Van Canto - A storm to come 4.5/5

Reviewed: 2-16-07


1. Stora Rovardansen
2. King
3. The mission
4. Lifetime
5. Rain
6. She's alive
7. I stand alone
8. Starlight
9. Battery

I hear nearly 300 new CDs every year, all of them in the heavy metal genre, and most of those in the power/speed/traditional subgenres that are closest to my heart. Much as I love this music, every now and then I chafe against the stylistic boundaries of the form. At times like those, I wonder whether it's all been done before. That's usually when a new band comes out of a clear blue sky and hits me with a fresh perspective, a new take on the sound. Enter Van Canto, a 6-piece from Germany including several musicians from acts like Fading Starlight and Jester's Funeral, who may be known to some readers. Van Canto play an anthemic kind of power metal with big triumphant choruses and lyrics about kings and glory, heroes and missions. "What's so novel and fresh about that?" you ask? After all, for years the scene has been clogged with Hammerfall, Dream Evil and bands of that ilk, who seem to fit that description perfectly.

Here's the difference: (dramatic pause) Van Canto perform a capella. No guitars, no keyboards, no musical accompaniment of any kind other than a drummer. I'm not joking. Of the 5 vocalists, there is a male lead vocalist, a female vocalist, and 3 vocalists who cover the instrumental parts by making sounds like "rakkatakka" and "dandan" in varying pitches. So at any given moment, the lead vocals will be singing in a power metal style, while multiple other voices are singing the guitar and bass parts, including (remarkably enough) sung guitar solos on several tunes. Meanwhile, the double-bass driven drums thunder along at the undercarriage of the entire enterprise. Believe me, whether you've been a metalhead for 25 minutes or 25 years, you've never heard anything like this.

If you're like me, your initial reaction is one of profound skepticism. Metal without guitars can't possibly be metal, can it? What instrument possibly defines heavy metal more than the electric guitar? Isn't that like trying to play baseball without a bat, or football without a pigskin? And all those "rakkatakkas" and "dandans" must sound ridiculous, right? What does this Van Canto think they are doing? Are they mocking heavy metal? Is this some kind of parody? But once I sat down and listened to it, all of my questions were answered and my worries dispelled. To be perfectly clear, 'A storm to come' is unquestionably power metal, notwithstanding the lack of guitars. I may not be able to air guitar to this, but I find myself headbanging frequently while this CD is spinning. Sure, some old-schoolers might balk, but I'm a pretty good litmus test on that front because I'm about as crusty, old-school, traditional, and purist in my metal tastes as a guy can be, and I'm still smitten by this Van Canto CD.

Novelty can only take a band so far. The real reason why 'A storm to come' has been a fixture in my playlist in recent weeks has nothing to do with the novelty aspect; instead, it flows directly from the strength of the songwriting and the excellent performances. Tracks like "The mission", "King", and "She's alive" are power metal anthems of the highest quality that are destined to become embedded in your brain from the first listen. I've spent entire days at work singing "The mission" to myself without ever becoming bored. These are superb songs. Equally important are the vocal performances. The lead male singer, Dennis Schunke, is an extraordinary talent. Lead female vocalist, Inga Scharf (Fading Starlight), turns a highly competent performance. And the "rakkatakka" guys holding down the instrumental parts do a superb job, blending seamlessly into the songs and sounding so authentic that one sometimes forgets that there are no guitars in these tunes. Each piece has been arranged brilliantly for 5 voices, which is no mean feat. From the sounds of it, the band have drawn inspiration from some of Savatage's more involved counterpoint bits, as well as old barbershop quartet/vaudeville kinds of things. Whatever the source of their inspiration, Van Canto handles these arrangements masterfully. The most striking example of their craft is "Battery". Yup, the Metallica song, done as a full-on thrash a capella piece. It works. I'd never have believed it if I hadn't heard it for myself, but it really works.

A certain segment of the metal population will dismiss Van Canto out of hand as gimmicky and heretical. As far as I'm concerned, that's their loss. Van Canto represents a truly fresh, unique, and amazingly well-executed take on the power metal that we love. I wouldn't want a CD collection full of a capella hero metal (as they dub themselves). I don't know that I'd want to see the band live, as I have no idea how this material could translate into a concert setting. But Van Canto have my utmost respect and admiration for having the creativity to imagine a different slant on the oversaturated power metal genre, the cajones to go for it, and the songwriting, singing and arranging talent to pull it off. To Stefan Schmidt, who conceived and executed this project so flawlessly, I say bravo and good show, mate.




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