SIRENIA – Nine Destinies and A Downfall

“Symphonic goth metal” bands have always been hit or miss, and the plethora of new “beauty & the beast” style vocal bands are not helping to salvage the integrity of this subgenre. However, mastermind Morten Veland has managed to shove a bit more talent into a poppy sounding symphonic band than most would give him credit for. Best known as TRISTANIA‘s founder and male vocalist, Veland left them to found SIRENIA in 2000 and further develop his creative songwriting chops. The newest SIRENIA album, Nine Destinies and A Downfall, features a more simplistic approach to what used to be a grandiose formula of male growls, female operatics, choirs, keyboards, and other production snazziness. Instead, there is a greater emphasis on abundant female vocals, newcomer friendly guitar riffs, and occasional electronic beats. The result is somewhat of a mixed bag. Veland’s vision of gothic metal still seems inspired, but it’s tempered by a tendency to move away from heavier material. He seems to be following the same path as his former bandmates in TRISTANIA as he slowly moves down the road of mainstream appeal. The album’s first single, “My Mind’s Eye,” feels sugar-coated in female vocals and sounds like something that you might catch week nights on the late-night programming of your local mainstream rock station. This isn’t entirely a bad thing as the remainder of the album hints at greatness, but it definitely serves as a cautionary note to those looking for heavier material found in Veland’s early career. The songwriting is intelligent enough to likely keep the interest of older fans, although newcomers will likely brand this as a decline in SIRENIA‘s catalogue. Hopefully this is only a softer breath of fresh air in Veland’s otherwise outstanding musical direction. (Nuclear Blast Records)

MENDEED – The Dead Live By Love

Despite what may sound like the title to a poor emo band you might find at a trendy store in the mall, The Dead Live By Love is actually the newest album by UK thrashers MENDEED. This new release is an excellent combination of talented modern thrash metal and 80’s metal inspiration and influence. MENDEED have been around in the UK since 2004, but this album should help secure their standing as an up and coming band worldwide. They sound like what you may get if Finnish metallers CHILDREN OF BODOM made a full on thrash album with no keyboards and Alexi Laiho occasionally threw in 80’s rock style vocals. The result is a stylishly executed thrash sound that should get the attention of the metal community, and there is no skimping in the guitar department with excellent riffs and solos. With twelve tracks of uncompromising, talented songwriting, MENDEED does not sell you short, and the album is well worth your cash. The Dead Live By Love runs the gamut of thrash metal, and the band has no problem displaying their versatility. Stand out tracks are “Gravedigger,” “Blood Brothers,” “Reload ‘n’ Kill,” and “It’s Not Over Yet.” Some new school fans may not like the 80’s rock clean vocal homage, but most metalheads should find this kind of influence refreshing in that it does not rehash operatic vocals like stereotypical power metal bands. (Nuclear Blast Records)

MACHINE HEAD – The Blackening

Sometimes it can be difficult to review an album that actually deserves the hype it has received by the less critical masses, and this is such a review for MACHINE HEAD‘s newest release, The Blackening. I personally have been unable to stand any of this band’s releases since The More Things Change… until now. This album is one of those rare occurrences when all of the hype referring to a “return to form” is actually true. Although this release is certainly not the “be all, end all” of metal as some may be hyping it, The Blackening is definitely the best release in MACHINE HEAD‘s catalogue since The More Things Change…, and it is also the most mature release of their career by far. Although they only serve up eight tracks on this album, each one is jam packed with quality songwriting, performance, and vocals. The shortest song on the album is “Beautiful Mourning” at under five minutes, while the longest track is the opener “Clenching the Fists of Dissent” clocking in at ten and a half minutes. The average song length on this album is over seven minutes, and none of the songs contain any fluff as might be expected. Perhaps the greatest aspect of this album is the extreme emphasis on great guitar work. The songwriting for the guitars won’t set any new precedents in the genre, but this is the best guitar work from this band in a long, long time. It’s also very refreshing to hear little to no pandering to the mainstream hardcore crowd. “Aesthetics of Hate” is the only track that contains what some may consider a “breakdown,” but credit should be given to this band for delivering an album full of straight up aggro-thrash in the same vein as their debut and sophomore releases. Every track is high quality, but stand out tracks are “Clenching the Fists of Dissent,” “Aesthetics of Hate,” “Halo,” and “Wolves.” Not bad for an album with eight tracks.

For those of you who have abandoned hope that this band will ever release an album as worthy as their first couple releases, I recommend checking out The Blackening as it’s likely the closest thing this band will come to reliving their early days. Recommended for fans of their old stuff, and highly recommended for those who want a taste of the MACHINE HEAD glory days without going back in their early career. (Roadrunner Records)

NOVEMBERS DOOM – The Novella Reservoir

It’s always refreshing when a band can revisit influences and alter their style enough to show both intelligent evolution of their sound and competent understanding of where they came from. This is exactly what NOVEMBERS DOOM did with their most recent release, The Novella Reservoir. Both longtime fans and newcomers alike should be delightfully surprised by this release. NOVEMBERS DOOM has long been known for their prowess as a doom metal powerhouse, but the doom aspect of their songwriting takes a vacation for this release. Instead, this album features some straight up death metal with melodic interludes, some clean vocals, and only a couple of lighter tracks reminiscent of their usual style. Overall, this album is a heavy road less traveled by this talented band. The opening track “Rain” quickly establishes that this album is far different than what your typical NOVEMBERS DOOM expectations would lead you to believe. Paul Kuhr‘s growling vocals establish a menacing mood that persists throughout the album, and the overall heaviness of The Novella Reservoir should please fans all around. The title track and “They Were Left to Die” contain a greater balance between heavy and melodic elements, while “Drown the Inland Mere,” “The Voice of Failure,” and “Dominate the Human Strain” are the heaviest tracks of them all. The softer songs, “Twilight Innocence” and “Leaving This,” provide a nice break to the heavier tracks, although they do seem somewhat out of place on this album.

Fans of recent OPETH and MY DYING BRIDE releases should find this album quite tasty on their musical palette. However, some long time fans may find this change a bit too drastic. Either way, none can deny that this is an excellent and very mature metal release, and it is worth noting that The End Records offers a version of the album accompanied by an 84-page book detailing photos from every era of the band plus the lyrics of the new album. (The End Records)

UNEXPECT – In a Flesh Aquarium

The End Records never ceases to amaze in recent times with its assortment of talented, progressive bands that seem to flock to its representation. One of the more recent of these converts is the incredibly gifted band, UNEXPECT. Despite the band’s near incessant complications with line-up changes, this seven-piece wonder out of Montreal should astound and impress legions of fans worldwide with their recent release, In a Flesh Aquarium. It’s not every day that you hear a band combine aspects of black metal, cabaret circus music, spoken word, and classical overtones with a result that’s not only mind blowing but possibly the most ambitious work of 2006.

The band’s name could not be more appropriate as their combination of songwriting influences are put together in an utterly schizophrenic fashion, yet each song retains a cohesiveness to it that prevents it from turning into complete chaos. Apparent influences are widely inclusive from KAYO DOT and PRIMUS to RAM-ZET. Vocals also range from male shrieks and roars to lofty female operatic singing with dashes of dark spoken word thrown in for fun. This is not a “beauty and the beast” vocal style band. The first four tracks of the album (“Chromatic Chimera,” “Feasting Fools,” “Desert Urbania,” and “Summoning Scenes”) are perhaps the most listener friendly and catchiest of the bunch (assuming that any of their material can be classified as such), while the remainder of the album is more experimental with full instrumentals and the intriguing set of three songs (“A Clown’s Mindtrap,” “Meet Me at the Carousel,” and “Another Dissonant Chord”) titled collectively as “The Shiver.” The last track on the album, “Psychic Jugglers,” is an opus over 11 minutes that truly explores the gamut of UNEXPECT‘s sound.

In a Flesh Aquarium never ceases to be both fascinating and intelligent throughout the entire album. The dedication required to put together such influences and combine them with incredible songwriting prowess should garner this band respect with such difficulty alone. This album receives my vote for the best album released in 2006, and anyone with a taste for heavier music wanting to try something truly different and experimental should not hesitate to give this band a try. A truly amazing work. (The End Records)

AMON AMARTH – With Oden on Our Side

When it comes to Viking metal bands, AMON AMARTH continually stands out as one of the best in the industry. Their particular blend of AT THE GATES-inspired Swedish death metal will never disappoint. This time around AMON AMARTH comes back with their most aggressive album since The Crusher. Although at first it may sound similar to their prior outing, Versus the World, in terms of pacing, their newest release contains far more aggression and animosity. Unlike their previous album, The Fate of Norns, which was a much slower, melancholy album, With Oden on Our Side explodes full of Viking fury with songs about hand-to-hand combat, remembering fallen comrades, and legendary folk tales involving colossal serpents and fighting the Irish. “Valhalla Awaits Me,” “Runes to My Memory,” “Asator,” and “Cry of the Blackbirds” are the heaviest, fastest tracks on the album, while the others are more mid-tempo accounts of various Viking exploits.

Johan Hegg‘s vocals improve with each successive album, and his performance on this release stands out as his best thus far. He ranges from high pitched screams to incredibly low, grumbling roars. Excellent riffs are provided as usual by Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Soderberg, and Fredrik Andersson‘s drumming chops have only gotten better. This is an incredibly strong album by perhaps the strongest Viking metal band, and both newcomers and long time fans should bask in the glory of this melodic death masterpiece. In a year full of excellent metal releases, this album still stands as one of the very best of 2006. (Metal Blade Records)

AUTUMN’S END – Act of Attrition

For those of you wondering what OPETH and AMORPHIS may sound like if you stripped them down to bare essentials, removed all folk elements, and added more rock with a touch of grindcore, AUTUMN’S END is the answer. This four-piece act out of Phoenix, Arizona, has been around since 2002 once guitarist Chris Cannella decided to take a break from his work with N17 and RORSCHACH TEST. However, line up difficulties and miscommunication resulted in only one self-titled full length release back in 2004 prior to Act of Attrition. After regrouping and putting their heads together for the new album, AUTUMN’S END have released their second full length worldwide release. It can only be described as one of the most interesting U.S.-based releases in recent times. Act of Attrition portrays a wide variety of songwriting from slower, soothing melodies with calm, clean vocals to outright, ass-kicking grind with inhuman growls. “Eyes of Ignorance,” “To Carry the Burden,” and “Hand of Glory” show a strong influence from bands like OPETH while the band vacillates between smooth melodies and shredding passages. Other tracks like “Scars from the Candle,” “Give up the Ghost,” and “The Dirge” are full-on metal onslaughts of catchy riffs, stop/start rhythms, and flattening drums. This album also sports instances of Spanish guitar and Eastern chord structures to add further diversity. Although Act of Attrition suffers from some thin production, the talent of the band easily shines through, which is demonstrated by tours with the likes of ARCH ENEMY, HATE ETERNAL, BLACK DAHLIA MURDER, and EYES OF FIRE.

This is easily one of the top bands to watch as 2006 winds down, and AUTUMN’S END should be headlining their own U.S. tours in the not-so-distant future if they keep up this kind of effort. (Hammermill Records)

STRAPPING YOUNG LAD – The New Black

Devin Townsend has always remained at the forefront of maniacal metal bands with a sound only Devin can make. This is particularly true with his efforts as frontman for STRAPPING YOUNG LAD backed by Jed Simon, Byron Stroud, and Gene Hoglan. However, their newest release, The New Black, strikes out in a slightly different direction. Unlike the majority of SYL‘s catalogue, this release does not contain what have almost become Devin‘s trademark vehemence, anger, and aggression. Instead, The New Black covers more satirical subject matter reminiscent of SYL‘s original debut, Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing. Tracks such as “You Suck,” “Anti Product,” and “Fucker” (a.k.a. the ‘untitled’ track) very clearly poke fun at both the mob mentality of modern metal fans and the ridiculous censorship that so often takes place. Even the name of the album itself is the band’s attempt at over-the-top marketing approaches. A report from Devin just prior to SYL‘s recent tour on Sounds of the Underground stated that he intended the band to be the pubic hair in the otherwise edible cake that is that tour. The New Black is exactly that. However, songs such as “Monument” and “Wrongside” show that the band still has a flare for both melody and the theatrical. Overall, the songwriting on The New Black is slicker and more palatable than previous albums, but there is still plenty of experimentation throughout. Nearly all of the vocals are a bit higher pitched than normal, but this does not detract from the sonic juggernaut of the album.

Fans looking for an even more aggressive or intense follow-up to City or Alien may be disappointed with this release, but fans both old and new should find this release more than worthy of praise as one more talented, thoughtful middle finger in the face of mainstream metal. (Century Media Records)

GOJIRA – From Mars to Sirius

Some bands are so interesting that it can sometimes be hard to find words to describe them. After ten years in existence, GOJIRA have finally put themselves on the map of international appeal with one crusher of an album. This quartet out of France has brought a unique sound that can only be described by their name GOJIRA, which was the original name for Godzilla before it was changed. They have heavy influences from bands like MESHUGGAH and NEUROSIS with similar stop/start rhythms and doomy atmosphere, and the production and tone are somewhat reminiscent of works by Devin Townsend ala Terria. The band claims their primary motivation for songwriting is ecological concerns with planet Earth, and this album provides a warning to the human race regarding our current abuse of the planet. What makes their new album, From Mars to Sirius, so unique are the intelligent song structures combined with an atypical lack of hubris and pretension. The result is an easily accessible album that challenges the listener without being too over the top or overly complex. Tracks such as “Backbone,” “From the Sky,” “The Heaviest Matter of the Universe,” and “To Sirius” crush the listener with pounding beats and churning guitars, while other songs like “Ocean Planet,” “Flying Whales,” and “World to Come” are slower, doomier aural attacks. Vocal approaches vary from deep death metal growls to mid-level screaming with occasional cleaner vocals, and the vocalist is a perfect match for the band’s overall sound.

This is easily among the top picks for best metal releases of 2006, and it comes highly recommended for anyone looking for intelligent songwriting reminiscent of MESHUGGAH that carries both talent and a message. (Prosthetic Records)

CRADLE OF FILTH – Thornography

While CRADLE OF FILTH stirs up a variety of opinions and accusations with the mere mention of their name, one can always count on them to continue forging ahead with reckless abandon regardless of criticisms and praise from the fanfare. Their newest release, Thornography, is written to be much more visceral than the previous release, Nymphetamine, but CRADLE OF FILTH put a different twist as always to their already twisted sound. Dani Filth experiments with some different vocal stylings such as more spoken word phrases, heavily processed vocals, and an attempt at cleaner singing in the same ball park as artists such as Anders Friden of IN FLAMES fame. The end result is a mixed bag. Credit should be given where credit is due for the band’s continuing attempt at evolving its sound, but such creative direction used on this album would have been better spent developing more complicated song structures and time signatures. Tracks such as “Tonight in Flames,” “The Byronic Man,” “The Foetus of a New Day Kicking,” and “Temptation” that actually employ the use of Dani‘s new vocalizations come off as trite commercialism instead of progressive songwriting. However, they do add catchy elements to the album. A number of tracks also make use of a rock and roll influence that, although simple in approach, contains guitar hooks that persist in your head long after listening to the album. Fans of post-Midian era CRADLE OF FILTH will also be pleased by the hard rocking tracks, “Dirge Inferno,” “Libertina Grimm,” “I am the Thorn,” “Under Huntress Moon,” and the instrumental track “Rise of the Pentagram.”

Ultimately, this album is superior to CRADLE OF FILTH‘s previous release, but some of the creative decisions behind the songwriting will fail to execute for long-time fans. (Universal / Roadrunner Records)