Stormlord
Far

Last month marked the 20th anniversary of Metallica’s S&M show with the San Francisco symphony. I was at that show, and it was a grand and sonic spectacle, as the band jammed out on stage with a phalanx of tuxedoed musicians and film composer Michael Kamen wielding the conductor’s baton. For most of the metal world – and certainly for the bewildered regular symphony ticket-holders – it was a new and daring concept, but for me, it was only half-successful. It was 1999, after all, and the symphonic black metal movement was in full scream. Bands from across Europe like Emperor, Dimmu Borgir, Anorexia Nervosa, Limbonic Art, Hollenthon, and Throes of Dawn (not to mention Stormlord‘s debut that same year) had been marrying blistering, melodic black metal with sweeping torrents of classical and orchestral music for awhile – and all of them more thoughtfully than just adding strings and brass to songs that weren’t fully written for them in the first place.

I mention all of this because symphonic metal can be a hard balance to get right. Too much and the orchestration overwhelms the songwriting. Too little and it sounds like an afterthought. Italy’s melodic/symphonic black/death metal act Stormlord has been able to nail that balance well on past albums like 2004’s The Gorgon Cult and 2008’s Mare Nostrum. Along the way, their palette has become more robust and well-realized, and the songs more ambitious and elaborate. There’s always been a strong current of riffy melodic death throughout, as far back as 1999’s Supreme Art of War, and in fact, a couple of the tracks on Mare Nostrum fall squarely into that genre. Yet when Stormlord focuses more on orchestral pomp, and in the service of great blackened songwriting, that’s where they’re most special. That also explains why 2013’s Hesperia left me cold. The songwriting was just not as compelling or exciting – nothing as sweeping or focused as Mare Nostrum’s triumphant title track or as impassioned as “And the Wind Shall Scream My Name” off the same album.

So I‘m glad to say that from the very first song of their hugely ambitious new album Far, Stormlord reclaim that lost territory. “Leviathan” is right up there with “Mare Nostrum” – sweeping and cinematic, relentless and regal, and with a martial stance that sounds like a fleet of ancient battleships amassed for onslaught. Opulent orchestration, blaring warhorns, pummeling riffs, volcanic percussion, monstrous growls, and soaring choirs all come together beautifully and in balance. It’s one of Stormlord’s best songs to date.

It’s also one of the most immediate tracks as well; most of the remaining compositions adopt more flowing structures which took me a few listens to fully absorb. That’s a good thing, as those albums wind up being the most rewarding. Favorite tracks here include the seafaring, anthemic title track (shades of Viking metal from far to the north), the relentless storm-tossed assault of “Crimson,” the furious and gorgeous “Vacuna,” and the unexpectedly yearning melodies in “Cimmeria.”

There’s also a more dynamic interplay between orchestral arrangements and guitars on most songs. Central melodies are heaved back and forth like a ship between Scylla and Charybdis, while the choirs rise and fall beneath the waves. Yes, there are Eastern and Mediterranean influences and melody lines as before, but they feel more natural and authentic here – nothing that sounds overtly ‘Egyptian,’ (for instance, as on Mare Nostrum’s entertaining but too on-the-nose “Legion of the Snake.”)

Stormlord has also always had a nice command of variety and pacing with their vocals, switching ably between guttural melodic-death/doom growls and blackened shrieks. There are some powerful gang vocals here on “Far” and “Invictus” which evoke a battle-hardened crew of rowers shouting into the wind. Gang vocals are often lame, but not here. These work. The low baritone vocals which rise up towards the end of “Mediterranea” make a return here from previous albums, but they lack power, which is why they’re fairly buried in the mix. The best new addition is the clean, heroic vocal style which rings out towards the end of the title track and “Sherden.” Dimmu Borgir has incorporated clean vocals to similar effect with ICS Vortex and Snowy Shaw, and Stormlord was wise to add them here as well – they create a bright and triumphant counterpoint to all the sturm und drang (or whatever the Italian equivalent of that is). In fact, I’d say the band should scrap the low baritone cleans completely (and whatever the odd hybrid of the two is at the end of “Romulus”) and just embrace those powerful cleans as a regular element.

One note of caution – you’ll want good headphones for this album, at least for your first half-dozen listens. I tried this a few times in the car, and then on a pair of bass-heavy wireless headphones. In both cases, the songwriting got lost in the thunder and fatigue set in before I was able to finish the album. Switched to a different set later, and one which favors more midtones and treble, and it was a far better experience. Great care was taken in each arrangement here, but I think the mix is already a tad bottom-heavy to begin with, so you’ll want to ensure all that warmth and detail comes through.

Symphonic black metal, as a genre, hasn’t really surged back since the late 90’s, but extreme symphonic metal in general does seem to be having a renaissance. British fantasy barbarians Bal-Sagoth has basically reformed as Kull and dropped a killer album this month. Stormlord’s countrymates Fleshgod Apocalypse also just dropped a new opus this week – their best in 8 years (since Agony, in 2011). Both that and Far are excellent albums, but where Veleno is brutal, technical, and relentless, this is more cinematic and sweeping – just be ready to put the time in. As for whether this tops Mare Nostrum, I’m not sure yet – but I’ll enjoy making that determination as I continue spinning this throughout the year.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
May 29th, 2019

Comments

  1. Commented by: Matt

    Hollenthon! Cor, that takes me back. I wonder which album it was….


  2. Commented by: Jordan Itkowitz

    Probably ‘With Vilest of Worms to Dwell,’ that’s the one I was thinking of…


  3. Commented by: Jason Snyder

    I’ll check this out. Great review and you too had me at Hollenthon.


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