Sonata Arctica - Acoustic Adventures - Volume Two (Atomic Fire Records) [Simon Black]
This second half of Sonata Arctica’s ongoing experiment in revamping their back catalogue from power metal to folk crossover continues. Never afraid to experiment in times when your plans for world musical domination haven’t been screwed up by the plague, the band have picked up where they left off with February’s Volume One. Once again, I am impressed with the quality of the material and the way it accentuates the song writing, which might work brilliantly in the power metal world (go see them live if you don’t believe me), but transposes equally well to the way more acoustic-orientated sounds on display here.
Given Tony Kakko natural vocal timbre (which lends itself well to the more folk sounding material we heard on Volume One), this record also continues the musical mash up in these reworkings of their classic material. Opening with one of their best-known tracks I Have A Right, this feel more like the kind of radio-friendly soft-rock piano led power ballads that would probably send them straight to the top of the trendier end of the chart spectrum if they made this move more permanent. Black Sheep takes things in in an almost Latin direction and all directions from there on throughout the rest of the disk, but with perhaps slightly less of an overall folk feel than Volume One had.
But I guess that’s the point of the whole exercise – that this is powerful and well-written material that works well adjusted for any genre you care to mention, although my personal soft spot lies with closer Victoria’s Secret, because vocals and a single acoustic guitar accompaniment remains an impactful sound that few can master, but Sonata Arctica manage effortlessly here. This material works well overall, but I can’t help feeling that this should have been released once as a double CD edition, rather than splitting it into two separate Volumes, because the trouble is when you have done it once, the sense of novelty and innovation experienced first time round doesn’t reappear, despite the quality of the material.
That said, this is something special, and feels like this band have, like many others, finally closed the door on the chaos that Covid caused. 7/10
Iron Savior - Reforged Ironbound Vol. 2 (AFM Records) [Simon Black]
Iron Saviour’s early back catalogue is one of those musical ‘rare as rocking horse droppings’ scenarios sadly. Although they’ve been at it a long time and are still churning out high calibre new material, their original run of five albums from 1996 onwards on the now legendary (but sadly defunct) German Noise International label have disappeared into rights ownership hell. For those not familiar with the problem, Noise folded at the turn of the millennium, with their back catalogue being snapped up by Sanctuary music… who in turn folded in 2007! The current owner of the archive is BMG, who for a long while have shown very little interest in the material which is locked away somewhere inaccessible, although some items are slowly starting to see the light of day via that channel who have released a few tentative compilations from Kreator, Voivod, Running Wild and Grave Digger.
For the majority of bands with material stuck in this limbo, unless they have the deep pockets of say a Helloween or a Kreator, this is likely to continue to be the status quo. There is a light at the end of the tunnel however, in that thanks to the way the industry splits copyright into recording and music publishing as separate legal entities (which is how cover versions are legally possible), the band were able to re-record their own material completely and avoid the rights issue around the original recordings (which kids is why you should never put all your eggs into one basket and keep the contracts separate separate). And so they have, of which this is the second bite of the cherry.
A bloody expensive cherry at that, but an almighty “Fuck you” to the big boys of the industry nonetheless. The first batch of these got the revamp treatment back in 2017, and this completes the set. Now, because re-recording and releasing your own back catalogue has other subtle complications legally, in that they cannot re-create the exact running order of the original five albums either, all the songs have been split across the two releases five years apart.
There’s a slight challenge with this for the listener, as those early albums formed an incredibly epic rambling story arc about a self-aware gigantic spaceship with a human brain built by the ancient Atlanteans as a defence against the rest of the world (known as The Alliance), which then takes Umbridge to modern day mankind which it perceives as Atlantis’ destroyer. With five album’s worth, there’s one hell of a lot of weaving and storytelling in here, all of which is completely lost on the listener when the concept albums have been spliced into two separate multi-disk releases and the track order thrown into the musical equivalent of a lottery ball machine.
Musically though this is power metal of the highest order, and quite rightly too since Kai Hanson was a part of the original run of three albums. Although he’s long since moved on, his mark is there in tracks like Starborn and Deadly Sleep and Piet Sielck and Joachim “Piesel” Küstner do a great job of homaging his distinctive style in these new recordings. The other massive advantage (other than just being able to hear this material at all) is that full advantage of modern production quality and techniques means this makes the material sound simultaneously of this age and of that of its original time, as former anarchist turned Noise label owner Karl-Ulrich Walterbach was notorious for not spending money on production if it could possibly be avoided, which proves that the reason people’s politics move from the left to the right as they age is really usually all about the money.
Despite the challenges in following the story, plus the fact that I only have half of the set here, this all works remarkably well, because the quality of the song-writing is so strong here. That said, with 23 tracks and two hours of material, it can get a bit samey, given the material was originally written to be ingested in 40 minute chunks. Nevertheless, a highly enjoyable chance to enjoy a long-lost set of classics. 8/10
Strangle Wire – Shaped By Human Frailty (Grindscene Records) [Matt Cook]
Contrary to popular belief, Strangle Wire is not in fact what you call your old, wired iPod headphones after they’ve become tangled underneath your sweatshirt as you walk alone aimlessly, slowly threatening to cut off your air supply. Nor is it the jumbled misery that is your PS2 controller after using it for about a half a second before it shrinks down to about three inches of slack (am I showing my age too much?).
Strangle Wire are instead a grueling Irish death metal act which clawed out of whatever filthy pit it was festering in. Alas, Shaped By Human Frailty is the foursome’s first foray into the combative, reckless scene. There is a clear method underneath the madness, as well as a plethora of superlatives and adjectives in which to foist upon the band’s output. Chunky, blunt-force, bludgeoning. It’s all present in the 35-minute record (the title track is especially tight and delectable). Unfortunately, as quickly as Strangle Wire revs up its engine, the nucleus of the album sputters and jolts before ultimately coming to an anticlimactic stop. The drums – laid down by the one and only John – are pounded, belted and massacred. Though that is to be expected, which soon becomes Shaped By Human Frailty’s death knell.
The nine songs – try as they might – suffer from a sense of stagnation before everything is said and done. As a death metal album, it’s more than serviceable; however, there’s already an abundance of that as it is. I desperately wanted to see this album as something more than blast beats and growling. But the more I paid attention, the less engaged I felt. After a while, it became clear that Strangle Wire, at least initially, are perfectly content blending into the crowd rather than attempting to free themselves from the shackles of blandness. 6/10
Aviana – Corporation (Arising Empire) [Matt Cook]
Here we go again with another instalment of “this music isn’t for me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not good, however since I am reviewing it, from my perspective, I don’t like it as much as others might.” Swedish metalcore four piece Aviana were a tad bit trigger happy with the electronics in the recording studio while putting together their latest release, Corporation. Fun fact, though: each song title’s first letter spells out the name of the record. So that’s pretty cool. As for the good, Joel Holmqvist is a man possessed, displaying a robust vocal range that is at times gravelled clean and harshly hateful. Rage features a venomous breakdown/beatdown that’s tangibly threatening: “Oh god I’m drowning!”
Additionally, Paradox features Marcus Vik and utterly titanic vocals that effectively contrasts groovy lines laid down by the rhythm section of Marcus Heffler (guitar), Sebastian Colque (bass) and Niclas Bergstrom (drums). The clean/harsh interplay on Oblivion works well and sets the stage for a destructive, blunt breakdown. But then there’s Obsession. Despite Holmqvist’s Grade-A performance on the mic, the extemporaneous electronic sounds are superfluous at best and damaging at worst. There is obvious ability amongst the foursome, so it’s puzzling why they would feel the need to insert such a dominating amount of extracurricular, artificial sounds.
This leads me back to the intro, because as an avid fan of metalcore (especially the early-to-mid 2000s), I always enjoyed the raw, pugilistic screams and the clean-as-a-whistle sung choruses. Formulaic though it was, it worked well considering I still harbour fond memories of that era. So if an abundance of electronics showered atop your music is how you like it, Aviana will likely appease you. But if I have any say in it (which I do, for some reason), the added noises detract from what by itself would have been a rather solid album. 6/10