• Equilibrium - Armageddon (2016)

    Equilibrium is a band that has gone through numerous changes since its foundation fifteen years ago. This includes a great deal of line-up changes but also an ideological shift towards more contemporary topics in the lyrics as opposed to the folk legends of yore, heavily dominating orchestral sounds above everything else compared to some more extreme metal inspired records in the early years and a balanced mixture between German and English lyrics while the first records only contained German lyrics. The quintet's new album ''Armageddon'' is light years away from some of the band's party anthems such as ''Met'', ''Die Affeninsel'' or even ''Wirtshaus Gaudi'' and offers more mature lyrics about mankind's negative impact on Mother Earth and an impending downfall of our species, hence the title Armageddon. Instrumentally, this record is clearly dominated by cinematic, dramatic and epic orchestral keyboard sounds. Keyboards were always important in this band but this time, they are really the centerpiece of this record. All other instruments and even the vocals have almost become subsidiary on this record. Still, this risky reorientation manages to work somehow. The orchestrations are truly majestic, the lyrical themes are intellectually inspiring and the apocalyptic atmosphere of this record is only increased by longer instrumental passages and numerous spoken word samples.

    The most representative tracks of Equilibrium's new direction are ''Sehnsucht'', ''Koyaaniskatsi'' and ''Eternal Destination''. The former two songs are two intense instrumental tunes with some cinematic spoken word passages about the dark sides of mankind. The latter tune is the epic conclusion of this record featuring dramatic orchestrations, gripping spoken word passages and sinister vocals that almost work as an additional instrument to increase the gripping atmosphere. The final lyrics of this album closer summarize the intended essence of the entire record and translate to: ''Pick up your last shard - Beyond the clouds awaits the light - Since you need your Earth - However Earth doesn't need you''. It's all about sharing and caring and how mankind needs to take care of Mother Earth to be allowed to stay there. This ecological topic and educational tone might sound too ambitious to some of you but the band treats the topic with a lot of detail, maturity and respect. Equilibrium delivers some food for though instead of the expected entertainment. That's why I could see that this record might be discussed controversially. Some fans might like this new album's intense depth while others could miss the playful and carefree side of the early years.

    As I said before, the keyboards and orchestrations along with the sound samples and lyrics are surprisingly strong and manage to carry the entire record on their own. However, one must admit that the guitar work is less spectacular than usual. The rhythm section is simply present without offering anything memorable. The death metal vocals sound somewhat limited in my book and are often outclassed by backing choirs as in the chorus of the inspiring album highlight ''Katharsis'' or in the epic ''Helden'' that could also come from a Neue Deutsche Härte group. I always preferred Helge Stang's intense blackened vocals over Robse's generic death metal growls but it becomes obvious on this album that a band as ambitious as Equilibrium should hire a more skilled singer who might add to the importance of the delivered message instead of hindering it which results in underused vocals and more and more instrumental passages. Basically, this strong record was conceived solely by band leader René Berthiaume who was responsible for lyrics, mixing, orchestrations, production, recording and rhythm guitar play on this release.

    In the end, I guess this release is Equilibrium's most ambitious yet most controversial to date. Even faithful fans shouldn't blindly purchase this album and check out the group's new ideology and sound before purchasing the final product. Personally, I'm positively surprised by the ambitious, diversified and intellectual use of majestic choirs and orchestrations, vivid keyboard sounds and atmospheric sound samples along with the contemporary, inspiring and meaningful lyrics. This album is one of the most positive surprises for me so far this year and the band's courageous concept deserves more attention and praise in my opinion. The group's risky reorientation worked perfectly for me.

    Final rating: 85%

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  • Vektor - Terminal Redux (2016)

    Vektor's third output ''Terminal Redux'' is quite a mixed bag. Overall, it's the band's worst release so far and yet it includes three of the very best songs they have ever written that really save the album at the end.

    The first six songs minus the short instrumental interlude all sound quite alike. The band offers blackened thrash metal with speedy riffs, distorted and dystopian guitar sounds, thunderous rhythm sections and hoarse vocals. This furious mixture works well for a song or two but not for six in a row. The tracks get repetitive, predictable and exhausting. Another issue is the length of several tunes. In certain cases, the band had used all its ideas in the first four or five minutes but stretches the tracks to the double. These tracks are losing momentum and end up being below average songs that waste a lot of potential. The genre and sound are coherent yet the usual creativity and emotionalism are missing.

    Just when I thought that the band was running out of ideas, they come around with an absolutely brilliant closing trio that saves this album. ''Pillars of Sand'' seems to start like a slow and mysterious tune but soon turns into a destructive space metal track that gets progressively faster and heavier. This track has a clearer structure and more coherent development than the songs before and that's why it sounds so efficient. This song feels like the most brutal tune on the album and should please any progressive extreme metal fan.

    ''Collapse'' on the other side is by far the calmest tune on the album. The guitar melodies are appeasing, harmonious and hypnotizing while the floating vocals sound very different from the other tracks and develop a mysterious atmosphere. This song feels like a psychedelic trip through space and never ends up feeling plodding despite a running time far beyond nine minutes. Vektor were always great when they decided to slow down to contrast the madness of their more generic tunes and this is especially true for this emotional highlight that is worth to be discovered over and over again. 

    Still, the closing epic ''Recharging the Void'' beats everything on this album in more than thirteen minutes of atmosphere, creativity and intensity. This is what a dystopian space opera should sound like. This track has more of a mid-tempo pace which makes it sound more balanced and less rushed. The heavy riffs and raw vocals feel even more intense at a smoother pace than at the speed of light. The middle section features female operatic voices and male clean vocals accompanied by a minimal use of rhythm instruments and enchanting guitar melodies. Here the band reaches the brilliance of bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Queen. This intense middle part leads into a stunning finish where beautiful melodies and epic soundscapes meet poignant extreme metal parts with ferocious riffs and unchained vocals. This fusion of two extremes is absolutely perfect. ''Recharging the Void'' is Vektor's opus magnum so far and establishes the band as the greatest song writers in the progressive extreme metal genre.

    In the end, Vektor save an otherwise extremely underwhelming record in extremis with three unequaled masterpieces that might as well be the best songs this band has written so far. This epic trio is worth purchasing this record alone. If you are looking for a constantly intriguing and technically appealing record with some science-fiction flair, do yourself a favor and listen to Unbeing's outstanding Ceres that might as well be the album of the year.

    Final verdict: 75%

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  • Running Wild - Rapid Foray (2016)

    Running Wild was once a legendary band that had developed a unique sound and style within the metal scene. This group has become an artificial, cringe-worthy and uninspired solo project that has passed its zenith more than two decades ago. The band has only released barely acceptable and plain horrible records for more than one and a half decades now. People thought that band leader Rolf Kasparek had finally understood the signs when he put his band to an end towards the end of the last decade but he has since revived the band and released two overall rather underwhelming records. Rapid Foray follows that tradition. This record isn’t as abominable as the uninspired slapstick effort Resilient but it doesn’t have the diversity, energy and flow of Shadowmaker. Dear fans, please stop living in the past and don’t make yourselves sad by buying this underperforming effort. By supporting this group and buying this album, you actively and progressively help a confused veteran destroying the legacy of his own band.

    The three opening tracks of this new album are among the worst I have heard in a very long time. One-dimensional recycled guitar riffs that would have already sounded dated three decades ago meet non-existing bass guitar sounds and a drum computer that sounds so sterile that it’s even obvious to unexperienced listeners that Running Wild is a plastic product on a lower level than a casting pop band on television. If compared to ambitious pop singers, the vocals on this disastrous opening trio are though completely invariable and lack any glimpse of creativity and passion. The lyrics are even worse as they aren’t even close to an actual coherent text structure or even a certain form of poetry. It sounds as if random words dealing with the band’s pirate image had been generated together to create nonsense such as ‘’Black skies, red flag, so hear the reaper’s calling – Thunder, lightning, all hell is breaking loose – Black skies, jet black, so fear the reaper’s calling – Hunter’s striking, your hand is on the loose’’ in the horrible opener ‘’Black Skies, Red Flag’’. I’m not expecting a lyrical masterpiece here but rhyming calling with calling and loose with loose and putting random half sentences together is below the minimum grade an elementary school student would get for a poetry project at school. An average young teenager who is learning English as a second language can express himself at least twice as good as Rolf Kasparek on this disasterpiece. Even Alestorm writes cleverer texts than Running Wild these days and our drunk friends from the United Kingdom aren’t even trying.

    It was terrible to make it through the first three abominable tunes and things get a little bit better. The title song ‘’Rapid Foray’’ sounds more dynamical as it offers more than one riff, a few addicting melodies and something like a coherent song structure. The three previous stinkers make this track sound like a masterpiece but from an objective point of view, this is a good average tune at best. ‘’By the Blood in Your Heart’’ is even better and comes around with a surprisingly emotional and epic vocal performance and a catchy chorus that gets supported by longing bagpipe sounds towards the end. This song sounds like a Grave Digger ballad that could have been released twenty years earlier which isn’t original by any means but it’s well executed. If you think that the band is building up some momentum now, I must disappoint you. The only other good song is the powerful and speedy fist-pumper ‘’Black Bart’’ which was rightfully chosen to represent this record in order to make people believe that Running Wild is back in strength.

    The end of the record isn’t as abominable as the beginning but it’s almost constantly weak. We get an overlong instrumental called ‘’The Depth of the Sea (Nautilus)’’ that is going nowhere and neither manages to build up some atmosphere nor to expose the technical qualities of the involved musicians and their beloved drum computer. The other songs offer forgettable pirate metal by numbers that are only minimally more interesting than the opening trio. ‘’Into the West’’ is probably the most interesting song among those tunes as it offers some memorable melodies and a solid guitar solo. This song is an attempt at being the party tune of the album and it does an acceptable job. The album ends with what is supposed to be its masterpiece, an epic tune called ‘’Last of the Mohicans’’ that is more than eleven minutes long and represents almost a fifth of the entire record. The song starts with a mildly amusing spoken word passage that sounds as if a robotic vocal sample of Blaze Bayley’s voice would talk to us. After an overlong overture, the song offers some nice riffing and fierce vocal parts that makes us temporarily forget the absence of a bass guitar and the overtly dominant fake drum sounds. The cheerful chorus is acceptable even though the lyrics sound like a hastily written novel summary by a student who needs to do his homework during lunch because his teacher is going to evaluate it in the early afternoon. The middle part includes some very short samples of Indian folk chants that are soon replaced by slow and chugging riffs leading to a solid but overall unspectacular solo section. As you might guess, this ambitious closer is equally balanced between good and bad parts and overall a really average and unspectacular tune. If you expected the band to keep the best until the end, you lost your bet.

    So here’s the final verdict: five average tunes meet six bad stinkers. Running Wild isn’t playing pirate metal but piracy metal. They are recycling outdated song ideas in a cheap attempt to steal your money. Don’t let them exploit you. Instead of spending one hour of your life on this coaster or frisbee, you could do much more useful things like completing a tax declaration, renewing your vaccinations or washing the dishes. Believe me, all these things are more pleasant than making it through Rapid Foray.

    Final rating: 25%

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  • Sinsaenum - Echoes of the Tortured (2016)

    If you haven't been living under a rock over the past few months, you have already heard about Sinsaenum. This international all-star band consists of current and former members of quite different bands like DragonForce, Mayhem and Slipknot among others. Despite these diversified backgrounds, Sinsaenum plays twelve traditional death metal songs garnished with eleven short instrumentals building up a bleak atmosphere that would fit to an old horror movie. This approach has a good and a bad side. The good thing about this band is that it might surprise death metal fans with a quite solid debut record in the key of early Morbid Angel with a shot of Dark Funeral that doesn't try to include high-speed melodic guitar solos in the key of DragonForce, underground black metal stereotypes inspired by Mayhem or modern jump-core popularized by Slipknot. On the other side, ''Echoes of the Tortured'' clearly doesn't reinvent the genre or adds anything fresh to it and if it wasn't for the famous band members, this group wouldn't get a lot of attention outside of underground genre circles.

    The songs with lyrics mix menacing mid-tempo parts with throaty vocals and numerous up-tempo passages with harsh vocals. A track like ''Dead Souls'' definitely takes no prisoners and sounds like a maelstrom dragging you inside the depths of Tartarus with its fast pace, discordant guitar sounds and pitiless vocals performed on a technically stunning level. The calmer interludes like ''Lullaby'' give the occasion to enhance the record's bleak atmosphere and give the listeners welcome breaks from the madness of the main tracks. Over the course of the album, the pairing of one extreme metal track around four minutes followed by a sinister instrumental interlude around one minute gets constantly repeated and ends up getting both predictable and repetitive. Genre fans will appreciate the fact that they get value for money with twenty-three tracks and a running time of sixty-seven minutes while most listeners might rightfully criticize that the album is losing momentum and simply about fifteen to twenty minutes too long.

    Among the more remarkable tunes, one must cite ''Condemned to Suffer'' that starts like a melancholic instrumental based upon a dreamy progression of guitar melodies but slowly develops into one of the most gripping tracks on this release. Pitiless up-tempo passages and unchained vocals are mixed with short and melodic guitar solos that could come from a classic heavy metal band or gloomier upper mid-tempo parts reminding of atmospheric and progressive black and doom metal bands. This song consists of a series of excellent ideas that harmonize surprisingly well and fusions the boundless creativity of everyone involved. If you are looking for some bleak atmosphere outside the instrumental tracks, the diversified ''Anfang des Alptraums'' convinces with a bleak spoken-word middle part followed by a truly emotional black metal finish that makes you feel like assisting a black mess. This song isn't only the longest on the record but also one of the most creative, diversified and intense. The intense title song ''Echoes of the Tortured'' has a similarly efficient approach and mixes discordant up-tempo passages with sinister mid-tempo parts. If you are looking for something a little bit easier to digest, the atmospheric sound samples in its middle part, the fist-pumping chorus and the excellent extended guitar solo make the sinister ''Sacrifice'' a true hit and maybe the most accessible song on this release.

    In the end, Sinsaenum's debut release ''Echoes of the Tortured'' brings back technically stunning death metal with a touch of black metal in the key of the mid-nineties and might be one of the best genre releases of the year. Aside of the constantly bleak atmosphere, this record convinces with a creative collaborative song writing and a technically appealing performance leading to a enjoyably balanced production that suits this album very well even if underground fans might criticize this. Especially the middle section of this release from track eight to nineteen is absolutely stunning. Despite a few lengths in the beginning and towards the end and the fact that the band basically worships extreme metal of the nineties without adding fresh ideas, Sinsaenum's ''Echoes of the Tortured'' is one of the best extreme metal releases I've come across so far this year.

    Final rating: 75%

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  • Soilwork - Death Resonance (2016)

    ''Death Resonance'' is a compilation record consisting of two new songs and thirteen rare tracks released as bonus tracks in Asia and especially in Japan over the past eleven years. The final result offers the typical Soilwork sound and here lies the problem.

    Soilwork is a band that experiments, polarizes and risks a lot less than genre colleagues like In Flames that have always continued to develop. The band has its signature sound and never tries to stray away from it. A typical Soilwork tune is four minutes long. It has a constant melancholic and oppressive atmosphere. It features up-tempo melodic death metal riffs and harsh vocals in the verses. On the other side, one gets a slower, more harmonious chorus with cleaner vocal sections. Most of the lyrics deal with inner struggles and interpersonal difficulties. This description pretty much fits to all of the songs on this release no matter how old they are. Even though the songs on this compilation are mostly bonus tracks, they perfectly portray what makes Soilwork so frustratingly unspectacular. Soilwork's music is so predictable that it becomes quickly bland, boring and exchangeable. 

    The music is neither great nor awful and that's maybe the worst thing for a group of artists. I have never heard anyone say that Soilwork is an abominable group. But I have never heard anyone who has cited this band as his or her favorite group of all times either. The only people who I could see purchasing this release are strictly conservative fans who want to hear business as usual and complete their extensive genre collection. The artistic quality alone is too weak to convince anyone to buy this plain average output. This record is so consistently average that it's impossible to point out particular songs.

    In the end, this release is only recommendable to faithful genre collectors and conservative fans. Anyone else should simply overlook this record and not spend any money on it, not even at a reduced price. If you really insist on getting an introduction to the band and want to own just one record, go with the live package entitled ''Live in the Heart of Helsinki'' which was released last year.

    Final rating: 50%

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