Artist: Subterranean Masquerade
Album Title: Mountain Fever
Date of Release: 14 May 2021
Reviewing a Subterranean Masquerade album is never an easy task. The band seems to delight in creating music that can be the worst nightmare of any reviewer, simply because there’s so much going on. And not only that, they seem to be a band that likes to mix things up on the personnel front too. Either by accident or design, I don’t think that any two albums have featured the same line-up and so it requires some investigation to determine who exactly is involved. Mind you, when the band is comprised of seven musicians, as well as a plethora of guests, I can’t be easy to keep everyone happy and in check.
However, the bottom line is that very little of this really matters because it’s all about the music. All I ultimately care about is this: do I like the music that Subterranean Masquerade deliver, or don’t I? The answer just happens to be the most emphatic ‘yes’ that I have ever delivered to these guys. In the past, I have always enjoyed their output, but I have had the odd reservation here and there, as well as a niggling feeling that I admired them more than loved them. Well, based on ‘Mountain Fever’, the fourth full-length release of their 24-year career, I can safely say that this has all changed. I love this record and I shall spend the next few hundred words trying to explain why exactly. Stick with me, because this could be fun.
It would be very easy to try to compare the music of Subterranean Masquerade with their Israeli compatriots Orphaned Land, given that they are both within the progressive genre and both like to use authentic instrumentation. Admittedly there are some similarities that crop up here and there, but fundamentally, it’s a lazy comparison and one that’s as false as comparing Napalm Death with Paradise Lost just because they’re both English.
Firstly, there’s almost no argument that Subterranean Masquerade explore a much more varied and progressive path. Indeed, ‘Mountain Fever’ is a veritable feast of different ideas, different influences and variety. But, it also has to be said that ‘Mountain Fever’ is easily the most immediate and catchy of all of their albums. From the very first listen, I had a smile plastered on my face, I was singing along, and I itched for repeated listens. And much of this has to do with the incredible songwriting ability of Subterranean Masquerade, as well as the musical prowess demonstrated across the ten songs that span a meaty but digestible 56 minutes. Some of the strongest melodies they’ve ever penned, alongside some more pop-like sensibilities and structures mean that the music is approachable, warm and instantly likeable despite the frequent detours, experimentation, and all-round variety that ‘Mountain Fever’ presents.
It’s worth a quick word on the line-up at this juncture as this helps to provide a little extra context. Green Carnation’s Kjetil Nordhus has amicably left the fold since 2017’s ‘Vagabond’, meaning that Davidavi Dolev has taken up the mic duties, and is now the sole vocalist on this record. The band’s creator, Tomer Pink, remains in place on the guitar as the sole original member, whilst drummer Jonathan Amar is another new addition to the band, albeit since this record was recorded. As such, Orphaned Land’s Matan Shmeuly handled the drums on ‘Mountain Fever’.
Back to the music now, because what this new-look septet have created requires plenty of exploration. Recorded, in part, at Fascination Street Sudios, with engineering by David Castillo and mixing by Jens Bogren, the first thing to say is that it sounds spectacular.
‘Snake Charmer’ is the first song on the album, and it immediately sets the tone in terms of what I was saying earlier about the melodic intent of ‘Mountain Fever’. The authentic Middle Eastern instrumentation is fittingly front and centre within the introduction, but when the more metallic instrumentation kicks in, we’re confronted with strong melodies straight away. It’s a relatively straightforward, up-tempo, melodic track, but it is laced with subtlety that emerges as you listen more and more. The bass playing from Golan Farhi is wonderful in the quieter verses, whilst the keys courtesy of Shai Yallin are varied, bold, and warm, blending sounds of the 70s with more modern orchestration. The chorus is brilliantly catchy, enhanced by some equally brilliant singing from Dolev, proving immediately that his recruitment was a smart move. We even get some distant growls, and the guitar work is muscular enough, alongside lovely lead lines, to reinforce the metallic credentials of the band. Already, you can sense that the album could be special, and so it proves as you delve further into ‘Mountain Fever’.
The opener segues into ‘Diaspora, My Love’ that opens with a gorgeously rich acoustic-led intro, full of delicacy and poignancy. Strong orchestration laces the track as it gently builds, Dolev shifting from a gentle whisper to a more emotional delivery, full of passion. The guitar leads within this unashamedly ballad-like track catch my ear, before the song takes an unexpected turn in the final sequence. In come more pronounced Middle Eastern influences, alongside savage growls and beefy riffing.
The title track is incredibly varied, sounding to begin with like a heavy metal ditty thanks to the opening melody. However, the first verse settles things down before the first hints of brass enter the composition. No, I still dislike brass in my metal, even if both African and Balkan brass sections are deployed. But I cannot deny that it fits quite well here. Growls re-emerge, as the song veers off, ironically, into more melodic territory, not dissimilar in sound to more recent Amorphis. The mid-song breakdown is a funky affair, led by bass and Toms, before more authentic instrumentation enters. The open distorted guitar chords that join the fray are fantastic, and from that point, we’re swept to the close by some frenetic rhythmic work and strong riffs.
If I’m being completely and utterly honest, I’m still not 100% sold on ‘Inwards’ or ‘Somewhere I Sadly Belong’. They are not bad songs in the slightest; it’s just that for my tastes, they don’t hit as squarely as others for me. The former has a catchy, light-hearted melody at its core, but it’s catchy in a slightly annoying way, rather than catchy in a ‘wow, I need to hear that again’ manner. Some of the 70s prog rock influences are just a little too pronounced for my liking, as are the brass embellishments in the later stages of the song. The latter injects some unexpected Pantera-like singing as Dolev unleashes his inner Anselmo, but it sounds a little out of place, even on an album like this. The juxtaposition between this, and the more classic rock-meets-Gospel choir sections is just a bridge too far for me. Mind you, others will probably think these are the best songs, and I couldn’t really blame them.
I adore ‘The Stillnox Oratory’ however, thanks mainly to Dolev’s singing, which is captivating. The song is quiet, introspective, and quite dark at the outset but it ultimately blossoms into a rich, beautifully melodic, theatrical composition that commands respect as Subterranean Masquerade demonstrate with aplomb that they can dial things down slightly, yet still get the hairs on your neck standing on end. Even the aggressive vocals towards the end work perfectly. What a song!
I’m also a huge fan of ‘For The Leader, With Strings Music’ and the closing composition, ‘Mångata’. The former is the longest track on ‘Mountain Fever’ at nearly nine minutes long, but in places, it is easily the heaviest and most extreme metal-sounding. The opening stages wouldn’t sound out of place on a progressive death metal record for example, as the band flex their muscles aggressively. After three minutes though, it’s all change and the most beautiful acoustic guitar-led section emerges out of the extremity, spreading the widest grin across my face. Melodies like this are hard to explain, but they just work, almost bathing your soul with warmth, if that makes any kind of sense. A saxophone breaks my revery and, alongside some deliberately discordant strings, possibly from a violin, signal the introduction of a much more progressive segment, complete with strange instrumentation and intriguing vocals. Out of the weirdness which is entirely enjoyable, comes a massive crescendo, led by some relentless double-pedal drumming, atop which, the full force of Subterranean Masquerade’s metallic might is unleashed.
‘Mångata’, by contrast, is a much more stripped-back affair, opening with just acoustic guitars and soft vocals, with a smattering of delicate keys. The Middle Eastern flavour returns, before the full focus of the band turns to creating an emotional and poignant closing piece of music complete with heart breaking melodies, yet more very clever subtleties, the occasional quick detour, and a final spellbinding performance from the lead guitars and Dolev behind the mic. From the three-minute mark, all I get is goosebumps. I swear I hear the line ‘your shoulder became my hearse’, as Dolev gives everything to end the entire album on an incredibly emotional note.
I can’t help feeling that I still haven’t given this album the due credit and description it deserves. I’m not familiar enough with the instrumentation to tell you everything that’s used to create this multi-layered and multi-faceted record, but regardless, I hope you get the idea of the diversity woven into this body of work. And ‘Mountain Fever’ is truly a work of art. Yes, I have the odd minor criticism here and there, but overall, this album is nothing short of brilliant. It blends the audacity and experimentation of progressive and World music, with some thoroughly gorgeous, almost radio-friendly melodies. But because it has been done with care, passion, and skill, the result is not contrived, or lacking focus. Instead, it is a fully immersive experience and easily the most assured and entertaining album of Subterranean Masquerade’s career to date.
The Score of Much Metal: 94%
Further reviews from 2021:
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: