Shade Empire
Sunholy

Shade Empire, if nothing else, is a band who has time and again shown a willingness to let their sound morph and mutate into new forms, almost with every single release. When they entered the chat back in 2004 with their debut Sinthetic, they brought with them a Melodeath attack akin to fellow fins’ Mors Principium Est or Sweden’s Cipher System, while giving their work an extra, epic boost with the kind of robust orchestrations you’d find from Dimmu Borgir. The focus shifted slightly with follow-up Intoxicate O.S., taking some of the focus off the orchestrations and instead hitting listeners with a thrashier, more scathing assault that put them even more in-line with their countrymates in MPE, Kalmah and Brymir which, more or less, carried over through 2008’s Zero Nexus. Then in 2013, Shade Empire chose to get decidedly more epic, returning to the huge orchestrations of their debut, but pressing their foot down on the pedal even harder. If Omega Arcane had been released under the name of Dimmu Borgir, I’m not sure many would have immediately noticed.

But as is their wont, 2017 brought more changes to the band’s sound. While some of the more epic song structures may have stayed in place, the delivery on Poetry of the Ill-Minded began leaning back towards their Melodeath roots, but going even further into the realm of European Metalcore. Things started becoming a lot more streamline and, dare I say, catchy as all hell! And yet, they also started getting kinda weird, too – as if years of following their own path and building their own identity finally brought them to the natural conclusion of “fuck it, let’s just do what we want to do” (as a shining example, look no further than the sax track added to the fantastic “Wanderer” or “Thy Sent. Just bonkers!). The results were, in my opinion, breathtaking – a combination of sounds that lay somewhere between Amorphis‘ sense of musical adventure, Dimmu Borgir‘s sense of drama and pantomime, Eluveitie‘s sheer exuberance, and the catchy, hook-filled sensibilities of Caliban or Starkill.

But if Poetry hinted at the band moving further into a more people-friendly direction, Sunholy fully, unabashedly sets the idea in stone. This is, undoubtedly, the most widely appealing sound the band have ever put to record – a point made immediately clear on opener “In Amongst the Woods” which features the band’s biggest, most arena-ready hook yet, along with a healthy embrace of more electronic elements, more emphasis on clean vocals, basically everything that will make the most proudly anti-fun metalhead immediately scoff and make unnecessary online comments. And look, I get it, this is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m also here to tell you Shade Empire is REALLY good at this kind of thing, a fact proven on second track “The Apostle” which features everything there is to like about this band – some really strong riffs, compelling and varied vocal deliveries, a balanced mix of dark and light, and another absolute scorcher of a guitar solo that shows how potent a duo Juha Sirkkia and Aapeli Kivimaki can be. Just turn to the album’s title track to see how deftly they both can turn on a dime from full-throttle assault, to crushing heft, and then throw down some simple, but super addicting melodies around the chorus to complete the whole package. It’s a hell of a thrill ride.

But while immense credit needs to go to that pair, what really sets Sunholy apart is the performance from vocalist Henry Hamalainen, who joined the band not long after the release of Poetry… and the effect his vocals have had are certainly noteworthy. His excellent cleans seem to have unlocked the band’s willingness to lean in on those more emotional moments, moreso than ever before. The very moody “Torn Asunder” or “This Coffin an Island” are tracks that just would not have been possible for the band before (no offense at all to the excellent Juha Harju who used to front the band), and as a result – Sunholy is also by far the most varied and balanced record they’ve ever made. It’s no secret the band can keep pace with anyone in a high-octane assault, but now they can also swoon you with breathtaking melodies and hooks that will get stuck in your head after just a couple listens. “Rite of Passage,” the album’s swansong, paint’s such a beautiful picture of transcendence and hope that will sweep you up in its tendrils and transport you right into the dying world at the center of this album’s story – and while I’ve enjoyed every Shade Empire album to date for all of their individual character, I have to say the band’s ability to really take you on a full journey of emotional highs and lows on Sunholy takes the experience to a whole new level.

I feel I should also make clear – this album may be poised to attract more listeners than ever for the band, but don’t let my appreciation for the album’s more serene moments make you think for a second that Shade Empire have gone soft. “Maroon” still has the blasting, tremolo-picked fury that longtime fans will crave, but it also is balanced with brilliant stretches of Hamalainen’s gorgeous cleans and fantastically layered melodies (from the guitars and orchestrations both) that make the song so much stronger and more complex than just a 6 minute exercise in speed and raw fury. There’s a fantastic stretch in the middle of the song where the band go full John Williams or Danny Elfman and score an absolutely gorgeous movie soundtrack that could rival any blockbuster you can think of (and given that the band let the incomparable Francesco Ferrini of Fleshgod Apocalypse handle orchestrations, this comes as no surprise). Again, it’s got the ammo to make you bang your head, do some windmills, go ape in the pit, but they’re gonna make sure you get the full arsenal at their disposal, too.

If I haven’t made it perfectly clear, I REALLY like Sunholy. I think the band has taken a big leap here and the results are often no less than breathtaking. Some folks are gonna be turned away by how accessible this sounds, but that’s their loss. And by the way, you should absolutely spring for the deluxe version that includes a fully orchestral version of the entire album – it really lets you appreciate their brilliance even more. This is a fantastic accomplishment from a band that has been toiling away a little under-the-radar for a while now, and hopefully this is the album that gets Shade Empire the attention they deserve.

 

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Steve K
November 8th, 2023

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