Twenty-two years ago, a struggling Dutch musician by the name of Arjen Anthony Lucassen released what would be his breakthrough album. Buoyed by the attention he received for his first two records – The Final Experiment (1995) and Actual Fantasy (1996) – Lucassen adopted a “go big or go home” strategy and concocted a progressive metal opera featuring the talents of musicians he admired dubbed Into The Electric Castle. It was the beginning of what has become an internationally successful and lucrative career, allowing Lucassen to pursue his musical fantasies and ideas as they formulate in his hyperactive brain. With each album that followed Into The Electric Castle – six more at press time, not including his numerous side projects – the calls for Ayreon to perform live grew louder, and in 2016 fans were treated to a stage performance of The Human Equation album from 2004, The Theater Equation. Lucassen’s participation in the production was minimal compared to Ayreon Universe in 2017, the first ever official live Ayreon shows featuring Floor Jansen (Nightwish), Jonas Renske (Katatonia), Anneke van Giersbergen, Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian), Damian Wilson (ex-Threshold) and Tommy Karevik (Kamelot) to name a few. Two years later, Lucassen decided to gather his cast of original characters and returned to where it all began with four shows celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Into The Electric Castle. The end result is another jewel in Lucassen’s crown, Electric Castle Live And Other Tales.
BraveWords: Over the years you’ve maintained that Ayreon is not something you could see being performed live because of the scope of the production required and all the moving parts. Between Ayreon Universe and Electric Castle Live – and Star One for that matter – I call bullshit (laughs).
Arjen: “I know (laughs). And the reactions to Electric Castle Live have been unanimously positive. It sounds arrogant, but this time I was pretty sure of it. When we were editing the video and I saw all the material, and I was mixing it, I thought ‘Oh my God, we did it.’ We had plenty of camera angles to choose from, every shot was cool, the sound was good…. I think this was the first Ayreon release ever where I believed in it 100%. You’ve known me for years, and I’m always insecure when it comes to releasing a new album: ‘Are they going to like it? I wish I had done this…’ This time there we no ‘if only’s’. For the previous live stuff there were so many of those, but this time everything aligned perfectly. If there has been any negative response it has been towards the encores, which might be a bit too much for some people. And some people don’t like the narration, but that’s just a personal thing so I don’t give a shit about that because John de Lancie was great.”
“The only similarity between me and Devin Townsend is that we’re both bald.”
So says Wolfheart frontman / founder Tuomas Saukkonen as this interview kicks off, reacting to the suggestions that he is the Finnish counterpart to Canada’s own Hevy Devy. It’s a comparison meant as and taken as a compliment, made in reference to Saukkonen’s assortment of bands / projects that have surfaced since he started making noise with Before The Dawn in 1999. Dawn Of Solace, Black Sun Aeon, Routasielu and The Final Harvest also bear his name, all of them a testament to Saukkonen’s drive and need to create music. Things came to a head in 2013, however, when he shut everything down to focus on a new solo venture, Wolfheart. Since then he has stayed the course, building it into a real band, and it is arguably his most successful work to date. Wolfheart’s fifth album, Wolves Of Karelia, is a short but melodic death metal sweet record, brandishing the band’s now signature sound in unpredictable fashion. Saukkonen will be the first to say he’s come a long way over the past 20 years.
“Dawn Of Solace was already fucked up back in 2007 thanks to being on a shitty Spanish label,” Saukkonen begins, looking back on his mindset of stopping all his other projects for Wolfheart. “And with Before The Dawn there were issues with labels, with band members, so even before the last album came out the label knew that would be the last one for them. All the other bands that I had running alongside Before The Dawn, they were just side projects to basically keep me balanced because I was getting frustrated with the main band. So, it made more sense to me to drop everything and take a break from the music business for a while. I released the first Wolfheart album on my own and then started to talk to the labels again. Looking back now, it was a really good decision to do things that way. The more shitty contracts you sign the wiser you get. It’s called learning things the hard way (laughs).”
“It was more like a mental thing. I don’t need those side projects to keep myself distracted from being frustrated by the main band. Nothing worked with Before The Dawn, and things are on a completely different level with Wolfheart. I don’t need another outlet for additional music. Of course, now that we’re all being forced to stay home there’s going to be some kind of side project again (laughs), but for completely different reasons.”
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 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.
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
It’s been seven years since Norway’s #1 loved and loathed black metal export Dimmu Borgir released their ninth album, Abrahadabra. Not the best record in the band’s catalogue according to many a fan, but more than enough time has passed to warrant a crushing return to glory… which makes Dimmu Borgir’s decision to release a live DVD / Blu-ray package featuring performances over five years old confusing. Make no mistake; Forces Of The Northern Night is a beautifully crafted memoir for diehard followers featuring the band performing two special shows with a full symphony orchestra and choir, but after this amount of time people were expecting brand new music. According to guitarist Silenoz, the fans only need to stretch their collective patience until the end of the year because there is in fact a method to their current madness.
“We did some touring with Abrahadabra but not that much, and we took a break that just got longer and longer,” Silenoz says of Dimmu Borgir’s prolonged silence. “We’ve never been the typical run-of-the-mill band that records an album, goes on tour, records an album, goes back on tour. We’ve always taken our time and it works for us, which is the only formula we have.”
The break from touring and recording played a big role in enabling the band to pull off the two shows featured on Forces Of The Northern Night – first in 2011 with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and Schola Cantorum Choir (KORK) in Oslo, then with the Czech National Orchestra at the Wacken Open Air 2012 – and compile the material for official release.
“It really takes a lot of preparation to pull off something like the orchestral shows, and it’s been a dream of ours for many years to be able to perform with a live orchestra since we’ve utilised symphony orchestra on our albums. It was just a matter of time until it happened, and it was great that the orchestra approached us about doing it rather than the other way around. That’s what made it feasible for us to be able to do it. Then the Wacken Open Air asked us if we could do a special orchestra show in 2012, and because we did it the year before one thing just led to another. Next thing we know, we’re playing this epic show in front of 80,000 people with 100 people on stage, and we didn’t really have a soundcheck (laughs).” Continue reading BraveWords Interview: DIMMU BORGIR – Night Comes Out Of Black
In 2014, Sanctuary fans celebrated when the legendary metal outfit made their four year reunion official with the release in The Year The Sun Died. The music was distinctly Sanctuary courtesy of guitarist Lenny Rutledge’s style, albeit fatter and heavier thanks to modern day production values, but some people were put off by the absence of frontman Warrel Dane’s – formerly of Nevermore – signature ’80s high end vocals and assorted shrieks. It was an unfair criticism given Sanctuary’s classic albums Refuge Denied and Into The Mirror Black were released in 1988 and 1990 respectively – the man’s voice had simply aged with him – and it certainly wasn’t enough to halt the band’s forward momentum. Work is building slowly for a follow-up, tentatively titled Dead Again, but in the meantime Sanctuary fans can feast on Inception. Dubbed a prequel to Refuge Denied, the record features remixed and remastered demo recordings from 1986 that were all but forgotten until Rutledge stumbled across them by accident.
“I didn’t realize they were stored where they were stored,” Rutledge says in what has become a well worn story by this point. “I did some recordings of other bands in the mid-’90s, so I would find miscellaneous tapes here and there; they weren’t stored in any organized fashion. I’d forgotten about the Sanctuary tapes. I have a two-storey barn and the top floor is all messed up, it leaks, there are squirrels and birds up there… it’s just like a barn on any property. The lower part was converted into a studio, which is really nice, so going upstairs you’re in a completely different world (laughs). I happened to be up there looking for some stuff and I came across the box that had those particular Sanctuary tapes in it. It was a surprise to find them, and to find them in the condition they were in. My heart kinda sank because those tapes had been up there for 15 years, and when I discovered them I was sure I made a big mistake by not keeping track of them.” Continue reading BraveWords Interview: SANCTUARY – Revisiting The Past Through The Looking Glass
Since the October 2016 release of Amaranthe’s fourth album, Maximalism, vocalist and co-founder Jake E. has been conspicuous in his absence from the touring trail and in the press. The band’s triple vocalist attack remained intact for the band’s 2016 European tour, however, thanks to Smash Into Pieces singer Chris Adams, who had stepped in for Jake on previous tours when he was honouring other commitments. In November 2016, Jake issued a statement hinting that he had run out of steam, announcing that he was taking a break from the band for an unknown amount of time. In an exclusive interview with BraveWords, Jake makes his departure from Amaranthe official and final. Read on…
“Me and Olof (Mörck / guitars) started the band seven or eight years ago, and everything took off in a way we couldn’t have imagined,” Jake begins. “Amaranthe became a huge success and we toured the world, and we had a lot of fun doing that. The first two albums (self-titled debut and The Nexus) were exactly what I wanted the band to sound like; a mix between those Soilwork-like guitars and melodic Bon Jovi-type vocals combined with a female voice. Different elements combined, but the main thing in the music was the metal base. On the Massive Addictive album it started to change into something else that I didn’t really control, and you can hear the songs that I was more involved in working on are very metal. When we started working on the Maximalism album I found that it wasn’t the Amaranthe I had helped create at the start. It wasn’t my vision at all and I realized that I had to be true to myself. That was back in March 2016. I love to tour, I love the fans, but I felt that if I wasn’t true to myself.” Continue reading BraveWords Exclusive: AMARANTHE Vocalist JAKE E. Makes Departure Official – “I Can’t Stand On Stage Not Believing In What I’m Doing”