Leaves' Eyes - Sign of the Dragonhead (Review)

Martin_Canine LEAVES’ EYES
Sign of the Dragonhead

Ever since Nightwish had their Europe-wide breakthrough in the mid-2000s, Symphonic Metal became one of the most prominent genres for those who seek an alternative to the more mainstream sides of rock music. In this scene, Nightwish and Within Temptation are the big names and trendsetters: they are the first bands you’ll come across when you browse through the genre, and their albums usually enter the top ten in a bunch of European countries. It’s absolutely justified: their music is epically structured, with meaningful and poetic lyrics, harmonic in tone and ambitious in their concepts. Nightwish have a more operatic sound and film score influences while Within Temptation have a more folklore inspired style. Judging by the country you’re looking at, either of these bands have the bigger status.

But there are also quite a lot of bands that jumped on the bandwagon, often combining these two stylistic choices, but usually with one clear preference. I call the Nightwish segment of Symphonic Metal “the angels” and the Within Temptation followers “the pixies”, as these are the two mythical creatures that come to my mind when I hear their music. Beyond the Black, Xandria, Epica and Amaranthe are some of the better known names to the genre’s fanbase, and also had their share of commercial success (although in Xandria’s case it has to be said the band formed before the genre got a hype, but the way they evolved made it very apparent who they use as a blueprint for their more recent music).

And then there’s Leaves’ Eyes. Somewhere in between, their heavy use of traditional Nordic folk sound and imagery make them lean towards the pixie territory, but since they also include heavily operatic and soundtrack-like elements, especially on this very record, maybe we’re off best when combining the two creatures and call their direction “valkyrie”.

Sign of the Dragonhead is Leaves’ Eyes’ first album without lead singer Liv Kristine, who left the band to join her sister as the second vocalist of fellow Symphonic Metal project Midnattsol. She is replaced by Elina Siirala, the second cousin of Tuomas Holopainen - the mastermind behind Nightwish. A high amount of musicality seems to be rooted in this family, as Siirala sings the most spectacular notes with ease. Her soprano singing is definitely a talent to have the highest respect for and a dramatic departure from Kristine’s natural, rather folk-ish voice. It’s interesting how naturally she fits into the music despite the widely different tone in their vocals - that’s a step that didn’t work out as well with other, greater bands.

Sign of the Dragonhead contains a rich and cinematic sound in which the voice of the singer competes with powerful guitar chords, a massive choir, full orchestra, thundering percussion and traditional folklore instruments. You immediately sink into a world of Vikings on their journey across the sea no matter how stormy the weather may be. Not far into the album, it already becomes very apparent that the members of Leaves’ Eyes know how to create music that immediately make you envision the stories told in the lyrics. But it also works beyond that: the instrumental Rulers of Wind and Waves actually feels like a really atmospheric score to a historical flick even without words.

However, even with this massive wall of anthemic sounds, Sign of the Dragonhead lacks innovation. Throughout the album, Leaves’ Eyes don’t stray one step away from the formula. They don’t even consider coming close to the boundaries of the genre, and sometimes aim for less creativity than is common and accepted in Symphonic Metal. This is a genre where the influences of many cultures, unusual structures, long running times and shifting dynamics are common, and still does the band stick to a conventional verse-chorus structure and an average length. The result is that you don’t pick your favorites by how much creativity the individual songs offer, but by how memorable the melody is. And in that regard, the tracks differ greatly.

Across the Sea and Völva rank among the record’s highlights. The songs are characterized by vivid folk melodies, with the first one having a fast and the latter having a slow tempo, letting the graceful harmony of the angelic singing and powerful instrumentation unfold. The album’s closing song, the 8 minute tune Waves of Euphoria, is an reminder of what the band is capable of when allowing a song to take its time to evolve. But the best moment is Riders on the Wind. The tone of this song is much more upbeat and cheerful, yet never loses any of the thunderous instrumentation the rest of the record has. This is by far the most adventurous song of Sign of the Dragonhead.

As for the rest of the record, it’s pretty much the same all over again. With every new track that kicks in you are faced with an overwhelming musical power that hits you like Thor’s hammer. But from then on, the surprises fall pretty flat. The sound steadily stays as it is for four minutes before it moves on to the next song. Because the overall tone is really, really good, you are greatly entertained, but there’s this constant feeling that much more could have been possible if Leaves’ Eyes took the time for a more complex composition and a few songs with a less conventional structure.

Sign of the Dragonhead doesn’t rank among the greatest achievements in Symphonic Metal, and also not among the best releases of Leaves’ Eyes, but it’s a satisfying filler to keep you excited until the next massive album comes along.