Released by: Napalm Records
Release Date: August 10th, 2018
Genre: Acapella Power Metal
Hagen Hirschmann – Lead Vocals
Inga Scharf – Lead Vocals
Ross Thompson – Higher Rakkatakka Vocals
Stefan Schmidt – Lower Rakkatakka Vocals
Jan Moritz – Pad and Bass Vocals
Ingo Sterzinger – Bass and Backing Vocals
Bastian Emig – Drums and Backing Vocals
1. Back in the Lead
3. Trust in Rust
4. Ride the Sky (Helloween Cover)
7. Desert Snake
8. Darkest Days
10. Hells Bells (AC/DC Cover)
11. Heading Home
There are quite a few unique novelty bands playing various styles of metal, but perhaps no other band is more out there than Van Canto. Many bands focus on specific lyrical themes or use weird costumes or face paint and the like to distinguish themselves, but where Van Canto separates themselves from everyone else is purely with their sound. Their music is based around Acapella, a specific style of choral singing where the voice is used to create a full sound, often being used to make up for the lack of any physical instruments. Needless to say, pulling this off in the realms of metal is quite the challenge, and, at least to my knowledge, no one else has yet to attempt it, yet somehow Van Canto not only manages to make it work, they’ve had great success in doing so, releasing six albums through twelve years of existence, up to this point.
The band first exploded onto the scene in 2006, with their debut A Storm to Come, which was quite the impressive debut, containing a mix of original tracks as well as a cover of Metallica’s classic “Battery”, with the latter in particular catching the attention of many folks for being a unique and quite amazing version of the song. Over the next eight years, the band would release four more albums which followed roughly the same formula, featuring some original tracks, which were mostly based around a fantasy power metal style, along with the occasional ballad or more heavy metal influenced track, or even a track with slight symphonic elements through the use of vocal effects, as well covers of more classics such as “Wishmaster”, “Fear of the Dark” and “Master of Puppets”. My favourite work of theirs to date is their third album, Tribe of Force, which struck a perfect balance between originals and covers, as well as simply being an incredibly energetic and well-performed album. However, they changed things up a bit in 2016 with their sixth release, Voices of Fire, ditching covers completely and going for more of a conceptual approach, while also increasing the symphonic elements. It was a surprisingly cohesive and epic fantasy power metal album full of great tracks, and quickly became my second favourite by the band, as well as being their most adventurous and most epic. I was anticipating a follow up in the near future, but sadly longtime lead vocalist Sly left the band in 2017, which led to the band shifting gears. They recruited new vocalist Hagen Hirschmann and soon went to work on their next release. Now, in the second half of 2018, that new release, Trust in Rust, is here, and it marks a return to a more traditional format for the band, containing a couple of cover tracks, as well as being less focused and more silly, like past releases. Unfortunately, while it still contains some fun tracks and traces of their epic sound, less energetic and rougher performances, as well as inconsistent songwriting, prevent it from living up their past works, instead of ending up as easily their weakest release to date.
For those who’ve never heard the band before, Van Canto has a truly unique sound, with drums being the only physical instrument in place, while everything else is performed through vocals. They have members making different sounds to imitate the guitars and bass, as well as occasionally having co-lead vocalist Inga Scharf add in some effects to give more of a symphonic feel, and the way they make random sounds to perform “guitar” solos is quite comical yet also pretty impressive, in a weird way. Their style has stayed largely the same over the years, though their sound has become more polished, and their songwriting has gotten a bit more epic as well as more diverse over time, most notably on Voices of Fire. With that being said, Trust in Rust is quite surprising, as it feels like all the evolution found on the aforementioned album has been completely reversed, as the songs are back to being very simple, the symphonic elements are completely gone, and the songwriting is as straight-forward as ever. There’s a mix of speedier tracks, mid-paced tracks and one ballad, as expected, and some tracks bring back the classic “rakka takka” and “riddly diddly” sounds used on some of their most popular tracks, but overall I find the performances to be a little less inspired here than on past albums. Obviously it’s still a fun album, and the backing vocalists, drummer Bastian and Inga all give solid performances, but the energy of past albums isn’t quite there this time, and while Sly being out of the picture may be a part of that, it also could just be that the band has finally lost some of their magic. Either way, there’s still some great tracks here, as well as some fairly decent tracks, and unfortunately some major duds. The faster paced original tracks are generally the best and come the closest to recapturing past glories, while some of the slower tracks are more flawed and help expose one particular problem this album has introduced.
That, of course, would be a new lead vocalist, Hagen. Obviously, Inga Scharf is solid as always, mostly sticking to a higher register and sometimes singing somewhat operatically, giving the tracks a nice melodic touch, but she doesn’t seem quite as energetic here as on past albums. At the same time, most highlights of the album tend to come when she is singing. Which brings me to her new co-lead, Hagen. When the band first introduced him through a mini song they composed, with him performing some vocals in it, while the band sang about him being “Voice Number Seven”, I was quite intrigued to see what he could bring to the table. I instantly noticed a deep and rather aggressive voice, that could potentially open up new possibilities for the band, as well as the potential for some death growls and other rough kinds of vocals, but I also noticed a bit of weakness in his voice, that I was hoping the band could work around. Unfortunately, it’s the weaknesses that stand out the most when Hagen sings on Trust in Rust, as while his softer, deeper vocals are decent, they feel just a tad off at times, and every time he tries adding in some power, the results are far from pretty. His voice breaks often, with very little pressure put on it, and he has a tendency to get way over the top. When you put the two together, the results have the potential to be absolutely disastrous, which is exactly what happens a few times on this album, as there are actually some tracks here I can’t listen to in full most of the time, just because I can’t take his vocals anymore. I really don’t like to harp on anyone or single one individual out in a bad way, but when your band is as heavily reliant on vocals as Van Canto, if one performer is off, especially one of the leads, it’s going to stand out in a horrible way.
Another area where Trust in Rust doesn’t fully deliver is in the songwriting. I’ll be honest: When I initially saw this album would contain cover tracks again, I was a bit disappointed, because while the band has done some great covers in the past, I found they were getting to be less and less impressive with each album, and their absence on Voices of Fire actually allowed for a more cohesive, more focused album, which I greatly appreciated. This time around, lyrical themes are all over the place, with some of the epic and fun fantasy lyrics fans would expect, as well as some tracks where things get a bit silly, but in a bad way. One example of this that could instantly leave fans with a bad first impression is the opening track “Back in the Lead”. The backing vocalists do their best work to sell it, with some nice rhythms, but the song itself is very slow paced and not as energetic as I’d expect from an opener. Worse, the lyrics are obnoxious and unbearable, with the band talking about how great they are in a way that comes off as comical and even downright childish. To make things even more unbearable, Hagen sounds just a bit off throughout the track, especially falling flat towards the end where he starts going over the top and his voice breaks in a rather embarrassing way. I’d honestly go as far as to call this the single worst track the band has ever made, so for the album to recover from this, would be a tough task.
Thankfully, things pick up quite a bit with the next track, “Javelin”. This one has some nice harmonies at the beginning and quickly picks up the pace, bringing back the classic “rakkatakka” vocals and going full force with some epic vocal melodies. It’s a high speed, a very melodic track where Inga leads the way and delivers a strong chorus. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of classics like “Lost Forever” or “My Voice”, but it’s certainly a welcome return to form after that hideous opening track. Another highlight soon follows in the form of second single “Melody”, which I think would have been a better lead single, as while “Hagen” still struggles a bit during the verses, he sounds perfectly fine on the chorus, which is huge and epic, exactly how the band sounds at their best. It’s a track that mixes speedy verses with a slow but epic chorus, and it’s definitely one of the best on the album. The highlight of the track is the epic “Rakka takka/riddly diddly” filled section in the middle, where things get crazy in an awesome way. Not quite as good as that one, but still enjoyable, are the title track and “Darkest Days”, two more mid-paced tracks. The latter has some more fairly decent vocals from Hagen, as well as some nice melodies, while the former gets a bit silly like the opening track but thankfully it’s a more energetic track overall, and the lyrics don’t stand out in a bad way like they do on “Back in the Lead”. It’s simply a solid and fun track. Closing track “Heading Home” is the one ballad on the album, and along with some pretty awesome backing vocals, it has the best performance by Hagen on the album, as he’s much more relaxed and sings softer than normal, allowing the melodies of the track to come through. It’s a surprisingly nice way to end the album. One last highlight is “Infinity”, another fun track, with a super speedy chorus, and again Hagen actually sounds pretty good here, while Inga is great as always.
Moving back to the not so positive, “Neverland” is a slower track with a pretty decent chorus, though I find it a bit cheap that the band actually says the name repeatedly as part of the backing vocals, which clearly kills the immersion, as the backing vocals are supposed to represent instruments, so that just takes me out of it a bit. The song itself is decent, but a bit uninspired and clearly one of the weaker tracks here. On the disastrous side is “Desert Snake”, a mid-paced and heavier metal influenced track, which would be decent enough, except Hagen throws in some harsh vocals every once in a while and these get on my nerves every time, making it one of the tracks I can barely get through.
Lastly, we have the two covers. First up is “Ride the Sky”, a classic Helloween song, of course. This is a pretty fun cover, with the backing members and Bastian doing a great job of converting the song to the band’s style, but while Inga does a solid enough job, I find her vocals lack a bit of energy, especially during the chorus. Speaking of which, Kai Hansen himself shows up during the chorus, but he practically sounds like he’s falling asleep, which again takes me out of the song a bit. It’s a solid cover as is, but it could have been amazing if the lead vocals were a touch stronger and more fierce, I think. The other cover is of the AC/DC classic “Hell’s Bells” and to say I was expecting it to fail hard, would be a massive understatement. The band cheats a bit again by using an actual bell at the beginning, but that’s an iconic part of the original, so I’m fine with that. The backing members again do an excellent job, managing to recreate the classic riffs and rhythms perfectly, and this actually had a chance to prove me wrong and be a great cover. Sadly, though, Hagen shows up to spoil the fun and he is at his absolute worst on this track. Trying to channel Brian Johnson is a difficult task, as he manages to pull off an epic falsetto that has a ton of grit to it, while just barely straddling the edge between being too over the top and just perfect. Sadly, Hagen is way over the top right from the very start, and he only gets worse as the track goes on, with his vocals feeling very forced and strained, and he gets so irritating by the end, I almost always have to switch the song off. Some bands are best left uncovered, and AC/DC are one of them, as both Bon Scott and Brian Johnson are near impossible to emulate, and Hagen doesn’t even come close to the latter on this track.
This has probably been my harshest review in years, perhaps ever on this site, but let’s be clear here: I’m only being so critical because I know Van Canto can and have released far better releases than this, so it just saddens me to see them fall so hard, especially after Voices of Fire was such an amazing album. Trust in Rust is a disappointing mixed bag of an album, which still has traces of the band’s epic A capella power metal in fine form, but it also has some of their weakest songwriting to date, some embarrassing lyrics and it also happens to be hamstrung by easily the worst lead vocals the band has ever had. A tough recommendation for existing fans, though they should still find a few tracks to appreciate here, while anyone else is recommended to give “Melody” a listen, and if that impresses, the rest of the album may be worth a shot, but otherwise it’s a pretty tough one to recommend. It’s still a decent release, overall, but far from what I’ve come to expect from the band, and I badly hope they can find out a way to make a better album next time out because they’re much better than this album shows.
Written by: Travis Green