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What can I say. I have become a sucker for especially Alestorm’s ‘Back Through Time’ album. The energy, catchiness and consistent quality the band show on their third full length is about as perfect as Alestorm’s vision on metal + ahoy could get. On ‘Black Sails at Midnight’ however it feels like the Alestorm vessel got WWI Dazzle camouflage and is entering the wrong ports just too often. They were clearly unsure where to go next after their highly enjoyable debut ‘Captain Morgan’s Revenge’ pretty much kickstarted their career.
Starting off with the ‘good’ on the Black Sails album, mostly three songs here are truly worth owning if you’re into Alestorm. We’re talking ‘The Quest’, ‘Leviathan’ and ‘Keelhauled’. The first being a great powerful sing-a-long (and great show opener) with plenty powerful uptempo metal moments and of course that clear wink at Rhapsody's 'Holy Thunderforce' on the intro. ‘Keelhauled’ is of course one of their most catchy and famous tunes so far (remember that lovely video) and ‘Leviathan’ being a dynamic, dark epic tune and certainly sea monster proof in sound and lyrics. Only the be equalled by the TerrorSquid on their next effort. In between these marvellous tunes we find ‘That Famous Ol' Spiced’. A song that solely survives because of its strong catchy chorus that could’ve come straight from Skyclad or any other metalband with a fondness for 19th century Irish folk tunes.
After this strong first section the album goes somewhat astray. It often feels as if the band were too hasty to record their second album and had some ideas lying around from their days of powermetal adoration, especially Hammerfall and some Italian clichés. Now these ideas might prove handy when making an album such as Bowes’ Gloryhammer sideproject but within the concept of Alestorm they’re falling somewhat short due to the performance and vocals. ‘To the End of Our Days’ would be one of the best examples. A slow paced tune but certainly no ‘Nancy the Tavern Witch’ nor ‘Scraping The Barrel’ and in essence much more epic and melancholic. This is a song that would do well with great melodic lead vocals and additional orchestration (in other words, performed by Rhapsody or preferably Blind Guardian) but doesn’t entirely work for Alestorm and meanders awfully because of it. Same goes for ‘Chronicles of Vengeance’ which has riffs and a structure that could fit many power metal bands quite nicely but doesn’t just reach full potential here.
I won’t say too much about the titletrack except that it feels like Children Of Bodom sold them a leftover song from their fourth album. They only had to rewrite the lyrics and some keyboard parts. The chorus is one of the worst in Alestorm history because of that hideous Alexi Laiho-ish guitar melody making it go all gay on your ass and it feels as if the mighty Pirate ship turned into a Faering, manned by Viking tomboys..
‘Pirate Song’? Pretty decent verses (again with a big ‘Skyclad’ sign hanging overhead) but a rather dull chorus unfortunately. Also the order of songs and pacing on the album isn’t all that. Too many slower songs or sections following eachother which make the album drag from time to time. There’s no truly neo-folkish tune like ‘ Of Treasure’ here to create extra compositional breething space and diversity.
As a whole Alestorm were capsizing towards power metal just a bit too much for their own good on large parts of this album, leaving just too little ahoy to considered ‘Black Sails’ one of their quintessential pirate metal albums. It’s a good thing Alestorm went thrashier and folkier on their next album and kept future powermetalisms aside for Bowes’ Gloryhammer.
But hey! The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails. Alestorm proved to be realists on their next album ‘Back Through Time’ when they adjusted the sails to maximum effect again!
After their famous but overhyped and eventually rather superficial debut album the self declared Scottish pirate metal heads tries to take an advantage from their rise to fame and released as quickly as possible another EP and now this second album. Normally this would mean another loss of quality, another quick attempt to get some cash and popularity and an easy way to satisfy the hungry masses. But to my surprise, all this isn't the case for the band's second full length release. The album was less popular than the first one but the quality of the record rose and "Black sails at midnight" is eventually a very diversified, entertaining and gripping record.
The band varies from slow and epic song structures such as in "To the end of our days" to quite fast tracks that have both influences from power metal and thrash metal music such as the party hymn "Keelhauled" or the darker title track "Black sails at midnight". Musically, the band improved in only two years and still kept its trademarks even though they are still no excellent musicians.
At the same time, the band created even more catchy hooks and memorable choruses on the record that you still can't sing and shake along after a buddle of rum with your friends. From traditional old school pirate tales like "That famous Ol' Spiced" to the cover of the modern Eurovision Song Contest hit single "Wolves of the sea", the band creates one solid potential radio hit song and neck breaker for concerts after the other. Every song has a different length, tempo or approach but they are all united under the banner of pirate metal together and while the diversity and creativity is bigger than before the coherence and consistency of the songs is much better than on the first album. Everything perfectly fits together on here and one can perfectly listen to this album at one entertaining shot.
The band doesn't show much more in fact but they focus on their strengths and create ten gripping hymns for anybody that is ready to switch its brain off and have some fun and doesn't take the band too serious. From time to time this kind of strategy can be a good change of mind for a regular metal maniac. The band is maybe not very authentic but they are surely more sympathetic as most of the popularized grim Viking metal heads and the numerous folk metal musicians around the world. That's why I really like to listen to this entertaining, refreshing and positive record from time to time and easily consider it as the band's best effort to date.
“Scottish Pirate Metal!” the label proclaims on the CD case. The product inside undoubtedly holds that, as long as that is all you want. Also, to clarify, I would consider the genre of this album to be symphonic power metal with folk influences. To be honest, I prefer this style pirate metal rather than the thrash infused pirate anthems of Swashbuckle. However, I believe that in the middle of these two bands, lies a great, truly remarkable and legendary band. But, for now, let’s examine the sophomore album of the first.
Now the first thing that sticks out as this album being pirate metal is the vocalist. He has an incredibly pirate sounding voice, but for the love of God, sing! He uses that odd pirate growl exclusively, and it works well, but it ruins the song sometimes by being the center of attention. For example, To the End of our Days is a majestic sounding and remorseful song, but it is ruined by the fact that he can’t sing. The voice works for certain songs, but there needs to be more vocal range.
The singing does get it right, in another section that screams pirate metal, the choruses. In almost every song, the chorus is sung not solely by the vocalist (thank God), but by the entire band. These choruses are infectious and really nail down to me what pirate metal should be. It’s something to be sung by the whole crew while drinking, and should tell of epic tales and of the treasure at the end of their current journey. I challenge you to listen to Wolves of the Sea and not have to hold yourself from breaking out and singing “With a hi hi ho and a hi hi hey” (taken from the creatively done lyric booklet).
The singer does something else that annoys me. He plays a freaking key tar. A key tar? Seriously? Maybe that’s why so few take this band seriously. I can see the orchestral parts in the mix as something quite reasonable and realistic for pirates, but the key tar is just way overboard. It adds little to no character, unlike the orchestral background. The only time when the key tar truly fits in on this album is during Keelhauled, and that melody is really carried by the violin. On another note, as a violin player myself, I can tell you that the melody heard there is not incredibly difficult to play, but it is quite fun to play.
Another thing that you should note before listening to or buying this album, this album does not contain any technical musicianship in the least. I for one, love technical death metal, but there is something else you must realize. The greatest music is not necessarily the most technical. We are given here by Alestorm some very simple, but infectious and symphonic music. In that way, it becomes an even more authentic vein of pirate metal. From my point of view, pirates would take a very simple song and just have fun with it, and not stress over the technicalities.
Continuing with that, let’s talk about the guitarist. He definitely has some good musicianship, as he really does a nice job with a thrash metal riff on the title track. On the first song he shows some pretty skillful tremolo picking on The Quest, and on Pirate Song, he displays a complex rhythmic background to the main part of the song. Guitar solos are spaced throughout the album and is not overdone (unlike some of the painful key tar solos that populate this album (the only good one is on To the End of our Days)), and carry the melody of the song while still being a flurry of skillfully placed notes.
I also found in listening to this, that the orchestral arrangements have improved greatly from their first album, Captain Morgan’s Revenge. I felt that they overused the orchestras in that, while in Black Sails at Midnight, the orchestra does not dominate a song, rather it accents a few notes during the chorus or adds texture to the song. On To the End of our Days, there are also some samples of ocean waves and on Wolves of the Sea there is a little break with a marimba that really adds character to a song.
Also unlike on their first album, Alestorm branches out and adds some other little things that set songs apart. The first of these odd songs is Keelhauled. This is the first and only time I’ve heard anything that I can truly call polka metal. The accordion and violin are very fun and original. To clarify, the chorus mentions multiple punishments that they will have fun with in torturing the man, not just keelhauling (it’s very obvious if you pay attention to the lyrics). There is also an awesome video made for this that is great fun and shows how authentic these guys really are.
Next in line with interesting performances is one of my oft-mentioned songs, To the End of our Days. This song has an entrancing intro which evolves into some powerful slow guitars, and a remorseful pirate speaks of his imminent demise. This song has both interesting solos and the best vocals on the album. The prominent features are the slow beat led by pounding drums and the various sounds throughout, such as beastly string parts from the orchestra, a bagpipe, and the sounds of crashing waves in the ocean, which all contribute to an epic song.
The last song that really separates itself from the rest of the album is the title track, the speed anthem Black Sails at Midnight. This song is unabashedly thrash metal with its riffing, vocals, and solo. The guitar riff is aggressive and threatens to rip out your eyes, and it takes a backseat during the chorus and instead gives us a mini solo. The orchestra is still present and does not steal the show. This is a very rough form of the mixture that happens between Alestorm and Swashbuckle, and given more time invested into this style, I think the band could really flourish with new material while staying true to their Scottish Pirate Metal roots.
The drumming on this album is unfortunately left behind most of the time, outshone by the keys, guitars, vocals, and orchestra. He does not have any large amount of skill, and you can certainly tell that this is not the best material he can put out. On the title track he goes with the thrash theme and the drumming is interesting, and there is also some nice snare work in tandem with the orchestra on Chronicles of Vengeance. His double bass pedal work is nothing out of the ordinary, although he does get some pretty good speed behind them when he goes as fast as possible.
I feel that Black Sails at Midnight is a great improvement over Captain Morgan’s Revenge, but there is still something untapped that this band could improve on. This is not their breakout album, but I feel that their next album very well could be. Again, technicality is not the name of the game here, and neither is speed, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. I feel that this is a very authentic take of pirate metal, but there is still improvement to be made. However, this is great pirate metal that is catchy, progressive, and true to its roots. Most recommended songs: Keelhauled, To the End of our Days, Chronicles of Vengeance, and Wolves of the Sea (in no particular order).
There are generally two paths that young bands will follow after a successful debut. One of these is to take a few years to carefully craft a second album, resulting in anything from a very different but still successful album, to a complete departure in style that will result in the premature self-destruction of the band. The other, which is the one taken by Alestorm on their second album “Black Sails At Midnight”, is to hit the ground running and get a stylistically consistent second album out while the fire is still hot. Many seem to frown upon this approach, but more often than not, when you look at prominent early bands in heavy metal such as Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and several others, this tends to be the more successful path.
Essentially this is a perfect rehash of the same gimmick steeped yet fun loving blend of power metal riffs; Folk influenced melodies, showy accordion and keyboard wizardry, and woefully clichéd swashbuckling lyrical adventures. There is a bit more of an emphasis on riffing and a slightly toned down guitar solo approach, which may owe pretty heavily to Gavin Harper dropping out of the band, but otherwise things are very close to what they were a year prior when “Captain Morgan’s Revenge” brought us the first onslaught of catchy Power Metal married to the reborn pirate craze brought about by the “Pirates Of The Caribbean” movies.
The strong tendency towards pounding riffing standing in for large sounding orchestral blasts becomes apparent right from the beginning of the album. “The Quest” essentially roars in on overdrive with a wicked yet all too familiar sounding speed riff that invokes images of Rhapsody, but the rest of the song proves to resemble something more in line with Gamma Ray, as things settle into an epic gallop with the occasional chime in from the keys rather than a barrage of Baroque period instruments. “Leviathan” and “That Famous Old Spiced” tend a little bit closer to the heavily orchestrated sound of “Captain Morgan’s Revenge”, though heavier and a little less emphasis on the choruses.
Where things really shine is towards the middle of the album, where the band essentially stuffs most of their best and original ideas. “Keelhauled” takes something of a hyper tempo polka meets power metal road, complete with an accordion drone that sounds like the waves of an ocean teaming with sharks and a violin melody that refuses to get out of my head after owning this album for 7 months. “To The End Of Our Days” is something of a low trudging ballad, starting off with a charming little quiet intro before stomping into a low tone groove with Chris Bowes’ gravely one octave range just barely managing to carry a tune.
The climax of the album is pretty obviously the title track, which ratchets up the aggression and flirts with thrash metal quite frequently between the pounding palm muted riffs and gang choruses, though there is still enough melody in there to keep it from entering into Destruction territory, which seems to be where they were getting some of their riff ideas here. Afterward things sort of taper off a bit, though “Chronicles of Vengeance” does showcase the band’s chops, particularly that of whoever is playing the drums as there is a really raucous blast beat that rivals some of the stuff I’ve heard Behemoth doing of late.
Ultimately, the name of the game going on here is consistency, and that is likely what most fans of this band were looking for, me included. Alestorm is not here to reinvent heavy metal; they are here to entertain with a nice combination of technical mastery and musical familiarity. Anyone who demands esoteric ponderings will probably be detracted from these guys anyway given that the homage to “Curse Of The Black Pearl” that is the cover art of this album pretty well dismisses such possibilities. Liking Tyr, Rhapsody, or already hearing and enjoying this band’s debut will be a prerequisite to liking this album.
Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on February 22, 2010.
Well if you have heard Turisas then you have a pretty good idea of what to expect when you push play. As the name, cover and track titles suggest Alestorm is about pirates. There is no doubt about it. Because of limiting themselves to such a narrow theme, Alestorm has been getting a lot of flack regarding just how long the band can last writing song after song about being a pirate. Fortunatelyfor them they have managed to pass off as more than just a gimmick and Black Sails at Midnight proves it. The choruses on this album are catchier, the melodies are better developed and the songs are extended to large themes with very epic feels to them.
Christopher Bowes doesn't show any signs of running out of steam as almost each song has a chorus that will instantly have you hook. I say almost because there are a few blunders. "To the End of Our Days" is a balad which does have quite a melodic chorus but the vocals are so damn atrocious that it is damn hard to listen to the first chorus let alone the whole song. While I don't mind Chris' voice in any other songs Alestorm has done this is just horrible. Bad. Brutal. Actually, besides the clean tone intro, it is very hard to listen to any part of this song. There is just a bad vibe. The keyboard melody after the first chorus ends just doesn't have that same tone as the other tracks. Maybe it is to add to the lower feel of the lyrics but it just doesn't work. And then the organ solo. It honestly sounds like a black priest in a Christian church is going to yell "HALLELUJAH! PRAISE THE LORD!" after the solo ends. And just to add injury to insult this song is one of three songs that sit around the six minute mark (actually almost six and a half).
The other song that doesn't have much of a catchy chorus would be "Chronicles of Vengeance" which I feel is going more for the epic feel. Long and building verses with a very lifting orchestra. Actually the entire album is filled with full orchestra (recorded with live players this time around) which definitely adds a much larger epic feel to the entire album. The orchestra hits at the beginning The Quest give only a tease to the heroic chorus to follow. And if that isn't enough for the listener these short comings are built upon during the epic sturring intro of Leviathan which includes longing brass and large big band hits (also found at the beginning of the title track). For those who really enjoy the heroicness of Turisas' "Battle Metal" will love the track "That Famous ol' Spice". The orchestra intro only teases. Once the first chorus ends and you hear that intro again. It really has a lot of power to it.
"Keelhauled" is the only track that really has that "folk" feel to it regards of Mirjam Beyer and her violin playing. It really sound a little too fast but once the first verse kicks in the awkwardness of the violin is quickly forgotten. This is a great track, definitely the stand out. It could be the violin or maybe because it is the only song that has a verse that sounds different from the rest of the songs... or maybe it is because the chorus is probably the catchiest damn chorus you'll ever hear? (Yes, you can walk the plank while being keelhauled. It would definitely be smarter to make your prisoner walk the plank than just to push him off the side and hope there is enough area to successfully pull him up the other side so he could be keelhauled again).
As with all power metal, each song is equipped with solos. Guitar and keyboard. Nothing stands out. With that stated: No Quarter is an instrumental with great melodies and some nice solos. Sure those are great to listen to, everyone loves a good instrumental track right? Well unfortunately the solos on the rest of the tracks don't do anything for me but it is a nice touch anyways. As is the main melody from "He is a Pirate" (the Pirates of the Caribbean theme song).
Over all this album will appeal to fans of... of... pirates! I would like to say power metal but serious fans of power metal might have trouble taking Alestorm seriously. Cannot say folk metal fans because Alestorm isn't actually folk. If you like catchy themes and pirates then this is for you.
Allow me to begin this review with a special, top secret recording that my spy network managed to retrieve from Alestorm HQ before the band itself was formed:
'Oi lads, let's make quick bucks and hordes of teen fans by singing about pirates!' 'But... we can't play any instruments!' 'No problem lads, we'll just do watered down copypasta of other generic power metal bands and everything will be fine'
lo and behold, Alestorm was born.
Well, when I first heard about Alestorm, I had moderately big expectations, although I didn't expect anything revolutionary. There were people claiming it's the 'best power metal band evar' (HAHAHAHA), others who said it's a very nice blend of power metal and folk, and those who really recommended it for the 'pirate aspects'. So, I thought: 'cool, maybe it's a power/folk metal band similar to Falconer, but with the added pirate aspects it'll be like Peter Sullivan's 'Victory' done the metal way'.
Oh god, how wrong I was.
After starting Black Sails at Midnight, we are allowed to hear something that is truly an achievement. An album that is truly awful from the *very first seconds*! Astounding! Is that Rhapsody's 'Holy Thunderforce'? Why, no! It's just the opening track The Quest - a rather silly-sounding, fast guitar riffing that is accompanied by symphonic 'BLANGS!' and generic drumming. But wait, what is that? Why, yes! It gets worse! After about 30 seconds the Rhapsody worship is a bit toned down (to return later, but still), and the vocalist kicks in. When listening to it for the first time I thought 'is this some kind of a joke?'. Let's keep it honest: the vocalist can't sing for shit. To put it metaphorically, he sounds like a kraken that has cocks instead of tentacles is invading his mouth. I'm sorry ol' chap, but pirates weren't called Angus Dagnabbit, even though you might think otherwise. Metaphors aside, once you've heard the vocalist yap for 5 seconds, you've heard it all. He is completely devoid of any passion, power, scale or emotion. It's like someone just told him to stand out there and read what they give him, while trying to shout from time to time. The Quest also serves us with an unbelievably bad solo starting at the third minute - cheap scales going up and down in a very high tone.
But then, The Quest ends and Leviathan kicks in! It kicks in with a Leviathan-sized amount of suck contained in a keyboard melody that's supposed to immitate violins, apparently. And here we get to another problem of this band: The keyboards. What's with all the fucking keyboard soloes? I started having doubts whether the sounds I hear are actually guitar soloes or keyboard ones, because I couldn't believe that they'd have as many keyboard soloes as (or even more than...) guitar ones. Not only are they irritating with their high-pitched sounds, but they also sound like taken from Amiga games. Here are some bands that use keyboards well: Skyfire, which use them more for atmosphere and symphonies than other useless crap and Savatage, which use it to immitate piano, but at least they do it skillfully, so you actually can't tell the difference. Long story short, Alestorm doesn't have a lead guitar. It has lead keyboards.
Ohoho! What is that? Are those supposed to be... 'harsh' vocals in the chorus of Leviathan?! Because if yes, they suck at being 'harsh' and if no, they suck at being 'normal', and both cases fail at being vocals. To be honest, it would be better for the band to completely ditch the vocalist, and keep the 'WOOOOOOOOH's that you can hear somewhere in the middle of Leviathan and just loop them for all songs. Cheap AND convenient!
But apart from being a dumbed down Rhapsody clone with 90% of the awesome (in a cheesy power metal way) aspects removed, Alestorm also tries to be a 'pirate band' and they will remind you of it at certain key moments. One of these moments is the ending of 'That Famous Ol' Spiced', which, while probably supposed to come out as a 'jolly tavern song', turns out as a nutcrushing earkiller. Cue horrible vocals and horribly irritating wankery of session musicians who must have been instructed to use tones as high as possible to kill any enjoyment someone might have taken from this song. Another such 'pirate song' is Keelhauled. It starts with drums that made me want to kill myself (Drum & Bass dance music FTW, aye?), shortly after violins on ultraspeed enter which sounds truly atrocious, and then riffs that couldn't sound more generic chug-chug-chug their way in. New problem sighted right ahead: violins, and session musicians in general. The first time I've heard this, I could have sworn that the various 'folk instruments' used in this record are either keyboards immitating their sounds or synthesizers, because they are so awful. But no! Alestorm hired some session musicians in order to become a true folk metal band (because having someone with violins in the proper line-up is so passe, am I right?), which I suppose might be a step forward, since their previous album featured synths, yet the guest instruments either go completely unnoticed or they make you cringe. It's like they found some random people on the street, gave them random instruments and told them 'here, play this!'. I really couldn't believe there are real people playing such trash, but I suppose nobody expects Alestorm violinists...
Oh oh, and don't forget that 'COOL PIRATE LYRICS XD ^_^' that not only are bad, but also incredibly forced and make no sense. Take the chorus of Keelhauled as an example:
Keelhaul that filthy landlubber
Send him down to the depths below
Make that bastard walk the plank
With a bottle of rum and a yo ho ho
Seriously? 'Walk the plank' and 'Keelhaul' are completely different sea punishments, that is one. 'With a bottle of rum and a yo ho ho'? What. The. Fuck.
After Keelhauled we get To The End of Our Days, which is the first song so far to feature an actual intro. A shame it quickly sails into the whirlpool of suck. It's a... 'ballad' sort of thing, but in truth it just comes down to about three riffs somewhere in the background, and the vocalist talking. Yes, you read it right, talking, because I can't say that he 'sings' here with a straight face. Plus, that awfully high-pitched keyboard solo around the third minute made me want to turn deaf on the spot just to never again hear something like this.
Remember the harsh vocals on Leviathan? They return in the next song, the title track, and surprise, surprise, they're bad, but given the vocalist's general tendency of being tone-deaf, it doesn't come of as that much of a surprise, after all. But all in all, Black Sails at Midnight isn't *that* bad of a song, when compared to the rest of the 'grand' album, but I suppose they needed to make at least the title track decent...ish. The riff during the chorus isn't bad, keyboards are kept to a minimum, but by God almighty, the vocalist's shouting ruins it completely.
Ah! What do we have here? An obligatory instrumental song - No Quarter. Of course, it begins with a lead keyboard wank. It's also completely uninteresting. I really like instrumental songs, because they let the instruments shine when there are splendid compositions to present, like in Hammerfall's In Memoriam for example. But here? There's nothing. This is a typical song just with vocals cut out. And also, I'll just drop this little note here before proceeding to my next points: rip-off of Pirates of the Caribbean, AHOY! I really didn't expect they'd sink as low as to prove how uncreative they are and submit a widely-recognisable theme song here, but alas.
There's not much to say about the rest of the album, because it's pretty much filler that's only there to show that the band ran out of ideas and need to keep the album at least longer than 30 minutes. Pirate Song starts with a decent riff and has a decent solo somewhere in the middle and that's it. Chronicles of vengeance is generic to boot, with some symphonic passages thrown in. The symphonic passages are another problem, because they also feel extremely forced, since they are not common enough to care about and notice them, and not good enough to remember them. You just catch yourself from time to time with a 'hey, symphonic passage, oops, it's gone already'. The last song is a cover and that's all that needs to be said. It's passable, but probably only because it's not by this band, yet they still managed to get a disastrous solo inside.
To sum this piece of worthless waste of my time, here are some final thoughts. First, Black Sails at Midnight is completely unmemorable. I don't believe I can remember a single riff off the whole album, and the only song I can recall is Keelhauled because of its overblown chorus and fastforwarded violins.
Second, it's all horribly generic. It's like I've heard everything this band has to offer a hundred times in a hundred different bands. Or wait, forget it. If it was 'just' generic, it would be passable, but this not only takes the generic formula, but it also makes it even worse by having Kelvin's zero's worth of creativity and talent.
And third, Alestorm is the perfect example of a gimmick band that runs on nothing but its gimmick. Take another band called Kypck as a counterexample. Kypck is also pretty much a gimmick band, but they manage to back their soviet gimmick up with originality, atmosphere and fine to splendid instrumentation, while Alestorm has nothing, I repeat NOTHING. No atmosphere, no musicianship, no creativity. But hey, who needs such overrated and stupid concepts when you can be pirates? Just how cool is that, eh?
So, the big question leading up to this album: could Alestorm sustain their appeal beyond a single album? Even as a big fan of the band, I’ll freely admit their style hardly has depth, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a gimmick, it certainly didn’t seem like they could keep it interesting for very long.
Well, on the plus side they have still retained some interest, and surprisingly have shown signs that there’s life in this old sea dog yet. However, the album also feels rushed in places and not as fully fleshed out as their debut. It simply isn’t as good, though it still has plenty of worth.
Track-by-tracks are frowned upon, usually with good reason, but in this case it has to be done to a degree: the core sound and style of the album is just as per the last one. Power/folk metal with strong pirate themes and sounds. There’s not really much more to be said beyond that, if you’ve heard the debut you’ll know just what to expect, and the primary judge of the album’s success must be simply how many of the songs succeed at this aim and how many don’t. Alas, the ratio in this is inverted from the last album: Captain Morgan’s Revenge had mostly winners with the odd miss, here this is more the reverse.
The best songs are without a doubt Leviathan, the title track and Wolves of the Sea. Leviathan is a wonderfully powerful stomper about the mighty sea beast in question. Black Sails offers a thrashier side to the band with an excellent mid-section and great riffing at the core. Wolves of the Sea is the best “fun” song on the album, with a lovely Caribbean interlude. These songs feel fresh and interesting, and very good at what they do.
Not all are like that though. Famous Ol’ Spiced is pure filler, The Quest and No Quarter are enjoyable but ultimately forgettable, and Chronicles of Vengeance is so similar to Leviathan as to be rendered pointless. The remaining three songs are what intrigued me about the album, because they actually give us glimpses of more to this band. I expected at least a few great songs, but I also expected the band would swiftly run out of steam and wither after expending themselves in one album. Not necessarily so, it seems, for these other songs show that there are other areas they can take this into without rehashing old ideas.
It’s not all good though: while there are top concepts behind them, these three tracks also all have something wrong with them, and don’t fully capitalise on their good ideas. Keelhauled is another of the fun tracks, and while much more upbeat than I expected from the title, it is fun as heck...for about half the song. Then it just drags. All it does is repeat. Okay, you could say the same of Wenches and Mead, but somehow that one managed to sustain itself. Keelhauled doesn’t, and would’ve been much more likeable if the verses had varied the tortures described. They do however get points for getting round to including the phrase “with a yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!”, which was bound to come up sooner or later. To the End of Our Days shows a more sombre side to the band, telling of a pirate sailing alone on the ship, his comrades dead, until he dies. As with other great epics like Hallowed Be Thy Name or At the Gallows End it is both downbeat and yet uplifting. Just look at the chorus:
“I stand here alone on the bow of the ship
Counting the hours 'til I die
Abandoned to fate with no chance of return
I raise up my fist to the sky”
The lyrics in particular are very powerful, and overall it’s got an epic strength that would do Manowar proud. Alas, it’s also very similar musically to Nancy the Tavern Wench, and I couldn’t help but feel that breaking away from this would’ve made it a real classic. The keyboard section is also totally out of place. Then we have the unimaginatively titled “The Pirate Song”. Crap name, but again it’s a great notion: this tale of an ex-pirate recalling his days adventuring. It could have been awesome, starting slow and quiet, and becoming progressively more and more powerful as it went along, as the pirate begins to revel in those glory days and proclaim that he regrets nothing. In a way, it tries that, but the basic verse-chorus formula of the instruments drags it and hampers a potentially excellent track.
So essentially, what we have is an album of a few excellent songs, a few rubbish ones, and a few that show great potential, but fail to live up to that. It broke the preconception that the band is a one-album deal, and it could’ve been better, perhaps if they took a little longer than a year to make it. It is good fun, and perfectly worthwhile, but it isn’t as good as the first. Even removing the freshness factor of the first: if this had been released first, I still wouldn’t have rated it as high as Captain Morgan. There are some brilliant ideas that aren’t that well implemented, but they’re still hardly ruined.
If you’ve not heard the band before, get the first album. If you enjoy them, this is well worth a try, because there’s still plenty of good stuff to be had. But I can’t see it converting anyone. It’s ultimately nothing new, nor as consistent as their debut, but hey, Alestorm are still writing some very fun piratey power metal, and songs like Leviathan and Black Sails are up there with the best of them. Seven bottles of rum and a yo-ho-ho for Black Sails at Midnight.
The new Alestorm album was released this week, so I took an adventurous trip to the centre of Antwerp city to get my copy. But, as it is with every quest for unparalleled treasure, I had to overcome multiple obstacles to finally obtain the treasure. I arrived in the metal distro hours before the album had even arrived there, and when it finally was there, my electronic payment system didn’t work anymore. But then, after half an hours walk in the blazing sun, I returned with cash in my hand and obtained the long sought album. And to make the idea of a quest for treasure even more real: the limited edition looks like an old chest (imagine my joy).
But was ‘Black Sails at Midnight’ worth this epic journey? The answer, my friend: yes, it is! Alestorm have taken a step forward by maturing their sound but without changing it into something entirely else. The guitars have become more important, the keyboards have been moved to a more modest position in the band but best of all: real instruments! A real accordion people! More than ever Alestorm sound like pirates: they have become pirates.
The lyrics are once more about plundering, boozing, monsters of sea, … Nothing too intellectual or with deeper meaning, but that’s the way I like it.
The opener for the album, ‘The Quest’, starts with guitars, hard and fast, an after thirty seconds, we already get the real (!) accordion. And then Bowes begins to sing about ‘the raging seas’ so we’re sucked into the pirate idea completely. And the best part is yet to come. After about 1:42, the guitar breaks into some very fast, very tight and very grinding riff. Heavenly! As far as I can remember, I never heard the like of it on “Captain Morgan’s Revenge’, and already after the first song I knew that ‘Black Sails at Midnight’ would be by far superior to ‘Captain Morgan’s Revenge’ which was already very good.
Something which has struck me was the fact that the sounds of the keyboards has changed. On ‘Leviathan’ they remind me of those heard on Turisas’ ‘Battle Metal’: the keyboards sound like trumpets and the like. In other parts of this song, they are used in a way that the song resembles a film score which fits the lyrics very well.
It’s very hard not to begin with a song-by-song review, but there certainly are some highlights. ‘That Famous Ol’ Spiced’ begins with a very epic, keyboard dominated sound… to continue with lyrics about some beverage and a very catchy chorus. ‘No Quarter’ is an instrumental that contains a small treasure. At 2:12 we hear the theme from ‘Pirates of the Carribean’. What a pleasant surprise that was! The (in)famous DJ Tiësto already made a remix of the theme (and it was included on the soundtrack), but my preferred version has to be this. Too bad it only lasts for half a minute… The last song, ‘Wolves of the Sea’ is a cover from a song participating in the Eurovision Song Contest (an international song contest between European countries) and it sounds awkwardly ‘happy’ in a way that isn’t the Alestorm ‘happy’. But it is fun and in the end you’ll sing with them: ‘Hi hi ho, hi hi hey!’.
To conclude: this album is a major step forward, without changing the original sound and idea of Alestorm, and definitely worth to buy. Personal favourites: ‘Leviathan’, ‘That Famous Ol’ Spiced’.
I seem to remember saying at the end of my review for Alestorm’s debut ‘Captain Morgan’s revenge’ that the best thing for them would be if Napalm Records resisted the urge to rush out a 2nd CD and gave them the time necessary to hone their craft. Obviously my review didn’t travel quite as far as Austria because ‘Black sails at midnight’ is upon us already, not even 18 months on from the first CD.
But nevertheless, they are indeed back with a CD that is at the same time more of the same, slightly more mature and altogether very satisfying. Opener “The quest” is a bit of a statement of intent, with ‘we are back’ lyrics in the same mould as Manowar’s “Return of the warlord”, and a hint at the slightly more developed nature of some of the songs to come. Christopher Bowes vocals are still quite limited, but the heroic chorus melody is a bit more adventurous than much of the work on the debut CD, while the guitar playing (never really quite as underdeveloped as it had often been accused of) is a little more exploratory and feels less tacked on under the keyboard segments which are still the main focus for much of the CD.
There are indeed songs where Bowes keyboard playing is very much reigned in, allowing the guitars (mostly played by producer Lasse Lammert following the eventual departure of founder Gavin Harper) a lot more room to express themselves. The aggressive title track features only sparse symphonic blasts, and is very much a power metal song with none of the expected folk extravagances, and while we’re still not talking Dark Angel here it’s nice to hear some actual riffing going on.
The bleak, sombre ballad “To the end of our days” is another unexpectedly stripped-down affair with virtually no keyboards at all until the scattered solo, and only power chords to keep Bowes company as he offers a performance of unforeseen despairing tenderness. Although still nowhere near the finished article as a singer, Bowes has improved his technique since the debut and offers a little more variety on this CD, and at the same time has toned down the ‘yahar!’ aspect of his performance slightly which allows his Scottish accent to shine through a little more clearly.
Those more inclined towards the bouncy folk metal side of Alestorm need not lose heart though, for there are several ridiculously upbeat songs no doubt guaranteed to have crowds pogoing up and down the land. The traditional aspect of the sound has also been authenticated a little, with more actual instruments used in place of keyboards from time to time. “Keelhauled”, probably the jolliest song you’ll ever hear about death by torture, sees a violin and accordion jigging across an animated Korpiklaani bass line and adds a little bit of realism that is sometimes found wanting in the more common synth tones.
This is proven not to be a guarantee of success though, since despite a romping chorus and a nifty bit of tin whistle assistance, “That famous ol’ spiced” is actually one of the CD’s weaker moments, mainly because the verses sound almost exactly like those on “Over the seas” from the debut.
The instrumental “No quarter” is actually the last remaining demo song (intros and covers aside) from the Battleheart days to be properly recorded, and its surprising exclusion from the ‘Captain Morgan’s revenge’ sessions has thankfully been remedied here. Not the most complex and enduring of tunes, but hardly throwaway either as it features some excellent soloing and harmonizing from the guitar and keyboards.
Napalm of course screwed the pooch a little with the ‘Leviathan’ EP late last year, as the 2 new songs featured there are both here as well and, a few tweaks to the mix aside, are completely identical. That 2 of the 10 songs on the CD have already been in the fans’ consciousness for a few months now devalues the overall product a little, and on the face of it, it looks like a bit of irresponsible cash-grabbing from what is usually a very trustworthy label. Regardless, “Leviathan” itself is a fine example of the increasingly bold Alestorm style, an epic symphonic power metal song with some out of character semi-harsh vocals in the pre-chorus and a strong focus on the sweeping orchestral arrangements that characterise many of Bowes’ later compositions.
“Wolves of the sea”, on the other hand, manages to fully exemplify the wacky sound the band are (in)famous for despite being a cover song. Originally by a Latvian pop project, it was used as the country’s Eurovision entry a few years ago and is an appropriately mental bit of Europop from the world’s best lack of talent contest. Proof, as if it was ever needed, that a sound melody can make a good song out of nearly anything, it transfers perfectly to Alestorm’s style (not that it’s a bad thing, but pop music and power metal drift a lot close together than a lot of people probably care to realise) and the joyous choir vocals and cheesy keyboard solo make for a brilliant closing track – certainly a damn sight better than their “De-flower of Scotland” butchery that closed out ‘Captain Morgan’s revenge’. The only complaint I could raise is that the original mix of the song flowed better, and the more prominent keyboard line in the chorus of this version only serves to clutter things up.
It is a slightly different beast to its predecessor, but ‘Black sails at midnight’ is more or less as good, just for different reasons. Some of the manic immature charm is gone, but the slightly grander and more guitar-centric approach suggests Alestorm will be able to outlive their status as a novelty band if they continue a gradual progression along this path. A must-buy for fans of the debut, and perhaps worthy of a 2nd chance for those that were left cold by the band the first time around.
Now read the review again and see which word I didn’t use even once.
(Originally written for http://www.metalcdratings.com/)