I was heating up my standard n00b issue cup of mop water in the break room when I heard a commotion over at the hobo wine station. When I approached, the assembled staff writers fell silent and exchanged knowing glances with Steel Druhm. “N00b 17, how are you, my boy?” he said cheerfully. “N00b 7” I corrected, but he continued without acknowledging. “I have a special assignment for you.” He handed me a promo wrapped in red paper and smelling faintly of pine needles. My “gift” was Winter Is Here: A Holiday Rock Opera Pt. 2 (yes, part two) by power/symphonic metal band A Hero For the World. I could only stand dumbfounded as the writers launched into a drunken rendition of “Jingle Bells” and pelted me with pine cones.
A Hero For the World is essentially the solo project of Swedish by way of Philippines expat Jacob Kaasgaard. This is indeed his second self-released Christmas album, after 2013’s Winter Is Coming: A Holiday Rock Opera, which brings me to my first point of complaint. These are not rock operas. They are mostly holiday standards with a few other covers in the mix. There is no central story, no deaf, dumb and blind kid who plays a mean pinball. The only characters here are Jesus, Santa and Bran Stark. Yes, young Bran, sans Hodor, is the subject of the only original song on Winter Is Here: A Holiday Rock Opera Pt. 2. This Game of Thrones link is also the reason for both albums’ titles, which is frankly puzzling, since Westeros doesn’t observe Christmas, and the thing visiting from its frozen North is certainly not a jolly old elf.
The symphonic/power metal on display in Winter Is Here is instrumentally sound enough, but it hits about as hard as a summer camp pillow fight. The vocals on the other hand, bring the pain. When reaching for higher registers, as he frequently does, Kaasgaard’s vocal strain can be sphincter clenching. Most egregious is “Act 1: The Kingdom, the Power and the Glory,” in which he begins at the top of his range and then proceeds to claw his way to ever higher notes1. He hits them, but at great cost to himself and the listener. When the vocals go low, they’re as goofy as a party guest whose ratio of rum to eggnog has been off all night. At one point, during a cover of Swedish pop star Carola Häggkvist’s “Heaven In My Arms,” all instruments fall away, leaving Kaasgaard’s low, badly affected voice seemingly VERY close. It’s a moment almost as awkward as watching a movie with your parents that includes an unexpected explicit sex scene.
Admittedly, there are aspects of Winter Is Here that work. Louiebeth Ryan provides guest vocals on a number of tracks, and she’s a capable, if not flashy singer who offers the listener respite. “O Holy Night,” a hymn that sounds bombastic even by the blandest of weak tea Lutheran choirs, is a perfect fit for symphonic metal, and Kaasgaard’s interpretation is appropriately dramatic. When it comes to the title track about our young Three Eyed Raven, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t caught myself occasionally humming its broody chorus. But even these songs are brought down by the atrocious vocal performance, which combined with the album’s forbidding length, leaves a listener fatigued like whoa.
This leads me to A Hero For the World’s second fatal flaw: he’s deathly allergic to editing. This album is a staggering hour and a half spread over 21 songs2. No fewer than six of those appear in multiple versions, with “Winter Is Here” appearing in three forms. Mercifully, one is an instrumental. Just as you think almost any of the songs are about to end, they magically produce another chorus. Kaasgaard’s rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” asks the question, why have one crescendo when you can have two? No one asked for lite metal versions of “Mele Kalikimaka,” or “Somewhere In My Memory” from Home Alone3, and yet here they are.
All this to say, unlike with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, I don’t expect anyone to make a viral video of a synchronized Christmas light show to any of the songs from Winter Is Here. On a personal note, I’m now wondering what I did this year to deserve such a lump mountain of coal from Santa. Come to think of it, maybe Santa has been Steel Druhm this whole time. That would certainly explain why as a kid I got ill-fitting Saxon t-shirts three goddamn years in a row.
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Self Released
Websites: aherofortheworld.bandcamp.com | aherofortheworld.com | facebook.com/aherofortheworld
Releases Worldwide: November 9th, 2018
- In the promo, Kaasgaard notes his inspiration for this and his later rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer” was Andrea Bocelli. He demurs that his version wouldn’t stack up, so he decided to try hitting ever-higher notes to compensate. “If I can’t make it better, I’ll make it louder” is not good logic, kids. ↩
- Officially, the album I reviewed is the deluxe version. However, there does not appear to be any way to obtain a version without the “bonus tracks,” and a look at their bandcamp page confirms that this is A Hero For The World’s modus operandi. ↩
- On my first play through, I was enjoying this song a bit more than the previous ones, so I glanced at the title and almost stroked out reading the words “Home Alone.” But hey, it was written by John Fucking Williams, so don’t judge me! ↩