Released By: AFM Records
Release Date: January 12th, 2018
Genre: Symphonic Metal
Elina Siirala – Vocals
Thorsten Bauer – Guitars
Pete Streit – Guitars
Alexander Krull – Keyboards, Vocals
Joris Nijenhuis – Drums
1. Sign of the Dragonhead
2. Across the Sea
3. Like a Mountain
6. Riders of the Wind
7. Fairer Than the Sun
8. Shadows in the Night
9. Rulers of Wind and Waves
10. Fires in the North
11. Waves of Euphoria
It can be hard for longtime fans of a band when a founding member suddenly departs, especially when that founding member happens to be a singer with a very distinctive voice like Liv Kristine. Well, that’s exactly what happened with Leaves’ Eyes in 2016, and while I won’t go into details (because that sort of thing is best left kept between band members) it sure sounds like the two parties didn’t part ways on good terms, which makes the situation even harder for fans to take. Personally, I’ve always found Leaves’ Eyes to be one of those bands who I can always rely on to deliver a solid album, but they rarely blow me away, outside of their 2011 release Meredead, which surprised me with its extensive focus on Celtic folk, and while I always enjoy their music, I wouldn’t put them up there with the likes of Nightwish, Epica, Within Temptation or Xandria as my favorite symphonic metal bands. With that being said, I am a fan of both Liv Kristine and her replacement Elina Siirala, and so I was interested to see what this new lineup would do all their first full-length release, following the Fires in the North EP in 2016. After waiting over a year, the band is finally set to release their seventh full-length album, Sign of the Dragonhead in 2018, but does it represent the start of a new era, or is it a sign that the band should call it quits? As usual, the truth is somewhere in between, in that there’s nothing here that truly blows me away, but it’s definitely a solid album that’s sure to please fans of the band, as long as they’re willing to give Elina Siirala a chance.
For their first few albums, Leaves’ Eyes seemed to be changing things up slightly each time, with Meredead in particular feeling like a shift into longer songs as well as being the album to put the most emphasis on folk elements, while its predecessor Njord, was perhaps the band’s heaviest and most gothic sounding album. Ever since Meredead, though, it feels like the band has started blending the two sounds together, with Symphonies of the Night and King of Kings both providing a steady mix of symphonic, gothic metal and Celtic folk, as well little bits of power metal here and there. I was curious to see whether or not the change in vocalist would also lead to a change in musical direction, but at least so far that isn’t the case, as Sign of the Dragonhead feels very similar to its two closest predecessors. Fans can expect some heavier tracks which mix in some gothic elements, including the expected death growls, as well as some lighter tracks, a ballad, some more folk-infused tracks, one speedy power metal track, and an 8-minute epic that closes out the album. Which is to say, this is quite the varied album, so at the very least it should keep most fans of the band happy, and the songwriting is fairly solid all around, with one exception. Musically, everything sounds tight as always, and while there’s nothing overly flashy going on, at least from the metal instruments, everything is well done and there are some good riffs and a few nice solos here and there. The symphonic arrangements and folk instruments stand out the most, as usual, but on the whole, it’s a nice sounding and well-produced album, as expected.
Obviously, the biggest point of interest on this album is the vocals, seeing as it’s the debut of Elina Siirala. I’ve reviewed both albums she’s done with her other band Angel Nation, so I was familiar with her voice before hearing this album and was already a fan, so it’s little surprise that I enjoy her vocals on this album a lot. She uses an operatic approach, like what Liv Kristine had been doing for a while, though her voice is a bit deeper and has a slightly darker tone. She doesn’t sound as distinct as Liv Kristine, but her voice is very nice and she does an excellent job throughout the album, sometimes using her operatic vocals in a very light and accessible way, while other times opening up a bit more and singing with more power, but she sounds equally great on every song and definitely fits in very well with the band. As usual, keyboardist Alexander Krull provides some growls, and once again, while his deep growls are powerful, they sound a bit forced to me, and there’s just something about how he uses them that I find a bit irritating, so the harsh vocal sections tend to be my least favorite parts of the album, just as they’ve always been.
The album gets off to a strong start with the title track, a rather fast-paced and epic symphonic metal track, which makes great use of its symphonic arrangements throughout. It has some pretty heavy lead riffs as well, and is definitely one of the harder hitting tracks on the album, as well as having one of the better choruses, where Elina instantly shines and proves herself to be a worthy vocalist for the band. There’s a brief harsh vocal section later on, which doesn’t bother me too much, and overall it’s an excellent start to the album. Next is “Across the Sea”, which opens up with some nice folk melodies, and it’s a very folk-infused track, where Elina’s vocals are very soft throughout in a pleasant way that carries the melodies well and blends in nicely with the music. It has a very catchy chorus and is one of my favorite tracks on the album. After that is “Like a Mountain”, a slower track which opens with a soft piano section where Elina uses some very strong operatic vocals. Once the song gets going, though, it’s a fairly standard symphonic metal track. The vocals are great throughout and there are some nice melodies, but it’s a fairly unremarkable track overall, aside from that great opening, and a similar section in the second half.
The rest of the album is quite varied and is fairly solid throughout, with a few standouts here and there. Going into some favorites, we have three folks infused tracks in “Jomsborg”, “Völva” and “Riders of the Wind”, which are all right next to each other. The first of these stands out to due to some very effective gang vocals, which add to the overall feeling of the track and help make it more epic, though musically it already has some great Celtic folk melodies, moves at a nice pace and has an excellent chorus, so it’s a very strong track overall. The middle track here is probably the least memorable of the three and is the slowest paced, though it has some great melodies and a great chorus as well, where the harsh vocals work effectively as backing vocals, though one harsh vocal section later in the track is a bit annoying. Lastly, “Riders of the Wind” is the most upbeat of the folk-infused tracks here, and it probably has the strongest Celtic folk influence, with some very nice melodies throughout, as well as some epic backing vocals and another amazing chorus. It’s a very fun and extremely catchy track which uses the folk elements particularly well, and the use of marching drums, later on, is pretty awesome. One last favorite is “Shadows of the Night”, a speedy symphonic power metal track, with great riffs and excellent vocals from Elina. Even the harsh vocal section, later on, is quite effective, and overall it’s the fastest track on the album, as well as one of the heavier songs, and it’s definitely one of the catchiest and most fun as well.
On the less memorable side of things, the ballad “Fairer Than the Sun” has some great vocals, but it never really gets going, with even the chorus not being overly strong, and aside from a nice guitar solo in the middle, there isn’t much about it that stands out. Fans may have already heard “Fires in the North” from the EP in 2016, and while it’s a solid mid-tempo track with a nice chorus, it’s another one of those songs which feel like fairly run of the mill symphonic metal to me. Lastly, we have the closing 8-minute epic “Waves of Euphoria”. To me, this track feels like the band’s attempt at a heavier, more extreme brand of symphonic metal in the style of Epica and newer Xandria, but while it has its moments, particularly the chorus where Elina really shines, the track overall comes up well short of its ambitions, unfortunately. Musically, the riffs are decent but nowhere near as strong as Epica’s guitar work, and on a compositional level, the song is decent but not as complex or impressive as what either band I mentioned has done in recent years. Worst of all, Alexander’s harsh vocals seem especially irritating on this track and really get on my nerves at points. There’s one really memorable guitar melody around halfway through, and Elina sounds excellent throughout, but otherwise, I find the track to be a fairly disappointing ending to the album.
Overall, Sign of the Dragonhead is a solid symphonic metal album which starts a new chapter for Leaves’ Eyes in much the same way as the last one ended, meaning it’s another enjoyable album, which mostly meets expectations, but musically it doesn’t quite reach the heights of some of the elite players in the genre. It does provide a nice blend of symphonic metal and Celtic folk, as well as strong gothic elements and occasional power metal elements, and I think it should please most fans of Leaves’ Eyes who are willing to give Elina Siirala a fair chance. I’d say it’s roughly on par with King of Kings and Symphonies of the Night, but not on the same level as Meredead.
Written by: Travis Green