Artist: Vanden Plas
Album Title: Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld II
Label: Frontiers Records
Year Of Release: 2015
Those familiar with my blog will know about my admiration for Germany’s Vanden Plas. During a career that has stretched over an impressive 20-plus years and eight studio albums, I’m not convinced that Messrs Stephan Lill (guitars), Andy Kuntz (vocals), Andreas Lill (drums), Torsten Reichart (bass) and Günter Werno (keyboards), have released anything short of brilliant. As a result, they have to be considered to be one of the very best within the progressive metal genre.
It’s something of a treat then to be presented with another full length album, less than two years after their last, particularly when Vanden Plas are one of those bands that historically prefer quality over quantity and generally take several years to create new material.
‘Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld II’, as the name suggests is the second and concluding part of a two-disc concept. I offered my thoughts on ‘Chronicles Of the Immortals: Netherworld’ at the time of its release, so if you’ve yet to check it out or if you want to put the following review into context, click here: ‘Chronicles Of the Immortals: Netherworld’.
The first thing to say is that, stylistically, there’s very little difference between this record and the last. But then, as they are intrinsically linked, that’s hardly surprising. What is equally unsurprising and will have readers shouting ‘broken record’ in my direction, is the unquestionable quality of the material on offer.
As with the last album, the Kaiserslautern quintet continue to work with German author Wolfgang Hohlbein in an effort to bring his ‘Chronicles Of The Immortals’ novels to life via the medium of music. But not just any music; in the hands of lesser musicians, this concept could have been rendered gutless, cheesy or half-hearted. Thanks to an increased love of the theatre within the Vanden Plas ranks and an innate flair for the dramatic and cinematic, the concept is brought to life beautifully and concluded in real polished style. This is nine tracks of superb melodic progressive metal, full of subtlety, bombast and a sureness of purpose that is quite rare these days. Choirs, female vocals, intricate and subtly complex, Vanden Plas create a great mix of the challenging and the instantly accessible.
With that very much in mind, I must admit that on a first, second and even third spin through, I felt just a little underwhelmed. The first album in this duo was so great right off the bat that I was in danger of dismissing this record as being, rather ineloquently ‘not as good’. I cannot put my finger on why this was because I’m now more spins into this album than I care to admit publically and it is nothing short of magnificent. It contains everything that fans of the band should want and have come to expect. There aren’t really any surprises but then surprises and curveballs aren’t always necessary, not when the standard fare is so palatable that’s for sure.
The rich orchestration that came to the fore beautifully in ‘Part I’ is present in abundance here on ‘Part 2’. Günter Werno plays an absolute blinder, embellishing the music with lush atmospheres and depth that just takes the breath away on several occasions. In fact, to call the keys and synths an ‘embellishment’ is both unfair and inaccurate. Unlike many bands of a similar ilk, the keys are not just present because that’s what you have to do if you’re a prog band. At least that’s how it often feels. With Vanden Plas, the keys are an integral part of the compositions and weave in and out to add grandeur or subtle nuances that require great attention to notice. Just listen to ‘Vision 16teen: Diabolica Comedia’ as the perfect example. The intro to the track is majestic and powerful whereas large parts of the song are more subtle, guided by understated keys that give the appearance of a film score on several occasions.
Once again, the rhythm section fails to miss a beat however simple or complex the backbone of the music is. Andreas Lill’s drums are wonderfully thunderous when required and I could listen to Reichart’s clever bass-playing all day.
Stephan Lill then adds his unique guitar tones and personally speaking, this is one of my favourite aspects of the Vanden Plas sound. The riffs are deliciously crunchy and aggressive, equal parts complex and simple and when the composition demands it, can offer something altogether more poignant and beautiful. The riff within ‘Vision 15teen: Monster’ is indeed a monster, whereas the pinched harmonics and lead solo within ‘Vision 17teen: Where Have The Children Gone’ are superb. So damn catchy is that riff within ‘Monster’, that I cannot stop myself banging my head along to it, even when on a packed train full of commuters.
Speaking of catchy, the melodies on this record are stunning. Not perhaps as immediate as other Vanden Plas albums, but they’re nevertheless there and with patience and attention, they blossom beautifully to the point where you’ll wake up to find yourself humming any number of the tracks on the record.
Part of the reason why the melodies work so well is down to the strength, commitment and abilities of vocalist Andy Kuntz. Where other vocalists go through the motions, Kuntz give it everything; he steps into character and delivers his lines in his unique tones and phrasings as if his life depends on it. Just check out the chorus on ‘Vision 18teen: The Last Fight’. Seriously, if you don’t get goose bumps, you’re probably never going to be a Vanden Plas fan. Everything combines to majestic effect – the keys are prominent, the rhythm section pounds, the guitars open up with epic chords and Kuntz sings his heart out.
If there was a small gripe from a few fans with the last record, it was that the output was a little too cinematic and as such, it lacked sufficient ‘prog’ within the compositions. Whilst ‘Part II’ is unlikely to fully appease this minority, it would be a churlish fan not to recognise tracks like the ‘Vision 14teen: Blood Of Eden’. At nearly 14 minutes long, it weaves, twists and turns from theatrical, to all out heavy metal bombast, cramming just about every facet of the Vanden Plas sound into one epic composition. And, in keeping with the entirety of the record, the chaps make it sound so damn effortless.
As a really nice touch and to cement the link between the two records, the aforementioned ‘Vision 15teen: Monster’ reintroduces some of the melodies from Part I and ‘Vision 19teen: Circle Of The Devil’ comes full circle and closes the concept by returning to the orchestral and cinematic musical themes of the opening track on ‘Part 1’. The fact that it opens up into a cracking full-on metal crescendo is simply the icing on the cake.
As I had no doubt, ‘Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld II’ is a killer slab of adventurous, anthemic and sophisticated progressive metal. It cements the band’s place as a genre leader and shows what is possible when five musicians come together with a shared vision as well as the hunger, desire and willingness to produce something that clearly comes from the heart. I adore this band and you should too. Glorious stuff.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.5
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:
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Agent Fresco – Destrier
Cattle Decapitation – The Anthropocene Extinction
Between The Buried And Me – Coma Ecliptic
Cradle Of Filth – Hammer Of The Witches
Disarmonia Mundi – Cold Inferno
District 97 – In Vaults
Progoctopus – Transcendence
Big Big Train – Wassail
NightMare World – In The Fullness Of Time
Helloween – My God-Given Right
Triaxis – Zero Hour
Isurus – Logocharya
Arcturus – Arcturian
Kamelot – Haven
Native Construct – Quiet World
Sigh – Graveward
Pantommind – Searching For Eternity
Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar
Klone – Here Comes The Sun
The Gentle Storm – The Diary
Melechesh – Enki
Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld