Wednesday 8 June 2022

Battlelore - The Return of the Shadow (2022)

Country: Finland
Style: Epic Symphonic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 Jun 2022
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I remember Battlelore from what I think of as the golden age of Napalm Records, when I stumbled onto the genre of gothic metal and started picking up everything they released. I don't remember liking their black, death or symphonic bands as much as I did gothic ones like Tristania and Sirenia, but I equated Napalm with quality in my mind. I don't remember how many albums by Battlelore I got through, but it was probably the first three and I enjoyed them. I enjoyed this one too, but it's stubbornly not fully engaging with me. When it's playing, I mostly like it. When it finishes, I mostly don't miss it, though repeat listens do help draw out its merits.

And that's a problem, because this is a comeback album for them. They knocked out half a dozen in twice as many years in between their founding in 1999 and splitting up in 2011, never short on new material. However, since they got back together in 2016 in entirety—while only Jyri Vahvanan is a founder member, five out of the seven joined before the first album and everyone was on the last four—they've only put out one album and that a compilation of unreleased older songs. Until now, that is, so this one has been anticipated for a decade and change by fans. Are they going to be sold on it? Maybe, but will it convert the rest of the world? Doubtful.

What Battlelore do here is a light but pretty straightforward take on symphonic metal with beauty and the beast vocals, without really surprising at any point except through their subject matter, which generally boils down to a single word: Tolkien. The base of their sound is chunky riffs backed by the keyboard layer that emphasises them and this combo is reliably successful but perhaps doesn't do as much as it should to vary the sound. Tomi Mykkänen's harsh vocals work well with the riffs and I especially like it in duet with Kaisa Jouhki, who contributes a clean female voice in counter, though they tend to alternate the lead far more often than they duet.

I'm probably going to regret saying that they don't vary their sound much, but it's fair. There's one tone in play throughout this album, for the most part, and they milk it continually, as if it's all they need. However, there are some interesting moments and I'd be remiss if I didn't call them out. The unexpected narration partway through Orcrist works surprisingly well. Elvenking and Firekeeper slow things down, with the latter doing it rather effectively. Mirrormere gets really interesting in its midsection, and starts out delicately in a way that Shadow of the East echoes and never loses, a song that maintains its sense of gothic doom as it builds, Mykkänen whispering his vocals.

So there's more here than we might initially assume from a first listen and the album does reward repeat listeners, even if that first time through might only throw out Shadow of the East as a sole exception to Battlelore in default mode. It remained my personal favourite but, playing as it does in gothic and doom metal, it was always going to be. However, I think it's fair to say that it nails the epic side of Battlelore's sound better than anything else here, its last minute or so as cinematic as this album gets.

And, I should add, it's not just an album, it's a kinda sorta double album. The album proper on one disc runs a decent forty-seven minutes, but there's a second disc too, a much shorter one that we'd best call an EP. It contains three songs written around the time the band ceased to be a decade or so ago. They're separated here, because they don't sound particularly like the album proper, with less chunky riffs and a folkier, more epic feel, even Isenmouthe, which is definitely heavier than its peers. It probably isn't a good thing that I like all three more than I do the main album.

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