|Musical Style: Symphonic Metal||Produced By: Antti Niskala|
|Record Label: Data Universum Oy||Country Of Origin: Finland|
|Year Released: 2010||Artist Website: HB|
|Tracks: 10||Rating: 75%|
|Running Time: 42:17|
Releasing a symphonic metal album in a scene literally awash with symphonic metal bands presents its own unique challenges. Yes, the demand is there but so is the competition, and it takes a lot to stand out from the crowd. When further factoring in the expectations of the metal community, which at times can be unrealistic, the bar has been set really high. How high? Well, when Nightwish, Within Temptation and Epica are your contemporaries, it is hard not to invite an immediate comparison- fair or otherwise.
And this leads us to Finland’s HB, one of what has been a long line of symphonic metal bands to originate from Europe. How does the group measure up? Quite well in that HB more than holds its own in solidifying its status as veterans in the scene, having released its debut Uskon Puolesta in 2004 and sophomore effort Enne two years later. Two more albums followed in 2008, Frozen Inside (the English version of Enne) and Piikki Lihassa, before HB returned the latter half of 2010 with its fifth full length release, The Jesus Metal Explosion (the English version of Piikki Lihassa).
The Jesus Metal Explosion, despite the platitudes of the title, finds HB staying true to its past efforts by complementing metal edged guitars with operatic female vocals, grandiose keyboards, orchestral arrangements and classical instrumentation. The album is based upon a foundation of symphonic metal pieces - “Loaded”, ”Nightmare” and “Joy Upon The Lord” – but also encompasses the progressiveness of “King’s Design” and darker mid-paced sounds characteristic to “Holy Bible”. You will also encounter a couple of high energy melodic metal tracks, “The Jesus Metal Explosion” and “It Is Time II”, along with three ballads, “Hands Of Grace”, “Abandoned” and “The Lord Of Lords”.
As you can see, HB is not afraid to stray outside the confines of the symphonic metal genre and present with a certain amount of variety in the process. Hence, it is unfair to “pigeonhole” the group as symphonic metal when there is so much more going on here. As a result, fans of other forms of metal - ranging from melodic to the progressive (and all things in between) - should easily be able to embrace what HB has to offer.
At this point the following question begs to be answered: How does The Jesus Metal Explosion compare to the original? Well, when you can understand the lyrics, the songs take on more of a personality of their own or, in other words, you end up seeing things in a different light. Specifically, there are some changes to report- and they are not all good. First is the elimination of the baritone male vocals of Antti Niskala - he took a co-lead vocal role on the albums title track and “Holy Bible” (initially entitled “Mina Olen” and “Sana”, respectively) - which helped give the Finnish version a darker and more somber feel. Second, “Loaded” is missing its keyboard solo opening while “King’s Design” has lost a minute and a half of its length and “The Lord Of Lords” its acoustic lacing.
Yes, I understand that some of these changes are subtle and not major difference makers; it is difficult to tell the two versions apart and took several close listens to differentiate between them. That being said, I like the original, with its co-lead vocal approach and variety in instrumentation, slightly better. As a result, I lowered the grade of The Jesus Metal Explosion down to 75% from the 80% I gave Piikki Lihassa.
The album, otherwise, stays true to Piikki Lihassa, with the exception, of course, that Johanna Aaltonen’s vocals are now in English. Aaltonen is one of those special vocalists that the more I listen to the higher I regard. The album finds her in prime form, delivering a performance that if anything expands upon that on Piikki Lihassa. You cannot but help but appreciate the abundant range to her voice on “Loaded” and “King’s Design” while “Abandoned” finds her singing in full emotion.
The albums liner notes list the following musicians: Bob & Sofia (guitars), Antti (keyboards), Tuomas (bass) and Samuel (drums). Now, it is my understanding that this represents the current HB roster and not necessarily the musicians that performed on the album. The Piikki Lihassa line up actually consisted of Janna Karhunen and drummer Markus Malin with the holdovers being Antti Niskala (keyboards) and Tuomas Maki-Kerttula (bass).
Niskala is by far the most impressive performer here with his deft keyboard work, always highlighting and layering - whether it be piano or elements of the orchestral and classical - to add the right “touch” to each track. Karhunen must also be credited for his guitar work. The albums impressive production allows his rhythm guitar to stand out crisp and firm, but it is his soloing that impresses, such as on “Nightmare” (fiery feel to his playing) and “King’s Design” (neo-classical stretch).
The lone constructive comment is that the album is a bit ballad heavy. Not that this is bad, but when a ten song album includes three ballads it can get a bit redundant, particularly when the three have a “sameness” feel to them- and such is the case here (they all head in a keyboard and piano driven orchestral direction). If HB had delivered two ballads instead - with one approaching hard rock territory and the other classical - the album might have flowed with better continuity.
Track By Track
The albums title track finds HB at its high energy best. Three and a half minutes of spirited metal, the song delivers a tough as nails guitar riff, particularly for its brazen chorus, but can also head in a smoother direction, as can be found in the pristine touches Aaltonen adds to its more even verses.
“Loaded” brings a grand and regal feel, reflected in the luxurious flavorings to its choir-like chorus and refined merging of sturdy rhythm guitar and classical keyboards. Piano and orchestration carries its brief but stately instrumental section. Lyric snippet:
Do we always need to be so loaded
To turn to the God who’s love
Is our hope in our Saviour
Can we see that our ways lead away from
The wisdom of fearing God
And a faith without deeds makes
“It Is Time II” highlights elements of the symphonic and swarthy: Symphonic in terms of its light and airy chorus accented by luminous keyboards but swarthy as a result of its operative elements and occasional passages heading in a sublime direction.
“Hands Of Grace”, the albums first ballad, is richly done with its emphasis on piano and classical keyboards. Very fine melody but could have used an emotional guitar solo to highlight the moving scene. I miss the baritone male vocals from the original. Lyric snippet:
If you think being someone different
Could make you feel somehow more complete
Be more loved, you’re so wrong
Keep walking on hand in His hand
People have trampled down as worthless
All that God once created perfectly
People are so evil
But we can be restored in His grace
Things return to symphonic metal territory with “Nightmare”. Opening to a short stretch of bouncing keyboards, the song gradually builds impetus to some heavy duty backing vocals only to abruptly pickup pace for a racing chorus backed by pummeling drums. Albums best stretch of brazen lead guitar.
“Holy Bible” gets a complete facelift here. On the original it was a Gothic influenced piece featuring somber male vocals; but with Aaltonen leading the way, the song now brings a lighter feel while still maintaining its rumbling metal based focus. Things do get a bit cheesy over the final minute as momentum picks up for an almost polka-like rhythm. Lyric snippet:
Here is a Pharisee and angry man from Tarsus
And later on it is know that he’s called Apostle Paul
He suffered through so many trials
And his letters tell how we should live worthwhile lives
There is in store for us an Old Testament
The creation, blood-lines, rulers, poems & prophets
All those children of man
Walking with the God of Word
Reading through these books
You will learn to trust the Lord
The second ballad, “Abandoned”, features a grand piano its length with occasional orchestration. Similar to “Hands Of Grace”, a nice effort but would have benefits from a bit of guitar. As previously referenced, there is “sameness feel” to the ballads here.
“King’s Design” brings a symphonic progressive based sound. The song stands out with its technical flair, drifting between quieter passages upheld by palatial keyboards and others in which a staunch rhythm guitar makes its presence felt- all the while we are treated to operatic backing vocals and neo-classical lead guitar. This one might lose a minute and a half in comparison to the original but still a delightful work. Lyric snippet:
If I told you that you are unique in me
I designed your very being
You’re the only one who’s you
I made you for a reason
Oh, Lord look at me
That you love me doesn’t matter when
No one even sees that I am here
Trust me, I am working all things out just for your good
“Joy Upon The Lord” starts to an extended instrumental opening featuring an eerie keyboard solo. The song proceeds to decelerate quietly for its first verse, gradually building initiative until breaking out for a rollicking chorus highlighted by piano. The overall feel left is victorious and uplifting.
The album closes to its final ballad, “The Lord Of Lords”. This is my least favorite of the three in that the orchestral and classical elements come across a bit overdone. The song also loses the acoustic guitar found on the original. Lyric snippet:
He is the Lord of Lords
Yet He calls
Each one of jus by name
He made us for heaven
To be loved as sons and daughters
It’s all that truly matters
He wants to fill our hearts again
And give eternal life
What we have in The Jesus Metal Explosion is another solid effort from HB. Yes, I like the Finnish version better, but the English release still has a lot going for it. My thoughts are to get both so that you can see things from both sides of the fence.
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing (with Finnish equivalent in parenthesis): “The Jesus Metal Explosion” (“Mina Olen” ) (3:35), “Loaded” (“Piikki Lihassa”) (3:22), “It Is Time II” (“Hankl Elama” ) (3:28), “Hands Of Grace” (“Han Pitaa Kadestas Kiinni” ) (4:22), “Nightmare” (“Turvapaikka”) (4:00), “Holy Bible” (“Sana”) (5:09), “Abandoned” (”Hylkasitko Minut?”) (4:24), “Kings Design” (Jeremiah”) (4:35), “Joy Upon The Lord” (“Ilo Herrassa”) (4:35), “The Lord Of Lords” (“Alttarilaulu”) (4:46)
Johanna Aaltonen – Lead Vocals
Antti Niskala – Lead Vocals & Keyboards
Janna Karhunen – Guitars
Tuomas Maki-Kerttula – Bass
Markus Malin – Drums