Monday, February 10, 2014

Astral Domine - Arcanum Gloriae (2014)

It was a few short months ago that an album teaser made the rounds, floating here and there, and everywhere on the world wide web. Astral Domine, the band behind the music, was a name unfamiliar to not only our group of worthy constituents, but to many of the worlds most discerning power metal fans. WWhat the trailer contained, though would peak the interest of you and I, and everyone in between. Formed in 2011 by guitarist Luca Gagnoni, hoping to spread a peaceful message through his music, Astral Domine is a handpicked powerhouse that has something special to behold: trust. With the addition of each member, Gagnoni put his trust in their abilities, and their strength to help him complete his vision. With a mix of power and symphonic model unlike the stale, moldy efforts that have flooded record stores over the last few years (minus a few shining stars, of course), this Italian dynamo aren't here for a one off; "Arcanum Gloriae" is the first in what we hope is a long line of inspired albums. With artwork inspired by the critically acclaimed series "Game Of Thrones," Gagnoni and company embody everything there is to like about metal, without the dirt and dust of decades of recycling.

Rarely will you find an opening track as moving as "Arcanum Gloriae," in both story and delivery. The sweet female vocal tones are awe inspiring, with their male counterparts equally as impressive. It sets the scene as if it is the next in a fantasy blockbuster series, not far from Tolkien's grasp. The true beauty of this intro, however, isn't felt until "Holy Knights" begins. As a clean guitar melody welcomes the full array of instruments, the scope of what the band is trying to accomplish comes into full view; it extends beyond fantasy metal, and beyond power metal. The tremble in vocalist Marco Scorletti's voice makes for an added dose of emotion, all the while captivating in his delivery. But the key becomes not only how expressive he is, but how expressive the guitar leads are flanking him. Gagnoni elicits a powerful response through his playing, both powerful and peaceful at once. With influences ranging from traditional heavy metal to baroque, it stands to reason that the music itself would become a funhouse mirror for all things, bending their images into something similar, but all together unique. It's "King Of North" that does this most efficiently, bringing historical time periods together seamlessly. It is equally empowering and operatic, with sweeping solos to round out the mix, not only from Gagnoni, but his counterpart on keyboards, Yeshan Gunawardana. The choir of voices that joins in the final minute turns an outstanding track into a phenomenal one.

When the upbeat, galloping tempo is removed, as it is on much of  "Moonlight," the band still finds a comfort level of impressive levels. Driving riffs are replaced with smooth bass lines and the tickling of keys. Scorletti's voice takes on a low, rich timbre, fitting of the overall tone of the track. What stands out is the ability to embody a romantic track, without giving away some of the technical skill in favor of it. What Astral Domine does exceeding well, through their sound and substance, is tell a story without letting the story dominate all. Any imbalance would make "Tales Of The Elves And Pain" feel skewed or stilted. But instead, it rings clearly, minus a few oddly timed spoken passages. Gagnoni exerts a great deal of control over the room here, even in his restraint. It is the ability to rise and fall with the mood that allows the music to grow and evolve over the course of an album, and makes the follow up track, "Where Heroes Die," all the more impactful. Power metal stalwart Fabio Leone lends his voice to the nearly ten minute epic, an exercise in the pure and unadulterated craft of symphonic power metal. It is nearly flawless in design, and absolutely unassailable in depth. To say the guitar and symphony are breathtaking in their partnership would be a gross understatement.

Though Gunawardana has been heard throughout the album, "I Am The King" sees his skills taken to new heights, fluttering keyboards movements bolstering an already dense wave of strings and distortion. Add to that a sea of voices that poke through the mix in a full bodied choir, and once again, they ahve shattered the mold to provide something exhilarating. Just as easily, they slip into another downtempo, somber movement, with "My Lord." Despite not being an aggressive, attacking song, it has the ability to carve out a niche both on the album and in your listening tendencies. Its self awareness is key, allowing a light piano and whisper to conclude a moving piece. Its counterpart, however, couldn't be farther away on the album's arch. A show of power and grit emerges, a raspy, growled voice delivering commands to newly acquired slaves. It is a curveball in an album that has been predominantly peaceful in scope, but a welcomed one. It is a curve, not a 180 degree flip, and the added dose of speed and energy brings out even more to like in this lineup. And at only four minutes in length, it is a sprint, rather than a marathon. The finale, which contains the second vocal feature on the album, is triumph in song. With a contribution from Giuseppe Cialone of the lesser known Rosae Crucis, this is yet another symphonic masterpiece in an album full of them. If you can make it through the track in full without once swaying or nodding, you are too far gone.

We've made no secret of the dull, murky coat that has befallen symphonic metal; perhaps we overreact to certain acts, or have just outgrown most of them. But when a band comes along that can reignite that fire, even the most cynical of fans must take note. Astral Domine have done more than just provide kindling for a new flame; they have brought the wood, the fuel, and the flame, all in one album. It's symphonic metal like you've heard it before, but done in such a clean, crisp way that it sounds entirely new. Luca Gagnoni has done an incredible job assembling his group and building this project into everything he was hoping for. For all of the high points, "Arcanum Gloriae" sees its most impressive victory come in the total package. For as good as each track is individually - and they are all incredibly good - the way everything flows together, playing one track off of the next, is remarkable. For an album that seems daunting in terms of length, it is over in the blink of an eye. The next album might be the jewel in the crown of symphonic metal.


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