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Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Reviews: Terra Atlantica, Fortune, Red Room Ensemble, Archaeologist (Dave, Steve, Bob & Alex)

Terra Atlantica: Age Of Steam (Pride and Joy Records) [Dave Marcovecchio]

At first glance the notion of reviewing a power metal concept album sequel about the story of a 19th Century steampunk Atlantean empire seemed like an almost intimidating collection of geek tropes stacked on top of each other, like something that you could only encounter while locked in a deadly game of 1 on 1 Necromunda with the final boss of Games Workshop. Imagine my surprise then, when said album turns out not only to be a fine example of the genre at its best, but also one of the most enjoyable records I've listened to this year!

Hamburg Power metallers Terra Atlantica's second full-length Age Of Steam continues the narrative established by their 2017 debut A City Once Divine. It's 1815 and Atlantis has risen from the deep and kick-starts a steam powered industrial revolution all whilst engaged in a battle with the British Empire. If that lore dump sounds like an intimidating prospect then do not be put off, as Terra Atlantica manage to pull of this lofty concept without leaning too far into either of the 2 extremes of the genre (self-apologetic “look how silly we are” ironic parody or po-faced “I am a serious composer” humourlessness). The band's delivery, especially the performance of Frontman/guitarist Tristan Harders, is one of confidence, sincerity and an infectious enthusiasm that you can't help but be drawn into, a talent that is rare in this genre.

Whilst it's clear that Terra Atlantica worship at the altar of their fellow countrymen Tobias Sammet and Helloween it rarely sounds derivative or like pastiche. Tracks like Across The Sea Of TimeForces Of The Oceans Unite and lead single Age Of Steam are rip-roaring power metal anthems that perfectly balance speedy metallic fury with luscious arrangements while containing a full Wacken-Open-Airs-worth of Pilsner-fuelled sing-along choruses. When not in full speed, mid-tempo tracks such Mermaid's Isle and Believe In The Dawn provide a welcome change and give the album a great sense of pacing.

Some notable “guest” slots include a sonorous vocal from Oleg Rudyg of Magistarium on The Treachery Of Mortheon as well as a fantastic portrayal of a mermaid (Yes, really) from Katharina Stahl. The orchestral sections, expertly arranged by Alex Hunzinger or Aeternitas, elevate the album with some remarkably realistic sounding backing tracks (bar the occasional cheesy sounding brass synth). The closing one-two punch of Rage Of The Atlantica War/Until The Morning Sun Appears add an epic, cinematic finale to the album, both musically and in terms of the storytelling.

It is clear that a huge amount of meticulous effort went into crafting this record over its 2 year gestation period, and it shows in the end result. Marc Wustenhaugen's production is dense, punchy and sleek, reminiscent of much bigger bands with much bigger budgets. The songwriting, album structure and orchestral parts have been crafted with a staggering amount of attention to detail. With this album, Terra Atlantica have created an album that holds its own against power metal's stadium-filling heavyweights, a class that they very well could soon be joining. 

To those of you missing festival season this summer (particularly European listeners), grab a few beers, sit out on your lawn, blast this record and let Age Of Steam give you 55 minutes of pure escapist joy. 9/10 (measured in Brass Goggles of course)

Fortune: The Gun’s Still Smokin’ Live (Frontiers Records) [Steve Haines]

The story of Los Angeles rock band Fortune is an interesting one with familiar themes of record label bankruptcy, fan-driven reunion all woven together with a backdrop of soaring synthesizers, screaming guitars and the incredible vocals of Larry Greene. The sound of the band is one of a progressive, cinematic soft rock outfit – perhaps a Starship meets Magnum kind of deal. Listening to the album, it is impossible to tell that there was an eye-watering 35 years between their second and third albums which is testament to their songwriting and signature style.

Album opener Thrill Of It All is perhaps the best track but the high standard, while dipping below the bar set by the opening track, remains high throughout and all tracks hang well together despite the huge hiatus in the band’s career. This record really is a celebration of the band and indeed the genre, with the quality so good it is hard to believe this is a live recording. As well as songs from the band’s history, one track Through The Fire is a solo track that vocalist Greene recorded for the Top Gun soundtrack but its sound is so stylistically similar to Fortune that one could be forgiven for thinking it was by the entire band.

While a live album from a lesser known American band may be for die-hard fans only, it really is a pleasure to listen to for the superb production and musical values displayed and I believe the album would be enjoyed by anyone with a liking for 80s rock. They may be veterans but they could certainly teach many of the young upstarts in music a thing or two about putting on a show so polished that only a smattering of crowd noise reveals it as a live album and not a studio recording. I recommend the album to anyone with a liking for likes of Magnum, Winger, Europe, White Lion and the like but outside this, I think many music fans will be less impressed. Luckily, I’m in the first camp so I really did enjoy it. 7/10

Red Room Ensemble: Endless Dark Red (Spinnup Records) [Bob Shoesmith]

Formed in 2014 this Finnish quintet was born out of a cover band called Moonburn. It’s a brave move to set course for the wide oceans of originals material from the safety of Sweet Child O Mine in the local bar and compete with the armada of quality rock bands Finland seem to regularly launch, let alone with a well-stocked global market. Their debut and eponymous full release in 2015 got a fairly luke-warm reception from the critics Metal Altar observing “…Red Room Ensemble is well-played, despite not doing anything particularly original... For an independent release, it’s solid enough, but it isn’t anything you haven’t heard before 6/10”. So, fast forward five years and have the ensemble got up a head of steam or built up a following? Well, no, not really. The previous synopsis could easily transpose on to Endless Dark Red in 2020. There are a lot of tired, stock, classic heavy rock ingredients here such as twin guitar work, fantasy and gothic references and some plundering of several other power metal bands that have gone before (and have done it better) which is fine if you were shining exponents of the genre.

The opener, Sacred Masterplan a mid-pace riffy affair that tends to plod along with both very capable guitarists Kari Sundstrom and Sebastian Soderland working really hard trying to make something of a fairly decent track that vocalist Torgny Ttjarnfelt tends to hold back by being a little shouty then switching to a pitchy/melodic vocal and overall a provides distinctly average performances throughout that remind me (slightly) of Paul Di'Anno. This is followed up by the hugely ambitious The Sunken Cathedral which meanders through 12 minutes of various slow chug riffs, acoustic sections, an attempt at some gothic/symphonic infills & vocalization culminating in a loping Maiden gallop and then a drawn out ending that lasts for the remaining two of the 12 minutes while lyrically and conceptually it doesn’t relate to the title at all. Here in lies some of the issues with RRA as you navigate your way through their second album (and presumably the first) & some niggling issues that reappear time and again. Most of the songs drift between breakdowns & build ups without a particularly coherent path. They have a box of power metal ingredients and clichés, ably expressed by the guitarists and then bolted them together in a rather haphazard fashion, provided it a relatively rudimentary production and then there is the niggling issue of the vocals. 

Only really listenable in parts when Ttjarnfelt gets in the zone and is underpinned by layers of harmonies such as in This Fallen Life he does struggle in places (Carry My Darkness and Fire Will Walk With Me). A mish-mash of stock power metal tropes and all similar key riffery that starts to blend into one by track 4 despite the constant style changes. Its solidly played by the guitarists but unremarkable overall. Red Room Ensemble are miles away from competing with some of their current contemporaries in Finland let alone on a global stage based on this outing. There are flashes of creativity and potential but it’s nothing you haven’t heard before done with more aplomb by others. 6/10 

Archaeologist: Volume II (Self Released) [Alex Swift]

From the opening notes which resound from the guitars on Aggressor, you get a sense of the density which these musicians pour into their music. The cavalcade of notes and rhythmic structures on display means the experience will be a treat for those who enjoy the complicated, and intricate side of prog. I can certainly appreciate the album from a purely technical standpoint. Lucid Dreams is my favourite moment in this respect due to the soaring feel which emanates from the arpeggiated changes in speed and therefore, mood. I do feel that these commit the same sin as Dance Gavin Dance or Polyphia at times, allowing the musicianship to overtake the songwriting, in such a way that the album bleeds distraction and alienation. The Void is a perfect example of this kind of cleverness with constraint or precision without patience. 

Despite this, the superficial moments are short-lived, and Archaeologist does have an ear for timing and theatricality. Take the closer Beyond The Edge where the intersecting melodies and duelling rhythms create a feeling of interstellar joy and emancipating discovery. Here's where Volume II really excels. In underpinning that sense of tension, they are able to create a cinematic feel which matches the accomplishments of some of the greats in modern prog. Considering the understandably short run length, I would be acting in bad faith to reach a conclusion about an entire band based on one EP. However, I can definitely see their work growing on me over time, as I learn to notice and respect the subtleties and nuances which lie at the heart of their experiments in complexity. 7/10

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