Dark forests, mist-covered mountains, ancient ruins, and narrow paths where mysterious creatures wait to ambush unwary travelers. These are the images that dark, and neo-folk music so often conjures in the listener’s mind. There’s a depth, and atmospheric romance to the genre that many of us find very appealing, and few have done it better over the years than Germany’s Empyrium. Even in their early days focused more on black metal, the mood was there, and their full folk albums have helped define the genre. And this year they return with ‘Über den Sternen’ which the band gives as: “a metaphorical German translation of their band name meaning “Above the Stars,” and it’s well worth taking note of.
Their past and present merge into a work of often sublime beauty, lyrically rich in Germanic folklore, and musically and vocally a blend of their more recent rich folk sound, but also bringing back the heavy guitar and screams of their past. I struggle to call this a metal album, despite the frequent screams, but the heavy guitar is used and blended so smoothly with the acoustic that it feels a natural part of the landscape, rather than the abrupt bursts of metal that is often associated with music that blends the two styles, and at its heaviest, it never reaches a point that most “extreme” bands would call heavy. Rather they sit comfortably together, and don’t feel anything other than natural, it might well be the purest blend of heavier and harsh sounds with the more gentle folk sound that I have ever heard.
The album begins with the mainly folk sounds of “The Three Flames Sapphire.” The vocals are mainly provided by the classically tinged Thomas Helm, who also provides keyboard work and acoustic guitar. His voice hovers between a rich baritone, and occasional tenor, and is “operatic” for lack of a better word, not in the style of the typical female vocalist in the metal genre, but with a rich vibrato instead. The song unfolds like a dark fairy tale, with the occasional addition of heavier guitars, and harsh vocals.
“A Lucid Tower Beckons on the Hills Afar” however dives directly into the heavier aspects mentioned, with the vocals starting in a half growled, half black metal style performed by Markus Stock (acoustic and electric guitars, vocals, screams, drums, bass, keyboard, dulcimer) before the clean vocals start in, and the softer music gradual comes into play. This song like the rest also has some haunting flute work, and guest strings as well that fill out the sound. The result is rather otherworldly, and pairs well with the non-traditional nature of a lot of the percussion. Traditional “metal” drumming is heard of course, but sparser hand drum sounding drumming, and the dulcimer add a richness of flavor to the overall sound and mood.
The songs run on average about seven minutes, though a few are longer, and the instrumental pieces “Moonrise,” and “In The Morning Mist” clock in at under five, and less than three. Comprised mostly of delicate guitar work, they are strongly reminiscent of the work of Vali, which is certainly never a bad thing. “The Wild Swans” swings the other way being longer, and bringing both pounding drums (which is not to say there are blast beats) with predominantly heavy guitars, and a more even blend of vocal styles.
The lyrics on this album are once again mostly in English, but the operatic vocal style and album mix do at times make them difficult to decipher, which would be my only real complaint. A brighter mix for the vocals would help in that regard, but might perhaps diminish the mysterious, woodsmoke atmosphere of the album. On a whole, though I wouldn’t change a thing about it.
The album closes with the title track, which is sung in German. The song I think comes closest to being called a “proper” metal song, it is certainly the heaviest, and the drumming is faster, with the riffing also being closer to traditional atmospheric black metal than the rest of the album, and while there are some choral and clean vocals, screams make up the majority for the song. It works very well for a closing song, the beauty of the folk is still present, but with a bit more power from the metal, and the mood even while not understanding the lyrics is highly evocative of nature, and the dark folklore of Germany’s past.
Empyrium have long been one of the richest creators of dark folk music, and time has not lessened their instincts and skills. With ‘Über den Sternen’ they have reached into their metal past, and brought it to the present to create a true merging of styles, unique in its execution, and utterly beautiful in its results. An often stunning, and moving record, this is one of the most beautiful pieces of art I’ve heard in recent years. If you’re looking for something to get lost in on a cold winter’s night, you couldn’t do any better.