Album Title: Legends of the Shires
Label: Nuclear Blast
Date of Release: 8 September 2017
I still remember, vividly, the first time that I heard UK progressive metal band Threshold. It was the song ‘Falling Away’ from the album ‘Critical Mass’, released in 2002 and I was blown away. The energy, the emotion and the melodies all combined to stunning effect. I played the song about seven times in a row without a pause, before promptly placing an order for the album. It arrived a couple of days later and I hungrily devoured the record, delighted that the entire disc lived up to my lofty expectations at a time when I was getting heavily pulled under the spell of progressive music.
Naturally, as was my way, I delved headlong into the back catalogue, discovering many other gems along the way. Whilst ‘Falling Away’ remains my all-time favourite Threshold track, the likes of ‘Ravages of Time’ and ‘Safe To Fly’ push it very close.
In the intervening years, I have seen Threshold live several times including a great show at the criminally under-supported Fused Festival in 2011. I have also had the pleasure in reviewing most of their recent albums as well as chatting with keyboardist Richard West on more than one occasion. They are, without doubt one of the most important bands in my life, certainly where progressive music is concerned.
A small pocket of fans have bemoaned a lack of diversity within the Threshold sound, but I think this is grossly unfair. The old saying goes that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Threshold have grown, they have matured and their output has changed, albeit in more subtle ways than other acts. But at their core, they have remained true to the melodic progressive metal blueprint that has marked their output pretty much since day one. And in terms of quality, they are consistency personified. You just know that Threshold will not release a stinker. Of course, opinions will differ among the faithful as to which of their ten albums to date is the best, but there’s a tacit understanding that every album has a vein of quality running through it.
This is quite remarkable, given the line-up changes that have befallen the band over the years. Only guitarist Karl Groom remains from the original line-up as a founding member. That said, since the mid-noughties, perhaps a little earlier, the core has remained relatively static, with Groom joined by drummer Johanne James, bassist Steve Anderson and keyboardist Richard West. In the last few months, second guitarist Pete Morten stepped down to focus on his own material and the vocalist carousel has turned again, rather surprisingly.
In their near 30-year history, Threshold have had no less than four lead vocalists. Jon Jeary (who returns as a guest vocalist on ‘The Shire (Part 3)’) was succeeded by Damian Wilson who himself was replaced briefly by Glynn Morgan and then more permanently by Andrew ‘Mac’ McDermott. Mac, who later tragically passed away, left the band somewhat unexpectedly. In a blaze of glory, Wilson returned, but just a few months ago it was confirmed that he was to leave Threshold again. Many of us were shocked, particularly when it was announced that Glynn Morgan was to return to the mic. Was this to be a mistake? Or would it be a masterstroke?
As news of the band’s eleventh album began to surface, more questions began to emerge. Apparently, ‘Legends of The Shires’ was going to be a double album, the first of their career. Would this be a risky move? Would it prove to be too much for fans? ‘Legends of The Shires’ would also be a concept album. Another risky move? Were Threshold trying too much with this record to succeed?
All these thoughts and more were going through my mind as I pressed play for the first time. I was surprisingly nervous, even though I’d loved the first two singles from the album, the immensely powerful epic ‘Lost In Translation’ and the shorter, punchier ‘Small Dark Lines’ with its sprawling monster of a chorus.
I don’t think there is ever a point with any album where I think ‘right I’m 100% ready to pen this review’ – that feeling never arrives. But having spent quite a lot of time with ‘Legends Of The Shires’, obsessively at times, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be to pin my colours to the mast. And all I can really say at this point is ‘Oh. My. God’ This record is mind-blowingly good. It is sensational.
The first thing to report is that the core sound I referred to earlier is all still in place; ‘Legends Of The Shires’ couldn’t be anyone other than Threshold. If you’re looking for a radically different approach, you’ll be disappointed. The rest of us should simply rejoice. Big, chunky riffs, bigger melodies, technicality, swathes of keys, extended instrumental passages – they’re all here and it all sounds utterly glorious.
The next thing to tackle is the reintroduction of Glynn Morgan as lead vocalist. I don’t know if I’m likely to be in the minority here, but as much as I respect and admire Damian Wilson as a singer, I never got to the stage of loving his voice unconditionally. As a result, I’m not overly upset at his departure. After all, he’s still active as a solo artist and as the front man for Headspace, so we won’t be able to miss him too much. Additionally, as someone who came to the Threshold cause with Mac on vocals, I’m delighted to note that more than once, Morgan sounds scarily like the late singer. He has his own style for sure, but the similarities are there to be heard. But more than that, Morgan can definitely sing and I have no complaints about him whatsoever on ‘Legends Of The Shires’. His voice may lack a stratospheric ‘wow’ factor at times but his performance is nothing short of excellent throughout, thoroughly professional and with the range to do the songs full justice.
It’s always a bit of a risk to release a double album and, in the case of Threshold, it is a record featuring 14 individual tracks with a running time of well over 80 minutes. That’s a lot of music in anyone’s language and could be daunting to some. Indeed, I took a deep breath before plunging in. However, I can honestly say, hand-on-heart that ‘Legends Of The Shires’ flies by. At the outset, I immediately had my favourite songs but as time has gone by, I find myself liking something within each track. No, that’s not accurate – I adore just about every minute of this weighty tome.
There’s a beautiful ebb and flow to the record, encompassing all of the myriad strengths of the Threshold collective. From quiet, introspective and delicate, right through to heavy, powerful and commanding, the full gamut is explored. There are shorter pieces and, as is their way, a few longer compositions where the technical prowess and flamboyance of each member is given a chance to shine brightly. And believe me, every member of this band is dreadfully talented.
Contrary to popular belief, the loose concept is not influenced by ‘Lord of the Rings’. Mind you, one look at the sumptuous artwork alongside the album title and you can see where that idea came from. But rather, the album looks at how a nation interacts with others and how it grows and evolves over time. It’s a grand concept and one that befits the equally grand soundscapes that surrounds it.
‘Legends Of The Shires’ starts off, fittingly, with the gentle sounds of birds singing and a church bell ringing via ‘The Shire (Part 1)’. It is an acoustic guitar and vocal intro that introduces some beautiful melodies that crop up elsewhere, as well as instantly dismissing anyone’s potential misgivings about Morgan’s return. His delivery is passionate and resonates excellently.
The aforementioned ‘Small Dark Lines’ acts as the stark juxtaposition to the opener as it is one of the most up-tempo, powerhouse tracks on the entire record. The chorus is immense but the chugging riffs and strong rhythms from James and Anderson provide the groovy framework that’s almost as infectious as the chorus.
At nearly 12 minutes in length, ‘The Man Who Saw Through Time’ is the longest composition on the album but also one of the most satisfying and beguiling. A slow-burner, it soon opens like a delicate flower to expose its subtle charms. The keys and piano of West are superb, working in tandem with Morgan’s poignant delivery. The slow and emotional-sounding lead guitar work of Groom is superb, segueing into a properly ‘progressive’ section where a myriad of different synth sounds are aired, the tempos frequently change as does the intensity and a story is told via a combination of instrumentation and lyrics in expert fashion. But despite the diversity in evidence, the band use their mature and seasoned song writing skills to create a piece of music that sounds smooth and cohesive. Nothing feels out of place or unnecessary, however dramatic the individual performances are or how awe-inspiring the lead guitar-driven finale becomes.
I cannot possibly go through each and every track in detail, but it’s tough not to. ‘Trust The Process’ is a choppier, grittier track that is another progressive masterclass, full of twists and turns, whilst ‘On The Edge’ comes out of the blocks like something possessed before calming right down and delivering more of a big ballad-like chorus. Then there’s the complex and fascinating ‘Snowblind’ which takes its time to blossom but delivers a huge pay-off when it finally clicks, particularly the long-awaited chorus and more urgent sections in the latter stages.
In terms of personal favourites, I could mention pretty much half of the material frankly. ‘The Man Who Saw Through Time’ is clearly up there, as is ‘Small Dark Lines’. However, if pressed, I’d also mention ‘The Shire (Part 2)’ which builds on the melodies of the opening part and just when you think it’ll exclusively follow the acoustic-and-vocal blueprint of its predecessor, it explodes in spectacular fashion, causing me to stop whatever I’m doing and sing along, even if I’m in public.
Then there’s the aforementioned behemoth ‘Lost In Translation’ which was a killer song right from the off and has turned into a bona-fide anthem of truly epic proportions. Or how about ‘Stars And Satellites’ that unashamedly blends the hard rock/metal with overt pop and AOR sensibilities? Catchy as hell and beautiful, it really captured my attention, showcasing the delicate and powerful sides of this special band with consummate ease. I smiled when I first heard it and it still has the same effect a week or two later.
I could go on, so I will. ‘Subliminal Freeways’ features a beefy riff that I love, alongside an understated swagger from Morgan, before the mother of all power-ballad choruses rips through the speakers, bathed in soothing synths and a lush melody. And lastly, ‘State Of Independence’ has a solemn tone, paired with some strikingly real lyrics, a comment on the recent Brexit decision if I’m not mistaken.
I’m not really sure how to sum up ‘Legends Of The Shires’ adequately, because in many ways I am lost for words. I was expecting a great album, because that’s what Threshold always seems to deliver. I wasn’t necessarily expecting a masterpiece. For that is exactly what ‘Legends Of The Shires’ is; it is magical, it is majestic and it is a perfect tour-de-force of melodic progressive metal. Outstanding.
The Score of Much Metal: 10
If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:
H.E.A.T – Into The Great Unknown
Dyscarnate – With All Their Might
Subterranean Masquerade – Vagabond
Adagio – Life
Paradise Lost – Medusa
The Haunted – Strength In Numbers
Serious Black – Magic
Leprous – Malina
The Lurking Fear – Out of the Voiceless Grave
Prospekt – The Illuminated Sky
Wintersun – The Forest Seasons
Witherfall – Nocturnes And Requiems
Tuesday The Sky – Drift
Anthriel – Transcendence
Decapitated – Anticult
Cosmograf – The Hay-Man Dreams
Orden Ogan – Gunmen
Iced Earth – Incorruptible
Anathema – The Optimist
Solstafir – Berdreyminn
Dream Evil – Six
Avatarium – Hurricanes And Halos
Ayreon – The Source
Until Rain – Inure
MindMaze – Resolve
God Dethroned – The World Ablaze
Bjorn Riis – Forever Comes To An End
Voyager – Ghost Mile
Big Big Train – Grimspound
Lonely Robot – The Big Dream
Firespawn – The Reprobate
Pyramaze – Contingent
Shores Of Null – Black Drapes For Tomorrow
Asira – Efference
Hologram Earth – Black Cell Program
Damnations Day – A World Awakens
Memoriam – For The Fallen
Pallbearer – Heartless
Sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius
Vangough – Warpaint
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day