Wednesday, December 10, 2014
I'm always nervous when a band comes off a really strong release, and then for whatever reason, makes a big change in the line-up. These changes are often necessary, either due to stability (or lack thereof) within a band, or sometimes, a member needs to leave a group for various personal and/or professional reasons. Whatever the impetus for change, fans of the band in its previous incarnation either have to hope that the band will carry on and be as good (or better) than they were, or perhaps even fold, since they'll have little chance to match what they've done in the past.
I'm a big Harmony fan. I dug the End Of My Road EP, and the subsequent album Chapter II: The Aftermath. I'd say more than enjoyed, because Chapter II is one of my favorite power metal albums of all time, and I rather thought vocalist Henrik Bath was a perfect fit for the band's sound. Truth be told, I preferred his work with Harmony to what he's done on the flipside with Darkwater. I've always felt as though Darkwater is just shy of greatness, but the songs just haven't quite hit me the way that Harmony's material did. So if Henrik left Harmony to focus on Darkwater, let's just hope that he brings his "A" game on the next album, because his departure from Harmony hurt my heart a little.
Having said that, Harmony scored a major win with Henrik's replacement, former Lost Horizon vocalist Daniel Heiman. It's not clear whether or not he'll be joining as a permanent member or just provided session vocals, but it's no secret that in the early 2000's, Lost Horizon set the power metal world on fire with both "Awakening the World" and "A Flame to the Ground Beneath". They were to be the "next big thing" in the power metal scene, after Hammerfall helped to resuscitate the genre in the mid-late 90's. Twas not to be, however, and Daniel lent his vocal talent to both Heed and Crystal Eyes in the mid 2000's. He's been relatively quiet since then, doing an occasional guest vocal, but without a major project to attach his name to. After hearing his performance on this latest Harmony album, I'd recommend he stick with these guys.
Immediately, the recognizable guitar sound of Markus Sigfridsson is present. He has cultivated a great guitar tone that perfectly combines a heavy, crunchy sound, while retaining a clarity that allows the riffs and melodies to really shine. It also gives his solos a great sound that hearkens back to the golden age of metal (I'll say that's the 1980's). He also employs a nice acoustic guitar sound in "You Are" as well, and uses a couple other textures throughout the album where there's less distortion (or at times none), for a nice effect. Thundering bass is handled by Raphael Dafras (Almah), and he's solid as always. Harmony's production (handled by the band, as well as Fredrik Nordström & Thomas Johansson) doesn't lend itself to overly audible bass lines, and relegates it to more under the radar, but there are moments (like during the post-chorus section of "Hands Of Time") where the bass takes more center stage. Drumming is handled by one Tobias Enbert, and as usual, he brings solid drumming that stresses rhythm over technicality and speed, but he ramps up the pace when necessary, and provides consistency throughout the album. Newcomer John Svensson does a fine job on keyboards, adding the symphonic bits here and there where they make sense, and adding that additional melody line in places where the guitar is spending more time on driving riffs than establishing the base melody. He does a fine job here with the material.
Vocally, Daniel Heiman is on point, though noticeably more reserved than we heard him on either Lost Horizon album. I doesn't sound as though his voice has lost a step, so perhaps he (and/or the band) didn't feel the material here called for quite as flamboyant a performance as before. He sounds excellent here, however, with a fair degree of dynamics, range, and emotion on display. He goes up quite high on several occasions, and his smooth voice really blends well with the material on this album. He's no stranger to Harmony, having contributed some backing vocals to the previous album, as well as a guest spot on the Chapter II song "Inner Peace". Daniel's vocals are a different breed than Henrik's, so it will take some getting used to, but he really does a good job of putting his own stamp on the Harmony sound with his performance here.
My biggest hangup with the album is going to be the loss of Henrik Bath as vocalist for the band, because I really felt as though his unique voice was one of the strengths of Harmony that set them apart from the rest of the power metal pack. Adding Daniel Heiman gives them the band a boost of name recognition, and he does a great job, but I'm left wondering what this material might have sounded like with Henrik singing atop the songs. In addition, the delineation of sound between Darkwater and Harmony has always been that Darkwater was the band for the more mid-paced, progressive material, and Harmony was the band for the more straight-forward, European power metal material. The lines are slightly more blurred here, as this material leans ever so slightly back in the prog direction, though only as compared to its predecessor. This is either a good thing or a band thing, dependent on whether you like Harmony best as a prog/power band, or a straight up power band. For me, I lean toward the more power side, as their progressive leanings have not been a draw from my perspective. In addition, the songs here just don't hit me the way those on Chapter II: The Aftermath have. Of course, that album came at a time when I was seeking out power metal in quantity, and it stood out from the pack. Having reviewed a number of albums in the genre in the last several years, and purchased several, as well as receiving review copy of nearly that many, I've been deluged somewhat by the genre. That may be coloring my opinion of the album as well.
At the end of the day, this is a high quality release from Harmony that just misses the mark for me personally, but should please fans of the genre. Power metal aficionados should already be familiar with the Harmony name, and with the addition of Daniel Heiman at the vocal helm, that additional name recognition should help boost the band's profile beyond its current reach. The songs are all well done, though they're not sticking with me quite as quickly as the band's previous material has, though admittedly that's partly my own disappointment in the vocal changes. Still, Harmony's 3rd album is one they can and should be proud of, and will continue to draw accolades and expand their listener base. As a fan of the band, I'll continue to follow what they do. They just need to shore up the vocal side of the house and either get Daniel to stick around, or find someone who fits their sound & style who can carry the band into the future. Recommended.
I like a challenging, or even frustrating listen once in a while. I like for a release to give me something other than what I was expecting, even if it's not what I wanted. We need to be challenged in life from time to time, or we don't grow and learn from our own insular, and often myopic perspectives. To be able to glean something new from something you thought you already knew is a sign of maturity. I can safely say that Black Fate's "Between Visions & Lies" was not what I was expecting, or even hoping for.
Truth be told, I was only mildly excited for this release. Ulterium Records hasn't really let me down yet, though a couple releases haven't quite met expectations (I'm looking at you, Ivory Moon and End of September). For that reason, even with a band like Black Fate, who I had not heard of, prior to seeing "coming soon" posts on the Ulterium Records Facebook page, I had to be at least a little excited, if not just intrigued. After all, this is the label that brought us Harmony's "Chapter II: The Aftermath" (one of my favorite power metal albums EVER), Theocracy, and a slew of other great bands and releases over the last several years. That said, Black Fate challenged me more than I wanted, but it's my own fault: sometimes I get in my own way a bit too much. Having only heard the teaser stuff, I was expecting a middle-of-the-road metal album with hard rock influence, some power metal influence, and perhaps a hint of prog metal for good measure. What I got was nothing like that.
Because I've not heard any Black Fate material prior to this, their 4th album, I have no reference as to the sound or quality of their earlier albums. If they're anything like this, however, I'd describe them as vaguely Savatage-inspired prog/power metal with a penchant for vocal harmonies. The first few spins of the album were uneventful, because I thought maybe it was going to be faster, perhaps a touch heavier, and was expecting the vocals to be a bit more "soaring" than what Vasilis brings to the table. Truth be told, I had already made my mind up as to what the album was likely going to sound like, so when it didn't grab me right away, I kind of dismissed it as perhaps less than what it was. I count that as a mistake, however, because after about 10 or 12 listens, something started to click with me, and I started to hear this album for what it actually was: a solid, semi-progressive metal album with some power metal stylings injected in, and a fair bit of personality under the hood.
Musically speaking, this is solid stuff. Guitars, provided by Gus Drax (briefly a part of metal legends Paradox) are driving and interesting. He provides a riff-oriented style that is melodic enough without losing its edge, but not so intent on "chugging" that variety is sacrificed. "Lines In the Sand" is a good example where it's not all bar chords and chugging. It's a combination of that and alternate chording, providing a nice balance between an aggressive, heavy feel, and a melodic base that keeps the songs listenable beneath the surface. There are a few nice touches here and there, like a couple pinch harmonics, some good solo work that isn't too flashy and retains tunefulness. Bass guitar is provided by Vasilis Liakos. His work isn't overly audible in the mix, but it's present and serves more as a driving force underneath the guitar to help propel the sound. What I'm hearing sounds good, though it's nothing groundbreaking. Still, it sounds good alongside the guitar work. Drumming by Nikos Tsintzilonis is quite good, with a good sense of when to speed up and go nuts, and when to slow down and let the song breathe. Very seldom does Nikos go full-bore with double-bass and fast rhythms, however, because the material's more medium-pace doesn't call for that much. Instead, he keeps time, injects the occasional fill, and creates interest in subtle ways. He does a fine job matching the material's feel and level of aggression well.
Vocalist Vasilis Georgiou is not what I was expecting. Generally, with Ulterium bands fronted by a man, you get a fairly powerful male voice with highs, occasional lows, and a fair sense of drama. Not that I was expecting a clone of any of the label's other vocalists, but for some reason, Vasilis' voice just struck me funny after listening to the record the first time. It took me a bit to warm up to his voice for some strange reason. He's a talented singer with a sense of dynamics, he makes good use of vibrato here and there, has a good tone, and uses inflection in places where it fits. I'm not sure what my hang-up was initially, but I like what he's bringing to the table here, even if he doesn't have the presence of some of his label-mates.
My biggest issue with the album is that, while the songs are all well-constructed, and reasonably memorable, they still took a long time to take hold for me. Yes, part of this may be my issue, but still, I'm looking for something a touch more immediate in a band of this type. I'd prefer the band pull a bit of a "bait and switch" and give me a meaty, anthemic opening song to get my attention, and then weave the more complex songs in as the album goes along to help solidify what's going on. It all sounds good while it's playing, but other than the chorus of "Call of the Wild", or bits of "Lines in the Sand", I'm not humming these songs after listening to them. When I play the album 3 or 4 times in a row, I expect to have some of the material stuck in my head several hours afterward. I'm not getting that here, and it speaks somewhat to the material itself. It's not vanilla, by any means, but it's not something that has stuck with me at all.
Mileage on a release like this is going to vary. If you're a big fan of the semi-progressive latter Savatage material, you'll probably get a big kick out of this record. At the very least, you'll appreciate the musicianship at work, like I did. If you prefer your progressive metal a bit more grand, you'll find this lacking. Either way, I would encourage the members of Black Fate to tighten up their songwriting so that the next album has a stronger batch of material with more of an immediacy to it. That will help the songs grab hold much faster, and get ingrained in the listener's consciousness that much more effectively. As it stands, they've crafted a solid, highly listenable, and enjoyable release that just misses the mark in the songwriting department. I'll tentatively recommend this to prog metal diehards who have to have everything in the genre, or Ulterium Records devotees like myself who have enjoyed everything the label has done thus far.