Holy Land/Fireworks (In English)



When I think of the somewhat unusual obsession Brazil has with heavy metal (Sepultura, anybody?), I don’t have any obvious explanations for that connection. It is, however, definite that in Brazil there are at least two things that might have heavily influenced the situation: the country’s fervent Catholicism, on one hand, and its being steeped in pagan mysticism, on the other. For, unless you actually listen to all these dumb TV preachers, heavy metal is an extremely religious genre, which attracts not only Satanists but also people with a fervent positively attuned religious temper. Religion is power and ecstasy, and so is heavy metal – when you know how to play it properly, that is.

As you probably know, I’m not much of a “power metal” lover. If it’s metal we’re talking of, I prefer my metal crisp, raw, ass-kickin’ and as tongue-in-cheek as possible, be it Judas Priest, late period AC/DC or Accept. Since Iron Maiden firmly established that genre in the early Eighties, there have been very few bands that actually managed to do something interesting with it without actually venturing outside the basic paradigm. The very term “progressive metal”, which was sort of the next step of the evolution of “power metal” (or the same thing, if you’re not much into detailed categorizing), is fairly contradictory – “progressive” means “constantly evolving”, while “metal” means “constantly adhering to the same basic techniques”. And a lot of progressive metal is downright awful – especially when bands start heaping up lots of pretentious-sounding bullshit in order to cover the lack of interesting melodies.

This is why this particular bunch of Brazilians got me so interested. The prime period of this band did not last too long – in fact, it barely covered three years – but in these three years they did manage to come up with a very interesting and genuinely unusual debut album and a more than worthy, almost revolutionary in its own little way follow-up. They weren’t completely original; their evolution is easily traceable down to influences like Helloween (from whom they took the pretentiousness) and Slayer (from whom they took the speed) and from there on, to Iron Maiden, of course. But, unlike so many others, for these three years they did manage to stay within the basic metal paradigm and yet develop a fairly unique sound, thus justifying any potential pretentiousness.

The group’s main creative influence was, without any doubt, keyboard player and lead vocalist Andre Matos. With his untrivial, whiny voice (which definitely is not for everyone, but at least this ensures that he is well distinguishable from The Average Metal Screamer), his excellent classical training, and his – yes, imagine that – artistic vision he certainly embodies everything that was special about Angra in those early years. Although, of course, fair mention must also be given to the band’s guitar duo, Rafael Bittencourt and Kiko Loureiro, without whose inventive riffs the music would be, for the most part, just flat out dull or, at least, backbone-less.

In any case, in between 1993 and 1995 nothing could seemingly go wrong for these guys. First they tried out their own synthesis of metal with classical, based on “epic” mid-tempo melodies as much as on speedy thrash metal – with Andre picking upon the classical legacy or coming up with his own (quite well-written) classical passages, all the while not forgetting about song structure and an occasional catchy chorus or too. That said, this was hardly enough (after all, classical influences in heavy metal are nothing new, even if few people managed to merge the too with Angra’s easiness), and pretty soon they came upon an idea that was way too obvious for a Brazilian band but, for some reason, hadn’t really been well explored before: bringing in the ethnic element, merging their brand of symphonic metal with tribal rhythms and South American pipes and whatnot. The result was Holy Land – an album that will most likely go down as a classic in the annals of heavy metal, and Angra’s main (if not sole) reason for existence.

Musically innovative, spiritually uplifting, full of memorable tunes, it’s really a minor masterpiece I would eagerly recommend even to non-metal fans.

Sadly, this state of euphoria did not last long.

Angra had built up a good international reputation with these two albums, and either their newly found stardom got to their heads or they found themselves pressed by the record company or something, but the fact is, they never did anything truly worthwhile after Holy Land. Already on Fireworks, their 1998 album, they showed that they were all but ready to fling their newly-found identities in the toilet, and concentrate on generic, unassuming (and, as a result, gruesomely inadequate – pompous without really having a right to be pompous) power metal. And if anybody still held out any hopes for the future, these were eventually quelled by Matos’ departure from the band. With a new frontman and a new rhythm section, the “band” returned to the fore in 2001 with the innocently called Rebirth, but essentially it was more of the same, only worse because there was no more Matos.

In the end, this might just be one of the most mysterious “collective musical suicides” I’ve ever witnessed. On the other hand, to be fair, it should be noted that I’ve read quite a few fan reviews of Angra’s 1998-2001 output where people looked quite pleased with these albums. But you gotta understand – these people are metal fans. I’m not. My tolerance for this genre is low. If I want to really immerse myself in something generic and predictable, I’ll take a decent pop album instead. Pretentious guys screaming out cliched romantic blubber to lightning-speed guitar riffs really does not get me off by itself – this has to be some bloody MARVELOUS romantic blubber to do that! And late period Angra sure as heck doesn’t qualify. But those early records, hoo, whoohoo. Like I said – I eagerly recommend Holy Land to anybody who treasures good music outside of its direct genre connotations.

Andre Matos – vocals, keyboards;
Kiko Loureiro – guitars;
Rafael Bittencourt – guitars;
Luis Mariutti – bass;
Ricardo Confessori – drums.

All but the guitarists quit sometime around 2000 or so, with Matos replaced by Edu Falaschi.

General Evaluation:

Listenability3/5. At their best, they never forget to make their melodies memorable. Unfortunately, quite often they’re at their worst.
I’m not sure a guy like Andre Matos will often make me cry, but moments
of real passion do exist… when they’re at their best.
Originality2/5. Now if only they’d followed the path laid by Holy Land
Adequacy3/5. See “listenability” and “resonance” – quite often this band is as laughable as your average generic power metal outfit.
Diversity2/5. Metal and metal and symphonic metal and metal and metal and a few tomtoms and more metal.
Overall2.4 = D on the rating scale.

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