POWERGAME Beast on the Attack
German newcomers Powergame recently self-released their debut album, ‘Beast on the Attack.’ While the disc appears to have flown beneath the radar of most, it is definitely worth a listen for fans of both the New Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal and the time-honored German style popularized by the likes of Accept and Grave Digger, or even more recent exports like Stallion or Elvenpath. Devotees of bands like Paragon and Metal Inquisitor may find much to their liking in ‘Beast on the Attack.’ The traycard in the CD proudly proclaims “Raw Heavy Metal,” which is a fair and accurate description of the auditory contents therein.
Powergame’s strongest selling point is the dual guitars of Tobi and Mattes. Man, these guys are perfectly in sync with each other and have mastered the art of twin-guitar harmonies, strong riffs and that killer old-school tone. The eight songs on display are worth listening to just for the guitarwork, which is at all times rugged, powerful and melodic. Just listen to a track like the NWOBHM tribute “Back to the Ruskin Arms” or “City of the Dead” for examples of what I mean. The meaty riffs, the soaring harmonies … they’re all there. Perhaps the best word to describe Matty’s vocals is “idiosyncratic,” which is of course true of many of his countrymen as well. His main singing voice is a pleasant enough half-spoken, semi-tuneful shout that comes across as characteristically German but also effective. Where Matty pushes the envelope is on the thin, out-of-control shrieks that he employs sporadically in most songs (like his intonation of “Beware” in the chorus of the title track). Unfortunately, the results of those efforts are less pleasing to the ear. Still, Matty’s passion and enthusiasm can never be denied, and that counts for a lot. Many tracks feature gang vocals in the choruses, a nice effect (see “Rise of the Banshee”) that the band wisely does not overuse. Powergame even experiments a bit with Eastern musical and lyrical motifs on the seven-minute closing track, “Osiris Reigns.” The intro to one cut, “The Oppressor,” gets a little too close to “Hell Bent for Leather” for comfort, though it then thankfully morphs into something different. In general, I get a kick out of many of the lyrics, like in the title track where Matty describes the beast as follows: “The fangs are white / The claws are black” or in “Final Dawn,” where he laments “Right from our birth / Rainbows, love and unicorns is all we want to see.” Man’s got a point there.
The bottom line is that Powergame’s debut offering is focused squarely in the Keep It True / Frost and Fire style of old-fashioned heavy metal. It’s not the strongest 2015 entrant in this crowded field you’ll hear, but Powergame are onto something here. A bit worrisome, however, is the note in the booklet that guitarists Tobi and Mattes left the band right after the ‘Beast on the Attack’ recordings concluded. They were an integral part of Powergame’s sound, and Tobi wrote the music for “Final Dawn” and “Your Own Fate.” Still, I take heart in the facts that Matty was and is the primary songwriter, and he has already lined up replacements Frank and Michael, depicted in the booklet as well. Hopefully, Powergame won’t miss a beat with the new blood, and will focus their next record on refining their promising sound, smoothing out some of the rough edges, and making the necessary improvements to stand out in a congested marketplace. For now, though, ‘Beast of the Attack’ is easily recommended to adherents of old-school, unrepentant Teutonic steel.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
SHALLOW GROUND Embrace the Fury
(Killer Metal 2015)
Y’know, 2015 won’t be remembered as a particularly riveting year for the thrash metal genre. Aside from Slayer’s tepid ‘Repentless’ album (and Annihilator, I guess), most of the bigger acts spent the year either touring or on the sidelines, without releasing new product. (By contrast, 2016 promises a tsunami of new thrash from the likes of Megadeth, Anthrax, Testament, Heathen, Death Angel, Hirax, Destruction, Flotsam & Jetsam and so on.) Nonetheless, a few stalwart underground acts (Breathless, Gama Bomb, Hatchet, Critical Solution, Running Death, Weresquatch, among others) did their part, taking the torch and keeping the thrash flame burning brightly. Add to that short list of excellent 2015 thrash the second album from Connecticut’s classy thrashers, Shallow Ground.
Let me be clear: ‘Embrace the Fury’ is not a good thrash record. It is a great thrash record. It deserves serious consideration for thrash album of the year. The band worked on this album for the better part of two years, and it shows. The songs, the production, the mix, the guitar tone, the performances, and even the cover art stand proudly head and shoulders above Shallow Ground’s already strong 2012 debut, ‘The End of Everything.’ Straight out of the gate, Shallow Ground make a powerful statement with “Once Again,” a bonafide neckbreaker with a devastating speed riff, a moshable bridge, and a stellar, surprising melodic interlude. The song’s lyrics, which sing the praises of circle pits, fit the music to perfection, even if the song’s title is, at least in part, an inside joke (attendees of the Warriors of Metal Festival might relate). “Once Again” is not only Shallow Ground’s finest moment to date, but it also gets my vote for thrash song of the year. But this record doesn’t let up. The mighty “Khan” comes blasting out of the speakers next like a demon on a slingshot from hell, with another fantastic thrash riff and vocalist Keith Letourneau bellowing an invitation (command?) that we take a drink from the cup of destruction. This is compelling stuff, folks.
Look, I’m not going to go song by song through the entire 9-song, 43-minute running time because this review would be even more longwinded and overwrought than it already is. Suffice it to say that the quality and classiness of Shallow Ground shine through on every cut, from the ode to Japanese Kamikaze pilots (“Brace for Impact”) to an original crusher from 1988 that the band decided to dust off (“Human Flame”) to a balls-out ripper (“Class Warfare”) to the head-exploding closer (“Slayer of the Gods”). Every single song boasts quality riffage, interesting lyrics, stellar guitarwork courtesy of Letourneau and Tim Smith, and yes, memorable hooks. My biggest beef with many of today’s young thrash bands is that, while they can rage like mofos, they can’t seem to write a song and their records end up being undifferentiated walls of energy. Not so for Shallow Ground. From the first time I listened to ‘Embrace the Fury,’ most of the songs left a distinct mark on my brain. They are sufficiently different and unique from each other to stand alone as separate tracks, yet they all thrash mightily (okay, not the clean instrumental take-a-breather track, “Eye of the Storm,” which gives goosebumps in its own way) and fit cohesively as a unified album under the Shallow Ground banner. I think a lot of the reason for this is that Shallow Ground are not johnny come latelies. They were here in the 1980s. They’re not trying to mimic or copy something that happened before they were born. Instead, they are playing the music they played more than a quarter century ago, the same music that flows through their veins and powers their hearts. It makes a difference.
A word about the vocals. Singer/guitarist Keith Letourneau has taken flak from certain quarters about his voice. He’s not a screamer or a growler or even a classic metal singer. Instead, Letourneau has this kind of gruff shout that reminds me a bit of a more metal Gary Meskil from Pro-Pain. He may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but he is (i) instantly recognizable as himself, as opposed to all these cookie cutter thrash vocalists around today; (ii) emotive and powerful; and (iii) totally clear in his enunciation, such that you can understand almost every word without poring over the lyric sheet. To my ears, Keith has improved his delivery since ‘The End of Everything.’ He’s also been lowered in the mix, so that the guitars can rightfully carry the songs. My view is that the vocals in no way detract from ‘Embrace the Fury’ and in fact add to the energy, vibe and effectiveness of the songs.
If the music business were just, Shallow Ground would be signed to Nuclear Blast and getting massive touring opportunities to bring their brand of classy thrash around the world. Instead, they’re on the small Killer Metal Records label (also home to the likes of Lords of the Trident) and eagerly hoping for the chance to play their music for the masses beyond the friendly confines of New England. Promoters, booking agents, connoisseurs of fine thrash metal: This is a call to arms. Get a copy of ‘Embrace the Fury.’ Blast it. Embrace the fury it invokes. And hail old-school American thrash metal!
~ Review by Kit Ekman~
CRIMSON DAY Order of the Shadows
(Iron Shield 2015)
From the heavy metal hotbed of Finland come Crimson Day with their full-length debut, ‘Order of the Shadows,’ on Iron Shield Records. Like labelmates Axevyper and Blackslash, Crimson Day play traditional Euro-styled heavy metal, without a lot of superfluous bells and whistles. The quintet had previously self-released a six-song EP in late 2013; however, none of those tracks are revisited here.
What strikes me in listening to this 11-song, 52-minute effort is the quality and consistency of the songwriting. Crimson Day aren’t trying to relive the 1980s, nor do they aspire to blow the listener away with speed, virtuosity, sheer heaviness or intricate arrangements. They don’t really do ballads or epics (although the 7-minute closer, “The Gathering,” comes close), just uncomplicated, guitar-driven, no-frills Euro metal, with enough dynamics in the arrangements to keep things interesting and a few light keys in the background to add atmosphere. The “formula” of Crimson Day is to take big, sturdy, simple melodic guitar riffs, add the mid-ranged, charismatic vocals of Valtteri Heiskanen (who has just a touch of mid-range Kai Hansen in his voice), and hit hard with memorable choruses and cool melodies. ‘Order of the Shadows’ is a very easy album to listen to and a very easy album to like.
Standout cuts include video track “Sandstalker,” with its Eastern-sounding “snake charmer” riff, Accept-influenced backing choirs, and hammering uptempo solo section that sounds like something Gamma Ray might do in Kai’s most “heavy metal” moments; “Stormborn,” which rides a mighty Primal Fear-type riff into a triumphant chorus, as Heiskanen belts out the ‘Game of Thrones’ inspired lyrics; “Burning Redemption,” where superb melodic riffing over a double-bass foundation gives way to an anthemic chorus and another high-octane solo section with awesome fiery leads evolves into a quiet half-whispered clean interlude before the chorus brings it all home; and the aforementioned “The Gathering,” which encapsulates everything awesome about Crimson Day (killer guitars, strong vocals, superb chorus, and a couple of cool dynamic shifts) in seven glorious minutes, plus a dose of added urgency, with that riff at 4:45 absolutely owning my soul every single time. As I said, though, consistency really is the name of the game on ‘Order of the Shadows,’ and there’s not a subpar, weak track in sight.
It’s a crowded marketplace out there, and Crimson Day aren’t hopping trends or taking the easy path. So it will be a challenge for them to garner attention. My feeling, however, is that the world can always use another well-written, well-played, honest, no-gimmicks, high-quality heavy metal album. And that’s precisely what Crimson Day have given us with ‘Order of the Shadows.’ If slow and steady wins the race, and I firmly believe that it does, Crimson Day have what it takes to outlast many of their here-today, gone-tomorrow peers.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
VANLADE Rage of the Gods
The first time I ever heard of Kansas City, Kansas natives Vanlade, I was watching them perform at the Warriors of Metal Festival in Ohio in the summer of 2010. They blew me away. The following year, Vanlade did exactly the same thing at the fourth installment of WOM Fest. Unfortunately, when Slaney / Stormspell released their debut, ‘Iron Age,’ in 2012, it was a bit of a letdown. Don’t get me wrong: ‘Iron Age’ is a strong album that features some killer songs. However, the recording failed to capture the band’s live energy, the weak production job did Vanlade no favors, the songs felt amateurish in spots, and the cover art looked like a parody rather than an homage. Fast forward three years and Vanlade have returned with their sophomore album, ‘Rage of the Gods,’ which is easily one of the finest true/speed/power metal albums of 2015, hands down.
What’s fascinating about the massive improvement in quality of ‘Rage of the Gods’ over its predecessor is that, fundamentally, Vanlade are not really doing anything differently this time around. They are, however, doing everything (and I mean everything) better. The eight proper songs (plus an intro and a jaw-droppingly good instrumental, “Moonbound”) crackle with energy and excitement from the first note to the last, typically hurtling along at breakneck speeds that leave the listener breathless, despite the extended song lengths (five songs exceed six minutes in duration, with three of those eclipsing the eight-minute mark). Guidepost bands would include Helstar, Liege Lord, Powermad, Arch-era Fates Warning, Agent Steel, Kill ‘Em All-era Metallica, early Iron Maiden, Thundersteel-era Riot, early Manowar, and newer acts like Enforcer, Skelator and Skull Fist. Vocalist Brett Blackout Scott relies heavily on his high-end banshee wails (more so than on ‘Iron Age’), and Zach Vanlade and newcomer Vinnie Lee Camarillo put on a clinic of power/speed twin-guitar mayhem. Songwriting is of the highest caliber too. Want a superb true metal anthem with bursts of speed, a Visigoth-type chorus section, and gang-shouted lines like “bring down the hammer”? Then “Hail the Protector” is the song for you. Jonesing for an early Metallica-fueled frenzied speed workout? Say hello to “Jaws of Life” or “Hellrazor.” If glorious ‘Spectre Within’-era Fates Warning styled ripping epics are your thing, “As Above, So Below” will make your day. And did I mention that the production job on ‘Rage of the Gods’ surpasses by leaps and bounds that of ‘Iron Age’? It’s not too clean or too polished, but it’s sufficiently clear and powerful to buttress (rather than detract from) the searing energy of the songs and performances.
There’s really no way to overstate how killer ‘Rage of the Gods’ is. If you’re a fan of the above-mentioned acts, and if the idea of a top-notch amalgamation of all of them sounds intriguing, then you owe it to yourself to check out this album. When I heard ‘Iron Age’ three years ago, I was prepared to relegate Vanlade to second-tier status: good, but hardly essential. ‘Rage of the Gods’ vaults them to the top tier, rubbing elbows with the world’s best power/speed/true metal bands. This is mandatory listening, folks. I hope and expect to see Vanlade gracing stages of America’s marquee underground metal festivals in 2016. They deserve it. For now, the only question is how high ‘Rage of the Gods’ will ascend my “Best of 2015” album rankings. Top 10 is a given, and top 5 is entirely possible. Well done, lads. Well done, indeed.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
BLIND GUARDIAN / GRAVE DIGGER
The Masquerade, Atlanta, Georgia
November 27, 2015
Black Friday conjures up images of shoppers trampling each other to save a dollar on junk that they do not need, people overdosing on leftover turkey and mashed potatoes, and lots and lots of football. This year, however, the day after Thanksgiving took on a whole new meaning for Jen and me as we drove to Atlanta to experience a couple of German heavyweights on the penultimate night of their five-week North American tour. The venue was upstairs at the Masquerade, the venerable old cotton mill that has reportedly been sold and whose days as a concert hall are by all accounts numbered. The “Heaven” room holds roughly 800 folks and it was more packed tonight than I’d ever seen it before. It was wonderful to see denizens of Atlanta and surrounding environs come out in full force to support German heavy metal on this holiday weekend. Notwithstanding the congestion, I was able to stake out a nice spot in the second row (behind a short woman with dreadlocks) on the left side of the stage, so I had a great view the entire night. As enthusiastic as the crowd was, they remained quite docile. It proved to be a great environment for rocking out and singing along without having to worry about taking a boot to the cranium.
Promptly at 8:00 p.m., the lights came down and GRAVE DIGGER took the stage. A venerable, highly-respected institution of traditional Teutonic steel abroad, Grave Digger are largely strangers to these shores. Despite a handful of one-off dates here and there, this tour marked the band’s first full-scale assault of the New World in more than three decades of existence. Because they were here in a support capacity, the Diggers lacked full use of the stage, lights and sound. But make no mistake: Grave Digger are a well-seasoned, totally professional live act who delivered a headliner-caliber performance from the first note of their 10-song, 55-minute set to the last. Wiry vocalist Chris Boltendahl may have gone gray, but he knows how to work a room, juxtaposing amiable smiles with playful jabs at the audience (making mock disgusted faces and saying, “you sound like my 90-year old grandmother” in response to a less-than-impressive singalong). This was my first time witnessing Axel Ritt on guitar in Grave Digger, as Manni Schmidt had manned the six strings on each of the four occasions I’d witnessed the band previously. The bare-chested Ritt definitely brings his own personality and style to the mix, legs splayed as he attacks his black-and-white striped axe, and even dropping to his knees and leaning back during the triumphant “Heavy Metal Breakdown” finale as the denim-vest wearing (Saxon, Kiss, AC/DC patches) Boltendahl towers over him. Over on my side of the stage, bassist Jens Becker doesn’t do anything fancy, but he holds down the bottom end and peers out at the audience, singing along with just a hint of a smile on his face. The setlist was, in all honesty, a superb overview of the band’s lengthy career. There were three cuts from the 80s period (of which my favorite “Witch Hunter” was especially gratifying to hear), two from the latest studio album ‘Return of the Reaper’ (the lumbering, Becker-led, red-lit “Season of the Witch” and the more dangerous, high-octane “Tattooed Rider”), three classics from the Uwe Lulis era (who can argue with “Rebellion” and “Excalibooor,” as Boltendahl pronounced it?) and one from the Schmidt period (the truly awesome “Ballad of a Hangman”), plus an earlier Ritt song (the Scottish-tinged, green-hued “Highland Farewell”). Grave Digger expertly mixed fast songs with mid-tempo bruisers, sprinkling in a few singalongs and winning over the partisan Blind Guardian crowd to their brand of no-frills, muscular, defiantly old-school true German metal. Band and crowd alike were all smiles by the time the proceedings came to a close, Boltendahl grasping the necks of Ritt’s guitar and Becker’s bass as all three men turned to face drummer Stefan Arnold in triumph. I bumped into Axel Ritt briefly afterwards, and he seemed very pleased with tonight’s show and audience, although he was not so complimentary of the relatively dilapidated, amenity-free Masquerade, haha. Perhaps the band have gained enough of a foothold in the USA on this tour to justify a return engagement as a headliner. Ten songs and 55 minutes of Uncle Reaper is simply not enough! Setlist: Headbanging Man, The Round Table (Forever), Witch Hunter, Ballad of a Hangman, Season of the Witch, Excalibur, Tattooed Rider, Highland Farewell, Rebellion (The Clans are Marching), Heavy Metal Breakdown.
The set changeover was startlingly efficient, as it took just under 20 minutes after Grave Digger left the stage before the lights went dark again, this time for headliner BLIND GUARDIAN. Part of the reason for this was undoubtedly the spartan stage setup. No backdrops, no banners, no video boards, no elaborate props. Just black curtains behind the stage, small designated areas to either side of the drum riser for keyboardist and bassist to inhabit, a few extra lights at the front sides and rear of the stage, an overworked fog machine at the back, and a lot of open real estate up front for Hansi Kursch, Andre Olbrich and Marcus Siepen to do their thing. I had seen the Bards five times before (in 1998, 2001, twice in 2006, and 2010). I’m certain I’ve never seen them better than they were tonight. The sheer sprawling scope and heft of their performance was awe-inspiring. Blind Guardian performed 18 songs tonight, including three epics of nine minutes or longer. They stayed on stage for two hours and 25 minutes, and the set was not bloated with extended solo spots for any of the musicians. Equally impressive was the band’s visibly high spirits, sustained positive energy and obvious joy throughout the night. By sheer chance, I had encountered Kursch and Olbrich the night before at their hotel in Mobile, Alabama. They were visibly exhausted that night and seemed ready for the long, hard US tour to be over. There was nary a trace of that roadburn to be seen onstage tonight, whether it was drummer Frederik Emke pounding on his skins and singing along like his life depended on it, or Siepen flailing hair and belting out the choirs, or Kursch all smiles as he alternately joked with Siepen and offered effusive praise to the crowd. I could tell that Olbrich was a bit under the weather, as he kept going over to the side of the stage to ingest caffeine (large red Starbucks cup and a 20-oz bottle of Coca-Cola, the latter quite appropriate for an Atlanta show) and blow his nose; however, his performance did not suffer for it in the slightest. His dizzying solos and glorious melodies were nailed to perfection on this night.
It ended up being a magical night in Atlanta. Surely some of the credit goes the crowd, who were loud, rabid and hanging on every lyric and melody all night long. They never seemed to get tired, even when singalongs during “The Last Candle” (“somebody’s out there”), “And Then There was Silence,” and “Valhalla” were repeated for minutes upon minutes. Audience familiarity with the material was also high, although some near me fell silent during the new songs, the lengthy “And Then There was Silence,” or the never-before aired “Curse of Feanor.” Blind Guardian seemed buoyed by the crowd, who seemed buoyed by Blind Guardian, with a positive feedback loop of energy that propelled band and audience alike to heights of euphoria. Kursch has grown in leaps and bounds as a frontman over the years too. He knows when to be self-deprecating (poking fun at himself for using the word “tiny” to describe the crowd when he meant to say “packed,” drawing attention to himself after he inadvertently dropped the microphone during “Banish from Sanctuary” and later calling it a “sound effect that I like to use from time to time”), when to express mock indignation at the crowd (“I give you the little finger, you take the whole hand” after chants of “Majesty” started up, then vowing “you’ve had your one wish, no more will be granted”), and when to tell us we were “fucking amazing” (a common refrain). Hansi also delivered truer renditions of his vocal lines than I’ve heard him do in the past, revving up to full power with less “cheating” then he has historically done to go easy on his own voice.
The real credit goes to the magical songs, however. Yeah, I know, anyone can bitch about a setlist. I can too. They didn’t play “Lost in the Twilight Hall,” or “Journey through the Dark,” or “Script for My Requiem,” or blah blah blah. But what they did play was really special. You want the hits? You got ‘em: “Bard’s Song,” “Nightfall,” “Valhalla” were all there. You want newish songs? You got those too: “Ninth Wave,” “Prophecies,” “Twilight of the Gods,” “Sacred Worlds,” “Tanelorn.” You want complex epics? “And Then There was a Silence” in all its 13-minute glory. An old-school smasher that hasn’t been part of the regular setlist in ages? “Banish from Sanctuary” and “The Last Candle” fit the bill in pure, spine-tingling glory. A touching semi-ballad about Frodo? “Lord of the Rings” is your answer. How about a 17-year old song they had *never* performed live before tonight? I give you “Curse of Feanor.” My point is this: Blind Guardian have written some of the greatest power metal songs ever. For them to select a sprawling setlist that plays to their strengths, while offering dynamics and avoiding predictability, is a guarantee of a great show. And that’s exactly what we got.
There’s really nothing else to say here. I used to think I’d missed out on the glory days of Blind Guardian, as the first four or five albums are far and away my favorites. While I’m still not particularly enamored of some of the newer material because (in my view) it lacks the urgency, power, thrashy attitude and emotional impact of the early stuff, I must admit that Blind Guardian are a truly formidable live act in 2015. I’m ever so thankful that they toured North America this year and am already anticipating their return to Atlanta in September 2016 as the Thursday headliner of the ProgPower USA festival. Be there!
Setlist: The Ninth Wave, Banish from Sanctuary, Nightfall, Fly, Tanelorn, Prophecies, The Last Candle, Majesty, Lord of the Rings, And Then There Was Silence, Curse of Feanor, Imaginations from the Other Side. Encore 1: Sacred Worlds, Twilight of the Gods, Valhalla. Encore 2: Into the Storm, The Bard’s Song – In the Forest, Mirror Mirror.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
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