Friday, December 21, 2012

Pythia - The Serpent's Curse (2012)

It has become increasing more acceptable to dub something "symphonic" solely because there is a keyboard playing strings and horns involved. However, it doesn't have to begin and end there. The overall writing process can take that one element and turn it into something that closely resembles the true metal opera. Simply by adding in an established vocalist, like Emily Alice Ovenden of the famed and critically acclaimed Mediaeval Baebes, you begin to find a place all your own in that gray area between the theater and the arena. Throw in the talents of a guitar master like Ross "The Boss" White, and you establish credibility as more than just a mashup, but a full fledged idea. Walking the fine line that separates symphonic, melodic death, and power metal, Pythia does all the right things in creating their own unique blend of old and new. It makes sense for "The Serpent's Curse" to  captivate us all.

A strum of clean guitar strings opens the first, and longest track on the album, "Cry Of Our Nation." The cry of an electric guitar is joined by a tapping snare in what amounts to a long intro. But when the first wave of distortion comes barreling in, the sheer force may blow you backwards. The instrumental is powerful, finding a perfect harmony between synthesizers, guitars, bass and drums. Watching the wave form bounce with every booming kick drum is a show in its own. Frontwoman Emily Alice Ovenden does everything imaginable to match that unbridled intensity, belting out verse and chorus in her tremendously rich voice. Whether part of a boisterous mix, or simply crooning over light tones she hits all the right marks here, before the track fades back to where it came. That seem massive sound comes through on "Betray My Heart" as well. This is not a delicate affair, teetering on the brink of collapse. To the contrary, this is power incarnate. As the track progresses, it only gains strength, forming its roots in the percussion and deadly precise guitar work. Not lost in all of the dynamic musicianship is the lyrical content, laying out a storyline that is both enjoyable and wholly enchanting.

Clean riffs open "Kissing The Knife," but quickly evolves into something far greater. It is here than Ovenden is at her absolute best, delivering vocals that are beyond the typical operatic fare that inhabits most symphonic metal. The relentless barrage of drums keeps the track anchored, not allowing it to wander off into unnecessary directions. Even more than that, though, is the striking combination of keys and chords, one that bolsters an already impeccable mix. On "Just A Life," however, things go to another level entirely. Between the amazing speed metal riffs that border on dangerously fast and the thunderous gallop of drums, it is a wonder the entire studio didn't fall to the ground. There is a real talent in the symphonic elements, layered in such a way as to not disturb the main flow, but adding a flare that many bands miss. And while the early moments of "Dark Star" give the impression that a ballad is on top of you, it is simply not the case. Ovenden commands the room, with or without backing, and her voice is a instrument of its own. But as the band enters, you have another pulsing metal attack on your hands, complete with chugging, distorted guitars. The breakdown section here is one of the most impressive pieces on the album, tangling a an orchestras worth of sounds with a bass heavy guitar riff. The beautiful chanting that lays atop it all completes the picture, before it all cuts out leaving the entire structure to be rebuilt from the ground up.

if you thought you had taken the hardest punch the band has to offer, you will be ill prepared for the iron fist that "Long Live The King" packs in the opening. I'm not exactly sure what it is about the way everything comes together, but it does so in such a profound way that it makes it hard to believe this is all one track. Whether it is the electronic touches, or the depth of the guitars, there is an evenness to it all that makes it so much smoother than you would imagine. And with the constant being that female voice, it makes it all the more daring. The closest thing to a ballad would be "The Circle," but it still exceeds anything you would expect. The instrumental takes a step back, taking a little pressure off of the gas pedal, and allowing you to catch a short breath. By no means is this a soft affair, but rather one that sees Ovenden take a more important role. Her voice is the star here, setting the tone for the track at large, before a single guitar solo passage peaks in. It is scary how a single voice can go from haunting to whimsical, as hers does on "My Perfect Enemy." Softly whispered words send chills down your spine, while nursery rhyme styled ones make you smile soon after. It helps to further the mood that has been hammered down in the previous seven tracks. By the time the bridge fades in and the guitars and drums explode, you are under their spell. Subtle keyboard touches scattered throughout only heighten the experience.

In bold fashion, the shortest track on the album is also the most engrossing. The pacing alone would make "Heartless" memorable, but this is so much more than a tempo increase. Everything is moved to the next step, from guitars to drums to vocals. How they maintain the surgical precision is beyond me, with not a single note, kick, or snare falling even a microsecond out of pace. And it is here that the bond between classical and metal can be heard most, as a tender soprano voice meshes with a melodic death instrumental in perfect, if not brutal, harmony. It is the finale, however, that makes the album live up to its full potential. The guitar melodies in "Our Forgotten Land" are rich, especially when they share the spotlight with light symphonic tones. Keeping the string section within the confines of the track structure is the most important piece, and composer Richard Holland does that with grace and deft hand. Even the smallest tingle of a bell of chime in the background means so much to the overall sound of the track, something the band balances with such skill. And what better way to end an album of this magnitude than with a long, fading orchestral note.

The strict division between bands who consider themselves to be symphonic or operatic, and the bands who truly embody that sound and spirit couldn't be wider. Pythia fall into the latter, of course, bringing a large, proportionate chunk of the true classical style to life in each and every track. The arrangements make it possible to balance heavy and heavenly in a truly significant way. Some would say that there is too much weight to support, with metal outweighing the other elements too often and for too long. And while that may be the case, it works time and time again. And while the nature of the music on this album may be too aggressive for the more timid listener, or perhaps too dainty for the more brutal ones, it is safe to say that there is also a very sizable common ground to enjoy on "The Serpent's Curse."


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