When you hear the album title, coupled with the news that Judas Priest are retiring this year, you have to worry about Iron Maiden’s future. So far, there appears to be no concrete evidence that this will indeed be Maiden;s final album, but if it is then they’ll have gone out on a high. ‘The Final Frontier’ takes them on a far more progressive journey than they’ve been on in many a year, and its a refreshing change.
Maiden are one of these bands that metalheads can rely on. Like Motorhead and AC/DC, you know what you’re getting with an Iron Maiden album. Although perhaps not this time, as the trademark gallop and catchy choruses are reigned in to a greater extent than previous efforts, and the band have taken time to write some really epic prog metal songs. A natural follow up to its progressive predecessor, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, ‘The Final Frontier’ challenges all preconceptions of Iron Maiden’s style. The opening title track leads of with about 4 minutes of strange, spaceshipy noises with Bruce Dickinson in the background before it starts proper. It’s a decent opener, not as instantly classic as most Maiden lead-off singles are but then again its better than ‘Wildest Dreams’. ‘El Dorado’ follows with a more traditional Maiden guitar sound, galloping riffs surrounding a memorable chorus and arguably one of the better, ‘accessible’ tracks the band have written in many years. ‘The Alchemist’ is another Maiden galloper, catchy and traditional.
From there, the band veer off into slightly more uncharted territory. Epic prog is now the order of the day, with most tracks over 7 and a half minutes. In fact this is the longest album they’ve ever written, including titanic closer ‘When the Wild Wind Blows’. They all follow a similar pattern with acoustic, soft intros building up into the main songs. Yet, with such talented guitarists, Maiden unplugged is always something special. It’s also incredibly refreshing to see a band, thirty years after their debut and proclaimed rightly as legends, willing to mess with their sound, write albums and songs that they want to, rather than what is expected. Highlights are the less traditional Maiden tracks, such as ‘Starblind’ and ‘Isle of Avalon’, while ‘El Dorado’ is a serious grower. I wasn’t sure of it the first time I heard it, yet it’s now one of my favoured Maiden tracks outside the classics from ‘Edward the Great’.
‘The Final Frontier’ is a staggering achievement. In a day of watered down imitations, bands who are content to release album after album of the same thing and bands who are happy to rest on the laurels of previous achievements, it’s so satisfying to see pioneers of the genre mix things up so successfully. Iron Maiden have written one of the most ambitious works of their career, each listen providing you with new things to notice. The gauntlet is thrown down, and there are no challengers to Maiden’s supremacy as titans of heavy metal.
1993 saw Immortal release Pure Holocaust, one of black metal’s most potent and iconic albums. From the grim black and white cover featuring the band in full ‘evil’ gear to the frostbitten song titles and the icy blast of the actual material, ‘Pure Holocaust’ is a work of pure, unadulterated black metal majesty. Does it still hold up after almost 18 years?
The simple answer is yes. Immortal haven’t released a bad album period; each one has been dedicated to perfecting black metal, from the rasping croak of Abbath to the tremolo-heavy waves of frozen guitar. Immortal are a band that it is easy to laugh at. Their album pictures are generally laughable, the band corpsepainted to the max and pulling all sorts of horrible faces. But in 1993, this shit was actually scary! The album is swathed in the buzzing chords made popular by their contemporaries in Mayhem and Burzum, but is rendered instantly recognisable by Abbath’s raw, unholy rasping vocals. He doesn’t scream like a tortured banshee, nor growl like some demon; he just vocalises like some possessed frog.
Pure Holocaust is nothing short of a raging wind of black metal. It is relentless in its assault, atonal power chords crashing repeatedly against some pretty solid, if occasionally sloppy blastbeating. Demonaz’s tremolo melodies are surprisingly accessible for a genre known for its ‘kvltness’, and each song is memorable in its own right. I sometimes have a problem telling tracks apart on some releases from this period in black metal’s history, but not with Immortal. They are catchy, and helped by a top notch production. It’s a surprise to find an early 90s black metal album that is so clear and concise, and doesn’t sound like a wasp stuck in a jam jar. A lack of bass reduces the bite of the album, but strangely increases the effectiveness of the frostbitten tales of frozen kingdoms. Snow and ice rarely has a deep sound, and the material is a personification of winter eternal; bleak, cold and lonely.
‘Pure Immortal’ takes the expression of a feeling through music to a new level. In this case, the frozen bleakness of winter comes straight through every icy riff and incantation to chill the bones. Perfect for that wintry walk in the woods, or the endless blizzards that choke the North, Immortal’s legacy will live on through this album alone. Essential black metal.
‘Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde’ is a strange beast. A one-man French black metal project has an implied sound and style, i.e Blut Aus Nord or Deathspell Omega. Alcest is neither, having much more in common with My Bloody Valentine and Burzum than their Gallic peers. ‘Souvenirs…’ is the debut album from Neige, the one man behind Alcest.
‘Souvenirs…’ provides an oddly outward view of the black metal landscape; it reaches upward with hope and light, rather than dark introversion. That alone should make it worth a listen, but the combination of hypnotic Burzum riffing and the fuzzy majesty of My Bloody Valentine create a strange beast that is beautiful to behold. Post rock meshes with blackened shoegaze (a term I had never come across before this album) to create six pieces of hopeful music, each with their own distinct identity. Ethereal vocals, seemingly devoid of lyrical content flow over each song, and weave within shimmering walls of guitars. It isn’t quite the ‘wall of sound’ approach, but there is a sense of size and scale. Vast sections of ebb and flow, coupled with crescendo-ing climaxes leave you with just a trace of Isis or Red Sparowes, but with less weight.
Multi-instrumentalist Neige combines his guitar lines well, clean guitar over acoustic working particularly effectively in ‘Ciel Errant’, and the prevalence of acoustic guitar during the majority of the record suits the style perfectly. The vocals are clean, clear and mesh in well, never taking attention away from the music yet never sparse enough to be ignored. Alcest is a project based on dreams that Neige had when he was younger, and you can believe that ‘Souvenirs…’ would provide a more than adequate soundtrack for a place of eternal happiness and bliss.
Happy black metal is not something you experience everyday, if ever. Alcest isn’t really metal, although Neige’s black metal past shows through Burzumic tremelo guitar drenched in fuzzy tones. One for the shoegazer in all of us, ‘Souvenirs d’un autre monde’ is simply stunning; proof that black metal can throw up beauty and light, as well as the darkness we all love.
Kylesa are a band who I’ve followed with great interest since I first heard the sludgy groove of ‘Time Will Fuse its Worth’. After the stunning ‘Static Tensions’, Kylesa has moved further from the sludge template that still underpins their sound, and moved into psychedelic rock territory. It isn’t quite as cathartic as it used to be, but it has revolutionised the band’s sound so that they are now becoming something rather special.
‘Spiral Shadow’ couples all of the swaggering rock and thunderous prog of their previous work, meshing it with an increasingly accessible sound. The band has grown greatly in songwriting, creating an album where the songs are all easy to tell apart; quite a challenge in modern metal. The dual drummers add a martial, tribal thunder behind guitarist Phillip Cope’s strong lead vocals, interspersed by Laura Pleasant’s beautiful melodious voice. The dual vocals are done well, neither overriding the other, merely interlinking as one solid whole. Riffs are still bread and butter to these guys, but the album’s highlights come from the slower, clean sections, such as the reverby intro to the title track.
The album is pretty streamlined, never dragging out a song longer than needed, and contains a good mix of stomping Baroness-isms and more introspective pieces. It’s something that the South-Eastern United States seems to be very good at: producing high quality sludge that is never afraid to mix in other elements to make themselves more unique, and therefore more important. Mastodon did it with ‘Crack the Skye’, an album that veered dangerously closed to being simply rock rather than metal, and Kylesa do the same with ‘Spiral Shadow’. The album is a triumph of songwriting and overcoming adversity; a loose theme that hangs around each track, and the band’s willingness not to do the obvious and rely on blood and thunder riffing is to their credit, especially on brilliant closer ‘Dust’. But it is album centrepiece ‘Don’t Look Back’ that is the definitive highlight, a powerful and heartfelt piece that lodges itself in your brain until you finally accept that this is the album Kylesa were born to make.
‘Spiral Shadow’ was one of the my favourite albums of 2010. It showed that being Southern sludge meant nothing to Kylesa, and that they were happy to blaze a trail of thundering, psychedelic Sonic Youth worship with neither care nor abandon. ‘Spiral Shadow’ is the sound of a band finally finding exactly who they are.
Mithras are a strange beast. Their metal-archives listing list them as brutal death metal with an experimental edge, whereas ‘Behind the Shadows Lie Madness’ is further away from brutal and more toward experimental. They possess similar ideas of progression as Cynic or Atheist, keeping an ethereal, otherworldly vibe a constant behind riffs and blastbeats.
Their particular brand of progressive death metal is not your expected slow pace, drenched in odd effects, but a fast paced, brutal affair. In fact, the album is a welcome blast from most progressive death, which can have a tendency to disappear under its own weight. Mithras are clearly influenced by Morbid Angel; the atmospheric solos and ambient sections recall ‘Formulas Fatal to the Flesh’ or ‘Domination’. But they’re no mere copycats; the material here is top notch, well written and immersive. That is what really sets it apart from many bands who do this kind of thing, they have the songs to back up the ability and ideas. I’d not heard any of their stuff before this, but have read reviews saying that some of their previous work had a tendency to wander aimlessly. ‘Behind the Shadows…’ doesn’t. It’s a thick, streamlined piece of progressive death metal, punctuated by instrumental segues that only enhance the overall product.
‘To Fall from the Heavens’ is a tremendous opener proper, after the swaying instrumental. The vocals are reminiscent of Vader, while spiralling solos lead into a spacey bridge section that adapts well to the apocalyptic warp of the front cover. ‘Under the Three Spheres’ is probably the most accessible track here, but its melody is nothing short of beautiful, a weaving atonal guitar line draws all the attention of the listener. ‘In Black Holes of Oblivion’ returns to the brutal, interspersed with another wildly original solo. Guitarist Leon Macey coaxes some amazing guitar melodies from his axe, and after a song or two it becomes instantly recognisable as him.
It may be back in 2007 when this was released, but thats no reason not to seek it out if you enjoy music like this. Mithras have created something rather unique here, and its a shame if that isn’t valued. ‘Behind the Shadows Lie Madness’ is my first record of the new year, and it’s going to be hard to top!
I haven’t written anything here for over 6 months, due to an ever increasing workload at my job and a general lack of time. I was recently informed of this by a friend who still checks this site, even though it hasn’t been updated in so long. This bothered me, as I’d previously made a commitment to write more regularly as a portfolio for any future work, plus as a hobby. So, 2011 is the year for me to up my game. I aim to review every record I can afford to buy this year, plus gig reviews as well. So far I have tickets to Metal Camp in the summer, plus Devin Townsend and Kylesa in March and February respectively. It’s going to be a good year…