I don't know Visions of Atlantis but it looks like I should, especially as this was FolkNRock's choice for Best Symphonic Album of 2022. It's their eighth album, because they've been around for a long while, even though their line-up has changed considerably across the years since they began back in 2000, the only founder member for well over half their career being Thomas Caser on drums. It's a long album too, running almost an hour but it never outstays its welcome. It remains vibrant and upbeat throughout and it's easy to buy into that energy and keep listening.
The most symphonic track is probably Master the Hurricane, which kicks off with nautical sounding flute and the sort of brass you would hear in an actual symphony, to provide texture rather than to replace a rock instrument. Then it ramps up into metal territory with a choral backdrop and all the elements remain in place throughout the song. It's almost an action movie soundtrack with vocals and we can see the pirate ship hurling through the titular storm until it reaches the eye four and a half minutes and everything drops away for a period of beautiful calm.
If structuring a song around its subject matter like a concrete poem suggests a playfulness in the songwriting, then check out Freedom, which turns down the tempo that was maintained through the first four tracks and leaps into musical theatre. There are two vocalists in Visions of Atlantis, one male and one female, and they both sing clean. The relish that the former, Michele Guaitoli, invests in his opening lines makes it seem like he's auditioning on stage for a Broadway show. The latter, Clémentine Delauney, promptly joins him, with a little less relish but not by much, and this turns into a musical theatre duet.
With the exception of Heal the Scars, which is a straight ballad, the rest play in a more traditional vein, but without ever really losing either of those aspects. Standouts for me include the opener, Pirates Will Return, and Legion of the Seas. Both contain grandiose operatic sections like Master the Hurricane and theatrical musical theatre sections like Freedom, but feel more satisfied with a straightforward approach built on riffs and swells. During these songs, Delauney is more obvious than Guaitoli, but they're both clearly there.
Because Caser is the only founder member, they're both relatively recent additions to the band, a surprising detail because they seem utterly comfortable with each other and the musicians on the stage behind them. Delauney joined in 2013, the fifth in a line of female singers but her decade in the band is twice as long as any of the others. Guaitoli is only the fourth male singer but he joined in 2018, so is the new fish in the band. I think my favourite song for them is Darkness Inside, which sees them singing mostly together, to great effect, but with occasional diversions for both.
Everything's solid, even over almost an hour, and I should call out the band members I know about. Beyond Caser on drums, who does his job throughout whatever the tempo a particular song needs, there's Christian Douscha and Herbert Glos. I was surprised to find that there was only one guitar here, because the sound is rich enough that it feels like two. That's Douscha's work, meaning that Glos provides the bass, which is reliable and often notable, because the mix is excellent so we can follow any instrument we like.
There's certainly someone playing keyboards, though I have no idea who delivered that backdrop of texture. However, the flute and bagpipes that show up on a trio of tracks, including Master the Hurricane, come corutesy of Ben Metzner, better known as Prinz R. Hodenherz III in Feuerschwanz. I dig those folkier elements, which work well on an album themed around piracy, and wish they had been used more often. Pirates Will Return in particular seems to ache for them.
Is this the best symphonic album of the year? It's certainly a good one in a year that boasted a few such, but I'd give the edge to SheWolf, I think.