October 25, 2013

Steel Prophet: Omniscient ··· In-Depth Review of the Upcoming Album

(This is not the real artwork of the new album.
It's just something I put together for fun.)

So here it finally is.

After almost a decade, the American Power Metal heroes Steel Prophet are back. Their new album titled Omniscient will hit the shelves in 2014. Their last album Beware was released in 2004, the last album with their regular vocalist Rick Mythiasin, Unseen, even in 2002 — so when waiting impatiently for  such a long time, expectations tend to grow astronomically. And while this mostly results in at least a slight disappointment, positive surprises do happen every once in a while nonetheless. I'm delighted to announce that Steel Prophet's new album marks one of those rare occasions.

For the first time since 1999's Dark Hallucinations album, the band is in "storytelling mode" again. Omniscient is a concept album of cosmic proportions – a journey through time and space and along Earth's history, with a strong focus on humanity and life itself. In the booklet, you'll get the whole story as told by the protagonist. The lyrics of the songs are part of that story, each song emphasizing on a particular moment in the story. When I planned this in-depth review, I intended to tell you about the whole story and reveal what the lyrics are about. However, I quickly decided not to do that. I won't spoil any story content here as you should really experience it yourselves. Don't worry, there's still lots to talk about and reveal. So let's dive deep into the new material. I promise you it will be one hell of a ride.

Omniscient starts with a short intro of about half a minute which immediately reminds the listener of the good old days when Steel Prophet songs like Reign of Christ, Devoid of Logic or To Grasp Eternity set the mood with that short moment of anticipation before the full power was unleashed. So brace yourselves for Trickery of the Scourge, the opener of the album. Now, some of you might have heard an early version of this song which was uploaded to Steel Prophet's old MySpace site back on May 4th, 2008. However, this new album version is more refined and has plenty of new ideas. In its vein, it's quite comparable to the Messiah or Book of the Dead style, while being reminiscent of the first album The Goddess Principle in the chorus' vocal harmonies. During the second half of the song, you'll hear a break that's a direct homage to the song Souls Without Honor of said first album. So there you have it; the perfect mixture of Steel Prophet's styles over the years. Everything's fresh, exciting and, most of all, rich in variety. Rick's very melodic vocals sound as if no time had passed since 2001 – Steel Prophet fans will feel right at home. This might be the band's very best opener of any album ever.

Next up is When I Remake the World which features a groovy shredding guitar riff. Rick's vocals are somewhat distorted which adds a mystical aspect to the atmosphere. Even though the riff mainly stays the same, the drumming's really varied and there are some exciting changes of rhythm. The memorable melodic chorus will be stuck in your head for a long time after listening to the album. To every metal fan's delight, the first guitar solo in this song is one complex celebration that might even be compared to Blind Guardian's best moments. Rick's powerful trademark vocals sound a bit different in style, compared to the first song, and there's plenty of variety to them. Some almost narrative singing here, some emotional vocal harmonies there, some soaring high notes plus a triumphant laughter to top it all off before the second guitar solo will leave the listeners with shivers of joy down their spines.

Steel Prophet fans never cease to rave about one of the key trademarks of the band: the galloping riffs featuring rhythm guitar and drums – as heard in songs like 1997's Trapped in the Trip and Hate² or 2000's The Ides of March. No Steel Prophet album would be complete without them and so the next song 9/11 opens with exactly those "gallop riffs". Rick starts off in a somewhat deliberately semi-monotonous vein and medium speed, then progresses more and more angrily and agressively (think Scarred For Life) – and just when it seems he has reached his boiling point, the chorus kicks in in a surprisingly slow and haunting way. If one was to compare the chorus to something that already exists in metal, the haunting chants of the band Solitude Aeturnus might be an appropriate comparison. The second half of the song continues with the previous aggression while Rick adds a lot more variety. High-pitched screams go hand in hand with mean grunts — it's a sheer pleasure and even reminds a bit of the band's classic The Revenant. This time, it's not the chorus which kicks in after that. Instead, we get a glorious long guitar solo playing the refrain's melody and bringing back an atmosphere that's reminiscent of the album Dark Hallucinations. It's joined by the rhythm guitar in perfect collaboration. One last time, Rick summarizes the whole thing and the song slowly fades out with the guitar's familiar vibe.

No time to take a breather yet, people, as Chariots of the Gods picks up right where 9/11 left off. The riffing and drumming seems even heavier and the lead guitar accompanies the rhythm section perfectly. This is one of many tracks of the album in which you can easily notice the complex layering of instrumentation – and while at first this might seem a bit much, you'll discover new details with every new spin of the album. Once more, Rick vociferates – but with more of a lamentation than before. And once again, just before you think he couldn't escalate anymore, just before the heavy shredding is about to become overbearing, something surprising kicks in about halfway through the song: a mid-tempo chorus with relaxing drumming, embellished with some bell rattle. It relieves all the tension, all the anger, all the emotions and feels like slowly and fully breathing in and out after a lot of pressure – done masterfully through the music! What follows is a glorious high-tuned guitar solo playing to the aforementioned relaxing percussion. The song ends by going full throttle once more. Again: even though this song might seem a bit much at first, it quickly becomes an absolute favourite.

As soon as the first notes of the next song start, Steel Prophet fans will have big smiles on their faces. Tree of Knowledge is a perfect candidate for a hit single. It features a typical Iron Maiden-ish riff that's reminiscent of many of the Steel Prophet songs fans have considered hits over the years – especially Escaped from Book of the Dead, Messiah from the album of the same title and the Purgatory section of Ides of March/Purgatory from the album Into the Void. However, this song easily demonstrates how far the band has evolved as the song can't be called predictable at any moment. Just when you think you've got the riff figured out, something special appears – be it Rick's versatile singing, several changes of rhythm or a surprising break in the percussion section. The song stays fresh and exciting at all times while delivering that typical vibe Steel Prophet fans have loved from the beginning. The chorus is positive and uplifting while the third fourth of the song brings another slow section with Rick's mystical chants. This is love at first listen.

And now we reach the centerpiece of Omniscient. 666 is Everywhere (The Heavy Metal Blues) starts off with an atmospheric 1½-minute intro that's instantly recognizable as "typically Steel Prophet", combining the sound of early albums with that of the slower moments of Dark Hallucinations or the instrumental pieces of Book of the Dead – and then blasting off into a metal anthem like no other! The main riff seems to scream "bang your head! Heavy Metal is back"! This is where Rick's vocals absolutely shine as the main attraction, beautifully accompanying the riff with a blues-like diversity and everything he's got in his repertoire. The long virtuosic solo in the middle of the song plays to a drum sequence that makes you want to jump up and down in a huge crowd of metal fans. I bet this will work perfectly live – as will the chorus! Already at first listen, you'll picture hundreds of metal fans shouting "666! 666! 666! 666!". And then the song brings back something that hasn't been featured in a Steel Prophet song for many many years: a very calm melodic passage with spoken words like in Reign of Christ from the first album or the opening section of Ghosts Once Past from Messiah. This is followed by one last, and very powerful, shouting of the chorus, before...

... we're carried right into the beautiful remake of the fun outro Oleander from Book of the Dead. This new version called Oleander Deux is carried by a cool guitar rhythm and features Rick having fun singing adlibs to the song. An absolute treat for any fan who enjoyed their Book of the Dead album – it brings back memories while celebrating the return of Steel Prophet at the same time. After a bit over a minute, Rick's very mellow and beautiful vocals lead us to Aliens, Spaceships and Richard M. Nixon (X Files fans, listen up, this is the stuff of your dreams). The song is based on another one of those perfect "gallop riffs" and the lead guitar adds a melodic ground layer to them, which reminds a bit of the mystical atmosphere of the band's great song Mysteries of Iniquity. If you haven't already celebrated that Steel Prophet are finally back, this is where you'll definitely go crazy. During the verses, Rick sings in a very narrative style and continues very rhythmically while the drumming progresses. The chorus follows with deep and haunting vocals and in a mystical slowness. Altogether, the song is so catchy that you'll keep coming back to it all the time. Another instant favourite from the new album and yet another top candidate for a single release.

Time to relax for a bit – as Through Time and Space opens with a semi-ballad-type intro which is very reminiscent of the beginning of New Life from Dark Hallucinations. Long-time Steel Prophet fans know all about the fact that the band dropped its most complex song structures over the years in favor of a more streamlined style that's more suited for live audiences. This song however shows that they still got their talent for complex compositions big time! The complete structure is absolutely brilliant and perfectly accompanied by Rick's extremely passionate and ever-changing vocals: at first, there's the verse marching slowly and placidly, then a short high-speed section, and thirdly, a bridge with stomping mid-tempo drumming embellished by the high-tuned guitar playing in short intervals – probably my most favourite moment of the whole album for now. The following chorus is another really melodic chant accompanied by the blasting double bass. As yet another surprise, the song ends in a very quiet tone, embellished by gentle piano strokes. The very familiar exclamation "He's dead, Jim." marks the transition to the next song.

Funeral for Art goes back to the basic and streamlined melodic metal style while still changing between stomping mid-tempo riffing and uptempo rhythms. The song is interspersed with some narrative pieces, sometimes angry, sometimes sad, and surprising breaks. The chorus is another catchy singalong tune you won't want to miss ever again.

The Call of Katahdin is a short and quiet instrumental intermission reminding a bit of Ruby Dreams (Faith and Hope). It serves as a nice break before the last regular song on the album is unleashed. The following Transformation Staircase is a dark, dramatic finale with shredding guitars, Rick's angry vocals, sometimes close to grunting, sometimes blustering into high-pitched screams. The chorus is another one of those Solitude Aeturnus-style haunting chants, accompanied by a thundering double bass. The song's final guitar solo brings back the awesome Dark Hallucinations vibe (think Betrayal or Look What You've Done this time).

This concludes the regular tracks of Omniscient.

The album also features two bonus tracks, the first of which being a cover version of Queen's all-time classic Bohemian Rhapsody. Steel Prophet do have a great reputation for making awesome cover versions – just remember Fates Warning's The Apparition, Helloween's Ride the Sky or Iron Maiden's Purgatory – and if you have experienced Steel Prophet celebrating Bohemian Rhapsody on the Keep It True XVI festival in early 2013, you'll know exactly what you're going to get: an epic metal variant with some hilarious tongue-in-cheek moments. It's fun and satisfying as hell. The second bonus track is called George Orwell (is Rolling in his Grave) and was written by vocalist Rick Mythiasin. It's something quite different to the rest of the album with the vocals having a somewhat high-speed narration style. All in all it's a perfect exclamation point to the whole album.

And then... the story's over.
You're probably left with an open mouth and a sore neck from all the headbanging.

What a bomb!

Everybody knows that the term "masterpiece" is overused as hell and still regularly and carelessly spouted out by record companies as well as reviewers all the time. With Steel Prophet's new album Omniscient the term truly fits for once. Up until now, songs like Through Time and Space and Funeral for Art, bursting with variety and surprises, could only be found on the early Steel Prophet releases. It's simply amazing how the band managed to resurrect this style and put it in context with their later works, combining all the styles, adding new ideas and thus transforming the whole thing into something new and exciting. Though it might seem a bit much after listening to the whole album for the first time, as it's layer upon layer of carefully intertwined instrumental compositions, the combination of variety and the groovy heaviness will have you hooked in no time.

To sum it all up: Steel Prophet are finally back. And they're back with the most versatile, atmospheric, catchy and heavy creation in their career. And this is not an exaggeration or some honeymouthed fanboyism, it's a fact. Omniscient is a must-have for fans of all eras of Steel Prophet, as well as metal fans in general.

It will be released in early 2014. Additionally, all the previous albums will be re-released as vinyl editions. Good times to be a Steel Prophet fan, I tell you. :)

October 22, 2013

Why "The Theory of Everything" Is Everything To Me.

To some people the new Ayreon album is "just" an awesome upcoming album featuring some very special musicians. To others it's the one release that's more important than anything – along the lines of "no matter what happens in life - as long as I'll have the new Ayreon album in my hands, all is good". The latter describes my passion for the album quite well – though not in its entirety. So let me explain.

To my shame, I must admit that I discovered Ayreon in 2005, not earlier. But when I did, it completely blew me away. "The Human Equation" was my first contact with the realm of Arjen Anthony Lucassen's perfection that is the prog metal opera Ayreon. It had it all. The perfect blend of prog, rock, folk and metal in a musical-opera that exceeded my wildest dreams. The perfect vocalists for all the different roles. But most of all: one of the most gripping and touching storylines I'd ever experienced in music.

Later on, of course, I got all of Arjen's music. I collected each Ayreon release in the best possible versions, got plenty of autographs on them, too, got Ambeon, Star One, Guilt Machine (on which you can even hear my voice at the beginning!), Strange Hobby and much more. I let my dreams and fantasies carry me away while listening to the amazing "Dream Sequencer", travelled through time, rode on the waves of time and got into the official Ayreon forum where many other fans (to be called friends later on) intertwined all the Ayreon releases into one coherent storyline. And when "01011001" came out (must have been THE single most awesome release party in the history of the universe!), this storyline was even spelled out – and a lot like we Ayreonauts on the official forum thought it would be.

"Zero One" is an amazing album, as are all the previous albums, too.
But "The Theory of Everything" will be different. It will be something absolutely special.


Well... what gripped me most, emotionally, was the amazingly exciting story of "The Human Equation". Characters you followed through a story, through an adventure. An adventure of love, hate, betrayal, childhood memories, relationships, desires, hopes and wishes. "The Final Experiment", "Into the Electric Castle" and "The Universal Migrator" did, too. You were in the shoes of the progagonists and you felt for them. You lived their ups and downs.

You laughed when "Me" proposed to his wife and she knelt down too for she thought he'd lost his keys. You cried when the Egyptian closed her eyes for all eternity in the Valley of the Queens. You suffered when you stood in the sands of Mars and were truly alone – the last human in existence and you couldn't even get home. You wept when the "Foreverians" reminisced about their life beneath the waves. You triumphed when you opened the gate to your destiny after traversing the mighty Electric Castle. You travelled on the Migrator trail, you contemplated life as the first man on Earth and you were struck with awe when the outcome of the Final Experiment was placed in your hands.

You WERE those persons.

Don't get me wrong, I regularly travel to the Planet Y with "Zero One" and it's one of my favourite albums. It is emotionally captivating, too (of course it is – it's by Arjen, he kinda does that every time!). It's just that it lacked a bit of that specific element of following persons through an adventure.

Now "The Theory of Everything" will have that, again. It will be the first Ayreon since "The Human Equation" — read: the first Ayreon after nine years — to take you away on a journey you won't ever forget. The next step across the borders of the Ayreon Universe.

So welcome aboard, Ayreonauts. Take a seat and dim the light.
Lie down in the energy tank and place the electrodes on your temples.
Empty your mind.
And hold on tight.

And remember.

Thank you, Arjen.