Getting Into: Power Metal: Part II
While the 1990s were famously a dodgy time for many of the pre-established scenes and artists in heavy metal, for those genres that had not yet reached their peak or even been born, that decade was rife with creativity, and formative records dropped in spades. The albums featured in this article not only remain some of power metal’s most highly acclaimed and influential exemplars, they show off even more of the variety that is possible within the style than the last article did. While many of the albums featured or recommended in the first article are in some ways indistinguishable from the more traditional heavy metal, NWOBHM, and hard rock that spawned them, it was due to such albums that power metal could later emerge as a discrete style, and bands such as those featured in this installment pushed the sound to be heavier, faster, darker, brighter, weirder, and more ornate. Perhaps this stylistic proliferation will serve as some recompense for the comparative compactness of this article; the first installment had to push through so much background that this second chapter appears only half as long, which is decidedly not epic and mighty, but do keep in mind that power metal is a genre of great resourcefulness and will not fail to keep you entertained even if I do.
As I said in the first article, it is important to note that this is not intended to be a list of the best or most definitive power metal albums of this decade, though some of them surely are, and it seems likely that we will entertain some debate as to how much certain albums are even power metal at all. This is simply a list of ten great albums relevant to power metal that I have something to say about. And if you’re preparing to suggest that I should feel bad for omitting Stratovarius, I can assure you that I already do – in fact, I probably listened to Visions more than any of these albums while I was writing – but I decided on having ten albums months ago, and that’s how it’s going to be.
If you're looking for even more power metal, you can find it here in Part I, Part III, and Part IV.
But First, the Emergence of the Two Schools
After the publication of this article, it was suggested to me in the comments that newcomers to this style might appreciate some more explicit guide to the different substyles than the outlines I have circumscribed in individual entries. Although you will find brief references to the characteristics of so-called "European power metal" and "US power metal" in various entries of these first two articles in the series, for the sake of clearing the path to ascend, I will now address the distinctions in slightly more detail.
Emerging at a time before the total globalization of music, it is only natural that power metal would find itself marked by geographic variations, and the style is usually divided into two chief branches focusing on the United States and continental Europe. While these scenes and other more localized offshoots all developed out of traditional heavy metal through experiments aimed at elevating the genre's aesthetic standing, they peeled off into diverging styles that adopted their own characteristics. If I were asked to summarize the differences between the two (and I have been), I would say that to the US school, "power" equates to aggression, while to the European school, "power" equates to sophistication.
The US school begins in earnest with Manowar, who were covered in the first article of this series: heavy metal as a purified and recursive music form, marked by a rock-solid heft, slow and moderate pacing, chord-based riffing, and a harder, more acerbic vocal style. Artists such as Virgin Steele, Medieval Steel, Warlord, and Liege Lord would carry this banner further, with Fates Warning, Queensrÿche, and Iron Maiden complicating matters with their progressive inclinations; bands like Manilla Road and Cirith Ungol gave their songs a strong, imposing, and haunting flavor by favoring the dark, lumbering rhythms and eerie melodies of doom metal. Their works helped push the concentration of metal into the mythic and poetic, thus layering over early incursions addressed in the last article to the point that sword and sorcery became a widespread theme, but they remained fundamentally entrenched in the same straightforward metal style. What really sets apart the US power metal scene and continues to define it in the minds of many is the cross-pollination with thrash: Jag Panzer, Helstar, Omen, Vicious Rumors, Militia, Agent Steel, Abattoir, Lääz Rockit, Destructor, Sacred Oath, Metal Church, Riot, Hexx, and the aforementioned Manilla Road, among numerous others, straddled the lines across all these infant genres, whipping up a hurricane pace and incorporating chugging riffs, rougher and more adamant vocal deliveries, frenetic soloing, and gritty production. As the scene marched into the '90s, the relative heaviness of American power metal became even more firmly codified - Iced Earth, whom you'll see featured in this article, is not only the most prominent member of the US power metal scene after Manowar itself, but one of the heaviest, darkest, and most brutal (or at least was, for a time), and you can even hear logical extensions in bands such as Nevermore and Control Denied.
Meanwhile, in Europe, there was frivolity. While the US style seemed to draw most heavily on metal itself for influence, the European style evolved from pop and classical music, resulting in works that were generally either more ornate, more accessible, or both. In one channel, Queen, Europe, Scorpions, Whitesnake, Def Leppard, and other mainstream, hook-heavy hard rock and heavy metal bands filtered into the sounds of power metal alongside the influences of full-on pop music to impart a great respect for memorable sing-along choruses (see the ABBA entry in the previous article; if you want more expertise on the subject, I'm not the man to ask). In the other channel, the classical/medieval affectations of Rainbow and Deep Purple and the charismatic indulgence of shredders such as Yngwie Malmsteen, Jason Becker, and Marty Friedman fueled an interest in capturing the complexity, bombast, and aristocratic, self-consciously artistic setting of the great Baroque and Romantic composers. Some bands would pursue one of these ideas more fully than the other; if we take Helloween as one of the most visible archetypes of European power metal (and we believe in facts around here, so we do), we can observe much rounder, smoother production and riffing styles, more mellifluous vocal delivery, and more accessible song structures than what was being brewed across the way - you might easily say that the difference between the two styles could be boiled down to that of legato vs. staccato. Rhapsody could be called the standard-bearers of the classical route, and you can read about them in more detail below. The broader European style is known for embracing both of these avenues, however, and for that a prominent exemplar can be found in Stratovarius: their albums feature guitars and keyboards shredding up and down classically inspired compositions with unbelievable speed and precision, and sitting next to those displays of patrician technique are big, heart-rending power ballads borrowing heavily from the arena rock of the '80s. The lofty aspirations and pretentious demeanor of many such bands earned the European style the joking moniker "flower metal."
Of course, these are broad strokes, and the brilliant thing about so many of these artists is that they did not simply sound one way; you'll find a lot of bands from either side of the pond that sound more like the stereotypes propagated by their opposite counterparts. Now that geographic barriers to musical discovery are less relevant than they once were and both of the sounds described above have continued to evolve, there is not as much of a firm divide between local styles, and bands from anywhere can sound like anything. Nonetheless, when looking into the past to find the origins of power metal, it is good to know what you are more likely to encounter in the different places where you may search.
And Now, Because You Can’t Avoid Them, The 1990s
While X Japan is one of Japan’s best-selling and most influential acts, not only driving the development of the style known as visual kei but coining the term itself, I don’t believe that I am qualified to talk about the impact of this band on its native musical scene, having already divulged in this sentence much of what I know about it. What I do know is that Art Of Life is one of heavy metal’s immortal colossi, a song as aurally august as it is lyrically poignant. Compositions of prodigious duration are hardly untrodden territory for power metal – after all, writing extravagantly lengthy songs is a noble and heroic thing to do – but albums consisting of one unbroken track are still a rarity. For a genre that focuses so much on melody and constant output of energy, pursuing this format is usually a needless risk. Art Of Life falls into a perfect sweet spot: immersive and gargantuan yet still just efficient enough to be regularly listenable. The song builds from a wistful, crestfallen ballad into a sweeping typhoon of balls-to-the-wall speed, gathering potency as Toshi’s impassioned vocals strike out against the merciless barrage of metallic energy. Frantic riffing and despondent entreaties describe a desperate search for meaning amidst the uncertainty of reality, the vagaries of love, the promise of suffering, the barriers to self-acceptance, and the enticement of suicide; in this half-hour is contained an exhausting self-examination conducted through music. After a lengthy collage of melancholy refrains, the song reaches its climax: a magnificently destructive piano solo. For eight minutes, Art Of Life revolves around a very simple theme that gradually falls into Dadaist disarray as it is repeated, developed, and deconstructed, symbolizing the chaos of the song’s emotional thesis. Eventually, the song comes to rest in its previous register – scarred and drained, though perhaps with a hint of resolution. This is a more serious and personal work than is customary in power metal, a genre known for solving its problems with magical swords and elvish incantations, but Art Of Life knows that some of the toughest battles you’ll ever face aren’t fought on the battlefield – they’re fought within your own heart. It is the human experience in 29 minutes: the true art of life.
Also recommended: Loudness – Thunder In The East, therapy, Neon Genesis Evangelion, watching Neon Genesis Evangelion with your therapist
Brazil had a productive metal scene in the 1980s, with many influential acts and classic recordings clawing their way into a market dominated by the Northern Hemisphere, but the overwhelming majority of the country’s metal output belonged to the legendary thrash scene that helped spawn modern death and black metal. Bands that focused on good, ol’ clean living were harder to come by until Angra came along and permanently transformed the lion’s share of Brazil’s metal bands into wannabe hangers-on. It’s easy to see why Angra would score points not only domestically but in the expanded universe of melodic metal: the canorous compositions put forward on Angels Cry are sweet and memorable like any worthwhile catalogue of fist-pumping metal anthems, and yet the album changes shape with amazing fluidity to kick open door after door for bands that would follow. Funky, poppy, rocky, classical, folky, and soulful all at once, Angels Cry mixes the charms and charges of glam rock and prog, finding clever ways to escape mundane conventions without sacrificing hummable tunes and heart-pounding refrains; it’s a free jam of styles that feels so casual that you’ll forget you’re speeding from one side of the globe to another in seconds. This variety of influences, explored in greater detail on the subsequent Holy Land, is what sets Angra apart as Brazil’s own sound, though in many respects Angra’s delivery is reminiscent of the European style of flower metal. The canned symphony endows the album with a delightfully cheesy sense of artifice, and the flavorful guitar work of Rafael Bittencourt and Kiko Loureiro facilitates the genre transitions with style, but the real individual standout of this album is the vocal performance of the late, great André Matos. “Angels Cry” describes the sound of his voice, the envy of generations of singers; his soft, smooth timbre and passionate delivery imbue the album with a beautiful dignity, and his falsetto mastery is the stuff of legend. It’s thanks to him that “Carry On” is now the national anthem of Brazil (or it should be, anyway).
Also recommended: Aquaria – Luxaeterna, Labyrinth – Return To Heaven Denied, Almah – Fragile Equality, Vision Divine – Stream Of Consciousness
The Bards of Metal underwent one of the most impressive evolutionary arcs in metal history to claim their title: their earliest material consisted of lean, sharp speed metal jabs influenced by Helloween and Metallica, but with each album they released in the 1990s they embellished their songwriting, refined their production, and further distinguished themselves from their contemporaries. By the time they reached Imaginations From The Other Side, the illustrious German quartet had powered up to become the ultimate force in ornate metallurgy, combining Arthurian legend and original mythos with ever-more-progressive writing in a nonpareil collection of iconic compositions. The thoroughly detailed instrumentation, Andre Olbrich’s stunningly sunny guitar tone, and the massive choirs (which add elegant texture as well as echo) all have clear antecedents in Queen; applied to the frame of serrated speed metal that the band had perfected over several albums, mixed with medieval folk influences and a pervading shroud of mystique, these dramatic elements resulted in a timeless epic made of timeless epics. Every solo is a unique collection of riffs that tells another story in between verses, and every song is a tapestry woven from countless voices; this album offers the best balance of Blind Guardian’s speed metal origins and later progressive inclinations. Hooks and riffs that most bands would stretch into an entire album flicker but once and for mere moments, making every song a magnificent journey from start to finish. Hansi Kürsch finally does here what he had been threatening to do on the previous two albums: he establishes himself as one of heavy metal’s most accomplished vocalists, possessing limitless range in both pitch and tone. On top of having the best backing choir in the game, Blind Guardian possesses the ultimate power metal frontman, and the screams, whispers, laments, war cries, bellows, and narrations that interlock and cover every track make for one of the most complete and nuanced vocal experiences in heavy music. It’s everything you need to create something intended to be described as “powerful.”
Also recommended: Savage Circus – Dreamland Manor, Persuader – When Eden Burns, Judicator – The Last Emperor, Rage – The Missing Link, J.R.R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion
We saw in the 1980s that darker and thrashier variants of power metal were emerging in the United States, and this continued into the 1990s as European acts embraced lighter and brighter styles. Perhaps no band better exemplifies the threatening miasma of unholy power metal than Iced Earth, so much so that they kind of overshot the label on Burnt Offerings. Burnt Offerings bristles with diabolical anger and an infernal horror movie atmosphere; its manifold riffs are usually more akin to thrash or gothic doom than, say, Stratovarius, so calling it “power metal” seems to defy logic – frankly, Iced Earth’s other albums from the ‘90s would be much better choices for this article, having more to do with the genre we’re actually covering even at their most Testament, but Burnt Offerings, in some ways, best exemplifies the traits that Iced Earth is known for. Mastermind Jon Schaffer, the only Metal Hammer Golden God Award nominee ever to attempt to overthrow a national government, is well-known as one of heavy metal’s most unique rhythm guitarists thanks to his trademark eighth-note/triplet combinations and the sheer speed and aggression of his playing. Matt Barlow, the vocalist most closely associated with Iced Earth, is unusual for the genre, being a baritone with a resonant, voluminous lower register and a hefty snarl, though he can muster a piercing scream that puts any competition to shame, and his voice always emanates force no matter the pitch. The two of them together make Iced Earth a sonic juggernaut, and with the spine-chilling keys that crop up from time to time and the overwhelmingly malevolent presence in these songs, Burnt Offerings is easily one of the most evil-sounding albums ever to come within 500 yards of a power metal discussion. Well, that’s all nice, but how is it more relevant than Something Wicked This Way Comes or Night Of The Stormrider? I suppose it isn’t, really, considering how quickly Iced Earth backed off from this approach, but in spite of its harsher proclivities, Burnt Offerings does have a lot of traditional heavy metal elements in it, and there’s more than one way to write an epic chorus; Iced Earth is possibly the band that best illustrates the power-thrash hybrid that characterizes the US strain, so even if Burnt Offerings is a bit scarier than Sonata Arctica, it’s informative as a glimpse into the hidden dark side of power metal.
Also recommended: Demons & Wizards – Demons & Wizards, Pyramaze – Melancholy Beast, Nevermore – Dead Heart In A Dead World, Metal Church – Metal Church, Sanctuary – Refuge Denied
Having left Helloween in the late’80s (see “I Want Out” for details), Kai Hansen developed a new studio project that soon morphed into a full band: Gamma Ray. Rounded out by a troupe that included future Primal Fear founder Ralf Scheepers on vocals, Gamma Ray slid into view with a trio of solid heavy metal albums that were often silly, funky, and greased with an ebullient arena rock aura – enjoyable, if tame compared to superior execution by Helloween. It wasn’t until the fourth album that the band hit its stride, after a lineup restructuring that put Hansen back on the mic. A nearly nine-minute opener immediately declares Land Of The Free not only the most elaborate and majestic release of Gamma Ray’s career, but one of the power metal genre’s most comprehensive blueprints on how to write in a mode of magnificence. Land Of The Free has its own concentration of cheese and its own revelrous spirit, without which its lofty anthems would sink, but Land Of The Free seethes with drive and intensity rarely exhibited in the genre before. Impeccable musicianship amplifies the already sizable impact of each melodic hook; Iron Maiden-inspired riffing and Queen-like choirs back Hansen’s trademark wails in every soaring chorus, while beneath them the pummeling rhythm section plays like it’s rediscovering how to be heavy. Adding a whole new level of complexity and vivacity to the previous generation of power metal, Land Of The Free set off a hot streak that would make Gamma Ray Hansen’s second genre-defining band in a decade.
Also recommended: Stormwarrior – Heading Northe, HammerFall – Legacy Of Kings, Freedom Call – Eternity, Primal Fear – Nuclear Fire, Tierra Santa – Sangre De Reyes
Virgin Steele were already 17-year veterans by the time they released what some consider their magnum opus, and it had taken them about that long to grow into their best-known style. Invictus, the third part of the Marriage Of Heaven And Hell trilogy, continued an albums-long trend toward more elaborately orchestrated songcraft, drifting further and further from the standard loud-riffing machismo where Virgin Steele began in the ‘80s. By this point in time, their albums had begun to feel meticulously “arranged,” with every piece of instrumentation reflecting unusual restraint and precision in order to construct an operatic whole, in contrast to the genre’s usual reckless energy. The guitars, bass, and drums share the back end of the spotlight with piano and synths that interrupt the high-flung lamentations for less inflammatory interludes; leitmotifs and reprisals are scattered all throughout the pentalogy of power metal classics at whose center Invictus lies, and with narrations and instrumentals interspersed throughout these often loosely structured songs, Virgin Steele’s sound reflects something like “chamber metal” (or “barbaric-romantic metal,” as David DeFeis would have it). DeFeis’s voice is what takes the center stage throughout, louder and clearer than on earlier albums and applied to some of the band’s most jaw-dropping refrains; the choruses smack with bloody-red hooks made of devilishly intoned prophecies, which allows Invictus to preserve a captivating sense of drama that the production might have smothered in a less classically ambitious work. DeFeis drives himself into wicked distortion, issues grand exhortations in stage whispers, and revels in his glassine, opera-grade falsetto, as if he were Chuck Schuldiner one second and Mariah Carey the next. Though the album (not to mention the band) is mostly his show, Invictus features impressive overdrive from drummer Frank Gilchrest, bassist Rob DeMartino, and especially guitarist Edward Pursino. Conversely, the album’s unique sonic aesthetic, reportedly the work of a producer better versed in pop and hip-hop than metal, makes all that instrumentation feel flat and digital, more like artificial backing tracks than a full band. This description should not herald success, not for a metal album and certainly not for a power metal album, but somehow the result is the sound of Manowar’s Fighting The World and Kings Of Metal woven into a mythological opera. The abrasive, treble-laden bass, barbed and barbaric riffs, and scratchy, yelping vocals call to mind nothing so much as “Black Wind, Fire, And Steel” split six ways and overgrown; the fact that DeFeis’s timbre and singing style strongly resemble those of Eric Adams also helps. Invictus is in some ways an anomaly in power metal thanks to the fundaments of its production and framework, but Virgin Steele’s recognizable writing is elegant enough to stiffen the spine and furious enough to boil the blood; it’s the “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” tactic rendered in metal form.
Also recommended: Ross The Boss – Hailstorm, Human Fortress – Lord Of Earth And Heaven’s Heir, Wotan – Carmina Barbarica, Iron Fire – Thunderstorm, Slauter Xstroyes – Winter Kill
Given that power metal is all about glory, being from Italy is basically like using a cheat code. Where better to cultivate the power metal of legends than the cradle of Rome, the birthplace of the Renaissance, the home of fine cuisine, fine suits, and fine sports cars? Fittingly, Rhapsody (eventually Rhapsody Of Fire, for extra excess) is something of a poster child for power metal, the very picture of the genre’s soul, particularly the ultra-melodic regimen of sustained cheese injections that constitutes the European style; the flamboyant pomposity of their fantasy-inspired lyrics, blinding displays of virtuosic musicianship, and indulgently exalted choruses defined power metal for a new generation just as Helloween had a decade earlier. Symphony Of Enchanted Lands builds on the neoclassical form pioneered in previous years; the catchy, tightly produced speed metal tracks onto which they grafted those baroque melodies are more sophisticated and aerodynamic than those of the genre’s forefathers, however, adding accessibility to showmanship, and Rhapsody went the extra step of procuring actual choirs and orchestras to achieve the sound of a true enchanted symphony. The complex interplay between members demands no mean musical intelligence, so for your music school graduates and educated critics, or fans who just like to hear something happening in every possible second of a song, there are worse bands to explore than Rhapsody; after all, they are native speakers of the language of music (and although that sounds like a dramatic compliment, I just mean Italian). But there’s a lot more to inspiring metal than technical competence, in power metal as much as in prog or tech death, and it’s the explosive energy behind each lick and the absolute splendor of Fabio Lione’s vocals that push Symphony Of Enchanted Lands over the top and into the realms of immortality. There are few albums that better encapsulate the purple cheesecloth shirts, meticulously coiffed tresses, and mirthful whimsy on which power metal thrives, and if “Eagle Fly Free” was the bottleneck track of the ‘80s article, its ‘90s counterpart is undoubtedly “Emerald Sword.” This album is for true crusaders only; heathens and black metal fans need not apply.
Also recommended: Rhapsody Of Fire – From Chaos To Eternity, Luca Turilli's Rhapsody – Ascending To Infinity, Turilli / Lione Rhapsody – Zero Gravity (Rebirth And Evolution), Luca Turilli – King Of The Nordic Twilight
As we all know, Britain is not part of Europe, and unlike South America and Japan, it doesn’t even get “honorary European” status. While those other countries spent the ‘90s trying to figure out how to compete with George Michael, Britain was sitting in the corner doing its own weird thing. Bal-Sagoth underwent rapid evolution across and even within their first trio of albums; though the first two were patchworks of numerous styles, their debut pulled a lot of material from death, doom, and even groove metal, while their second became a lot leaner, more melodic, and more fascinated by its symphonic potential. Album #3, Battle Magic, indulges in even more bombastic carousing, sometimes just pure theater, and thanks to a strengthened sense of melody that draws on folk and traditional heavy metal, this album helped give rise to what would become known as “extreme power metal.” We’ll address that style more properly in the next segment, however, because Bal-Sagoth is still far too sui generis to be lumped in with any kind of movement. Battle Magic is power metal in a freakishly unhinged The Meads Of Asphodel sort of way, in an “accidentally vomited blast beats over my dungeon synth demo” sort of way, in a sort of way that says you joined up with the wrong gang of LARPers on the way to the Renaissance Faire but figured it was close enough that you decided to stick around. Vocalist and dungeon master Byron Roberts largely drops his growls and shrieks for a spoken-word approach, delivering entire short stories’ worth of otherworldly fantasy in a breathy, dramatic baritone; rather than individual compositions based around recurring musical passages, the songs feel like chapters in some sprawling work of fiction (which they are). What Bal-Sagoth loves more than big choruses and impressive feats of instrumental valour is a good parade of pompous orchestration: this album is a kaleidoscopic mish-mash of baroque sophistication, medieval merrymaking, and frigid black metal, dominated by carnival-style brass synths and crunching riffs. The synthesized orchestra really goes to town alongside Roberts’s stentorian narrations, creating a sense of bizarre theatricality that calls to mind artists like A Forest Of Stars, Cradle Of Filth, and Tribulation. Battle Magic might be one of the strangest outliers in this entire article series – it certainly belongs to one of extreme metal’s most unique and inimitable discographies – but it’s still unexpectedly easy to hear strains of power metal around every turn, and you could almost believe that this is a musical whose lyrics all happen to be spoken or growled.
Also recommended: Kull – Exile, Númenor – Colosssal Darkness, Stormlord – At The Gates Of Utopia, Emperor – Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk, Therion – Theli, A Forest Of Stars – Beware The Sword You Cannot See
Nightwish simultaneously kickstarted the symphonic metal genre in its most recognizable form and damned it forever by creating a legacy impossible to live up to. While there’s a lot more to the genre than soundalikes and we of Metal Storm are continually guilty of underselling its potential, it’s true that “Tarja clones” number as many as the stars in the sky. Is the stereotypical symphonic style not crunchy, low-end riffs, orchestral synth strikes, and the classically elegant vocals of a prima donna frontwoman? That all begins here, sort of, along with a series of releases with increasing polish and panache that would turn Nightwish into Finland’s most successful musical export and one of the pillars of melodic metal. Where Nightwish’s debut, Angels Fall First, was an overgrown tangle of unrefined ambition and amateur freshness, Oceanborn is fast, heavy, and focused, reflecting a new and Stratovarius-spurred interest in writing dramatically. Tarja’s theater-filling voice is given greater prominence and the rest of the band is now tight enough and confident enough to provide adequate support; when not enchanted by the delicacy of flutes, strings, and piano, the songs are packed with neoclassical speed runs and purposeful metallic muscle. There are certain elements of Nightwish’s sound in these days that overlap with emerging trends in gothic metal: so-called “beauty and the beast” vocal collaborations, cimmerian theatricality reminiscent of The Phantom Of The Opera, and an almost creepy atmosphere resulting from the otherworldly quality of Tarja’s voice and the grim melodies of the synths and guitars. Though the eponymous album comes a little later in Nightwish’s career, the phrase “Dark Passion Play” aptly summarizes the sound and aesthetic of the band. Tenebrous; awash with feeling; sumptuous. Swans, full moons, gentle waves, mysterious lights, mascara, soliloquys, concert halls, promenades, stargazing, glowing white dresses, dark chests of wonders – it’s a feeling. In fact, this twilit magic is somewhat darker than your average power metal album (and too grandiose to fit elsewhere), hence the eventual splintering-off of the “symphonic” tag. It’s like power metal, but pumped full of that classic Finnish gloom.
Also recommended: Xandria – Neverworld’s End, Epica – The Divine Conspiracy, After Forever – Decipher, Within Temptation – The Silent Force, Edenbridge – MyEarthDream
Sonata Arctica: the teen heartthrobs of power metal, the bad boys of high-speed heartbreak, the power metal band most likely to be the subject of AMVs.* Readers interested in the Tumblr fandom can probably talk to Milena, but I can tell you a little about the music. While power metal is designed to be invigorating, uplifting, and mighty, nothing says that it can’t also be sensitive and emotionally available, and that’s why we have in Sonata Arctica’s discography a swimming pool of beautiful tears mixed in with the bitchin’ speed runs. Tony Kakko has the charismatic pipes and well-equipped upper register generally demanded of frontmen, and at the same time his voice has a silvery-smooth quality that offsets the requisite neoclassical shredding with entrancing placidity even when his fervent distortion creeps in. Belting tenderly, he delivers tales of a grounded and personal nature, songs of lost love, domestic struggles, and inner turmoil… and the internet and werewolves and such. Ecliptica, as the band’s debut album, is accordingly one of their heaviest and rawest releases, with a lot of bruising power in the percussion and slight harshness in Kakko’s vocals that would fade with time; the guitar and keyboard work is as crisp and awesomely impeccable as anything propagated by Sonata Arctica’s more classically inclined compatriots. In fact, Ecliptica is one of Sonata Arctica’s most metal albums, populated by more anthems than ballads and stuffed full of head-banging choruses that sound right at home next to Stratovarius and Rhapsody – but even as their most conventionally power metal release, Ecliptica betrays something that on the one hand is one of Sonata’s greatest strengths and on the other hand would lead to what some would classify as their “downfall” later on. Their songwriting benefits from perfect engineering and is one of the best examples of how power metal shares DNA with pop music; all this melted cheese could cover a small European nation, and it’s absolutely delicious. The process of removing a Sonata hook from your brain would require a surgery so brutal that it would make Carcass shiver. Over time, this immense accessibility would become more of a crutch than a successful crossover, with Sonata Arctica continually sanding down their edges and becoming more of a soft AOR band than anything resembling power metal, but this, too, is one of the possible evolutions of power metal’s principles (and I thought Talviyö was pretty good anyway).
*TL note: ‘Tony Kakko’ means ‘plan.’
Also recommended: – Stratovarius – Visions, Cain's Offering – Stormcrow, Forgotten Tales – The Promise, Dreamtale – Epsilon, Serenity – Fallen Sanctuary
It was my casual rumination on the sheer quality of ‘90s power metal relative to other movements and scenes that put me onto this series in the first place, so it’s quite likely the case that this body of work represents my favorite batch of the four currently planned articles, but that’s not to say that the next two will be letdowns. I hope you’ll look forward to our reconvention in the new millennium when I cover the 2000s.
As I decided to provide a dedication for the first article, I would like to dedicate this one to the memories of hide, Taiji, André Matos, Rolf Köhler, and the others who helped to shape these wonderful sounds and bands.
||Written on 24.10.2021 by I'm the reviewer, and that means my opinion is correct.|
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