Haunting, Epic Minor-Key Art-Rock From Empyrium
Empyrium play a somber, stark, tersely constructed blend of Mitteleuropean folk noir and 70s-style art-rock with tinges of metal and the High Romantic. How high does their latest album Uber den Sternen (Over the Stars) reach? For the rafters, mightily, here and there. Elsewhere, it’s a beautifully gloomy record, streaming at Bandcamp. Not a single substandard cut here: it’s awfully early to be talking about best-of-the-year lists, but this one’s high among the best albums of 2021 so far.
The first track, The Three Flames begins as a slow, subdued waltz, Markus “Schwadorf” Stock’s spare fingerpicked guitar mingling with cello, then the drums kick in and the race is on – he plays pretty much everything here. Thomas Helm’s operatic baritone is a surreal contrast; buzzy lows from the guitars and mellotron flute at the top complete the sonic picture. There’s a plaintive, artfully fingerpicked interlude to survey the wreckage of some unnamed society, then the staggered waltz beat returns and the layers of guitars rise with a symphonic intensity. It sets the stage for the rest of the record.
Track two, A Lucid Tower Beckons on the Hills, comes across as a variation on the theme: same sad waltz tempo, louder guitars, bitterly heroic twin leads, and is that a cimbalom echoing morosely from the back of the mix? The Oaken Throne is not about a medieval latrine; instead, it’s a terse, elegant dirge which seems to concern some kind of forest spirit.
Moonrise, an instrumental, has a web of nimbly fingerpicked acoustic guitars over drifting ambience. The Archer (yeah, these archetypes are kind of World of Warcraft) is a Steppenwolf character roaming the valley in this slowly swaying minor-key anthem.
The Wild Swans has the album’s most metalish vocals but also its most symphonic architecture: gorgeously brief classical guitar solo, hazy mellotron interlude, crushing guitar orchestration and an unexpectedly hypnotic detour. The most unselfconsciously beautiful moment here is the instrumental In the Morning, with its spare classical piano and strings. The album ends with the titanic title track, shifting from jackhammering intensity, to starlit rapture, operatic longing and an unexpected sense of triumph: a hard-won victory maybe, but victory nonetheless.