Van Canto - Hero 4/5

Reviewed: 1-9-09


1. Speed of light
2. Kings of metal
3. Pathfinder
4. Wishmaster
5. The bard's song
6. Quest for roar
7. Take to the sky
8. Fear of the dark
9. Hero

Rakka-takka, rakka-takka. Few new bands in this millennium have enchanted, electrified, repulsed, and polarized so many segments of the heavy metal culture as Germany's Van Canto. Count me in the "enchanted" category. When I heard their debut, 'A storm to come', for the first time in early 2007, I was mesmerized by Van Canto's brand of a capella power metal, featuring clever vocal arrangements that completely forswore the use of all guitars, bass and keyboards, and accompanied only by pounding, double-bass-drenched drums. At the heart of the entire package, lurking behind the gimmick, were a pair of hugely gifted lead singers (Dennis Schunke and Inga Scharf) and a batch of superbly crafted European power metal songs with triumphant hooks for miles. I wrote a glowing review of 'A storm to come' on this site shortly thereafter, for which I received a bewildering range of feedback from people whose judgment I respect. Some praised Van Canto as a welcome breath of fresh air in a stale, stagnating genre. Others scoffed at them as a novelty act treading suspiciously lightly in their twinkle-toed loafers or, even worse, a total joke because they don't have guitars. I even played "The Mission" video for my boss (a saxophone player and classical/swing band devotee with barely a passing interest in rock music, much less the metal genre) at work, and he was astounded by the complex vocal arrangements and pitch-perfect harmonies. Love them or hate them, Van Canto are certainly intriguing.

And the metal world has taken notice. In the last 12 months, Van Canto have performed live at various big-name European summer festivals. They've been signed by GUN Records (which is nonexistent in the U.S., but remains a force to be reckoned with in Europe), and they've attracted a constellation of heavy metal heavyweights to support them on the business and creative sides of their endeavors. Their new CD, 'Hero', was produced, mixed and engineered by famed producer Charlie Bauerfeind at mythical Twilight Hall Studios, with eye-catching cover art by the ubiquitous Thomas Ewerhard. Blind Guardian's Hansi Kursch (who is not known for being particularly generous with guest appearances) lends his golden voice to one track, the awesome "Take to the sky", and legendary drummer Joerg Michael is their booking agent worldwide. Yes, indeed, it seems safe to say that the German metal machine has lined up behind Van Canto to offer massive support.

But is 'Hero' good enough to deserve the industry push? Yes, with a small caveat that I'll discuss in a moment. The rakka-takkas remain in full force, with an expanded and perfected use of a capella "guitar solos" that sound eerily like the real thing. Lead singers Schunke and Scharf deliver another fantastic performance. Writer Stefan Schmidt has penned several songs that equal or eclipse the highest points of 'A storm to come', and Bauerfeind has done a phenomenal job in the production department, with Van Canto sounding fuller, crisper, clearer, and louder than ever before. The tracklist is noteworthy too. This time around, Van Canto elected to record 5 originals and 5 covers, all or most of which will be instantly recognizable to even the casual metalhead. So sprinkled amongst brilliant originals like "Speed of light", "Hero" and "Take to the sky" are inspired a capella reworkings of Manowar's "Kings of metal", Nightwish's "Wishmaster", Iron Maiden's "Fear of the dark", Blind Guardian's "The bard's song", and Deep Purple's "Stormbringer". While I would have preferred a full slate of Schmidt's sparkling original compositions, I think all the covers are actually a shrewd move that will render Van Canto more accessible to the metal masses. Much like the "Battery" cover on the debut, who wouldn't get a kick out of hearing "Fear of the dark" performed with no guitars, basses or keyboards? Or hearing the rakka takka dudes transform Ross the Boss/Karl Logan guitar riffs into badass "Manowar" chants? The cover of "The bard's song" fits like an iron fist in a velvet glove, due in no small amount to the fact that the original had such a sparse backing musical arrangement in the first place.

So what's the caveat? Any Hollywood agent will tell you that sequels rarely live up to the originals. The element of surprise is gone. You know what to expect. The novelty factor wears just a bit thin. Van Canto has the same problem. As good as it is, there's simply no way that 'Hero' can have the same kind of mind-blowing, head-turning, captivating impact that its predecessor did, simply because now it's been done before. And it doesn't. Also, I wish there weren't so many covers, even as I understand and appreciate the reasons for their inclusion. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, 'Hero' is a fine CD that is guaranteed to please fans of 'A storm to come' and bring a whole boatload of new recruits to the Van Canto crusade. Call them gimmicky. Call them wimpy. Call them the epitome of everything wrong with power metal. I call them a great, talented heavy metal act that is executing its artistic vision marvelously well, enriching the scene in the process. Hail!




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