By Carl Begai

Get past the sexist slant of the title and take a serious listen to Epica’s new album, The Quantum Enigma; particularly if you’re one of those people (like yours truly) that’s fed up with the female-fronted symphonic metal trend. Coming down from the buzz of celebrating their 10th anniversary, the Dutch sextet abandoned the business-as-usual approach that made them famous – and an inspiration to far too many bands around the world – and coughed up an album that, if it doesn’t win you over outright, will at least earn Epica some respect. Yes, their orchestral backbone is still very much intact, but it now belongs to a guitar-heavy drum pounding monster that tears the band free of those lingering comparisons to Nightwish and Lacuna Coil.

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“There was one guy I did an interview with today and he said, ‘Before, Epica was a band just for my girlfriend. This new album, I love it too…’ laughs guitarist/founder Mark Jansen. “We wanted to refresh the sound of the band and judging by all the positive reactions, we’ve succeeded.”

“After Retrospect (the concert) we decided that since we had celebrated our first 10 years as a band, we should do something to refresh the sound for the next 10 years,” he explains. “The more we thought about it, the more we realized we had to make some drastic changes. The first one was looking for another producer. Sascha Paeth (Kamelot, Avantasia, Rhapsody Of Fire) has always done a great job in the 10 years we worked with him, but we needed someone to take us out of our comfort zone. We knew exactly what we were going to get from Sascha and he knew what he’d get from us, so we wanted someone who would make us see a different side of ourselves. We chose Joost van der Broek (ex-After Forever) because he’s still quite new to the production world but he’s done a lot. He’s gained a lot of experience but he still has this youthful energy around him, which makes you happy to work with him. That was the kind of energy we were looking for.”

The Quantum Enigma isn’t nearly as musically dense as some of Epica’s previous albums, which sometimes seemed to choke on the layered choir/symphonic bombast shoe-horned into the songs. There’s a whole lot of space in the music this time out, making Epica seem almost naked but most definitely stronger. Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

The cover art on its own should be enough to let people know Space Police – Defenders Of The Crown is an Edguy album. If that doesn’t convince you, a tracklist containing songs entitled ‘Love Tyger’ and ‘Do Me Like A Caveman’ warns folks that vocalist Tobias Sammet is at play once again. We are, after all, talking about the man that wrote the classic ‘Lavatory Love Machine’ and got away with it. All in the name of good clean fun in a dirty world, of course, and Sammet and his bandmates take their fun very seriously.

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“That’s what you hear when you’re in a hotel on tour,” Sammet says of ‘Do Me Like A Caveman’, making sure people understand it doesn’t refer to the band members’ personal escapades. “You’re lying there alone in your bed after a show trying to get some sleep because you have an early lobby call, and all of a sudden you hear those weird primal noises from the room next to yours. It sounds something like ‘Do me like a caveman!’ (laughs). I think if I’d used the actual quote for the song we wouldn’t have been able to sell the album to minors.”

As for the Space Police artwork, it’s reminiscent of the animated cheesiness of Edguy’s Rocket Ride album cover from 2006 but isn’t linked or inspired by it according to Sammet.

“What I didn’t like too much about Rocket Ride, although it is good to break down barriers, the cover art was goofy. I don’t think the Space Police cover art is necessarily goofy; it’s got a rock n’ roll attitude and it’s not your typical Dungeons & Dragons power metal artwork. It may have a subtle hint of tongue-in-cheekness, but it’s also very straightforward just like the album is. It’s very flashy and in your face.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

It’s been five years since former After Forever guitarist Sander Gommans broke his self-imposed hiatus from the music business with HDK, a slavering beast of a project that flew in the face of his former band’s symphonic goth metal sound. The debut album, System Overload, was a full-on metal assault that presented both Gommans and vocalist/co-conspirator Amanda Somerville (Trillium, Avantasia) entering unexplored territory, showing off a very different and altogether volatile side of their musical personalities. A second HDK album was always in the cards; it was just a question of when the pair would get around to writing and recording it in amongst other projects that were on the go, which included the launch of Gommans’ studio/music school The Rock Station, working on albums from Trillium and Kiske / Somerville, and tours with Trillium, Avantasia and Rock Meets Classic. Serenades Of The Netherworld has finally surfaced – creeping into the light slowly but surely – as a bigger and more melodic take on System Overload. It’s certainly more dynamic and less bent on bludgeoning the listener into submission, but not at the expense of healthy sonic violence.

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Amanda: “That wasn’t because of me. That was definitely Sander’s fault (laughs).”

Sander: “The thing is, with the first album I wanted to do something really different from After Forever. I’d wanted to do it for years and years, and that’s what came out. Since then I’ve had time to work with other artists and re-think some stuff. I wanted to write a new HDK album that was similar to the previous one but it came out much more symphonic and way more melodic. I didn’t have to distance myself from After Forever anymore, and I was ready to write stuff that was more melodic anyway like I did for Trillium and Kiske / Somerville. And I worked with keyboard players this time, so that gave the music a different feel as well. The new HDK is still heavy but it’s different from the first album..”

Amanda: “On the first album Sander was saying ‘There aren’t going to be any keyboards on the album because After Forever is full of frickin’ keyboards…’ (laughs). I think that has a lot to do with how the new HDK album turned out.”

Sander: “That’s why it’s a project; you can do anything you want at any time, and that’s why I don’t want to play live; I don’t want to hold myself to one sort of style or genre. It’s just cool to work together with musicians and come up with stuff. The new HDK album does sound different, I do agree.”

Also different this time out is the way HDK is being unleashed. Rather than going through the circus act of seeking out a record deal, Gommans and Somerville have opted to release Serenades Of The Netherworld independently and in stages as part of an experiment.

Sander: “We have The Rock Station now, and we really want to show musicians how to promote your work when you don’t have a label. It’s just the start, so we’re releasing this first song and it’s actually done well. But, we’ve also noticed that you can’t promote the release just once; you have to keep promoting it. We want to have something to constantly promote the album and give people time to get to know the songs instead of releasing everything all at once on an album where people listen to it a few times before moving on to the next thing. The response has been very positive so far, and I thought people were going to be saying it wasn’t cool that they couldn’t buy the whole album. In that respect people like the songs, but I can see it coming where we release two or three songs and people start asking ‘Okay, where’s the album?’” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

Italian vocalist Fabio Lione first made his mark on the international metal scene in 1997 fronting Rhapsody – now known as Rhapody Of Fire for legal reasons – and holds that post to this day. Over the years, however, he has gained a reputation for being a reliable go-to replacement when circumstances make it impossible for a band to operate with their own singer. The most recent example of this was on Gamma Ray’s European tour, which featured Rhapsody Of Fire as support. Vocalist Kai Hansen was battling a serious case of bronchitis that threatened to derail the tour completely, but rather than pack it in they tapped several friends to fill in for Hansen at certain points of the nightly set. Lione pulled double duty for a good portion of the tour, performing a handful of songs for Gamma Ray on top of a full Rhapsody Of Fire set, hammering home performances that showcased just how formidable a vocalist he really is. It’s one thing to cover Helloween’s ‘Future World’ – a Gamma Ray staple that has been done to death – and quite another to nail ‘Empire Of The Undead’, a brand new song that Hansen himself has probably sung live less than 30 times.

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Rhapsody Of Fire has been Lione’s top priority since the beginning, but in 2011 he was asked to front Kamelot on tour in place of Roy Khan who had bowed out (and eventually quit) for personal reasons. The Kamelot fanbase was quite naturally resistant to the idea of Lione behind the microphone, but by the end of the tour many fans agreed he had something significant to offer. In the end it was Seventh Wonder vocalist Tommy Karevik that got the job, but Lione’s ties to Kamelot are still intact.

“I love the guys in Kamelot,” says Lione. “I love the band, I love the crew, we had a beautiful tour. I think we did something like 49 shows together in North America, South America and Europe. The response in every place we played was great, so I know that it wasn’t easy for Thomas (Youngblood/guitars) to make the decision to choose someone else. Of course he preferred to get somebody that doesn’t already have a big band because it’s easier to manage the schedule without having to worry about what else is going on. In the end, I appreciate that we’re still really good friends. Thomas sends me emails every so often, he’s interested in doing a side-project with me, and I’m sure he’s happy with his decision to bring Tommy into the band.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

Nightwish keyboardist/founder Tuomas Holopainen’s first official solo album, Music Inspired By The Life And Times Of Scrooge, isn’t metal by any means. The record is full blown big screen soundtrack music, which falls directly in line with Holopainen’s trademark songwriting over the last several years. The fact that its focus is the comic book character Scrooge McDuck in a book penned by artist Don Rosa, on the other hand, is not what one might expect from the man who turned female operatic vocals into a metaldom staple and crossed over into movie-making with the Nightwish epic from 2011, Imaginaerum. Holopainen is unashamed by his pet project and very proud of how it turned out; if the music convinces some fans to go out and pick up the book that inspired him, so much the better.

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“It’s been stated pretty clearly from the start that this is a marginal solo album that has nothing to do with metal or Nightwish,” says Holopainen. “It hasn’t been that big of a surprise to people. The biggest surprise seems to be why I’m being so childish (laughs). Of course, that can be expected if you choose to do and album based on a children’s comic book. It’s just ignorance though, because people don’t know what they’re talking about.”

If you’re a comic book geek you can appreciate the lengths Holopainen has gone to in bringing the Scrooge stories to life, having taken time away from his world famous day job. he makes no secret of the fact that he made the album to satisfy himself and nobody else.

“I wanted to make an album that would do these beautiful stories justice, and an album that I’d care to listen to myself. The music came out incredibly easy. I think it was probably, if not the easiest, one of the easiest albums I’ve ever produced because whenever I read this wonderful book my head is filled with music immediately. It was all about channelling it and getting it out, finding the right arrangements and the right instruments to perform it. I’ve had the dream of doing this soundtrack since 1999, so it’s about time that it saw daylight.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

In March 2013, Saigon Kick put to rest months of speculation surrounding news the band’s original line-up, who recorded the classic self-titled debut and epic follow-up, The Lizard – had reunited. Guitarist Jason Bieler and vocalist Matt Kramer had stated numerous times in the press since parting ways in 1993 that they’d never work with each other again, and neither one was shy about the wording of those statements. Tempers have cooled in recent years, however, and in early 2012 both Bieler and Kramer revealed in separate interviews there had been discussions of possibly and hopefully burying the hatchet, and not in someone’s forehead. At the same time, Bieler was breathing life into his Owl Stretching studio project, which has since taken on a life of its own, and Kramer had released his second book, A Book Of Poems From The Smallest Of Towns. So, there was no lack of creative juice to fuel a Saigon Kick reunion, and in the end the diehard fans have gotten what they wished for.

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“It’s gone really well considering the potential for epic disaster,” says Bieler. “It’s gone far better than we anticipated. We’ve been very, very selective about what we’ve done – and I think we spoke about this before – because we didn’t want to do one of those Will Work For Food kind of tours. We did seven shows in these cool markets, and the response from people who are really passionate about the band… it really exceeded everyone’s expectations. And I think because we’ve been staying in really nice hotels and not seeing each other, there’s no friction (laughs).”

Call it a case of being older and wiser, maybe?

“Nobody’s got the energy for those kinds of fights anymore. Strangely enough, Matt and I have been getting along better than we ever have. I think you just get to a point in life where the negative stuff just isn’t worth fighting about. In the early days of Saigon Kick, anybody who didn’t see my point of view had to be doing it on purpose as an attack. There was no other way I could wrap my brain around why someone could not see my logic. As you get older and hopefully a little bit more mature you realize that different people on the planet have a different opinion of things, right or wrong. I learned not to take differences of opinion quite so personally. Yeah, Matt and I have been getting along much, much better, and I think a little bit of maturity on both our parts didn’t hurt.”

Saigon Kick’s volatile history had some fans holding their breaths waiting for news of the band’s reunion going to hell, but the quartet wrapped up 2013 as a complete unit with something resembling a plan for this year. Bieler says keeping things small scale with a ‘baby steps’ approach was the best thing they could have done, and it paid off.

“I think because we were really careful not to say ‘Okay, this is the We’re Visiting Every Venue On Earth Tour 2013/14′ we were able to take the commitment in small chunks. Obviously everybody in the band has busy lives and other things going on, so we could really only do it for the sake of enjoying it. We didn’t go out there saying ‘Please fund our nine million dollar DVD project’, we made sure we didn’t have any of that baggage. We had to make sure we felt like doing it and it’s been fun. The most impressive thing to me is that we didn’t realize how important some of this music is to some of these people. That’s been the exciting and refreshing thing, discovering that. It’s encouraging meeting people and hearing why a certain song or album is important to them.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

Rumour has had it for over a decade that Gamma Ray frontman Kai Hansen isn’t a fan of touring, yet every time you turn around he and his Rayniac bandmates are on the road somewhere in the world either as headliners or a support act. He added to Unisonic to his to-do list in 2011, which put him on the international live circuit in between Gamma Ray commitments and personal life in 2012. And at press time – well before the release of the band’s new album Empire Of The Undead – Hansen was preparing to take the band through Europe for a month. You have to wonder if Hansen started the “Kai Hates Touring” rumour himself for shits and giggles, just to see how far the press and fandom would stretch it.

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“The things is, I like touring and I liked it back then as well,” laughs Hansen, “but I didn’t like to be on tour for too long. Two or three months in a row is a bit heavy for me, but I think I can cope with the whole touring business better now than I did when I was younger. In general I don’t like long tours.”

Hansen also isn’t a fan of the constant push-pull in the metal world about who’s playing what kind of metal, whether an artist is metal enough, or if a band/album/song even warrants the stamp to begin with. Some fans, for example, raked Gamma Ray’s previous album To The Metal! (2010) over the coals for not being heavy enough. Going back for a listen to refresh the memory, it’s a ridiculous complaint

“It’s very hard to find a definition of what metal is,” Hansen says. “I never made a big distinction when I was growing up with glam rock and hard rock, and then later on heavy rock and heavy metal. In the end, for me, it’s all hard music with distorted guitars and attitude. Of course all these bands sound different, but to me it’s one thing. The spirit is the same so I don’t see the necessity to make a distinction, so I don’t.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

Cluttered as the metal scene is with female-fronted symphonic metal bands, news that Delain has a new slab of metal to offer isn’t likely to burn up the hype lines. Not until word on The Human Contradiction truly gets out. The fact they’re Dutch doesn’t help matters given their Netherlands is home to much bigger names of the genre such as Epica, Within Temptation, and former After Forever vocalist Floor Jansen who went off to join a little band called Nightwish. As vocalist Charlotte Wessels puts it, however, Delain is a very stubborn band, and although they’ve been on the bottom end of the ladder since their 2006 debut, Lucidity, it hasn’t discouraged them from pushing forward. The Human Contradiction marks their biggest step thus far, up and over the metal microscope and those ready to dismiss Delain without even hearing a note.

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Still, the comparisons to bigger and badder female fronted bands must be a pain in the ass.

“It comes with its challenges because we’ve been compared to Within Temptation forever, which is very natural because their sound is in our DNA,” says Charlotte. “Our keyboardist Martijn (Westerholtis one of the main songwriters in Delain and used to be a member of Within Temptation. But, in general, those comparisons and connections have done more for us rather than being an obstacle because, let’s be honest, our first record was a studio record featuring lots of guest musicians. I think a lot of people picked up that record because there was a guest on it they liked, so it is difficult when you face certain competition. In our case, though, we have a lot to be grateful for, so I choose not to ponder over that too much.”

The Human Contradiction finds Delain in what is probably best position of their career. Signed to Napalm Records, they paid their dues in a big way leading up to and following the release of their previous album, We Are The Others (2012). Trying to follow the updates on said album was a confusing exercise, and it sounded like Delain was on their way to being crushed by music industry politics. Charlotte admits it was a painful rough patch for the band.

“When we started working on We Are The Others we were on Roadrunner, but in the middle of that Roadrunner got sold to Warner. We didn’t choose to be with them and they didn’t choose to have us on their roster, and because some people that we worked with at Roadrunner were still with the company we were basically working with two different teams. There were all kinds of ideas and opinions coming in from both sides and we’re a pretty stubborn band, so we didn’t let any of them steer us away from what we wanted to do. Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

At this point in time violinist Anna Phoebe is best known as a member of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a gig and title she gave up in 2010 in the interest of family and exploring other avenues. During her six year tenure with TSO she made two solo albums, the organic Gypsy (2006) and the raging full-on metal assault Rise Of The Warrior (2008); two releases that offered a look at different sides of Anna’s musical personality. After a long stretch of silence peppered with reports that a new album (or two) was definitely in the works, she closed 2013 with the release of a four track EP entitled Embrace. Like Rise Of The Warrior, the music on Embrace was another unexpected turn and marked the first official studio-recorded collaboration with her friends in UK prog metal band Jurojin; a venture that was long overdue. The EP was also the first big step towards a full length Anna Phoebe record due to be released in 2014, entitled Between The Shadow And The Soul.

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I recently sat down with Anna and Jurojin guitarist Nicolas Rizzi to discuss the new music and the events that influenced this new chapter of Anna’s career. The first order of business was to clear up a few murky details regarding the collaboration, however. Initially it was reported that Anna was working with Jurojin on her album, which would be followed by a Jurojin album featuring Anna as a guest performer. Now it seems the proposed albums have been mashed together into one production.

Nic: “The idea ages ago was to do a Jurojin / Anna Phoebe album – the typical heavy Jurojin sound with Anna’s playing on top of that – but as we got deeper into the songs and started demoing them, that’s when we decided to go for a much different approach, something a lot more experimental and a lot less heavy. We had some discussions as to how to put the new music out, and even though it’s all of us we decided to go under the Anna Phoebe name, to make it sort of a continuation of her previous two records. We thought it made the most sense to do things this way. We had a 10 track album, and then we removed four tracks for the EP. The idea was to release the EP and spend the time to really develop this new project and new sound. The full length album will be nine tracks, but none of those will be the EP tracks. The only crossover might be a rearranged piano and violin version of ‘Embrace’.”

Looking back on Rise Of The Warrior, which saw Anna take her TSO persona to the next level, she says it was a success even though it may not have sold hundreds of thousands of copies because the album gave her exposure outside the Trans-Siberian Orchestra live spectacle.

Anna: “I guess each album you do is a reflection of where you are in your life at that time. My first album, Gypsy, was made after I’d been touring around the Middle East a lot and had been with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra for a year or two. Gypsy was my world music sound mixed with a bit of rock – I was dipping my toes into it – and by the time I did Rise Of The Warrior, I was fully into the musical pyrotechnics, the loud symphonic rock / metal world. Those were the people I was hanging out with musically and socially. That album is definitely a blueprint of who I was at that time.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

In July 2012, Japan’s Blood Stain Child and their Greek vocalist Sophia parted ways, citing musical and personal differences after only two years and one album together. Since then, neither Sophia nor her former bandmates have said very much about the split in the press, but during my interview for her new Season Of Ghosts project Sophia decided to reveal her reasons for jumping ship.

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“I’m not gonna lie: it was a bittersweet journey – probably with emphasis on the ‘bitter’ – wild and fascinating in the beginning. Everything was new to me, so I invested all the connections I’d built throughout the years in the management business, so Blood Stain Child got to tour the US and Europe for the first time, they got an actual marketable internet presence, and Epsilon sold well internationally. Didn’t you think it was pretty weird for a band that had played on kind of the same level for 12 years to suddenly pop up everywhere?”

“The downside was that I was expected to give endlessly while having no say in anything. I was expected to stay in Japan permanently, even if the band rarely rehearsed. This cost a fortune of course, but what disappointed me immensely, was the leader’s reaction after the huge 2011 earthquake/tsunami. Refusing to provide refuge in Osaka for a couple days because ‘Everybody’s busy and you’ll be in the way’ he heartlessly ordered me to stay in Tokyo, thus endangering my safety. As Tokyo was too chaotic after the meltdowns, I decided to leave for Greece earlier than my planned holidays, citing a state of emergency. For the first time as a member, I showed I had a strong character that couldn’t be manipulated so this was not received well at all. I was a new member, a foreigner, a woman and dared to show my personal opinion in the workplace. Uh-oh…” Continue Reading