Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Secret Sphere - Portrait Of A Dying Heart (2012)

Ashamed. That is how I feel knowing that for fifteen years, a band known as Secret Sphere has been making album after album of symphonic metal without once crossing my wandering ears. From the city of Alessandria, Italy, guitarist Aldo Lonobile brought this project to life in 1997, long before power metal had ever come into my range of vision. Since then, six studio albums have come and gone unheard in my musical circle. But it is the seventh album, and first with former Vision Divine frontman Michele Luppi at the mic, that finally made it's way across the Atlantic, and into my speakers. Vased on the novel "She Complies With The Night," which was written by Costanza Colombo at the urging of Lonobile, the concept of dreams vs reality fleshes out in the form of a guitar heavy orchestral workshop known as "Portrait Of A Dying Heart."

Filling the role of the intro track, the long instrumental "Portrait Of A Dying Heart" is both ambitious and fulfilling. What stands out immediately is the ability of the guitar riffs and keys to carry the entire track without a vocal presence. Through a good number of tempo and tone changes, there is a melodic backbone hats plays perfectly off of a drum arrangement that is busy, in the best possible way. Instead of feeling crowded and claustrophobic, the track feels more wide open that you would expect, thanks in part to the more airy keyboard parts that linger and lurk in the background. The final minute takes a turn to the slower, more soothing piano style, showcasing some of the more subtle musicianship. With the added vocals on "X," you take a satisfying composition and elevate it into something altogether different. Singer Michele Luppi has a versatility to his voice that is often lost in traditional power metal. he can occupy the lower register, as he does in the opening verse, and the higher tones, as he does in the chorus. He also has just enough grit to give every lyric added punch. But with the vocal track taking the spotlight, you would assume the guitar would step back and resume a supporting role. Instead, Lonobile keeps his fingers moving, adding flourishes of melody and distortion every step of the way.

The orchestrations that lead into "Wish & Steadiness" are so rich with synthesizers and piano touches, alongside a choir of voices, that the track has lofty expectation thrust upon it. And with the first blast of double kicks and darting guitar notes, it does exactly as promised. Lonobile flashes some brilliant riffs, some dizzying and some flat out monstrous. This is where Luppi becomes key, as his voice becomes the glue that holds the whole instrumental together. With a drumming exhibition going on beneath it all, courtesy of an empowered Federico Pennazzato, there is a delicate, and noticeable balance to every segment. There is something unique in the way the band combines the heavy distorted riffs with keyboard and synthesizers on "Union," though it is hard to say whether it is by design or a beautiful coincidence. Despite being one of the more accessible tracks on the album, that combination of guitars and effects carries a lot of weight, even when packed into a short four minute framework. The power of Luppi's voice is never more evident than in the outro portion here, belting out his melodies with astonishing fervor. A few blazing harmonics fill the intro to "The Fall," set up to be one of the heavier tracks on the album. There is a tremendous amount of low end, provided by a series of kicks and toms and a consistent bass line, that drives the track forward. Throw in a pair of deep grunts, and you have a thrilling piece of symphonic metal. The outro alone is worth the price of admission, with guitars and keys trading blows.

Admittedly, the almost dance beat that peaks out on "Healing" was scary. But before it can latch on, the thunder returns, with a punishing gallop of drums cascading through your speakers. This may be one of Luppi's finest moments, as he lays down a vocal melody that is both catchy in sound and lyrical content. To say that the band possesses a sensibility in the writing process is an understatement, and tracks like this one are the evidence. There is a lot packed into four minutes, but never too much to handle. Even a lightning solo from Lonobile elicits a fist pump of approval. The shortest track on the album is also the most passionate. "Lie To Me" holds within its limits an emotional investment that is made by both the band and the listener. To call it a ballad wouldn't be fair, but it does embody a lot of the structural and lyrical tenets. It also provides a platform for Luppi to show off his range and vocal grace. To the opposite end, "Secrets Fear" is more of the bruiser, beating you back to your senses with a flurry of drums that could be described as "aggressive." The vocal harmony that inhabits the bridge and chorus is memorable in so many ways, and will go down as a highlight for many fans around the world. There is a beauty in the way vocal effects are used throughout the track, be it small bits of delay or otherwise, that adds a bit of depth to each line. If you only had two minute to spare, it would behoove you to listen to the final two minutes of this track.

Once again, the orchestral and piano elements take a starring role on "The Rising Of Love," a track that takes on the obvious subject matter. This is the most stripped down track on the album, but not in the way that you may fear. Instead, the guitars take a step back and delivering direct support as Luppi delivers unto you a powerful bit of vocal prowess, crafting a story that is both emotionally charged and easy to relate to. What you are left with is four minute of some of the smoothest instrumental and vocals in recent memory. Without the slightest bit of embarrassment, you will admit to swaying back and forth, both arms waving over your head. The way this song, in particular, plays out is a credit to the talent on display. And while it boasts a name that speaks volumes, "Eternity" does not last forever. But for a glorious six minutes, the entire story comes full circle and is tied in a neat little bow. Through the smallest pluck of a bass string, the building chorus of voices, and the airy use of synthesizers, you are being guided to a conclusion. It could be said that the final moments of an album stick with you long after it's over. And for this one, that means a single line, sung beautifully by Luppi, could echo in your mind: "We're not alone."

To take on the subject of dreams vs. reality in a symphonic metal album could be seen by some as overly ambitious, if not a tad insane. And for a lesser band, I would be inclined to agree. But Secret Sphere is just the band to rise to the occasion, taking the written word and making it leap out at you in a way that can't be described. Whether the album connects with you emotionally or mentally is not irrelevant, but it isn't the key to why "Portrait Of A Dying Heart" is such a tremendous success. Taken at face value, this is a brilliantly conceived and executed piece of metal music. If you go deeper than that, it is so much more. With every listen, small details present themselves and allow you to find not only a message to music; you may also find a piece of yourself.


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