It seems to be the trend lately in the progpower scene to get a release where the musical direction is on point but the vocals find themselves lost and sorely lacking in one respect or other. Italian five piece Walls Of Babylon fall into this pothole on their sophomore effort, the in so many aspects beautiful A Portrait Of Memories. From the chill inducing album cover to the plentiful presence of richly woven instrumental parts with a very tangible emotional pull to the way the lead guitars intermingle themselves with slightly more gritty tones of driving riff parts, lead guitarist Francesco Pellegrini accentuating Fabiano Pietrini’s rhythm guitars with mighty fervor and solos divine with an airy presence to lift the compositions. Add to that a great bass presence from Matteo Caravana, whose intricate bass lines, simple yet effective, makes a world of difference to give the whole thing the depth it aims for.
And then there’s Valerio Gaoni. Let’s start by pointing out that this is not another case of Tales Of Gaia, and that there is actually great promise in the guy. The voice itself isn’t bad, but how it’s used and mixed with the music somehow feels off. Then there is that too thick presence and the feeling of misplacement. The music would benefit from better control of Gaoni’s highs, and more dynamics to his middle range, as well as working on pronunciation (well duh, they’re Italian - only Fabio Lione gets a free pass). There’s a big amount of lofty cheesiness to his intonation that could work better on a straight up power metal album, or at least an album that wasn’t so deeply emotionally tinged, because even though they work quite well at parts, at others the vocals just seem misplaced and it’s hard to get away from, especially in tracks like Burden or Let Me Try that go heavy on the vocal presence instead of showcasing the musical talent. All that said, A Portrait Of Memories is still enjoyable, and there are some songs where the vocals work better.
The songwriting is on point as well, with nine fine tracks that keep the feel concise and the style remains true to itself through the album. Some darker tracks are found at the beginning and the end, and the lighter, more airy ones in the middle. The aforementioned Let Me Try feels kind of cliché at times in the vocal melodies and the general theme, but the melodic guitars set it apart, whereas opener Starving Soul is big sounding and drenched in a black cloak with its dark intonation and weighty guitars. The speedy parts of Forgotten Desires furthermore, get the best out of Gaoni while Pellegrini blisters away to great effect. To reconnect to my opening remark, there have been quite a few releases lately that have fallen short of the promise of greatness they at times give, and while that’s still somewhat true of A Portrait Of Memories, it’s still a pretty darn fine album and it shouldn’t be skipped because of the sometimes lacking vocals. It’s just something to bear in mind, because it could have been better.
It seems Judicator can do no wrong; everyone of their albums seem to garner plenty of praise and high marks. Still, they’ve not really broken into the mainstream even of the power metal subgenre, though it’s likely their fourth full length The Last Emperor will mark that milestone. After releasing a couple of fairly overlong albums between 2012 and 2015 it’s cool to see a more laid back and concise approach, as The Last Emperor clocks in at around 45 minutes; not letting it overstay its welcome while also keeping things interesting throughout and lacking filler. The Last Emperor sounds much like a tribute or spiritual follow-up to main inspiration Blind Guardian’s 2002 album A Night At The Opera; full of melodic anthems and thick, layered vocals atop the pounding rhythms and, at times, slight progressive leanings while still lending from the earlier, speed and aggressively infused leanings of said German icons.
It’s a classically sounding record that has all the pomp and flair of a great power metal album, while still offering something fresh and interesting. So while the album starts out pretty strong with some nice tracks in the title track and Raining Gold, it really picks up around the middle with Queen Of All Cities, from where there is no going back. Dealing with The First Crusade it takes the listener to the Middle East and infuses some melodies that truly invoke the setting, notably in the intro of epic mid album piece Queen Of All Cities. Guitarists Tony Cordisco and newcomer Michael Sanchez bless this quest for the holy land with their mighty riff work and fleshy guitar tone. Add to that the catchy leads that delve into the epic scope more and more as the album progresses. The melodic lead guitars found on the album are without doubt part of its greatest strengths, as Cordisco and Sanchez just lets them flow with fury and with melodic precision such as Judicator hasn’t seen before. Then there are tracks like Antioch that just go all out on the almost thrash like intensity of the gritty riffage.
If the already Blind Guardian heavy inspiration weren’t enough, Hansi Kürsch lends his magnificent set of vocal chords to album highlight Spiritual Treason. He shares lead vocal duties with main vocalist John Yelland in this one track to bring it that little extra piece of epic, hitting the spot just right with melodic punctuation and a mighty chorus. The Last Emperor shows Judicator’s dynamics and is expressive without being an experimental, overlong drab, and with the songwriting on point just as much as the musical delivery of each member it carries the recipe for the Arizona quartet’s finest output yet, bringing plenty of power and a well told storyline through both evocative lyrics and densely well laid melodic pieces and intricate riffing. While it may not prove to be the power metal release of 2018 as some claim, it is still a damn good listen and an album that no fan of the genre should miss out on.
Standout tracks: Queen Of All Cities, Spiritual Treason, It Falls To Jerusalem
Second full length from Arctic Circle Norwegians Tomorrow’s Outlook makes bold promises, aiming for a sound somewhere between Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. Coming six years after debut album 34613 (2012) and a bunch of trouble getting the album on the shelves, A Voice Unheard finally hit the ears like a slap and a half in mid April. The album follows the concept of a coming dystopic future and the impending end of the world. Bleak as fuck to say the least, and certainly, the sound does capture this to some effect. The promised tinges of 80’s melodic leads with distinct rhythm fills are there, complete with the gallop rhythms and twisting solo intricacies. Add to that the melodics that hinge on power metal and some progressive elements that, while never taking the driver’s seat, helps elevate the music above average. While he’s certainly getting lots of help, Øystein Kvile Hanssen (Cyclophonia) and his riveting lead guitar dominates much of the sound. The bountiful instrumental lead passages see him make solemn magic throughout the album, and while bassist Andreas Stenseth adds the level of dignified density with his bass lines, Hanssen and his often catchy, often swiveling, always perfectly delivered leads and hooks mark the album in the greatest sense.
Vocalist Tony Johannessen (Thunder) share vocal duties with none other than Ralf Scheepers (Primal Fear), who lends his magnificent vocal chords to six songs of the twelve. Arguably these songs are the strongest on the album; opener Within The World Of Dreams and epic single Fly Away. Scheepers voice has matured better than most, and his many recent guest sessions outside Primal Fear shows how well other styles suit him, the progressive heavy flair here hitting particularly hard. His soaring voice and high falsettos always seem to lead the music, rather than be lead by it, and it’s his input that makes the album truly stand out. That’s not to say Johannessen is by any means a bad vocalist; mid paced melodic romper Outlaw sees him driving the music well and following the leads of Hanssen quite well. Scheepers is just one notch above the rest, if not two. Still, with Scheepers you’re always getting Scheepers, so the variation with Johannessen tossed in as well is still a good thing, though I’d rather have seen a few more duets between the two - they lift each other hella good during the shared moments on title track A Voice Unheard - rather than shifting lead vocals between the tracks.
The album is finally concluded with two half interesting covers, of originals by Bruce Dickinson and Aria. These could rightly have been skipped entirely, or added as bonus tracks to those obscure Japanese album versions. Unmistakably, the most interesting material on the album is where the band members themselves get to shine, as their songwriting skills and musical chops are above the need for covers. There is so much here to appreciate; how the melodic vocals in Fly Away brightly contrast the galloping rhythms to the twister of a conclusion to the story, narrated by Danny Webb and emblazoned melancholically and epic both by Hanssen’s lead guitars. A Voice Unheard may not take a natural place in between the monumental greats that are Maiden and Priest, but with its bountiful melodic hooks, driving rhythms and interesting riffs it should be well received by fans of traditional metal, as well as fans of modern progressive and power metal. Despite a couple minor missteps and one or two lackluster tracks A Voice Unheard is a surprisingly high quality release, showcasing plenty of talent and passion for the craft. Here’s hoping for a sequel, to whatever end.
Standout tracks: Within The World Of Dreams, A Voice Unheard, Fly Away