Sunday, October 30, 2005

Review: Auracle - Crystal Lies (2005)

Auracle [ MySpace ]
Crystal Lies

Auracle  is a fresh power metal band from the Netherlands, founded several years ago by keyboardist/composer Joris van de Kerkhof and bass player Fred Hasselman as a studio project named Mythica. After releasing one demo, the project underwent a few line-up changes before adopting their current moniker and releasing Crystal Lies, a two-track demo intended to attract label and venue attention.

A goal of the founding members was to create robust power metal with Arabic and Asian atmospheres. Such an atmosphere is certainly present on Crystal Lies, particularly on the title track. The band's sound relies heavily on the keyboard skills of Joris for the bombastic, orchestral feel that enshrouds the clean guitars and precise drum beats. Complete with a strings section, horns, and more exotic instruments like the sitar, Joris' orchestration lends a bit of a movie soundtrack quality to the music. Obviously the keyboards are very prominent in the mix, but they leave plenty of room for some deep bass lines from Fred and solid riffs from Niek van Doorn, as well as the previously mentioned drum work of Marco Verberne.

The vocal duties of Auracle are shared between Bryan Ketelaars and, on this demo, Elizabeth Cordia (ex-Annatar). Though at first glance comparisons to bands like Nightwish and Epica seem appropriate, Auracle shy away from the operatic vocalizations and instead rely on their singers to create a much softer, more accessible sound. Bryan has a slightly gravelly voice that compares with Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian) and Jonny Lindkvist (Nocturnal Rites), whereas Elizabeth is on par with such metal divas as Liv Kristine (Leaves' Eyes) and Anneke van Giersbergen (The Gathering). Bryan has the lion's share of the vocal parts, but his interaction with Elizabeth provides a pleasing contrast and works well to enhance the enjoyability of the songs.

Crystal Lies provides an intriguing taste of what Auracle is capable of producing, and definitely leaves the listener wanting more. While their style of power metal isn't quite groundbreaking, the musicianship is first rate and the vocals are excellent. Since the demo was released, Elizabeth has left the band and was replaced by Amelie Mangelschots. Assuming Amelie has a vocal style similar to Elizabeth's, the future work of Auracle should remain as good as that shown on this demo.

Track Listing
1 Crystal Lies 4:40
2 Land of the Gods 5:19

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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Review: Witchkrieg - Dark My Way (2004)

Dark My Way

The term "pagan metal" has often been used to describe various subgenres of extreme metal that incorporate elements of black metal, death metal, and sometimes Gothic metal. Lyrics based on Satanic or anti-Christian themes tend to round out a band's "pagan" classification, though in fact very few of such bands are truly pagan in spirituality (not to mention Satanism being a Christian invention, not a form of paganism). Australia's Witchkrieg, on the other hand, redefine the term pagan metal - actually coining the phrase "Witch Metal" to classify themselves - in that the band members are in fact practicing pagans with a desire to create neopagan-themed heavy music. Dark My Way is the band's debut release, and though suffering from unpracticed production it serves to illustrate Witchkrieg's future potential.

Barb Ettridge is the trio's vocalist and main songwriter. Hers was the inspiration behind Witchkrieg, and several of the thirteen songs on Dark My Way deal directly with neopagan themes and issues. She cites Joan Jett as one of her influences, and I can certainly hear that punkish style in her delivery. What Barb has yet to master, however, is the ability to fill her voice with emotion. She has talent but tends to sound hesitant and apprehensive, at times even stumbling with tone and pitch. Exceptions are "Angel Flashes" and "Stand", where Barb comes across as emotionally involved and injects a shot of attitude and conviction into the songs. Besides the production woes, Barb's unmotivated vocal performance is Witchkrieg's highest hurdle to overcome. She shows flashes of being comfortable behind the microphone, and as long as she latches onto those moments and continues to grow her talent I suspect it won't be long before she'll come into her own as a solid metal singer.

Musically, Witchkrieg again defies the "standard" pagan metal description and takes a more traditional approach to their sound (sort of Motörhead meets AC/DC), though Gothic elements are used occasionally for atmosphere. Guitarist/drummer Andrew Old and guitarist Rob Prado provide the beats, riffs, and solos which lend Dark My Way the most potential. Both veterans of the local Sydney metal and hard rock scene, their experience is evident in the tight riffs and solid hooks that permeate the album. "Sea Change", my choice for best track on the album, has a ton of groove and a great beat that latches onto you with both claws. It's a fairly simple song but catchy as hell, with easy bass lines and fuzz-laden chords. The theme riff of "That Ain't Witch" is another highlight for me, showcasing the guitarists' rhythm and sense of melody. The only drawback to the music is the extensive use of distortion, which combined with the weak production leaves the music sounding very muddy. Cleaning that up and adding a bit of crispness to the leads will make a huge improvement to the overall listenability of the album.

Taken as a whole, Dark My Way is an okay album. The production issues are acknowledged by the band and I'm sure will not be a problem for future releases. Should Barb continue to develop her vocal skills, all will be well in the Witchkrieg camp. Don't write this band off yet, and keep an eye out for their next album.

Track Listing
1 Roses Are Black 4:04
2 In This Heart 4:31
3 Pentegram (Hexe) 3:57
4 Wrath 3:45
5 Fallen Angel 5:03
6 Sea Change 3:42
7 Cowan Town 3:20
8 Core 1:56
9 Angel Flashes 4:33
10 That Ain't Witch 3:08
11 Stand 2:47
12 Deviation 3:10
13 Out 3:22

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Sunday, October 2, 2005

Review: Icarus Witch - Roses on White Lace (2004)

Icarus Witch [ Website | MySpace | Facebook | Twitter ]
Roses on White Lace
Magick Records

The city of Pittsburgh conjures up images of blast furnaces, steel mills, and rivers of molten metal. It comes as no surprise, then, that the venerable center of the steel industry in the United States is home to the latest champion of pure metal - Icarus Witch. Founded in 2004 by bass player Jason "Sin" Myers, the band includes such veteran musicians as guitarist Steve Pollick and drummer J.C. Dwyer (Pro-Pain, Soulbent, Paingod).

Roses on White Lace is the debut EP from the band, and though originally intended to be a self-released demo it gained enough attention to be released by Magick Records. Icarus Witch proudly adhere to the huge metal sound of bands like Iced Earth, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Queensrÿche, etc., which is clearly evident on their freshman album. The title track, which is of course an Alice Cooper cover, leaves no question that these guys know exactly what direction they want their music to take. "Roses on White Lace" is one of my favorite songs from Alice's late-'80s metal phase, and I have to say that Icarus Witch have done an admirable job with it. Frontman Matthew Bizilia doesn't quite capture the sinister tones that Alice is so famous for, but his voice is nonetheless perfectly suited to this style of metal. The three remaining songs ("Halcyon" is actually a short ambient piece that would be better off as an intro) are Icarus Witch originals, and serve as stellar examples of the band members at their best. Fantastical/mythological lyrics accompanied by monstrous riffs, searing solos, and crashing beats fill each track, with "Dragon Ryder" establishing itself as my favorite. The twin-guitar opening riff is sensational, instantly drawing you in to the world of fantasy illustrated through Matthew's words. Sounding just a touch like Geoff Tate (Queensrÿche), but with a distinctive sound all his own, Matthew fits the mold of a pure metal vocalist. His voice soars and dives with emotion, displaying remarkable range, while blending perfectly with the mood of the music. "Curse of the Ice Maiden" and "Winds of Atlantis" also stand tall for their majestic riffs, distinctive bass lines, and intricate beats. Steve Pollick has established himself in the guitar world with three solo albums, and his skill and experience are evident in his tightly delivered leads and deep, crunchy riffs. Steve creates quite an Iced Earth feel to the songs, but only as a reference point and not an imitation.

Sadly, Roses on White Lace clocks in at only 17 minutes and thus leaves the listener somewhat unfulfilled. Thankfully the band is on the verge of releasing a full-length album on Magick Records. Fans who love the driving, true metal sound of the '80s combined with today's robust production will absolutely love what Icarus Witch have to offer. Highly recommended.

Track Listing
1 Roses on White Lace 4:23
2 Curse of the Ice Maiden 4:41
3 Halcyon 1:04
4 Winds of Atlantis 3:06
5 Dragon Ryder 3:50

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Saturday, October 1, 2005

Review: Gollum - Lesser Traveled Waters (2004)

Gollum [ Website | MySpace | Facebook | Twitter ]
Lesser Traveled Waters

Wow. It's rare for me to utter that weighty syllable when listening to an album for the first time. Lesser Traveled Waters from North Carolina's Gollum  brought forth that expression of wonder right from the start, and still after many spins I find myself captivated by the tapestry they've woven. Comprised of fragments spanning the metal spectrum, as well as some elements of the Electronica and Industrial kind, this album is as close to being a masterpiece of artistic metal expression as I've heard in a very long time.

Categorizing Gollum's sound is an exercise in futility, as nearly every style and type of metal can be found here. Far too many bands have tried blending the sometimes conflicting metal subgenres into a cohesive, understandable mix. Most who've attempted such alchemy have failed, but Gollum have succeeded with Lesser Traveled Waters and bestow unto the world of heavy metal an album pleasing to both the ear and the mind. To illustrate my point, I'll use my favorite track on the album - "The Burden of Ubiquitous Scars" - as an example. The rumbling beats from drummer Hunter Holland give the song a traditional metal feel, while the down-tuned riffs from Frank Stroehmer lend a contemporary flavor. His lulling leads shortly after the song begins bestow a dreamlike quality, which is heightened by the vocal harmonics of guest singer Abbey Wade. Josh Norvicki adds an Industro-Electronic element to the mix with his well-placed samples. The tune continues on in this mesmerizing fashion, bathing the listener in waves of aural comfort, until well past the three-minute mark when Hunter unleashes a furious blast beat to pummel the warmth from your bones. Frank grinds his six-string in a crazed assault, wrapping up the track with a mood of heightened aggression. Such is Gollum's formula throughout the disc.

Notice that I did not mention any actual "singing". "The Burden of Ubiquitous Scars" is like the majority of the tracks on the album and is devoid of traditional vocal parts. The samples from Josh provide an interesting and poetic substitute for lyrics, and I think had Gollum gone with a singer throughout the album much of the mysticism of Lesser Traveled Waters would have been lost. There are two tracks, however, where the band bends their pliable rules and engages the vocal services of guest artists. "Cross-Pollenation", the third track on the disc, explodes from the speakers with a demonic howl from Randy Blythe (Lamb of God). The song continues in the vein of a straightforward shoutcore composition, with Blythe's sick vocals backed by extreme riffs from Frank and jackhammer blasts from Hunter. "Tears for a Finite Moon (Dreams of a Perpetual Night)" is the other track with full vocals, this time provided by Dixie Collins (Weedeater). Some Kyuss-inspired fuzzy riffs and maniacal beats provide a lengthy intro to Dixie's tortured rasps.

The most ambitious song on the album, and the one which serves to define Gollum as succinctly as can be done, is the epic "The Dissolution of Faith". A four-part journey through the band's influences, the listener is treated to Yes-like progressive elements combined with stoner riffs, death metal beats, and a multitude of atmospheric enhancements. With so much going on, it's understandable to expect such a cornucopia of sound to be burdensome and distracting. The opposite holds true, however, as each passage flows smoothly into the next with clearly defined transitions that make sense and are properly arranged for maximum impact, even if that impact isn't immediately comprehended. As complex as Lesser Traveled Waters is, it's still accessible enough to "get" on the first listen. Subsequent spins, though, reveal hidden nuances and twists that will continue to build your admiration for this band.

Lesser Traveled Waters is, in a nutshell, moving. The trance-like qualities, psychedelic soundscapes, and furious aggression are worked off of one another to deliver an album that can be played with your attention fully focused on each twist and turn of sound, or as background atmosphere to both relax and stimulate you after trudging through the daily grind. Fans of Mastadon, High on Fire, Dream Theater, etc. will all find something about this album that strikes a chord. Gollum has very recently signed to Cordial Records, so keep an eye out for these guys.

Track Listing
1 Snakepath 4:02
2 Refusal of the Call 4:56
3 Cross-Pollenation 4:01
4 Amor Fati 1:44
5 The Burden of Ubiquitous Scars 4:37
6 Reclamation of the Essence 5:25
7 Absence of Seraphim 1:26
8 The Dissolution of Faith 9:40
Malevolence of the Forsaken
Despondent Search for Truth
Reckoning and Catharsis
Commiserating the Flock
9 Tears for a Finite Moon (Dreams of Perpetual Night) 3:39
10 Fall of Penitents 2:04
11 Beyond the Storm 4:30

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