Last month, I spoke about fandom once again and how it led me to appreciate folk metal for what it is rather than for what it could be. I tend to intellectualize things when I don’t understand them, which is why I can’t let myself enjoy music or video games sometimes. Looking for the bigger thing doesn’t always lead to answers and, sometimes, you just have to have fun.
Considering how there has been many events this past month that have occurred, I think I need to bring some comfort and cheese into this column just to get away from all the rage and despair we are seeing. This brings me to, of course, another unfamiliar genre of metal that I am only aware of because of two bands that I am familiar with, and then I jumped the gun. Of course, I am still wading my way through the genre, so forgive me.
Also, be prepared to hear me talk about vocals – I am fascinated by them.
It’s time we talk about power metal.
When I first discovered power metal, it was because of Xandria and Pandora’s algorithm for presenting music to me. I remember skipping another song to get to the next and then the drums came in and I was floored. My 14-year old brain was having such a great time listening to the music that I didn’t catch the name of either the band or song. However, a few hours later, the song came back up and it hit me, again, like a ton of bricks.
That song was “Rule the World” by Kamelot.
I remember being obsessed with that song, playing it constantly, trying to sound like Roy Khan because I wanted to emulate him. I wanted his voice – and he, in a sense, helped me learn how to sing. I may not be a soprano, but I like to think I can hold a tune. I used to sing it so often that my sister would comment that I made it sound pretty – which happened a lot when I sang a song to her, only for her to listen to it later and say, “Actually, I prefer your version.” Still, it didn’t stop me from learning and singing that song to absolute death, knowing that I would have to shelve it and not be able to listen to it for ages.
That song led me down a rabbit hole of just Kamelot – I went as far as Karma – becoming increasingly familiar with the music, the nuances, the references to literature, art, and just general topics that they wanted to talk about or just put out there. I love Kamelot with all of my being, but I also needed to expand my horizons. While I could happily sit through repeated listens of Poetry for the Poisoned and Haven, I needed to see what else power metal had to offer me, and I went off to the races.
Vocal Focus and Envy
First and foremost, I want to point out that power metal can be a bit cheesy. Because of the general focus towards fantasy – think Tolkien – a lot of the lyrics tend with those themes, although there are moments of clear emotional grasping. Sure, there are albums that focus on current events and on matters unrelated to fantasy, but, for the most part, we are looking at all of my childhood stories coming to life. Hell, I am not going to be surprised when someone comes out with the Dark Tower or Game of Thrones concept album of my dreams. The other thing about power metal is the intense, vocal focus that the bands seem to have. Not only are you looking at complex, instrumental passages that play on the voice singing the album, but you are also looking at trained or natural singers that have excellent control of their voice.
People tend to forget that, when you decide to become a professional singer, you need to be able to carry a tune. Whether you have natural talent or need to constantly work at it in order to be good, music is hard and learning to control your voice is harder. You need years of training, of learning about pitches and notes, of learning how to perfect your sound. You have to work at it all the time, or your voice becomes rusty. You lose the ability to do things with your voice if you don’t work at it. It works the same with whistling, although you are using a different part of your voice box to do it – if you don’t continue to practice, you can’t whistle songs back to other people as a party trick or memorize pieces of music in order to help your sister practice music back when you were both in orchestra.
(Whistling leads to mimicry, and mimicry leads to trying to emulate singers despite the lack of formal training.)
Imagine my surprise when I listened to the song “Herr Peder och hans syster” by Falconer via my rabbit hole into Kamelot years later. While the song was a nursery rhyme of sorts, the way Mathias Blad sings that song made me envious of him and his fucking voice. First of all, he has a very distinct, smooth baritone voice that stems from his background as a musical theatre actor. This means he has a dramatic flair that is both highly controlled and gives him the ability to be both emotional and majestic. He also has a lower vocal placement, which gives him a light and airy quality that lets him change notes easily and without breaking a sweat. Because a good portion of singers in this genre are tenors – think of Tommy Karevik and Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kursch – Mathias Blad’s voice makes him unique, carrying that flair into Falconer’s music (for example).
This gives me deep vocal envy, as after becoming tired of the over saturation of female operatic vocals in symphonic metal, hearing men sing well and in other ranges where there was no emphasis of growled vocals made me want to learn to mimic their voices. In a sense, these guys taught me more about vocal control than I have ever learned from actually watching singers and seeing singers practice songs for choir. I wanted to sing like these men – their tessituras and warm tones impressed me and I wanted to learn that for myself. Sometimes, being a vocal mimic is the only way I know I have a voice, even when I know I lack formal training.
Power metal also, ironically, led me to gain an appreciation for opera – the complexity of vocals paired with a plot that doesn’t make sense and music that has been written and performed for more time than I have been alive has been a great comparison when I want to talk about vocals. After all, opera singers tend to be at the top of their form, and for someone whose main interest is voice, they are the pinnacle of excellence. It’s also why I tend to be disappointed when a voice doesn’t hit the money notes during a particular, poignant musical passage in metal.
What can I say? I am a vocal snob with a tendency to mimic what I listen to so I can understand it. After all, that’s always the first thing I focus on when I listen to an album.
Power Metal Gateway Albums
While I could add Kamelot to this list, it will eventually turn into a comparison between Tommy Karevik and Roy Khan’s vocal ability, and I have spilled enough ink on that just rattling on about the differences between thematic concepts, the shift into darker stories, and vocal tonality and emotion. I could also rattle off about literature references (Faust! Camelot! Science Fiction!) and the usage of female vocals as nurture vs. nature, but that’s a topic for another day.
Blind Guardian – Beyond the Red Mirror (2015): Believe me when I say that I started with this album without knowing anything about this band. I had previously only heard one song before I dove into this album back in early 2016 – that would be “Twilight of the Gods” – and I was completely taken by how majestic Hansi’s voice was. If you wanted a guy who could create a choir by layering and texturing his voice, Hansi’s your man. In fact, I thought he was so good at bringing new things to the table, I thought he would be perfect as a collaborator for a hypothetical Apocalyptica song or album. In fact, I said this when I wrote about Apocalyptica back in 2016:
I think Hansi singing a full-blown operatic arrangement with Apocalyptica would be something new to explore. Granted, they would need more musicians, but I don’t see why not. (full article)
Speaking of Beyond the Red Mirror itself, it was recommended to me by two friends who are very into Blind Guardian’s music. I eventually did a liveblogging session of that album, and I apparently had a lot of thoughts on the orchestration and choral arrangements the album had to offer. I decided to show you a select few that I found most compelling:
On “The Ninth Wave”:
“The Ninth Wave” is a giant wall of sound that slowly assaults your senses until you are way into it and then it brings in strings, voice, and heavy guitars. This reminds me of bands like Ayreon and Avantasia, just on sound alone. However, Hansi’s voice is so damn powerful, anything else that tries to cover it or get in the way does not stand out. (context)
On “At the Edge of Time”:
There is a heavy orchestra section in “At the Edge of Time” and they use it with heavy effect, particularly with horns, brass, and percussion. In this particular song, I can tune out Hansi’s voice because of the heavy orchestra, but I am in love. The fact that it’s so symphonic in nature almost makes me forget that Blind Guardian is not a symphonic metal band. (context)
On my final thoughts on the album:
There are some great parts that I love, but what really caught me was just how emotionally intense this album was. One minute, you are captured by the wall of sound created by the orchestra, and then you get hit with the full force of Hansi’s voice. It’s a never-ending roller coaster of emotions you never thought you would get off of. The orchestra was just amazing–I am a sucker for amazing orchestras–and the fact they used TWO orchestras and THREE choirs makes this such a pleasurable listening experience. (context)
To put it simply, this album blew my mind apart and Hansi’s vocal range is insane. Because he takes the time to layer his own voice, what you get is a vocal wall of sound that permeates throughout your entire being. This is a guy with full mastery of his domain.
Nocturnal Rites – Phoenix (2017): As I previously mentioned, power metal is cheesy. It can also be majestic, with a deep ingrain of fun embedded into it. Sometimes, people forget that power metal, at its core, is supposed to be a fun experience. You are supposed to have fun with the music and the lyrics, when there are some topics that hit you right in the heartstrings. In the case of Nocturnal Rites, Phoenix is one of those albums that starts off with a vibrato and ends with me singing along on repeat, annoying everyone within a ten foot radius. After all, I am just singing snatches of music that remain inconsistent, but fill me with such joy that I forget that there are other people in the room.
That being said, Phoenix is a solid, consistent album. It’s enjoyable from start to finish, and it follows the general power tropes: the powerful voice, power chords, the majestic orchestrations that seem to bounce off each other, and form a wall of sound that forces the listener into having a great time. However, what I mostly enjoy about this album is its inherent ability to be able to shift into several topics and different moods for each song. From the pop-influenced “A Heart As Black As Coal” to the powerful riffs and backing instruments of “What’s Killing Me” to the ballad-like “A Song For You,” Nocturnal Rites has created a strong album that makes it worthwhile to anyone looking for a great place to start in this genre, especially if they aren’t keen on following any major lore.
For me, Phoenix represents an album that is basically rooted in power metal, although it allows itself to have other influences that makes it much more compelling. For example, there’s a slight pop influence that exudes in the first track – the aforementioned “A Heart As Black As Coal” – and an interesting symphonic influence in “The Ghost Inside Me” that reminds me a bit of Avantasia (goes to show what bands I have listened to first). I had originally listened to this at the beginning of the year, because it was randomly introduced to me, but I found the second listen to be the most enjoyable. Besides, given my limited knowledge, this was an interesting find. Even if it doesn’t follow the traditional power metal tropes and has more influences than a purist would like, this album is a great time.
Unleash the Archers – Apex (2017): This band – and, by extension, this album – is the epitome of fantastical concepts and full, vocal mastery, because HOLY SHIT HAVE YOU HEARD BRITTNEY HAYES? Her voice is one worthy of emulating, because her vocal technique and control is so damn excellent that you can literally blow out your ears by listening to it. It makes you want to dissect it to study how it truly works. Hearing her sing, with the melodic backing of the music, makes me feel like I can conquer anything and anyone. It’s fantastic.
Obviously, I came to this album way after the initial hype died, but you can’t deny that there is something about this just makes you return to it. I originally heard this album after a trip to another state, but I decided to give it my full attention once I returned home. It became even more poignant because, after I returned from out of state, I was single again. Because of that, both the music and the vocals allowed me to channel my anger, as if singing loudly actually leads to you to catharsis. When I first listened to Apex, I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I wasn’t familiar with this band and what they played. All I knew prior to this was that the band had a cool aesthetic – they are a cross between John Carter and Mad Max – and they played heavy metal with a power metal influence. Thus, when I first listened to this album, I was so floored by the music and the vocals that I was immediately interested in what the band was presenting. Granted, to this day, I still don’t know the full story Unleash the Archers have been creating since their inception; I just know that there are people looking for this entity known as the Matriarch, and she needs to kill her sons in order to continue being immortal. After all, there is a song on the album about her, and she sounds terrifying:
I’ve heard it said that she can melt you with her eyes
And out her fingers spits a burning liquid fire
Without a single word you’ll fall under her spell
And rip yourself apart with your bare hands while marching to her bell
What I also loved so much about Apex is how powerful it is. This, first and foremost, is an album that is supposed to be played loudly – you need to blast this in your car or play it when you are by yourself. The music feels like it has been injected into your blood; it fills you with adrenaline and makes you want to get up and dance. However, it also makes you want to fight something, which is a bad idea when you listen to this album on your daily commute. It also allowed me to stay grounded, because anger leads to hate, and hate leads to the Dark Side and wishing that people drowned in the Thames. Apex allowed me to take my anger and pain out in a healthy way by just singing my frustration out, and it helped me think about other things – like how it was for the best, because, apparently, having a goal scares people. From start from finish, Apex is a strong album, clearly laying down a narrative that is strong, compelling, and interesting.
Am I going to listen to more power metal now? Possibly. It might be something that I will revisit at some point – after getting through this massive list of albums that have been sitting on the back burner since I decided to seriously listen to music as both fan and critic.
Tune in next time as we enter the season of darkness, sadness, and looking out the window of your train in solemn contempt. Because, sometimes, the only way to channel the darkness of winter is by listening to sad things.
Hasta la proxima!