Leaves' Eyes- King of Kings

Leaves' Eyes- King of Kings




Mon, 12 Oct 2015 19:01:34 +0000


LE_KOK_P03Inter-European symphonic metal band Leaves’ Eyes is not content to rest as they release their 6th full-length studio album, King of Kings, after only 11 years since their first release. This album continues in their affinity for telling Scandinavian tales, this time as a concept album recounting the story of Harald Fairhair, the first king of a unified Norway. Featuring Norwegian frontwoman Liv Kristine on lead singing vocals, she is joined by husband Alexander Krull on gutteral vocals with fellow Germans Thorsten Bauer on guitar & bass and Pete Streit on guitar, and Dutchman Joris Nijenhuis on drums. They are also joined by guest vocalist Simone Simons (Epica), the London Voices choir (known for their work on major films such as Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter) and the White Russian Symphony Orchestra to create a truly epic feel to the album. Taking on an heroic storyline in history, they waste no time as they begin in earnest with their first track.

Sweven is the two-minute opener, beginning with a solo violin, soon joined by a hammered dulcimer and bukkehorn as the deep tribal-sounding drums bring more depth to the song. Soon after, Kristine‘s ethereal soprano vocals enter, singing the verse in Norwegian. This segues into the chorus, which then includes a hurdy gurdy melody as men chant the lineage of Harald (Odin’s son, Halvdan’s son). As the music continues, a boy’s voice enters (voiced by Liv and Alexander’s son Leon) and continues to speak in Norwegian, establishing the presence of the young King of Kings, which segues directly into the next track of the same name. This introduction is delightful with the combination of the music box and glockenspiel-like melodies that set this song up with a faint entry of the choir singing the main theme underneath the music. Telling the story of Harald Hårfagre, with the delicately sung first verse with an increasing presence of the band and choral support while Krull supplements them with growls of “King of Kings” during the choruses. A heavy bridge follows with a mixture of clean and dirty vocals, alternating the lyrics, with a brief line of a sole spoken vocal by Kristine that segues into a finale of the chorus with a triumphant ending. These two tracks have made a distinct impression and set the stage for the them and sound of the album to come. (watch the music video for this track below)

Halvdan The Black, named after the father of Harald Fairhair who was king of Vestfold, begins with a very clearly Viking-inspired opening. Introduced by a horn blast with cellos, segueing into deep drum beats and aggressive male vocal chanting that introduce this piece. The band soon joins along with the choir as the chorus makes its entrance into the song with the vivace tempo kept up by the chugging guitar and rhythm in tow. After this epic entrance, it drops to only the bass and drums (with faint keyboard chords) and Kristine’s operatic soprano vocals only to introduce the first verse. Then Krull’s dirty vocals carry the bridge into the chorus as heard at the beginning of the piece with the choir and more dirty vocals for accent as the instruments resume their driving presence. The piece continues with into the second verse, which is heavier in instrumentation than the first verse, and resumes the pattern with another bridge and chorus in the same delivery as before. This then merges into a instrumental interlude with a nicely delivered melodic guitar solo that has a less driven feel than the rest of the song. Lastly the chorus reprises, twice repeated, before the closing of the song during which his Old Norse name, Halvdanr Svarte, is included in the choral lyrics. This song relates the unfortunate and premature death of Halvdan at only 40 years of age due to his sleigh falling into an icy river, resulting in his drowning to death, and his body ended up being divided into fourths so he could be buried at each of the four districts of his realm. (hear the song in the video below)

The fourth track, The Waking Eye, is one of those songs that hearkens back to the earlier Nightwish sound (for comparison), but with an edgier delivery. This song sets the stage for the vision relating to Harald‘s becoming king after his father’s death, and eventually uniting Norway. This song actually begins with the chorus in an innocently delivered approach with only Kristine’s vocals and piano. Then, the band abruptly enters with the melodic motifs of the song with a gritty, distorted edge to them, followed by the initial introduction of the Gothic choir motif of the single words sung in a marcato style for emphasis. The first verse drops to a much more prominent bass, light drums, piano, and vocals for a more ethereal delivery, stepping away for a moment from the harsher side of the piece. Irish whistle and harp are added lightly underneath, and guitars re-enter more delicately and build as the piece enters the chorus, again joined by the cinematic London Voices. This pattern recurs into the second verse, bridge, and chorus, but then leads into a different interlude that includes some instrumental segments as well as coarsely-spoken dirty vocals juxtaposed with accented choral “ahs.” Then the gritty epicness is suspended for a lightly graceful portion with just chimes, harp, piano and lead female vocals for an almost audibly suspended bridge before the heaviness of the song comes back in with full force the lead the song out with a definitive chorus. This piece exudes a bit of the typical symphonic metal cliché, but as one of the initial singles, should still be a favorite among fans of the genre. (Hear the song in the video below)

Feast Of The Year is an instrumental with a strong Celtic influence. Opening with the drone and melody from the hurdy-gurdy and Uilleann pipes, tambourines, and Bohdran drums, this short 38-second piece is merely a lengthened introduction into the next song, Vengeance Venom, which then kicks off into a Celtic reel melody on the Irish whistle. This melody is soon paralleled on the guitars that enter, and the entire band then takes up the same melody, fading down into the drums momentarily to lead into the first verse. Building as it leads into the rousing chorus, the male chanting underneath the vocal lines as well as the 12/8 lilt to the song gives it a strong dance and drinking song flavor, giving the music a more folk music vibe within symphonic and Viking metal elements on this album and makes for a quite enjoyable listen. The melodic themes reprise through a couple of repeats throughout the course of the song, ending it with a strong “Skål!” (Cheers!) as an appropriate farewell. As a fan of Celtic music, I love how the style and instrumentation were infused into these last two tracks to give more variety to the album.

Starting off with a folksy beginning, but joined soon after in tandem by the band with quite a heavy entry, Sacred Vow is a song that tells the tale of the princess Gyda, the daughter of the king of Hordaland, who rejected Harald’s marriage proposal, and said she would refuse to marry him until he was king over all of Norway. Harald took this challenge to heart, and apparently vowed not to cut or comb his hair until he was the sole ruler of a united Norway, which he accomplished only 10 years later. This, however, gave him the nicknames “Shockhead” or “Tanglehair,” both of which are referenced in the lyrics. This song is fast-paced, and alternates between lighter and more delicately delivered verses with a strong driving bass and heavy chugging bridges and choruses. This song again has a classic Nightwish sense to it, but still retains Leaves’ Eyes trademark sound and has more of an edge to the guitars with more power metal infused into the beat. The soprano range and marcato delivery of the melodies in the main vocal lines and accompanying choral lines further emphasize the speed and accents of the rhythms in the driving pace of the track.

The eighth track, Edge Of Steel, features Simone Simons (Epica) on guest vocals. It opens with a martial beat and epic chorals before segueing in to the band’s introduction of the main motif. The first verse enters, alternating the soprano vocals for two lines, with one line of growly vocals almost like a call and answer, as it merges into the bridge and anthemic chorus complete with spoken male chants and Gothic choir accompaniment. This pattern repeats again until the instrumental interlude about halfway through the song, which is a musical shift in melody, style, and key from what has been happening previously in the song thus far. It remains driving, with choral elements as well as the feature of the Uilleann pipe, but introduces a new motif to keep the listener’s interest. A new channel of vocal melodies is introduced after the interlude before the reprise of the verse/bridge/chorus pattern makes its appearance again, albeit modulating back down to the original key. After the last rousing chorus, the martial beat and male chants return to carry this song of battle out to its finale.

The title of the ninth song, Haraldskvæði, is named from the Old Norse poem Hrafnsmál (“Raven Song”) written by 9th century Norwegian poet Þorbjörn Hornklofi. He was Harald’s court poet, who related the military deeds and life of Harald as discussed by a valkyrie and a raven in this poem, the contents of which are the inspiration for this track. Unsurprisingly, this song is very folk-oriented, all acoustic without any metal influences, reflecting the time and theme of its topic. This track begins ominously and mysteriously with humming and a rattling and tinkling of metallic charms and percussion. Soon enters a low string and men’s chorus drone, and female whispering with dulcimer and female chanting soon joining in just in the introduction before the airy and delicate first verse comes in. The chorus is a mixture of acoustic guitar, monosyllabic female-sung melodies, and the Viking men’s chorus chanting the Norwegian lyrics. The pace picks up a bit into the second verse, with the addition of the drumbeat and Uilleann pipes and continues into the second chorus as before with the curtly chanted Norwegian lyrics with the chorus descanting overhead. It fades again into the whispering over the drone and finger cymbals and other light percussion.

Blazing Waters, at seven and a half minutes long, is the longest song on the album and recounts the decisive Battle of Hafrsfjord of 872, which is when Harald Fairhair finally united Norway under one kingdom.. Opening again with a folk entry including percussion, violin, hurdy gurdy, acoustic guitar, whistles and pipes, the music builds with the epic voices from the choir before the unmistakable entry of the rest of the band with the driving guitars playing a catchy 16th note phrasing incorporating the scale and its root throughout the riff. This launches into a gruffly spoken first verse, rather than the usually using melodies, and the operatic chorus comes thereafter. The second verse is again growled with the melodic chorus following, all of which have the symphony and choirs accompanying the verses aside from being featured in the choruses. After the second chorus comes a truly cinematic instrumental interlude with the epic choir vocals, and symphonic arrangements in tandem with the rest of the band. After a brief channel relating the fate of the fallen kings with the epic choral secondary chorus, the band reappears at the forefront with a guitar-driven solo and back to the reprise of the previous riff, accompanied by growled lyrics into the recurring primary chorus that leads into a final key change and encore ending. An a capella choir takes the song to the end after the music has stopped, with the same lyrics and melody as what started track as a nice closing of the musical loop. Of note, Lindy-Fay Hella (Wardruna) also appears on this song, lending her voice to the ambitious track.

The last song on the album is Swords In Rock, a rousing ending to the album. The name of the song is the English translation of the Norwegian monument Sverd I Fjell, a 33-foot sculpture planted in rock in Stavanger, Norway, which commemorates the Battle of Hafrsfjord as the previous track recounted. Consisting of 3 swords, the largest sword represents Harald, while the other two smaller swords represent the lesser kings that were defeated under his rule. Starting off with the sound of a sword being unsheathed, it starts like a drinking song in a pub, with drums, solo violin, and Irish whistle with a jig-like melody. The guitars, bass, and drums soon join with the same melody and rhythms, and the song is out of the gate with an enjoyable Celtic/Viking metal piece telling the tale of Harald’s victories. Clipping along at a good pace, this moderately short song, it blazes through the first verse, which is more ethnic with percussion, violin, and male chanting underneath the female melodic vocal lines. The chorus then enters with the complement of the full band, and continue to drive it into the second and third verses into the second chorus. This is followed by a Viking chorus with chanting again, after which the tone of the song is brought down again for a more medieval verse 4. The band re-enters again during the last verse for one last hurrah, bringing with them a key change, building into the finale with the continued chanting of the song’s title, a fun and fitting finale to this cinematic concept album.

On an additional note for those who are interested: In the deluxe book version of the album, a second disc is included with some musical gems, including a piano version of The Waking Eye (featuring Kamelot‘s Oliver Palotai), acoustic versions of Vengeance Venom and Swords in Rock, as well as instrumental versions of all the original tracks.

In general, Leaves’ Eyes maintain their own unique brand of folk symphonic metal, but it is hard not to fall into the clichés of the genre, especially since they are one of the earlier bands to be founded in the symphonic metal realm (especially with the “beauty and the beast” operatic female/growly male vocal pairing). They do not do that too often, but at times there are moments where their sound isn’t as differentiated from their peers in the genre, which can be increasingly difficult as this style expands. However, with over a decade of experience and growth under their belt, they continue to experiment and improve as they find their own style that sets them apart. Taking the historical approach, this album has a clear objective that again gives it the Leaves’ Eyes approach, especially focusing on the Norwegian history of frontwoman Liv Kristine‘s heritage….particularly because she was born in the same place where the battle that was decisive in Harald Fairhair’s defeating and uniting the Norwegian kingdoms was fought and therefore has a special connection to the material.

The pairing of Liv Kristine on lead clean singing vocals with Alexander Krull on the gutteral spoken vocals work well together. Kristine’s soprano is operatic without being shrill or too edgy, and she shows versatility in performing with a strong push or a delicate whisper as the music calls for it, and Krull’s dirty vocals are not overused and fit appropriately when they are present, especially given the Viking nature of the theme (and this is coming from someone who is not at all a fan of “Cookie Monster” vocals). Thorsten Bauer and Pete Streit on guitars (as well as covering bass duties) are a good team and blend well together with lead and rhythm parts. They give a strong edge to the songs, and it is nice when they parallel the melodies from the other instruments as well. Joris Nijenhuisdrums are very solid and provide the beat needed for whatever each song calls for, whether it is a driving power metal beat, a martial snare, or a Celtic lilt. His parts are not overplayed, and fit nicely as a foundation to the music.

 Leaves’ Eyes are a mixture of the symphonic metal of Nightwish, with a dash of power metal and dirty male/clean female duo vocals like Lacuna Coil or Amaranthe, and have the historical war leanings of Sabaton. Their particular hybrid of style, particularly as executed on this album, has left me a fan of their sound, and I really appreciate the variety of instruments and voices combined to create a nicely composed album. Already a fan of period instruments, Celtic and folk melodies, epic choirs, and cinematic music as well as world history and concept albums, this release definitely hit the spot with me. One of the only things that left me a bit wanting was the electric guitar tones, which seemed a little bright in the mix and were fairly uniform throughout the album, which allowed for consistency but left little space for differences in the sound in conjunction with other instruments and styles. The distortion effects could have been more versatile with the other musical styles and instrumentation while still maintaining a crunchy edge to the metal aspect of the album. However, one is hard-pressed to find a complaint on this album. King of Kings is a wonderful mix of musical textures and styles (within a spectrum), historical storytelling, compelling melodies, vocal approaches, and sweeping orchestral arrangements that should appeal to a wide range of music lovers on one level or another. This is a great 2015 release that I would easily recommend for the music collector’s library as a must-buy. This magnum opus of Leaves’ Eyes’ latest offering sets a bar that even they may have a hard time beating.
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 “The Waking Eye”  

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“King of Kings”  

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Halvdan the Black”

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