Leah, KINGS AND QUEENS (Innerwound Recordings, 2015).
Track listing: Arcadia; Save the World; Angel Fell; Enter the Highlands; In the Palm of Your Hand; Alpha et Omega; Heart of Poison; Hourglass; Palace of Dreams; This Present Darkness; The Crown; Remnant; There is No Farewell; Siuil a Run
Birzer rating: 9.55/10
Leah McHenry is a diamond, but not in the rough. Indeed, her talents are perfectly shaped and polished, ready to appear alone or in a company of other gems. Whatever the setting, though, Leah will be the brightest in the room.
I’m not sure I could honestly call this piece a review in any journalistic or Brian Watson-sense of the term “review.” I count Leah among my friends, however much distances across North America might separate us, and I’m proud to include anything she does as progarchist. At a personal level, she and I share the same views on political, religious, cultural, and familial matters, and I’m deeply honored to know her.
That admitted, I think I can also state with some objectivity (as much as beauty allows an objective statement to be made about it) that Leah possesses one of the three best voices in modern music. Only David Longdon of Big Big Train and Susie Bogdanowicz rival her for a top position among the best three. This is not to state I don’t have a fond affection for other singers. After all, I love Geddy Lee’s voice, but I would never claim—even under the pretense of objectivity or perhaps even under torture—that he wields a “pretty” voice. Leah, David (well, handsome), and Susie do.
After justly-famed progarchist and classical philosopher, Time Lord, introduced me to the music of Leah in 2012, I quickly fell under the pull of her siren song (though, quite holy and post-Homeric pagan). Her first album, OF EARTH AND ANGELS, really introduced me to metal. I’d heard some prog metal, but Rush was generally as heavy as my musical tastes had developed. Admittedly, I’m still trying to figure metal out, but I loved what Leah was doing with the genre in 2012. There was simply so much life in every note and every lyric. So much life. Life teeming with life. Life everywhere. And, on that first album, she revealed a real knowledge of Celtic and Scandinavian folk tunes and medieval wisdom. Her opening song, “Prisoner,” though lyrically about something altogether different than my interpretation here, sounded like she could be a true warrior princess leading her troops into a battle for all that is good and sacred.
Shortly after hearing her first album, I came across her Christmas EP, LET ALL MORTAL FLESH KEEP SILENCE. While there’s a long tradition of great artists dipping into this holiday genre, it always remains a risky venture. When taken seriously, Christmas songs live up to the immense gravitas of the birth of what Christians consider the messiah. Writing about the Word made Flesh is no easy task, and it should never be done for light or transient (or commercial) reasons. Mediocre Christmas songs just sound ridiculous. Leah’s metal take on the birth of Jesus has all the drama necessary to honor Mary’s son. Thus, though I have no divine authority, I assume that Leah will not be spending eternity with the unbelievably tacky Dan Schutte or Marty Haugen.
It was Leah’s second EP, OTHERWORLD, that convinced me of her nearly divine status as an artist. Imagine if her fellow Canadian Sarah McLachlan hadn’t gone full-blown pop and more than a bit wacky after her brilliant first three albums. If you can imagine this, the path not taken by McLachlan, you have Leah and OTHERWORLD. As with everything Leah does, she sings and plays every single note with absolute attention to detail and, most importantly, with humbling conviction.
I’m still trying to understand the entire genre of metal (hence, the 9.55/10 rating), and Leah’s KINGS AND QUEENS is about as metal as I’ve ever heard. It’s far harder and more driving than anything she’s previously done. Much of it comes out of the huge sum of money she deservedly raised in a campaign leading up to the making of this second full-length album.
One could never accuse of Leah of lacking confidence, but KINGS AND QUEENS possesses even more confidence than the first several releases. She’s also fully embraced all things medieval, Celtic, and Scandinavian in this album. Indeed, KINGS AND QUEENS might very well serve as the soundtrack to the Viking invasion of Ireland. When Leah sings, the listener stands with Bran the Blessed, Arthur, and Leif Erikson. The listener also stands with Leah at the heart of a storm, though as an observer, not as a participant or victim. Indeed, the power of Leah’s voice and song writing is akin to some kind of classical force of nature, perhaps transcending all but the Fates.
As the title KINGS AND QUEENS suggests, Leah has entered fully upon a world of the past with her beautifully produced, dense, and textured music. The artist herself claims not to be a progger (not out of distaste, but, instead, as a patriot of pure, raw metal), but the album is very progressive. There’s a coherent, if not single, story going on throughout the album, and the themes of loyalty, betrayal, and duty leap out of every song.
I’ve listened to the entire thing through several times now. Each time I listen to it, I hear something new, and I think “I like this song best,” but it’s never the same track when I listen to the album the next time. Admittedly, if Leah sang the entirety of page 452 of the Oxford English Dictionary, I’d buy the cd and love it. Yes, she has that kind of voice.
And, as I’ve written before, and I’ll write again: given her tenacity, her talent, her voice, and her age, Leah McHenry is the future of rock. That she’s as beautiful and kind as she is talented doesn’t hurt, either.