In my third installment of uncovering underrated bands/albums I take a look at a power metal band, a black metal band that is so much more than just black metal and a progressive rock band that begs to be heard by a much wider audience.
Now, on with the discoveries!
Masterplan – Masterplan
In the early 2000’s I really got into power metal, largely due to the upbeat, rousing and melodic content in the main. In many ways, much of the power metal that I listened to could have been termed as ‘ear candy’, an instant shot of melodic metal syrup to get me smiling. I loved the bigger names within the genre, such as Helloween, Gamma Ray and Primal Fear. However, this is arguably my favourite power metal album of them all and I’m firmly of the opinion that it has been overlooked over the years in favour of many of the bigger names.
I discovered Masterplan whilst I was on holiday in Greece. The island of Corfu is perhaps an unlikely place to make such an important metal discovery but this is what happened. Greece as a whole is metal mad and even the capital of a small Greek island is not immune. So it was that I stumbled upon a record shop in Corfu Town and, upon an eager recommendation, took the plunge.
There are many great things about this album. Firstly, it benefits from a really great production and, as a result, sounds properly heavy. The drums in particular are thunderous. The melodies in the choruses are hook-laden and the riffs are interesting and powerful. Featuring the talents of ex-Helloween members Roland Grapow and Uli Kusch, the quality begins to seem less surprising. But even so, this is a killer record and arguably blows much of Helloween’s subsequent work out of the water.
However, the best thing about this record is arguably the vocals. Ever heard of Jorn Lande? If not, you’re in for a treat because this guy has some pipes. Best known as a solo hard rock singer, he has been something of a hired gun for bands over the years and here, he truly shines. Venomous, melodic, harmonious and aggressive, it’s a winning package, elevating this album from good to really great.
In a genre that can be accused of being to light and fluffy, here is an album that is both aggressive and accessible, with songs that stand the test of time beautifully. I still derive a great deal of pleasure singing along to the likes of ‘Kind Hearted Light’ at ridiculous volume, primarily in the car after a tough day at work.
A few might argue that their later album, ‘Aeronautics’ is even better. However, for me, perhaps because it was my introduction to the band, this self-titled debut is their best effort and remains a personal favourite.
Out of the ashes of the German progressive metal band Sieges Even, comes Subsignal. Originally planned as a side project, they became a fully-fledged act once Sieges Even ceased to be. Sieges Even offered a more progressive rock/metal approach than Subsignal. In fact, it was a song on the very final Sieges Even album, ‘Paramount’ that laid the blueprint for the Subsignal sound. ‘Eyes Wide Open’, originally known by another name, was a much more instant and slightly simpler track in many ways to what went before.
Subsignal have released two albums in their relatively short career to date and both are equally as brilliant as each other. Describing themselves as emotional and highly melodic progressive rock, the German quintet are happy to veer into more metal territory on the one hand, but also into AOR on the other when the mood requires.
There is much to love about Subsignal’s approach. Firstly, there are the understated but very maturely constructed compositions. All at once, you feel engaged and challenged in equal amounts, which is a tough thing to master. The melodies are immediate in most cases, although these are far from reserved for the choruses; even the verses are memorable and beautifully put together. Acoustic guitars and a reserved use of keyboards create subtle atmosphere to an already impressive package.
For me though, none of this would have the same impact without the vocal talents of Arno Menses. I love his approach and his tone – full of emotion but so melodically intuitive, he enhances the songs massively, bringing a tear to me eye on more than one occasion when the pace is slowed – check out the beautiful ‘Embers Part 1 – Your Secret Is Safe With Me’ to see exactly what I mean. I was lucky enough to see the band at Progpower Europe in 2011 and the band are just as good live as on disc, I kid you not.
Check out tracks like ‘The Size Of Light On Earth’ or ‘The Sea’ and you’ll be totally hooked, trust me. This is one of those rare bands that manages to both entertain on a superficial level and challenge the listener both technically and emotionally. Subsignal are a class act, deserving of so much more love and attention. It’s my duty to try to spread the word!
Agalloch are a band that enjoy a level of cult status in the metal underground but are far from well-known across the metal community. The reasons why elude me, as this American band are absolutely fantastic and should definitely enjoy much more success than they do currently.
At a time when metal bands are consistently trying to push the boundaries and come up with new and exciting sounds, you’d think Agalloch would find a lot of favour with listeners. Post black metal, post rock, post progressive black doom sludge, you name it, it seems to exist these days.
And in the case of Agalloch, they themselves are relatively unique. With a base firmly rooted in black metal, their sound then tends to extend in all sorts of different directions. And, somewhat unusually, the musical approach of their full-length albums differs greatly to their shorter EPs.
Taking their longer albums first, the black metal is not of the more usual satanic or occult type. Instead, there’s a strong ‘earthy’, almost Pagan vibe and approach to the songs and the accompanying lyrics. This is borne out from some of the song titles, such as ‘Ashes Against the Grain’ or ‘Not Unlike The Waves’. The metal is aggressive, extreme and occasionally rather crude-sounding as you’d expect from a black metal band, with fast tempos, staccato riffing and screamed vocals in the main.
That said though, what I love so much about Agalloch is that they’re not afraid to use acoustic guitars and play around with emotive atmospherics and melodies to mix things up. As a result, the compositions tend to be long, epic and evocative affairs that conjure up beautifully rugged images of the bleak open wilderness from their North West Pacific Coast home. I listen to albums like ‘The Mantle’ and I’m transported thousands of miles away, although I strangely feel warm and comforted in spite of the musical direction. I know, it sounds odd, but sometimes it is really hard to put feelings into some kind of coherent and eloquent prose.
In contrast, their EPs tend to be much more experimental in nature, encompassing ambient and even folk music amongst a myriad of other ideas. Their ‘White EP’ for example features acoustic and ambient tracks that really hit a nerve with me, each and every time I listen. Agalloch even incorporate spoken word passages from the film ‘The Wicker Man’ into the music to great effect. And yet, despite all this, the music sounds typically Agalloch and beautifully crafted as a result.
You can hopefully tell how much I love this band and I hope that if you give Agalloch a try, you’ll really enjoy them too.