German “hero metal” band Van Canto brings something entirely new to the game: proving that heavy metal is not merely a genre label or even a writing/performing style but a state of mind, these six skilled musicians shape their epic sound – riffs, leads, solos, the works – using almost exclusively human voices. Their one concession to traditional metal instrumentation is the inclusion of a drumkit as accompaniment to the vocals – which are multi-tracked, amplified and electronically treated to represent all guitar, bass and keyboard parts. With the help of expert mixing and production, the result is sometimes barely distinguishable from an actual guitar-based band (it's often hard to tell the difference until you hear the lead “guitarist” take a breath between notes), but more careful listening will uncover a smooth, expert blend of classical and experimental voice techniques that elevate Van Canto above the realm of novelty acts and into a rock & metal subgenre of their own.
Photo: Stefan Heilemann
Their fifth studio album Dawn of the Brave continues the band's running theme of larger-than-life heroes and their deeds, but this time kicks up the fantasy factor to incorporate tales of comic book and cinematic superheroes. To boost the epic factor, the band recruited over two hundred backing vocalists – most of whom are actually Van Canto's fans, invited to participate in the recording sessions. While this has the earmarks of a promotional stunt, it totally works, lending an extra cinematic grandeur to the material.
The intro/title track is one of the few instances of clean and untreated vocals, giving you a chance to identify the many intricate layers that go into the musical tapestry and establishing the foundation of the Van Canto sound before launching into the heaviness of the first full song, "Fight for Your Life," a straightforward power metal anthem. Female vocalist Inga Scharf leads the pack for "To the Mountains," a gothic feast reminiscent of female-fronted European metal bands like Nightwish, whose track “Wishmaster” Van Canto covered on their 2008 album Hero.
Other high points include the ominously deep backing vocals of "Steelbreaker" and “Unholy” (the voice equivalent of drop-tuned guitar and bass riffs), which quickly grew on me to the point where I was only half-aware of the strange hyperspeed phonetics that represent the tremolo rhythms. Another clear standout is the operatic "Badaboom," accompanied by an excellent music video illustrating the band's dark fantasy motifs and displaying the a capella metal technique in action (even the title is a play on the vocalizations the band uses to simulate guitar riffs). Check it:
Van Canto has also gained international attention for some excellent cover songs, most notably vocal renditions of the Metallica classics “Battery” and “Master of Puppets” (in the mode of Finnish “cello metal” team Apocalyptica), and Dawn of the Brave continues that tradition with four memorable choices: a dead-on rendition of the Black Sabbath classic “Paranoid”; a pensive and haunted version of "The Final Countdown" by Europe; a surprisingly heavy and energized take on Bonnie Tyler's '80s pop staple “Holding Out for a Hero,” and an emotional rendition of Annie Lennox's Oscar-winning “Into the West” from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, featuring a warm, delicate performance by Scharf, definitely the album's most emotional moment.
Dawn of the Brave is a distinct step up in quality from Van Canto's already stellar work, benefiting from a fantastic mix and smooth production by Ronald Prent (Rammstein) and Charlie Bauerfeind (Helloween), with arrangements that further blur the lines between vocals and instruments. Metal purists might balk at the concept, but if you approach the material with an open mind and regard the a capella technique as a mini-genre unto itself, this record will make a lasting impression for its creativity and technical prowess... plus these cats straight-up rock, making this a distinctive, one-of-a-kind project from an equally original group of artists.