Leaves' Eyes are one of the more surprising bands to survive for almost two decades, for a number of reasons, but they're thankfully still around and they're still releasing new material. This is the eighth studio album for them in sixteen years, so they've kept up an impressive release schedule. It's also the second album with Elina Siirala at the mike and she sounds completely at home here.
One of those reasons is that the band was conceived and founded by her predecessor, Liv Kristine, one of the pioneers of the genre through the Norwegian gothic metal band Theatre of Tragedy, which she also founded. She created Leaves' Eyes with her new husband, Alexander Krull, the lead vocalist in the German outfit Atrocity, who had evolved by that point from grindcore to death metal. Given that Liv Kristine's backing band in Leaves' Eyes was the entire line-up of Atrocity, it could easily be forgiven if we see it as a side project for them, but that consistency has remained; even when Atrocity changes its own members, they change in Leaves' Eyes too.
If they ever saw it as a side project, it's one that's lasted longer than that marriage, as Liv Kristine left or was fired from her own band the same year that she divorced Krull. I don't know which of those two events came first, but it really doesn't seem like a pleasant time for any of them. Rather than end this band, though, Krull chose instead to hire a new lead vocalist, Elina Siirala of Angel Nation, meaning that a German band swapped a Norwegian for a Finn, and, while I never disliked the previous era, the result sounds excellent. Clearly I should check out the previous album too, Sign of the Dragonhead a couple of years ago.
The sound is symphonic metal with a frequent choral flavour. Krull provides harsh vocals to contrast Siirala's pure but powerful voice, but every other band member chimes in to build a choral effect, an approach that's there throughout but which occasionally comes to the fore so strongly that Therion become a worthy comparison. Serpents and Dragons fits that, as does For Victory. There are guests to help out with the choir too, though far fewer than last time, it seems.
There are two other genres flavouring this symphonic metal and neither is gothic, though there are a few hints to be found. One is death metal, especially with Krull's harsh vocals and songs like the title track that feature them at length, but sometimes in the music too. The other is folk, which is here in a few different forms. It's in the delicate intro and keyboards behind parts of Black Butterfly, which feel Celtic rather than Norse; it's in the melodies and nyckelharpa of For Victory; and it's especially in the drinking song that is Varangians.
Leaves' Eyes have always had a fixation on the Norse, which is a little odd now that the band has zero Norwegians left in it, but battles and drinking about battles are always good material for folk songs. The title track is about Harald Hardrada, or Harald III of Norway, remembering his life before he dies; that's a fantastic way to stage an epic song. And it really is an epic. It shows up thirteen songs in and almost fifty minutes, only to run for ten more, twice the length of any other song. Next longest is the next song, because we're still not done.
And, while this is an enjoyable album, which I've played through a few times today, this is its problem. Because there's nothing new here, however well it's performed, it becomes too much. A dozen songs, plus an introduction and an interlude rack up over an hour between them and some of them got lost in the mix. When this is good, it is really good: the bombastic Chain of the Golden Horn; the swaying catchiness and gothic lushness of Dark Love Empress; the emphatic and folky For Victory. But not all these songs are up to that standard and some drift away. This would have been better shorn of maybe half a dozen tracks.