Around two years ago, I went to London to watch Anglo-Swiss power metal band, Gloryhammer, in concert. Their blend of high fantasy imagery and power metal cliché make for one hell of a gig, but I also came away from it with a newfound love – Finnish metal outfit, Beast in Black. They were as good as the headliners themselves, and frontman Yannis Papadopoulos achieved high notes Rob Halford would have struggled with. Together with Anton Kabanen (guitars, keyboard, songwriter and founder of the band), Kasperi Heikkinen (guitars), Máté Molnár (bass) and Atte Palokangas (drums), they had released two records at that point.
I’ve been following them ever since (not literally), and last Friday they released their third album, the delectably cybernetic Dark Connection. Inspired in part by Kentaro Miura’s legendary Berserk manga/anime series (something the whole band was built around, really), Dark Connection is dedicated to its recently deceased creator – as well as taking influences from other classic, cyberpunk anime, such as Armitage III, AD Police, Battle Angel Alita and Bubblegum Crisis. Throw in a dash of Ridley Scott and you begin to see the aesthetic Dark Connection is reaching for.
The album opens with ‘Blade Runner’, and it’s the best candidate the band could have chosen. I don’t know the technical term, but there’s a distinctive ‘trill’ throughout which proves hypnotizing. In name and content, the track is a homage to Ridley Scott’s beloved – ‘Smog-choked sprawling metropolis/ Towers of fire and high-tech infinities’ evoking images from the iconic opening. Musically, it’s on par with ‘Cry Out for A Hero’ from the group’s prior effort – 2019’s From Hell With Love – in relentless, swaggering cyberpunk homage and raw power.
The opening of ‘Bella Donna’ is heavy, and dripping in dark 90s anime nostalgia: conjuring looming skylines in the pouring rain, quad-cycles with incandescent piping and inexplicably long, leather coats. I understand the mindset of ‘all of Beast in Black’s songs sound the same’ – they pack that energetic, thumping Eurobeat chorus and epic melodies. But I take issue that it’s a bad thing. They find moments which set them apart, and most importantly they all rock. ‘Bella Donna’ is in much the same vein as a lot of the group’s previous work, but doubling down on the synth and symphony (it also packs a mean key change).
‘Highway to Mars’ is going to be a live staple. I just know it. The simplistic, contagious chorus was built and wired for the gig environment. It’s like a cruising, summertime anthem switched to dark mode – a sentiment that sums up most of the album, really. The blazing keyboard amongst mandatory ‘Woah-oh!’s is about as ‘80s as the Beast ever gets.
When I take a look at upcoming releases and their track lists, there’ll always be one title that stands out to me, typically for no particular reason. On a power metal album like Dark Connection, there’s no shortage of intriguing titles. But for me it was ‘Hardcore’. So simple. So short. And yet hiding so many connotations. The song’s opening is out of Sweet’s back catalogue – meeting Status Quo in a nuanced boogie of ‘80s glimmer. It’s overwhelmingly catchy, and sure to be the guilty pleasure for most Beast fans.
The album’s first single, ‘Moonlight Rendezvous’ pulled me in, but it was ‘One Night in Tokyo’ that had me hooked up. As the boys themselves have noted, it’s the ‘Crazy, Mad, Insane’ (from their debut, Berserker) of the album, with glorious, orchestral highs. Easily one of album’s best; a computer virus that consumes all in its wicked moreishness.
‘Moonlight Rendezvous’ received a somewhat mixed reaction from fans upon release, and I can’t understand why. The nigh two-minute introduction is a devilishly delectable concoction of darkwave, and in itself paints exactly what the album needs to be; brought forth by a sample from the English dub for anime, Armitage III. The ode to synthesized nocturnal pleasure is like Eurovision on acid. This record is Beast in Black, upgraded.
No, ‘Revengeance’ isn’t a word, and no, we do not care. The opening of ‘Revengeance Machine’ is pure Toby Fox meets ‘Zodd the Immortal’. This is the speed metal track of the album; reflecting such utter hatred poured out in the song’s lyrics. I just cannot get enough of that synth. A lot of people hate on power metal bands who rely on them too much, but when they’re set to 11, it’s cheesy, glam-battering bliss.
The second side of the album doesn’t live up to the hype of its first, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have some great tracks. Papadopoulos’ vocals shine on ‘Dark New World’, and I can still see ‘To the Last Drop of Blood’ becoming a fan favourite, with its enmity-fuelled chorus revving you up for anything, like wiping out your enemies in a cybernetic drug-enhanced rage.
‘Broken Survivors’ reminds me of ‘Blood of the Lion’ in its use of mock-brass call toward the end – a great album track. But how do you close an album like Dark Connection? What will undoubtedly be the comedown after a neon-cut sugar high? You produce a grand ballad, obviously. It’s tracks like this where we can really see the vocal talent of frontman Yannis. He can scream, he can howl, but he can use those gentler tones to craft a truly beautiful composition. ‘My Dystopia’ doesn’t quite reach the levels of Berserker’s climax, ‘Ghost in the Rain’, but it’s badass, nonetheless. An entire saga condensed into just five minutes.
I won’t go into much detail about the next two songs, as they are bonus tracks for the deluxe release (not that I knew there were different versions), but my God, are they just as well executed as the album itself. Covering Manowar’s ‘Battle Hymn’, which is practically heavy metal scripture at this point, is not only ambitious, but incredibly brave. The epic is given a new lick of paint with piercing guitars and triumphant synth, and it sounds killer.
A cover of Michael Jackson’s ‘They Don’t Care About Us’, meanwhile, was wholly surreal. And yet it’s one of the catchiest Beast in Black have ever put out. The peal of drums throughout creates a kind of revolutionary anthem; suddenly allegations and racial violence melt away into the backdrop of a dark, cyberpunk skyline; gangs on the streets and corporations behind everything. I love it.
There are albums you love instantly and there are those which take a while to grow on you. Dark Connection falls assuredly into the former category. Its mixture of tried-and-tested, guitar-roaring vigour and tributes to the dark and debauched make for nearly an hour of unadulterated, unlimited sin. There are homages to lust, to fleeting passion of the night, speeding car chases, chaos and towering skylines. Mega corporations, gynoids, vengeance and total destruction. And encompassing them all are eleven tracks that rock. They sound amazing in the studio, and I cannot wait for Beast in Black to bring them to life onstage, where their music has always really flourished. For a third album, this is just a flawless effort. To many more.
Rest easy, Kentaro Miura. Not only did you create something beloved by millions, treasured by many – but your legacy went on to forge some of the best power metal ever made. Thank you.