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Finland's Gandalf were on to a winning formula with the 1998 debut album Deadly Fairytales, but it did not stir up enough buzz to really matter, so it became clear that some further tweaking would be necessary for them to shove past the fringe and take their part of the exploding Finnish melodic death scene being dominated by Children of Bodom, Kalmah and others. Thus, the band decided to get a little edgier than the debut, without really changing up the style, and Rock Hell was born. The lyrics had become edgier, the vocals a dash more malicious, and as the name and logo of the album title would hint, there is an increased influence of the pure hard rock within the compositions.
Still, it's hardly pure 'rock' music, and in fact seems like a half-breed of In Flames/Night in Gales using both rasped, Kreator-like vocals and some clean back-ups. The riffing is just as melodic as found on Deadly Fairytales, but if anything there are more visceral, pummeling breaks in songs like "Dead Man's Hand". The musical proficiency is about the same level, but at least they try some more dynamic approaches to the songwriting, whereas the debut was very much a flat plain in its intentions. There's just a nick more emotion on parade here, and that helps Rock Hell surpass the debut on most levels, if only by an inch or two on the cock & balls comparison ruler.
The deeper one ventures into Rock Hell, the more surprises and delights one will find. "Human Value Zero" thrives off a killer, simple melodic hook during the vocal verses, while "Geysir" seems like a 70s hard rock act trying their hand at melodic death, with dire but catchy guitar melodies and soothing clean vocals. "Live to Suffer" is highly atmospheric and rocky despite its very simple riffs, and Jari's thick rasping truly interacts with the subtle ambient line hanging just below the melody. But despite the rock injection, you've still got a track in the depths like a "Nightderanger" which is for the most part straight thrash until the bridge, then transforming into some sweet leads. "One More for the Dead" is like In Flames with a pinch of hard/groove metal seasoning like Down or Cathedral, and "The Dragon" swells with some 80s horror synthesizer lines before it becomes an emotional melodeath rager. If you're seeking something even more mellow, "Morning Sun" is quite a good rocker not unlike Taneli Jarva's band The Black League.
I admit to having quite some fun with this record, and was very excited that the band had not gone extinct after the debut, though they would disband the year after this released, moving on to form The Scourger or partake in other bands like Lullacry and Korpiklaani. While I liked Deadly Fairytales, this stands out just enough to be the superior of their efforts, even though it shucks a little of the pure melodeath feel of that effort to incorporate the band's love of hard, bluesy rock & roll. There's simply an increase of passion and fire here that will have the heads banging harder and the whiskey bottles drained all the faster, and its an adequate go-to record if you want something to rage out to without any need to listen twice or more within a certain time frame. Worth checking out if you like Sweden's Hearse, Finns The Black League, or perhaps even the later, driving Gothic rock sounds of Greece's Nightfall.
This does not sound like In Flames mixed with AC/DC. In Flames, yes, in a vague shared genre way (this is a melodeath album) but there is no trace of AC/DC here at all. This sounds nothing like 70s rock in the very slightest, and the only thing I can find about it that might give it that 'hard rock' tag everybody sticks on here is maybe a small late 80s pop metal influence (I suppose you could say there was a little Hysteria or Cherry Pie in there). There is no overly simple three chord hard rock riffs (which makes AC/DC so great) and certainly no Bon Scott/Brian Johnson style vocals either.
Now that that's out of the way, it's not actually that bad at all, considering. It's just very one dimensional...a bit too simple for my liking. Not that can't simple music can't be good (the aforementioned AC/DC of course, is excellent) but with this kind of metal, especially when the band uses harsh vocals, the music needs something to spice it up. If you're gonna mix Hysteria with Clayman you need to do something a little beyond that.
Now in retrospect, there are some catchy songs in here. 'One More for the Dead', for instance, has a very catchy chorus. It's just the fact that when it is sung in a sort of popish 80s rock style, yet with a vocalist pulling off (fairly weak) power metal vocals it tends to get a bit tedious. This album is a good example of a band who are good at writing music but their overall sound just doesn't support it in any good way. I can't really recommend this, it's just not overall interesting enough.
I love how recent Earache CDs all have the bands posing in front of the "Dante's Inferno" backdrop at the Sears Portrait Studio. Gandalf, Decapitated...I guess it's better than squeezing into the mall photo booth, though. Described as AC/DC united with At the Gates in the label propaganda, Gandalf is indeed a death/rock hybrid, with "death" represented by the half-growled vocals and the "rock" by everything else. This CD really depressed me initially, as the first few songs are either weak and gimpy ("L8X Queen") or sound like Tomas Lindberg doing karaoke versions of the first Badlands album ("Morning Sun"...this one also has a hilarious Cookie Monster part, with the vocalist growling, "Hello, morning sun!"). Thankfully, things improve with "Human Value Zero", which recalls Swansong in the verse parts (only better), and "The Dragon", which just fucking rocks. "The Dragon" (fifth song) is really where the tension between the death vocals and the more upbeat rock sound of everything else is somewhat resolved. It's much faster than the previous tracks and thus the vocals work much better here. While I usually applaud bands retaining the deathgrowl even when incorporating non-death influences, I think Gandalf would do well to drop it and try conventional clean singing for songs like these. The weakness of their current approach pops up again in the remainder of the album, especially when the focus shifts to melody (what I like to call the "D.A.D. parts"). Thankfully, the last two songs ("Dead Man's Hand" and the weird NWOSDM/ballad hybrid "Castle of the Stars") utilize nice clean-vocal/choral parts to support the one-dimensional growling of the singer. More of this would be welcome. Musically, this reminds me a lot of Carcass's Swansong in parts, with occasional blues-derived riffs and some fair Swedish-style Gothenmetal. It's very uncomplicated and unornamented, which is why I think the one-note vocals are so damaging. Basically, Gandalf sounds like a pretty good bar band, not something that you'd want to sit down and seriously ponder, and this clashes mightily with the aggressiveness of the vox. Ultimately, it's no disaster, nor any great achievement, just another could've-been disc that exists in the murky grey middle of the quality scale.
Upon the release of Rock Hell, many reviewers labeled Gandalf a mix of In Flames and AC/DC.... not such a bad comparison, if I do say myself. They play hard rock enfused with a melodic metal base, possibly more Iron Maiden than In Flames.
Opener L8X Queen has the title of a Poison song, a riff that reminds me of Sentenced, and those Gothenburg snarled vocals. Throughout the album, growled vocals are relieved by pretty half assed clean ones during choruses and other critical moments, to varying effects. There are some pretty nice leads and guitar melodies here and there, and the songwriting is all together solid and quite catchy (try to get One More for the Dead out of your head).
Standouts include Human Value Zero, the afforemention L8X Queen, and Castle of the Stars, a well executed power ballad of sorts that serves as a fine climax to a fine album. So if "iron maiden meets ac/dc with lindberg style vocals" means anything to you, this will kick your ass. Hard.