I am sitting in a bar with some friends. Nice, dark and cool it is in here, some chicks lounging not far away at a table. Fatty finger food and caloric drinks galore that will wreak havoc with my jelly-belly. But hey, the brain likes fat and sugar, so here we go.
Downright comfy, right?
If only there wasn’t just that annoying background music. Like a cold drizzle out in the boonies, always there, but never quite present. Soulless soundbites without effect, created in the cold embrace of robots and synthesizers with some dude tweaking some buttons. I guess to give these heartless electronics some groove, yet it never gets there.
Background music, this is the impression I got on Leaves’ Eyes newest offering Sign of the Dragonhead right off the bat. Too harsh a verdict at the beginning of a review, you think? It is somewhat of a back to the future moment. I picked up similar vibes with their old 2009 record Njord, but things continued to improve somewhat steadily ever since – until now.
At first sight, Sign of the Dragonhead delivers Symphonic Metal album with a distinct taste for Viking Metal glories of the past. Vividly painted in lyrics, print and moving pictures. Yet without the aggressive bite that an Amon Amarth delivers. So, you’ll find nothing new there after all. This is and was their credo, and a perfectly fine one to boot. But their tune seriously hitches a ride on the Nightwish bandwagon this time. And worse – so much worse – than on Leaves’ Eyes 2015 record King of Kings. With an added penchant towards Tarja Turunen (ex Nightwish – get my drift?) and Epica.
The riffs on the title track Sign of the Dragonhead already sounds like a clone of Nightwish-esque proportions. Pretty sturdy in approach, yet mass-produced for the mean crowds in execution. And I understand this fully, believe me. As a producer or music manager the only thing you want is getting loads of sales. So much so that you need to build a money bin that will reduce Scrooge McDuck to tears of frustration. But this rarely happens of course. Not many bands buzz about in their very own jumbo jet.
Yet here we are in the real world, in a saturated genre chock-a-block with ubiquitous clichés. Even the first rate deal makers in this class of metal have trouble to roll out meaningful material. And yes, it is hard. Because the Power Metal infused style some bands provide has been used and abused for so many years that we somehow heard it all before.
And the new (old) crew of Leaves’ Eyes are not helping. Alexander Krull‘s growls sound to me like some fingernails on a blackboard all over again. Just no good, and this now, after the quality of them growls just got a tremendous boost in King of Kings. Then they have fillers on this record like Raiders on the Wind that just drive me insane with their blatant blandness and overly simplistic song structure. Or Rulers of Wind and Waves that – whilst pretty good by itself – clearly sports an identity problem. Not sure why this track even dwells on this record at all.
Oh boy. I realize, I have been raging on for a while for all the obvious reasons.
Yet, Leaves’ Eyes produced a lot of quality stuff on this record too. For starters, Sign of the Dragonhead gets us a first real taste of classically trained Elina Siirala from EnkElination or – newly – Angel Nation. She took over from the unceremoniously ditched Liv Kristine, who now reappeared in some sort of double-barrel front chick role at Midnattsol, her sister’s Carmen Elise Espenaes’ outfit. Also of the terrible SAVN that kind of backfired on her.
And Siirala really drives this wagon out of bullshit lane into the sun by the sheer power of her voice. I absolutely admire her performance on Sign of the Dragonhead. She portrays a vocal presence that Liv Kristine with all her obvious talents clearly lacked. In fact she would probably be at home in more operatic outfits like the now defunct Arven as well as any Gothic and Symphonic Metal outfit I can think of.
Then the somewhat halting foray into Folk and Pagan Metal adds some pretty good spice to this album. Leaves’ Eyes really should have mixed more of this archaic blend into their stew. Aggressive war sounds and all included, not just a meek war horn here and there, sounding like it stepped right out of Summoning.
Sign of the Dragonhead contains a few jewels too. Like the ballad Fairer Than The Sun that comes complete with one of the rare solos. Or the pretty sturdy Across the Sea with its dazzling effects and gruff, yet tasty riffs. Or again Fires in the North with its badass beat, scratchy, meaty riffs and gang vocals. Add to that the pretty awesome musicianship on this record and you start wonder where all these bad vibes actually come from.
Methinks that the band and the album do not lack for talent, enthusiasm or drive. It more seems to be the urge to please the masses. This cookie-cutter approach to blend in with whatever else is on display, so that people will buy your shit and flock to the music halls. In other words, I am missing the hard edges, the raw and bloody. The unbridled muscular power that allows the crew to haul their boat on shore and storm the castle in front of them. To go with the theme their album art so vividly depicts.
In the end, Sign of the Dragonhead delivers everything a mainstream Symphonic Metal album with some added Viking spice ought to deliver. Dark riffs, choir-laden operatics, gruff growls and a superb female front singer in the person of Elina Siirala as the figurehead. Yet, somehow I miss the oomph, the fearless aggression. That pointed, rusted-metal attack that should put them ahead of the pack. Leaves’ Eyes had it in them to forge an icy, steely, uniquely tailored metal offering. Yet we got ourselves a Nightwish album. Or is it Epica? I know not.