HOPES OF FREEDOM Burning Skyfall
It’s nice to see melodic Euro power metal having a bit of a resurgence these days. After its heyday in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the style has been beaten up, beaten down and largely overlooked. So many things in music (like life) are cyclical, and now new bands like Hopes of Freedom are exploring the melodic power metal sound and breathing new life into what had been a moribund genre. I do not have much information about the band, but I do know they hail from the Upper Normandy area of France and formed back in 2007. They released in EP in 2010 and a self-titled full-length in 2010, before returning this spring with ‘Burning Skyfall,’ their first release on their homeland’s Brennus Records.
The album is being marketed as folk/power metal and I do see the basis for description, but in fairness Hopes of Freedom are much more in the “power” bucket than the “folk” category. I guess the reasons for the “folk” tag are the occasional use of traditional instrumentation (bagpipe, tin whistle, uilleann pipe, etc.) and the melodies that sometimes have that Blind Guardian / Falconer / ‘Lord of the Rings’ folky lilt to them. Let me put it this way: Hopes of Freedom are folk metal in the same way that Galloglass or Isengard were, so much more a melodic power metal band with folk touches than the other way around. In fact, the ‘Burning Skyfall’ album as a whole puts me in mind of some of the better bands on the LMP roster during its glory years, acts like Galloglass or Human Fortress or early Mob Rules. Of course, the usual genre tropes and conventions are represented here in full force. The lyrics are steeped in fantasy, telling the story of a struggle between men and Dragon Gods, with one rebellious god turning on his brothers and seeking intervention from a Mother Firedrake, and so on. Everything is epic and larger than life, with an 11-minute track (“Mother Firedrake”), a couple of solemn voiceovers, and scads of choirs. It’s the kind of album that would prompt a long-exiled Euro melodic power metal genre aficionado to exclaim with a lopsided smile, “Chewie, we’re home.”
Happily, I can report that Hopes of Freedom have executed their mission well, as there’s a lot to like about ‘Burning Skyfall.’ Most importantly, Hopes of Freedom have penned some captivating melodies and strong riffs on cuts like standout “In Agony,” “Hearts in Unison,” or “Human Era.” Also, the lads have largely avoided the common genre pitfall of drowning their songs in faux orchestration, layers of soggy keys or gimmicky folk instruments. The album is guitar-oriented for the most part, which serves Hopes of Freedom well and gives the tracks a nice metallic bite. Really the only time the band gets bogged down in bloated arrangements that are too ambitious for their own good is “Mother Firedrake,” the 11-minute tune; otherwise, the album has a nice flow and does not overstay its welcome. What may prove to be the make-or-break factor for many listeners is the vocals. Singer Lucas Lambert has a fairly thick French accent, as one might expect, which carries over into the choirs as well. The real issue is that neither lead vocals nor choirs have a great deal of power. A more commanding voice could really make the strong material shine, but Lambert and the choirs sometimes sound a little too laidback. That said, on spots like the main part of “My Shattering Burden,” Lambert puts enough oomph and emotion into his voice to pull it off effectively.
The bottom line is that Hopes of Freedom have given us a fine example of the Euro melodic power metal style on ‘Burning Skyfall.’ If the style appeals to you, the disc will likely find favor in your collection because it is well done, despite its limitations. I’ll look forward to seeing what Hopes of Freedom do next because they’ve showcased some real talent and glimpses of something special on ‘Burning Skyfall.’ If they can take the next step forward with album number 3, it’s no exaggeration to think that Hopes of Freedom might lead the charge for the forthcoming wave of melodic power metal.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
SAVAGE MASTER With Whips and Chains
Make no mistake: Savage Master are one of the most exciting bands to shake up the world of traditional heavy metal in recent memory. Visually, the Louisville, Kentucky-based quintet present an imposing appearance, with four black-hooded, bare-chested, chain-laden instrumentalists accompanying a diminutive female singer in dominatrix gear. Lyrically, the band delve deeply into themes of the occult, evil and darkness, but with just enough of a mischievous twinkle in their eyes to add a pinch of campy levity to the endeavor. Savage Master’s first album, 2014’s ‘Mask of the Devil,’ was very good, but didn’t entirely convince me in the performance and songwriting aspects. That said, tracks like “The Ripper in Black” and “Death Rides the Highway” were pure hammers of steel. Then I saw Savage Master live, not once or twice but five times in 2015, and all lingering doubts were erased. I was blown away every time, and that’s when I knew Savage Master were poised to make the leap to the upper echelon.
Fast forward to May 2016, and Savage Master’s sophomore album, ‘With Whips and Chains,’ has been unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. This disc is a monster. Whatever lofty expectations were placed on the band they have well and truly shattered, improving by leaps and bounds over their already-solid debut. What’s different this time around? Savage Master seem to have gained focus and confidence in the intervening period, with a clear-eyed sense of purpose and both the swagger and know-how necessary to realize their musical vision. Guitarist/primary writer Adam Neal was always a riff merchant, but damned if he hasn’t amassed a stockpile of some of the coolest, darkest, and catchiest riffs in ages this time around. Every single song is propelled by a truly grade-A riff. Nothing stock or uninspired or paint-by-numbers here, folks. It’s as if the man’s hands were guided by Satan himself during the writing process; after all, even Satan wears leather, our souls to live forever. Err, I digress.
But Neal has also injected more hooks in the tunes on ‘With Whips and Chains,’ via newfound melodic touches that manage to complement the sinister malevolent vibe well while simultaneously making certain that you’ll never forget these songs, in some cases from the very first listen. The result is that tracks like “Ready to Sin” and “With Whips and Chains” and “Vengeance is Steel” and, holy crap, “Satan’s Crown” are all intensely memorable and flat-out killer, without sounding like cheap sellouts or watered-down versions of the ‘Mask of the Devil’ material. Honestly, I shouldn’t have started naming tracks because there’s not a single weak link, not a single track unworthy of plaudits. The other factor putting ‘With Whips and Chains’ over the top is the performance of Stacey Savage. Her gritty sandpaper-like delivery on ‘Mask of the Devil’ drew many favorable comparisons to Cirith Ungol’s Tim Baker, but Stacey is unquestionably on a different level here. She’s added a newfound versatility to her vocals, snarling and shouting and rasping but also throwing in a cleaner, more melodic approach when the song calls for it. The result is that the vocals on ‘With Whips and Chains’ have a lot more character, personality and texture overall than the fairly one-dimensional attack on the debut.
I guess the best way to think of it overall is that Savage Master have evolved and stepped up their game in all departments. Everything on ‘With Whips and Chains’ sounds like undiluted, pure Savage Master in all of its dark, sinister, grimy, old-school traditional metal glory, but it’s just better this time around. Better written, better played, better performed, hell, even better produced in terms of sounding like an underground album recorded in 1984 or something. It requires no leap of imagination to see ‘With Whips and Chains’ attracting legions of new fans to Savage Master’s coven. They’re road warriors too, having just returned from Europe (including an appearance at the prestigious Keep It True Festival, where by all accounts they flattened the hall) and about to embark on a U.S. tour opening for Holy Grail. Savage Master are going places, so why not grab a copy of ‘With Whips and Chains’ now to see what all the fuss is about? You won’t hear a better traditional U.S. metal album in 2016, I guarantee it. Savage Master are burning hot and they’re ready to sin, so here we go …
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
NIGHT DEMON / VISIGOTH
Chicago, IL & St. Louis, MO
May 8 & 9, 2016
Two of America’s best and brightest hopes for traditional metal recently joined forces for a 20+ date spring tour of the USA. Ventura, California road warriors Night Demon headlined the package, performing at least their fourth substantial U.S. run since fall 2014. Though still promoting last year’s awesome ‘Curse of the Damned’ opus, Night Demon had a few tricks up their sleeves this time around. Dubbing the trek The Final Curse, Night Demon’s plan was to play the ‘Curse’ record in its entirety, including a number of deep cuts that most fans had never heard the band perform live. The also used the occasion to break in a new guitarist, Armand John Anthony, who replaced departed founding member Brent Woodward. Also along for the ride were Visigoth, Salt Lake City true metal titans whose ‘The Revenant King’ debut last year turned heads and cracked skulls from sea to shining sea. In contrast to Night Demon, Visigoth had never embarked on a major U.S. tour before, so it was most fans’ first opportunity to witness the power and might of the Visigoth live attack. Jen and I caught the tour twice on consecutive nights, in two different cities. Here’s the rundown …
Sunday, May 8, 2016
It was Mother’s Day. The day after the Ragnarokkr Metal Apocalypse festival’s conclusion. We had stuck around in Chicago for the afternoon to hang out with friends and take in a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. The weather was beautiful, the sun was shining, and the game was fun, even though the $9.50 beer concession prices were not. Except that the damn game wouldn’t end. It just kept going and going. Nine innings turned to eleven innings, and next thing we knew it was 6:00 p.m., the twelfth inning had just ended with the game still tied, and we were a long way from Reggie’s Rock Club, where the gig was supposed to start at 8:00 p.m. So we ditched the game, grabbed some Mediterranean food on the run, walked back to our friends’ house as fast as we could to pick up our earplugs, then hopped a red line train to Chinatown, arriving at the venue at a minute or two past 8. Fortunately, we had not missed any of the festivities.
It was surreal to be back inside Reggie’s the day after Ragnarokkr ended. Tonight’s gig was in the smaller room, where the festival’s second stage was housed, and it was strange seeing the room so quiet in contrast to its packed-to-the-gills status the last two nights. That’s not to say the venue was empty. Far from it, the draw was a respectable 50-60 folks, which is not bad at all considering it was Sunday night, it was Mother’s Day, and most Ragnarokkr attendees had either flown home or were still passed out in a ditch or an alleyway somewhere from overdoing it all weekend long.
At around 8:30 p.m., Visigoth took the stage to an extremely partisan, enthusiastic crowd. I was amazed how many people around me seemed to know every word to every song (at least, the ones from ‘The Revenant King’). Perhaps feeling buoyed by the rabid audience, and rested from two nights off in a row (many members of both bands had partaken of the Ragnarokkr fest as spectators, instead of as performers), as well as the fact that their girlfriends had traveled in for this tour stop, Visigoth were simply ferocious tonight. Vocalist Jake Rogers attacked the stage, being hugely animated and getting right up close and personal with the fans upfront. He was relying heavily on gulps from a pitcher of hot water in between songs (and even during instrumental breaks or between verses within songs) to ease his voice through the night, yet he sang with full power, did not appear to be holding anything back, and sounded magnificent. Jake was flanked on either side by flailing-hair guitarists Jamison Palmer and Leeland Campana (the latter in just his third or fourth gig back after missing the first part of the tour because of personal obligations). The opening one-two punch of “Dungeon Master” and “Mammoth Rider” was simply beyond reproach, but afterwards Visigoth pivoted to a new song “By Steel and Silver,” with which I was somewhat familiar because I had heard them play it in Ventura at Frost & Fire last year. Then they graced us with a well-chosen cover of “The Spell,” which dates back to Demon’s second album, ‘The Unexpected Guest,’ from 1982. The Visigoth version of this catchy gem of a song is quite faithful to the original, although as one might expect Visigoth boost the guitars and (if I’m not mistaken) the tempo a bit. They rounded out their sublime 40-minute set with splendid renditions of “Blood Sacrifice” and “The Revenant King.” Visigoth are such a great band, and I expect bigger and better things from them in the future. My only disappointment was not hearing “Iron Brotherhood” tonight. Whatever. Go see them whenever and wherever you can. Setlist: Dungeon Master, Mammoth Rider, By Steel and Silver, The Spell, Blood Sacrifice, The Revenant King.
The middle band on the tour, Against the Grain, were up next. The Detroit speed rockers were on their final night of this excursion, and they made it count with a ripping high-speed journey of greasy, dirty Motorhead-influenced mayhem. Not exactly my thing, but they were good at what they did and many others seemed to dig ‘em.
Each time I see Night Demon, the production values seem to get better and more professional. By now, of course, I’m well-versed in the black-light stage banner with the ‘Curse of the Damned’ cover artwork, replete with red glowing eyes on the central character; the cross-design scrims erected in front of each stack of cabinets; the stage fog machine; and the multicolored floor-light system positioned on the front corners of the stage, operated by tour manager/merch guy/mascot Andrew Bansal from a control panel at the side of the stage, with ever-changing colors and strobes coordinated with the music. This time, the band have also added multi-color light panels on the floor on either side of drummer Dusty Squires. Those panels are not only synched to the light boxes at the front of the stage, but they also highlight Dusty well and keep him from being lost in the fog and darkness like he used to be. Also new for this tour? A new chalice (its predecessor having apparently shattered in a casualty of previous road battles) and a new mask for mascot Rocky. Again, the production aspects of the show just get better and better from one tour to the next.
Tonight was far and away the longest Night Demon show I’ve ever witnessed, as they blasted out 16 songs in just over an hour. The gig started unconventionally as, following their traditional Conan intro tape, the band launched into “Manticore,” an instrumental jam that provides a taste of new material from their partially-recorded second album, scheduled to be released in early 2017. Then Night Demon went directly into their classic Diamond Head cover, “Lightning to the Nations,” always a welcome selection. After “Ritual,” it was time for the ‘Curse of the Damned’ part of the program, as that album was played in its entirety, in reverse order. So the more obscure (in terms of live exposure) tunes like “Save Me Now,” “Killer” (played way faster than recorded speed) and “Run For Your Life” were up first, with the tried-n-true live favorites like “Full Speed Ahead” and “Curse of the Damned” coming near the end. I’m generally not a fan of “play the whole album” sets, but this one works because (i) every song on ‘Curse of the Damned’ is worthy; (ii) despite seeing the band 10 times before, I had never heard three of those songs played live; and (iii) the band had enough enthusiasm and energy to pull it off. If Night Demon seemed stoked to play the whole album, the audience totally seemed stoked to hear the whole album. Before I knew it, I was arm in arm with a total stranger standing next to me up front, belting out the lyrics, raising my fist and having a ball. Ah yes, the power of heavy metal. The set concluded with staples “The Chalice” and “Night Demon,” the former featuring an appearance by mascot Rocky with his chalice amidst blood-red lighting. Rocky sought me out from the stage, grabbed my neck and turned the chalice upside down in my mouth, giving me a swig of red wine, which would have been fine except that there was a piece of cork in it, haha. The chalice never used to have wine in it before, so this is yet another cool innovation. Rocky also had at least one more spectator, plus guitarist Armand, drink from the chalice. By the time “Night Demon” ended, everyone was sweaty and happy. Another fantastic show from Night Demon.
Monday, May 9, 2016
The following morning, Jen and I made it to Van Buren Street in downtown Chicago in time to catch the Megabus bound for St. Louis, Missouri. The beautiful thing about the Megabus is that the total fare we paid for two reserved seats on the upper deck was $14. The ride took about six painless, comfortable hours, after which we were deposited at the bus station in downtown St. Louis, across the street from that city’s NHL hockey arena. We spent the afternoon dodging raindrops and checking out the hockey stadium (where they were gearing up for a St. Louis Blues playoff game that night), the baseball stadium, and the Gateway Arch (sadly, most of that area is a construction zone at the moment), before meeting up with the Night Demon guys for a late lunch / early dinner at a downtown tavern where the server told us with a smile that “Cubs Suck” and asked if we were in the band Holy Grail (she saw my hoodie), which she’d actually heard of. The band’s spirits seem high, and they’re very excited about coming events, including a six-week European tour this summer capped off by a mainstage appearance at the prestigious Bang Your Head Festival in Balingen, Germany; a multiweek opening slot on the Carcass/Crowbar/Ghoul U.S. tour; and various other plans that may or may not have been announced yet. It was good to catch up with them, and good to meet Armand finally. Although new to Night Demon, he has known Jarvis and Dusty for many years, and seems to fit in well with the band, both musically and personality-wise. As a fan and friend, I certainly still miss Brent, but that’s no fault of Armand’s, and anyway, things change and sometimes you just have to move on.
Tonight’s gig was at the FUBAR on a particularly desolate stretch of Locust Street, around two miles from downtown. Jen and I had been to there once before, in March 2014 when we were on the road with Widow on the Destruction tour, so walking around inside the venue brought back many happy memories. The show tonight was on the lounge side of the venue, which is the smaller room; however, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the venue had constructed a new, much larger and nice looking stage in that room in the two years since I was here last. There were not nearly as many people in St. Louis as there had been in Chicago, unfortunately, and the two local opener bands appeared neither to bring in much of a crowd nor stick around after the sets were finished. For most of the openers, we either retreated outside to get away from the sound (although we were accosted by a constant stream of homeless people on the sidewalk when we did so) or simply watched the Blues on television getting their asses kicked by Dallas in the hockey playoff game.
Visigoth brought the fire and passion with them to St. Louis, small crowd be damned, even though Jake Rogers apparently had to go down the street to a BP station to get hot water to use onstage for his voice. There were no stage lights to speak of, just dim white ordinary room lights, but Visigoth let nothing affect them. In a way it was better for me because with a smaller crowd, there was much more one-on-one interaction with the band members. I got to contribute vocals to one chorus of “The Spell” and ended up with Jake just inches from my face as we sang “The Revenant King” chorus together. I really appreciated that Visigoth put full power and full energy into this gig, even though it had to be a letdown after the previous night’s bigger show in Chicago. They did, however, cut “Blood Sacrifice” from the set due to time constraints, so it was just a five-song Visigoth set this evening. Still, I’ll take five live songs from Visigoth over ten songs from most bands, anytime.
For their part, Night Demon had to scrap the “full-album” concept also because of time constraints, but they nonetheless played a very special 11-song set. It was probably the most perfect setlist I’d ever witnessed from the band, deftly balancing the more known and the more obscure, keeping the tempos mostly fast but having just the right amount of dynamics. There were deep cuts like “Ancient Evil” and “Killer,” plus their classic Riot cover “Road Racin’” along with all-time greats like “Mastermind” and “The Howling Man.” Plus the gig began with the body blow of “Screams in the Night” into “Full Speed Ahead,” which is simply perfect for my tastes. I made a point of watching Armand a lot more tonight. The guy has a different stage persona that Brent Woodward did, as he’s more animated and a bit flamboyant even. He plays the songs well. It’s a different feel onstage, for sure, but Armand certainly seems up to the task. One funny bit was during set closer “Night Demon,” Andrew’s lighting control board stopped functioning and the band’s multicolored floor lights went dark. Lee from Visigoth happened to be standing near the light switch for the stage, so he flipped the dim white house stage lights on so the guys wouldn’t be playing in the dark. During the triumphant instrumental part of “Night Demon,” when the band’s custom lights would ordinarily be flashing in strobe mode, Lee tried to replicate the effect by flipping the light switch for the house lights off and on in rapid succession. It was kind of hilarious. Still the band played on, because dammit that’s what Night Demon does, through personnel changes and venue restrictions and small audiences and failed equipment and everything else. I love ‘em for it, and they did me proud tonight. Set list: Screams in the Night, Full Speed Ahead, Ancient Evil, Killer, Mastermind, Ritual, The Howling Man, Curse of the Damned, Road Racin’, Chalice, Night Demon.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
True Metal Lives
The Voice Of The Underground