It has happened before and it will happen again. Out of the ranks of any musical genre, however stagnant and overcrowded it may be, there will always be a small elite of true artists that, thanks to their compositional superiority and unique identity, will rise to be the spearhead of the genre or altogether transcend it.
LUNAR SHADOW (along with a few select other artists) has already arrived at this point with their masterpiece of a debut, “Far From Light” in 2017. It is no exaggeration to say that “Far From Light” was my most listened to album these last two years, and for good reason:
Apart from the masterful songwriting, what sets the band apart from the cesspool of NWOTHM (a genre they have already transcended as I said earlier) is their one of a kind aural proposition. Take the melodic majesty of WARLORD/LORDIAN GUARD, blend it with a strong dose of early 90s Swedish death/black metal (DISSECTION and early IN FLAMES) and sprinkle it with instances of epic doom and you have a good starting point. Long and complicated compositions drenched in sorrowful twin lead guitar melodies and acoustic/folk passages. In one word, ARCANE.
Of course, the above description, however accurate it might be, cannot convey the actual quality of the material or the distinctive nature of the melodies. Max Birbaum, the lead guitarist and sole composer for the band, has truly a voice that is his own. A trait that is becoming increasingly rare these days.
All this, and quite a bit more is also true for the new LUNAR SHADOW album “The Smokeless Fires”, but let’s take things from the beginning…
The first thing you will notice when you spin the record, is the piano. This is a new element to the band’s sound and works well to enhance the sombre, melancholic mood. It is used sparingly throughout the album, although it takes the spotlight later on, on the record’s ballad “pretend” which is based almost entirely around it.
When the whole band kicks in, you are awestruck by how much the production has improved compared to the debut. The sound is crystal clear, powerful and epic, while still retaining the organic and “retro” sensibilities of the band’s sound. It helps tremendously in bringing to life the increased aggression, speed and technicality of some of the new material (see parts of “Catch Fire” and “Laurelindorenan” for example).
While most of the time the ideas remain as melodic and mystical as those on the debut, there is still a slight change towards a more “meaty” and “barbaric” epic metal sound (see “Red Nails for the Pillar of Death”) , as well as an increased influence from the DISSECTION and early IN FLAMES school both in the guitar riffs and the drums, which utilize “blast beats”, a lot more often than on the previous album.
Another change that must be mentioned is that of the lead singer. Some time ago Alex Vornam and the band decided to part ways and the band found a most worthy replacement in Robert Röttig. So, how does he compare to his predecessor? Well, to tell you the truth, you probably won’t notice a drastic change in the vocal department. It is my guess that this has to do more with the fact that the vocal lines come straight from the mind of Max (the guitarist/songwriter), so they are largely of the same ilk as before. One could argue that Robert is a more “metal” singer (wider vocal range and all) but when all is said and done, the difference is not that big. This will come as a relief to those who loved the vocal approach on the debut (myself included).
This brings us to the biggest surprise of the “Smokeless Fires”. The song “Roses” is not only the album’s highlight, it is the most different and forward looking piece, the band (or any other band in the genre for that matter) has ever written. At its core, the song is influenced by bands like AND ALSO THE TREES, FIELDS OF THE NEPHILIM etc., yet it is dressed with traditional metal stylings as well, creating a union that (on paper at least) should not work, yet it does marvelously, showcasing once more the genius inside Max’s brain. Definitely my favourite song on the album, and a sonic direction I would like to see the band explore a lot more in the future!
So, is the “Smokeless Fires” without any faults? Although it comes really close, there still are a couple of small grievances that I need to point out. First of all, there are a couple of vocal lines during some verses, that strike me as non-melodic, and closer to shouting than singing (a problem I also had with the first verse of “Cimmeria” from the previous album). It’s nothing really too off-putting, and these parts are few, but I feel they are a wasted opportunity to create something more “musical”. This of course is highly subjective, and you may not share my objection, and enjoy these parts to the fullest. The second grievance is that , although daring in that it expands their sound, I found the (piano) ballad “pretend” to be not particularly memorable as a song, and certainly a step down when compared to the previous album’s two (acoustic guitar) ballads which were simply divine.
There you have it! Small grievances aside, Lunar Shadow has managed to release another stellar album, as good as their previous masterpiece, and in some cases even more unique and genre-defying (see the aforementioned “Roses”). Certainly a strong contender for album of the year in my book. If you haven’t heard of them already, this offering is as good a place as any, but hurry and check out their debut as well…True artists deserve to be worshipped!