• In Flames - Down, Wicked & No Good (2017)

    Down, Wicked & No Good is a surprise release by In Flames that features four cover songs inspired by original material from Alice in Chains, Chris Isaac, Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. The band collaborated with Depeche Mode and even took over the band's Facebook page in order to promote In Flames' cover of ''It's No Good''. Aside of a few minor hints and snippets, this digital release wasn't however much promoted and seems to be a project the band did for fun and not for commercial purposes. Those who are accusing the band to sell out haven't understood that the group simply wants to experiment stylistically at all costs.

    In Flames has become one of the world's most controversial metal bands over the past years because the group shifted its style from melodic death metal towards alternative rock with electronic elements. However, In Flames has been an experimental outfit throughout its entire career and had already covered Depeche Mode twenty years earlier on the critically acclaimed Whoracle record. The difference between ''Everything Counts'' two decades ago and ''It's No Good'' now is that the former song gave a Depeche Mode track a classic In Flames vibe while the latter is much closer to the original song and experiments with clean vocals and electronic elements. Still, the new song doesn't blandly copy Depeche Mode but explores a more contemporary synthpop soundscape. If Depeche Mode had written the song this year and not twenty years ago, I could actually sound like In Flames' version. This reinvention of the track is more surprising than what In Flames accomplished twenty years ago but it will also rather please synthpop fans than melodic death metal supporters.

    This is also the case for the other three cover songs. In order to fully appreciate them, you need quite broad preferences and should appreciate the original artists rather than what In Flames might have stood for in its early career. Even by In Flames' contemporary standards, Down, Wicked & No Good is one of the band's most radical releases. It doesn't have anything to do with any metal or even rock subgenres and can be categorized a synthpop. If the name In Flames weren't associated with this release, it would actually be hard to believe that the Swedish group is actually behind this. In Flames' version of Alice in Chains' ''Down in a Hole'' is even more melodic, mellow and introspective than the original track. Instead of making the original material heavier as it would have been the case twenty years ago, In Flames now explores genres which are similar to the original tracks and focuses on a danceable, dreamy and electronic twist to the four songs chosen for this release.

    If I were only a metal connoisseur, I would despise and reject this release and I can easily understand anyone criticizing this unusual output. However, thanks to my father, I have also grown up with music of the gothic scene and attended festivals where I could witness a vast spectrum of bands including synthpop artists. Even though the latter genre isn't my favorite, I can occasionally appreciate it and am able to judge what good or band synthpop is. What In Flames offers here is quite thoughtful, melodic and atmospheric synthpop that sounds unique, modern and fresh. I wouldn't listen to Down, Wicked & No Good on a regular base, but if I felt like listening to some unique and calm synthpop to relax, I would definitely go for this release. Surprisingly, despite being a first effort in its genre, this release is already a genre highlight and proves how talented and versatile the band is. I wouldn't be surprised if the band's next release were a new age or trip hop record and if it actually sounded really great. In Flames seems to be an amorphous band that could play pretty much anything it aspires stylistically as we speak, except maybe for classical music. No matter what you think about the final result, this disposition is absolutely astonishing.

    The bottom line is that this surprising release is very good for what it is but that I can only digest it in small doses because it isn't exactly my favorite type of music.

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  • Annihilator - For the Demented (2017)

    At this point, everyone who's familiar with Annihilator knows what to expect from a new record involving band leader Jeff Waters and his partners in crime. You will get a few fast and technical thrash metal tracks inspired by the early works of Exodus, Megadeth and Testament, a few more rocking tracks recalling AC/DC, Motorhead and Van Halen and a melancholic half-ballad in the key of Iron Maiden's and Metallica's softer sides.

    The technical thrash metal track is the ferocious opener ''Twisted Lobotomy'' that has the potential to become a fan favorite during live shows, the solid rocker is called ''The Way'' and recalls previous collaborations with Danko Jones and the melancholic ballad is ''Pieces of You'' where the wonderful guitar harmonies contrast the grisly lyrics about a sociopath who cut his girlfriend into pieces and devoured them.

    There is nothing bad about these songs at all. Along with the twisted experimental narrative of ''The Demon in You'', these songs are even my favorite tracks on For the Demented. The problem is that Jeff Waters has been there before and that he has often delivered better versions in the past. ''Twisted Lobotomy'' offers great guitar work but is a little bit too repetitive in the middle section and doesn't have the same diversity as ''Demon Code'' for example. ''The Way'' is among the catchiest tunes on the new offering but doesn't have the vivid hard rock vibes that made ''Shallow Grave'' stand out. ''Pieces of You'' is easily my favorite track here but it doesn't have the profound atmosphere of ''Never, Neverland'' for example. 

    Jeff Waters proved on Annihilator's last output Triple Threat that he's able to reinvent his songwriting by adding an acoustic dimension to it to just give one example. He failed to keep the momentum of this experiment and apply it to the new material. For the Demented offers more of the same on a good average level. The record is better than what Annihilator offered in the mid-nineties but it isn't on the same level as the band's first two legendary records or even this record's two vivid predecessors. Annihilator fans will clearly like For the Demented but the band won't make any new fans with this output. Instead of going back to the roots, reusing similar riffs and writing about the same psychological topics, Annihilator needs something exciting, experimental and fresh to reinvent itself and keep this band relevant. Jeff Waters has surrounded himself with three hungry and talented young musicians. Bass player Rich Hinks already had a positive impact on the songwriting. It would help if Jeff Waters decided to make a band out of this one-man project to add some spice to the old recipe. Jeff Waters has to take this chance in the future. Until then, this one's not for the demented but only for the fans of yore.

    Final rating: 69%

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  • Moonspell - 1755 (2017)

    Portuguese gothic metal band Moonspell tried out quite a few things at once on twelfth studio record 1755. First of all, this is a conceptual record about the great Lisbon Earthquake and its negative and positive short- and long-term consequences. Secondly, this is the band's first album that only features Portuguese lyrics. Thirdly, this record can be considered a symphonic extreme metal album which relies on the massive use of choirs and orchestras. As if those things weren't enough, 1755 was originally supposed to be only an EP and evolved into a full length release, featuring a revamped version of ''Em Nome do Medo'' from the Alpha Noir / Omega White release five years earlier to open the album and a cover song of Os Paralamas do Sucesso's ''Lanterna dos Afogados'' to close the record. Even the bonus track for limited editions is everything but common since it's a Spanish version of the new song ''Desastre''.

    One has to applaud the band for this courageous experiment, especially in times when many genre colleagues keep things safe and simple and the few experimental bands tend to get slammed from critics and fans alike. However, be forewarned. It takes quite some time for this album to open up and make sense. I disliked my first listening experience because this album doesn't have too much in common with any other Moonspell record. The second try was a little bit more positive as the album started to grow on me. After letting things sink in after a third try, I can say that 1755 has its strengths and weaknesses and is ultimately neither among the band's weakest efforts, nor among its strongest outputs. To be honest, it's overall a below average effort for a pioneer of the gothic metal genre.

    Let's start with the positive points. First of all, the dramatic orchestral passages, the epic choirs and the few folk elements add a cinematic touch to the record that does its complex concept justice. The album certainly has an apocalyptic atmosphere. Secondly, the record positively recalls other experimental extreme metal bands like Melechesh for its mixture of vivid aggressiveness and intellectual progressiveness, Orphaned Land for its few Middle Eastern folk elements and tribal drums as well as Septicflesh for its massive use of classical elements. Fans of folk metal band Myrath and symphonic black metal band Dimmu Borgir might also be positively surprised about this release. Thirdly, the record's second half sounds appropriately balanced between new choral and orchestral elements and classic trademarks of the band such as variable vocals and haunting guitar melodies. It almost sounds as if the first half of the album were an experimental test for the band's new genre while the second half perfectly fusions old and new influences. ''1 de Novembro'' is the record's most vivid track with its galloping rhythms, the extremely playful and varied ''Ruinas'' might be the record's most diversified song and ''Todos os Santos'' is an apocalyptic epic that should have closed the album and which was rightfully chosen as first single because it represents the mixture of old and new soundscapes best and is also among the catchiest tunes on an otherwise complex release.

    Here come the negative aspects. First of all, the omnipresent use of orchestral passages and pompous choirs is at times quite tiring. Several songs feel overloaded and sound much longer than they actually are. This is a phenomenon that can also be observed on recent Dimmu Borgir and Septicflesh albums. Less would have been so much more. This leads to the next problem. While the symphonic elements are omnipresent, the metal influences sound a lot less inspired than usual. Especially the first half of the album lacks emotional guitar solos, gripping and original riffs and interesting rhythm variations. Moonspell tries to spice things up with some tribal drum patterns or calmer instrumental breaks with more audible bass sounds here and there but these passages rarely sound coherent, consistent and integrated. It's not enough to show off the technical capabilities of the rhythm section for a few seconds, just to bury them under a wall of symphonic sounds right after. This leads us to another problem. The production is quite overloaded and loud. A more organic production with less instrumental tracks would have made the overall listening experience even more enjoyable. Another issue are the vocals, especially in the weaker first half of the album. Fernando Ribeiro is usually a quite diversified and skilled vocalist who can whisper, scream, shout, sing and speak in many different ways. Instead of varying his approaches, most of the album consists of his extreme metal screams and shouts. Gone are his haunting baritone clean vocals or his mysterious whispers and spoken word passages. The vocals sound quite one-dimensional. Finally, opening the record with a revamped version of ''Em Nome do Medo'' wasn't a bright idea. The aggressive and spooky original track was one of the highlights off Alpha Noir / Omega White. The new version has lost the uniqueness of the original and has instead become a quite pompous symphonic metal track that is more than a minute longer than the concise original track. It's impossible to not compare both versions and the original song is better from any point of view. Starting the record with such a revamped track fails to build up any momentum. Closing the record with another cover song isn't too brilliant either, especially since it doesn't do the dreamy original pop rock track justice but at least the band didn't copy itself here.

    In the end, positive and negative elements are quite balanced on this album. 1755 is still an ambitious, entertaining and unique record but by Moonspell's standards, it sounds overlong, unbalanced and unusual. I think it would have been better to focus on the greatest tracks of this album and release an EP instead of a full length record. In the end, symphonic extreme metal fans, those interested in experimental, exotic and sophisticated metal albums as well as faithful Moonspell supporters should purchase this album. Occasional listeners might have quite some problems to digest this release. They should either arm themselves with a lot of patience or simply pass on this one. What could have been a highlight in Moonspell's career has turned out to be one of the band's most inconsistent releases.

    Final rating: 66%

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  • Solstafir - Masterpiece of Bitterness (2005)

    I have rarely listened to an album whose title is as appropriate as Masterpiece of Bitterness. It really describes the sound Solstafir explores here as this album showcases courageous and epic song writing with a depressing and gloomy atmosphere. If compared to the chaotic debut record Í blóði og anda, Masterpiece of Bitterness represents a stunning and even courageous progression for the band. The songs have become much longer and more elaborate with two of them getting close to fifteen and twenty minutes, respectively. The music has also become more atmospheric with hypnotizing, long and plodding passages. The band now manages to find the right balance between slow ambient, doom metal and even post metal passages and sinister death metal outbursts. The lyrics are now entirely written in English without losing the glacial Icelandic atmosphere developed by the instrumental work that made the debut album so revolutionary. The creepy album cover in bloody red and snowy white fits perfectly as well. Sincerely, I have rarely witnessed a band that has taken such a big step between its first and its second output. The cohesive final result is even more stunning if you consider the fact that the songs were written in different eras with some of them being brand new and others already being more than seven years old when the album was released. It seems that the band already had a clear vision for its unique sound back in those days and wasn't maybe able to realize it on its raw debut record published on a small East German label.

    Masterpiece of Bitterness unfolds its true magic after several spins. While some songs might sound slightly overlong and repetitive at first contact, they develop a haunting and hypnotizing atmosphere. The record has a direct vibe and almost sounds as if it were recorded during live in studio jam sessions. I have recently been listening to this album while driving through a foggy and rainy national park between Chicoutimi and Quebec City on a gloomy autumn day and this release simply was the perfect soundtrack for the nature, season and weather I witnessed back then. Masterpiece of Bitterness sucks you into a very particular atmosphere right from the start when you hear the haunting female vocals of the ambitious opener and slowly drags you out during the appeasing closing acoustic song. The numbing, repetitive and simplistic riffs, the occasional rapid outbursts of the rhythm section, the haunted screams and the raw production are the key elements that make this album so authentically atmospheric.

    The only downside of the record is obviously the fact that one needs to be in a very special mood to enjoy this record to the fullest. Objectively, the different songs have noticeable lengths and repetitions that can be distracting if one listens to these songs individually but as a whole body of work, the atmosphere that these lengths and repetitions evoke is an important part of this record's success. To keep it short, this album can only be enjoyed if you listen to it from start to finish because picking out specific songs actually makes the different parts less efficient.

    In the end, if you are a patient listener who doesn't mind listening to a record from start to finish, who doesn't shy away from exploring tracks that are up to twenty minutes long and who prefers a collective atmosphere over individual musicianship, then you will enjoy Solstafir's Masterpiece of Bitterness for what it is. This type of depressive atmospheric metal soundcsapes that could equally appeal to ambient, black metal, doom metal, post metal and fans of gloomy movie or video game soundtracks might not appeal to that many listeners after all but those who have a weak spot for this type of music will clearly discover one of the best records of its kind here. This record has recently been reissued, so take the chance to grab a copy of this overlooked gem if my review has evoked your interest for the album.

    Final rating: 90%

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  • Septicflesh - Codex Omega (2017)

    Since Septicflesh started its second stint ten years ago, the band has developed and solidified its unique symphonic death metal style. Codex Omega represents the peak of this progression. While some predecessors didn't always manage to mix symphonic elements and death metal in a balanced way, Codex Omega has not only accomplished this mission but might even be among the group's three best studio albums and a candidate for album of the year.

    The balanced combination of dramatic and epic classical symphonic sounds on one side and brutal and vivid death metal outbursts on the other side becomes already obvious in the apocalyptic neckbreaking opener "Dante's Inferno". This isn't the first time a metal band approaches this popular lyrical topic but while other groups include some technically stunning but also overlong and unnecessary instrumental masturbation, Septicflesh's vision sounds balanced, concise and intense. 

    Another example for the success of Septicflesh's sound is "Portrait of a Headless Man" that comes along with one of this year's most stunning music videos. This song is one of the best combinations of classical music and extreme metal because the classical elements both add to the gloomy atmosphere of the death metal soundscapes and yet manage to infuse an appeasing note with their elegant style to give the listener some essential breaks. This winning formula is crowned by some additional Middle Eastern folk sounds that don't take too much space but manage to spice things up and make this track stand out even more. 

    In the second half of the record, a track like "Dark Art" goes back to the band's gothic metal era with albums like A Fallen Temple and Revolution DNA without losing this record's winning formula. This song has several atmospheric breaks with melancholic and sinister soundscapes that make the more vivid passages even more efficient. Even the charismatic nasal clean vocals of yore are back in some passages and sound as unique as ever. The band should use them more often because they contrast the extreme metal vocals perfectly and add an even more cinematic dimension to Septicflesh's music.

    If bands with similar approaches such as Mayan or even Apocalyptica or Therion come around with their next records, they must be compared to this symphonic metal milestone. Septicflesh has released the best record of the style it has progressively been crafting for the past ten years. In my book, this album is in my top three records of the band along with the gothic metal masterpieces A Fallen Temple and Revolution DNA. Both fans of the band's recent outputs and the group's first stint should enjoy this record. Those who were skeptical because they didn't like the group's last few releases, should also give this excellent symphonic extreme metal record a chance. Those who like extreme metal music should dig the band's energy and those who listen to mellower symphonic metal or even classical music should get into the band's atmospheric and intellectual inclusion of this genre. To keep it short, Codex Omega is one of the best albums I hjave listened to this year and it fully deserves your attention.

    Final rating: 96%

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