Album: Old Season, 'Beyond the Black'
Old Season have a big, booming sound built on slow, pounding drums, energetic old-school guitars, tasteful sampling, and soaring clean vocals. Though they've been active for almost a decade and a half at this point, their releases have been few and far between. I was only familiar with their 2009 album 'Archaic Creation', and had (shamefully) not heard the 2005 EP 'Volume One' so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going into this latest offering. What I found in the new record was a thorough refining and polishing of their sound. With a focus on vocals and melody, and some variance between fast and slow rhythms, Old Season are close to the spirit of power metal and the more elegant side of the doom spectrum, while not accepting all the conventions of either. It’s a record that will please fans of both old and new artists, provided that melody and epic storytelling are your thing.
Old Season sidestep the ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ problem by carefully taking specific elements from many genres rather than trying to over-egg the pudding. Mixed metaphors aside, their choices are deliberate and shrewd. They gain energy from the high, clear chords and vocals of power metal. They gain a certain bleak menace by slowing down to a doomy pace when they feel the need. Their harmonies and clean growls are downright antique, but remain fresh in context. Slight symphonic touches and synths combine with balladic lyrics to become epic in the literal sense. Like many bands who don’t have all feet entirely in any one genre, Irish Metal Archive is forced to label them simply ‘Heavy Metal’. I can’t do much better, so I shall stop quibbling over labels and explain how they incorporate these diverse elements into an hour of excellent songs.
‘A New Dawn’ opens with flat-out old-school power metal in the vein of Edguy or Dio, dominated by synths and impassioned vocals. There’s a minute of gradual escalation before the vocals take over, and all the elements keep going throughout. It’s so authentically retro that it’s hard to believe it comes from 2017, although the backing samples sound polished and professional. It’s only a shame that some of the backing tracks are mixed so quietly as to be lost next to the conventional sounds, but they do get their moments. ‘Scavenger’ is a nice follow-up with shredding and screeching in abundance; a good bit simpler but just as effective, with a killer solo. The slower rhythm and more hostile tone of ‘Chosen’ takes it back to the Old Season sound I know, (which you should absolutely check out, especially the Viking metal anthem ‘Bitter is the Wind’). ‘Chosen’ also has some excellent tempo shifts, allowing it to cover several of the album’s major directions in one go. ‘Elegy’s’ opening throws the melodrama of the record at the listener full-force, but with success; it’s a well-crafted ballad that throbs with determined, warful passion rather than misery.
‘Journeyman’ and ‘Rivers of Cepha’ have distinctly doomy backing tracks and vocals, with the poetic section of the former and the opening riff of the latter almost in Peaceville territory, though ‘Cepha’ accelerates all the way back into power metal in the latter stages. It’s a very well-executed blend really, never going fully into one camp for more than a minute or two. I’m very fond of bands that can hold two apparent contradictions together so effortlessly: I can’t think of a moment on this album where the shift in direction seemed jarring, and some of the speed-up/slow-down tactics are in Dream Theater territory. ‘Words From Beyond’ has a rolling intro melody with a distinct ‘Moonlight Sonata’ feel to it; for a moment I feel as if I’m in a genre-shifted version of Primordial’s ‘Gallows Hymn’, but the dark anthem vibe quickly takes over once again. The second half of the album is largely slower and more theatrical than the first, and ‘The Void’ begins a little too modestly for its place on the album, but it compensates with one of the sweetest twin-guitar solos I’ve heard in recent years, a ridiculous duel of over-the-top shredding and even more over-the-top shredding. Like a true epic metal album, ‘Beyond the Black’ closes with a nine-minuter. ‘Nevermore’ is less opera-rock and more rock-opera, accomplishing its drama with structure rather than orchestral sounds. The whispered vocals and heavy guitar of the middle justify its long runtime; it’s more than a merely long song.
Having crafted a distinct sound for themselves, Old Season have given us a record that’s rich in the kind of melodic melodrama I’m extremely fond of. It won’t be for everybody, but there are many that will appreciate it; old-school rockers, particular fans of symphonic, folk and power metal, and just open-minded metal fans who appreciate really solid execution (the jury’s still out on whether I’m in the second or third category). Those familiar with Old Season should be especially happy, as this record takes their existing work and legitimately builds on it. I don’t think anything here goes in a very different direction, it feels more like every aspect is magnified. Incorporating a catalogue of influences and techniques to make something new and recognisable, Old Season succeed in being a jack of many trades, and a master of them too.
Favourite track: ‘Scavenger’
Polite Recommendation: Perhaps a quiet folky ballad to round out the nautical aesthetic?
For fans of: Iced Earth, Sirocco, Mael Mordha, Elvenking, Edguy