When I’m talking about Jack White or The Lumineers, I feel pretty safe assuming that people will already be passingly familiar with the artists, or at least know what I’m talking about when I say “blues” or “folk rock.” However, when it comes to discussing the Dutch symphonic power metal band Delain, I’m inclined to think that a brief primer might be in order.

I’m assuming that of the words I’ve used above, most people are going to be comfortable with what I mean by “metal” and “Dutch” (at least, I really hope so…). Power metal is a subgenre of metal that sprung up in Europe in the mid-80s with bands such as Blind Guardian, Stratovarius, and Helloween. They use more complex guitar work at higher speeds, creating a less heavy tone that sounds more driven and energized, and often features a call-to-arms/we’re-in-this-together sort of a feel. A lot of power metal deals with fantasy themes; most notably, Blind Guardian have penned songs focused around the fantasy writings of authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan.

Symphonic metal is another sub-genre, one which is often paired with power metal. It started in the 90s with bands like Nightwish and Within Temptation. As a general rule, the music uses orchestral backing, heavy on the strings, to provide a thicker, more deeply-layered tone that delivers an epic feel. The vocals will often be clean (though death growls crop up from time to time…unfortunately), and sometimes they’ll tend towards the operatic. The genre also lends itself well to tales of fantasy, mythology, etc. On the whole, symphonic power metal will be much more melodically focused than other metal sub-genres and tends towards longer tracks with more room to develop.

Delain’s history is (to me, at least) fascinating. The genre is somewhat incestuous, and artists from one band will often crop up in another for a guest appearance or in a form of super group (most notably, the group Northern Kings, made up of some backing musicians and four of the foremost male vocalists in the genre, who have released two albums of covers of 80s pop songs, such as Take On Me and We Don’t Need Another Hero [it’s as gloriously ridiculous as it sounds]). In that vein, Delain was originally formed by Martijn Westerholt, who is the brother of the lead guitarist for Within Temptation and their one-time keyboardist (he was forced to leave the band owing to illness), along with then-teenage vocalist Charlotte Wessels. They began as a project band (one that doesn’t tour), and their first album, Lucidity, is a beautiful experiment. Presumably through contacts from his Within Temptation days, Westerholt was able to pull in some of the best musicians and vocalists in the business to record the album with him, most note-worthy being: Ad Sluijter of Epica, Marco Hietala of Nightwish and founding member of Tarot, and Sharon den Adel of Within Temptation (who is also Westerholt’s sister-in-law).

That first album in 2007 explores a lot of the traditional possibilities of the genre, heavy on the epic fantasy influences. Since then, they’ve released four more albums and found their voice. They settled on a more permanent line up, but still occasionally have Hietala appear on albums or at live shows for some guest vocals. Their 2012 album, We Are the Others contains the notable title track that functions as an anthem for many of their fans and deals with the death of Sophie Lancaster, the reasons for it, and the importance of solidarity and being true to yourself. The sound has departed from some of the more traditional elements of the genre without losing the flavor, while embracing some more elements of rock, and their style does well at showcasing Wessels’ dual training in both classical and jazz vocals.

Moonbathers, their latest album, opens with Hands of Gold, which leans on the epic feel to the point where it feels like its opening bars could have been composed by Hans Zimmer. The album is strong as a whole, with particular strength in the songs Danse Macabre, which does some interesting things with the vocal line, and Chrysalis – The Last Breath, which is a beautiful slow song that manages to maintain an air of tension throughout its full five and a half minutes. True to the genre, I’m told the song Turn The Lights Out draws its influence from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, which reminds me I really need to get down my reading list to that one… I enjoyed the song Scandal, but at first listening I couldn’t work out why this very 80s sounding song was in the middle of the album. Then I realized it was a cover of a Queen song, and it made a little more sense. It’s fun, but it does feel a little jarring placed in the middle of the album as it is.

Delain definitely remains one of my favorite bands, I’ve seen them live twice (once opening Download in 2012, and once supporting Kamelot), and I’m sure I’ll see them again. I’d thoroughly recommend checking them out. If you listen to metal in some form, I’d start with Lucidity; if you’re less familiar with the genre, then We Are the Others is a good introduction to their newer tone.

The Lumineers – Cleopatra

The Lumineers – Cleopatra

For those who aren’t aware, Cleopatra is the 2nd album from the American folk rock band The Lumineers. Today I’m going to make my case for why this is the album we all need right now.

A bold statement, I realize, especially as not everyone is a fan of folk rock. However, even if it isn’t your sort of thing normally, I might recommend giving it a listen at the moment.

The majority of the songs deal with depressing topics via melancholic lyrics. The title track tells the story of a woman who feels she’s missed her chance at love and believes she’ll die alone, Sleep on the Floor deals with two people having to get out of town while they can as they’re decried as sinners, and Long Way from Home narrates the slow death of a man into his final moments.

These topics are covered, and emotionally rendered. The ideas are not dismissed, and the album has a melancholic air.

And, yet, while these issues are treated for the tragedies, etc. that they should be, the songs do not wallow in them. The album on the whole manages to leave the audience with an optimistic feeling. Some songs suggest that while this time is a bad one, it has a impermanence to it. The message is not “this is terrible and the end of everything” so much as “this is a transient situation, we must keep moving and push against that darkness, and in time this will pass.”

Sleep on the Floor might watch two people running from persecution, but it does so with the idea in mind that you can lie down and take it, or move on to something better:

If the sun don’t shine on me today

And if the subways flood and bridges break

Will you lay yourself down and dig your grave

Or will you rail against your dying day

The protagonist in Cleopatra might believe that she missed her chance, but she continues to press on with grim determination:

So I drive a taxi, and the traffic distracts me

From the strangers in my backseat, they remind me of you

But I was late for this, late for that, late for the love of my life

And when I die alone, when I die alone, when I die I’ll be on time

This “pressing on” is underscored by the music, which is driven with a slight bounce to it that emphasizes the more positive notes that are hidden in the song.

And while Long Way from Home deals with death, it finds a silver-lining in that the death comes as a relief:

More morphine, the last words you moaned

At last I was sure

That you weren’t far away from home

Hardly joyous stuff, but it looks at finding in the darkness whatever light you can, and pushing against that darkness regardless of the struggle, which I think a lot of people might need right now. And I really enjoy the music.

I also want to put in a special mention for the beautiful videos for Cleopatra, which does a great job of depicting the song and doesn’t take time out of that for the band (which can work sometimes but sometimes is jarring), and Ophelia which has a delightful simplicity to it, and that I love for a reason I can’t quite explain.

Note: A lot of what I’m going to say in these monthly music posts is going to be my subjective opinion. If you disagree with me, I’m always happy to discuss music, either in the comments on WordPress, or on the Facebook post I put a link to this in.

Jack White

Jack White

I’m going to take today’s post as a chance to ramble about music. As the first goal ($10/month) was met on my Patreon, I’ll be buying some new writing-music every month, and in turn will likely post a blog about music once a month.

I was raised on a slightly odd medley of classical music, jazz, folk, and Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals. I was a late bloomer when it came to popular music, and it wasn’t until I was 16 that I bought the first albums I could call my own, one of which was Elephant by The White Stripes. Their heavy blues origin made the transition an obvious one, if only in retrospect.

Jack White has held a pretty permanent spot in my listening habits ever since, and I feel that he is to me what Bowie is to others (not that I’m not a Bowie fan, he was merely absent from my earlier musical education and I had to be introduced to him in my early 20s). As with Bowie, White does so many diverse things with his music that one song can sound like  a complete departure from the last, and yet if a song by him comes on I’ve never heard before, there’s something about it that marks it as his own.

This has only become more apparent since he started his solo career and developed more and more side projects. The White Stripes largely kept their songs simplistic; shorter songs, mostly under four minutes, picking a single theme and taking it for a walk. There was plenty of variation present (there’s a large distance between, for example, Fell in Love with a Girl and Ball and a Biscuit), but the two person band clearly put a few restrictions on his ideas. His solo music shows him stretching his musical muscles a little further, and being able to take advantage of a larger host of guest musicians. I saw him perform at Bonaroo 2014 and he had an entire stage full of musicians to support him, adding new depth and breadth to the sound of even old songs.

With his first solo album, Blunderbuss, he takes the departure slowly—Sixteen Saltines definitely sounds like a slightly more produced White Stripes song, but within that album we start to hear what can be done with White’s mind applied to a larger band in the form of deeper layering and a fuller sound in songs like Freedom at 21 or I’m Shakin’. By the second album, Lazaretto, we start to see songs like High Ball Stepper [Instrumental]That Black Bat Licorice, and Lazaretto appear, which don’t just take the idea for a walk, but chat with a few friends along the way. The new wider sound doesn’t stop him from providing more emotional songs such as Love Interruption, or traditional blues story songs like Three Women or Want and Able.

White’s side projects are a fascination in their own right. The Raconteurs are best known for Steady, As She Goes, which is a shame, as it could be dismissed as slightly rocked up White Stripes. Their other songs keep to the shorter format, but blend White and Brendan Benson’s styles with elements of rocks and late era Beatles. If you’re not familiar with their other work, give Hands and Yellow Sun a listen and tell me if you think I’m wrong. The band has a genuine sweetness, bitter on some tracks and less so on others, that isn’t apparent in quite the same way in The White Stripes or White’s solo work.

My most recent exploration of White’s work has been The Dead Weather. I knew I Can’t Hear You for some time, but I finally obtained the album Sea of Cowards and was able to listen to the full range of what that collaboration has wrought. The base sound is very different to anything I’ve heard from White before, but still holds that note that tells you it’s him. The most notable differences are the inclusion of more electronic sounds that White has tended to shun in the past, a more intense layering of sound, and the departure from picking a single theme, as The Dead Weather are more prone to pick up one theme and then weave in others. I Can’t Hear You may actually be the most traditionally White track on the album, distinct from Jawbreaker with its notable electronic sounds, I’m Mad with White’s forced “ha-ha”s raising the hairs on the back of your neck, Die by the Drop which seems to draw influences from Nine Inch Nails, or The Difference Between Us with its more intense build of layered instruments and White playing backing vocalist to Alison Mosshart.

There is a risk that I may revisit White here (if more briefly) in the not too distant future, as I have the double vinyl of his release of acoustic recordings from 1998-2016 waiting in the other room. I’m just waiting to have a couple of hours free to listen to it properly.

If you’re a fan of Jack White, I’d recommend giving a listen to Royal Blood. They have a similar sound and I mistook them at first, but it’s too early to tell whether they’re cut from the same cloth or just emulating. We might see great things in the future.

A friend once told me that he didn’t like Jack White because he was too popular, which seemed very strange to me. He may have a huge following, but he’s not forgotten his blues roots. Standing in a crowd of 100,000 people at Bonaroo, he still managed to make it feel like he was playing to 12 of us in a seedy bar somewhere in Michigan.