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)!

Dream Unending and Hand of Kalliach: Two 2021 Metal Debuts I Missed

There’s so much metal out there… seriously. The underground market is even larger, and as a blogger who likes to highlight obscure stuff, I feel pretty overwhelmed. I missed a lot of metal debuts last year, and I’m already behind on debuts from this year. Let’s catch up by discussing two of those debuts from 2021!


Dream Unending: Tide Turns Eternal

I don’t know much about Dream Unending except that it consists of vocalist/drummer Justin DeTore, and guitarist/bassist Derrick Vella. One member is from the States, and the other Canada, but Encyclopaedia Metallum doesn’t say who’s from where. Also, they’re so edgy that they don’t even have a Facebook page; the only way to follow them is through their label, 20 Buck Spin.

I usually dislike album cover art that looks awful, especially since a lot of the REALLY popular bands have awful cover art for some reason (I mean, look at Zeal & Ardor’s self-titled album for example. Two hands suspended in a white void, whoop dee doo). However, despite how awful Tide Turns Eternal looks at first, I found myself unable to look away. It’s incredibly fuzzy, with only three colors. Yet… there’s just enough there for the brain to vaguely form a sense of composition. I hate that I have no idea what I’m looking at, and that’s why I’ve come to love the artwork. 

I knew that Tide Turns Eternal was going to be a trip (also, take a shot for every paragraph I start with “I”), but it threw me for a loop minute one. Even with all the contrasting dualities that I’ve heard, Dream Unending is utter tonal whiplash. I don’t know what to call those riffs that are reminiscent of late 1960s acid rock, but that comes up just about as often as the doom metal subgenre’s signature deep guitar riffs. 

I don’t like the late 1960s era, but I was hooked on Tide Turns Eternal despite that. People love using the hyperbolic word “otherworldly”, but sometimes, there’s no other way to describe something. This record is a groaning, melancholic experience. Every track has a memorable and ominous atmosphere.

I have heard death growls in a myriad of ways. People can really draw them out, screech like banshees, and even rap in this style. However, DeTore taught me that… you can whisper in death growls? This man’s voice is scary in the best way possible. Instead of just trying to sound like a ravenous pig (apparently, that’s deathcore territory *shivers*), he uses the aforementioned technique to prove the deceptive versatility of extreme vocals.

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Final Verdict: 9.4/10

It’s amazing how fast I’ve gotten acclimated to metal. I go from resenting extreme metal, to now having my Top Three 2021 debuts all being extreme metal, with Tide Turns Eternal in third place (the moles in Earthbound would be proud). This album… just wow. Like with IOTUNN, I should’ve listened to it much sooner than when I did. Tide Turns Eternal truly is a dream unending. Even if you’re off-put by extreme metal, I recommend you give this a try; it’s just that unique and bizarre.


Hand of Kalliach: Samhainn

I know nothing about Hand of Kalliach, other than the fact that they are a husband and wife duo. Sophie and John Fraser hail from Scotland… and that’s literally it for what I know. Hooray for the underground! Oh, here’s one tidbit I learned: I don’t know if it’s the sole purpose of the project, but they supposedly donate some amount of their proceeds to a charity that they support. Follow them on Facebook for details (#notsponsored)!

I love the cover art… whatever it is. It looks like a wizard on a robot horse riding on a turbulent sea? Oh wait, that’s his left arm, not a horse’s head… In any case, I’m no doubt off the mark with this art, but that’s the thing about art; the emotion felt by the viewer. And the emotion I felt was anticipation for what Hand of Kalliach had to offer!

The thing I’m used to with folk metal is for there to be, well, folk instrumentation implemented with the metal sounds. Hand of Kalliach, however, doesn’t even have one bagpipe pipe. Despite that, however, something about it screamed “folk metal” to me.

Or rather, it growled “folk metal”, for Hand of Kalliach is a death metal band at its core. Don’t worry though; they’re not old-timey violent death metal. If anything it’s melodic death metal meets atmospheric black metal, kind of like IOTUNN, the otherworldly new prog-metal band whose debut I covered not too long ago. In a similar sense, the music is thunderously heavy, but there’s still a strange melancholy to the overall sound.

Of course, just because I’m comparing them to IOTUNN doesn’t mean the two bands are anything alike. In fact, “apples and oranges” couldn’t be a more apt analogy here. Hand of Kalliach, like I said before, manages to scratch that folk itch with pretty much no help from actual folk tradition. I honestly don’t know how they did it, except they did it, and REALLY well at that. Every track on Samhainn slaps with a whimsical and heavy atmosphere that I haven’t quite heard anywhere else.

The vocalists really tie the album’s sound together. Yes, vocalists. Most of the singing is done by John, who takes the role of the growler. He sounds like a feral beast, and sadly, isn’t as fluent as others I have heard. However, I didn’t get mad at that for some reason, like I did when I first heard Behemoth’s Nergal (I know it’s a hot take to not like Behemoth, but that’s just me; a butt-load of hot takes!). For some reason, his growls just worked, and I can’t imagine Hand of Kalliach without him. Same goes for the wife, Sophie. Her clean vocals are delicate and flow like a gentle stream, forming a perfect contrast with her husband’s savage growling.

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Final Verdict: 9.45/10

Hand of Kalliach proves both the versatility of extreme and folk metal. I believe Samhainn is a masterpiece, second only to IOTUNN’s Access All Worlds for my favorite 2021 debut. If you aren’t too off-put by how damn heavy it is, I highly recommend giving the record a spin.