Symphonic metal is a kind of a weird genre when you think about it. You wouldn’t think that the soaring melodies of a Beethoven or a Bach would have much in common with the pulse-pounding electric guitar sounds of bands like Alter Bridge or Chevelle. But more often than not, when the two are put together, the result combines the best of both worlds. Apocalyptica has been reinventing the cello for nineteen (!) years now, and their projects have taken many twists and turns along the way. They started out simply as four metalheads covering Metallica and have gone on to create a lot of rich original material, complete with vocals. For a long time, they invited a revolving door of guest vocalists (including such luminaries as Gavin Rossdale, Brent Smith, and Corey Taylor) to accompany them on their albums, but this time they hired Franky Perez as a full-time vocalist. Perez is most known for his time as the guitarist for Scars on Broadway, and as part of Slash’s backing band during his first full tour with Myles Kennedy.
Perez’s first turn as a vocalist goes pretty well on Shadowmaker. I was a little afraid that, because of their occasional forays into terrible metal, they’d hire a vocalist who does nothing but scream. But thankfully that was not the case. Perez has some good melodic chops, even if he is a bit limited in his range. His best songs are probably toward the end of the album, where he puts just the right amount of nuance in his vocals and makes them stand out. “Dead Man’s Eyes” is probably his best, as it shows nuance in the beginning and then ramps up the intensity toward the end. There’s also a cool effect on his voice that makes it seem like he’s fading away, which is appropriate since the lyrics seem to describe someone who’s waiting to die.
Perez’s vocals kind of hit on a central theme for this album… it takes a little while to get going. The first three tracks seem to build somewhat until the title track, “Shadowmaker” hits. You’d think they’d pump all their best stuff into the first single, but it’s actually my least favorite song on the album. They seem to be trying too hard to be simultaneously symphonic, metal-ish, and progressive in the vein of a band like Tool. The result is a crowded, busy song that never really flows smoothly, and kind of blunts any momentum the album built up in the first two tracks. Fortunately, it does eventually get going again starting with the next track, “Slow Burn,” which is one of the album’s stronger songs. Among other things, it features a lot of pizzicato, which I feel like they do more in this album than others, and makes the song more interesting. The electric cello part also gives it a solid backbone.
One thing that makes the second half of Shadowmaker stronger is that Apocalyptica works in more of its classical side. The classical and rock/metal characteristics of their music seem more sectioned off in this album, and don’t blend together as much until the end, when for instance, “House of Chains” leads into “Riot Lights,” where the cellos form the main riff and meander through different textures in each phrase. That song and “Till Death Do Us Part” remind me most of the band’s classic sound. “Sea Song (You Waded Out)” features the band bringing in noted electronica producer Guy Sigsworth as a co-writer, and it produces an interesting effect.
The lyrical themes on Shadowmaker are a bit pedestrian, as they feel like retreads from their past albums. “House of Chains,” for instance, feels a lot like “Not Strong Enough” from the band’s previous album 7th Symphony. Many of the songs describe situations in which the main character of the song is stuck in a bad relationship or full of sadness and regret after the end of one. “Sea Song (You Waded Out)” is the first where the lyrics are a little more opaque and subtle, and could be interpreted multiple ways. While “Dead Man’s Eyes” is a little different, it still explores ideas that are frequently explored in metal. The vocal effects and instruments are what make that song probably the best on the album.
All of this adds up to an album that, while strong, doesn’t quite measure up to the high standard they set on their others. While Franky Perez is a good vocalist, Shadowmaker still makes me a little nostalgic for the revolving-door vocalist days, because each guest artist gave each track a fresh feel. While having a consistent vocalist on the album makes for much easier touring arrangements, I probably still prefer the previous format. And I’ve heard the classical and rock sensibilities mesh better. I think this one merits a borrow it rating. Not bad, but I’ve heard better from them.
Here are my track picks:
“Dead Man’s Eyes”
“Sea Song (You Waded Out)”