Firewind – Immortals

January 6, 2017 in Reviews

firewind-immortalsFirewind – Immortals (2016)

Reviewed by Arno Callens

Firewind has never been the most stable band. Never mind they’re on their gazillionth vocalist (I bet you Henning Basse gets really nervous when he’s called to Gus G.’s office on a Friday night) – with each one comes a shift in style. The Stephen Fredrick era brought us gritty power metal, which continued into the Chity Somapala phase, while Apollo Papathansio brought a mainstream rock appeal to the music, and now Basse is spearheading a move into modern power metal territory, for better or for worse.

Good things first: Immortals is better than Few Against Many. When Gus G. joined Ozzy Osbourne, he basically abandoned Firewind much like he did Mystic Prophecy and Nightrage in the past, with the sole exception that he still half-assedly recorded albums. While Days Of Defiance rode comfortably on the coattails of career-highlight The PremonitionFew Against Many not only put the fans on sabbatical, but the band itself too. Some considered it more permanent then others, but now Firewind is back with members who probably don’t even recognize each other.

Which will probably go for the fans too. Immortals is a solid record, but it’s nowhere near the raw power of Between Heaven And Hell or the unique mix of influences that Allegiance brought to the table. What we get is straightforward power metal which shows all the signatures of the genre without much of the punch. Which is ironic, seeing as this album is based on the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis, known to the general public as the plot from the movie 300. With the notable exception of “Ode To Leonidas” and “Wars Of Ages”, there’s nothing here resembling Zack Snayder’s beefed up machismo meets swords-and-sandals spectacle. Gus G. can still shred, but you wouldn’t follow the man into battle. I might stand on the sidelines, occasionally cheering.

Luckily, there are a few cheers to be handed out. After a fairly standard opening track, “We Defy” brings back the riffage, and even though it’s probably ripped from a previous record, it does the job of establishing Immortals as a Firewind thing, and not Masterplan’s Novum Initium Part II. “Back On The Throne” shares a similar vibe with “Ready To Strike” from Allegiance, and has a killer chorus to boot. From there the temperature at the Hot Gates is turned down a degree or two with the lackluster “Live And Die By The Sword” and its hackneyed melodies. The aforementioned “Wars Of Ages” notwithstanding, Immortals doesn’t get its six-pack bulging again until the very last song ,”Rise From The Ashes”, which is what I wish more of this album had sounded like, in every possible meaning.

I don’t want to be too hard on Firewind, and just be happy that they’re back, but if anyone could have added some class to the tired Spartan shtick we’ve seen too much of over the years, I would’ve bet good money on these Greeks. Of course, money and Greeks don’t go well together, so maybe I owe this one to myself. As it stands, Immortals is a pleasant diversion from a career that didn’t seem to go anywhere, and occasionally it’s even great. Still, if the band had listened more to the iconic words of their forefather (“Come and get it!”), maybe they wouldn’t have returned with something that only looks a bit like “it”.

3.5 // 5

Grave Digger – Healed by Metal

December 19, 2016 in Reviews

grave-digger-healed-by-metalGrave Digger – Healed By Metal (2016)

Reviewed by Arno Callens

Name any band that has been active for over thirty years that still sounds relevant today. For the purposes of this review, let’s say you just thought of Grave Digger, although I’m sure there are a few. Still, these Germans are bound to come up within the first five names mentioned. Not that they have ever achieved the success of some of their peers, but have rather remained an underground sensation, albeit a consistently qualitative one. Sure I’ve shrugged at one or two of their albums – Clash Of The Gods in recent memory – but overall Grave Digger’s always good for an old-fashioned romp.

Healed By Metal is the seventeenth (!) of those, following hot on the heels of return-to-form Return Of The Reaper, and obliterating it in comparison. I haven’t enjoyed a Grave Digger record this much since The Clans Will Rise Again, which arguably got a lot of mileage out of the Tunes Of War nostalgia factor. You could argue Healed By Metal has similar ties to the past, as its title track is a heavy metal hymn in the vein of Heavy Metal Breakdown, although probably not bound for classic status. On the first spin, it got a deserved eye roll from me, on the second it healed me of such thoughts and I was howling along like I didn’t care. “Ten Commandments Of Metal” is another such helping of “weren’t the eighties the greatest?-metal”, but the real meat of this album lies elsewhere.

Grave Digger may bust out a “Lawbreaker” every now and then – being more traditional than inspired – but on Healed By Metal, the latter half of that equation takes the front stage more often than not. “When Night Falls” swoops in with a huge chorus that will hook you like a hook hooks things, “Free Forever” sounds like it could have been cut from William Wallace’s kilt, and “Kill Ritual” will have you frothing at the mouth with bloodthirst and those catchy vocal lines. Even simpler fare like “Call To War”, “The Hangman’s Eye”, and “Laughing With The Dead” (ha ha ha ha ha!) manage to ensnare you, displaying Grave Digger’s tireless knack for simplicity done brilliantly. Again, Axel Ritt proves to be the best addition this band could have made, infusing recognizable riffs with a spirited dose of adventure.

I invite anyone second-guessing this release and its familiar feel to write seventeen albums and sound even fresh for one second. Grave Digger is an institution, and going back to the opening paragraph of this review, I still can only think of one other band being this effective over such a long period of time, and that’s Iron Maiden. (Maybe Saxon, if anything they had released recently had touched me at all.) Healed By Metal will not make the history books as the album that redefined metal, but it will add another page to Grave Digger’s already lengthy and overwhelmingly positive entry. I’m probably coming across as needlessly defensive, but even I sometimes think there’s no merit in bands like this piling on album after album while they could have just re-recorded the last one with little to no difference. Grave Digger exists to prove me wrong, and that’s why I take off my hood for the Grim Reapers, and smother those dismissive voices in a KILL RITUAL!

4.0 // 5

Metallica – Hardwired…To Self-Destruct

December 12, 2016 in Reviews

Metallica – Hardwired…metallica-hardwired-to-self-destructTo Self-Destruct (2016)

Reviewed by Arno Callens

Metallica, you say?

Whether you like them or not, everyone has an opinion on these Bay Area thrashers. Some believe they haven’t released anything great since *insert any album between Kill ‘Em All and Reload*, and others will defend the most questionable of the Four Horsemen’s choices until the Apocalypse. At least we can all agree St. Anger sucked (right?).

I actually liked that one when it came out, but then again, I was fourteen and just getting into metal. As soon as I picked up a copy of The Black Album I sold St. Anger to some unwitting kid like my former self, and bought Master Of Puppets with the profits. Maybe St. Anger is a rite of passage for newbies to the genre, or maybe Metallica has been consistently dumping on their legacy since…again, take your pick. I myself am not overly familiar with Load and Reload, but I like the band’s more well known songs. As albums, I can’t judge them, but perhaps that lack of familiarity says it all. Metallica peaked early, and fell equally quickly off that pedestal.

Death Magnetic was then *kind of* a return to form, but an unmemorable one. And in all fairness, next to the formless St. Anger, anything was bound to sound better by comparison. Of course whatever promise Death Magnetic held was unequivocally ruined by Lulu, an album so misshapen it makes St. Anger seem like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Even though it’s closer to a drunk violinist falling off a cliff.

Enter Hardwired…To Self-Destruct. When the first single “Hardwired” hit, I wasn’t particularly impressed with the uninspired self-tribute, but positively surprised at how straightforward it was. Metallica appeared to have quit the art school program and gone back to the dirty rehearsal room. “Moth Into Flame” was a much stronger sign that the band might be back for real, with its infectious grooves and classic chorus. By the time “Atlas, Rise!” came around, I was pretty much sold on this record, and sure enough they got my money.

Was it worth it? Yes, although I agree with pretty much every review, good and bad, out there that Hardwired outstays its welcome. However, a decent to great Metallica album is more than welcome, so I’m willing to cut the B-side of this unnecessary double disc some slack. The A-side is strong enough to carry the whole thing anyway, building on the aforementioned singles to other standouts such as the Lovecraftian love letter “Dream No More” and the quiet but deadly “Halo On Fire”. Post-halftime, only the suitably aggressive “Here Comes Revenge”, Lemmy-salute “Murder One”, and throwback thrash attack “Spit Out The Bone” manage to get the blood and fists pumping, but on subsequent listens the PTSD nightmare “Confusion” got a few approving nods out of me too. There is ample room for growth.

Which goes for Metallica too. Hardwired…To Self-Destruct may be the band at its best since The Black Album, but it’s not at their best as on The Black Album and its predecessors. It is, however, a bloody good time at the movies, as opposed to the depressing soap opera Metallica has given us over the last fifteen years or so. The fourteen year old in me is glad to have bought a brand new Metallica album that he won’t have to pawn off to someone to who I really owe a copy of Hardwired. You know who you are.

I’ll finish up by remarking how fun it was to pick a clip to go with this review. Normally the choice is between one lyric and/or official video, but in the case of Metallica I could literally pick any song and there would be a corresponding clip. That’s some solid marketing.

3.75 // 5