Hard Reviews
by Martin Popoff

Martin Popoff is the author of The Collector's Guide To Heavy Metal (previously known as Riff Kills Man!), now a 540 page, 600,000 word compendium comprising 3,700 heavy metal record reviews. Also included are rock lists, a glossary of terms, a concise listing of almost 500 9's and 10's, plus a roll-call of non-metal faves. New to this edition is an exclusive 19-track sampler CD from premiere metal label Century Media. The book is now in its second pressing. For more information, visit the book website or contact martinp@hardradio.com

Fresh Metal

Blind Guardian - Nightfall In Middle-Earth
(Century Media)

Finally a label is bringing this eight record oddity to North American shores. As folks the world over have known, Blind Guardian are probably the most extremely bardic, medieval, progressive, pomp and circus pants frilly sleeve metal experience on the planet. And consider this one a step to stay ahead of all the young upstarts clogging this '80s, retro, 'power' metal genre (hate that term: it's actually less 'powerful' than most other metal alloys). How is this achieved? Well, arrangements are more about epic flourish than standard warp speed Germanity, and the production lines up philosophically right next to it, sort of raw, minimalistic, full of absence (!), like old Manowar but on purpose. There's lots of Brian May in the soloing also, Blind Guardian really emphasizing their always bubbling under Queen regality, while the vocal onslaught has to be heard to be believed, Hansi Kursch sounding like the complete actors guild drunkenly storming the streets of Stratford in the middle of the night, frothy mugs of mead sloshing parked cars and their owners concerned for the safety of the town's period costumes. Kinda goofy telling the tale of The Silmarillion (any serious metal study of a work we had to read in elementary school should be banned), but you barely notice amongst the refreshing retooling of the most airy fairy gothic of metal conventions. Once a band in danger of descending this micro-genre's greatest pitfall (parody), Blind Guardian have taken steps to assert individuality in a bursting handful of areas, most notably vocals and mix, but also in the sheer construction of the songs, and the hummingbird guitar tones that flit all around them.
Rating 9

Flotsam And Jetsam - Unnatural Selection
(Metal Blade)

This one's whimsical cover art refers to the band's self-image as worker ants toiling away at the middle of metal, where nobody seems to be watching. More line-up changes, but as long as Eric A.K. and Ed Carlson are aboard, you're still going to get raucous, complicated metal that defines the best within certain obstinate boundaries. Faves like Chemical Noose and Brain Dead combine groove and seemingly long-lost NWOBHM ideas like Raven at their prime. But that's the inherent problem with this perennially below radar act finding new fans. Flotsam's sound is just the commercial side of all permutations thrash, speed, power or death, and their poignant, morose tones will alas, remain the domain of a fervent but compact fanbase.
Rating 8

Nevermore - Dreaming Neon Black
(Century Media)

If ever there was a record that drags the listener into and under its sombre storyline with the force, sound and slash of propeller blades pummeling the torso, it is the new masterpiece from Nevermore. Warrel Dane has concocted and elevated a semi-autobiographical tale based on the utter, blank, unsolved disappearance of a loved one and the subsequent descent into madness (and in the case of the main character: suicide) of the one with loss. But if Nevermore violently batters the listener into rapt atention, there is also present the band's sense of wave and water, the unwary follower of the record's mind-decay fable in a sense called to drown within the words and more importantly, the vocals of Dane, whose clarion calls are various and always hair-raising. Musically, the band is as hard, cold, indifferent and efficient as the snaring of the listener. You don't even realize how difficult and progressive the rhythms and riffs are, because the whole thing sounds live off the floor, ricocheting with gravel and spark like a drunken 4x4 romp through the scrapyards of metal. Accompanying the epic sweep of music complicating appropiately towards the idea of the 'concept album', is another appropriate and perhaps more surprising dimension to the band's unique sound, and that is the use of acoustic guitars. Nowhere is this more stunning than the layered death knells of the title track, which sounds like the best of Floyd black 'n' blue'd by Type O Negative. Ultimately what happens with this record is this: you believe it, and for the first time in a long time with a concept record, you become draped in the tale, in no hurry to leave, in less hurry once suffocation stops dead the heart.
Rating 10

The Gathering - How to measure a planet?
(Century Media)

Well, this unique co-ed batch of bong artists have just gotten more unique (I know, grammatical and logical impossibility), and off-the-chart way less metal. I guess, soaking up all that press about Anneke van Giersbergen's sweet soul-redeemer vocals has caused the band to drop to their arsenals and let her croon away alone, save for loping unplugged keyboard-woven trance-along backtracks. So the spiffy graphics support this abandonment of metal, and the cryptic waffle-minded lyrics sound great from said hummingbird throat. But two discs of this mesmer-fogged claptrap is too much. Shoulda been an edited single, with great white gods like 'Frail (you Might As Well Be Me)' and personal fave 'Great Ocean Road' (love that deathbed buzz section at 3:21), leading the way as they (surprise) do here. Come to think of it, just drop-kick (too violent: float down a dreamy stream) that second disc, given that most of it is like an extended airport wait at Christmas: too hot with all that clothing and far too many white people. In fact, most of disc one is a quiet, unexcited, crystal shop joy, and likely destined to be allowed to live by the critics, given the band's courage to change completely, plus the crafty fact that The Gathering are a welcome respite to all the hammery iron that will at least for this one more record, be its competition.
Rating 7

Hard Reviews Part 2