The album begins with a lengthy prologue. An instrumental, ‘beyond the wall of sleep’ emerges from the crackling of a fire. Horses neigh in the distance and, amidst the sound of men talking quietly, one can hear knives being sharpened. Led by an acoustic guitar, the track takes its time to build, drawing the listener back into a story that plays like a Greek tragedy. There is a sinister feel to the piece, an intangible sense of impending doom that is fully realised with the explosive ‘Nightly Visions’. Epic, neo-classical black metal in the vein of latter-day Emperor, ‘Nightly visions’ perfectly demonstrates the fact that, although Lord Shades is best enjoyed as a fully-fledged concept album, it is also possible to enjoy each song in isolation, the band easily matching the creative arc of the story with some of the most compelling music they’ve yet laid down. Make no mistake, this is crushing metal at its finest, and whilst I prefer to engage with the story that underpins it, there’s no requirement that every listener follow the same path. Introducing choirs and even some rather surprising brass, the track ends with the sound of a harrowing battle, the screams of the vanquished echoing across a battlefield strewn with bodies. It segues directly into the frantic death metal of ‘the dark host’, a piece of remorseless savagery that still manages to surprise with solos of surprising fluidity and a certain degree of experimentation in the percussion which opens up new sonic avenues for the band to explore. The tribal feel of the percussion melds perfectly back into the ongoing sounds of battle that permeate the piece, and the band have once again succeeded in crafting a piece of music that is both punishingly visceral and deeply evocative. In short, it is what you choose to make of it and it is successful in any event.
One of two lengthy pieces, ‘the gift’ is a ten-minute epic that uses its extended run time to build a deeply sinister atmosphere initially reminiscent of Queensryche’s ‘Suite sister Mary’, before the listener is plunged into a white-hot cauldron of molten death metal, occasionally augmented by the rich tones of the brass. As with previous offerings, the listener is reminded of Therion at their heaviest, whilst elements of Cannibal Corpse and Emperor are also present in the heady, symphonic brew. The musicianship, whilst first-rate, is as nothing compared to the arrangement of this deeply involved piece. Just as you think the track has peaked, some new element is quietly dropped into the mix, the result being a piece of music that demonstrates the perfect blend of theme and execution. The song ends with echoing sounds of torment that chill the blood before ‘Woe to the (Vae Solis)’ emerges as a more reflective piece, underpinned by dark, stuttering industrial percussion that recalls the majestic horror of Thorns, only to suddenly shift tone entirely, edging into a kind of prog-infused neo-folk that is as beautiful as it is mysterious.
Having spent so long a period in the darkness, ‘The revenge of Namwell’ finally sees the tides turning against the forces of darkness, and the music that accompanies such a reckoning is appropriately savage. Set against the more ethereal ‘woe to the’, it is especially brutal with the arcing guitars and deafening percussion apt to leave the listener shaking as the adrenalin surges through their veins. However, as might be expected from a track that edges toward the nine minute mark, there is light and shade here as well, as dark, neo-classical elements are integrated into the mix. It is a perfect example of the band’s immense skill when it comes to arranging sweeping epics that combine a genuine sense of grandeur with the more earthen thrill of brutal heavy metal. The track segues neatly into the mysterious beauty of ‘The awakening’, a stunning piece of tribal folk that once again dips its toes into the waters from which Therion drunk deep. A truly progressive journey that sees the band slowly draft metallic elements into place, its short run time (a mere six-and-a-half minutes) belies the wealth of ideas the band incorporate into it.
The album ends with the fifteen minute coda, ‘A new dawn’. As epic a piece of song-writing as the band have ever put their name to, ‘A new dawn’ brings the thrilling Lord Shades trilogy to suitably ambitious conclusion. At the outset, awash with strings and with operatic vocals placed very much at the fore, the track turns dark as a final battle takes place, underscored by a riff of cataclysmic violence. The track, which feels like a complete story in its own right, so involved is the arrangement that it feels like a vivid celebration for the band, who, having finally concluded their magisterial vision, decided to place the grandest of full stops at its end. Like the moment that the credits roll at the conclusion of a particularly immersive movie, there’s a real sense of loss when the track, and the album, finally ends, and it just goes to show how compelling a world Lord Shades were able to create.
When a band has the technical ability and the courage to craft so involved a piece of work, it is a joy to review. Whilst the mainstream seems to be largely bereft of originality, the underground remains a thriving hub of creative spirit and vision, and Lord Shades stand at the forefront of what it is possible to achieve in the realm of symphonic metal. Brutal in the extreme and yet tempered with powerful melodies and a strikingly original and intelligent storyline, this is easily the finest part of a trilogy that was already deeply impressive. If you’re looking for one last shot of thrilling heavy metal to round out the year, then this is a must, but, if you really want to see what the fuss is about, buy the trilogy, set aside three hours and revel in the true glory of this magnificent piece of work. Phil