• Cea Serin - The Vibrant Sound of Bliss and Decay (2014)

    Cea Serin is a criminally unknown and underrated American progressive metal band that just released its second full length album, The Vibrant Sound Of Bliss And Decay, ten years after its first output entitled …Where Memories Combine. Along with underrated American progressive metal veterans Leviathan, Cea Serin has managed to deliver a progressive metal highlight for the year. Ever since I listened to the entire release for the first time, I haven’t been able to stop listening to this album over and over again.

    The band from Baton Rouge, Louisiana opens its new release with the straight and technical “Holy Mother”, which surprises with heavy riffs instead of a lengthy introduction. The vocals are a little bit hard to digest in the beginning, as they have an angry tone before the second vocalist adds a smoother touch. While the rougher vocals remind me of Iced Earth, the more cleaner parts remind me of a band like Edguy. Both singers contribute to a gripping chorus, as the band always manages to come around with a few catchy refrains within the complex song structures. The middle part of the song takes its time to allow the different instruments to shine. I especially like the rhythmic bass guitar play and the well-used keyboard sounds. The instrumental portions make me think of the best moments from bands like Dream Theater and Symphony X in the nineties. Yes, it’s that great.

    Up next is “The Illumination Mask”, which starts with the closing melodies of the opener and enters some futuristic keyboard sounds, as well as vocal samples that seem to be taken from an old movie. The song immediately builds up a bleak and mysterious atmosphere and is completely different from the up-tempo opener. After the gripping introduction, it evolves into a technically stunning power metal song. There are a few heavier riffs, but also a number of melodic passages on a constantly challenging technical level. The glorious chorus is everything that a power metal fan could dream of. After the chorus comes a calmer and atmospheric passage that sends shivers down my spine, and is just short enough to perfectly fit in and keep the listener’s attention high. If the opening track was very good, then this song is truly excellent. If the album has a “hit”, then it’s this incredibly ferocious outburst. The track is already eight minutes long, but I wish it would never end.

    The middle of the album is dedicated to the calm and elegant ballad “Ice”. The soaring vocals are performed with passion while the instrumental part convinces with soft jazz influences, acoustic guitars, a highly diversified stripped-down percussion section, and dreamy keyboard sounds that invite the listener to relax. This is easily the best progressive rock ballad I have heard in years. This track is pure genius, but for completely different reasons than the second.

    “The Victim Cult” is a varied progressive metal song that delivers with a mixture of heavier riffs and harsher vocals on one side, and soothing vocals and passionate melodies on the other. Vocal samples and Middle Eastern folk music add more depth to an already brilliant track that truly shines in its instrumental parts, where playful percussion, vivid bass guitar, and melodic guitar solos meet.

    The band ends the album with a twenty-minute long progressive rock epic entitled “What Falls Away”, which opens with meaningful and melancholic piano that is soon joined by soothing string samples. The song really takes its time to calmly evolve step by step over the first five minutes. Yet more vocal samples add another atmospheric dimension to the song before the track gets a little heavier and even more emotional after the five-minute mark. Heavier riffs, guitar solos, tight bass play and drumming meet beautifully laid-back piano and calm vocals in an outburst of emotions and images. The song continues to get a little bit heavier, darker, and more technical from an instrumental point of view after the seven-minute mark. Still, the band surprises with lounge and jazz sounds as well as with grounded female vocals here and there that lend an appeasing tone to this more vivid section. After a while the track goes back to Spanish acoustic guitar sounds and calm percussion before a futuristic keyboard solo joins in to lead the listener back to the heavier and more hectic part of the song. “What Falls Away” ends with a vivid finish before looping back to its calmer opening minutes. Despite its long running time, this song never feels redundant, and should be considered a modern progressive metal milestone, just as should the entire album. The description progressive should be written in bold and capital letters to describe this closing track in particular. Let’s say it this way: If Mike Oldfield was a metal musician, this would be one of the very best songs of his career. It’s some kind of “Tubular Bells” or “Music from the Balkony” (from the highly underrated progressive rock masterpiece “Heaven’s Open” by the way) for contemporary metal fans.

    It’s a pleasure to hear several outstanding bands from the American underground stealing the crown from established acts like Dream Theater these days. It’s also a pleasure to support these bands and to encourage them to carry on and surpass themselves repeatedly. In my humble opinion, progressive metal fans just can’t get away with not hearing Cea Serin this year. Before you forget about this record, do yourself a favour and listen to the entire album on Bandcamp.

    Originally written for Black Wind Metal

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  • Metallica - Load (1996)

    Five years after a repetitive and dull but commercially successful groove metal release in the form of "Metallica", the same band comes around with a headless and boring but once again well selling successor entitled "Load". At least Metallica didn't try to copy the sound of the famous predecessor, but to progress and try out new things. Thrash and groove metal elements are almost completely absent on this album. The band headed for a more blues, hard and southern rock influenced sound. This record also includes the first two Metallica songs that feature no guitar solo at all. To underline its new approach, the band went even further and presented a new and ordinary looking new logo and came around with a controversial cover artwork which consists of a mixture of bovine blood and human semen pressed between two sheets of plexiglass. All these somewhat radical changes speak for some sort of midlife crisis of the band and a desperate try to reinvent themselves after the overwhelming success of the past years. Old school fans were going to hate this album anyway but from the artist's point of view, this brave new direction could have brought some fresh air to the band in a time where relationships between the members already started to decrease. While "Reload" sounded surprisingly liberating, open-minded and structured with its southern rock influenced style, "Load" suffers from an directionless, unimpressive and weak song writing. The album is not only completely overloaded with a running time of seventy-nine minutes but many songs are at least two or three minutes too long and turn out being either endlessly plodding or losing the momentum of the few good ideas present on this release. In fact, there isn't one single track on here that completely pleases me. The better songs on the album have a few creative ideas in form of some atmospheric tones, a few great guitar licks, riffs or solos or some newly introspective lyrics but there isn't one single song without any obvious flaws.

    Among the better tracks on the record is first of all the joyous yet mean opening rocker "Ain't My Bitch" that features an energizing rhythm section and a great blues rock inspired guitar solo. On the other side, the track is slightly too long for being a straight opener, the vocal performance sounds humorously exaggerated and the lyrics are quite vapid as well. Five years earlier, this track would have been a bonus track for a single at best and now it's one of the few solid tracks on the entire album. The plodding "The House Jack Built" goes the other way around as the lyrics are quite interesting and the eerie vocal effects build up a particular atmosphere. The overtly experimental instrumental section with talkbox effects is though laughable at best and really pesky at worst. This song also drags on for far too long with its chugging riffs and pseudo-progressive sounds. "Until It Sleeps" was a quite courageous choice as a first single to represent this release as it has nothing to do at all with the band's past and also feels like a foreign body on this album. It's an alternative rock song with an eerie and hypnotizing atmosphere but which fails to truly develop from there. "Mama Said" is a laid back country ballad with acoustic guitars that develops a certain campfire atmosphere. What could have been a truly original track is harmed by an extremely drowsy chorus and annoyingly whiny lyrics.

    All other songs are not even worth mentioning because they sound invalidated, plodding and unspectacular. As they are all terrible, it doesn't make sense to point out any of those confusing, overlong and weak oddities. It really strikes me how the band succeeded most of its experiments on the consistent, energizing and entertaining "Reload" while "Load" is its complete antithesis and sounds inconsistent, directionless and plain boring. The songs on here are not as bad as several tracks on the oddball that was "Lulu" but even this horrible project still had two or three entirely decent tracks which isn't the case for this album as it sounds really unimpressive as a whole. Between a record that has a few great tracks and many truly horrible songs and filler compilation that leaves you completely cold, it's actually quite tough to judge what is worse and that's why my final rating of this failure here could have been even lower than it actually is. In the end, I would still slightly prefer this record to "Lulu" but it's a close run. This album was a disappointment when it was initially released back in the days and in comparison to its much better twin album "Reload", this record didn't age well and didn't grow on me at all. I would simply suggest you to just avoid this record at all costs if you're not a diehard collector with too much money to waste.

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  • Metallica - ReLoad (1997)

    Even though the experimental rock album "ReLoad" consists of leftovers from the controversial and inconsistent "Load" release, I actually prefer this record to the predecessor. This album may be a lot of hit and miss but it has an uncompromising and liberating rock'n roll spirit that suits the band much better than the extremely forced commercial groove metal release "Metallica" and the failed southern rock output "Load" that could never meet the elevated expectations related to the brand name Metallica. From the beginning on, it was clear that this album was sort of a bonus record and more of a compilation than an actual attempt to hit the charts even if it ended up peaking the hit lists all around the world. Without any commercial or stylistical boundaries, this album sounds energizing, experimental and honestly grounded. Especially the vocals are performed with a fresh dose of passion and the passionate hard rock guitar sounds adds a new face to the band. This is what makes this record's charm. If you are looking for a thrash metal record, you're at the wrong address but if you like different rock subgenres and want to hear a band that actually does what it really wants, you could appreciate this album.

    It's obvious that an album filled with thirteen tracks and a running time of more than seventy-six minutes includes a few fillers. These songs are either groove metal tracks or southern hard rock tunes. The monotonous "Devil's Dance" has a few catchy hooks but is musically forgettable and sounds like slow paced groove metal. The riffs sound uninspired, the bass guitar doesn't sound distinctive enough and the drumming is so simplistic one gets the impression that Lars Ulrich is playing with a broken arm and a broken leg. In my opinion, this is by far the worst song on the album. "Bad Seed" sounds quite similar but has more speed, angrier vocals and a few vocal samples that add some diversity and all these elements keep the track from failing. It's nothing extraordinary but a cool tune to listen to from time to time. "Prince Charming" is also among the songs situated somewhere between filler material and average tracks. The hard rock guitar sounds and the motivated vocals save an otherwise boring song. Among the more southern or hard rock driven songs, "Attitude" is probably the most energizing and speediest track. Once again, it's nothing exceptional and more of a filler but it works perfectly in the context of the album. Among the four least impressive songs, it's clearly the best.

    The other songs are quite eclectic and experimental and it's a matter of personal taste if you like this kind of music or not. Apart of the endlessly plodding and somewhat headless closer "Fixxxer", I do like all of them. My personal standouts are first of all the catchy rocker and yet mysteriously spiritual "The Memory Remains" with its unusual and unique backing and guest vocals. Up next is "The Unforgiven II" which is by far the best part of the trilogy in my opinion. It's inspired by country music or a western soundtrack and has really unique atmosphere. The versatile, masculine and emotionally driven vocals are really epic in my opinion. The dark, hypnotizing and almost gothic-driven "Where the Wild Things Are" is really dragging me into a floating atmosphere and can be described as hidden gem and unexpected grower. It's the kind of eerie song I would have rather expected from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds but the track has a clear concept, a lot of soul and doesn't sound like anything one has heard from Metallica before or ever after. My last personal highlight is the controversially discussed "Low Man's Lyrics". I adore the decent and original use of violin and especially hurdy gurdy on this laid back ballad. Once again, the vocals are really outstanding as Hetfield varies from fragile and melodic parts to angrier and rawer passages. The song is not only epic and an emotional roller coaster ride like "The Unforgiven II" but also includes simple but great melodies and introspective lyrics. Both ballads are in my opinion among the best the band ever made and are much more unique than other songs of the same kind.

    In the end, I like this record's stripped down, honest and yet eclectic approach and I never get bored of it. Many metal bands experimented back in the days and tried to reinvent themselves. Metallica's attempt at doing so sounds much more convincing to me than anything released by Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer at the same time for example. I can though also understand that metal fans have problems to open up to such a long and at times plodding release. If the band had released the very best songs of this album with the few great cuts from "Load" as one experimental southern rock release with a clear guiding line, I guess its perception would be better nowadays. I think that this album is somewhat underestimated for what it is. Maybe it's time for some fans to give this album a new try after all these years of denial. Personally, I really adore two-thirds of the album while the four fillers and the closing oddball are still really acceptable tunes on average which explains my favorable final rating.

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  • Iron Maiden - Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988)

    “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” is considered by many as the last effort in a streak of experimental, genre-defining and powerful heavy metal releases in the eighties by Iron Maiden. The record received overwhelming reviews from both fans and professional critics and each time the album grows five years older, the rock media are dedicating special contributions to this album. Recently, Iron Maiden got also caught by euphoric nostalgia and went on a new “Maiden England” style tour centered on songs from this record. Almost nobody really seems to disagree that this is a groundbreaking release.

    Well, I do. Believe me, as a long-time fan of Iron Maiden it’s quite tough for me to criticize this band for one of its most influential releases. Usually, I agree with both professional experts and fans from all around the world that records like “The Number of the Beast”, “Powerslave” and “Somewhere in Time” are untouchable masterpieces that revolutionized an entire genre but I have to disagree on this one.

    Let’s start with the positive things first. The record has somewhat accidentally become a conceptual release. The lyrics have a certain guiding line, include interesting narrative elements and are still open for interpretation. The lyrics work well as a whole but also as single songs. The album has a constantly progressive and smooth atmosphere characterized by a distinctive mellower production, the use of guitar synths and even keyboards and longer tracks with laid-back instrumental parts in form of both introductions and soli. One can really talk about a coherent and focused song writing effort.

    There is no doubt that this album also includes a few really outstanding songs. First off, there is the brilliant “Infinite Dreams” which is almost a perfect definition of a melodic progressive metal tune. It has soaring melodies, an emotional yet calm and harmonious vocal performance, meaningful and poetic lyrics, smooth changes of style including both really laid-back melodies and a few faster parts grabbing your attention and it doesn’t include any unnecessary breaks or soli. Objectively said, this is probably one of the very best songs of both its new genre and Iron Maiden in general. 

    Let me point out another amazing tune that goes in a really different direction. “The Evil That Men Do” is an obvious single choice because of its catchy and melodic chorus but the song offers more than just this. From the first seconds on, the melodic guitar tone builds up a chilling atmosphere. Despite its melancholic touch, the track has a pleasant pace with great riffs, a vividly pumping bass guitar and a tight drumming. The vocals are diversified and performed with passion as they vary from darker verses with narrative parts and a meaner tone to liberating and high-pitched but never annoying parts in the pre-chorus and chorus. The whole song sounds really balanced and focused but is still one of the most diversified and progressive singles ever written by the band. 

    As I said before, there is also the negative side of this release which sadly dominates over the positive aspects. First of all, the production is too mellow for a metal release in my opinion. It’s surely an interesting and courageous experiment to opt for a different mastering but the final result sometimes lacks dynamics in my opinion. In addition to this, the record is overall too fluffy and really looses my attention in the second half.

    Let’s give a few examples that elaborate on my controversial point of view. First off, there is the title track, the epic ten-minute heart and soul of this release. This is one of the major reasons why this album is less spectacular than its two predecessors in my opinion. The song is atmospheric and starts very well but goes downhill from there. The instrumental part at the end of the record is repetitive and unspectacular as it drags on for far too long as if the band had absolutely wanted to include a song near the ten-minute mark on the album. The guitar soli are not really emotional or unique enough to convince and one expects something to come after all the soloing but the song simply ends at a certain point. The circle never closes and the track also fails to end with a bang. It could have also ended three minutes earlier or three minutes later and it wouldn’t have made any difference and that’s why the end of the track sounds redundant to me. I also think that the calmer break of the song tries a little bit too obviously to copy the break in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” which is maybe the most ambitious epic ever written by the band. It's actually the first time the band is directly copying itself which is never a good sign for the creative longevity of a group of artists. Not only that the band has been there before and doesn’t introduce anything new to the listener, the narrative section in this part is a lot less atmospheric than in the original epic that was brilliantly cinematic as the listener could almost feel as if he was on board of a doomed ship. This effect doesn’t work on the title track here as it doesn’t make me feel anything. A last negative point of this song is obviously the chorus of the track. Not only that such a progressive tune wouldn’t have requested a chorus but in this case it simply consists of hectically and repetitively singing the name of the track followed by forced sing along parts to fill the emptiness. I always felt as if the band had run out of ideas for this song after five minutes or so but artificially stretched this track to the double. 

    Another song I dislike for completely different reasons on the record is the single “Can I Play With Madness” that has neither the atmosphere nor the diversity of “The Evil That Men Do” for example. It’s an exchangeable and forcedly joyous melodic rock tune that aims for commercial success and airplay which simply doesn’t fit to what Iron Maiden has always stood for. The chorus is not only filled with childish melodies but also dull and unimaginative from a lyrical point of view. In this form, it feels like a foreign body on an otherwise elaborated and progressive rock inspired terrain. Even as an outstanding exception, this song doesn’t work because it even fails in what it tries to be. Several other hard rock and heavy metal acts had made similar guitar synth and keyboard driven singles that worked a lot better, for example the British colleagues from Judas Priest.

    The closing "Only the Good Die Young" tries to go back to the average opener "Moonchild" which is an interesting idea for a conceptual release. The problem is that both songs sound too similar to stand out on such a short release. Another thing that really bothers me is that this track has by far the mellowest production on the album. The track doesn't develop any pace and sounds like an average AOR song of its time that could also come from Dokken, Foreigner or Whitesnake. The song sounds way too tame and unspectacular to close a heavy metal record with. It's not a great and moving ballad either which would be acceptable. No, it's simply one of the most uninspired songs in the career of this band. Instead of ending the album with emotion or power, the song sounds like a confusing mixture of commercial melodic rock and conceptual progressive rock. This closer is though not unique and catchy enough to convince as melodic rock track and it's not original or profound enough to work as a progressive rock track. This song is caught somewhere in a no-man's-land in between both genres and goes straight nowhere.

    The worst thing on this album is though the exchangeable "The Prophecy". I don't know how many times I've listened to this song in my life but it simply fails to stay on my mind. Even the worst fillers from later Iron Maiden records have a certain something that makes them stand out, be it a catchy chorus, a gripping riff or at least a distinctive solo part. This song has none of these elements. It's a very faceless track. It's a useless filler. In my opinion a filler is even worse than a song that really sucks. A bad song manages at least to impress you in a negative way. This faceless filler doesn't even manage to do this. It's completely irrelevant and probably the most unspectacular song ever written by Iron Maiden. 

    All in all, this release has two really outstanding tracks that save this album, two good average tunes and four songs that vary between mediocre and utterly useless. I may give the band some credit for the courage that they tried to constantly develop the sound from the previous milestone record to an even mellower and slightly commcerial AOR inspired sound. I might also admit that this album has a certain guiding line in form of a slightly interesting intellectual concept. Apart of the shallow title track, Iron Maiden definitely tried to move on and create something completely new and unique at that time. Still, all these humble intentions can't compensate for a really fluffy and mellow execution that makes this release really hard to sit through for me. I didn't like this album at first contact when I first listened to it over nine years ago and it hasn't grown but probably even decreased in my perception since then. This album is not only a constant candidate for my bottom five records of Iron Maiden but also for my bottom five of the most overrated so-called classics in the history of heavy metal music. I can completely understand why this album was the beginning of the end for Iron Maiden as the band started to fall apart after this release and desperately tried to go back to a heavier and darker sound over the next few records because if the band had continued its journey towards even fluffier sounds, they would probably sound worse than Def Leppard today. If you like AOR or worship anything old school metal heads praise since this is a release from the eighties, you can give this release a spin and follow the masses. If you are looking for solid song writing without any lengths, the fierce energy one could usually expect from a legendary heavy metal band or different exciting approaches and ideas connected to a progressive metal release, you should rather go for Queensrÿche's "Operation: Mindcrime" which was released at the same time and which might have a similar concept but which turns out to be much better than this album from an emotional, intellectual, musical and even productional point of view.

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  • Power of Mirantic - The Conscience (2011)

    Power Of Mirantic is (now) an all-female symphonic power metal band from Surabaya, East Java in Indonesia which has released two solid full length records so far. On the first effort The Conscience, singer Dwi Fatmawati, lead guitarist Annisa Wulandari, and bassist Eva Safithri were supported by male musicians Putra Antono on guitars and Ikmal Mukti on drums. All members were in their early twenties back in 2011. This debut release is performed with a very unique passion and great musicianship despite poorer production and some mediocre tracks here and there.

    The largely instrumental opener and title features off-putting Asian islander-folk chants, emotional spoken word passages, and a massive use of artificial piano sounds and string sections. The cinematic opening becomes more metal when fast drums and beefy riffs kick in. Two minutes into the song, one realizes that one is dealing with a melodic power metal band and not some weird, experimental folk group. However, this is probably already the heaviest track on the record. As most Asian power metal bands, Power Of Mirantic are rather influenced by European power and symphonic metal. Instrumentally, an obvious influence is Nightwish, for example, while the vocals are probably overall closer to Edenbridge and Seraphim, as well as several pop and world music acts like Enigma, Loreena McKennitt, and Mike Oldfield.

    While the opening song has some interesting elements, it drags on for far too long, and “I Will Not Die Again” is the song that has to prove that this band is worth some attention. In fact, the second track is amongst the strongest songs of the album. Apart from the expectedly grand (if cheesy) orchestration, the fast riffs and drum play, the pumping mid-tempo bass work, and a number of harmonious guitar solos, I was surprised by several breaks in this complex track that headed for calmer and more reverent passages. The lead vocals don’t sound like most exchangeable female-fronted symphonic power metal acts, which feature high pitched operatic vocals, and give the band its own identity. As a matter of fact, while the band’s songwriting isn’t top notch, I have rarely heard such an enchanting voice with so much potential, and this somehow reduces all the obvious flaws that this debut release might have. I’m extremely curious to follow the future development of this gifted band and especially its outstanding singer.

    This entire album sounds very dreamy and peaceful without being boring and dull. The classic-souding keyboard orchestration, the melodic mid-tempo guitar, and the very feminine vocal performance meet enough powerful riffs and vivid drum play to build up a rather balanced sound, as seen in the perfectly entitled “Touch To Your Soul”.

    “Dream Of Love” comes around with calming sounds of the ocean, acoustic guitars, soft percussion, and soaring vocals that remind me of profound pop music of the eighties in the key of Sandra, for example. This song doesn’t have anything to do with metal music whatsoever, but it manages to touch my soul. This stripped-down piece of genius really manages to calm me, and makes me feel in harmony with the world. It’s a very soft song and yet so incredibly powerful. This is my secret highlight of the record, and I’m impressed that the band came around with such a refreshing change.

    If you are interested in more spiritual female-fronted symphonic power metal and don’t mind some calm orchestrations influenced by new age, pop, and world music in general, I can warmly recommend you Power Of Mirantic’s debut release The Conscience. Take a break from your challenging everyday life and get on an appeasing, exotic, and religious trip to Indonesia.

    Originally written for Black Wind Metal

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