Thursday, December 29, 2016

Best of 2016 - Power Metal Edition

By Andy Osborn. Good power metal is rare on Bandcamp. Whether that says something about the genre’s overall lack of popularity, or that the best stuff is controlled by a handful of labels with no interest in modernization, I’m not sure.
By Andy Osborn.

Good power metal is rare on Bandcamp. Whether that says something about the genre’s overall lack of popularity, or that the best stuff is controlled by a handful of labels with no interest in modernization, I’m not sure. Probably a little of both. Not only is it scarce on the platform, 2016 wasn’t exactly a banner year for the stuff. Admittedly I don’t hunt for power metal like I do the darker arts, but even when I take the time to dig deep it was incredibly hard to find real solid material; despite the sound demanding a full group of near-virtuosic musicians and not just the ol’ dude in the basement churning out atmospheric horrors. That said, I was able to scrape the barrel deep enough (through to the floor) to find this quintet of guitar wizardry that stood out above the rest in 2016.

Artwork by Eliran Kantor.

Iotunn deserve an award for their guitar tone alone. It’s not something that regularly stands out in the genre, but the biting, thick sound they have is singular - it was ten seconds into “The Wizard Falls” before I was sold. Denmark, for whatever reason, tends to produce a proggy variety of the sound, and Iotunn are no exception. They have hints of heavy metal, and a slightly American sound that definitely will appeal to Nevermore fans. Benjamin Jensen isn’t your typical soaring vocalist, either. His standard delivery is more of a gruff bar, that occasionally turns to an equally badass growl; something not used nearly often enough in the style. It all makes for a pretty interesting package, and the meandering song structures are captivating and interesting. Even if their overall style isn’t your thing, just ignore that and dig the sweet tone.


Artwork by Kip Ayers.

Power metal, like any style of of heavy arts, can take itself much too seriously. In fact, that’s probably why it’s not as popular as it should be. The songs are meant to be ridiculous and over-the-top, rather than burying the listener in evil cacophonies and pretend satanism. Zephaniah are great because you can hear the band having fun every second of every track. They’re also constantly switching things up, rarely sticking to a formula. Solos, blastbeats, and tempo changes erupt seemingly out of nowhere. They’re masters at keeping their fans on their toes. Reforged is filled with ripping, ever-shredding leads, and a nice hint of thrashy aggression to show off their American roots. The highlight of the album is the tracks modeled after the original Mad Max trilogy that tell the young Mel Gibson tale in metallic, stupidly fun form. It’s a shame they didn’t feel the need to do a part four to match the newest film but don’t worry, our friends in Spellcaster have us covered.


Artwork by Felipe Machado Franco.

In a world where Sonata Arctica didn’t move on from their much-loved original sound to play some sort of watered-down proggy pop-rock, they could have made this album. Taken’s self-titled debut is like a lost work that fits between Winterheart’s Guild and Reckoning Night (while still blatantly stealing the latter's cover art). What that means is Taken play a style of highly European power metal that sticks to the middle of the road; that is, it’s not overly bombastic or cheesy but contains the perfect amount of melody centricity and mildly-soaring vocals to still be taken seriously by those who aren’t power metal diehards. The septet are able to write a relatively lean, solid tracks with plenty of playful hooks, catchy choruses and more keyboard than guitar solos. Okay, a 65-minute debut isn’t exactly trim, but the intention is there, and it’s admirable. Despite a few unnecessary tracks these Spaniards have crafted one hell of a first album that many fans of the style will welcome.


Artwork by Ariel ZB.

Necromancing the Stone are probably the least publicized supergroup in metal history. With a cast consisting of Arsis, The Absence, and The Black Dahlia Murder veterans, it would be a given that that they would be some souped-up, crazy take on melodic death metal. That’s partially true, but with a twist. They smooth out their more aggressive sound with the buttery vocals of Brimstone Coven’s John Williams and then further round it out by (slightly) toning down the brutality in their riffs. And hearing the way they construct their axe wizardry, it turns out there isn’t too much different between the melodic death metal and power metal guitar techniques. They’re both catchy as all hell and painfully badass. The former may call for a bit more palm-muting and less bombast and high fret obsession, but the result is a perfect mashup of the best of both worlds into something entirely different; not to mention one of Metal Blade’s best additions in recent years.

James Malone’s unmistakable technical flourishes are ever-present and like any good power metal, Necromancing the Stone take writing music seriously, but not so much their image - as you can tell by the band name and album title referencing the 80s Michael Douglas adventure-comedies. “Siren’s Call” is the highlight, with it’s unforgettable lead melody that slides effortlessly into a pumped-up chorus booming with double-bass. It’s a swaggering beast of an album, so if you’re in the mood for some aggressive power metal or even light thrashy melodeath, this ragtag group of scene veterans provide one of the most quintessentially American releases of the year.


Artwork by Caio Caldas.
Artwork by Caio Caldas.

Even more of a supergroup, I can’t believe Eternity’s End flew under my radar until just recently. Featuring former and current members of Obscura, Spawn of Possession and Necrophagist, German savant Christian Münzner just took his recording lineup from his last solo album and threw English vocal vet Ian Parry into the mix. You wouldn’t expect such majestic, epic music from tech death titans but just like James Malone proved above, precision chops are perfectly suited for power metal. The Fire Within is a near-flawless debut that’s able to showcase the axe wielders’ insane technicality without treading too far into Yngwie’s grandiose, pretentious territory. Because despite the technical wizardry at play in the group, there’s only a medium dose of theatrics, solos, and self-indulgence, but still enough to solidly put them in the neoclassical camp. Their experimentation definitely throws on a “prog” tag as well, but one meant as a compliment of the highest order.

Unlike on Taken, the long playtime here is more than bearable, and gives you the feeling that the band could have easily stretched things out or added another track or four without losing steam. I’m very basic in my power metal love, as even a well-written ballad bores me. Power metal is about speed, precision, and fist-pumping choruses so part of what makes Eternity’s End great is that they don’t slow it down, even for a second. Maybe that’s just physically impossible for them. As a showcase, “Eagle Divine” contains the perfect power metal chorus. Gang vocals, empowering lyrics, all while the rest of the band is still going full speed. The end result is nothing short of jaw-dropping and is both the power metal album of the year and one of the best debuts in the genre’s history.

Tagged with 2016, Andy Osborn, Eternity's End, heavy metal, Iotunn, melodic death metal, Metal Blade Records, Necromancing the Stone, power metal, Power Prog Records, progressive power metal, Taken, thrash metal, Zephaniah
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