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The announcement of the break-up of German dark folk luminaries Empyrium following the release of their 2002 masterwork Weiland caused widespread dismay. To quote A Retrospective’s press release, “Empyrium finally came so close to the essence of their own creative spirit as to see no more sense in continuing the band, resulting in dispersal for the time being.”
In other words, Empyrium mainman Ulf Theodor Schwadorf felt he’d finally created the music he was striving for – so he split the band up?! No, it makes no sense to me either. We can comfort ourselves with that tantalising possibility of a reformation contained in the phrase “for the time being”. In the meantime, the release of A Retrospective re-emphasises just how special Empyrium were.
Prophecy Productions owes its very existence to the band, and the label have done them proud with this lavishly packaged collection complete with 60-page booklet, the concurrent release of a six-CD boxed set and re-releases of all four Empyrium albums. The track listing for A Retrospective is heavily slanted towards Empyrium’s later, more acoustic work. Of the two tracks taken from 1996’s A Wintersunset… debut, one, ‘A Franconian Wood In Winter’s Silence’, has been entirely re-recorded. All the other tracks on A Retrospective have been remastered.
The two tracks from the second album, Songs Of Moors And Misty Fields, are the heaviest things on here, serving as a reminder of Empyrium’s doom metal roots and their affinity to bands like Opeth (has anybody else noticed the striking similarities between these two bands’ logos?).
Among four selections from Weiland, the best is the delicate ‘Die Schwäne Im Schilf’ (‘Swans In The Reeds’), possibly Empyrium’s finest song and certainly the one included on neo-folk anthologies like Looking For Europe and Lichttaufe. And just for good measure, there are two previously unreleased tracks – ‘Der Weiher’ and ‘Am Wolkensteig’.
Go ahead, drown yourself in Empyrium’s delicious melancholia – you know you want to…
A Retrospective... tries to combine the career of four albums and one demo into 13 remastered songs and over 75 minutes compilation. Or maybe this is not a compilation in the true sense of the word, but anyway. I have never been a fan of this kind of releases, and I think this Empyrium compilation does not succeed entirely either. To add some detail of the release, there are also extensive 60-page booklet which sums up the history and influences of the band.
A Retrospective… contains two previously unreleased songs, and also a new version of The Franconian Woods in Winter’s Silence which was originally found on the debut album A Wintersunset… This new version has actually two minutes shorter than the original. It also combines different vocal styles. That is nothing spectacular, to be honest. After the first song, there are only three songs from the first two Empyrium albums. A Wintersunset… and Songs of Moors & Misty Fields, which both lean more towards the dark metal sound and style, are clear minority on this release. This is surprising for me. The excellence of the first two albums can be heard from these songs too, but leaving the rest of the compilation, over 40 minutes that is, for two other releases sounds like a strange decision. Of course, there are those two unreleased songs left, but they, Der Weiher and Am Wolkenstieg, could have just as well been on the last album, Weiland, already.
Empyrium was interesting band, which recorded under three hours of music, excluding the demo which was released in 1995. Having couple of new songs, and one new version of the old song, does not change the fact that A Retrospective… is not any spectacular release after all. With only four albums on their roster, it is much better choice to buy the original albums separately because that way one will find out the excellence of the Empyrium. There are, however, a special edition of this release which actually consists of all four albums and the collection, and also the only demo, …der wie ein Blitz vom Himmel fiel… This special box was limited to only 500 copies, so good luck finding it with a reasonable price.
When you wonder the low points, must be remembered that Empyrium, at its best, is excellent music Harder and more metallic beginnings changed into more acoustic and atmospheric music. On the grounds of this release, only a superficial idea is given of the Empyrium material. Also the choice and emphasis of the songs is not perfect.
After four full-length studio albums encompassing eight years and a shift from a dark Folk Metal style to a more acoustic-based sound, Empyrium have been given the ‘best of’ treatment with “A Retrospective”, a collection aimed at looking back at all four of the band’s releases, along with two unreleased bonus tracks. However, in a dissimilar fashion to many shameless record labels, Prophecy Productions seem to have pulled out all the stops to make this collection a worthwhile addition to any music collection. They have remastered the material for the compilation and released it in an extravagant gold-embossed case, essentially putting so many of these types of collections to shame from the onset.
However, fancy packaging and improved sound quality aside, the music itself contained on “A Retrospective” is of utter quality through and through. Working through Empyrium’s material in a chronological order, long time fans of the band are able to track their musical and ideological progress as they developed as a musical entity, whilst newcomers get a sense of this development and a clear taste for each different era of the band’s relatively short lifespan. The first four tracks are taken from “A Wintersunset” and “Songs Of Moors And Misty Fields”, the band’s first two albums. Evidently, the band’s sound was not quite perfected at this stage, but it can hardly be described as basic or amateur-sounding, with opener “The Franconian Woods In Winter’s Silence” easing the listener in perfectly to a blend of Progressive Folk and Metal.
The tracks from the album “Where At Night The Wood Grouse Plays” are real stand outs though, with no Metal elements at all. Instead, largely instrumental songs like “Dying Brokenhearted” and “The Shepherd And The Maiden Ghost” convey wonderfully melancholic and intense emotions through a wonderful acoustic Folk style, very much reminiscent of Ulver’s “Kveldssanger” opus. Beautifully played twin acoustic guitars are accompanied by soft whispers and the occasional hymn-like chant, adding an eerie but still exquisite mood. It’s also easy to see why “Weiland”, the band’s fourth and final album, is considered their masterpiece. The songs from this album stand above the rest simply because the listener can finally hear the perfect balance between the darker themes of the earlier material and the magnificent acoustic style which Empyrium seemed so adept at. Confident that they had perfected their sound, one can hear that they were no longer afraid to experiment with different dynamics, utilising perfect cello passages for example on “Waldpoesie”.
If you’re a fan of Empyrium, then there really is no reason not to pick up this wonderfully packaged ‘best of’ collection that truly shames most other obvious cash-ins from greedy labels. If you’re new to this band, this is absolutely the perfect starting point in discovering some beautifully crafted music from a small but talented group of musicians who sadly disbanded after only just perfecting their art. Prophecy have done a marvellous job in retaining and hopefully extending Empyrium’s legacy; hopefully more people will now be able to discover one of Germany’s best kept musical secrets.
Originally written for http://www.blastwave.co.uk