Love it or hate it, it’s an undeniable fact that so-called ’80s hair metal is alive and well in 2020. Never mind the LA strip bands that are trekking around on “reunion” tours – often consisting of two original members and three guys conscripted from the local laundromat – living off their glory day catalogues; there are up-and-coming bands in all corners of the world trying to make their mark with that distinctive ’80s rock sound. And many are succeeding. Canadian rockers Storm Force are one example, having released their debut album Age Of Fear at the beginning of the year and receiving critical acclaim from the European and UK press in particular. Not an easy task considering Europe is where most of these bands originate nowadays, but something about the record has garnered Storm Force serious attention and it’s not guitarist / founder Greg Fraser’s Brighton Rock past. Sure, folks that lived through Brighton Rock’s commercial success in the ’80s with two sign-of-the-times albums (Young, Wild And Free and Take A Deep Breath) will zero in on it as a talking point, but Age Of Fear stands on its own as a solid rock album that people are happy to dub “old school ’80s hair metal.”
“It was about three year in the making, just kinda chipping away at it,” Fraser says of Age Of Fear, having been out of the limelight for several years. “Sometime I wondered if it was ever going to be finished because we’ve got different things going on, but once we got the deal (with Escape Music) it put things into overdrive. We wanted the record to be finished before we started shopping around but it didn’t happen that way, which is kind of a good thing because it could have been another year before the record was done.”
“Any kid that’s 20 years-old today, they’re never going to buy a CD in their lifetime,” he adds. “It’s the people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and older that are willing to buy 10 songs all at once. Kids today… one song at a time and that’s all they need. I’m still old school. If I hear a song I like, I wanna know where the rest of the songs are (laughs). The fact I have a label (Escape Music) that’s willing to print CDs is amazing, because that’s the only way you can make any money off of any product. You can’t make anything off of streaming.”
Between 2009 and 2013, a small yet volatile Canadian melodic death metal band dubbed Blackguard was out for blood. The bloodlust was awakened several years earlier (between 2001 and 2004) when they were known as Profugus Mortis, the band creating their own brand of folk-flavoured melodic death metal. They attracted a decent amount of attention with a small collection of songs – BraveWords being one of their first media followers – which were eventually showcased on the 2007 album, So It Begins. From there it was full speed ahead. Over the course of two album releases under the Blackguard name – Profugus Mortis (2009) and Firefight (2011) – the band ripped through North America with occasional jaunts across Europe for a whopping 18 tours. Having supported everyone from Korpiklaani to Nevermore to Epica to Deicide, Blackguard was a name that nobody was likely to forget, and ultimately that was the band’s downfall. Plain and simple, fans got sick of seeing them turn up at every show coming through town. When Blackguard announced they were working on a new album in around 2013, interest seemed to be at an all-time low not only amongst the fans but within the band itself. As a result, the long-suffering record known as Storm, which was teased sporadically as “almost done” by the band for years, stayed buried until January 2020.
“I guess you can boil it down to a series of unfortunate events for the most part,” says frontman Paul “Ablaze” Zinay of what he concedes was a mind-boggling delay. “We started writing the album in 2012, and it probably should have come out in 2013 or 2014. When 2013 came around we were starting to feel burnt out at that point because we were so stupid; we toured way too fucking much in North America and just ended up killing ourselves. The last tour we did was Finntroll in 2013, and nobody actually said it at first, but there was the feeling within the band that it was going to be our last tour for a long time. We didn’t have a conversation but the writing was on the wall; we didn’t want this anymore. We can’t blame anybody but ourselves for that because at the end of the day we said yes to going out as much as we did. We should have said no, but what’s the saying? ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.'”
In their heyday, Canadian ’80s rock heroes Brighton Rock were branded as fluffy counterparts to their American hair band brethren thanks to big label boardroom decisions that saw ballads “Can’t Wait For The Night” and “One More Try” shoved front and center. No surprise there, as that was the sign of the times (see Warrant’s sappy breakthrough, “Heaven”), but it was a huge disservice to the bulk of Brighton Rock’s material, which was often heavier than expected. While the band remains semi-active, guitarist Greg Fraser chose to launch Storm Force and string together a 10-song celebration of feelgood in-your-face hair metal / rock in the spirit of classic Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe, Whitesnake, Dio, Ratt, and every other classic ’80s-era band that captured your imagination and made you pick up air guitar or sing into a hair brush for the first time.
Following the line scratched with Brighton Rock’s 1991 album, Love Machine, Fraser’s riffs are meat-on-the-bone heavy yet compact, the songs straight to the point and not legging a ton of “additional” keyboards / layered clutter. Lead single “Because Of You” is instantly infectious as only ’80s hair metal anthems can be, followed up by the standout title track that features one of Fraser’s heaviest guitar riffs (and best songs) to date. “Breathe” takes things in a different and darker direction, led by bass and drums, and featuring guest vocals by one Serena Pryne who comes off as a young Sass Jordan. “Dirty Vegas”, “Ride Like Hell” and “Marshall Law” are groove heavy, more rock than metallic, with balls by the ton. The country-esque “More Than You Know” is grudgingly enjoyable (don’t tell my metal friends), while full-on ballad “Different Roads”…. I’ll leave that for the soccer moms and bake sale dads that still love their cassette collections. Closing track “Ringside”, on the other hand, ends things with a satisfying amount of shred recalling the work of guitar lord Jake E. Lee.
Nostalgia: “A wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.”
If you go by the textbook definition above, The Night Flight Orchestra can be considered a nostalgia-based band. The term has been used quite often over the course of their eight year career to describe the now seven-piece group, but this shouldn’t be seen as derogatory. On the contrary, it should be seen as a positive that a present day rock band is able to fire up their time machine to deliver shadows and flavours of the past with all original material. Aeromantic is The Night Flight Orchestra’s fifth album, and it pays homage to acts from the ’70s and ’80s – Journey, ABBA, Toto, KISS, Christopher Cross, Asia…. it’s a seemingly never-ending list – while deftly avoiding the retro trend that made bands like Greta Van Fleet the talk of the town for 10 seconds. Not an easy task, but then it’s not like The NFO were trying to do anything more than create more solid material they can be proud of. If people choose to join their particular conga line, so much the better, especially because it gives the metalheads on board a chance to learn about where Soilwork frontman Björn “Speed” Strid, Arch Enemy bassist Sharlee D’Angelo, and Soilwork guitarist Dave Andersson come from musically.
“It’s going to be hard to top the previous two albums in terms of reviews,” Strid says of Aeromantic. “Last time out it was really amazing and it’s the same thing this time around, if not better. People are blown away by the new album, and I’d say that most of the press we’re doing is with metal magazines. It’s really remarkable how open-minded people are in the scene. I’ve heard people say this is a guilty pleasure, but what is there to feel guilty about? People are raving about it. Somehow it works and we have a personable sound in the end. It’s not just a nostalgia act; we’re filling a void in the music scene. The other day somebody asked me if I could name another new band out there that is doing the same sort of thing as The Night Flight Orchestra, and I couldn’t come up with anything. We’re moving this forward with this combination of sound and imagery; it’s very nostalgic in a sense but also very refreshing. I think we’re providing something that’s missing out there.”
Annihilator frontman / founder Jeff Waters is notoriously critical of his own work. An album that he is 100% pleased with upon release can ultimately end up being dressed down a year or two later as “not my best work” or “a 6 out of 10” in the press. A surefire sign that the man is always trying to improve himself rather than resting and relying on past glories like Annihilator’s first two untouchable classic records, Alice In Hell (1989) and Never, Neverland (1990). This dynamic duo is the benchmark for Annihilator fans everywhere, of course, and as a diehard follower that has found some worth in most (not all) of Waters’ albums it’s gotta be said that with Ballistic, Sadistic he has finally managed to bring Alice home.
Maybe it’s the success Annihilator has had on the live front over the last few years, maybe it’s the positive turns of Waters’ personal life, maybe it was having drummer Fabio Alessandrini in the studio rather than relying on programmed drums – or all of the above – but Ballistic, Sadistic is by far the heaviest, fastest, best written / arranged Annihilator record since Refresh The Demon (1996). And by “heaviest” we’re talking the full-on tasteful and tight guitar shred that made Annihilator famous with classics like “W.T.Y.D”, “Human Insecticide”, “Reduced To Ash” and “Alison Hell”.
Vocalist Ian Parry has been kicking around for well over 30 years, having made the most noise with Dutch bashers Elegy in the ’90s and his five-album Consortium Project, which ran its course between 1999 – 2011. In Flagrante Delicto dials things back from the metal of these previous outings to a more classic-rock foundation, and it may well be one of the strongest records of his extensive career. It most certainly crushes Parry’s previous four solo albums.
Lead-off track and laid back track “Spaceman” initially strikes one as odd for an album opener, but it’s easy to see it as an intro for what’s to come as In Flagrante Delicto plays out. Things get progressively heavier, hinting at the glory days of acts like Yes, Deep Purple, classic Styx, and Marsden-era Whitesnake. By no means is the material dated, however, as Parry is unafraid to mess with Rammstein-esque samples and crunch grooves (see “In Flagrante Delicto” and “Impulse”), deftly using them for nuance rather than as a move to remain relevant in 2020. And if you want to use the old adage “everything old is new again” it’s fair to say Parry does a solid job of it. “Travellers” shows his love for tasteful prog – so well displayed during his Elegy days – while “Fool’s Paradise” and “Wish” are simple straight-ahead no-frills rockers that will likely annoy the more closed-minded prog-loving members of Parry’s audience. The album winds down with the feelgood vibe of commercial Rush in “Fly” – a favourite of the moment – followed by the polar opposite brood of “The Day We Stop Dreaming”. It closes with a feather in Parry’s cap, the stellar “So Far, So Good”, which recalls the early days of Dream Theater (Images And Words / When Dream And Day Unite) before all their widdly prog wankery was levelled-up to 11. A brilliant way to end the record and force a repeat listen.
Like the vast majority of bands celebrating 25th and 30th Anniversaries, Canadian thrash legends Annihilator’s earliest albums are considered go-to classics, never to be repeated or surpassed by the band. No argument there, as the timeless magic of Alice In Hell (’89) and Never, Neverland (’90) is equal to that of records like Master Of Puppets, Reign In Blood, Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?, Bonded By Blood and The Ultra-Violence, to name a few. Annihilator has had a checkered career over the course of 17 albums, which ultimately comes down to frontman / founder Jeff Waters and how he has chosen to pilot his metal machine, and with whom. There have been hits and misses over the years, too many line-up changes to count, some brilliant collaborations, and tours that probably should have been left on paper, but 2020 finds Annihilator the strongest they’ve been since 2001’s Carnival Diablos era. New album Ballistic, Sadistic sees The Jeff Waters & Friends outfit channelling those first two Annihilator records in a big way, and while they remain untouchable it’s a solid return to the aggression diehard fans have been demanding for almost three decades. We can credit Waters’ move from Canada to the UK for forcing the issue, pulling out all the stops and causing him to unleash some unexpected unbridled fury.
“I never thought I would leave Canada for any reason,” says Waters. “The only reason to leave Canada is for cancer treatments that aren’t expensive and getting married (laughs). I met a woman a couple years ago, she had a couple younger kids, so it was clear that you either shake hands and move on or go for it, and because I travel a lot I figured I could make a move like that. I don’t want to sound like a crybaby, but in order to go all in I had to sell everything to make the move; house, car, the studio I’d built and fought to keep afloat for years. It was a major life change. And I had to surrender my passport to UK immigration, which meant having to postpone the (For The Demented) tour for a year. All these things happened, and then I made it worse by thinking ‘I can handle this…’ but dealing with all those things in a short period of time and trying to make a record in a new home studio… I was setting myself up for a heart attack.”
On April 15th, 2016, fans of Leaves’ Eyes
were shocked to learn the band had parted ways with vocalist and namesake Liv
Kristine Espenæs. In the same breath, the band announced that Finnish singer
Elina Siirala of the band EnkElination would take Liv’s place. Given that
Leaves’ Eyes had centered around Liv Kristine and her husband / Atrocity
frontman Alexander Krull since the band’s inception in 2003 – in the wake of
Liv being fired from Theater of Tragedy – it was clear the issues leading to
the split were personal as well as professional. It would take some time for
the dust to settle, as both sides shared different accounts of what led to the
split, but Leaves’ Eyes forged onward with Siirala up front and a significant
wave of fan discontent on their tails. For her part, Liv gradually went quiet,
making guest appearances on Cradle Of Filth’s “Vengeful Spirit”,
Orden Ogan’s “Come With Me To The Other Side” in 2017, and
Midnattsol’s album The Aftermath in 2018, but otherwise stayed away from
putting out new music. In December 2019, however, she released a new solo
single, “Skylight”, which was reminiscent of her Vervain solo record
from 2014 and Theatre of Tragedy’s classic third album, Aegis.
“After a few ups and down – a few
roller-coaster rides to put it mildly, since I moved to Germany 20 years ago –
I decided to start all anew,” Liv says of her comeback. “I
practically left everything, cleared all relationships, situations, or ended
them. In 2019, I felt the spirit again to continue working on my own music. It
was Tommy Olsson (guitarist / ex-Theatre of Tragedy) who reached out in 2016
with a handful of songs that really blew me away. He’s been very patient and
supportive throughout my journey, and I have the best composer by my side. I
just want to do the music which I love, which I am fully in alignment with. My
upcoming solo album is a collaboration with Tommy. It’s in the veins of
Vervain, but not at all like it. It is inspired by Tommy’s masterpiece,
On February 19th, Nightwish kicked off the Germany leg of the promo junket for their new album, Human. :II: Nature. in Munich. Unlike the usual alcohol-fueled affairs that listening sessions inevitably turn out to be, it was a sedate early morning affair consisting of coffee, headphones and an iGadget, each journalist in attendance invited to grab a seat in the hotel’s comfortable lobby to feast on and ultimately devour 80 minutes of music. Band members Tuomas Holopainen, Troy Donockley and Floor Jansen flew into town while the session was underway, taking a mere 10 minutes to get settled before the interviews began. BraveWords has a long history with the Nightwish camp and was welcomed quite literally with open arms, first up in what was to be a long day of media prodding before the band jetted off that night to Hamburg for Round 2 the next day.
For the record, there is a huge BraveWords feature with Holopainen and Donockley due to be published in a few weeks. This is an overview of Human. :II: Nature. meant to offer some idea of what to expect, hopefully without spoiling the experience when the record is released on April 10th via Nuclear Blast.
Known for their bombastic sound, Nightwish throw the first of many curveballs on Human. :II: Nature. with the very first song, “Music”, which is perhaps best described as a “soft open.” It is certainly not soft in terms of metal or subject matter, but the track eases the listener into the album rather than bashing you over the head with an orchestral anvil (take note of this). In fact, it is a hint that something is very different this time out as compared to previous album, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, even though first single “Noise” sounds like a slower version of “Shudder Before The Beautiful” from said record. Admittedly, “Noise” is a much stronger track when heard with a quality sound system rather than via some crap-ass streaming platform, and it is certainly not representative of Human. :II: Nature. as a whole. Not at all.
Nightwish bassist / vocalist Marko Hietala was in the business of making music long before keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen launched the band in 1996. Back in 1984 – almost 20 years before he would join Nightwish, in 2001 – Hietala and his brother Zachary founded Tarot, a metal band that would find underground popularity in their native Finland but remain relatively obscure internationally until the Crows Fly Black album in 2007. Nightwish’s rise to mega-fame is in the history books, with Hietala as one of the players that made their 2004 album, Once, an international breakthrough. And now, after three Nightwish studio albums under his belt with a fourth on the horizon, he has released Pyre Of The Black Heart, a low-key solo record. It originally surfaced as a Finnish version – Mustan Sydämen Rovio – issued in the spring of 2019; news of an English version hit later in the year with an early 2020 release planned as Hietala, record label Nuclear Blast, and the rest of the world gear up for the new Nightwish record, Human. :II: Nature., due in April of this year.
“I’ve been working on this album for the last couple of years, but we didn’t get into any hype for it until we were ready to put it out,” Hietala explains. “That made it easier because we didn’t have to deal with any extra pressure. There is always some pressure that you put on yourself when you’re releasing something new, of course, but we didn’t have any of that from the outside, which was good. It’s been a long time dream as a musician to do something like this, and now was the time. Nightwish was taking a sabbatical and I had enough material. Some of the pieces go back as much as 15 years, but most of the songs became concrete over the last four years or so. Then, two-and-a-half years ago we started putting this together. There were a few things that got in the way as we were making this, but it all came together.”