Album Title: Über den Sternen
Label: Prophecy Productions
Date of Release: 26 February 2021
I have a soft spot for Empyrium, so much so that I splurged a great deal of money on the box set ‘A Retrospective…’ a few years ago. Starting out as more of a melodic black metal band, the duo have morphed over the years into something much more nuanced and interesting, blending the black metal with dark rock and acoustic-led folk music, to the point where the latter influences began to overtake the more metallic elements quite considerably. Indeed, their 2014 ‘comeback’ album, ‘The Turn Of The Tides’ abandoned almost all semblance of metal in favour of an all-out neofolk approach.
At every stage however, Markus Stock (acoustic and electric guitars, vocals, drums, bass, keyboard, dulcimer) with the assistance of Thomas Helm (vocals, keyboard, acoustic guitars) from 2002, has created beautiful music. Regardless of whether it was heavier, or more delicate and ethereal, the music has always been of the highest calibre. And that trend continues in 2021.
Entitled ‘Über den Sternen’ (translated as ‘Above The Stars’), Empyrium deliver another incredibly engaging and entertaining listen. All of the hallmarks of their music remain intact but as the two musicians suggest in the press release, they have managed to find a ‘new balance’ that seeks to pull together the two sides of their music. What this means is that ‘Über den Sternen’ sees a continuation of the elegant and often hypnotic acoustic folk, albeit with a healthy dose of those more metallic elements seen during their early days, making a welcome return. The result is really rather wonderful.
A word of caution, however. Even though the heavier aspects return in greater abundance, do not expect ‘‘Über den Sternen’ to pummel you into the ground. That’s simply not the Empyrium way. Instead the distorted guitars and abrasive gruff vocals maintain a sense of harsh, gritty elegance, to compliment and juxtapose the quieter, more fragile elements of the music. Mind you, when the lyrical content has always tended to err on a more romantic side, of nature, myth and ancient lore, a thorough bludgeoning simply wouldn’t fit.
There are so many candidates to choose from to demonstrate just what a thoroughly engrossing and elegant record ‘Über den Sternen’ is. There’s something within just about every one of the eight tracks that’s going to make you sit up and take notice. I really mean that. However, I’d have to immediately pick ‘The Wild Swans’ and the closing ten-minute closing title track as two firm favourites.
‘The Wild Swans’ demonstrates that almost effortless symbiosis between the folkier side of latter-day Empyrium and the reprise of the heavier early material. It opens quietly and in comes a simple drum beat, ushering in Stock’s gruff vocals, alongside fast-picked, cold riffing. The heaviness is short-lived, but it carries with it an arresting melody that features throughout the seven minutes or so, becoming ever more addictive. There’s a definite blackgaze feel to the composition, as delicate picked acoustic guitar notes weave in and out of the wistful synth-led atmospheres when the restrained aggression gives way. Clean vocals make an appearance too, almost plainsong-like in their delivery, whilst the song ebbs and flows beautifully, harmoniously, somehow managing to sound ever more epic as it develops.
Then there’s the title track. It begins in majestic fashion, heavy but opulent thanks to some strong synths alongside lovely staccato riffing, the preserve of the black metal realm. Growls accentuate the extreme metal credentials of the music before everything but minimalist keys and a gentle acoustic guitar remain. The song is suddenly wistful and dreamlike in tone, with spoken words and clean vocals. And then, out of nowhere, we’re hit with a truly magnificent melody. Open guitar chords emerge this time alongside the growls, but the melody remains the focal point, built on by rich symphonic sounds, sending shivers down my spine, especially when the electric guitar accentuates the central melody line. The rousing melody is reprised at points throughout the song to devastating effect, especially when the choral vocals are layered on top. It is made all the more powerful by the fact that in between, there are sections of quiet contemplation, and foreboding atmosphere at odds with the grandiosity elsewhere, but perfectly suited to the composition, nonetheless. We have another early contender for one of the songs of the year right here, such is its incredible brilliance.
The opening composition, ‘The Three Flames Sapphire’ begins with a delicate acoustic guitar melody that’s soon joined by the gorgeous sounds of a lamenting cello, before giving way to faster, more up-tempo acoustic guitars and folk-like rhythmic drumming. A flute provides a whimsical edge as stronger, yet understated melodies begin to emerge. I love the vocals within this track, either layered, whispered, spoken, or choral-like, almost religious-sounding. There’s even room for some sparingly used growls when the song injects brief spells of heavier material.
‘A Lucid Tower Beckons On The Hills Afar’ opens with some of the most overt aggression on the album, but the sound of a dulcimer gives the song a really interesting identity, different from all the aforementioned tracks. As with the majority of the songs, this composition benefits from some simply beautiful melodic work, whilst the layers of choral vocals create an arresting listening experience as well. Then there are the extended passages of quiet introspection, that conjure a cold, misty autumn shoreline in my mind.
I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea by now. ‘Über den Sternen’ is a thoroughly superb album, and is most definitely the album that I had hoped I’d hear from Empyrium again one day. The blending of disparate sounds, ideas, and imagery is very impressive indeed, creating music that is dynamic, rich, engaging, dramatic, original, and oh so very beautiful. With ‘Über den Sternen’ I think Empyrium may just have created their greatest and most accomplished work to date.
The Score of Much Metal: 92%
Further reviews from 2021:
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: