Released By: AFM Records
Release Date: October 6th, 2017
Genre: Melodic Metal
Johnny Lindqvist – Vocals
Per Nilsson – Guitars
Fredrik Mannberg – Guitars
Nils Eriksson – Bass
Owe Lingvall – Drums
1. A Heart as Black as Coal
2. Before We Waste Away
3. The Poisonous Seed
4. Repent My Sins
5. What’s Killing Me
6. A Song for You
7. The Ghost Inside Me
8. Nothing Can Break Me
10. Used to Be God (Limited Edition Bonus Track)
11. Welcome to the End
Sometimes a band will release an album that at the time upsets their fans so much they want nothing to do with the band anymore, only for those same people to end up badly missing the band over time, hoping desperately that they will one day return with a triumphant comeback album. The latest band to fit into this description is Swedish power metal band Nocturnal Rites, who I was introduced to with their 2007 release, The 8th Sin, an album I actually enjoyed, but many of their longtime fan loathed it and criticized the band for falling into a more commercialized sound. After the release of that album, the band went quiet for several years, making fans think that could be the end. But now in 2017, they have finally returned, ready to release their ninth full-length album, Phoenix, but can they rise from the ashes, or should they have just stayed buried? I’ll go into full details below, but suffice to say, there isn’t a really clear cut answer for that one.
Nocturnal Rites actually started out as a death metal band in their very early days, releasing a couple of demos in that style before changing to a classic power metal sound with their full-length debut, In a Time of Blood and Fire, and they stuck with that sound for three albums, until current singer Jonny Lindqvist joined the band for their 2001 release, Afterlife, and they switched to a more aggressive, somewhat thrashy power metal sound. That album had a fairly mixed reception, but I personally consider it to be one of their best, but again they switched to a more melodic sound for their next few albums, with their 2004 release New World Messiah, in particular, standing out as a career high point. But again, they changed their sound in 2007 for The 8th Sin and that’s when everything seemed to come apart, as while the album still had some power metal elements, it had a much more modernized, very commercial sound that upset a lot of fans and while the songwriting was fun and catchy, it’s not hard to see why many folks felt betrayed by the band.
Which brings us to Phoenix, an album that largely continues with the more modern sound of The 8th Sin, but it comes across as a bit more metal sounding and does have small traces of their old sound. The band went through a couple different lead guitarists in between albums, before bringing in Per Nilsson, best known for his work with melodic death metal band Scar Symmetry. As soon as I heard he was brought into the band I was very interested in hearing what Phoenix would sound like, as while he’s an excellent guitarist, I wasn’t sure if his style would fit this particular band very well. It turns out, I was right to be concerned, because while he certainly does some great work on this album, including some incredible solos, there are many points where he resorts to modern sounding chugs which would fit in great with a band like Scar Symmetry, but they really feel out of place on a Nocturnal Rites album, and bring some of the tracks down.
Stylistically, Phoenix is a very modern sounding album, and I’d describe it more as melodic metal than anything else, as most of the tracks are slow to mid paced, and rely on huge vocal melodies above everything else. The chugs mostly come in quick bursts and most songs are fairly laid back throughout, with occasional heavy sections and bursts of speed, to remind fans they are listening to a metal album, but it’s clear the band has settled into a much more accessible, more radio friendly sound. There’s definitely still traces of power metal left in the music, and I generally find the heavier, speedier sections to be the highlights of the album, but the majority of the time the music is fairly slow paced and very melodic, just as the three pre-release singles would suggest.
I mentioned that the vocals were a huge focus on this album, so obviously the band requires a great singer, and thankfully they have one in Jonny Lindqvist. He has a rather animated voice that I’d describe as an odd sounding mix between Tobias Sammet and Chris Jericho (seriously, that may sound like a bizarre combination, but that’s what I think of every time I hear him,) and he does an excellent job of carrying some of the less interesting songs on the album. He may not be the best singer technically, but what he really excels at is singing with emotion. He always sounds very energetic in his delivery and it’s always easy to tell he’s very passionate about the lyrics, as he puts a ton of emotion into everything he sings, and he is definitely the band’s biggest asset at this point.
With the most positive aspect of the album out of the way, unfortunately, it’s time for a more problematic area, that being the songwriting. Things get off to a rocky start with “A Heart as Black as Coal”, a slow paced slog of a track which has some ugly modern sounding chugs throughout the verses, as well as vocal melodies that give it a strong pop feel, kinda like “Never Again” from The 8th Sin, except that while its chorus is decent, it’s nowhere near as fun or catchy as that song was, instead just kinda feeling like it exists and not doing anything beyond that. The track does have an excellent solo from Per, but that’s the one highlight on an otherwise forgettable track, and one I definitely don’t think works well as either a single to sell an album or as an opening track. Next is the first single, “Before We Waste Away”, another slow paced track, though it has some great melodies throughout and effectively builds to an excellent chorus that instantly got me excited for the album the first time I heard it. Again, Per delivers an excellent solo in the middle and overall this track is a great single and one that really set my expectations high for the album, so it’s a bit of a shame the entire album isn’t on the same level. The third, and so far last, single is “Repent My Sins” another slower track, but again it has some nice melodies and a very passionate vocal performance from Jonny, so while it doesn’t quite hit me as hard as “Before We Waste Away” it’s a pretty great track on its own.
In between that two track is “The Poisonous Seed”, the first real heavy track on the album, and one that offers brief glimpses of the band’s power metal roots. This track has some heavy riffs throughout and has a very dark feel, as well as feeling like a modernized take on their power metal sound, being much harder hitting than anything on The 8th Sin, while still sounding far more modern than any of their prior albums. It also has some light symphonic elements, which are used on a couple other tracks for some extra flavor, and it’s an all around excellent track, where Per really gets to shine with some great riffs and an excellent solo. I kinda wish there were more tracks like this on the album, as his style fits a heavier track like this perfectly, where on some of the slower tracks his chugs just don’t quite feel right. The only other consistently fast songs on the album are the closing track “Welcome to the End” and the bonus track “Used to Be God”. Out of those two, “Welcome to the End” is a very fast, heavy track which effectively uses some symphonic elements, and is definitely a highlight, but “Used to Be God” is actually even better, as it has by far the best riffs on the album, as well as an excellent solo section and an incredible chorus. However, I can see why they chose to make it a bonus track, as it has a thrashy sound to it which doesn’t quite fit the tone of the album on the whole, so if anything it just makes me even more disappointed about the direction they chose to go with many songs on the album, as I’d definitely be excited to hear the band do a full album in the style of this song and “Welcome to the End”, yet I realize that’s totally not what they were going for overall, so it’s obvious me and the band are not on the same page.
In between those tracks and “Repent My Sins”, we get a bunch of tracks that are solid but none of them do a whole lot for me, and they mostly blend together to just become forgettable. Tracks like “A Song For You” and “The Ghost Inside Me” do a nice job of mixing brief faster sections with mid paced verses and solid choruses, but neither track blows me away, while slower tracks like “What’s Killing Me” and “Nothing Can Break Me” feel like weaker versions of tracks from The 8th Sin, with the latter in particular having some modern sounding keys which are oddly distracting and give the track a slight pop feel. Lastly, we have “Flames”, a decent ballad where Jonny delivers some excellent vocals, but musically the track just does nothing for me at all. It has a nice chorus, but throughout the rest of the song, I just get bored, as the symphonic elements and vocals are far more interesting than the basic chugs and anything else that’s going on. Another track where Per doesn’t really fit in for me.
Overall, Phoenix is a pretty frustrating release for me, as there are brief moments where it teases at a modernized power metal sound that I could see working out great for the band, but there are far too many slower tracks where Per Nillson’s chugs don’t really fit the sound, and if not for Jonny’s excellent vocals, I’d probably be getting bored to death. For fans of Nocturnal Rites, this album is tough to judge, as it does have a few excellent tracks that feel fresh enough to stand out, while having some familiar elements, but anyone disappointed with The 8th Sin will also likely struggle with many of the lighter tracks on this album, and I don’t expect many pure power metal fans to be too thrilled, either. Fans of melodic metal who look for excellent vocals and melodies above all else are recommended to give this album a listen, and anyone else should try the singles to see if they have any interest, but again I have to point out for power metal fans, that all three of the tracks most likely to impress is hidden away, with one of them even being a bonus track. For me, personally, Phoenix is a solid album, maybe slightly behind The 8th Sin, but it definitely doesn’t come close to the band’s best works. So, it’s not a total disappointment, but it’s also not really the triumphant return I was hoping for, either. It just kinda exists.
Reviewer: Travis Green