Album Reviews

Leah – Kings and Queens

Every now and then, I come across an album that just knocks me over with fantastic music without a bad song on the whole album.  For me, that is fairly infrequent among my favorite bands, much less a relatively new artist on the scene whom I just discovered for the first time.  Leah is one of those artists and Kings and Queens is one of those albums.  Leah McHenry (vocals, piano, keyboards) is a solo artist – a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist – from British Columbia, Canada who has created her own flavor of metal with strong Celtic, folk, and world music influences in her writing.  Joining her on her third album and second full-length release included an impressive team of Timo Somers (Delain) on guitar, Barend Courbois (Blind Guardian) on bass, and Sander Zoer (Delain) on drums and percussion.  Her album includes 15 tracks that clock in at a weighty 83 minutes.  However, these songs include a wide variety of styles and philosophical lyrics that will keep you engaged from the start.

First up is the heavy yet ethereal Arcadia.  Starting off with plainchanting male voices and dulcimer beginning, this classical introduction is soon joined by a chugging guitar riff, notching it up quite a bit before the airy first verse sung angelically by Leah accompanied only by piano.  The rest of the band re-enters after this first verse with a balanced juxtaposition of measured and heavy continuation of the musical theme, picking up in rhythm quite a bit during the instrumental interlude before verse 3.  This song relates to the universal attempt in humankind to centralize power, which typically fails both in real life and in fantasy metaphors.  Even though the theme is dark and can be overwhelming, Leah also includes hope within her song, found during the bridge. The stronger, heavier instrumentation continues through the rest of the song until the end, as it is taken out again with the sounds of the Gregorian choir and hammered dulcimer.  This is a great opener that is tempered but yet provides a variety within it that contains straightforward rock yet includes ancient classical influences within it.

Save the World, the second track, yet again starts off with a slightly different musical introduction with a mandolin and medieval-sounding stringed instruments, joined by guitar and orchestral strings, ushered in by a snare roll into a smooth yet quirky first verse with syncopated guitar and whimsical percussion in the background.  This picks up into more standard rhythmic guitar going into the bridge and chorus, with a little pick up with some double kick drum and sitar-like accents.  This style continues until the interlude drops down to a two-line a capella section sung by Leah, followed by a heated guitar solo that fades into a delicate outro sung by Leah over a harp accompaniment.  This insightful song relates to the tendency for the prevalent messages in the public forums being doomsday-oriented, and with this message of hopelessness, everyone tends to just throw in the towel because there’s no hope to put forth effort and overcome it anyway, which then more than fulfills the prophecy that the world is declining rapidly to an end.

The third track is called Angel Fell, and it is a song that speaks about being imprisoned in darkness and facing one’s demons (maybe even literally).  The chorus in particular reminds me of the verses in Isaiah 14 that say “How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground—mighty though you were against the nations of the world. For you said to yourself, ‘I will ascend to heaven and rule the angels. I will take the highest throne. I will preside on the Mount of Assembly far away in the north.  I will climb to the highest heavens and be like the Most High.’ But instead, you will be brought down to the pit of hell, down to its lowest depths.”

This moderately-paced piece begins gently with a harpsichord-like introduction with an easing in of the bass and drums.  The guitar lightly plays rhythm underneath the start of the first verse sung wispily, yet strongly, by Leah.  The energy of the song continues to build into the chorus with a full rock sound that is an interesting juxtaposition with a heavy driving beat from the band while Leah’s vocals couldn’t be any more opposite with very fluid and airy delivery.  The song then circles back to the harpsichord playing the introductory theme solitarily as the music follows the same building pattern going into the second verse and chorus, and continues to build with the harpsichord playing in conjunction with the band during the interlude that features the guitar soloing with some vocal improvisations.  This eventually dies down at the end, returning to its introductory roots as the song plays out with the recurrent harpsichord theme accompanied by some strings in the background.

Despite its Celtic-oriented title, Enter the Highlands could not be further from that style as it shifts gears quite a bit from its predecessor and revs up the pace.  It starts off with a very heavy riff with a bit of orchestration to accompany the groove-laden introduction. Leah digs into the first verse with strong vocals right out of the gate, further pushed by double kick-drumming and acrobatic guitars.  It moderates a bit before going into one of the bridges, where the music scales back to some more basic percussion and a very prominent distorted and interesting bassline to complement the vocal lines that are gently delivered at first, but then even Leah’s vocals build to a strong projection.  In a true progressive approach, this song continues through several twists and turns like a roller coaster of dynamics and instrumentation as the gears change yet again where the band drops out to leave only a harp and vocals, with another slow build with the introduction of more keys and eventually the rest of the band as the heavy groove returns into more double kick-drumming as earlier in the song.  This cycle through a variety of verses, bridges, channels, and choruses continues until the end of the song that is delicately played out by piano and some string accents only.  Leah’s description of this song takes its theme from storied lost civilizations like Atlantis, Pompeii, and others that have been destroyed in one way or another, and she uses the metaphor of these legends (real or imagined) to apply them to our current times as well.

In the Palm of Your Hands is the name of the fifth track, of which Leah describes the theme having “to do with surrender, standing for truth no matter the cost, even if it means your reputation. The song ends with triumph in the end because your conscience is clear and you know you stood for the right thing.”  The song starts off only with percussion and a synth of the melody that sounds like a mixture of dulcimer and harpsichord.  This continues with some added bass and purely delivered vocals as the first verse begins.  However, the song bulks up during the chorus as the guitar enters with heavy chords and Leah’s voice sounds stronger and more resolute, paralleling the message of perseverance that the chorus communicates.  The same pattern continues through the second verse and chorus, with a few more fancy vocal embellishments and the addition of harmonies.  Then during the bridge, the style pares back to just a wisp of delicate vocals and keys, slowly building with the addition of bass, then chimes and then the full blown band complement continuing with a meaty but moderate beat that you can sink your teeth into until the last minute of the song that fades back to the intro and verse instrumentation, as the first two lines of the first verse are reiterated and take the song out.

The sixth track takes a second approach, and is sung all in Latin.  Alpha Et Omega (Alpha and Omega) was inspired by the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, focusing on verses about water as they related to the “Beginning and the End.”  Part of the inspiration for this was to sing in an language other than English, and so Leah tries her hand quite successfully singing in Latin here.  This song begins with a Celtic Bodhran drum that sounds almost synthesized, but not long after this percussive introduction, the band enters with a pentatonic riff that is very heavy and chunky in its delivery.  She wanted this song to be heavy, and part of that is emphasized by the low drop G tuning that is used for this song (which, by the way, is the lowest song Timo said he has ever recorded).  However, when the first verse starts, it sounds almost like a Gregorian chant, both with its Latin lyrics as well as the plainchant style.  Though the first verse sounds more like it could be coming from a cathedral, the re-entry of the band subsequent to the first verse leaves no mistake that this is still, in fact, a metal album despite its measured and deliberate Adagio tempo.  Especially when the song hits about the 4:00 mark, the guitar is in a high gear of unreal proportions as the rhythm is so fast it sounds like Timo took a power drill (á la Paul Gilbert) to the strings. Soon after, the continued deliberate tempo – though still with heavy riffing – is resumed, and on the last stanza, the song ends with just a harp and Leah’s vocals wispily trailing off.  This song has a mixture of influences within it, from the Celtic instruments, to the plainchant-like melody and the Middle-Eastern scales and accents, all within a heavy metal foundation which work amazingly well together.

Heart of Poison is a rocker, starting off right off with the melodic riff that is the theme of the song going right into the first verse.  The Latin from the last song has not completely disappeared as it returns as a feature in the choruses that state “Domine mysteriorum, Custos aenigmatum (O Lord of the mysteries/secrets, O Keeper of the riddles/enigma),” which highlights the main idea behind the song of the character who reaches out to this Master who knows all the secrets that this person is seeking due to his own human limitations, with himself and his own fallen nature being the source of that limitation and the answer to the riddle he has been seeking.  The melody and theme stay consistent throughout the several verses, but change on the choruses and the very last verse.  The choruses lay back with less guitar and lengthier phrasing that with the Latin again have more chant-like quality. Before the last verse that is thrice repeated there is a short keyboard interlude that has a nice combination of piano, harp, and balafon-like sounds with layered, frilly countermelodies.   After this last repeated verse, the first verse is reintroduced with vocals and piano only, with an almost childlike yet profound delivery as it ends the song.  Leah’s vocals are angelic as ever on this song, especially during the choruses and final verse, and her diction is so crystal clear that every syllable comes out in the vocals lines.

The eighth song, Hourglass, is a melancholy piece with a theme of loss, with the drifting away of someone in one’s life but not knowing what will happen with the very real possibility of not ever seeing them again.  It begins with a solo guitar line over synth chords, with percussion slowly entering as the rhythmic foundation into the entry of the first verse.  It builds into the short chorus, and ebbs back again as the second verse begins, flowing back into the heavier groove of the chorus and the musical interlude that includes the soulful guitar solo and the introduction of more tempered double bass drumming, and ends with a bridge and repeat of the chorus.  The tempo is slower with this song, which is fitting for the topic of the song, and might be considered the power ballad on this album that, despite being the shortest track on the album, packs a balladic punch.

Palace of Dreams, however, pulls no punches when it comes to differentiating itself from its predecessor, starting off with a lively tempo with the full band all in playing 16th notes rhythms and Leah’s voice soaring overhead with a portentous melody, crescendoing into a flurry of runs on strings, keys, and guitar, just as a lead up into the first verse.  However, things soon settle in with piano, bass, percussion, and a lighter presence of guitar as Leah’s solid yet occasionally ethereal vocals carry the lovely vocal line.  The chorus is more measured with harmonized strongly-delivered vocals, and also contains the phrase for which the albums is named, encompassing her main theme of “Kings and Queens,” and all the many things that come with power and the abuse or fall of such.  The verses and choruses cycle appropriately, and Leah ebbs and flows seamlessly between her delicately and more headily delivered higher range and her solid and forcefully delivered middle range respective to the verse and chorus.  The end of the song reprises the more intense music from the introduction, along with a different channel of melody and lyrics to end the song with the return of more Latin in conjunction with English about the ultimate demise of the tyrant that will fall and have no realm.

As for many of her songs, Leah creates a story behind each one to help her formulate her songwriting for each piece, some which are more in-depth than others.  For those who like more background about the music they listen to, her story behind this song is quite lengthy and detailed, and may only be Part 1 of more to come:  “I often make up little stories or plot lines to inspire lyrics. This song is a story about an evil tyrant (the Usurper, “Tyranus es”) who has put a spell over the Kings and Queens of the land. He has been working in the shadows to set up a one-world dictatorship for many centuries. This usurper character only works through secret societies, dirty politics, the media and the naive masses. He is always hiding in the shadows, but presents his insidious ideas as wonderful solutions to the rest of the world through his deceived, but loyal subjects. Because the Kings and Queens of the land are under his spell, they also deceive their own sub-kingdoms and all who will listen to them. They believe the Usurper has the answers they need to end their problems and support his idea to reign from a round tower that reaches to the heavens, which he wants to call “The Palace of Dreams”. Despite the Usurper’s greatest attempts to re-build this tower which was previously destroyed (that’s another story for another time), he knows he is destined for failure, and it’s just a matter of time. A few faithful, underground commoners remember how to break the spell, and work to spread the word, though it might mean their life. As the people of the lands begin to hear these small whispers about the truth, the spell begins to break and cracks in the beloved, unfinished tower become increasingly bigger and more obvious to the rest of the kingdom. After a while, all the Usurper’s secrets are out and the people of the kingdom find out about the cursed spell that has bewitched their Kings and Queens, their lands, and their kingdom. The story isn’t finished yet, but perhaps in the future there will be a Part 2…”

The tenth track is entitled This Present Darkness, and the first thing that came to mind for me was the book of the same name by Frank Peretti.  For those of you who haven’t read the book, in short, it is mystery tale that focuses on the spiritual warfare that happens in a small town.  And whether or not Leah’s inspiration came from this book directly, both the book and her song take the phrase “This Present Darkness” from the sixth chapter of Ephesians:  “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (For those who like to dig deep, other lyrical influences include Habakkuk 2:14 and Isaiah 54:17…)  This theme of physical and spiritual battle is found in her lyrics of this song (watch the lyric video for this track below) with a compelling song that is easily a sonically appealing favorite.  As one might predict about a song about cosmic warfare, the tune has a bite and aggressiveness to it with a dash of epicness and multi-layered instrumentation.  It starts off with a more delicate keyboard entry that gives it an otherworldly feel to it, and then the vocals, bass, and light drums come in to introduce the first verse. The segue between the first and second verses, however, dig in deeply with chunky guitar and descanting flute/whistle with a heavy drum and bass foundation.  The second verse is again reminiscent of the first verse, but the chorus is at once catchy and heavy at the same time with the downtuned guitars and syncopated rhythms underneath the steady vocal lines. Verse three and the second chorus follow suit, and stay heavy into the instrumental interlude with 16th note guitar rhythms and vocal cadenzas, easing back a little to let the piano and keys shine going into the extended final verse on its exultant ending, fading out with the same introductory line of the cosmic keys.  Whether or not you get into the spiritual inspiration of the song, the music alone is enough to keep one enthralled for a good six and a half minutes.

The Crown is a slow-builder of a tune.  It first starts simply with a mandolin and plucked strings introduction that supports the first verse, which then builds a distorted bass with a nice complimentary bass line.  As the song enters the first chorus, harp is added in, and still keeps the song at a fairly gentle level, but then the guitar and drums enter and continue to build and layer the instrumentation, making it heavier.  Leah’s vocals also follow the instrumentation in her intensity, matching the depth of the instrumentation.  This song feels like a slow cut-time tempo, and even though speed is not the goal of the song, there are some nice moments of features, solos, countermelodies, and a key change that interplay at times among the light and gentle or the heavy and chunky moments of the song.   One of the latter additions to the album in the songwriting process, this song relates the sense of the mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion of a traveler in the middle of a lengthy journey in the desert.

The inspiration for the twelfth song came to Leah from the Lord of the Rings story, with the theme of perseverance and triumph amidst facing evil, persecution, and hardship during their mission to Mordor.  The lyrics also paint the picture more broadly and talk about the remnant of the faithful few who follow the narrow path and stay the course despite difficulties, trials, and refining with the ultimate reward.  Remnant is one of those songs that you can see why Leah has been dubbed the “metal Enya.” The beginning starts off with the ethereal vocals that could easily be mistaken for Enya, but after the first 15 seconds of the airy vocals and keys, there is no mistake that Leah isn’t Enya as some of the heaviest riffs enter with a glorious introduction.  It steps back to arpeggiating guitar, keys, and foundational rhythm, but it continues to build with double kick drum, added guitar layering, and even the addition of what sounds like toy piano keys propelling the song forward.   The chorus is a bit more measured but easily bulks up into the interlude, maintaining a certain level of drive for the whole song with some variation to keep each stanza independent from the others.  This is a song you can really sink your teeth into and it definitely pulls you in.  Remnant is easily one of my favorites on this album (though it’s really too difficult to pick a favorite).

There is No Farewell, on the other hand, couldn’t be more stylistically different from its preceding track as it begins with male Gregorian chant with piano and harpsichord for its introduction.  The 6/8 cadence of the song picks up at the entry of the verses, however with the rest of the band for a meatier delivery of the melody still accented by the piano and harpsichord accompaniments.  There is a pleasant interlude between verses with a bass solo that was a nice change to hear.  The intensity slowly builds throughout the song, departing ever so slightly from the initial lilting feel of the 6/8 time signature of the song, but toward the end, that sense returns and the end of the song reprises the Gregorian chants with a dulcimer/harpsichord melody playing the song out.  This track is inspired by imagery generated from the story and illustrations from the Chronicles of Narnia series, particularly The Magician’s Nephew.  It also draws inspiration from the tenth verse of Psalm 84 – “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere” – and the eighth verse of John 3 – “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”

Siúil a Rún (acoustic) and bonus track (rock version) is the last track on the album, with only the acoustic version available on the CD and the additional rock version bonus track on the digital album.  A fan of the Irish band Clannad, Leah performs this Irish song covered by them (among others, including Celtic Woman, Mary Black, and Sissel & the Chieftains, to name a few) in two different styles of her own preference, incorporating the Gaelic lyrics with the English for yet another lingual exploration.  It is a traditional song that she stated is “allegedly about a woman lamenting over her Irish lover who is given a choice by the English to either join the army or be exiled forever…so she supports his decision to leave.”  Though her version is faster and more upbeat, it still embodies its Irish roots with the use of whistle, harp, and Uilleann pipes throughout.  The acoustic version includes these instruments with some acoustic guitar, piano, bass, and trap set as well as other percussion.  The beat in this song has a more syncopated 6/8 foundation than other versions, giving it a different feel than more traditional renditions.  It is a beautiful version, though I think for this acoustic arrangement I would have kept it more simple and “unplugged” with a Bodhran or djembe drum rather than the full trap set for the percussion, and it would have been nice for there to be acoustic rather than electric bass as well.  The bonus rock version is still very similar with the acoustic version as the base for the song, but electric guitars are added in the choruses with a gradual presence as it continues, giving the song a little teeth to this waltzy song.  With Leah’s Celtic influences and stylings, this song is a nice bookend to an ambitious album.

Overall, Leah‘s album Kings and Queens is a fantastic offering with a tracklist of various styles, languages, and influences.  Her collaboration with Timo Somers, Barend Courbois, and Sander Zoer was a fortuitous combination who together produced a top notch album with what seems to be a shared vision amongst them all.  With 83 minutes of sonic bliss, the length alone might be overload for some listeners to take in one sitting. However, I had no trouble listening to this album in one take, and actually spun it on repeat for weeks as I let it soak in and enjoyed the angelic vocals, world-influenced instrumentation and songwriting, variety of both delicate and chunky passages in the music, and the philosophical, societal, and spiritual themes in the songs.  I confess that I was not familiar with Leah and her work prior to this review, but I quickly remedied that by adding all of her discography to my collection as I researched for this album.  Having also now heard her whole catalog of music, Leah’s songwriting and instrumental and vocal performances have been significantly talented, but at this point, Kings and Queens is a stunning pinnacle of her work thus far.  Her voice is uniquely talented, with a clear tone and enunciation and an ability to sing both lightly and softly at appropriate moments of a song, while at other times, strongly belting out the melody without a compromise of clarity or stability.  I also have loved her incorporation of the Celtic and Middle Eastern influences in the unmistakable heavy metal foundation of her songs.  Like her, I also love both of those styles given my classical and eclectic musical background, and I have enjoyed the ways that Leah seamlessly integrates them into her work for added interest and depth to her songs.  This album could easily appeal to world music lovers as much as it would naturally garner support from progressive, symphonic, folk, and melodic metal fans. Leah’s popularity seems to be growing with each new album, and Kings and Queens is definitely one that all music fans should check out – and you, too, might be a new Leah acolyte!

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