Artist: The Midgard Project
Album Title: The Great Divide
Label: Independent Release
Date of Release: 11 March 2022
What does a world class singer do when, through no fault of his own, the band he is most involved with is plunged into controversy and uncertainty overnight? In the case of Stu Block, the vocalist with Iced Earth, he decided to distance himself from the actions of his bandmate Jon Schaffer, quit the band, and pursue other ventures. Not only has he subsequently re-joined Into Eternity, but he has also found himself as the singer for the hitherto unknown The Midgard Project. Hearing Block was involved, I actually reached out to the band actively asking if I could take a listen. However, I was also drawn to the ‘progressive metal’ description, and the stunning artwork that adorns ‘The Great Divide’, the debut album. It all meant that my further investigation was guaranteed.
The Midgard Project is the brainchild of Marty Midgard, a multi-instrumentalist and composer from the north of Ontario, Canada. Alongside Stu Block, the guitarist, keyboardist and principal songwriter is joined by fellow Canadian drummer Dennis Dumphy who studied alongside Marco Minnemann in 2007. Midgard is clearly an ambitious musician because, not content with bringing a debut album to fruition, ‘The Great Divide’ is a partial concept record in that all of the seven tracks deal in some way with a real or perceived divide. The examples Midgard gives include the divide between humans and nature, life and death, and between the wilfully ignorant and those that actively seek knowledge. Well, it wouldn’t be a prog album if there wasn’t at least some kind of thread somewhere.
The biggest reference point that I can give when describing the music of The Midgard Project is perhaps Symphony X and bands of their ilk. The Midgard Project are far from copycats or clones, because the similarities are not overwhelming, or exact. But it would be remiss of me to not declare that I do hear significant echoes of the Americans within some of the material, be it Block’s vocals, or the way in which the music itself features some great virtuosic guitar playing, powerhouse rhythms, and plenty of grandiose orchestration. I fully suspect that Michael Romeo is a big influence on Mr Midgard.
I wasn’t expecting a male baritone voice to be the first that I heard on ‘The Great Divide’ but that’s what happens within the dramatic, cinematic intro to ‘At The Failing Of Light’. Choral vocals blend with ominous-sounding orchestration before the operatic vocals act as the introductory narration. When the heavier instrumentation arrives, it does so tentatively, before exploding with full force, including some harsh vocals lurking in the shadows at points. Dumphy delivers a barrage of double-pedal drumming before the pace slows to make way for a chunky progressive riff with lots of Romeo-esque embellishments. There’s a definite neo-classical feel to the track too, whilst the dramatic orchestration continues to make its presence felt. I love the fact that the music is properly heavy, as the production accentuates the muscularity of the guitars and the precise snap of the drums without favouring one over the other; the separation allows space for everything to be heard nicely. Lightning-fast neo-classical guitar runs and vibrant solos underline Midgard’s obvious talent with his six-string, but the song is also pulled together by strong melodies that become more impressive with repeated spins.
I guess you could say that the die is cast at this early stage, with the direction of travel from The Midgard Project clear for all to hear. And so it plays out, across the remaining six tracks, but this is in no way meant as a criticism because the music is thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.
‘Winter Slumber’ sees Stu Block channelling his inner Russell Allen within a bruising prog metal composition. It is clear that Block is committing everything to his performance here, belting out the words with incredible passion, whilst demonstrating his impressive range in the process. I don’t remember the last time I heard him sing as high as he does here at times. But it’s not just Block, because Dumphy’s drumming is ferocious from the start, and accents Midgard’s muscular riffs perfectly. The atmospheric sections that sound like Monk plainsong are a nice touch, as are the other choral embellishments and the unexpected keyboard solo that segues into an impossibly technical lead guitar break.
Without a shadow of doubt, ‘Torch Of The Unbroken’ is my favourite song on the album. Not only does it feature the most immediate of all the choruses, but it has a great dark vibe to it in the verses that nicely juxtaposes the lighter, more welcoming chorus. The changes in pace from slow and menacing, to brisk and urgent also provide extra drama to what is a great song all round as far as I’m concerned.
To demonstrate that The Midgard Project have more tricks up their sleeve, they begin ‘The Wolf And The Raven’ with a powerful and ominous rhythmic cinematic beginning that reminds me of Howard Shore’s Lord Of The Rings score when focused on Saruman at Isengard. From there though, the song bounds along with more of a power metal feel mixed in with the progressive tendencies, thanks to some infectious sections where the music gallops playfully. It also features a bold symphonic element to add significant depth and gravitas.
‘Yukionna’ sees the heaviness lowered for the first half of the song, but even to a backdrop of acoustic guitars, the intensity remains thanks to Block’s vocal performance. And when the heaviness returns, it does so with full force, featuring a battery of drums, strong riffs, and more high-pitched singing from Block who is clearly loving his time in The Midgard Project.
Somewhat fittingly, a whirlwind of guitar virtuosity from Marty Midgard ushers in the title track which, for my money, is one of the most varied tracks on ‘The Great Divide’. Bold synth sounds appear, the pace changes frequently and effortlessly. Again, a power metal sheen can be heard during the chorus, but elsewhere, the song almost descends into black metal territory given how fast the guitar playing and drumming is toward the latter stages; it’s all-out attack and it’s great, but in the blink of an eye, Midgard delivers a much more lyrical, almost bluesy solo to hammer home the variation on offer.
The final track, ‘Mimir’s Well’, is named I presume, in reference to a wise giant from old Norse mythology. It completes the album in fine fashion, with Dumphy again impressing with his dexterity behind the kit. But for me, it is the epic sounding chorus that stands tallest and lives longest in the memory, creating a suitably grandiose finale that’s also littered with a plethora of clever musicality and, importantly, genuine atmosphere and feeling. The quieter interludes are just as important to the narrative as the heavier sections, everything coming together to create a rousing conclusion to an impressive album. As debuts go, this has to be up there with the best this year so far. I would love a second release in the fullness of time, and if one is forthcoming, I can certainly see it being even better than this, as an even greater personal identity is forged.
The Score of Much Metal: 89%
Check out my other 2022 reviews here:
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: