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Metal Monday: Unsung Heroes Ensiferum Return

When thinking of folk metal bands, a handful of names likely come to mind, but certainly no band that has been as consistently great or well-known as Ensiferum. Although Moonsorrow and Eluveitie are fantastic, they still rank far behind Ensiferum. Recently Ensiferum released their fifth full-length album, Unsung Heroes. How does it stand up against the band’s previous four releases? Surprisingly well, actually. And what a rare feat it is in metal’s pantheon for a band such as Ensiferum to put out five albums in eleven years and not have one weak album among them.

For those unfamiliar with Ensiferum, their sound is best described as music for modern-day vikings (who probably also listen to Amon Amarth) with influences from Celtic and Medieval folk music styles applied to a more extreme version of power metal.  Flutes, recorders, fiddles, kantele, and more—the diverse instrumentation help folk metal bands like Ensiferum incorporate more than just the musical aspect of folk music. They also do so in regards to textures. But please don’t forget the metal parts. Even though there’s a heaping serving of folk in Ensiferum’s mix, they still shred. Most of the songs feature pretty quick tempos and guitar riffs for days. Continue reading ‘Metal Monday: Unsung Heroes Ensiferum Return’

Metal Monday: The Best And Worst Of 2011-So Far

Four months into the year 2011, and there have almost been enough great metal albums this year to build a very respectable “Best of the Year” list from. It’s been an uncharacteristically great year thus far, but hasn’t been without stinkers (is there ever a time without at least a couple?). For those not intently following every single metal release in 2011, here’s the best and the worst of the year…so far.

Starting off on a good foot, one of the best releases this year has received surprisingly little buzz, even though I reviewed it about a month ago in the Metal Monday column. American Heritage‘s Sedentary is a very solid and unrelenting jaunt through a hardcore-tinged, good ol’ heavy metal metal record. Featuring an all-star cast of bassists on the record and eleven songs sure to compel you to bang your head, you would be remiss to not give Sedentary a listen.

Newcomers to the metal world, TesseracT put out their first full-length via Century Media this year. On One, the guys in Tesseract take a 55 minute progressive metal romp featuring erratic polyrhythms, complex time signatures, djent guitars, and a six-part epic in the middle of the album. Even given all of the technicality of the album, it still comes across as quite an easy listen due to the catchy lyrics and atmospheric transitions between many of the heavier and more obviously complex sections on the album. One also features some of the best production work in metal today with a very organic sound with loads of natural dynamic and little compression (most obvious when you listen to the cymbals). Right now, it appears that TesseracT are sitting pretty atop the progressive metal throne.

Receiving a significant amount more attention than the previous two albums on the list was  Protest the Hero with the album Scurrilous (also reviewed for a Metal Monday). A slight deviation from their prior releases, Protest The Hero have kept up with their virtuosic performances of pop-accessible music but now feature lyrics more relatable to the average person; the vague and confusing lyrics have been replaced by more personal lyrics that tell stories. If you liked Protest the Hero before, then you will definitely enjoy Scurrilous. Perhaps the band will grab a few more fans with their increased pop sensibilities.

And now on to the less-than-good releases so far this year. It features a snooze-fest from a legendary band, a band that has improved since their last misstep (but still miss the mark) and and album that tries so hard to be over the top it over-shoots itself straight into the garbage.

First up are Asking Alexandria, a band exploding onto the “-core” scene, followed quickly by a rabid fanbase of teenage kids. While Reckless and Relentless is a step above Stand Up and Scream, it still feels a lot like an extreme music version of elevator music, or a metal jingle. It feels like a collection of overly stereotypical bits and pieces from bland deathcore and and water-down post-hardcore music. They seemingly deliver only the catchy parts of those genres, but rarely anything else. Still a young band, Asking Alexandria still have plenty of chances to make an album with some substance, it’s just not this album.

It almost feels wrong to put the legendary Amon Amarth in a “worst of” list, but after nine albums of almost the same formula, it’s clear they’re becoming challenged to come up with something new, fresh or interesting to introduce to their very unique brand of viking-influenced melodic death metal. Certainly not a bad record by any means, it still leaves a lot to be desired and doesn’t hold interest very well if you’re only a passing fan of Amon Amarth. Surtur Rising is certainly an album for diehard fans only.

Last but not least are the ever-notable Emmure with their latest album, Speaker of the Dead. This album really only features two things: slam riffs and obscenity-ridden lyrics about being pissed at things or people. If you’re looking for anything other than that, you’d better look elsewhere. At least they’re making music that will help them sell their branded boxing gloves for the mosh pit.

Metal Monday: Are The Swedes Best At Metal?

There are certain countries that are considered to be a cut above the rest in terms of the metal they produce. At the top of the metal food chain are countries like Canada, Finland, Italy, Sweden, Norway, the UK and the US—but who reigns supreme in the metal world? There is a strong case to be made for each of these countries, but in the last two decades it’s hard to argue against Sweden as metal’s capital.

Alternative metal band, Katatonia

Though Sweden might not have the most metal bands out of all these countries (that title probably belongs to the US), they have birthed a few bands in the last few decades that have gone on to pioneer, revolutionize, or create a new sub-genre of metal. Bands such as In Flames, Dark Tranquillity and At The Gates are the forefathers melodic death metal (and what would be come to known as the “Gothenburg sound”). Meshuggah are often considered one of the most unique metal bands of today, inspiring countless bands to come after them are—they’re also often cited as the main influence for the recent trend of “djent” bands). Opeth is largely considered the pinnacle for progressive death metal bands, with each of their nine full-length albums earning extremely positive critical response. Candlemass is one of the original epic doom metal bands that would carve the modern and current definition of doom metal.

The legendary Dark Tranquillity

Even if you take out the list of heavily influential metal bands that shaped the current lay of the metal land, you’re still left with a list of massively talented bands: Amon Amarth, Arch Enemy, Katatonia, Bathory, Hypocrisy, Bloodbath, Soilwork, Scar Symmetry, Cult of Luna, and the list goes on. One of the biggest deciding factors, in addition to the quality of these bands, is their longevity. Even pioneering bands like Dark Tranquillity, Opeth and Meshuggah are still putting out landmark releases. That’s what it’s all about: sustained, high quality, albums year after year.

Of course, there can be strong arguments made for any of the aforementioned countries—the UK produced Motörhead, Black Sabbath and Judas Priest and creating the entire genre of metal. The US can be credited for producing the “big four” of thrash, among countless other great bands. Still, even considering all of the arguments for other countries to reign supreme, it’s hard to argue against Sweden.

Metal Monday: Metal Preview 2011

While providing some solid albums, 2010 was a fairly lackluster year in metal. Given only the short list of albums slated to come out in the first three months of 2011, it could very well eclipse all of 2010 in just a couple months. Many 2011 albums have been announced, but many of them have tentative or inexact release dates. First, let’s take a look at albums we know release dates for:

StratovariusElysium [January 12]
CrowbarSever The Wicked Hand [February 8]
CauldronBurning Fortune [February 14]
NeuraxisAsylon [February 15]
DeicideTo Hell With God [February 15]
DevilDriverBeast [February 22]
Darkest HourThe Human Romance [February 22]
Amon AmarthSurtur Rising [March 29]

It looks as though, at least early on in 2011, death metal will be reigning supreme with releases from Neuraxis and Deicide— two of the most well-renowned artists in death metal’s history. Crowbar’s Sever The Wicked Hand should also be a monster record, as they’re one of the most legendary sludge metal bands ever.

In terms of anticipated releases with little to no detail and no cemented release date, there are also some heavyweight releases anticipated in the first quarter of 2011: Anthrax, Obscura, The Faceless, Symphony X, Textures, Born of Osiris and Protest The Hero.

Licking your chops yet? This is shaping up to be quite the year if the first quarter is an indication what the rest of the year will look like. And if that isn’t quite enough, there are also rumors of albums from All Shall Perish, Sanctity Opeth (which is most likely happening late 2011), In Flames, Tool (though it’s never easy to know with these guys), Unearth and Hammerfall.

Know any albums that slipped under my radar? I’d love to find out what other metal albums to look out for in early 2011!

METAL MONDAY: SUMMER FESTIVAL OVERVIEW

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Everyone knows that summertime is festival season, and whenever people think of music festivals, they think of events like SXSW and Bonnaroo. Unless they are metalheads. For hardcore rockers, popular summer festivals include Wacken and Hellfest. But, most of the time when music journalists or bloggers write about the summer touring and festival season, metal does not get its due. Sure, metal bands are in on some of these festivals, like Bonnaroo, but they certainly are not the focal point of the events. So, here is a nice summer festival overview for all you metal junkies out there:

Wacken Open Air – Wacken, Germany

Arguably the most famous and premier event in the history of metal festivals, this past Wacken Open Air celebrated its 20th birthday. Mötorhead reportedly put on one of the best shows in recent memory, and all the other old school metal rockers followed suit. Among these great performances were the band formerly known as Black Sabbath (Heaven & Hell) as well as Saxon. Beyond the seasoned veteran bands, word is that doom metal troop Cathedral really won the crowd over (unsurprising, since the band is led by ex-Napalm Death vocalist Lee Dorrian).

Hellfest Open Air – Clisson, France

The second-most famous metal festival on the globe, Hellfest shared only a couple acts with Wacken this year—notably Heaven & Hell who again “wowed” the crowd. The fest’s the buzz bands seemed to be Brutal Truth and “the loudest band on Earth” Manowar, with Manowar having a slight edge (despite reports that Brutal Truth could be heard over Manowar’s set at times). Strangely, little was said about hometown giants Gojira, though there were sparse mentions of a solid set.

Bloodstock Open Air – Catton, UK

Rounding out the big three for metal festivals, this year’s Bloodstock was fodder for great stories. None more awesome than the hilarious/horrible bottling of Cradle of Filth in which the band stopped their set and left the stage without finishing the set. Blind Guardian, Carcass, Amon Amarth and the thrash bands garnered the most props for absolutely bringing it on stage.

MetalCamp – Tolmin, Slovenia

As usual, the bands who headlined this festival are the same bands that headlined the other big festivals. That’s just the way these things work. After scouring the ‘net for any opinions or reports of the festival, I only came to the conclusion that there was no real standout performances, though people were largely unenthusiastic about the lineup as a whole (Mind-boggling, really, since Amon Amarth, Blind Guardian, Dimmu Borgir, Satyricon and more were on the bill). The disappointment might have been due to the lack of great underground bands (beyond the huge names), as well as the completely unknown acts from the second stage—except Warbringer, who played before a band with only 1,000 MySpace friends. For shame.

Download Festival – Donington Park, UK

Download Festival, the “least metal” of all the summer metal festivals, was filled with the “nu metal” acts of yesteryear and all the things the kids dig today. So there was a huge variety of musical styles on this bill. No band got as much credit as Faith No More, who put on a performance referred to as “brilliant” by most attendees. Mötley Crüe, Slipknot and Steel Panther also received favorable reviews. On the opposite side of things, a lot of festival goers hated Marilyn Manson, Limp Bizkit, Attack! Attack!, Pendulum and Parkway Drive. Unsurprisingly there was little said about the more “extreme” bands there like Suicide Silence, Meshuggah and God Forbid—the bill did not exactly cater to those fans. What is surprising is that I have found nothing about Opeth and Dream Theater’s sets.

In case you did not make it out to any festivals this summer, or just want to know what is coming up for metal festivals in the near future, here are two of the bigger events on the list:

New England Deathfest – Providence, RI

While not the biggest metal festival, New England Deathfest is having some of the most legendary Death Metal bands headline this year: Neuraxis, Cephalic Carnage and Quo Vadis. Also on the bill is Revocation, touted by many as “the next big thing” in metal and recently signed to Relapse Records. If you’re in the New England area, $50 for this weekend filled with death is well worth it.

Ilha Do Ermal Festival – Viera do Hinho, Portugal

Because I don’t speak Portuguese, it is hard to say much about this festival other than the fact that Blind Guardian is headlining it, which is almost enough reason to go regardless of who else is playing. The fact that Sepultura, Obituary, Firewind, Textures and Hatesphere are also on the bill certainly does not hurt. At 60€ ($85.35), that is a great price for three days of pure metal goodness.

 


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