In addition to progressive metal and rock, one of my favorite types of music are dramatic film scores. And in that realm, one of my all time favorite groups is Two Steps From Hell, as they are one of the leaders in symphonic music that tends towards the dramatic. Think the more aggressive parts of the Gladiator soundtrack. I bring this up to let you know that this album is RIGHT up my alley. This is as if TSFH decided to make a fantasy concept album and released some of their best material as the foundation.
According to the news release from Nuclear Blast, Guitarist André Olbrich and singer Hansi Kürsch from Blind Guardian hatched this project based on ideas that started up back in the 90’s when Blind Guardian started using orchestral elements in their albums. Thankfully, the planets started to align and helped bring this project to fruition. They also teamed up with an author for a book tie in as a prequel to the story on the album. The book is called “Die Dunkien Lande” or “The Dark Lands” in english, by author Markus Heitz, who apparently is a long time friend of Hansi who used to play role playing games together. The book, and this album, deal with a mercenary named Nicolas and his part in the Thirty Years War. But also be warned, this isn’t just some small prequel for marketing purposes. The book clocks in at about 560 pages. So it is fairly hefty itself.
The album is a full on, orchestral onslaught. No guitars in sight. So, definitely be aware of that when going into this. If you are looking for a heavy metal experience, this is not it. What it IS is and album full of dramatic and beautiful orchestrations, deep emotional moments, huge choirs, and an interesting story with a small sprinkling of voice acted parts in between the main songs. And we are talking some high quality story interludes with professional voice acting. Reminded me a bit of the voice acting in Gandalf’s Fist’s The Clockwork Fable. Heck… I think one or two of the same cast are used by the sound of it. Or someone VERY similar. And don’t worry… if you don’t like that kind of thing, the interludes are numerous but the longest one is not quite a minute and a half with most being under a minute.
As would be expected with an orchestral album, we start things off with an overture. 1618 Ouverture sets up the mood for this album nicely and reminds me in part of the soundtrack to Beetlejuice.
War Feeds War is the first full song and the orchestration starts off soft but then goes full on into the dramatic department. The verses sounding kind of like a broadway musical and then getting huge in choir and music for the chorus. There is a great instrumental section going all movie soundtrack on us. I mention the broadway musical aspect but don’t let that scare you away. These songs all go through different moods within themselves. Some parts are that broadway sound, some parts that sound like a menacing film score, and some that sound like a song marching to battle. Epic stuff.
Dark Clouds Rising starts of rather cheerfully in the verses and goes into a very upbeat and damn catchy chorus. Their penchant for melody shines brightly in this track. The title very much belies what is held within song.
In The Underworld is a darker track with a few flights of fancy. But definitely still epic. With some voice acting in the middle.
The Great Ordeal starts off like the beginning of a broadway musical about the revolutionary war. I know that is rather specific, but you’ll know what i mean… I think… Lol. That’s the feeling I get anyway. Parts of this really remind me of some of Rob Dougan’s stuff. Again… huge choruses. Love it.
Honestly don’t know what is going on in the Bez interlude here. Gonna need some context.
One of the longer tracks on the album is In the Red Dwarf’s Tower, with some fantastic musicianship present throughout. Seriously, this is written brilliantly. And I’m a little disappointed it wasn’t about one of my favorite british scifi comedies.
We get another song that carries an air of nationalistic anthems in Treason with its marching beat and almost anthemic in the chorus.
Point of No Return has some very playful vocalizations and melodies driving it. Sounds like the orchestra might have had fun with this one. And god, the choir again sounds freaking glorious. And the violins near the end give me goosebumps.
I’m getting carried away with talking about each track. Trying to wrap this up.
Nephilim is a slower burn of a track with a haunting choir with bursts of the dramatic.
Harvestor of souls, with its vocal acrobatics, has more of an angry feel to it and This Storm, and Beyond the Wall are over the top dramatic and each sound like they could have closed this album out. Every song is just so good. This is a fairly packed cd, and they could have tried to make it a huge 2 disc set, but I am glad they stuck to one. The music is focused and never gets boring.
I do have a small issue with the way they chose to release it. You can buy a 2 CD set with the full, 24 tracks with interlude voice over tracks on one disc and the instrumental version of the just the main songs on the 2nd disc. But if you want a disc with just the main songs, you have to purchase the earbook, which seems to only be available in the Euro Nuclear Blast store (extra shipping for us in the US). Looking on their Facebook page, there is a special, 4 disc set, with broken links to purchase. Not sure if sold out or if it really exists or what. But I digress… the reason i have an issue with the 2 CD set is, if you make a playlist of just the main songs, they will not transition well as some of the effects of the interlude tracks carry over into the main songs. I am assuming (we know what that does) that they are made to transition better on the disc in the earbook. And I only see this as a small issue, as the dialog doesn’t bother me at all. I like listening to the whole thing. YMMV.
So there you have it. This is truly a stellar album. Like, as I said before, what I would expect if Two steps from Hell released a concept album. And that is my highest praise.
Rating: 10/10 I was going to deduct something for the small frustration with the was the release is handled as noted above, but i just can’t. This is SO GOOD.