Mack’s Music Highlights: First Half of 2022

Welcome to yet another new attempt at formatting my blog! In case you couldn’t tell from reading my music reviews, I struggle hard with them. For some reason, other music reviewers can really break down each individual track, and provide distinct descriptions for each one, using terms that I don’t even understand. They’re super professional, and I am not. However, I was able to salvage two pretty meh reviews I did recently by combining them into one post. The reviews were still what they were, but for some reason, the post just felt more substantial by having two short reviews of those albums instead of me trying to replicate what I read on other sites. Mack’s Music Highlights is the same idea on steroids.

I plan to post this new series on a bi-annual basis. Like this, I can put short blurbs that more-than-sufficiently do the bands justice. More importantly, I can cram in as many bands as I want, as opposed to having to schedule one day for that one album review. I can also cover bands I wouldn’t normally talk about, due to my desire to prioritize more obscure bands over popular bands that I happen to like. Word of warning in case you’re new: I mostly cover metal here. I would call this “Mack’s Metal Highlights”, but there are a few non-metal bands I follow, and I love them just about as much as any metal outfit. Anyway, without further ado, let’s begin this… thing!


Power Paladin: With the Magic of Windfyre Steel

Power Paladin is my first ever impression of Iceland’s metal scene. The band consists of bassist Kristlefur þorsteinsson, drummer Einar Karl Júlíusson, guitarists Bjarni þór Jóhannsson and Ingi þórisson, keyboardist Bjarni Egill Ӧgmundsson, and vocalist Atli Guðlaugsson. Like with many new and obscure bands, that’s all I know about them. Holy crap, it took me at least five minutes to type the members’ names because of how many special characters I had to use!

What immediately jumps out is that Windfyre Steel is eighties A.F. Sure, I once said that DragonForce was “Survivor but with a touch of very fast metal” back before I knew what power metal was, but Windfyre Steel REALLY feels eighties. The tempo is a lot slower than DragonForce (i.e. normal, human speed), and the sound of the vocals is way more reminiscent of the time as well. In fact, the whole production has that tinny quality of a lot of hair metal, and it felt very nostalgic. There’s also the added benefit of it having nonsensical medieval theming versus the “I wanna grab that girl’s massively large posterior” that a lot of actual hair metal was about.

Verdict: 8.5/10


Vorga: Striving Toward Oblivion

I know nothing about Vorga other than that they’re from Germany. Don’t blame me; their label is literally called Transcending Obscurity, so this is one of those bands that’s proud to be underground. Unfortunately, here’s where it gets awkward. As of the release of Striving Toward Oblivion, their drummer has left the band. It must be really weird hearing an album that was recorded with the original lineup, but without that same lineup existing in the present. I wish them luck in finding a new member, or that one of the remaining members can play drums. 

I wasn’t expecting much with Striving to Oblivion, but it ended up surprising me as one of the best black metal debuts of the year. As evidenced by other sci-fi black metal bands like Imperialist, the subgenre really conveys the darkness of space (which is ironic, considering that most sci-fi extreme metal bands are technical death metal). However, I found Vorga to really kick it up a notch. While you might not like their modern sound (versus the REALLY staticy old black metal), each song is engaging and powerful. It’s nothing new, but it’s something worth checking out!

Verdict: 9.45/10


Pure Wrath: Hymn to the Woeful Hearts

According to Encyclopaedia Metallum, Pure Wrath is an atmospheric black metal band run by a dude named Januaryo Hardy. Although, to make things more confusing, Pure Wrath considers itself to be “melancholic black metal” on its Facebook page. Cool. I love subgenres.

Pure Wrath’s basic style is that of a more aggressive Sojourner. There’s some fast tempos, but always time for some string and woodwind instruments to put the “atmospheric” in atmospheric black metal. However, Woeful Hearts is a lot more intense. Surprising, I know, considering the cover art is an old lady with her back to a burning house. Pure Wrath’s 2020 EP, The Forlorn Soldier, was about the dark side of Indonesian history, and I can only assume it’s a new lyrical theme for his career moving forward. With that in mind, it makes a lot of sense for this album to be so much heavier than the previous outings. Unfortunately, Hardy’s vocal performance isn’t the most fluent. Well, it’s the emotions that count, right?

Verdict: 8.9/10


Bloodywood: Rakshak

Apparently, Bloodywood is this year’s Spiritbox; i.e. 2022’s most anticipated debut. However, unlike with Spiritbox, I was on the hype train for this as well, even though I barely managed to board it on time for the album release! All you need to do is look at the epic cover art (not pictured) to know exactly what Bloodywood is about: folk metal straight from India.

However, it’s so much more than that. Bloodywood incorporates electronics and rap in addition to the usual traditional instruments and multilingual lyrics. Unfortunately, that’s about all that can be described in words, because you have to listen to the embedded music video to get an idea of just how good this record is. I’m totally not just using that as an excuse to make you watch the video and give them YouTube money. I also won’t tell you to share the band’s existence with everyone you know, but I highly advise it.

The band’s best strength, other than its youthful energy, is its lyrical themes. Rakshak goes through a wide variety of emotions, from anger, to joy, to loss; mostly anger, though. Half the songs on here are brutally honest social commentaries, but for some reason, something is more cathartic from them than any other metal band that covers politics. Even their angriest song shows some hints of hope for a peaceful solution. The lyrics themselves are also clever; only they can roast politicians and WWE during the course of the same song. To be perfectly blunt, Bloodywood saved my life. Although for the sake of staying on topic, I’ll elaborate in a future post.

Verdict: 10/10


Ghost: IMPERA

One of the worst aspects of this new series is that I really have no room to gush over cover art anymore. It sucks because I love showing my appreciation for a lot of the talented illustrators who make this artwork, especially whoever does Ghost’s art. This band’s album covers have been consistently getting better, and IMEPRA is a cut above the rest. It’s so intricate and detailed, yet not busy. I wouldn’t mind a mecha anime with this Papa Emeritus Gundam they got here.

For the past ten years, Ghost has employed an evolving but simple marriage of old-school metal and 1970s pop. However, IMPERA shows that they’re still capable of catching us off-guard.  ‘Twenties’, for example, is just… really weird. Every time I hear the word I’m instantly going to think of the high-pitched “Twen-tieeeeees!” in the song’s chorus for the rest of my life (along with the “Yesssss” in ‘Griftwood’). Of course, there are some normal-er Ghost bangers, such as ‘Call Me Little Sunshine’, and ‘Hunter’s Moon’, the latter of which was wasted on Steven Spielberg’s “final” Halloween movie. Overall, IMPERA was well worth the wait.

Verdict: 10/10


Vanaheim: Een Verloren Verhaal

Bloodywood might be the big folk metal band everyone is talking about, but from within the Netherlands rose an underground sleeper hit: this debut album by Vanaheim. Ironically, I only found out about them by Googling Bloodywood and this having come up in the “people also search for” tab. With no real experience in Dutch folk metal, this was an easy impulse listen.

I’d say I made a great call. Basically, take the extreme metal elements of Hand of Kalliach—one of my favorite debuts from last year—add the catchy pagan anthems of Elvenking—one of my favorite folk metal bands of all time—and you get Een Verloren Verhaal. The lyrics are also sung in Dutch to boot. It’s a no-brainer that I love everything about this record.

Verdict: 9.5/10


Esprit D’Air: Oceans

I had tried to get into this famous Japanese-British soloist, but for some reason… their music just didn’t quite hit me. I liked about half the songs they had been putting out, but that’s not enough for me to be a fan. I wasn’t too excited for their new full-length, Oceans, but Esprit D’Air’s cover art is always so eye-catching that I just had to give it a whirl!

Surprisingly enough, I really enjoyed it. For a while, I felt like Esprit D’Air’s style was more of a poppy sound with metal instrumentation, but I didn’t get that vibe on Oceans at all. It’s much heavier, but with no shortage of the artist’s usual, whimsical synth sounds. There are also some growling guest vocalists to contrast mastermind Kaito Takahashi’s silky-smooth clean singing. Overall, it’s a solid record.

Verdict: 8.4/10


Angel Nation: Antares

Boy, I really shot myself in the foot with this one. In my review of Catalyst Crime’s self-titled debut from last year, I said I would cover Angel Nation’s third album, and here we are. 

Angel Nation likes their music nice and simple. If you enjoy old-school, 1980s-pop-y metal, this band has it all, and Antares is a further step in the right direction. There are also plenty of synthesizers to boot.

Verdict: 8.4/10


Luminous Vault: Animate the Emptiness

I just learned of industrial metal, which is yet another of metal’s umpteen subgenres. I’ve apparently listened to a lot of bands considered industrial, and loved them without even knowing what it was. At first, I thought it was just a term used for high-synth elements in metal. Seems arbitrary.

However, on Luminous Vault’s debut, Animate the Emptiness, I learned of an important distinction that I would personally consider blasphemous: the drums are fake. I find percussion to be of utmost importance in music, and generally, those synthetic boots n’ cats just sound lifeless and wrong to me. Yet here we are with Luminous Vault, integrating that stuff with black metal.

Despite how much I don’t like not-drums, I actually found the album to be pretty solid. The sense of wrongness with the fake drums coupled with the actual guitars was very interesting. To give credit where credit is due, though, Luminous Vault is not remotely the first band to do this; apparently this style was pioneered by a band called Blut aus Nord from WAY back in the day (they just released a new album, and since they’re a popular band, I of course haven’t listened to it). In any case, this album’s pretty interesting.

Verdict: 8.5/10


Moonlight Sorcery: Piercing Through the Frozen Eternity (EP)

Hot take: I don’t exactly like old-school black metal. I tried with Behemoth, and I found myself pretty underwhelmed by them (well, there goes any qualifications as a metalhead that I could possibly have). However, I was still drawn into Finnish trio Moonlight Sorcery, on their compressed-as-all-get-out debut EP: Piercing Through the Frozen Eternity.

Moonlight Sorcery specializes in a rare subgenre called “melodic black metal”, which was apparently very criticized in the 1990s for no good reason. The icey-sounding synthesizers (which are the only other instruments that you can hear clearly besides the guitars) really sell the band’s brand, and make the album quite whimsical. What also stands out is hints of power metal melodies. This band has a lot of potential, hopefully to become the even rarer subgenre of “blackened power metal” in the future. We’ll have to see where their path leads them next!

Verdict: 8.55/10


Gloryhammer: Fly Away (Single)

I normally don’t talk about singles, but I REALLY feel like I need to discuss the current state of this band as soon as possible, just to get it off my chest. For those who don’t know, Alestorm vocalist Christopher Bowes has also been running a memey power metal band called Gloryhammer, chronicling the Scottish hero, Angus McFife, and his quest to defeat Zargothrax in the distant future of the 1990s. The band hadn’t done much after the third album, which ended with the presumed death of McFife. However, last year, they fired the charismatic Thomas Winkler, who had taken the role of McFife. Literally a day later, the band was accused of White Supremacy and misogyny, with evidence found in leaked private chats from several years ago. 

They survived cancel culture by maintaining radio silence, and it somehow worked. Despite the possibly unjustified hatred (honestly, I didn’t read the source posts since they were supposed to be PRIVATE, so I don’t really know the truth), they were able to hire former Helion Prime vocalist Sozos Michael to assume the role of McFife. I didn’t exactly like his presence in Prime’s second album, since it was more sci-fi oriented than the band’s usual brand of real-world science. However, in an over-the-top sci-fi-fantasy metal band like Gloryhammer, Michael couldn’t be a better fit. While his tenor voice isn’t quite as good as Winkler’s, Michael has the passion and energy to be McFife. Oh, and the song’s great too. The only issue is that it doesn’t really seem to explain his situation. It seems to take place in McFife’s consciousness, moments before his death. We’ll have to wait for the actual fourth album to find out what actually happens next!

Verdict: 9/10


Planeswalker: Tales of Magic (EP)

Speaking of Sozos Michael, here’s his current band now! Alongside Jason Ashcraft—also of Helion Prime—these two have created an old-fashioned power metal band themed off of Magic: The Gathering. Everything about the sound production and composition has that same Prime energy, but with some fantasy whimsy instead of edutainment. This album helped me to appreciate Michael’s ability as a songwriter. 

The highlight of the album is no doubt the twelve minute song shown in the embedded MV: ‘Oath of the Gatewatch’. It contains three guest vocalists: original Helion Prime vocalist Heather Michele, the iconic Brittney Slayes from Unleash the Archers, and whoever R.A. Voltaire is. While the whole album (other than an out-of-place KISS cover) is really good, this song is definitely a banger that’s worth checking out. Also, I really hope this band does more music please.

Verdict: 9/10


Conclusion

Well, I definitely feel like this is the way for me to cover music reviews moving forward. I don’t have to worry about making them poetic and verbose like most actual reviewers do. With that, let’s see if the rest of the year will be as good as this first half (music-wise)!

This Town Ain’t METAL Enough for the Two of Us: Untamed Land — Like Creatures Seeking Their Own Forms Album Review

These days, it’s easy to assume that America’s culture consists mainly of racism, memes, and failed promises. However, this nation—as much of a zoomer as it is—has about two centuries of history, and thus, about two centuries’ worth of culture. And one extreme metal outfit known as Untamed Land has set up a roaring campfire in the wild west, ripe for some Americana storytelling. 

Untamed Land hasn’t been around for too long. The band was founded in Ohio by Patrick Kern, and—like Mammoth WVH—he’s the only member. Today’s album review is of its second record, Like Creatures Seeking Their Own Forms. I already listened to its debut, 2018’s Between the Winds, and I was sold pretty darn quickly. Let’s see if the follow-up, well, follows up.

Most atmospheric bands I’ve seen have very hand-painted-looking, beautiful cover art of landscapes that don’t at all look like it would belong to an extreme metal band. That is also the case with Untamed Land’s previous album art. Like Creatures Seeking Their Own Forms, however, is a lot different from that. It’s darker, with a sketchy, cross-hatching-covered aesthetic. The Neanderthal-looking dude in the center is kind of creepy, but the background art has a weird, abstract beauty. Something about the red sun on the right, contrasting the weird castle-looking structure on the left… I don’t know. I just love how it looks.

In terms of the basic style, Untamed Land has what you expect: a lot of riffs, the “duduholaduhdoladuhdola” guitar thing, and some “AAAAAAAH!” screechy vocals (those are professional Layman’s terms, btw). And to be honest, THIS is the band I should’ve compared to Sojourner, instead of Stormruler. Like Sojourner, Untamed Land is slower and more ambient.

But what’s different from Sojourner is, of course, the actual theme. In addition to the essential metal components, Untamed Land uses… er… crap, I have no idea what the instruments I’m about to describe are called, so I’ll use my professional Layman’s terms again! If you’re familiar with Clint Eastwood and High Noon, you’ll recognize the very U.S.-Western-style saloon piano, cowboy trumpet, and twangy string instrument (see? Professional!). But as novel as these additional instruments make the band sound, it feels like they come from a synthesizer. I’m not so hard on that, since the intent gets through well enough.

Like Creatures isn’t just the same thing over again; in fact, as with the cover art, it’s much darker than its predecessor. While the previous album feels like a cowboy shoot ’em up starring Clint Eastwood and Daniel Boone, this album—by comparison—feels like telling ghost stories by the campfire. However, the more somber theme doesn’t make it less epic; expect the same extreme riffs, rumbling drums, and very un-cowboy-ish growling.

If there is any tangible flaw with this album, it’s the record’s short-lived-ness. Despite it being considered full-length, it’s really an EP; there are only seven tracks, two of which are shortened versions of existing tracks. I don’t want to sound like that guy who’s all “NEXT ALBUM WHEN”, but the fact remains that this was a three-year wait following Between the Winds; I can only assume it’ll be a similar case in years to come. With less than twenty tracks total in its discography, coupled with the band’s novelty, expect new music withdrawal to hit fast.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 8.8/10

Yeeeeeeeeee-haaaaaw! Untamed Land has proven itself to be one of the most novel and underrated metal projects in recent years. And not only that, I feel like I’ve learned a little bit about the nation I was born and raised in. Recommending it now is a hard sell right now because there isn’t much, but what is there is worth its weight in California gold. I reckon you’ll like it if you give it a chance!