80s stuff just at arms length, using it as the spice rather than the steak.

While I really enjoy EPM as a whole, I do have two favourite tracks. I really like ‘Troopers of the Stars’, especially the shredding bass in the intro, which is really cool. However, as is my way, ‘Heart Demolition’ has the most cheesy synths, so it makes it as my favourite song. Just kidding. Kind of. Well, it’s got more going for it than just the synths. It’s just a coincidence, OK?

Many metalheads have said (and will continue to say until the end of fucking time), “So they can play fast. Big deal,” but, to me, that’s just a lazy criticism. After all, couldn’t you criticize any band for having a schtick? Or even, how stupid would it sound if I said, “So you can play aggressively. Big deal,” about metal in general? Well, yeah, that isn’t entirely wrong, and that is a main attribute, but there’s so much more to it than that. If you don’t like it, that’s fine, but I don’t need that negativity in my life. DragonForce have released yet another excellent album in Extreme Power Metal, and there’s way more to it than just speed.

*Also, let me just say that I love this music video. It looks like it was made for Newgrounds. Remember when that website was a thing? Me neither.*

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Numenor – Chronicles From The Realms Beyond Review

Score8.5/10
GenreEpic Black/Power Metal
CountrySerbia
Runtime34:35
Release Date5 September 2017
Record LabelStormspell

It’s not often that I’ll review an album that’s older than a couple months. Between the constant flow of material sent to me and my ever-decreasing amount of free time, I’m usually struggling just to keep up with current releases. But, once in a while, I’ll receive something that especially catches my ear, and I’ll check it out happily, regardless of when the album came out. The latest of these special exceptions is the third album from Serbia’s Númenor, Chronicles from the Realms Beyond, which is a unique take on Tolkien-themed metal (which, at this point, isn’t all that unique a topic anymore, is it?).

To get the best idea of what to expect from this album, think something along the lines of “man metal”. It’s rugged and intense, but brings together the musical forces of light and darkness to fight side-by-side against the true evil: boring music. It completes itself with diverse arrangements and an epic overtone that is easily noticeable but not overbearing. The most epic, power-metally songs (and, unsurprisingly, my favourites) are the opener and closer, ‘Heart of Steel’ and ‘The Last of the Dragon Lords’. But, as you venture into the guts of this deceivingly-ominous record, you’ll be suprised at what you find.

The most interesting thing about Chronicles is how skillfully it combines elements of black metal and power metal. While a couple of the songs have a majority lean toward one or the other, most of them have a pretty even balance of the two. The result of such a combination is blood-boiling ferocity surrounded by an ever-present sense of darkness. This is usually achieved by mixing dark atmospheres, harsh growls, stoic melodic sections, and a driving rhythm section into a cauldron of badassery, as is evident in tracks like ‘Moria’, ‘Over the Mountains Cold’, and ‘Witching Hour’. Along with male clean and rough vocals, there are also female vocals, which add yet another interesting layer into an album that already pushes boundaries.

My only real complaint with Chronicles is regarding the production quality. I wouldn’t quite call it “lo-fi”, but it is fairly gritty and a bit muffled. I’m not sure whether it’s like this because of studio limitations or as an artistic choice due to black metal roots, and, mind you, it could be much worse. But, even some extra oomph from the drums and guitars would go a long way. It’s not so much an issue with clarity for me as it is an issue with highlighting certain parts to deliver that kick that can take an epic metal album from awesome to exceptional.

However, the album is good enough that the production quality doesn’t suffer it too badly. Every song offers something completely different from the one before and, despite runtimes that rarely exceed four minutes, they pack a hell of a lot into their mighty bellies. Huge atmospheres? Heavy beats? Sword-raising choruses? Excellent musicians? It’s all here. Chronicles from the Realms Beyond is a killer album, and offers plenty for those who enjoy the darker side of power metal.

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Elvenking – Reader Of The Runes – Divination Review

Score8.5/10
GenreFolk Metal
CountryItaly
Runtime52:25
Release Date30 August 2019
Record LabelAFM

It’s not very often that a band that’s been around for more than five albums maintains a steady level of greatness in every release. I’m not just talking about a solid discography with album or two being considered “passable”, but rather a track record in which every album is, at the very least, great. It’s not unheard of by any means, and it’s ultimately contingent on whom you ask, but there are certainly some bands that are widely-regarded to just be really fucking good.

For us in the metal community, names like Iron Fire, Blind Guardian, Zeppelin, or Queen might make the cut. However, for myself, I would put Elvenking at the top of my no-less-than-great list. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re my favourite band of all time (although, they are close), but it means that I think that they’re a band that is almost incapable of putting out something even close to bad; they haven’t yet.

So, it should come as no surprise that the folk masters’ tenth album, Reader of the Runes – Divination, kicks all sort of ass, pagan-style. Fans will be pleased that Divination still retains the core Elvenking sound: a primarily-pop/punk vocal style, folk melodies, proggy song structure, and a power metal energy. Conversely, though, the album is as much a breath of fresh air as it is an Elvenking album, as it takes the band in two directions that they haven’t really explored in depth before; the road of Divination is generally darker and heavier than their previous material, and it also brings a whole concept that tells of a journey into a mystical world of runes and magic.

Aside from the songwriting and atmosphere, the instrumentation (obviously) is what mainly contributes to the difference in sound that you’ll find here compared to every album prior. There are huge choirs, such as in ‘Reader of the Runes – Book I’, and plentiful vocal tracks that seem to substitute what used to be rampant folk instruments. Additionally, the guitars have stepped up from the background right into the forefront as the driving force of the songs, even more so than the violin, acoustic guitar, string tracks, or drums combined. Speaking of the drums, Lancs‘ style is a lot steadier and heavier than the band’s previous patter-style drummer, Symohn, who parted ways with the band in 2017. This difference was obviously also present in Secrets of the Magick Grimoire, but it’s even more apparent next to the guitar’s new-found presence. Finally, the folk influences are dialed down quite a bit here, too, so the result of all of this is a heavier, more intense, more metal album.

In case you didn’t already assume, Divination has a bit of a variety to offer. Just kidding, it’s all over the fucking map. There are more typical tracks like ‘Heathen Divine’ (which is very Pagan Manifesto) and the laid back ‘Eternal Eleanor’, but there are also songs that stretch the boundaries a bit more, due to all the stuff in that big paragraph above. Most notably, however, we have ‘Malefica Doctrine’, which is drenched in melodeath and stands as the heaviest song in Elvenking’s twenty-plus-year career.

While I wouldn’t call this one Elvenking’s best (because that title would go to Pagan Manifesto), it’s still a killer album. The concept fits, it’s super dynamic, and it has a high headbangability factor. If you were hoping for a very folky album, you won’t get it here. However, I think that old fans will enjoy the hell out of Divination and newcomers will get hooked on it, too.

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