Thursday, October 4, 2012

Thy Majestie - ShiHuangDi (2012)

Veteran power metal outfit Thy Majestie are no strangers to massive concept albums. This Italian five piece have tackled everything from the battle of Hastings to the rise and fall of Joan Of Arc, all in an orchestral style that has placed them squarely at the top of the symphonic metal pecking order. On their new album, their first in three years, they tackle the life and times of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. With such rich inspirations, it's no wonder that "ShiHuangDi" boasts some of their best production to date. And despite a plethora of line-up changes over a career nearing 15 years, founding guitarist Claudio DiPrima has managed to maintain the high level of talent along the way.

The opening track, "Zhoongguo," is a perfect set up. The building drums over the sounds of nature, orchestra rising in the background, all leading to an explosion of horns and strings. Flawlessly, it transitions into "Seven Reigns," with an immediate burst of high speed guitars and drums. A choir of voices soars over the top of the blast beats and shredding guitars riffs. Tying it all together is a keyboard melody, airy and atmospheric. Vocalist Alessio Taormina's voice has the perfect balance of operatic tone and coarse character to command both verse and chorus. Rather than a battle between guitar and keys, the two seem to lock together in interchanging harmonies. DiPrima is at his best, trading blows with Giuseppe Carrubba. The constant gallop on drums is the driving force behind the track, pushing everything forward at breakneck speeds. Equally impressive is the ability to shift between all systems go metal, to the rich orchestrations that open "Harbinger Of A New Dawn." Taormina delivers a powerhouse performance that will give you a reason to throw a fist up. The dizzying array of strings, horns, and synthesizers on display adds so much to the mix, that, in the blink of an eye, the track is over.

There is a beautifully subtle folk tone to the opening of "Siblings Of Tian," one that could inspire a dance or two among the listeners. The vocals shift gears for a time, away from the operatic heights, back to the more standard crooning. With the aid of a backing choir, each chorus gains all the more power. The production on the drums here is astounding, with each kick giving the perfect bass heavy thud. But the biggest victory is the unity of bass, guitar, and keyboards into a sparkling harmony of highs and lows, distorted and clean, fast and slow. And as the album moves along, and the tracks evolve, there is a greater emphasis on contrast, with light symphonic touches layered on top of dense guitars in "Walls Of The Emperor." If this song played out as a five minute instrumental, it would be a blistering one, ripe with dynamic guitar work and some of the most vibrant use of orchestration. But instead, Taormina adds the icing to the cake, with a vocal performance that is nothing short of sublime. Even when the guitars take the denser approach, chugging along, they still deliver on so many levels. There are progressive elements at play here as well, adding a different dimension to things, both literally and metaphorically.

If you isolate the first minute of "Under The Same Sky," you would have one of the most inspiring interludes any film could hope to secure. But as the vocal solo fades, the screeching of strings welcomes a supernova of sound. Darting back and forth between dashing metal and perfect composition, there are so many pieces at play. But when you think you have heard the height of the track, the choir joins in and takes things to an entirely new level. And that is still only the beginning, as the opening to "Farewell" takes you further. An angelic female voice opens, inviting the entire ensemble to join in, with voice and instrumental backing. Carrubba is at an absolute best here, adding not only the deep, symphonic power, by also the subtle piano melodies that pop in and out. The mid point of the track, which strips down the guitars to a simple riff, topped with female chanting, may be the perfect summation to the album. DiPrima rips through a massive solo that sets the world on fire by the end. The short interlude, "Huanghun," is a pounding drum beat, saddled with the whine of strings and horns, setting the tone for the finish.

And while "Ephemeral" may be the most catchy track on the album, it is far from the most basic. All of the intricacies you would expect are doubled, with the smallest pieces added for extra enjoyment. Small symphonics, each tap of the cymbals, and every keyboard touch comes together in a mix that could only be labeled immaculate. The production work of Guiseppe Orlando shines, especially here, when there are limitless amounts of music at play, and somehow every element comes through with the utmost clarity. With a guest appearance from renowned metal vocalist Fabio Lione, "End Of The Days" proves to be the dream collaboration it is billed to be. With the band now in full swing, complete with a rumbling bass line from Dario D'Alessandro, the momentum is simply too much to stop. The combination of Lione's perfect highs with Taormina's rich lows is empowering, and moves the album from greatness to near perfection. Finishing with "Requiem," the most stripped down track on the album, is a gift. The ethnic tinge is glorious, sending you back in time. Taormina croons over light piano keys, his voice deep and rich. As his voice builds, DiPrima gives one last performance, a solo that manages to be emotionally moving, without the need for lightning speed. One echoing note ends it all.

The art of the concept album is an imperfect one. No one can pinpoint when or how to make an album of this nature successful. But Thy Majestie has built a career on concepts, delivering disc after disc of well constructed historical recreations. And like their previous efforts, "ShiHuangDi" delivers on all levels, giving you deadly accurate riffs with vocals that can't be outdone. Somehow, someway, amidst all the crushing distortion and beating of drums, you are still treated to some of the most intricate and beautiful orchestrations the Italians have to offer. If there is a better power metal album to be had this year, and the key word there is if, it hasn't been made yet.


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