• 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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  • Epica - The Solace System (2017)

    Epica has established and solidified its brand of symphonic metal and doesn't move one inch away from it. The Holographic Principle was nearly a copy of its predecessor The Quantum Enigma minus the atmospheric world music elements. The Solace System now offers six songs that were recored during the sessions for The Holographic Prtinciple. As you might have guessed, the six new songs offer nothing new in the Epica universe.

    What you get here is omnipresent bombastic symphonic metal with epic classical music passages, bombastic choirs and one of the genre's most talented female lead singers. Add a few harsh vocals here and there to spice things up and the usual ballad to calm things down. The powerful production only adds to the emotional and intellectual roller coaster ride. While the record is as predictable as it gets, one has to admit that the band stagnates on an elevated level and offers six entertaining tracks without any filler material. Some of the songs are actually better than several tunes from The Holographic Principle that were at some points almost exact copies from songs from The Quantum Enigma. 

    Therefore, I would rather recommend buying the compact The Solace System for a reasonable price than an overlong full length effort with noticeable lengths. The Solace System basically represents Epica in a nutshell. If you haven't bought one of the band's records yet, you can grab this release to get a great idea of what they sound like. The numerous faithful fans of the group can't go wrong here either. Those who were hoping that Epica would take the chance to try out something new will be disappointed. Those who have never liked the band, won't be converted by this release either. The bottom line is that The Solace System is good for what it is, no more, no less.

    Final rating: 74%

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  • 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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