|Musical Style: Symphonic Metal||Produced By: Timo Somers|
|Record Label: Inner Wound Recordings||Country Of Origin: Canada|
|Year Released: 2015||Artist Website: LEAH|
|Tracks: 14||Rating: 95%|
|Running Time: 78:38|
When you think symphonic metal, what usually comes to mind? Soprano if not classically trained operatic female vocals. Occasional ‘growled’ death-style male vocals. Deep and complex musical arrangements rooted in the progressive. The orchestration, choirs and classical keyboards and instrumentation that go hand in hand. Atmospheric songwriting made up of equal parts moody and melancholic. And of course, Nightwish, Epica, Within Temptation, Therion, HB and a host of other acts within the genre.
One artist that deserves mention with the above is Leah McHenry. Also better known as LEAH, the Vancouver, British Columbia based singer and songwriter can trace her musical beginnings to her Irish and Scottish heritage, which led to her embracing Celtic music at a young age. Later developing a love for European symphonic metal, she integrated both styles - “seraphic melody and symphonic metal, steeped in Celtic influences” as taken from the artists press material - on her independently released June of 2012 debut full length Of Earth And Angels. Critically acclaimed and earning placement on many ‘Best of the Year” lists, the album found her transitioning from an ‘untested newcomer to an internationally acclaimed artist’ with a ‘massive following of devoted fans’.
She followed up in October 2013 with a five song EP (also independent) entitled Otherworld that includes a guest appearance by legendary vocalist Eric Peterson (Testament, Dragonlord) on the track “Dreamland”. A subsequent deal with Inner Wound Recordings led to her winter of 2015 sophomore release Kings & Queens, which features contributions from guitarist Timo Somers and drummer Sander Zoer (both Delain) and bassist Barend Courbois (Blind Guardian & Vengeance). Kings & Queens finds LEAH staying true to form in coalescing Celtic and World music influences with a symphonic metal basis but also branching out by taking the overall heavier and more progressive heading.
Said heaviness manifests itself on the rollicking “Save The World”, opening to folk-like acoustic guitars before towering rhythm guitars take over and lead the way through arresting verses (reflecting a deliberate mid-paced touch) and sublime refrain (of a majestic quality). “Angel Fell” makes every bit the intrepid statement, slower with ominous tinctures that find decisive bass and robust guitars holding sway, but also giving rise to lighter moments that reflect an angelic touch. One cannot understate the impact of Timo Sommers, whose lead guitar work ranges from the blistering to the melodic.
Standing out equally are LEAH’s diverse vocals, which range from celestial and ethereal to expansive and powerful to lyrical folk styles. Those that have compared her to a metal ENYA - or more accurately Delain and Loreena McKennitt (I might also include Johanna Aaltonen of HB) - have the right idea. Vocals remain clean throughout- credit the artist for resisting the temptation to include any potentially distracting extreme male vocals (noting how I failed to warm up to the aggressive presence of Eric Peterson on the aforementioned Otherworld track).
Bridging the gap between the albums heavier and more progressive material is “Alpha et Omega”. The song takes an unconventional stance, with its single verse entirely in Latin as Medieval to Middle Eastern tinctures decorate the disconsolate backdrop. Guitars range from ploddingly hulking to quieter and gentler. Likewise, “Enter The Highlands” touches upon the progressive but from a power metal standpoint. Upheld is a cinematic if not dramatic feel, as angelic choirs play a prominent role on a song with moments ranging from mercurial in which double bass holds sway to others that slow to a persuasive bass presence. Fantasist piece that ranks with the albums best- Theocracy could not have done it any better.
The Kings & Queens progressive moments start with eight-minute “Palace Of Dreams”. The song takes off at once to heightened low end driven energy only to stilly calm for verses in which gentle piano and keyboards manifest themselves. On the heartening refrain, impetus returns to full on guitars and celestial choirs. “This Present Darkness” does not so much challenge for song of the year as it does song of the decade. A semi-ballad milieu presents itself, stunning and poignant with symphonic keyboards and crystal taintlessness to LEAH’s vocals but also unflagging in terms of churning guitars and spiritual warfare emphasis throughout. Of note are the generous instrumental portions on both.
In staying true to the genre at hand, the artist makes creative use of Gregorian chant. “There Is No Farewell” opens to Gregorian choirs interwoven with piano and Medieval instrumentation only to pick up pace as guitars gradually build into the mix. The song remains laid back and reserves in moving forward with its symphonic keyboards and enchanting refrain. “Arcadia” begins and ends to Gregorian vocals, heavier with its elevated guitar emphasis but also more up-tempo in terms of resounding low end and LEAH stretching and exhibiting the upper register to her voice. One cannot deny the emotion at hand.
Melody forms every bit as much a basis with the artist’s songwriting. It starts with “In The Palm Of Your Hands”, victoriously drifting front to back to expansive bass and rolling drums with august vocal melodies adding to the engaging scene, but also includes “Heart Of Poison”, emotional in joining ominous guitars with atmospheric overtures to arrive at the hauntingly melodic. “Hourglass” drifts between the airy and sublime and smashingly heavy (with bluesy proclivities either way) in yielding an inviting pop basis (in a positive sense) from its accessible flavorings.
Album highlights its lighter moments as well. “Crown” takes a ballad-based approach in which acoustic guitars and modern guitars merge to put in place a worshipful environs and “Remnant” the more upbeat direction as a firmer guitar basis, lofty keyboards and soaring vocal melodies also touch upon the worshipful. “Siúil a Rún”, a traditional Irish folk song cover, represents the mellowest Kings & Queens piece in gently advancing to piano, flute and other Medieval instrumentation.
The artists press material describes her lyrics as drawing upon ‘epic imagery of dystopias, fallen empires, spiritual warfare, love and destiny’. I find them actually steeped in Biblical imagery with scriptural references and concepts throughout. “This Present Darkness” stands out in this capacity -
In the heavenly places
In this world of darkness
Where the cosmic war rages
Light will pierce the ages
In celestial spaces
This kingdom built on rock
Stone walls of eternity
And it shall fill the earth
As waters cover the sea
- as does “Remnant”:
Narrow is the way
And few who will find it
Wide is the gate to destruction
The remnant will remain
The relic of promise
Sacrifice to regain
Our rightful inheritance!
“Angel Fell” proves aptly entitled -
Angel fell down from heaven
Signet of perfection
You moved upon that mountain
Enchanted pride, your weapon (but it's all a lie)
Wings glisten as they hover nigh
Disguised to the blinded eye
Cruel and shameless in this underworld
And in sorrow, wandering in circles
- while same applies to “In The Palm Of Your Hands”:
I'm gonna stand in the heat of the fire
Swim to the depths of the sea
I will fall into the palm of Your hand
I will stand though I'm weak and broken
March to the gates of hell
I will trust in the timing of this dance
Lyrics to “Alpha et Omega” are in Latin with select lines from Genesis and Revelation:
Caelum et terram
Terra autem erat
Inanis et vacua
Super faciem abyssi
Ego Alpha et Omega
Primus et novissimus
Ego Alpha et Omega
Principium et finis
It can be challenging to come up with constructive commentary regarding a 95% graded album. Some reviewers have complained Kings & Queens is a bit long in featuring 14 tracks and 78 minutes of music, but what song do you cut when each is essential in lending its unique personality to the track listing? I might add it is disappointing how a ‘bonus rock version’ to “Siúil a Rún” is included with the download release but not the CD. I cannot help but think it would make better sense to reward the CD purchasing public with any bonus material as opposed to those going the download route- or at the very least include the bonus track(s) with both.
When I first discovered Theocracy following the turn of the century, my initial thoughts were how founding member Matt Smith was just beginning to touch upon his potential. While in no way am I inviting comparison to the epic melodic power metal of Theocracy, LEAH in similar fashion hints of even bigger and better things to come on Kings & Queens. With two impressive full-length albums under her belt, one cannot help but feel the sky is the limit in terms of what she can accomplish artistically on any future project she records. Where I find LEAH analogous to Smith, however, is in her ability to compose a great song, with a good measure of the Kings & Queens success owing to her choice compositional skills (noting how in no way I am downplaying strengths in the areas of vocals, musicianship and production). Ultimately, LEAH deserves to rank alongside a very select group of artists (Theocracy included) whose forthcoming releases come with the highest anticipation.
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing: “Arcadia” (6:30), “Save The World” (5:02), “Angel Fell” (5:40), “Enter The Highlands” (6:31), “In the Palm of Your Hands” (5:06), “Alpha et Omega” (5:34), “Heart Of Poison” (5:10), “Hourglass” (4:35), “Palace Of Dreams” (7:47),
“This Present Darkness” (6:37), “The Crown” (5:05), “Remnant” (4:48), “There Is No Farewell” (5:02), “Siúil a Rún” (Acoustic Version) (5:10)
Lead McHenry - Lead Vocals, Piano & Keyboards
Timo Somers - Guitars
Barend Courbois - Bass
Sander Zoer - Drums & Percussion
Brent McHenry - Orchestration
Oliver Phillips - Orchestration & Piano