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Comeback albums rarely live up to the expectations laid upon them. Years of unrequited fan anticipation is often insurmountable and destined to be met with disappointment. The reasons for this are not hard to grasp; Band members settle down and start families or participate in other projects during the interim. In other words, they move on with their lives. The years of separation rarely leave band members in the same place creatively they were in during their most beloved and revered periods.
So here we have the Mighty Extol breaking eight years of silence with this, their fifth full-length album and their first as a 3-piece unit. Promotional material suggested the album would pay tribute to the band's history, mixing the varied sounds of their diverse catalog, and for the most part this is true. The thick, deathy vocals of the past are back in force for sure as are the brutal rhythms and uniquely beautiful melodies for which the band was always revered. There is no perceptible contribution from the Blueprint era sound, however, but that is not at all surprising when you consider that Ole Børud didn’t participate in that 2005 recording (and I seriously doubt many fans with lament the omission).
That brings me to another thing worth mentioning: Ole Børud is back!!!!
That fact more than anything else got me excited about this recording. His melodious guitar weaving contributed heavily to the band’s unique sound and his clean singing always added a brilliant counterpoint to Peter Espevoll’s gurgling emanations, transforming songs like ‘Storms of Disillusions’, ‘Ember’, and ‘Reflections of a Broken Soul’ from merely enjoyable into something truly magical and unique. So it is perhaps the height of irony that my biggest gripe with this album are the clean vocals... well, some of them anyway. All three members are given vocal credits in the liner notes, so I can only assume that all three contribute to the clean vocal harmonies used frequently on the album, perhaps even in multiple layers. OK, for the most part the harmonies work as well as they ever did in the past, even if it takes a few listens to get used to their squeaky clean finish. I mean... they are SUPER clean and way overproduced if you ask me. At their most extreme moments ('Behold the Sun', for example) the harmonies sound like some barbershop quartet, or a maybe even a boy band... not the Mighty Extol. Hey, never let it be said that the band is afraid to stretch outside the traditional boundaries of metal. It is after all one of the reasons their music has always been interesting and hard to categorize, much like their fellow Scandinavians in Opeth. But in this case the experiment did not pay off.
We encounter the album's strongest material at the front end with 'Betrayal'. It has all the fury of Undeceived combined with the thrashy precision of Synergy. Ole Børud's clean vocals are a welcome addition here. It is followed by 'Open the Gates' which is a very pleasant blend of old and new. Those super clean vocal harmonies did take a minute to get used to though. 'Wastelands' is the most Burial-esque song on this offering for sure and wouldn't have been out of place on that album. The simple yet catchy hook on 'A Gift Beyond Human Reach' made it the obvious choice for a music video. Instrumental track 'Faltering Moves' reminds me quite a bit of 'Where Sleep is Rest', perhaps a little too much. It precedes the album's weakest moment, 'Behold the Sun', where the barbershop harmonies are more than I can tolerate without hitting the skip button. That is followed by 'Dawn of Redemption', a tranquil acoustic piece that lulls you into a gentle trance before you are pummeled in the face by 'Minsters', which is an apparent tribute to the band's early (demo) era, both lyrically and stylistically. The remaining tracks tilt the pendulum solidly back toward Undeceived again and are enjoyable enough, if a bit predictable at this point.
In conclusion, what you've got here could have been the logical follow up to Undeceived. But is this the album that old... er, long-time Extol fans (like me) have been pining away for? Hmm, well... yes and no. The familiar elements of the past are back in spades; the death metal vocals, the brutal riffing juxtaposed with beautifully melodies, and the meaningful, sometimes worshipful lyrics are all present. Unfortunately, some of the song's just aren't very memorable and on others the vocal harmonies are so polished they are just annoying. Because of the backward leaning 'tribute' aspect of this album, some of the elements come off a bit derivative and the songs lack an identity of their own. This is a welcome celebration of the band's history with a handful of enjoyable songs, but it falls a bit short of past glories, and you know what? That's OK. If nothing else it provides the fans with some much needed closure. Personally I don't expect to hear anything more from these family guys. I'm certainly not going to hold my breath another eight years.