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From the opening track, "The Epsilon Exordium", you are given of glimpse of what to expect. As the only instrument used in the first track is keyboards, one might expect to get some keyboard driven metal. Well, that’s exactly what “Atlantis Ascendant” is - keyboard driven black metal to be somewhat exact.
Even though the keyboards are easily the driving force of the album, the riffs are pretty hard to ignore. The riffs aren't wholly black metal; there's some traces of power, traditional, and even [maybe] a bit of thrash in there. While, the riffs definitely didn't stand out as something I really found exciting, they aren't bad riffs. They're interesting if nothing else, just not completely suited for me. If you do like them though, you will be pleased, as most of the songs are made up of many different riffs.
Since the keyboards are the focus of this album, my expectations were pretty high. The keyboards definitely do go a long way towards establishing an epic feel (their use is comparable to Turisas, but definitely not an exact sound-alike). However, epic keyboard parts as the main focus, doesn't do much for me. None of the keyboard parts really stood out; I never got excited. I kept waiting and waiting for them to really get me going, but it just never happened (the lone exception being the flute sounding section in "The Dreamer in the Catacombs of Ur" at 3:46, though that's probably because it sounds flute-ish). I realize that keyboard-driven is the sound that this band wants to have, but I would be interested in hearing some Bal-Sagoth with Chris Maudling's guitar playing as the focus instead.
The vocals are probably going to be hit or miss for people. Lord Byron switches back and forth between spoken word and black metal style vocals. The spoken word parts sound pretty cool; his voice actually kind of reminds me of Doug Bradley (of "Hellraiser" and Cradle of Filth fame). My only complaint about the spoken words sections is that they're used too often. They're used much more than the black metal vocals. Perhaps, if they had been used sparingly, I would have enjoyed them more. However, overall I found them to be kind of distracting. The black metal style vocals are pretty solid. They're trebly (although not very high-pitched), and pretty distinct sounding. The vocals in general have a volume inconsistency that I found a little annoying. At times there's epic keyboards parts being played, and the vocals are so quiet, I find myself straining to even hear them. Around 5:40 of "Draconis Albionensis" is a good example of this.
The drumming was pretty boring. I wouldn't say that the playing was of poor quality or anything, but I was definitely not wowed. Dave Mackintosh simply keeps consistent beats going so that Lord Byron and Jonny Maudling can do their thing. Mackintosh went on to drum for DragonForce, and I feel his drumming is the same there: uninspiring but very consistent (not necessarily a bad thing at all).
In the end, this should have been, at the very least, an entertaining album. However, I found it to be boring. It just feels lacking. It seems like too much style and not enough substance. There's too much of a keyboard focus. My favorite part of the album was easily Chris Maudling's guitar playing (which wasn't the focus, and I wasn't overly thrilled with anyway) If I was more into lyrics, I'm sure I would have enjoyed this release more, as you can tell Lord Byron put a lot of work into the lyrics/story. “Atlantis Ascendant” wasn't for me, but if you're looking for some extreme symphonic black metal (with crazy keyboards knocking down your door), then Bal-Sagoth may be a band worth checking out.
After the repetitious and monotonous A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria, the blazing Starfire Burning Upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima-Thule, the somehow quieter, Disneyish Battle Magic and the heavier, more symphonic The Power Cosmic the expectations on what brave, new move our heroes would take next. Would they follow their road, committed and devoted to their divine task, exploring how metal something is just because of flaring keyboards, sounds produced synthetically out of silicon-consisting equipment? Would years and fate be kind to them? Would a two-years gap give our heroes enough rest and motivation to keep their synthesized odes of antediluvian steel and scrolls?
Bal-Sagoth themselves felt that they couldn’t let down their fans and knew that bands often take use of their old sound while exploring and decided to do so. Now our heroes, although being British, tried their very best, and did so very hard. Byron put more work into writing his lyrics than ever before, thus strengthening the first trademark of our heroes. He explorer the mighty and unreal world of Atlantis, the untouched, unrestricted landscape of dreams, poets and superstitious Greek philosophers.
Our heroes did however not let that be the end of it. Encouraged that experimentation is a good thing, both by idols, record companies and… their own catalogue – one death metal album, two extreme speed metal and one of the symphonic kind, our heroes rode courageous away from the heavy music, from the extreme music and the death metal into the realms of melody, the realms of more traditional music. But perhaps, they thought, our old fans might be scared away? What shall we do? The obvious reason for our heroes, who after bringing up this idea celebrated their intelligence at the closest pub without arms ban, was that they should make music for everyone. Yippee! We write a good melody, because we like melodies and we decided to focus on them more, then every once in a while have breakdowns from our earlier albums! Yes, that’d make everyone happy won’t it? Unfortunately, both for our heroes who struggled in vain and the formerly so infatuated followers it didn’t come out that way. It was like the spice producer had tried to hard to make his salsa chunky, ending up with being unable to get the chunks out from the can. The music progresses logically, with the melody then suddenly the sound is disturbed by way faster drumming, way more down-tuned guitars, way more death metal until the breakdown fades away.
Our heroes did however not that be the end of it. In the search of more things to do, they decided to upgrade Jonny’s keyboards. Yes, we’ll make them lighter, not moving the music anywhere anymore yet always present, as the foremost layer of our music because he’s our trademark no. 2. No serious heroes with any respect for themselves would make that be the end of it all. Our heroes didn’t either, instead they decided to do like everyone else, put some middle-eastern influence into their music. It never fails, does it? Some riffing in that vein, some keyboards with a grain of Arabic desert to them, doesn’t have to be much, just so that you in one or two songs can notice the influence – then no one can say we haven’t progressed. Our heroes worked extra hard to let these influences surface in The Dreamer in the Catacombs of Ur.
It would however been five ashamed heroes if that’d mark the end to their changes. Of course their drummer should switch between double-bass and that other style of his, that without any power at all! Oh, how comes we didn’t think of this before? What if we’d put the guitars further down in the mix, after all they weren’t that good to start with. That way Chris’ll only have to write tabs for half of the time. And let’s throw in some symphonic elements too, that always sell.
Thus our heroes were finally happy with their new album which they called Atlantis Ascendant, a name that surprised themselves with its elegance, its aura of legendary legends and myths. Our heroes, inveterate fantasy lovers had thus closed the circle. Back in the day when they listened to epic power metal and death metal, later combining the epic parts with death metal in A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria. Today they’ve circled 180 degrees, doing epic power metal with death metal vocals. However, once again the expectations were too high, and the wishes not fulfilled. This is a completely useless album, it just repeats, with little to none variation, the stuff our “heroes” have done on their four previous albums.
In many ways it’s just the same with a different song structure, with new words. There are fewer words too, Byron seems to have let go of his lusts to make every song title twenty words and plus. Interesting is that no matter how much Bal-Sagoth experiment they end up sounding the same – the only change is how they incorporate their different sounds in the new sound – which to 90% is the same sound. The influences from traditional music, from middle-eastern music are just varnish, nothing substantial. Bal-Sagoth has got a well-developed way to symbolize their lyrics with the music. The drummer has found a great way to shape battles out of literally nothing, providing intensity and development with his blasts. This is all good stuff, but surprise, they’ve done it before. They’ve done it better, perhaps not as refined but rawer, more distinct, in a more direct way. Atlantis Ascendant is at best a low-mark but I think, even though it makes me hate myself, that it’s just the starting point for a downhill spiral.
Bal-Sagoth are nigh indescribable, but always unforgettable. Compared with "Battle Magic", this is a much heavier effort with guitars and keyboards melding much more comfortably. They create another fine album, sonically giving birth to the cosmic and Atlantean images that the formidable fantasy of Byron Roberts' intense imagination summons forth. I prefer this one to my other Sagoth disc, "Battle Magic", maybe since it was the first and sounded fresher. I agree that both (with only one album standing between them) have very striking similarities, though they have distinctive identities that avoid a stagnation from one to the other.
Another majestic, over the top keyboard intro leads us in with the fervour of a thousand fantasy film scores, and the first song just punches straight into the imaginative realm of madness like it should do. Totally eccentric music, and all over the place with changes of mood, pace and textures a constant feature. It successfully melds several different Metal styles (Epic, Power, Viking, Folk, you name it) with exceses of symphonic layers to create a surprisingly convincing experience. "Lord" Byron steers on the proceedings with a unique alternating rasp/haughty narration style. They are basically alone in their field.
By no means everyone's cup of tea, and the whole thing is dripping in (comic) pretention, but Bal-Sagoth are just fascinating. It doesn't pretend to be overly technical or needlessly complicated, and everything fits into its right place. Though this is not music to wind down to, it's overwhelming in the huge sounds and gigantic ideas its halls house. Fantasy lyrics in Metal can often be riddled with storms of trite cliché, though Byron has an edge to his lyrics that draw it out of any stale territories with his intelligent enthusiasm for fantasy and wordy narratives.
If you're out looking for something more than just a bit different in Metal, and like crazy levels of bombast and layers of music, this band is just waiting for you! "All hail Bal-Sagoth, none can deny them, none dare defy them!" You now know if this is for you or not.
So Starfire Burning dissapointed those who expected another death-black album. Battle Magic dissapointed those who hoped for another Starfire Burning. And well, The Power Cosmic obviously alienated a lot of fantasy-loving die-hards. So what did Bal-Sagoth conjure up for their fifth opus in order to reconcile with the fans? An album that takes a lot of elements from all of the previous albums, I kid you not.
After the intro, that has everyone going: "Man Bal-Sagoth/Jonny Maudling should do movie soundtracks!" Atlantis Ascendant's title-track comes on. It seems very much in the musical style (including song structure) of The Power Cosmic, yet the lyrics harken back to old themes. But those whispered(!) clean passages with those typical Byron Roberts spoken vocals, don't they remind you of that awesome song from Starfire Burning called "As The Vortex Illumines The Crystalline Walls of Kor-Avul-Thaa", with that foreboding tone speaking of impending doom?
The next song, Draconis Albionensis (a fan favorite), seems to mix several elements from Starfire and Battle Magic, including a bit of the outward-seeming chaos that becomes clearer on repeated listens. Nice buildup. Some historical references again. Then 'Star Maps of the Ancient Cosmographers' comes on, and it's very typical Power Cosmic material. The back cover art seems illustrative: a skull that is a mix between a metal skull with spikes and a bone skull with horns, with an axe and a chain-axe on the background. There's some new elements on here as well. Synths seem to be used in new ways.
But let's cut to the chase: this isn't entirely 'it'. This doesn't entirely satisfy. It's seems a rewarming of left-overs, with some extra spices for the flavor. The production also didn't entirely work out. Pro-tools was introduced in the Nuclear Blast studio, and the band experimented with it, first converting it into Pro-tools format, and then after dissatisfaction converting back. The drums were left thin, and the synths sound a bit extra cheesy now (yup, I said it now) in SOME parts (it actually sounds pretty good in others). The overall sound is still clear, but it misses not only part of the momentum of The Power Cosmic, it also part of the oomph.
But, to sound corny again, it's not completely bad. It's still actually good if you compare it with a lot of the tripe out there. The story-telling is still there. Perhaps not as convincing as first, but there are gems on here. It's nice to have a conclusion to the longest songtitle ever saga (name used for brevity), even though it's not as good as Part II was. But most songs stand apart actually. Besides Draconis Albionensis, The Dreamer In The Catacombs of Ur is another fan favorite. Simply awesome Lovecraftian/Sumerian excavation atmosphere. And the synth interlude, it reminds of the dark atmosphere of the first album even.
The album comes across as a Power Cosmic without the full momentum, actually taking more time for some parts, and then some older elements reintroduced. It's now a fun ride with an undeniable cheese-element, but not as fulfilling, not as grand, as the older albums.
I am, however, extremely curious to how the upcoming album will be, expected in the near future at the time of writing.
Fantasy geeks rejoice! Finally, a band that can write fantasy lyrics without too much cheese (let's face it, kiddos, power metal is cheesier than Wisconsin).
But alas, the lyrics are not the only exceptional quality of Bal-Sagoth. The musicianship is superb. Chris Maulding throws together some very catchy riffs. Dave Mackintosh is excellent on the drums, and he seems to know exactly how to represent battles with his rhythms. Of course, Bal-Sagoth would be no where without Jonny Maulding on keyboards. He, along with Byron, makes Bal-Sagoth stand above and beyond other extreme metal acts today.
Ahh, yes. Byron. Byron is, without a doubt, the most talented writer in metal over the past twenty years. Not even the mighty Rhapsody can compare to Byron's lyrical geniusness. Now that you know that I completely worship this band, lets move onto the actual songs.
In typical Bal-Sagoth fashion, the opening track is a keyboard instrumental. The Epsilon Exordium always reminds me of vikings sailing across a vast, bleak ocean. You'll feel like marching off to war within the first minute of this track!
Draconis Albionensis... first off, what a name! This song is sort of a patriotic salute to ancient England. Of course, I'm not English, though this song still makes my heart soar. I can only imagine what it does for the Brits out there. The opening drum beat will make your heart skip a beat. Hell, the entire song is a heart attack waiting to happen.
The epic Hyperborean Saga is continued on Atlantis Ascendant, and Byron draws close to the conclusion of this earth shattering drama. If you enjoyed the first two songs in this saga, you will instantly fall in love with part III as well.
As with their previous two albums, Bal-Sagoth experiment a bit in Atlantis Ascendant. This time they produce The Dreamer in the Catacombs of Ur, which will remind you of Aladdin and all of those middle eastern legends. They even have a synthesized flute solo! Can't get any better than a flute solo.
Finally, the best track on the record is In Search of the Lost Cities of Antarctica. The song opens slowly, with a "march of doom" drum beat. It eventually picks up, and the opening keyboards/guitars sound very saddening. You can pretty much tell that a horrible catastrophy will happen later in the song. The song climaxes with a mind rendering "Sail across Panthalassa to Gondwanaland... Three Moons to guide us on this voyage across the sea... Sail across Panthalassa to Gondwanaland... New lands to conquer and claim for our progeny".
And finally, no fantasy metal is complete without some great album artwork. I must say that Martin Hanford out does himself with the artwork for Atlantis Ascendant. The Sigil of War (the skull and axes) logo is worth the $15 you'll pay for this album alone. Of course, the cover is superb, displaying the ideas behind the album fully and with raw emotion.
Anyone who likes extreme metal that isn't all noise will love this album. You must buy it. You WILL buy it. The gods command you to.