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This was my introduction to Bal-Sagoth, and came after a friend of a friend who considers himself a bit of an expert on metal described them as "the only symphonic black metal band you'll ever need to hear." Without having read much about them, I'd expected something entirely different to this - perhaps not surprising, since while there's a black metal influence in Bal-Sagoth's music (particularly Byron's inimitable rasp), it's thoroughly hidden by this album. I'm told that some of their earlier work is blacker, and I certainly aim to find that out.
On first hearing, "Battle Magic" came across as a kind of in-joke. I could hear some highly proficient musicianship, some solid vocals and very interesting lyrics, all of which were good signs. Unfortunately, I just didn't quite "get" the band and the album. Perhaps this isn't surprising, since many of the events described here represent the middle of the stories that Byron's written, rather than the beginning. The effect is a bit like trying to read an epic like "Lord of the Rings" by starting with the second part of the trilogy - it just doesn't quite work.
I left the album for a week or two before coming back to it, and I'm glad I did. Having learned a bit more about what Bal-Sagoth is all about, and having discovered that a surprising amount of Byron's prose lyrics was stuck in my head, I was able to appreciate this album much more. Now, the musicianship, vocals and lyrics were being deployed in the service of a vision which I could begin to understand.
So, for the benefit of those like me who came in late, what precisely is Bal-Sagoth all about? Well, they exist largely to tell stories. On this album, they divide their stories between Byron's alternate universe and real historical happenings, such as the gladiators of Ancient Rome. The common thread, however, is epic battles with lots of blood being spilled.
Musically, the dominant instrument for most of this album is the keyboard. Apparently these keyboard arrangements take months to work out and record, which is perhaps not surprising, since they really do a great job of conveying the mood and the action of the stories. Don't be fooled by the lyrics here, incidentally. Not all of them are actually sung - a good 40% are essentially background prose, which just goes to show the completeness of the musical vision involved in all of this.
The other significant point to make here is about Byron's vocals. Simply put, I've never heard a vocalist remotely like him. His rasp - which I feel is underused on this album - is nothing overly spectacular, but it's his clean vocals which will either make or break this album for the listener. It's almost impossible to believe that these almost camp-sounding "Oxford Don" tones are being delivered by the same man who begins "A Tale from the Deep Woods" with the evil chant of "The ravens are on the wing!" but they are. If the charge that Bal-Sagoth are a very over-the-top band is made, these vocals would be Exhibit A without a doubt.
In conclusion, this is one of those very unusual albums the music world sometimes throws up. If you like Bal-Sagoth, you'll buy this one without a second thought - and probably without reading a single review anyway. If you've never heard them, this is probably as good a place as any to start. It mightn't be the kind of album which will win new fans for the band very easily, but I get the distinct impression that they're happy enough to make this sort of music regardless of who listens to it. It's bizarre, it's over-done, it's pretty camp, but there's a distinct level of quality to it.