In part 6 of my ‘unknown & underrated’ series, looking at bands & albums that I feel need a lot more exposure. In this post, I look at a melodic death metal band, a black metal/avant-garde metal band and a neo-prog rock band. I hope there’s something here that you find to enjoy!
Arcturus – La Masquerade Infernale
Released in 1996, ‘La Masquerade Infernale’ was a relatively early discovery in my journey into black metal. I was drawn to the album via an advert in an edition of Metal Hammer. Within the advert was a quote that described this record as ‘idiosyncratically beautiful’. I felt compelled to check it out and that Christmas, I received it as a gift from my Aunt and Uncle.
At first, I did not know what to make of ‘La Masquerade Infernale’ as although it took much from the black metal genre, it was a lot different from everything I had heard before. As well as the ubiquitous blast beats, dark imagery and aggressive guitar work, there was so much more.
The album features a number of guest appearances from a myriad of musicians, from ex-Dimmu Borgir vocalist Simen ‘ICS Vortex’ Haestnes (now a full member) to flautist Erik Olivier Lancelot, with a string quartet employed for good measure. As a result, the whole album, has a massive symphonic and theatrical bent with lashings of what I can only describe as circus horror overtones, lending it a massively overt avant-garde feel.
‘Ad Astra’ is a stunning classical track that builds to a heavy metal crescendo, whilst ‘The Chaos Path’ benefits from Vortex’s unique vocals throughout. Coupled with some swirling and mesmerising heavy guitars and slightly chaotic drumming, it has a harsh yet eclectic feel. And yet, as eclectic and downright weird as some of the music can get, it all makes perfect sense and maintains a certain level of accessibility if you give it the time and attention that it needs. The undeniable stand-out moment, aside from the aforementioned ‘Ad Astra’ has to be the massive, epic-sounding ‘Alone’ which crams everything that’s fantastic about Arcturus into a breathless four-and-a-half minutes.
‘La Masquerade Infernale’ is a truly unique album and one that sounds as fresh and interesting today as it did sixteen years ago on its release. It will appeal to fans of both extreme metal and those who prefer something a little more quirky.
Pendragon – The Masquerade Overture
It was around the time of my brother’s passing that I began to discover a new genre to get my teeth stuck into. That genre is commonly referred to as ‘Neo-Prog’. I wasn’t in a very good place and I wasn’t sure that I could cope with the intensity and aggression associated with much of my metal collection. I wanted and needed something a little more relaxed, more chilled out but still within the world of rock. In the past I had dabbled with the likes of Marillion and so I began to delve a little deeper into the genre of neo-prog.
One of the very best finds within this genre came in the form of Pendragon and, in particular, their album, ‘The Masquerade Overture’. This is a fabulous album from start to finish.
The influences of this UK neo-prog band, led by the highly talented Nick Barrett are clear and include the aforementioned Marillion as well as Genesis, IQ and a whole host of others. The result is a very keyboard-heavy symphonic rock sound, with layers and layers of synths at the heart of the music, courtesy of the irrepressible Clive Nolan. Another important aspect of the Pendragon approach is that they manage to create some utterly beguiling melodies with catchy memorable choruses that I enjoy returning to again and again. ‘Paintbox’, for example, is a wonderful track, as is ‘As Good As Gold’.
However, the very best thing about this album is the guitar work. Every musician within the band is very adept and talented at what they do but it is the guitar that draws my attention and stands as my undoubted focal point. Principally, it’s the solos that are most mesmerising and beautiful. The final three or four minutes of the superlative ‘Master Of Illusion’ display some of the most evocative and poignant lead guitar playing that this genre and rock music in general has ever produced, it is that good.
Blessed with a crystal-clear production, ‘The Masquerade Overture’ is undoubtedly one of the greatest albums that the neo-prog genre, it’s a sensational masterpiece.
Scar Symmetry – Symmetric In Design
The story of how I first got into this band has been briefly mentioned in a previous blog post on the subject of the glory of independent record shops.
Suffice to say though, that from the opening guitar lick that I heard over that muffled and tinny phone line courtesy of my tame record store owner, I knew that this was an album that I had to have in my collection. It was a decision that I have never regretted and ‘Symmetric In Design’ has subsequently become a firm favourite with me.
The style, or genre if we’re looking to try to pigeonhole the Swedes to some extent, would initially and most accurately be melodic death metal. The guitar tone is extremely heavy and the rhythm section very powerful. I would also be lying if I said that there wasn’t a passing resemblance to the output of their compatriots, Soilwork.
The main reason for this is the vocal approach of Christian Älvestam. In a similar vein to Bjorn ‘Speed’ Strid, Christian is equally adept at switching between gruff grunts and growls and a more melodic clean voice. Naturally, this allows the choruses to become even more accessible and juxtapose nicely with the more aggressive verses. Personally, I think that the growls are more extreme that those of Speed, although when push comes to shove, this doesn’t really matter as they’re both very adept at what they do. Älvestam has since parted ways with Scar Symmetry but fear not, because in his place is the equally superb dual vocal attack of Roberth Karlsson and Lars Palmqvist
Scar Symmetry use an abundance of keyboards in their songs too and, whilst the vast bulk of the compositions have a strong hook or melody to lend it the immediacy, the keyboards float in and out of the aggressive or groovy riffs to add a layer of atmosphere and to smooth out some of the extremity. The synths also help to give the impression that Scar Symmetry are slightly more proggy than their closest melodic death metal peers. To a certain extent, I think that this is achieved and whilst we’re not talking Dream Theater or anything, some of the riffs do have a progressive feel to them. Just check out the track ‘2012 – The Demise of the 5th Sun’ for a decent example of what I’m talking about.
The bottom line with Scar Symmetry is that they produce some absolutely belting melodic death metal which is both aggressive and catchy as hell.