Epic metal and my taste go hand in hand. I got into heavy metal through Slough Feg and Brocas Helm after years of stagnating at Maiden and Sabbath’s doorstep, and once I found Slough Feg I didn’t have to look very far to start finding more stuff that I was into thanks to a similarly-inclined friend. What I am trying to say here, before even getting into this review, is that I am automatically biased just because of the style- and, moreover, I am friends with several of the band members, one of them going back years. Anything I say should be ignored in favor of just immediately buying the album yourself so you can see how great it is.
Failing that no-thought impulse buy (or wanting something to read while waiting for your copy to arrive or download), however, read on. To give a a single line description, Smoulder are slow, full of doom metal and epic metal tendencies (not often you hear Tales of Medusa riffs in another band!), and really, really love writing fantasy anthems. Once the tolling intro is through and the music starts, those tendencies are made immediately clear; “Illian of Garathorm” is mid-paced or slow throughout, pounding in the style of the faster Solitude Aeturnus or the slower Manowar bits while serenading listeners with tales of Elric and friends.
For the most part, this sets the tone pretty much as it is for the entire album- fairly repetitive and drawn out songs that are carried not by mile-a-minute riff changes, but by the building of atmosphere, passionate singing, and subtle instrumental developments that keep even the slowest parts of the album interesting. That is not to say that the album is without variety, and right after the album’s only true doom metal track comes a song that sounds more like slow speed metal than like the epic doom that Smoulder claim as their heritage; past that, Sarah’s singing manages to reach enough catchy choruses and memorable crescendos to carry bits that might falter with less-interesting singing.
Even when the album doesn’t really need it, the bass always stays interesting as well with little harmonies, fills, or brief excursions from the root always just a riff change away- definitely a pleasant surprise, given how many heavy metal bands let actual bass songwriting take the back seat. The lead guitar also does a great job at adding in extra layers, with harmonies, melodies, and tasteful soloing dropping in and out a few times a song to keep the pounding rhythms from becoming too monolithic. Additionally, the drums do a great job of maintaining dynamics without sacrificing the feel of each song or sacrificing some killer playing- “Shadowy Sisterhood” in particular showcases some absolutely killer playing that really makes the song for me. There really isn’t a weak point here performance wise, or anything that stands out over anything else.
The production, which is both very clear and very powerful, also deserves mention. Rising superstar producer Arthur Rizk once again worked his magic here, and the atmosphere is very mystical without being too drowned in reverb to see clearly, which is certainly a rarity for the sonic landscape that Smoulder have gone for here. Also perfectly matching the music is a fantastic piece licensed from Michael Whelan, providing one of the best covers I’ve seen on an album in recent years. The overall effect, from the songwriting to the aesthetic to the production, is one of absolute devotion to metal and one of absolute passion for the music that the band is writing. This is an album worth buying, friends worth supporting, and, to boot, on a label worthy of all of these great things. Not often does everything align so that a band such as Smoulder is can make it, and even less often does it happen where that band actually deserves their success, so help Smoulder carry on the steamrolling that they’ve been doing across their two sold out pressings of the album and go buy whatever is left before it’s too late.