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.'”
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.”
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,
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.”
German bashers M.I.GOD. have been kicking around for close to 20 years, releasing albums as time and resources allow, earning themselves a small but respectable following along the way. The international market was never the focus so there was never a serious push in that direction, but after the release of the Floor 29 album in 2012 things went quiet, messing up any forward momentum they may have had. This year the band returned with Specters On Parade, an album unlike anything in the M.I.GOD. catalogue. Meant as a concept record, reviews have been all over the map, with one reviewer going so far as to simply call the album “shit.” The band good-naturedly shared said small-minded review via social media, knowing full well that no matter how poorly some people react to Specters On Parade, it is most certainly not the slab of crap they would have you believe.
In actual fact, Specters On Parade is the best album M.I.GOD. has released to date and it’s worthy of international attention.
Vocalist / founder Max Chemnitz discussed the new prog-metal monster a few days after a harrowing live experience – “all kinds of technical problems, I couldn’t hear anything” – that turned out far better than anticipated, with the crowd chanting “M.I.GOD.” at the end of the band’s set.
“Some of the reviews for Specters On Parade, you can tell that the people are just listening to the music because they are curious about what we’re doing, and after that first listen they wrote the review,” says Chemnitz. “There are some journalists that say the album is good, the parts are well played and all that, but they didn’t get the concept, they didn’t get what we intended to do.”
Canadian bashers Kobra And The Lotus kicked off 2018 in the best position they’ve ever been in over the course of the band’s 10 year career. After years of riding the record label carousel, numerous line-up changes, and vocalist Kobra Paige’s battle with Lyme disease that severely reduced the band’s ability to tour, Kobra And The Lotus landed at Napalm Records. The growing label saw worth in the band’s mad scheme (for a small act) to release a double album, promptly developing a plan to market and promote the record, enabling KATL to get back on the road. The proposed Prevail album was divided into two parts by the label, with Prevail I released in May 2017. The record hit the Independent (Soundscan) and Heatseekers charts, yielding three singles (four if you count pre-release taster “Trigger Pulse”). All in all, a fantastic restart for a band that has waded through its share of industry bullshit and personal issues. Prevail II continues this run, charting in similar fashion to Prevail I and seeing Kobra And The Lotus on the road yet again, as it should be.
Paige spoke with BraveWords last year about the motivation behind Prevail I and II, and prior to hitting the road she picked up the thread regarding how the band managed to divide the songs between the two albums – 21 in total, plus bonus material – and create a balance to work in their favour.
“It was pretty stressful at first trying to figure out what to do with all the music we had,” Paige admits. “All we knew is that we wanted it to be equally balanced between the two albums. What really helped us was that Napalm Records chose some of the songs that went on Prevail I. They chose ‘Trigger Pulse’ and ‘You Don’t Know’, and in my head ‘Light Me Up’ had a similar vibe, ‘Gotham’ seemed to match with ‘Trigger Pulse’, so that laid the groundwork. And because we had the one instrumental on Prevail I (‘Check The Phyrg’) it made sense to put the other one (‘Ribe’) on Prevail II.”
Considering the amount of work that went into writing songs for what is essentially a double album, it’s surprising to hear that Kobra And The Lotus were so willing to hand off choosing the track running order(s) to the record label.
“It wasn’t really that hard. We really felt strongly about ‘Trigger Pulse’ for some reason and it went from there. Honestly, it was a relief to have Napalm’s input because once they explained why it would be better to release Prevail in two parts rather than all at once, it made sense. It was really strange but cool that everything just fit into place doing the whole Prevail thing.” Continue reading BraveWords Interview: KOBRA AND THE LOTUS – Success In The Snakepit
In 2016, Canada’s former Metal Queen turned rock icon Lee Aaron released what was viewed by many as her comeback album, Fire And Gasoline. Not particularly accurate in that she’s been releasing music and touring ever since she went “away” in 1996 – more on that later – but the album was in fact her first full-on rock release since 1994. Whether it was as strong as her work from the ’80s and early ’90s is a matter of taste, but Fire And Gasoline laid the groundwork and kicked open a few doors to allow for renewed interest in her career and an impressive follow-up album, Diamond Baby Blues. It’s a record that serves up no-nonsense blues-heavy rock n’ roll and shows off yet another side of Lee Aaron’s musical personality. It’s also a message that says she’s still in it for the long haul thanks to Fire And Gasoline, ready to take another bold step forward.
“It feels fantastic because I’m making records that I really love and really want to make,” Lee says of Diamond Baby Blues. “There’s no record company pressure like there used to be to create art that fits into a mold. I’m able to create art that I like and I love, and work with the people I want to work with. The biggest stressors for me these days are balancing family, my children, because they’re still in school and they need a lot of support. And not only are the navigating academia, they’re dealing with social dynamics and hormones so they really need their parents to be around. I strive to keep a balance between my personal life and music. It’s always a delicate dance. It certainly keeps your feet on the ground, it keeps you humble because just when you think you’re pretty special, you’re not (laughs).”
It turns out that Fire And Gasoline was the jump-off point for the creation of Diamond Baby Blues, but not in the traditional sense of album release / feedback / tour / feedback = renewed energy and inspiration.
“Believe it or not, this album was already recorded and mostly finished when we went on tour last summer,” Lee reveals. “We recorded it on Spring Break because everyone had some time; we went out to the studio and laid down all the bedtracks, and I had most of the vocals done before the tour. From there it was just some small things to fix up like backing vocals and extra keyboard parts. We were just so excited from the response we got for Fire And Gasoline, so I just booked some studio time and said ‘Okay, we’re going in on March Break…’ but we didn’t know what we were going to do (laughs). I talked about doing some covers that I always wanted to record, and the suggestion of doing an album of half covers, half originals came up. Then came the question of how we wanted to approach that. Some people do covers records that are an homage to a certain artist, like doing all David Bowie songs or all Led Zeppelin songs, but our idea was to take these songs we’d chosen, deconstruct them and make them our own, and we made that the template for the (original) songs we wanted to write. But, we knew we were going in more of a rootsy, hard blues direction before we even wrote the material.” Continue reading BraveWords Interview: LEE AARON – Blues Maiden Canada
Ayreon mastermind Arjen Lucassen has returned to form with his progressive metal opera project’s ninth album, The Source. In 1995 he introduced his “more is more” mindset with The Final Experiment, setting the tone for each future production stamped with the Ayreon name, garnering a loyal cult following and high expectations from those fans. It was the third album, Into The Electric Castle released in 1998, that laid a solid foundation for Lucassen’s multi-vocalist epics, and The Human Equation in 2004 that put him on the metaldom map as a creative force to be reckoned with, or respected at the very least. There have been a few missteps along the way depending on who you talk to – 01011001 from 2008 and The Theory Of Everything from 2013 are not the easiest albums to get into – but the fans are responding well to The Source. In fact, the constant comparisons to The Human Equation and Into The Electric Castle suggest that Lucassen may have struck musical gold once again.
“I know what you mean,” Lucassen agrees. “I had that feeling a twice before because everything came together so easily. The cast came together, the music came together, the story was easy, which are things I had with The Human Equation and Into The Electric Castle. Sometimes that happens and I just try to steer things in the direction they need to go.”
The ease with which the material The Source came together could have and probably should have been a bit frightening for Lucassen. How many musicians have boasted about new music coming together effortlessly only to be carved by the press once it goes out to the public?
“I’m insecure as hell about that,” he admits. “I start with 50 ideas and I hate most of them, really (laughs), because I figure they’re not good enough. The ones that I do like, I’ll play them to Lori (Linstruth / girlfriend, ex-Stream Of Passion guitarist) and she’ll be like “Well, yeah, okay…” So, I’m completely insecure until the very last moment, which is what makes me a perfectionist. That’s what makes me work so much harder, especially when I hear other stuff like the new Opeth or the new Devin Townsend. That’s when I’m thinking ‘Oh my God, my stuff doesn’t even get close to that…’ (laughs). The reactions to The Source have been so good that the insecurity is gone, and usually it’s always there.” Continue reading BraveWords Interview: AYREON – A Kind Of Prog Metal Magic