• Ladies and gentlemen,

    I have recently been watching some outstanding Japanese martial arts movies. I would like to present you one of Japan's most popular cinematic swordfighter: Zatoichi, the blind masseur, gambler and lowly Yakuza. The first movie in 1962 was an unexpected success with an incredible legacy. Twenty-six movies with lead actor Katsu Shintaro were made between 1962 and 1989. In certain years, two, three and once even four movies were released. A television series of one hundred episodes was also produced between 1974 and 1979. A remake directed by and starring Kitano Takeshi was released to critical acclaim in 2003. There are several elements that make this franchise so unique. Zatoichi is a swordsfighter with a strong moral compass whose words speak louder than his incredible fighting skills. He is a haunted man who would like to live a peaceful life with a family but the harsh circumstances constantly prevent him from reaching his modest goal. Zatoichi also represents the outcasts of Japanese society, being a blind masseur and lowly criminal who is rejected by society despite his good actions. As a viewer, you really care about this unique character. Give yourself a gift and enjoy these amazing movies that represent Japanese cinema, culture and history flawlessly. 

    Zatôichi monogatari / The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)

    The Tale of Zatoichi is the first in a long series of samurai movies centered around the blind gambler and masseur turned lowly yakuza who has a strong moral compass and makes us feel empathic not because he is blind and underestimated but because he is brave and honest as he always tries to do the right thing. This first movie is one out of two shot in black and white and has a unique atmosphere that makes life in rural Japan come to life in an authentic manner. This film shows how Zatoichi gets caught up in a war between two rival gangs. Even though he isn't respected by the gang he is supposed to represent and uncovers unfair gambling methods, misogyny and murder, he has accepted the fate that he has to live the life of a lowly criminal that he never really wanted. He develops a profound friendship with the rival's ronin who suffers from tuberculosis as they have similar values and share a passion for fishing and sake. However, one day, the two friends know they must face each other in a decisive battle.

    There are several elements that make this movie so outstanding. First of all, the film's authentic settings bring the culture and history of rural Japan to life in a very authentic way. Secondly, the protagonist convinces as a man who relies on his moral compass and cleverness first and foremost and only draws a sword if he doesn't have any other choice. Thirdly, the numerous side characters are quite interesting as well, especially Zatoichi's wise opponent Hirate, the ruthless criminal Tate and his proud but desperate sister Otane who ends up falling in love with Zatoichi. Fourthly, the dialogues are really to the point and add something to characters and plot unlike many contemporary martial arts flicks. Fifthly, the few fight sequences in the movie are carefully choreographed and would go on to inspire any other genre film that would follow this movie.

    By today's standards, The Tale of Zatoichi might not be the most vivid genre film but it's crafted in an artistic, detailed and intellectual manner that still stands out far over five decades after its initial release. Any martial arts fan should give this movie a chance. I would highly recommend the stunning Criterion Collection of the Zatoichi movies that truly offers value for money. Movies of this quality are rarely made nowadays and should be hold in high regard.

    Zoku Zatôichi monogatari / The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962)

    Even though it was only released a few months after the first movie, The Tale of Zatoichi, the second and last movie of the Zatoichi franchise shot in black and white, takes places exactly one year after the events of the first film and is directly related to it. It's nearly impossible to watch this movie independently as it complements the brilliant first strike accurately. Despite an overall faster pace, it has a more melancholy atmosphere due to the main character's goal to pay respects to his fallen friend and opponent and a moody soundtrack.

    Zatoichi is on his way to pay respects at the grave of his friend Hirate whom he was forced to kill one year earlier. The movie has three different plots leading into one. First of all, Zatoichi is hired to massage a powerful lord but when he realizes that the nobleman is insane, he is tracked down by the lord's retainers and hired samurai who want to prevent Zatoichi from telling other people the truth about the lord's mental condition. Secondly, the movie follows a one-armed swordsman and his associate who claim to be samurai but are actually criminals on the run. Thirdly, the movie gives us some more details about the yakuza Zatoichi teamed up with in the first film who felt insulted by him and decide to track him down when they hear he is coming back to town. The movie has a twist that links the three story lines together and ends in a rather abrupt way but still manages to answer all essential questions in just seventy-two minutes.

    If compared to the first film, this one has a much faster pace and features more spectacular sword fights. Zatoichi regularly faces big crowds on beaches and in gardens and shows off his precise skills in breathtaking manner. From that point of view, the vivid sequel is more spectacular than the first film. The characters have as much depth as in the first film as Zatoichi still proves he has a strong moral compass while he meets ruthless criminals, charming prostitutes and people somewhere in between on his way to his friend's and opponent's grave. The element that is less convincing than in the first film is the more fast-paced and at times slightly confusing story that feels rushed in just seventy-two minutes and doesn't develop as much depth as it could have requested.

    If you are looking for breathtaking martial arts choreography, you might prefer this movie over the first film. If you are looking for a skilled plot with atmosphere and depth, the first movie is clearly superior. I personally prefer the more intellectual first film but must admit that the second one is definitely energizing and entertaining. It's positive that the sequel didn't just try to copy the style of the first film and tried out something different. Overall, it's a quite good movie that justifies the numerous sequels based upon the first Zatoichi film and that should please to any fan of Japanese culture and martial arts cinema.

    Shin Zatôichi monogatari / New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

    New Tale of Zatoichi is the third entry in the franchise centered around the skilled blind swordsman with the strong moral compass. It's also the first movie of the franchise to be shot in color. However, it's also the weakest part of the franchise thus far but still an above average experience. Zatoichi is hunted down by the family of a yakuza he killed in the previous film when he is unexpectedly saved from trouble by his former master. He agrees to stay with his former master and his younger sister and also visits his solitary grandmother. What seems to be a joyous reunion soon turns sour when Zatoichi realizes how his master has changed for the worst. His former master tries to marry his sister to a man whom she doesn't love, kills unarmed people for unjustified reasons and cooperates with a ruthless gang of criminals by taking advantage of his pupils' rich parents. Zatoichi can't ignore the truth and ends up challenging his former master to a decisive duel.

    The third installment of the Zatoichi franchise must be separated into two parts. The first half of the movie is quite pointless and could also be told in five minutes or less. We follow Zatoichi traveling across rural Japan and meeting former friends and foes. The movie plods along and is only average at best because of an imprecisely meandering plot. Up to that point, the film could be considered an at best average slice of life or road movie. Things however improve by a few notches when his former master's sister proposes to Zatoichi. From then on, the characters are developed in depth, philosophical topics such as dishonor and honor are discussed and the movie skillfully mixes beautiful fight choreography with a tragic love story. The second half of the film is the most emotional passage of the franchise as we witness Zatoichi's desperate quest for love, peace of mind and renaissance which he simply cannot find as he is constantly challenged, judged and haunted by the demons of his past.

    In the end, despite being the least interesting part of the franchise thus far, New Tale of Zatoichi is still worth your attention because of an emotional second half that pardons for a plodding first half. The movie stands out with a sad, melancholy and gloomy touch and makes the viewer empathize with the haunted swordsman more than ever before. Fans of the franchise should definitely watch this film while occasional martial arts fans should rather try out the first installment, The Tale of Zatoichi.

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  • Ladies and gentlemen,

    I have recently been watching some outstanding Japanese martial arts movies. I would like to present you the two Lady Snowblood movies from 1973 and 1974. As so many other movies, they are based upon a manga series of the same name. What really makes this franchise stand out is the fact that the lead character is a woman. She isn't just any woman but a tough female warrior with a heartbreaking background story who outsmarts her numerous male opponents with cleverness, determination and speed. She looks beautiful from the outside but is pitiless inside. Despite her thirst for vengeance, she still has a strong moral compass, a sense of justice and the will to show empathy which makes her even more intriguing. This feminist hero brought a fresh breeze to a more conservative genre and revolutionized it. Even nowadays, the Lady Snowblood movies are often mentioned as inspirations, for example for Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill franchise. I would consider the first Lady Snowblood movie one of the best of all time while the sequel is also truly enjoyable for genre fans. Give yourself a gift and try these movies out.

    Lady Snowblood (1973)

    Shurayukihime / Lady Snowblood (1973)

    Based upon the manga of the same name, Lady Snowblood is a dramatic action-thriller set in late nineteenth century Japan during Meiji period. It tells the fateful story of a quiet female assassin who was born in prison and who must carry out the task to avenge her murdered brother and father as well as her abused mother as she grows up under rough circumstances. Supported by a friend of her mother, her severe teacher, an ambitious author and outcast villagers, she tracks down the three surviving persons responsible for her family's gruesome fate one by one.

    Aside of having inspired Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill franchise, Lady Snowblood is a movie that manages to stand out among numerous other martial arts films of its time. First of all, the tale of vengeance has a few clever twists and turns and convinces with a non-linear storytelling which adds depth to the characters and evokes empathy for the silent assassin. 

    Secondly, it's the first movie of its kind to focus on a female lead character who isn't portrayed as weak woman but as pitiless assassin who is cleverer, faster and more determined than her numerous male counterparts which makes this feminist film almost revolutionary for its era. 

    Thirdly, the precise fight sequences are as elegant as painted pictures and their exaggerated elements only add to the movie's vivid flow. The film finds the perfect balance between artistic elements and quite explicit scenes which were shocking for its time.

    Fourthly, the acting performances are stellar as Kaji Meiko convinces as beautiful yet deadly assassin with a haunted past. Even the supporting characters are nicely developed and very interesting to follow. The three villains are quite diversified and complement one another perfectly.

    Fifthly and most importantly, the movie develops a gripping and gloomy atmosphere when the silent assassin is walking through snow-covered landscapes, abandoned cemeteries, muddy villages, poor suburbs and decadent mansions. The rift between rich and poor during Meiji period comes alive authentically as the movie criticizes abuse of power which was quite unusual for Japanese movies back then. The film is captivating from start to finish, gets constantly more intriguing and ends on a particularly high note that leaves no questions unanswered. The movie is executed so perfectly that I could easily watch it once a month without getting bored.

    Lady Snowblood keeps the greatest elements of classic period martial arts movies and adds gloomy atmosphere, fascinating characters and excellent film-making to make this movie one of the greatest of its kind. Even nearly five decades later, this film's excellent execution in unparalleled and still highly diverting. The sequel isn't as great because of a slightly less intense plot but still convinces in all other departments. It's a shame that only two movies revolving around this fascinating character were made. Make sure to purchase the recently updated Criterion Collection including the two movies as well as additional interviews. Anyone who likes martial arts cinema should own these films.

    Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974)

    Shurayukihime: Urami Koiuta / Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of  Vengeance (1974)

    Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance is the very good and often underestimated sequel to the first Lady Snowblood movie released one year prior to this feature. Lady Snowblood turns out to have survived the events of the first film but is hunted down by police forces for her numerous murders. She gets tired of living on the run, stops fighting, gets arrested, tried and sentenced to death. On the day of her execution, the secret police force frees her and offers her to work as spy and assassin for them. Lady Snowblood is supposed to work as maid for an anarchist who has a document that could lead to a turmoil in the fragile country. She is supposed to steal the document, kill the anarchist and prevent a revolution. However, the more time she spends at his house, the more she questions whether she should complete her mission or switch sides. Lady Snowblood soon becomes a key character in the clash between ruthless government officials and desperate anarchists in the beginning of the twentieth century.

    Just as the first movie, this sequel convinces with a solid dose of realism and social criticism as it shows the rift between rich and poor during Meiji period. Due to its plot, historic setting and characters, this sequel isn't a tale of revenge but rather a political drama with martial arts elements. On one side, this change is quite interesting as this film offers something different from the first film but it also takes away from the first movie's gloomy atmosphere and more personal connection to the main character. The rest is business as usual on a very high level. The film-making is detailed, precise and visually stunning, the fight sequences once again find the right balance between elegance and violence and the acting performances are all excellent. If you liked the first film, it's very likely that you will also appreciate the sequel because it kept most elements that made the first film particularly outstanding and added more historic, political and social components to it.

    I can highly recommend the recently updated Criterion Collection including both the original Lady Snowblood and this surprisingly solid sequel as well as additional interviews and trailers. It's a shame that there weren't more Lady Snowblood movies because the feminist character is particularly unique and perfectly portrayed by a stunning Kaji Meiko. Martial arts fans and those interested in Japanese culture should be familiar with Lady Snowblood.

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  • Timo Tolkki

    Ladies and gentlemen!

    Timo Tolkki is one of the most fascinating musicians I have ever come across. The Finnish guitarist, bassist, keyboarder and singer has been involved in numerous projects since he started his career in the mid-eighties. He is most famous for being Stratovarius' guitarist and main songwriter before leaving the Finnish power metal band ten years ago. Apart of releasing several solo records, Timo Tolkki was also invloved in several side projects playing heavy metal, power metal and symphonic metal music but also experimenting with New Age soundscapes to only name one example. The interesting thing about Timo Tolkki is that he was involved in some of the very best metal albums ever released but also in some of the worst which underlines his eclectic unpredictability. Despite several negative experiences, the musician diagnozed with bipolar disorder has always found a way to reinvent himself and surprise us. Since it's particularly difficult to keep track of his numerous projects, here comes a list of ten recommendable records involving Timo Tolkki as well as a list of ten diversified songs that have defined his outstanding career. Enjoy! 

    Stratovarius' Dreamspace (1994)

    Stratovarius' Dreamspace (1994)

    A devastating beauty

    Normally, I have always know Stratovarius as a band that plays charming, but mostly average European power metal, sometimes a little bit better stuff like "Twilight time", sometimes mediocre stuff like "Destiny" and sometimes even bad stuff like "Polaris". I recently started to have a look at the less known albums from the band but I never expected to discover something like this album here. I can't believe that it only has a few reviews and that some of the biggest fans or so it seems don't classify this masterpiece amongst the best stuff this band has ever done. I would not only go as far to say that it is really by far the best album of Stratovarius, but maybe the best power metal album ever from a band that I never thought it would be able to do so. 

    There are maybe two or three very good songs on this record like the catchy but not yet outstanding opener "Chasing shadows" and "Reign of terror" with its standard riffs. The rest of this album is pure genius. Let me point out only some highlights. The epic and dark "4th reich" is the first brilliant track and transmits a haunting atmosphere. The song is permanently changing and in not even six minutes more progressive than the band's recent songs that peak at eighteen minutes. Strange sound effects, military parade drumming and an epic chorus leave me surprised. "Magic carpet ride" seems to be a song filled with stereotypes, but the track is haunting with its slow and heavy riff and Asian folk influences. The atmospheric and emotional ballad "Tears of ice" almost makes me cry and has a somewhat devastating beauty. "Dreamspace" truly feels like a dream with many weird and progressive passages, changes in style and highly atmospheric or even haunting and frightening passages. "Thin ice" has a science-fiction touch with its voice effects, smooth high hat drumming, imperfect acoustic guitars and simple staccato guitar riff interludes. Every time I think that there must come a weaker song at some point, the album seems to laugh at me and presents even stronger tracks. Needless to say that there are no fillers on the entire record. I would like to point out the Japanese bonus track "Full moon" that can be found on some new versions that surprises once again with weird voice effects, smooth acoustic guitars, tribal drums played by hand and dark choirs in the verses. The guitar solos are haunting and play some imperfect harmonies that create an uneasy atmosphere. The song is exotic, relaxing and disturbing at the same time. If you get a chance to purchase a version with this track, you will be pleasantly surprised without the glimpse of a doubt.

    This album is dark and far more than just power metal. With all its changes in style, I would rather talk about progressive metal with some folk and avant-garde influences. The musicians are at their creative heights and felt free to experiment with whatever they wanted to and you can feel this freedom of choice and courage on this album. Timo Tolkki isn't a perfect singer from a technical point of view, but his imperfect and hypnotizing voice fits simply perfectly to this masterpiece and I really ask myself why he led a rather ordinary Timo Kotipelto in the band that has great vocal skills but not this haunting and unique ability to tell strange stories and drown you into weird atmospheres. This album is perfect for lonesome nights in isolated rooms to dream along and get drowned into a devastating beauty. This album has nothing of the later happy metal style of the band and isn't comparable to anything I have ever heard before. “Twilight time” showed me that this band was able to create dark and epic songs and I admired the album. This album is a logical consequence and follow-up and at the same time not as this album outdoes the brilliant previous one easily. This is something for the ages, one of those well hidden gems to get discovered. This is a unique masterpiece and I would recommend this album immediately to anyone that is into power or progressive metal. 

    Final rating: 99%

    Stratovarius' Visions (1997)

    Stratovarius' Visions (1997)

     A majestic, dark and gripping atmosphere

    It’s done. Here comes my last review for the last Stratovarius record that I haven’t analyzed yet and I’m finishing on a very high note as “Visons” is one of the best records this band has ever done even if it doesn’t beat the brilliant and underrated “Dreamspace”. But it’s easily the best album with Timo Kotipelto on the vocals. This album has a rather dark and epic atmosphere and a clear guiding line throughout the whole record.

    The album kicks off with two amazing singles. Normally, the commercial Stratovarius songs turn out to be ordinary power metal shredding with a catchy chorus and I expected something very predictable and boring. But “The kiss of Judas” is a highly interesting single choice with a dominant pumping bass guitar, chilling acoustic guitars and a mystical and gripping atmosphere. The vocal performance is truly enjoyable and shows us that less is sometimes more. Kotipelto doesn’t sing too high pitched and exaggerated and gives more space to the instrumental section to develop a majestic and slightly eerie atmosphere. This is probably the best single the band has ever put out with the exception of the rare gem “Wings of Tomorrow”. “Black Diamond” isn’t much weaker and another great single that opens with a soft keyboard sound to develop a truly majestic atmosphere further in the song. There is a really interesting and progressive continuity between the two first tracks.

    The band continues in that vein with many of their songs. “Before the Winter” is a dreamy, floating and entirely chilling ballad of a very high quality. “Coming Home” is the second ballad of the record and makes you want to fly away on a magic carpet. I wish the band would do more ballads of such a high quality and it feels absolutely chilling to listen to them. “The Abyss of Your Eyes” also has a lot of atmosphere and reminds strongly of the style of the first two songs on this record. “Paradise” mixes the atmospheric and progressive side of the band with the usual power metal factor and some strong Iron Maiden influences. The track is a great mixture and reminds me a lot of “22 Acacia Avenue” at some points. In the end comes the best track of the record, the overwhelming masterpiece of diversity and atmosphere called “Visions (Southern Cross)” where the ending almost reminds of a classical symphony or a movie score. Together with “Elysium” and “Mother Gaia”, this song is probably the best epic track the band has ever done and it follows the slightly dark atmosphere of the album.

    Even though there are two rather ordinary power metal tracks called “Forever Free” and “Legions” that are energizing but not profound enough to ultimately convince and even though there is probably the weakest instrumental song of the band in here with “Holy light” that is quite diversified and progressive but soulless, aimless and without any clear line, atmosphere and magic, the other songs are easily strong enough to rate this album up. Both fans of standard power metal and progressive and atmospheric music should be satisfied with this little gem which is my second favourite record of the Finnish band.

    Final rating: 84%

    Stratovarius' Infinite (2000)

    Stratovarius' Infinite (2000)

    Majestic and epic symphonies with a few fillers

    This album is probably one of the most popular European power metal albums of the last decade and offers a wide range from commercial hit singles to epic symphonic structures that show the diversity and talent of the group and are highly entertaining.

    The very positive and liberating up-tempo hit single "Hunting High and Low" with its catchy chorus or the somewhat melancholic and catchy single "A Million Light Years Away" can't be erased from your mind once you have listened to them. On the other hand, there is a more complex and quite heavily smashing track like the diversified "Phoenix" that is somewhat the hidden gem of the record and surprises with many breaks and hard riff attacks before leading back to a quite powerful and melodic chorus. This kind of melodic and catchy chorus is somewhat the trademark of this record. 

    But all these songs don't reach the symphonic majesty of the epic but still rather heavy "Infinity" and especially the almost classical and very smooth and progressive "Mother Gaia". That's where the band shows its true song writing and also musical talent and can be distinguished from the average power metal bands that have emerged like plagues throughout the past years. I seriously ask myself why they didn't do more tracks of that kind as they may please to any fan of classic music, progressive rock or open minded symphonic metal. A song like "Mother Gaia" with ts piano interludes, acoustic guitars and orchestral passages over more than eight minutes take some time to grow and become better and better with the time, just like a good old wine and the smooth tone of this gem offers also a lot of space to the voice of Timo Kotipelto that shows his complete vocal range and amazing talent on this track even if he has a horrible accent. This is pure majesty and could also have been a song by Dream Theater from their early years to give you an idea.

    The sad thing is that the band put some rather faceless happy high-speed metal songs on this output that simply look silly next to the epic masterpieces like the annoying Helloween worship "Glory of the World" or the average track "Freedom" with average music, title and performance by well known patterns that look like fillers and sound quite boring a part of Timo Kotipeltos good vocal performances. But he isn't a Michael Kiske and that's why the band should have tried to create something more unique and they have already shown many times that they are able to do so but they somehow put average traditional power metal tracks over and over on each one of their records. Maybe this is to satisfy the rather conservative fans of the genre or the band's way to create some kind of an homage to their heroes instead of doing cover versions.

    That's why this album has many different faces, many styles and some very positive but also rather negative sides. It is not the masterpiece that some people might tell you about because of two or three superficial fillers but it isn't the boring commercial power pop failure the haters write about either. The genius of the epic tracks has nothing of a commercial approach and almost sounds like classical music. The answer lies somewhere in the middle and even though this album is not perfect, it is at least very diversified and entertaining and should offer something to anyone that likes the European power metal genre and that's maybe finally the reason why this album was the band's definitive breakthrough and I think that the merit is surely there. 

    Final rating: 78%

    Timo Tolkki's Hymn to Life (2002)

    Timo Tolkki's Hymn to Life (2002)

    Enjoyable melodic rock from a unique musician 

     The second official solo record by Timo Tolkki is a very calm melodic rock album that reminds me a little bit of the calm rock music of the seventies and eighties and also of the solo albums of Michael Kiske. Sometimes, there is even too much melodic rock in here as in "Fresh Blue Waters" that sounds like an ordinary southern rock ballad that could have got some airplay in the southern part of the United States of America if it had been released as a single. And guess what, Michael Kiske is even invited here as a guest singer and does a great job in the opening "Key To The Universe" with his emotional clean vocals. 

    The surprising thing is that the other tracks have as great vocals that must not hide behind the performance of the German power metal legend Kiske. It's the first time in almost eight years since his first solo record and Stratovarius' legendary masterpiece "Dreamspace" that Tolkki performs the vocals. His voice has changed since then, sounds less high pitched and energizing but a little bit more natural, down-to-earth and still very emotional. It's a different style but a very good one. I have always felt that Tolkki was a gifted singer and should have always remained as the main vocalist of Stratovarius with his unique voice. Now I even discovered that he has two unique voices. 

    Another guest singer on this record is Sharon den Adel from Within Temptation on "Are You The One?" that should please fans of the Stratovarius record which was released prior to this album, "Infinite". The slow and melodic guitar solo is simply amazing and the atmosphere is very inspiring and dreamy. The female vocals fit well to the track but are thin compared to the performances of Kiske and Tolkki himself. But it's a great thing that Tolkki invited Sharon den Adel before her band even got the great breakthrough and success they would soon after achieve.

    This wouldn't be a true Timo Tolkki release if there would not be any kind of experiments. The most important one is clearly "Father" that has a very eerie feeling, a strange vocal performance and some discordant guitar chords mixed with flute sounds from a keyboard. Tolkki screams and sounds a little bit out of tune but this was the effect he wanted to create and we should take it as it is. This piece of music is surely experimental and original but it's so strange that I'm not even sure if I like it. It's also one of the heaviest tracks on the album and contradicts all the songs we have heard before. Note that the lyrics seem to be very personal and brutal. They are worth to be checked out even if Tolkki still does some obvious mistakes in his phrase constructions and has a big but charming accent. One could maybe compare it to "030366" from the "Fourth Dimension" album of Stratovarius. 

    Despite a couple of good songs like "Key To The Universe", "Are You The One?", "Father", "It's XMas Morning" and the beautiful epic title track "Hymn To Life" with an impressive, meaningful and engaging speech quotation towards the end of the track, there are still a couple of lengths and rather mediocre tracks to find on this album. It's a rather calm record and not as vivid, progressive and experimental as I wished it to be. I also dislike the permanent presence of cheap keyboard effects in all songs. On the other side, Tolkki still has a fascinating voice and this album is worth to be checked out by fans of melodic rock and dreamy melodic metal.

    Final rating: 77%

    Revolution Renaissance's Trinity (2010)

    Revolution Renaissance's Trinity (2010)

    The king is dead, long live the king! 

    Even by Timo Tolkki's eccentric standards, Revolution Renaissance's swansong Trinity is a most extraordinary album. The band had already split up months before this record was released. The group's previous albums had been received negatively and were indeed below average power metal albums. Nobody had given the band a chance and even I didn't even listen to Revolution Renaissance's final offering until recently.

    That was a mistake. Revloution Renaissance's Trinity is an outstanding heavy metal record that doesn't seem to have anything to do with the band's two lackluster predecessors. It's beyond me how Timo Tolkki managed to pull this off but this release can be considered his best effort since at least Stratovarius' Infinite ten years earlier. If you haven't given a damn about Timo Tolkki's unstable outputs anymore, give this album a chance. You won't regret it.

    One thing that stands out immediately is how fresh this album sounds. First of all, the production is crunchy and direct, almost as if the band had been recorded live in studio. There is an energy about this album that is extremely addicting. 

    Secondly, Gus Monsanto's vocals sound much improved, offering a great balance between melodic lines and a huskier tone that could be best compared to Axel Rudi Pell's vocalist Johnny Gioeli. 

    Thirdly, the songs are played with an energizing urgency, usually meandering between upper mid-tempo and speedy performances. The only songs that break out of this scheme are the epic title track ''Trinity'' that recalls Stratovarius' ''Destiny'' and might need a few spins to grow and the closing ballad ''Frozen Winter Heart'' that appropriately ends a strong album on a smooth note. 

    Fourthly, one has to note a stylistic change in comparison to the two predecessors. This record is so dynamic, fast and heavy that I wouldn't categorize it as power metal anymore. I would rather describe it as genuine heavy metal, recalling groups like Axel Rudi Pell, Rage and Stryper. This stylistic change is positive because Timo Tolkki finally started to try out something new instead of trying to carry on with a Stratovarius clone. 

    Fifthly, the musicianship on this record is really neat. Instead of performing his usual fast and melodic solos that make me think of crazy turkeys, Timo Tolkki employs a more heavy, gripping and grounded approach while still being recognizable as being Timo Tolkki which is quite an accomplishment. The bass guitar sounds pounding and heavy. The drums take no prisoners. The keyboards are employed in small doses which suits the record's heavier vibe.

    If you're looking for highlights, I would simply suggest listening to the entire album. However, if I had to pick one single song, I would go for ''Dreamchild''. The track is focused and heavy yet extremely catchy and memorable thanks to a strong chorus backed up by powerful choirs. If this song had been released as single a decade earlier, it would have shaken up the heavy and power metal scenes without a doubt.

    There isn't much wrong with this album aside of the fact, that the last two songs, despite being quite competent, don't really fit with the first seven songs. Obviously, the album's most important flaw is that it was released when the band had already split up. Had this been Revolution Renaissance's first release, than it would have been both a revolution and a renaissance for Timo Tolkki's career. Ironically, the band's greatest record by far is therefore also a missed occasion.

    Final rating: 92%

    Symfonia's In Paradisum (2011)

    Symfonia's In Paradisum (2011)

    They deliver what we expect and even more

    After almost a decade of instability, one of the most recognized and admired musicians of the power metal genre is back. Timo Tolkki's new baby is a super group as he has not come along all alone. André Matos from the enjoyable Angra is on the vocals, Mikko Härkin from the rather overrated Sonata Arctica plays on the second guitar, the German power metal legend Uli Kusch that has been in bands such as Helloween, Gamma Ray and Masterplan is on the drums and this is also a small Stratovarius reunion as Tolkki's old band mate Jari Kainulainen plays the bass guitar on this first record of the new band.

    Many people may be afraid that the band is playing boring stereotypical power metal but this record turns out to be the best one that all of the band members have done in the past years. Anyone that likes the Stratovarius era between "Fourth dimension" and "Destiny" and thought that the band has lost its strength afterwards will adore this record. Anybody that likes what a band like Edguy has done around its "Vain glory opera" or "Theater of salvation" records should buy this power metal album of the year until now. Somebody that prefers the first three albums of "Avantasia" to the recent ones may also risk one or two ears and give this worthwhile record a try. Anybody that is familiar with the early works of Sonata Arctica like "Ecliptica" and especially "Silence" has an album he might consider buying immediately. Could this album surprise or convince any critics of melodic happy power metal? Is this album an epic milestone? Is this record innovating or a true highlight of the career of the involved musicians? That's not the case either but anybody that may give this album a try exactly knows now what to expect. I sincerely hope that this band carries on and doesn't break apart too quickly. It's needless to say that their technical abilities and personal abilities are elevated enough to create truly entertaining power metal albums and I also feel that this band has the potential to be more creative and diversified in the future. The first album is just a sign to show the world that those guys are out there and to prove that they are back in action so they didn't want to take too many risks. But if one listens carefully, one discovers that the band has an interesting symphonic and progressive touch on which one could build something new. As a fan of the first three records of Stratovarius, I'm still waiting and hoping for something as courageous, fresh and diversified as "Twilight time" or "Dreamspace". I feel almost a little bit sad that Tolkki doesn't sing on this record as he has underrated abilities and a unique voice. Nevertheless, he as well as all the other band members does a solid and sometimes even surprisingly inspiring job on the record.

    Let’s talk about some of the songs now. The most outstanding track is without a doubt the majestic title track “In Paradisum” and though it reminds of some Stratovarius epics, it’s a positive fact that the song doesn’t remember too much anything one has heard before from this band. The song is unique, has some symphonic elements that remind of “Nightwish” or even “Therion” and an eerie and progressive middle part. There are many other high quality tracks to discover. “Come by the hills” has a strong bass line and reminds with its slow paced and unusual structure of the glorious “Dreamspace” era a part of the soft vocals. “I walk in neon” has also those mysterious and dark vibes that I liked about that particular album. “Alayna” goes even further and is an eerie and floating ballad filled with many progressive changes and doesn’t copy the usual kitsch tracks. This track is the hidden gem on the record. The other ballad “Don’t let me go” is full of acoustic guitars and smooth violins. It reminds a lot of “Celestial dream” with some modern electro sounds in the background. It’s a perfect and peaceful way to close an album. “Pilgrim road” has a strong folk metal touch and could have been a song from “Elvenking”. The electronic elements contrast the folk sounds and create a rather interesting experiment even if the vocals are a little bit too cheesy. “Rhapsody in black” has a riff sounding like “I was made for loving you” by KISS but is otherwise a half ballad with chilling acoustic guitars that sounds really relaxing.  

    Even if there are a few predictable songs like the typical signature riff shredding of the opener “Fields of Avalon” or the comparable “Forevermore” as well the slightly harder and darker “Santiago”, the five stars show us that they still have some ideas and something to say. Ten years ago this record would have earned a worldwide attention and success. Nowadays, it’s simply a traditional but strong power metal album that any fan of the genre will adore.

    Final rating: 78%

    Timo Tolkki's Avalon's The Land of New Hope (2013)

    Timo Tolkki's Avalon's The Land of New Hope (2013)

    The genius replaced the fool again

    Let’s admit that the idea to create another metal opera project isn’t all too original in times when projects like Avantasia happen to be more successful than ever. The fact that this record only appeared a few weeks after the sixth Avantasia output and that this record even features quite similar guest musicians and singers isn’t a coincidence as well. The European power metal mastermind and signature guitarist Timo Tolkki has though gone through hard times after his chaotic departure from Stratovarius, his short-lived new project Revolution Renaissance and the personal disaster of the Symfonia super-group and it’s great to have him back in form. Initially, Timo Tolkki only wanted to release a new solo record entitled “Classical Variations 2: Credo” that would have followed his first studio record back in 1994 but he canceled his PledgeMusic campaign to work on and eventually put out what we have here. This being said, I still hope for an eventual release of his solo record.

    “The Land Of New Hope” might not have the most original concept even though the story itself is clearly superior to the latest Avantasia concepts and lyrics in my opinion. The fantasy and science-fiction lyrics fit much more to the musical style than the sometimes too emotionally driven lyrics by Tobias Sammet’s project. On the other side, this new record is clearly Timo Tolkki’s strongest release since the commercially successful power metal hit album “Infinite” he released back in the year 2000 with Stratovarius. This record goes back to the basics and delivers typical European power metal with a few symphonic metal elements. Let’s cite the gripping and powerful opener “Avalanche Anthem”, the emotional, fast and highly melodic “To The Edge Of The World” with its slight Dream Theater touch and “The Magic Of The Night” that reminds me of a track in the key of Stratovarius’ “Hunting High And Low” single thirteen years ago as typical genre highlights that fans are going to adore and haters are going to criticize. The usual symphonic ballad comes along with “I’ll Sing You Home” but it’s not as boring and commercial as the last Avantasia ballads and reminds me rather of the Stratovarius track “Mother Gaia”. The true highlight of this release comes with the closing epic title track “The Land Of New Hope” that has intriguing arrangements reminding me of Helloween’s legendary “Keeper Of The Seven Keys” epic. This song is all European power metal is about and guest singer Michael Kiske definitely delivers an outstanding job on this amazing album closer. Despite its length, this track never gets boring and is easily the best song on here.

    That being said, the guest musicians are very well chosen for this record. Instead of adding too many cooks that spoil the broth, Timo Tolkki invited only six singers plus a soprano vocalist. These singers really add the cherry on the cake and put the essential enthusiasm, power and spirit into the solid arrangements. Let’s cite the powerful rocking vocals of Rob Rock who is involved in bands such as Impellitteri and who sounds a little bit like Jorn on the Avantasia releases. One must also point out the grounded, powerful and quite variable vocals of Amaranthe singer Elize Ryd. This Swedish powerhouse is one of the best female singers in the metal scene and should become the next big thing as well. I had heard a lot of positive comments on her before but I didn’t expect her to be that enthusiastic and technically skilled as she appears to be on this record. I will surely take a closer look at her career by now. Michael Kiske only appears on the closing title track but he easily delivers his very best vocal duties since the golden age of Helloween back in the late eighties. He doesn’t seem to have lost anything of his impressive vocal range in the last twenty-five years and his vocals still send shivers down my spine. Other singers are Sharon den Adel of Within Temptation, Russell Allen of Symphony X and Tony Kakko of Sonata Arctica. They deliver solid jobs but can’t keep up with the other three ones. Let’s not forget about the musicians who are all big names of the power metal scene as well. We get drummer Alex Holzwarth of Rhapsody Of Fire as well as three keyboarders in form of Mikko Härkin of Cain's Offering and who has already been part of bands like Sonata Arctica, Stratovarius keyboarder Jens Johansson and finally Derek Sherinian who is currently involved in the band of Billy Idol and who has already been a member of Dream Theater. As you can see, there was a lot of quality personal involved on this project and there are two more records to come that should complete what is supposed to become a trilogy. 

    In the end, this release doesn’t reinvent the genre and somewhat jumps on the bandwagon but it’s a truly well-crafted European power metal release that reminds you of many classic songs and records that have been written in the last three decades. This release has an interesting background story, a beautiful cover artwork, a very good production, a clear and coherent guiding and a bunch of highly talented guest singers who really make this record stand out. Genre fans should definitely get this release because of its surprisingly great quality. Anybody else can skip it because this release doesn’t offer anything really new.

    Final rating: 82%

    Ring of Fire's Battle of Leningrad (2014)

    Ring of Fire's Battle of Leningrad (2014)

    Enjoyable to listen to but a missed occasion

    Ring of Fire is a progressive power metal all-star band supported by the Italian label Frontiers Records. There are three elements that got me interested in the group's first release in ten years. First and foremost, the title Battle of Leningrad evokes strong feelings and memories. I have visited Saint Petersburg as a teenager and still think it's the most beautiful city in the world. On my trip, I had the occasion to visit the Monument to Heroic Defenders of Leningrad which is dedicated to those who perished during the city's siege that lasted almost three years and caused about two million casualties among about three milion citizens. If you add the fallen soldiers on both sides, the siege of Leningrad even caused above five million casualties. I was curious how Ring of Fire would deal with such a gloomy topic that deserves more attention than it gets in our history classes. Secondly, being a progressive power metal enthusiast, I was curious to hear how the five renowned musicians would manage to cooperate and complement their individual skills. When such a project comes to life, it can become an exceptional showcase of individual skills in an even stronger group context but it can also become a disjointed effort with five individualists who don't develop any chemistry and fail to write coherent songs respecting the ambitious lyrical topic. Thirdly, I have followed Timo Tolkki's career for years and I was curious to see what he could bring to the band. The surprising element is that he didn't perform as the band's guitarist or singer but as the group's new bassist which is quite unusual. I know that Timo Tolkki has both released some of power metal's greatest and worst records and his eclectic unpredictability makes him more interesting than any other performer in this genre.

    Let's get to the point now. Battle of Leningrad is a good but not a great album. On the positive side, three fifths of the band manage to showcase their exceptional skills. The melodic vocals are emotional, gripping and variable which means that they do the lyrical concept justice. The melodic guitar play finds the right balance between uplifting power metal riffing and ambitious progressive metal solos. The keyboards are also very dominant and often add an epic and melodic touch to the different tracks. The songwriting is also rather consistent, focusing on overall shorter tracks with strong choruses instead of losing themselves in endless instrumental passages. The lyrical concept is interesting as well. The best song on the record is the epic title track that develops a haunting atmosphere due to more atmospheric musicianship, epic vocal efforts and short but precise lyrics characterizing the horrors of war.

    However, the record also has several flaws. The drum play remains very unspectacular and the bass guitar is mostly inaudible apart of a few select exceptions that feel out of place. Even though the tracks are catchy and focused, I'm missing a certain atmospheric depth that does the gloomy topic justice. Bands such as Iron Maiden manage to bring the horrors of war to life in a melodic context but Ring of Fire are only scratching the surface in my book. The production isn't terrible but could be better. The keyboards are sometimes too abrupt and loud which makes them sound artificial and out of place. The bass guitar is surprisingly loud in the opener ''Mother Russia'' but buried in the mix throughout the rest of the album. The drums sound generic and even lifeless. This album could have made a much better impression with a more organic production. 

    Even though Battle of Leningrad is a good album and will end up pleasing progressive power metal fans, it's ultimately a missed occasion. The lyrical concept would have deserved a more profound atmosphere and better conceptual approach with more storytelling and maybe even different singers playing different roles. Ring of Fire's collaborative effort only scratches the topic's surface. It's an interesting introduction to the topic but fails to go in depth and detail. The musicianship is great however and the project sounds like an actuial band and not the joint efforts of five skilled individualists thanks to concise songwriting and numerous melodic and memorable passages. Timo Tolkki's efforts are though somewhat underwhelming. His bass guitar play is buried in the mix and his productional skills are only average at best for this release. Despite only fulfilling one out of three goals that I was initially interested in, Ring of Fire's Battle of Leningrad is still enjoyable to listen to but it could have been much more than just that.

    Final rating: 65%

    Allen - Lande's The Great Divide (2014)

    Allen - Lande's The Great Divide (2014)

    Laid back melodic rock majesty by Timo Tolkki

    Many fans were worried when they got to know that the project involving Symphony X and Adrenaline Mob singer Russell Allen as well as vocalist Jorn Lande from Avantasia and Masterplan fame among others would see an important line-up change four years after the third and last release. Previous song writer, bassist, guitarist and keyboardist Magnus Karlsson who is also known for his work in Primal Fear was in fact replaced by Timo Tolkki, one of the most iconic but also most inconsistent musicians of the European power metal scene who is known for his works with Stratovarius and Timo Tolkki’s Avalon among others. Since Timo Tolkki had left Stratovarius, he had released a whole lot of controversially discussed and mostly negatively received releases under his own solo banner, during the Revolution Renaissance era, within the short-lived Symfonia project, as mastermind of the metal opera project Timo Tolkki’s Avalon and recently as bassist in the progressive all-star band Ring of Fire. I have always followed Timo Tolkki’s career with much interest because he wrote not only some of the worst disasterpieces of its genre (“Angels of the Apocalypse” and “Elements, Part I”) but some of the very best European power metal albums ever recorded (“Dreamspace” and “Visions”). I’m relieved to tell you that the new Allen/Lande release “The Great Divide” is one of Timo Tolkki’s very best releases. It even beats the solid “The Land of New Hope” as well as “In Paradisum” and may be Timo Tolkki’s best album since Stratovarius’ “Infinite”. In addition to this, this release is also a career highlight for both vocalists and especially Jorn Lande who had released exchangeable quantity instead of convincing quality material over the past few years.

    “The Great Divide” is a surprisingly calm album and almost all tracks on here are mid-tempo songs at best. Another surprise is that Timo Tolkki’s didn’t include any of his fast-paced signature guitar soli that always remember me of gobbling turkeys. His soloing is slower and therefore more epic and progressive. The overall atmosphere of the album is rather epic, intellectual and progressive. The instrumental section plays in a soft but precise way and is really helpful to the overall atmosphere. The guitar work varies from simple melodic riffs to beautiful melodic mid-tempo soli. The keyboard is probably the most outstanding instrument on the album. It’s always present and still not overused. The record always comes around with dreamy classical and modern orchestrations or melancholic piano melodies at the right moments. Massive background vocals and powerful choruses in almost all songs make both singers stand out. Sometimes it’s still hard to decipher the two singers for me but their performances are generally more distinctive than in the past and they perform very well apart of this.

    The catchiest power metal songs on here are first of all definitely the melodic and powerful opener “Come and Dream With Me” that comes around with amazing guitar melodies that will be stuck on your mind for a very long time from first contact on. “Dream About Tomorrow” is the only up-tempo track with heavier riffs and an incredible vocal performance by Jorn Lande that sends shivers down my spine. The song is completed with sophisticated organ sounds and a liberating guitar solo. Every fan of European power metal should worship this song. It’s definitely among the very best genre tracks released this year and pretty much tied with HammerFall’s “Hector’s Hymn”, Edguy’s “Sabre & Torch” and Lord Symphony’s “Mirror”.

    Many songs on the album like “Hymn to the Fallen” and “Reaching for the Stars” have a melodic AOR touch. They really breathe the spirit of laid-back hard rock music of the eighties from bands like Dokken, Journey or Whitesnake. Even the infamous “Stronger Than Ever” release by Digger which I happened to like a lot comes to my mind when I listen to this album.

    One of the best songs on here is the atmospheric and epic title track “The Great Divide”. Despite being the slowest song on an already rather slow-paced release, this track fascinates with the mixture of soothing vocals from both singers and inspired dreamy guitar melodies. It’s probably the most courageous and progressive song ever released by the project but this is still music with force and soul. 

    Fans of Russell Allen, Jorn Lande or Timo Tolkki can’t get around this release. Those who love melodic progressive power metal should also give this album a few spins and let it grow before judging it too quickly. If you like AOR or epic melodic rock from the eighties you might even like this release more. In a weird way, this album features several trademarks from the former bands of the involved musicians and still sounds different from any other genre release this year due to its positively sophisticated and intellectual approach. In the end, it all comes down to personal tastes and if you prefer calm, epic and progressive sounds as on this record over more traditional European power metal as on the three predecessors. For me, the combination Allen, Lande and Tolkki works extremely well and I don’t miss Magnus Karlsson’s input at all but it may be a very different thing for somebody else. Make up your mind about this record, give it several spins and purchase it if you like it enough.

    Final rating: 82%

    Chaos Magic's Chaos Magic (2015) Chaos Magic's Chaos Magic (2015)

     Occasional smooth magic but no chaos

     There aren't many things Timo Tolkki hasn't tried out yet and he has added something completely new to his extensive curriculum vitae with this female-fronted symphonic power metal project around himself, his colleague Jami Huovinen on drums and Chilean singer Caterina Nix on vocals. Chaos Magic's first self-titled effort focuses on modern industrial soundscapes and symphonic layers as backdrop for Caterina Nix's emotional, melodic and soothing vocals. Tolkki plays bass, guitar and keyboard on this record but his most important participation might be as producer and songwriter because this album was made to help Caterina Nix get her international breakthrough and not to offer Timo Tolkki another occasion to show off his unique skills which is quite humble and respectable. If we consider the fact that both artists met by chance years ago and that Tolkki remembered the female rookie vocalist and decided to support her career shows how special this collaboration is.

    Sadly, just like so many other of Timo Tolkki's recent outputs, Chaos Magic's debut didn't get much attention or praise. On one side, this is regrettable because Tolkki tried out something completely new, because Caterina Nix is a truly skilled vocalist and because much less talented female-fronted metal bands like Battle Beast, Beyond the Black and Blues Pills get way too much credit. On the other side, while being profesionally crafted with a decent production, one has to admit that Chaos Magic misses a unique touch to really stand out. The record recalls early Within Temptation and mostly focuses on smooth ballads and soothing half ballads with only a few faster and heavier songs at the very beginning and the very end of the record. Chaos Magic is a record that is enjoyable listening to but you won't remember one single song from this output a few days after you have listened to it. Chaos Magic is a decent symphonic metal release but ultimately faceless and comes at least one and a half decades too late to have any significant impact. This type of music has been performed over and over again by bands such as Epica over the past few years and they generally did a better job in a more creative songwriting department.

    Fans of Timo Tolkki's regular power metal album don't need to check out Chaos Magic's debut effort because it's very smooth and entirely focused upon Caterina Nix' vocals. If you like smooth symphonic metal with a few minor electronic elements, you should dig this record though. If you have lost or sold your old Within Temptation records but feel nostalgic for some reason, Chaos Magic also offers what you need. If you like female metal singers or aspire to become a singer as well, you could learn a couple of things from this release as well. Chaos Magic is good for what it is, no more, no less.

    Final rating: 60%

    Ten songs that have defined Timo Tolkki's career

    Stratovarius - Darkness (1989)

    Stratovarius - Madness Strikes at Midnight (1992)

    Stratovarius - Fourth Reich (1994)

    Avantasia - The Tower (2001)

    Revolution Renaissance - Dreamchild (2010)

    Symfonia - In Paradisum (2011)

    Timo Tolkki's Avalon - The Land of New Hope (2013)

    Ring of Fire - Battle of Leningrad (2014)

    Allen - Lande - The Great Divide (2014)

    Chaos Magic - I'm Alive (2015)

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  • France Gall (1947 - 2018)

    Mesdames et Messieurs,

    La semaine passée, une des plus grandes chansonnières françaises s'est éteinte. France Gall a eu une carrière remarquable dès l'âge de seize ans et elle n'avait rien perdu de son charme au cours des quatre décennies qui ont suivi. Je me souviens que j'ai enseigné la belle chanson ''Ella, elle l'a'' à deux élèves dans le cadre de cours de récupération de français quand j'avais dix-huit ans. Voici donc quelques-unes de ses meilleures chansons. France Gall continuera d'exister à travers sa musique intemporelle.

    Ne sois pas si bête (1963) 

    Poupée de cire, poupée de son (1965) 

    Les Sucettes (1966) 

    La déclaration d'amour (1974) 

    Donner pour donner (1980) 

    Ella, elle l'a (1987) 

    La seule chose qui compte (2004) 

    Bonus: Polichinelle (reprise de Therion)

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  • Chris Tsangarides (1956 - 2018)

    Ladies and gentlemen!

    British Grammy-nominated sound engineer Christopher Andrew Tsangarides produced some of the best rock and metal records, especially in the eighties and nineties. He also worked with numerous alternative and pop artists such as Tom Jones, Depeche Mode and The Tragically Hip. He died of pneumonia and heart failure at age sixty-one last week. I would like to introduce you to some of the greatest songs he produced. This legendary producer shall not be forgotten.

    Joy Sarney's ''Naughty, Naughty, Naughty'' (1977) 

    Anvil's ''Metal on Metal'' (1982) 

    Thin Lizzy's ''Cold Sweat'' (1983) 

    Black Sabbath's ''The Shining'' (1987) 

    Anthem's ''Gypsy Ways (Win, Lose or Draw)'' (1988)

    King Diamond's ''Sleepless Nights'' (1989)

    Judas Priest's ''Painkiller (1990)

    Helloween's ''Kids of the Century'' (1991) 

    Loudness' ''Electric Kisses'' (1994) 

    Overkill's ''Battle'' (1996)

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