Hard Reviews 3
by Martin Popoff

Defender - They Came Over The High Pass

Ex-Afflicted and present Cranium bassist Philip Von Segebaden has cooked up an interesting idea here: mixing prog metal, Manowar, Angel Dust and classic Maiden with a curiously large dose of what can only be described as Blaze-era Maiden. What drags it in that direction is the rough 'n' tumble vocal work of Michael van de Graaf (also ex-Afflicted) and the bombastic, dark and involved nature of the songs. Eminently more flavourful than power metal, the sum total of this trip sounds like a long lost 1979 album from Bathory or something, totally fanciful but passionately built in a vacuum. Normally you would call this sort of production perfectly average, nothing wrong with it, nothing weird about it, but Von Segebaden has purposely left a bit of friction just to remind us this isn't Primal Fear getting fancy. Hard to pin what causes my unquestioning respect, but it has something to do with this sounding like a 'rarity', like NWOBHM wingnuts Sledgehammer crossed with Iced Earth, like eccentric guys with long beards totally trapped within their obsessive metalness, puttering around some shack up in the hills.
Rating 8.5

Opeth - Still Life

I picked Hypocrisy's self-titled as my top album of '99, but I'd have to say Opeth's mesmerising fourth opus Still Life has seductively shuffled ol' Peter from the perch. I can't stop playing this thing. It's just the brainiest blend of unique progressive rock, mysterious folk and high-flying perfection extreme I've ever had the pleasure of hearing. With a new label, Mikael Akerfeldt is still laid-back and unimpressed, even calling himself lazy, citing how the band wrote most of this in the studio and rehearsed it fleetingly. Well, if it works, go for it. I mean, for most bands, kicking off with an eleven minute song is just begging for one click of the skip button, but Opeth's The Moor is an insane masterwork, elegant mellow stuff you actually want to hear, Voivodian timechange switchbacks kicking it down a devilish death metal pathway, back to the folk, themes ebbing, flowing, swaying, foreboding, something approximating the (very) original King Crimson crossed with Satyricon (there's both Wetton and Lake in Akerfeldt's vocal), or Voivod embracing the madness of Michel's beloved Van Der Graaf Generator. Tracks two and four Godhead's Lament and Moonlapse Vertigo are nearly as earth-shattering, doing much the same thing, Opeth breaking all the rules and delivering whatever they like as a style, just as long as it makes you very sad and then angry and finally despondent that you didn't write it first. Another amazing thing: the balance between clean vocals and death vocals is such that the death's are used sparingly for attitude and effect, and they actually deliver that, rather than fatigue. You want them there, because for one, there's a clean interplay right around the corner (and likely a cobwebbed acoustic guitar: Mikael used to work in an acoustic guitar store and is a bit of a gear geek), and two, it's placed on snakey progressive and very metallic structures that place this band at the fore of an extreme bunch that includes Arch Enemy, Katatonia, Dark Tranquillity, Amorphis and Hypocrisy, all my fave raves right now. Beautiful, panoramic stuff . . . I mean, there's even a full-on five minute acoustic number called Benighted that is extremely sorrowful, frightening and hooky enough that you can just enjoy it as a new form of quiet heavy metal, a slippery dovetail between the opening mindbender and the final four mindbents, one at seven minutes, two at nine, and one at ten, none a tired slog, each leaving you thirsting for more virtuosity, drama and pathos.
Rating 10

Hard Reviews Page 4