Skyliner – Condition Black

December 7, 2016 in Reviews

skyliner-condition-blackSkyliner – Condition Black (2016)

Reviewed by Daniel Millard

Intellectually dense, spiritually questing, texturally austere, and stylistically migrant: Skyliner’s sound began this way and has continued to venture further and further on a trajectory fully understood only by its creator, Jake Becker (and perhaps not even entirely by him). 2014’s Outsiders was long in the making, and while Condition Black took a while to be presented for public consumption, I’d be fairly surprised if round three weren’t already being armed and plotted for delivery. Skyliner’s agenda is supplemented by some growth on Condition Black, and as those of us following the band have come to expect, it expertly delivers neck-snapping metal side-by-side with remarkably genuine tenderness.

Though I’m not sure how accurate my assessment here is, the first couple of tracks on Condition Black feel more purposeful (as opposed to the chaotic feeling of Outsiders opener “Symphony In Black”) – or perhaps its just enhanced recording experience. Both “Condition Black” and “Too Many Voices” feel more straightforward and categorically “riffy” than the one-two punch that began the debut. I think that this will convince a number of people who felt that Outsiders was, perhaps, just a bit too messy, but I actually find these two songs a little less hooky, if more lyrically interesting. Actually, the blueprint of Condition Black follows that which was laid down by Outsiders VERY closely for the first half. Both begin with mostly ambient intros, followed by two easily followed, memorable, and hard-hitting tracks. On track four with both albums, we find an elongated, developmental song with extended intro/outro and solo sections, and on to track five, an even longer (now reaching eight and a half minutes or so) composition with a very gentle beginning which gradually ramps up – though I will grant that its extreme metal leanings make the tail end of “Cages We Create” on Condition Black a more sonically punishing experience.

It is the second portion of the album where Condition Black hurls itself out of the familiar pattern and up into the ether. “Starseeker (The Mystery Of God)” may be my favorite track on the album, despite its plain, repetitious chorus (which has ultimately grown on me). The searing verses make up for a lot, and similar violent tendencies return on the highly charged “As Above, So Below”. Unfortunately, in my mind, the interludes between which that song is sandwiched are about as purposeful as the notoriously empty spacey tracks which populate Lost Horizon’s A Flame To The Ground Beneath. Maybe if you’re in a particularly pensive mood, or run through albums purely on emotion, these are an interesting inclusion – but I don’t see either of these applying to me, and so they’ve been deleted outright from my iTunes library.

I always want to describe Skyliner as “proggy”, but that’s really not accurate. Closer to the mark, I think, would be to cite the old Queensryche adage and address it as “thinking man’s metal”. Most of the songs (and especially vocal melodies) are recognizably easy to follow for heavy/power metal fans, and yet the guitar work and singing is possessed of the rawness and riffing more commonly associated with speed metal. At the same time, Skyliner blends in the sort of abstract lyricism that’s usually reserved for to prog, and also frequently includes musical allusions to extreme metal (specifically, Becker’s harsh vocals and some of Brenner’s drum techniques).

There are a few tracks here – “The Morbid Architect” comes to mind immediately, in addition to the interludes – that are a little beyond my appreciation, and the more that I hear Condition Black, the more I find myself preferring the debut. However, those interested in the band’s somewhat esoteric thematic/lyrical approach or appreciate a sharper extreme metal edge will likely prefer this, and fans of Outsiders won’t find themselves disappointed much, if at all. Interestingly, there is a “bonus track” called “Vendetta” that is fairly in line with the band’s other more straightforward, memorable songs, and which seems to be available…almost everywhere (Amazon, Spotify). Actually, the only version of the album that DOESN’T have this bonus track seems to be the Limb-issued CD. Because…you know, that will help sales? I cannot be the only one who bought the CD and now listens to the album online more because it has this song.

I digress. Condition Black is a very enjoyable, mature album that’s once again outstanding in its field. The energy that Skyliner exudes is inimitable and promises not to let up anytime soon.

3.75 // 5

Dragony – Shadowplay

November 18, 2016 in Reviews

dragony-shadowplayDragony – Shadowplay (2015)

Reviewed by Daniel Millard

“Glorious! Victorious!
And the gods are watching over us!
With our mighty power
The Unicorn Union unites!”

No, this is not Gloryhammer, nor Twilight Force (nor even Serenity, though the cover art might remind you of the band’s Austrian countrymen). Dragony may be a little less hyperactive on its instruments than its modern flower metal brethren, but the group’s love of all things shiny, cheesy, and um…Dragony, is certainly equal. In fact, I’ll take Dragony’s spirited brand of devotedly cheesy power metal (something shared with Twilight Force) over Gloryhammer’s borderline idiotic mockery of the genre anyday.

This being Dragony’s second spin of the wheel, followers of the band’s first album had a pretty good idea of what to expect. Despite Dragony’s comparative anonymity next to the aforementioned acts, I would call them every bit as professional – perhaps even more so in some areas. Dragony did not struggle with worthless interludes taking up minutes of material on its debut, for example, and its penchant for strong melodies has always come first, before any other element. Happily (for me, at least), the band has cranked up the orchestral hits and choral arrangements for Shadowplay, but in nowhere near as extreme and bloated a fashion as Twilight Force ended up doing with its 2016 release. My favorite tune from Dragony’s debut, Legends, was “Alcador”, which I felt was the most texturally exploratory and best represented the band’s combined talent. Well, Shadowplay is basically “Alcador” made into an album.

Continuing with the Twilight Force comparison, this album is loaded with more mid-paced songs that the former band would nevertheless be proud of. Dragony maintains its signature melodicism – some of the songs here have very similar motivic and melodic tendencies, but they are all recognizably Dragony, and no one else. Opener “Wolves Of The North” is wonderfully representative of Dragony in general – dig it, and you’re sure to enjoy the whole album. If you’re unimpressed, it’s unlikely that anything else is going to change your mind. Shadowplay largely sees Dragony improving on everything that the band mapped out on its debut, with one major exception: it seems that the band suffered enough comments about its name to put together a song with some word play on it. That song is “Dr. Agony”, and it is a brilliantly hooky song with ridiculous lyricism. Actually, thematically and musically, it seems like something Helloween might have cooked up (think “Dr. Stein” or “Mr. Torture”, and you’ll have a good picture of the zaniness in store for you).

Highlights on this album abound. Both songs already mentioned scratched off the obligatory mention list, I’d also call out the Edguy-esque (in lyricism, if not sound) “Babylon”, the unusually malignant “Warlock”, and of course, the fruity “Unicorn Union”, whose chorus I used to open this review. Heck, even the unnecessary ballad (“The Maiden’s Cliff”) and closing long-runner (“The Silent Sun”, featuring Zak Stevens) are perfectly likeable, if not my favorites.

I can pretty thoroughly call myself a Dragony fan at this point. Though I’ve recently criticized bands like Veonity and Astralion for regurgitating their first albums, Dragony shows greater measured growth, and had a more indentifiable sound to begin with. Shadowplay will not disappoint existing fans of the debut, and should be brought to the attention of fans of similarly constructed metal like Dreamtale, Fairyland, Freedom Call, Crystallion, Wisdom, etc. This one’s already received a number of well-deserved plays on CD from me.

4.0 // 5

Logar’s Diary – Book III: At The Crossroads

November 16, 2016 in Reviews

logars-diaryLogar’s Diary – Book III: At The Crossroads

Reviewed by Daniel Millard

Logar’s Diary is a vaguely familiar name that feels like it’s from the distant past (indeed, Book II: Parlainth – The Forgotten City came out in 2006 – a time when I was just really getting into power metal!). However, there seem to be a lot of long-delayed sequels coming out over the last couple of years, and I’m happy to welcome these Germans as a new arrival in the “win” column of that list.

While power metal is, at times, virtually synonymous with “Dungeons & Dragons” metal, I doubt the vast majority of metalheads (or even roleplayers) of my generation are acquainted with Earthdawn, a moderately popular and recently-revived FASA classic tabletop RPG, and apparently this band’s inspiration of choice. Unfortunately, not being an Earthdawn gamer myself, I can’t comment further, other than the band’s lyrics are a continuing saga based upon a wizard inhabiting the Earthdawn universe

Lest I be tempted to break out Fantasy Grounds instead of type a review, however, let’s get to the music. I flat out admit that I don’t recall the band’s past albums, but At The Crossroads gives me immediate reason to look backward with hope. The lyrics here are quite flimsy, in part because of the concept, and in part because of the German translation, I suspect, but they’re not as bad as a dozen Italian acts I could spit out off the top of my head. However, the songs are addictive and quite professional, the interludes and intros ooze classy atmosphere, and the guitars are riffy and positively delightful. Opener “Dreaming Wide Awake” puts the band’s tasteful blend of synthy ambiance, rough-shod mid-range vocals, and staccato riffing on open display with turbulent verses and a striking chorus that hits like a breath of cold air. Hagen Hirschmann really has a great night-and-day blend of sober clean vocals, mixed with a frequently employed harsh gravelly timbre that does wonders for the aggression of these songs. On occasion, he reminds me of Thorsten Kohlrausch (Dark At Dawn) gone full-bore power metal in his approach.

Moving on, “Return To Bartertown” has a silly name, and some very silly lyrics to boot, but (and wouldn’t you just guess) it stands up tall as one of my favorites of the album. An idyllic acoustic intro gives way to memorable vocal lines and wonderful, trebly guitar leads that are exactly the kind of thing you expect from German power metal nobility. The pre-chorus riff smokes, and gives way to a strikingly start-and-stop chorus that fits in an odd sort of way. The album only really has one other consistently fast, hooky song (“Waking Wide Asleep”), and few that are cheerful sounding, unlike many fantasy-inspired power metal works. In fact, At The Crossroads is a pretty moody, turbulent affair on the whole, and it works just as hard when in this mode. Take the malefic and brooding “Raiders Of The Twilight Peaks” for example – it’s not complicated, but it boasts a memorability all its own thanks to lurching verses, harsh vocal outbursts, and an almost dirgelike chorus. I also feel that “Kratas (City Of Thieves)” is an almost magical song in its own right. The tinkly, haunting introduction reminds me of some of my favorite old PC RPGs, and driving verses hurl Hagen and his party headlong into wistful, martial choruses.

I’ll digress from specifics, but I’m impressed. The small pool of mature fantasy concept albums continues to grow, and Logar’s Diary is the latest in a trickle of them. These talented Germans don’t overcomplicate anything, nor grow too ambitious with either their lyricism or studio elements. Instead, the focus is very much on vocal variation, creation of atmosphere via strategic use of keys and guitar, and engaged storytelling. I have an inkling that if I were into Earthdawn the way I’m into Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles Of Prydain, I would be hailing this band as the most amazing niche power metal act in existence (as I do with Lucid Dreaming). As it stands, Book III: At The Crossroads is a sturdy, refreshingly varied, and punchy slab of Germanic power metal that stands up strong to analysis. Recommended to fans of more involved fantasy story albums (Evertale, Bane Of Winterstorm, Blind Guardian, Lorenguard, Aina), and those who enjoy Germanic heavy/power acts that dial back the speed and push aggressive vocals to the fore (Dark At Dawn, Rebellion, perhaps even Rage), but feel that these bands could do with an injection of both fantasy and power.

3.75 // 5