Sonic AbuseConcept albums are a rare treat. Oft-treated like some kind of instant career-killer by the sceptical mainstream press, concept albums are where a band has the opportunity to craft a complete world within the sphere of their music. If done well, as with ‘the Wall’ or ‘operation mindcrime’, they can prove to be enduring works of art. If done badly, well the bargain bin of infamy more often than not awaits.
Even rarer, especially in this ephemera-obsessed age, are bands who go beyond the simple concept album to craft an entire universe over a course of albums. Bal Sagoth is one such band and, more recently, Lord Shades have appeared upon the scene with their blood ‘n’ thunder tale of a sorrowful, wandering “soul borrower” (the titular Lord Shades) whose first adventure, ‘the downfall of Fire-Enmek’ was released in 2008. ‘The rise of Meldral-Nok’ is, thus, rather a special release, packaged in a beautifully designed digi-pack and coming complete with a booklet containing lyrics as well as a detailed exposition of the story.
Cynicism would be the easy response to such a dense work. The music covers myriad themes and seems to know no boundaries, whilst the story-line is as likely to arouse mirth as it is interest. Yet, whilst cynicism comes easily, it would be entirely unworthy, for this is a fantastic release that requires nothing more than for the listener to suspend their disbelief and revel in the whole glorious adventure. For those willing to make the journey, there is a huge amount to enjoy – the epic story is split between the background passages printed in the booklet and the lyrics, whilst the music is a remarkable piece of work that sits somewhere between symphonic metal, epic film soundtracks and black metal, meaning that even if you don’t wish to buy into the narrative, it is still possible to enjoy the album as a musical endeavour.
However, it is as a complete package that Lord Shades works best, and to enjoy the album it is best to clear your schedule, turn off your phone and settle down with a glass of wine and the album booklet and let the whole weight of the band’s grandiose vision wash over you. First track, ‘the leave taking’ sets the scene perfectly with a quote from Shakespeare’s tragedy ‘King Lear’. It is, as entrances go, one of the most eloquent beginnings one could wish to hope for, and Laurent Barbarit has done a fantastic job of crafting lyrics that don’t do a disservice to the tone set by the great bard over the remainder of the album. Meanwhile the band have the unenviable task of trying to create music appropriate to such an epic, grandiloquent adventure and it is to this task that they step up most admirably. Opening with music that would not be out of place as the soundtrack to a period drama, the sense of melancholy felt by Lord Shades is conjured perfectly, as is the magical revelation that sets him on his quest and when, some two minutes in, the guitars do appear, raging and burning, there’s a sense of exhilaration and expectation not unlike that felt when reading an epic novel, as if you empathetically linked to the character and ready to share his journey with him.
What a journey that we must venture upon. Lord Shades is no mere lifeless character acting as a proxy for the musicians, rather he is a living, breathing creation subjected to abject classical misery in order to gain strength and personal understanding. His is a tale that, at the close of the album, is only part done and there is a tragic nature that permeates the story that sees Lord Shades as a modern day Oedipus Rex, a tortured soul upon whom the miseries of the world are heaped with unceasing malevolence. The story, meanwhile, is tightly plotted and constructed with at least equal grace to the remarkable music and just as the band reference a wealth of musical sources, so the story references literary masters such as Shakespeare and Milton in relating the tale. ‘Awareness’, at some six minutes one of the shorter tracks here, is a furious blast of metal that is subverted in the fourth minute as washes of synth sooth away the fire and fury and pave the way for Cyril’s beautifully understated soloing which sees the song segue into the sinister, ‘Ancient fears’ which introduces Lord Shades’ arch foes, the entities of Chaos, via slow, doom-laden metal offset with the sweetness of a violin section. It is this dichotomy between Lord Shade’s unrivalled blasts of metallic fury and the band’s classical sensibilities that makes the album such a compelling listen and which propels the intricate storyline along at a fearsome pace. A brutal track, ‘ancient fears’ not only conjures the very visceral desire to headbang, but also captures a sense of the story with enough power to evoke the more restrained desire to sit back and absorb the story. ‘Lust for death’ sees the unleashing of the hordes of chaos, via a sensational blast of black metal that takes in Eastern influences with its unusual chord progressions and mighty hooks and then there is the epic ‘the dark fleet’ which takes classical influences and sets them within a huge, gleaming metallic framework for a song that is part black Sabbath, part Wagner, part Therion in its intricate, emotive neo-classical ambition. It’s the centre point of the album, and it sees the beginning of Lord Shade’s epic battle with morality and sense of self via the Miltonian concept ‘better reign in hell than serve in paradise’, the paradigm that has motivated many a heroic figure to fall in the face of great temptation.
The final two tracks see the story racing towards its bitter, cliff-hanger conclusion. Of these ‘Fool of wisdom’ is a short (at just over four minutes the shortest song here) blast of savage metal that sees Lord Shades guided towards the tales epic finale by a Fool who, like Feste in ‘Twelfth night’, is possessed of more wisdom than anyone superficially blessed with knowledge. Alas, as the final track ‘the pledge’ demonstrates, Lord Shades is not willing to put his faith in the fool and thus makes a decision (and an oath) that has the potential to cause great suffering – a juncture at which we leave our hero (with some regret) until the band take up his tale once more in a future release. Musically the grand finale takes in elements of folk, metal and more to serve up the album’s most unique and beguiling track and one that is best played at high, neighbour-distressing volumes.
Lord Shades are unarguably a special band indeed. With a narrative that more than justifies its length, and a sense of musical ambition that demands attention, ‘The rise of Meldral-Nok’ is an album that may not achieve mainstream success, but which will certainly be adored by those that discover its charms. The music is heavy, but also classical – as if one great composition divided into movements, and the musicians themselves are top notch – tight, proficient and they play both with great skill and great feeling. Furthermore, as if all this weren’t enough, a huge amount of effort has gone into the stunning digi-pack which houses the music and it’s clear that Lord Shades has been a labour of love for all involved. A worthy, exciting and ambitious project this is an epic concept albuym and a mind-blowing metallic voyage that must not be missed. Phil