Album Title: Hermitage
Label: Napalm Records
Date of Release: 26 February 2021
“We know that we are entering the final years of our career as musicians: the winter of our lifetime.”
What a quote from Moonspell frontman, Fernando Ribiero to read within the press release for ‘Hermitage’, the thirteenth album of the Portuguese Gothic metal institution. It may be true, but reading it creates a bit of a downer if I’m honest. Bands talking about their longevity and their mortality is not what you expect on the eve of the release of their new album. And a world without Moonspell either sooner or later isn’t something I want to think about.
However, his next quote is more like it, and certainly more bullish in tone:
“Under these circumstances, we feel our musical stakes are higher than ever. For us, it’s not about likes or algorithms, reach, or opportunity of growth. We only care about the music. Music does come first on this album…”
Despite the more robust rhetoric, it is fair to say that ‘Hermitage’ more closely echoes the opening quote, in that it is a demonstrably sombre, melancholic, and dark affair, with a hefty dose of realism injected into the music for good measure. It would appear that the worldwide pandemic has had a greater impact on the members of Moonspell than many other musicians. At least, on the strength of ‘Hermitage’, that’s a conclusion I would certainly draw.
Lyrically, ‘Hermitage’ is, in Ribiero’s own words “…about turning our backs to the conventions of modernity. We are currently convincing ourselves that it’s all about us, that we (humanity) are everything. That the world revolves around us. However, ipsi facto, we are nothing and nothing revolves around us.”
Musically, the album is equally as brooding. The ten compositions are steeped in dense atmospheres, where passages of minimalist contemplation feature heavily, almost more so in places than the heavier, metallic elements. The synths and keys bathe the music with familiar layers of Gothic richness but also offer a more dystopian feel, more nuanced than on previous releases I’d venture. And the unmistakeable tones of Ribiero offer a range of emotions, flitting from angry, to thoughtful, to despairing with ease, depending on the focus of the song.
The interesting dichotomy with ‘Hermitage’ is that, on one hand, it is quite an easy album to listen to. Put it on in the background, and it provides a smooth, pleasant backdrop. But, if you sit and listen more closely, it can be quite a draining experience as the bleak, sombre subject matter and the overall tone of the music become far more apparent. And actually, if I’m honest, I struggled for some time to decide whether I liked this record or not. Gothic metal isn’t supposed to be light and uplifting, but it is such a raw and melancholy affair at times, that this sentiment threatened my overall enjoyment.
But that was then, and this is now. With greater familiarity of the music has come a greater appreciation for this body of work. I’d be lying if I said that the whole thing works perfectly, because I don’t think it’s quite true. However, there is so much to appreciate on ‘Hermitage’, that it’s ultimately a success in my eyes.
Given that this record is so sombre, it stands to reason that many of the melodies used within the ten tracks are quite moving and powerful, if not immediately so. Many of them hide in the shadows, shyly, only revealing themselves when they are good and ready. It maintains a definite longevity to the compositions which is a definite plus, meaning that despite spins into double figures, I don’t tire of the bulk of the material. In fact, the more I listen, the more I uncover. Subtle nuances here, a previously unnoticed embellishment or sound effect there, it really is a grower and cannot be appreciated to it fullest on a cursory flick through, that’s for sure.
The dark, melancholy vibe is immediately apparent in the quiet intro to the opener ‘The Greater Good’. Strong synth sounds dominate along with a few sparse guitar embellishments. Ribiero sounds restrained and tentative as he enters the atmospheric affair, before a commanding rhythmic duo of pulsating bass and drums adds more intensity, building up the anticipation nicely. Eventually, the song opens with the introduction of the guitars that provide some meaty riffs after initially lacing the song with a beautiful lead melody. But the heaviness is short-lived, retreating into the darkness to be born all over again in the latter stages, complete with angry deep growls from Ribiero, the delivery we’ve come to know and love over the years. This is, for me, a stand-out track that gets stronger with time.
Having talked about the subtleties at play on ‘Hermitage’, ‘Common Prayers’ is a punchier, more muscular track, where the familiar Gothic vibes permeate more strongly. However, the chorus is catchy and is literally drenched in bold synth sounds, helping to dilute the chugging, swirling riffs and robust bass throb that feature strongly in the verses.
For me though, it’s tracks like ‘All Or Nothing’ where the real magic happens. At over seven minutes, it’s a longer song, but well worth it. Clean acoustic guitars strum quietly, Ribiero almost whispers, and the keys are minimal at best. The bluesy lead guitar that struts purposefully from the murk is an unexpected aspect of a song that gently, tentatively builds into something quite beautiful. Pleading vocals duet with a gorgeous lead melody that later explodes into a soulful solo atop a sorrowful backdrop, creating a rather emotional listening experience that I have grown to adore.
Elsewhere, the title track dials up the heaviness again, but laces the striking composition with strong Gothic overtones in the form of choirs, strong imagery, and Ribiero’s inimitable rich tones. ‘Entitlement’ however, calls to mind the days of ‘Irreligious’ in places such is it’s dark majesty, whilst delivering easily one of the most memorable, almost pop-like choruses out of the minimalist soundscapes that surround them. ‘Solitarian’ is a slightly ‘proggy’ instrumental that accentuates the sense of despair and bleakness on ‘Hermitage’, occasionally exploding into brief moments of heavier anger and frustration.
If you’re looking for something more akin to a good old Moonspell anthem, then it appears in the form of ‘The Hermit Saints’. It wasn’t a track I liked at the outset, but as time has gone on, it has grown enormously to become one of my favourites thanks to strong melodies, power, conviction and plenty of Gothic richness.
Personal tastes determine that I’m not so enamoured with a couple of the latter tracks on offer, even after this amount of time. However, such is the quality of the vast majority of this album, that I cannot say anything other than ‘Hermitage’ stands currently as one of my very favourite releases in the Moonspell discography. Yes it is sombre, yes it’s bleak, yes it’s perhaps a little bit different to other albums released before it. But it is precisely for all these reasons that I have so fallen for its charms. I mentioned right at the outset that only the music mattered for Moonspell. In which case, they should know that they’ve succeeded very well with their central, sole goal. ‘Hermitage’ is excellent; one of their very best.
The Score of Much Metal: 91%
Further reviews from 2021:
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: