• Phaeton - In Heaven and Earth (2014)

    Phaeton is a young quartet from Ramenskoe that plays classic heavy metal. Founded back in 2011, the band released its first output three years later. In Heaven and Earth showcases six tracks that manage to have both a fluid stylistic guideline and some minor variations to keep things entertaining from start to finish. 

    The slow and epic heavy metal ballad ''Queen of Ice'' might be the most outstanding track with its enchanting keyboard melodies and soothing vocals but the band also delivers dynamic up-tempo tracks like ''The Legend of Phaeton'' that finds the right mixture between crunching heavy metal riffs and a vivid rhythm section on one side and melodic European power metal in the instrumental passages on the other side.

    The production of this independently released debut release has a few issues. The keyboards on the album opener and band anthem ''Phaeton'' sound painfully artificial and this horribly produced instrumental overture leaves a bad mark on the entire album due to its strategic misplacement. However, the song gets much better as soon as classic heavy metal instruments kick in and add a welcome raw note to a song that started as fluffily as it gets. However, the mixture between melodic European power metal references and a raw underproduced mastering doesn't really fit. It adds a special note to the record for sure but it sounds quite contradictory to my ears.

    In the end, Phaeton delivers a promising first strike with six melodic heavy metal tunes with some minor European power metal influences. Fans of classic Russian heavy metal in the key of Aria, Black Coffee and Legion should appreciate this release that also recalls similar contemporary Russian heavy metal groups like Alexy's Square and Grand-Courage. The record is far from being perfect or relevant but is enteraining and performed with genuine passion. So far, Phaeton is just another Russian heavy metal revival band but the diversified yet focused songwriting here already proves that they have the talent to go further than that.

    Final rating: 73%

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  • Phaeton - There Is No Place for Fear (2015)

    There Is No Place for Fear might be the strongest release thus far by Russian heavy metal quartet Phaeton. If compared to the debut EP which was already slightly above average, many things have improved on the first full length effort. The production sounds much more dynamic and organic but keeps an authentic and raw touch that gives the album a powerful vibe as if it had been recorded live in studio. The songwriting has become even more concise as this album includes eight great tracks without any filler material. The bass guitar is even more audible than on the debut and sounds quite versatile. The drum play has become more diversified and varied as well and adds a lot of vibrant dynamics to the sound. The melodic vocals sound a little bit more controlled and skilled than on the debut without losing their juvenile energy and vivid sharpness. The guitar play hasn't improved but stagnated on a respectable level with simple but very efficient riffs and memorable melodies. If compared to the second full length release, the eight songs on this album have a clearly defined guideline and develop a more vivid flow.

    While the entire album is great, the first three tracks are particularly dynamic in my book. ''Pay'' opens with the haunting sounds of air raid sirens before an extremely vivid rhythm section with thunderous drums and angrily pumping bass guitar take the lead and are supported by gripping guitar riffs. While the opening seconds might make you think of a thrash metal song, the melodic vocals add some atmosphere and depth to the track and lead it back into heavy metal territory that is crowned by an epic and liberating chorus. This track is an extremely energizing and efficient opener and might be Phaeton's best composition to date.

    The title track ''There Is No Place for Fear'' builds upon the momentum of the excellent opener and combines galloping verses with an unforgettable chorus that sounds dramatic, emotional and energizing all at once. The instrumental break with the dramatic guitar solos and the faster vocal parts is also quite intense. You won't be able to sit or stand still while listening to this song that could be included on a classic heavy metal record of the eighties by Iron Maiden, Judas Priest or Saxon.

    ''Freedom Call'', meaning obviously the liberating heavy metal song here and not the fluffy power metal group, completes the trio of songs showcasing the essential elements of the heavy metal spirit. The track overall has a more epic and melancholic atmosphere but also includes fast riffs and a thunderous rhythm section. The melodic vocals have a few brief and perfectly integrated sing-along sections as well that give the song a certain live atmosphere. If these guys are as good on stage as this song promises, they should be invited as opening act by Aria or a similar Russian heavy metal veteran band for a world tour.

    In the end, if you like energizing traditional heavy metal in the key of Aria, Black Coffee and Legion, Phaeton's dynamic first full-length release is a true gem to discover. There Is No Place for Fear is one of the best heavy metal revival records in recent memory and should please any fan of the genre. The record manages to keep the essential heavy metal trademarks of the late seventies and early eighties but adds a dynamic, juvenile and precise approach to it that convinces from start to finish.

    Final rating: 83%

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  • Phaeton - The Sign of the Curse (2017)

    Phaeton is another Russian quartet that keeps the spirit of heavy metal alive. While the genre is overlooked or even neglected in other countries, Russia has quite a few young heavy metal bands influenced by Russian pioneer groups like Aria, Black Coffee and Legion. Phaeton certainly doesn't reinvent the genre with The Sign of the Curse but the band plays with genuine passion and focuses on eight consistent tracks without any lengths.

    The record kicks off brilliantly with the rhythmic stomper ''Adrenaline'' that does its name justice. It's refreshing these days to open a record with a straightforward tune that gets to the point without unnecessary introductions or overtures. The song represents everything classic heavy metal should be about: a vivid rhythm section with tight drum play and an audible bass guitar, powerful guitar riffs, elaborate guitar solos, melodic clean vocals and epic lyrics. 

    The second tune ''Towards Destiny'' is slightly slower and more epic and might have the most memorable guitar melodies and the strongest chorus on this output. This song wouldn't be out of place on any classic Aria record. The more you listen to this song and the album in general, the more you will get into the songs and remember them which underlines the efficient songwriting.

    ''Following the Dream'' comes around with dreamy keyboard melodies before it evolves into a highly melodic track with great guitar melodies and soothing vocals. The song shows close affinity with the European power metal genre and could also come from Stratovarius even though the galloping main riff is clearly inspired by Iron Maiden. This mixture works very well and the song proves that one single appropriate longer overture per record can actually be efficient.

    The closing ballad ''Phantom Dream'' might be too saccharine for heavy metal purists and rather reminds me of romantic hard rock ballads in the key of Bonfire. However, the piano play and the keyboards are played emotionally and skillfully while the vocals are performed with emotion and inspiration. It's not a bad idea to close a record on a smooth note, especially since the record opens with a bang.

    In just eight songs, Phaeton shows many different facets of the heavy metal genre and proves that it is still relevant nowadays. The Sign of the Curse is emotional, entertaining, inspired and a true hidden gem for melodic heavy metal fans. The Russian lyrics and vocals add even more authenticity to the release. This album clearly is one of the best genre releases this year and one should give this quartet a chance and keep an eye on it.

    Final rating: 78%

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  • 梦灵 / Dream Spirit - 将·军 / General Triumphant (2017)

    Did you ever wonder what the numerous Chinese folk metal bands like Nine Treasures and Tengger Cavalry sounded like if they were a little bit heavier but without shifting into extreme metal territory? Dream Spirit give you the answer to this question on the concise, entertaining and powerful General Triumphant record.

    On one side, the band combines classic melodic heavy metal melodies with a few slightly more fast and sinister riffs, an energizing rhythm section and variable vocals between melodic clean vocals, a few restrained screams and a few select gang shouts here and there. Most songs have some folk melodies that are either supported by conceptual lyrical themes, some genuine folk instrument sounds or occasional epic keyboard layers. The band manages to find its own niche by focusing more on the metal elements and using the folk influences in appropriate, concise and original doses. This makes for a dynamic sound and the rather amateurish production only helps to distinguish the band from the elevated number of pretentious folk metal bands these days that overload their records with layers of folk and symphonic instruments.

    A great example for the band's sound is ''Of Daggers and Men''. The melodic vocals and fast twin guitar leads follow traditional heavy metal and European power metal standards while atmospheric keyboard passages and grounded flute sounds give the group its very own folk style. Before the catchy chorus shifts the song into too saccharine territory, the band comes around with a few more sinister riffs in the verses and a few extreme metal vocals in the background. Each stylistic element is employed carefully and cleverly and one discovers more details with every spin. Especially the shorter songs on the record sound very coherent as they have quite similar stylistic elements. 

    The playful symphonic keyboard sounds plus the traditional Chinese string instrument used in ''Ancient Poems'' make for a dreamy atmosphere that is brought down to earth with vivid drum passages and gripping hard rock riffs. The melodic lead vocals lead us passionately through this fantastic combination. This is my favorite song on the record but the fast album closer ''Song of Triumph'' that does its title justice and convinces with uplifting melodies and enthusiastic gang shouts comes very close as well.

    The longer tracks are however much harder to digest and show the band's experimental side. These ambitious tracks are at times lacking cohesion. This is particularly the case for ''Morbid Souls''. The track focuses on a depressive and gloomy atmosphere with low and noisy guitar sounds and a few mellower keyboard melodies which is a strategy that is often employed by Chinese post-rock and black metal bands. Only the melodic vocals remind us that we are still listening to Dream Spirit and not to Esthète Sinistre. These soundscapes drag on for far too long and lose momentum as the first notable change only occurs five and a half minutes into the track. The more melodic and vivid finale supported by uplifting flute sounds feels rushed in less than two minutes and the chaotic backing vocals somewhere between spoken-word passages and throaty shouts don't really blend in. This song includes enough ideas for three tracks but the final version is simply going nowhere. If the band managed to keep its more ambitious tracks simpler, they would unfold much better.

    On a side note, the album didn't need three instrumental tracks out of only nine songs in total either. While the tracks underline the instrumentalists' talents and provide a suitable atmosphere to the conceptual record, the band could have just stuck with the dynamic but slightly overlong ''Might as the Sea'' and should have skipped the other two shorter interludes.

    Dream Spirit might not attain the level of epic storytelling and gripping emotions of bands such as Tang Dynasty or The Last Successor yet but the group is already a refreshing alternative to Nine Treasures and Tengger Cavalry and could one day become one of China's most distinctive metal bands. The creativity, passion and talent are already present on General Triumphant even though the songwriting isn't perfect yet.

    Final rating: 77%

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  • Masterplan - PumpKings (2017)

    Ah, Masterplan! A decade and a half ago, this band was described as the next big power metal band by the usual suspects such as Rock Hard and Metal Hammer. I never truly understood the hype around the band but the group's first two full length releases were alright. Things went downhill when Jorn Lande first left the band. What followed were disappointing releases, numerous line-up changes and increasingly long periods of time between new records. More than four years after Novum Initium that didn't do its album title any justice, Masterplan is back with a new record which is stupidly entitled PumpKings.

    Wait a minute! It turns out that the material on this record isn't so new after all. What does a band do if it runs out of ideas? Exactly, it releases a cover album. What does a band do when it's even less imanibative? That's right, it only covers one band. What does a band leader propose to boost his damaged ego? You got it, the album only covers tracks originally written or co-written by Roland Grapow when he was still a more or less relevant songwriter. And even back in those days, his contributions weren't exactly the highlights of Helloween's career. When you think of Helloween, the first things that come to your mind are the Keeper of the Seven Keys trilogy or Walls of Jericho. Well, Roland Grapow wasn't in the band back then. When you think of great Helloween songs of the nineties and the new millennium, one might think of ''Kids of the Century'', ''When the Sinner'', ''Perfect Gentleman'', ''Power'', ''Lavdate Dominvm'' and ''If I Could Fly''. But Roland Grapow wasn't even involved in the songwriting of these tracks.

    No, what you get here are recycled versions of forgettable tunes such as ''Music'' and ''Someone's Crying''. Even though the musicianship is at times a little bit more heavy and sinister, it can't push those fillers and make them sound much better. Rick Altzi has participated in numerous projects such as the plastic casting metal group Beyond the Black between the last Masterplan record and this one but his vocal skills haven't improved and he always sings in the same throaty but melodic manner. Let's say he has his very own style but his performance gets somewhat repetitive and tired after a while. At least, his vocal style suits the epic ''The Time of the Oath'' or the sinister ''Escalation 666'' rather well and these two songs might even sound better than the original versions. The best element of this album is probably its heavy and organic production that suits the more complex and gloomy tracks rather well.

    The question I can't stop asking myself is: Who could be the potential audience for a release like this? Helloween fanboys will most likely prefer the original versions. Masterplan fans were rather looking forward to new songs more than four years after the last record. Occasional power metal fans will not care about rerecordings of unspectacular Helloween songs from what might be the group's weakest era. If Masterplan or at least Roland Grapow simply recorded this album for himself to simply have fun, then that would be okay. This record could serve as a bonus disc on a genuine new album or be used as a free giveaway for a nostalgic metal magazine that will still insist to write how great Masterplan is and that we are all wrong to ignore or make fun of them. But asking fans to pay twenty bucks for eleven rehashed Helloween tunes that mostly have b-side quality at best is quite shameful. In the end, I guess this album is interesting for no-one. No wonder this record was released by AFM Records, a label that has become worse with every year of its existence.

    If you like pumping, go give Rummelsnuff or Deadlift Lolita a chance since they are much more innovative, passionate and unique. If you like Helloween, go revisit the original albums or purchase the upcoming Sweet Seductions compilation. The only thing PumpKings might be good for is if you are looking for a shiny new frisby or a cool coaster.

    Final rating: 20%

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