Monday, April 23, 2012

Burning Shadows - Gather, Darkness! (2012)

The American metal scene is one full of gaps, often poorly represented by the countless metalcore bands that inhabit our cities. Burning Shadows, however, is part of the solution, not part of the problem. Combining their love of traditional metal with a melodic sensibility akin to the European power metal community, this four piece from Washington, DC, has more lofty aspirations. Their new album, "Gather, Darkness!" is a science fiction concept album, based on the novel of the same name, written by Fritz Lieber. With a taste for the theatrical and talent for the fantastical, these eleven tracks, divided into four subsections, might make you forget that "core" bands ever existed.

The beautiful orchestration that fills the opening track, "Overture: Hymn To Sathanas," is enchanting, to say the least. The richness of each piece, from strings to horns, makes for an introductory track that gives an extra accent to the album that follows. It flows and sways, moving directly into the first chapter of the story, "A Thousand Lies." Broken down into three pieces, this is the statement. The hammer of percussion comes down immediately on part one, "A New Dark Age," with the thump of a kick and the tingle of the cymbal. The guitars wind and weave themselves in and out of the rhythm section, surgically precise, but not robotic. Vocally, you have something that is more to the folk side of things than you may expect. They become a vessel for the story, as do the riffs themselves, telling an ominous tale.

Rather than give each track a distinct separation, they run together, with "Intra Vires" launching immediately. The classic metal influence, from bands like Judas Priest, shines through here with a more subdued vocal taking over. The instrumental is relentless, with a nonstop wave of double kicks and fills, provided by David Spencer, taking every moment of silence away. As "Onward" begins, you begin to hear the evolution of the chapter, giving a bit of understanding to the structure being used. The guitar work here is exceptional, darting up and down the fretboard with uncanny speed and timing. Even with the absence of vocals, the story doesn't stand still. It's as if each snare hit, every devastation chord advances things in leaps and bounds. Tempo changes and a variety of rhythms keep it fresh, and keep you hanging by a thread. This track stands out above the rest, with the sheer strength of the instrumental alone.

The second chapter, titled "To Ruin & Divide," takes a decidedly different stance, with a much darker feel to the music as a whole. The first part, a two minute intro called "The Witchmark," sets an entirely new arc into motion. A diabolical laugh, reminiscent of one from 2011's 'Human Remains" by Hell, bridges the gap between the former, and "Man From Myth." The guitars are powerful, in both rhythm and lead capacity, complete with some creative chord changes. Again, the drums are, quite literally, driving the track forward. Each flurry of kicks brings the momentum to a higher level, pushing the band, and the listener, to a possibly breaking point. At the midway point, and things take a sharp right turn, you are treated to some powerful, yet wholly atmospheric sections. The addition of light synths may come from nowhere, but it adds a dimension that makes the sound even more cohesive.

With an outro that takes the guitar playing to a new stratosphere, you run head first into "Cast The Down," another short but memorable interlude. Vocalist Tom Davy gives his best performance here, finding the perfect range for his voice. The movement concludes with "Kingdoms Fall," a track that could make the current Dream Theater lineup a little jealous. The writing may be good, but the execution is even better, delivering a punch that would seem impossible from a track that takes a more reserved stand. The story, which has begun to unfold before your eyes, is sandwiched between some great melodic guitar work, and the more progressive instrumental side of the genre. The rhythm section holds it own, carving out a path for solo after solo to fill in. For a track that spans over seven minutes, you are left wanting so much more.

The final stanza, "Breaking The Sanctuary," begins with "Abandonment," a eerie piece. As Davy enters, paired only with an effects laden guitar, the mood has changed drastically. The rest of the band enters, but the explosion has to wait until part two begins. Part one fades with the line "I've exacted vengeance.." and dives into a stomping rock track, "To Assent The Fall." Drum fill after drum fill welcomes you to the body of the track, a rumbling affair that brings back that classic metal aesthetic. The percussion is relentless, battering and beating you from every angle. The harmony formed with each band members singular voice is welcomed, tying all of the numerous pieces together. A blazing solo says goodbye to the previous track and hello to the finale, "The Infamous Dawn." Davy's vocals once again take on a folk inspired feel. Playing as reprise to the opening track, it is one last call, one more shout for fists in the air. Vocal melodies sit atop guitar melodies, building into a mile high wall of sound and fury. A fading keyboard is all that remains, until silence takes over.

The challenge of turning a work of literary fiction into a cohesive, not to mention good, metal album is one that would seem to be second nature. I mean, power metal is almost always tied to themes of fantasy and science fiction. But it is so much more complicated than it would seem on the surface. Burning Shadows take the work of Lieber, and turn it into an extraordinary journey. Regardless of your knowledge of the book itself (I had none prior to listening), you will find yourself immersed in the storytelling abilities. If audio books were more like this, "Gather, Darkness!" would be a sure fire New York Times Best Seller.


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