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Everyone needs a gimmick. Or, at least, that SHOULD be how it works. They way I see it, if you want to form a band and push yourself past the thousands of third-rate musical peons, it takes more than ability and metacarpal dexterity. You need to be able to become an entity all your own…and don’t forget to be good at what you do as well. That helps a little, too. That’s pretty much what I thought when I was told of this Van Canto band, an A CAPELLA METAL BAND of all things! I’d, at one time, knew a little of vocals-only musical meanderings, from older acts like Rockapella to the newer Straight, No Chaser, but never in all my decaying years would someone put it through the Euro-metal meat grinder. I guess it was only a matter of time…or rather, it was a matter of time until someone like them was pushed into the limelight. The underground could’ve had a few of these little buggers, but no one noticed. Ya never know.
It was just all too much to ignore, and they had me at “a capella metal band”, so I just HAD to see how it all came out…
It all seemed pretty standard within the first few seconds of choral madness coming at me, but once the “instruments” came blasting at me, I was totally floored. This is, easily, one of the most fun albums I’ve had the chance to undertake a listening to, and judging from the overall sound, it was a fun album to MAKE as well as LISTEN TO. There’re all sorts of wickedly tasty things going on; the compositional end is very impressive, throwing vivid harmonies, catchy as hell hooks, lush-as-tropical-fog choirs and jittery “riffs” from as many angles as is humanly possible for five individuals (and a drummer) to do. The songs themselves don’t just settle with a standard heavy/power metal formula, despite their obvious roots and inspirations, and in the hands of more practical musicians with real instruments it would still be entertaining, but probably as much as hearing three guys belt out “DUM da-da-da-dummm”, replicating the very same strumming patterns and arrangements. As such, the likes of the bombastic “If I Die in Battle”, the damn near pirate-like “Black Wings of Hate” and the dynamic “Neuer Wind” shine with a greatness not heard by ears in quite a while. And let’s not forget the spectacular takes on Alice Coopers’s “Bed of Nails” and Sabaton’s “Primo Victoria”. Fantastic.
The general tone of the disc is one of fun, of joviality, of just sitting back and letting loose. I could only imagine the interesting ambience in the studio during its creation, as such a sensation is present going from plastic disc to headphones. In a fine fashion, it held my attention from the get-go, and as the disc continued such transfixion was kept in check. Still, however…and this is a rather BROAD however…for as great as these guys are, there exists the risk of them being seen as a mere novelty act. Some of the more fist-pumping, denim-clad metallers might have some umbrage with folks who gussy up their fine style with silly vocal gymnastics (no matter how skilled they are), and if that’s the case, then it’s their loss, as I feel that even in the world of steel-clad seriousness, you need to have a little fun to prevent emotional rust from forming. And these guys just might do the trick.
So in the end, a capella power metal has me sold. In a big way. Its infectious appeal and robust approach has all the ingredients necessary to invoke plenty of repeat listens from me, and I think it’s high time for me to get some of their earlier works. Excellent stuff.
The ever-gimmicky Van Canto is at it again, ladies and gentlemen, and nothing has changed in the year since Tribe of Force, so if you're already familiar with Van Canto, you will know exactly what you're getting yourself into here; nifty a cappella-style metal with voice-modulated guitar solos and a drummer due to a lack of beat-boxers able to keep up the tempo for 4-6 minutes who often dabble in power metal anthems and cover songs. And if you're not familiar with Van Canto, I've already covered the basics, so no excuses when you are lost and confused.
First, let's look at the good original songs. "If I Die in Battle" starts slowly and calmly before blasting into full throttle with a crowd-pleasing chorus--a good, strong start. In the same vein, "The Seller of Souls" moves on a very brisk pace as well, but with a darker tone and some great vocal harmonizing from their female vocalist. "Neuer Wind" is a more predictable mid-paced track (and oddly enough, it's the only song not in English), but some great melodic lines and earnest performances from the group keep this one afloat. "Spelled in Waters" is a nice and calming ballad, but I can't help but feel a little dubious about the group's decision to use an actual acoustic guitar for this track; why bring instruments to an a cappella album, guys?
And now, we've got our hands full with the leftovers--the bad original tracks. It's not really worth talking about them individually, because they mostly share the same flaws: uninspired melodies, poor (or nonexistent) riffing, poor pacing, and overall, these tracks just aren't interesting. "Dangers in My Head" embodies poor riffing most, with the riffs consisting of little more than dubba doom dubba doom dubba doom and maw maw maw maw maw. "Black Wings of Hate" is the most guilty of having uninspired melodies, with "The Higher Flight" following close behind; neither track has a single moment of quality or anything resembling catchiness. The latter is also guilty of trying too hard to be a fast shredder, coming off instead as a hokey Power Quest knock-off.
If you've purchased (or obtained) the limited edition, you've got two more stinkers to add to the list. "Betrayed" starts off promising enough with some tribal-sounding drumming and hypnotic chanting behind the female vocalist, but when it speeds up and gets into the meat, all you get is a nondescript mid-paced dud. "A Storm to Come" is not only way too long, but the first 7 minutes are entirely disposable with its faux-epic stylings, but the last few minutes finally give us some fast-paced anthemic payoff--at least it ends on a good note.
Finally, the cover songs. For many people, these are the only things to look forward to, though they often overlook some of the good original tracks. But that's not the issue here; the issue is whether these covers are any good or not. First up is Alice Cooper's "Bed of Nails," and it's got plenty of energy as well as that hard-rock attitude, but sadly, a lot of the sinister atmosphere of the original is gone--it's a decent cover, but many Alice Cooper fans will be highly disappointed. Next is Sabaton's "Primo Victoria," which is, sadly, not as forceful or intense as it should have been. It just feels weak, without any of the original's oomph. Even Joakim Broden, the original vocalist who decides to tag long for this little adventure, sounds uninterested.
The cover of Manowar's "Master of the Wind" is just as dull as the original. You heard me. To make matters worse, Van Canto cheats on its gimmick yet again by including piano licks. Screw this. And finally, hailing from the limited edition, we have their cover of Running Wild's "Bad to the Bone," which is actually very well-done and true to the original. Fast-paced, intense, and fun as hell--just as intended.
As per the title of my previous Van Canto review, when this album's good, it's really good, and when it's bad, it's really bad. Maybe one day they'll release an album that's not a roller-coaster ride of awesome-shit-awesome-shit, but that day certainly isn't today.