Blood and Thunder: 70,000 Tons of Metal 2015 Recap and Blind Guardian's Best in Two Decades
Sailing the seven seas is a lot more fun when you're on a cruise ship with 60 metal bands and a legion of eager metal fans. No, really.
Longtime PopMatters readers might remember the original Blood and Thunder column, in which I wrote monthly thoughts about whatever was going on in heavy metal at the time. Started in 2005, it was one of the first columns on a music/pop culture site with this size and diversity of audience to devote serious writing to metal music, and it became a labor of love for yours truly. It came to an end in August 2011, but after three and a half years away, and with a new year upon us, it’s time to bring Blood and Thunder back.
There’ll be a few significant changes. First off, it’ll be weekly instead of monthly, appearing every Thursday. Most importantly, instead of a single 2,000-word piece, it’ll be more of a grab bag, a combination of analysis of heavy metal in its many forms -- old and new, traditional and extreme, underground and mainstream -- as well as looking at the week that was. For those regular readers of my Sucker For Punishment column at Decibel and the weekly new release posts that preceded it at the now defunct MSN music site, there will be the same weekly album reviews as well; however, instead of talking about ten to 20 albums per week, for the sake of my own sanity I’ll keep it to five or six, maximum. I hope.
There will also be a few fun recurring odds and ends as well. It's great to be back, and here’s hoping 2015 is a hell of a lot better than 2014 was for metal.
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Photo courtesy of Adrien Begrand
Not only was the beginning of 2015 an oddly busy time, crammed with an above-average number of worthwhile new albums, but as has been the tradition in my own case and for many others for the past five years, January was all about the return of the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise. A year ago, when the 2014 cruise was winding down, with 40 bands playing around the clock enroute from Florida to Mexico and back, I thought to myself, "This’ll probably be my last, and I’m fine with that." But then, during the press conference on the final day, cruise boss Andy Pillar announced that not only would the 2015 edition be held on a new ship twice the size of the one we were on, but a whopping 60 bands would be appearing, playing two sets apiece over the course of four days as the ship travels to Jamaica. The potential of biggest and best metal cruise to get even bigger and better, and going even farther, than ever before, was impossible to resist. I bit the bullet and returned for one more year.
Am I ever glad I went too; in the end, it turned out to be the best excursion yet. At first, the organizers flirted with disaster when the construction of the gigantic, much-ballyhooed pool stage was severely delayed after a building error required the structure to be dismantled and rebuilt. Rougher than usual winds on the Caribbean Sea only hindered matters, and it wasn’t until the evening of the second day that any performances were able to happen on the pool deck.
Despite that delay, when the bands started playing and the booze started flowing, the cruise settled into a smoothly run barrage of shows featuring a good mix of popular bands (Blind Guardian, Behemoth, Arch Enemy, Amorphis, Cannibal Corpse, Therion, Apocalyptica), veteran artists (Venom, Michael Schenker, Annihilator, Pretty Maids, Grave Digger), and a few unknowns. The comfort and convenience of being at a metal festival on a cruise ship -- bed and shower close by, unlimited food -- was easy to forget upon realizing just how much walking would have to be done to scurry back and forth between the four venues on the 14-deck ship. In the end, though, this could not have been a better setting. Need to crash? Head back to your cabin for a power nap. Need quiet? Venture to one of the many nooks and crannies inside and outside. For a sold-out cruise with 60 bands, it’s remarkable how much space there was for everyone.
Overall, I’m undecided as to what was better: the actual festival or the trip to Jamaica itself. But this being a metal column rather than a travel piece, it’s best I focus on the great music, of which there was no shortage. Amorphis turned in a pair of glorious performances that I’d deem the class of the entire cruise: one set focused on the band’s remarkable post-2004 renaissance with singer Tomi Joutsen, while the other went further back in time, the band performing the classic Tales From the Thousand Lakes album in its entirety. Melechesh is set to make waves with the excellent new album Enki, which is due later this month. This Sumerian-themed black metal band was a revelation in person, playing tight, searing sets that showed just how powerful these guys are live. Although I’m a longtime admirer of symphonic metalers Therion, their last couple releases did absolutely nothing for me; nevertheless, their powerhouse performance in the swanky Platinum Theatre redeemed their shoddy recent track record. Good ol' Venom was equally predictable and daring, playing a glorious greatest-hits set on the pool stage, followed by a live premiere of their new album a couple nights later, the latter holding up incredibly well.
From day one, 70,000 Tons of Metal has been a very unique experience for the metal fan: you’re together in a surreal, self-contained world of heavy metal, but by far the best thing about that is that you’re all there out of that one common interest. Consequently, it’s an immediate ice-breaker, and even when you travel alone you’re bound to make new friends. “Where are you from? Who are you here to see?” That’s all it takes to set off an extended conversation about your mutual nerdery. It’s pricier than a massive outdoor European festival, but ultimately it’s far more rewarding -- not to mention considerably less muddy -- and it’s something every metal fan should save up to attend at least once.
Blind Guardian, Beyond the Red Mirror (Nuclear Blast)
It’s been as much fun gauging critical interest in the new Blind Guardian album as it has been actually listening to the thing. It’s not as if the Pitchforks of the world will ever touch something as off-brand as power metal, but a variety of American publications have expressed great admiration for the German band’s tenth album, which is marvelous to see. Then again, a new Blind Guardian album is always an event in itself. The band has been among the most influential and popular power metal acts in the world, but unlike Sabaton, who churn out albums with regularity and tour with the exuberance of a bunch of happy puppydogs, the more reticent Blind Guardian routinely takes four to five years to put out new records. Anticipation is always sky-high, and the band consistently delivers a fine, classy product.
This time around, though, Beyond the Red Mirror has singer/songwriter Hansi Kursch and his bandmates sounding more inspired and assertive than ever. They got the idea to create a sequel to the 1995 album Imaginations From the Other Side, and in so doing strove to create music that revisited the aggression and precision of Blind Guardian’s mid-‘90s period -- and do they ever nail it, too. At 65 minutes, it’s typically a highly bombastic affair, those Queen influences looming large as they often do, but the songs never fly off the rails, a testament to the mastery of the form this band exhibits time and again. In fact, there’s a sublime balance of epic tracks and more concise compositions here, shorter songs like “Twilight of the Gods” and “Ashes of Eternity” offering respites between such sweeping epics as “The Ninth Wave” and “Grand Parade”. They’re in prime form here, and while it lacks the appeal of past singles like “Tanelorn” and “Fly”, overall this is their strongest work in two decades.
Usually I’ll be highlighting other albums that came out during the past week, but seeing that January was such a strong month, I’ve selected five albums from then that fully deserve to be heard.
Caïna, Setter of Unseen Snares (Broken Limbs)
Remember when Hands That Pluck was supposed to be the final Caïna album? That was way back in 2011, and after a dormant couple of years Andy Curtis-Brignell has brought the project back, proving to be just as prolific as he’s ever been. Now it feels as if he’s been starting from scratch, trying to find his way back after some of the most exciting black metal albums of the past decade. Following the experimentation of 2013’s Litanies of Abjection and the raw savagery of last year’s Earth Inferno – two intriguing albums in their own right – Caïna at last sounds fully-realized once again on this new full-length, where relentless black metal arrangements and contemplative post-punk melodies coalesce into something striking, and ultimately, beautiful. It all builds towards the 15-minute “Orphan”, the two sides providing an emotional give-and-take, melody and atonality not so much dueling as complementing each other. This is the return to form by Curtis-Brignell I’ve been waiting for, a work on par with his 2006-2011 output. (Listen to the album at Bandcamp.)
Lord Dying, Poison Altars (Relapse)
If you’re too impatient to wait for the next High on Fire album, which is due later this year, you can’t go wrong with this second album by this Portland band. With Poison Altars, Lord Dying plays a simple, straightforward, sludgy heavy metal built around towering riffs and the mighty bellow of guitarist/vocalist Erik Olson. Based on the strengths of such tracks as “An Open Sore” and “Suckling at the Teat of a She-Beast”, these guys will be out of the imposing shadow of the mighty Matt Pike sooner than later. (Listen to the album at Spotify.)
Napalm Death, Apex Predator - Easy Meat (Century Media)
The British grindcore innovators have been churning out the music with regularity for well over a quarter century, and while they’re incapable of ever making a terrible record, their output over the last decade has steadily felt more and more complacent. That’s all changed with this 16th album, which not only sounds ferocious and features perceptive and biting social commentary from vocalist Barney Greenway, but also boasts some genuinely dynamic songwriting for once. Grindcore is all about that barrage, the onslaught of violent music, but even in a genre as extreme as this one, you still need to know how to write songs that are good enough to stand apart from one another, and this exceptional little album does just that. It’s Napalm’s most sonically varied work in ages, and their best album in even longer. (Listen to the album at Spotify.)
Night Demon, Curse of the Damned (Century Media)
This Los Angeles-area trio has been on my radar for the past couple years. Their spirited take on the classic New Wave of British Heavy Metal sounds of Angel Witch, Tokyo Blade, and Jaguar -- for all its geezer-pleasing old-school appeal -- feels so refreshing compared to today’s more extreme-minded metal. They don’t do anything new on their debut full-length, but the way this album takes a familiar sound and breathes new life into it is so damned invigorating. Imagine that: an American metal band doing the simplest yet often-ignored thing -- focusing on the strength of melodies, for crying out loud -- and succeeding mightily. Hammered out over the course of three days, played live save for a few vocal and guitar overdubs, this record captures the spirit of the early '80s brilliantly. We need more of this. (Purchase the album via iTunes.)
Venom, From the Very Depths (Spinefarm)
Venom is in a place right now where Cronos and his band can easily get away with resting on their laurels. Having seen them a number of times, their usual “greatest hits” set is as satisfying as a metal show can get (though it would be nice to hear them cart out “Die Hard” one of these days). Any new song they put out that can fit nicely between the classics in concert without compelling audience members to go for a beer is a good thing. Their musical output since 1985 has been half-decent at best, but for some crazy reason this 14th album delivers. Cronos is in prime form, hollering his usual cartoonishly fun blasphemy peppered with dry Northern English wit, but most crucially guitarist Rage and drummer Dante have helped transform Venom into a surprisingly tight unit. In addition to carting out the usual speed-riddled metal, the trio dares to incorporate a little groove, and the tactic actually works on such brooding numbers as “Smoke” and “Crucified”. I’m still floored by how much I enjoy this record. (Listen to the album at Spotify.)
One of the more fascinating stories of the last few years is just how much progressive metal has grown in popularity. In 2014 Animals As Leaders emerged as a headline-worthy act with The Joy of Motion, which cracked the top 25 in the US. This week, Maryland’s Periphery has taken things a step further with their two new albums, Juggernaut: Alpha and Juggernaut: Omega. Putting out a double album, let alone two separate albums, is an extremely bold move for a young band to make, but it paid off, shattering the band’s previous record of 12,000 that previous full-length Periphery II: This Time it’s Personal sold in its first week three years ago. With Alpha charting at #15 with 18,151 units sold and Omega following at #16 with 16,960, the band has nearly tripled the first-week numbers of the last record, which in this day and age of declining record sales is astonishing. Personally, I can’t get fully behind these albums, which too often slip into hookless -- albeit tasteful -- noodling, but the fans have spoken. If they keep up this momentum, 2015 will be a very big year for Periphery.
Moonspell, “The Last of Us”
The Portuguese veterans apply a heavy dose of gloss to its already appealing gothic metal on this lead single from the forthcoming album Extinct, and the end result is a sublime combination of late ‘80s goth bombast (think Sisters of Mercy) and sleek European melodic metal. In fact, the more melodic Fernando Ribeiro gets, the better Moonspell is, and this track has the band sounding as strong as they ever have.
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Splash image: Press shot courtesy of 70,000 Tons of Metal.