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Nearly six years ago I appraised At the Gates of Utopia, and I intentionally jumped straight to the front end of Stormlord's catalogue in hopes of enticing a perceived freshness out of a band that I have always admired from a conceptual standpoint. I had a chance encounter with The Gorgon Cult at some point unremembered, but I found only stagnation and little of value to reap from the entire affair. One can certainly appreciate the more recherché genre dichotomy these guys employ, merging heavy symphonics with the punishing edge of death metal, all blanketed in Cristiano Borchi's more blackened domination of the microphone. Disregarding the vocals, Hesperia sounds awfully close to Ex Deo's second album at times, only with an even more ambitious orchestral scope and free-flowing progression. These tracks seamlessly fade in and out of each other, making this an album best tackled in a single sitting, not unlike Mechina's space-themed sagas.
While undeniably more epic than most, Stormlord seems to have always struggled balancing the metal with the pomp. Going back to At the Gates of Utopia, the original keyboardist has the proclivity to overuse the same keyboard lines, working up and down the same scale and recycling hook after hook. It worked just alright, and I do find that album a decent listen on the whole. This is all worth citing because Riccardo Studer has a wholly different style on the keyboards, instead opting for a more organic, multi-layered approach that comes awfully close to sounding like some sort of ambiguous world music at times. It is engrossing while it is playing, but very difficult to remember afterward. Part of this is due to the a near-complete disregard of the riffs, which are almost always playing second fiddle and are honestly quite stale on the whole.
These two disparate elements branch off in their own arbitrary directions, only crossing paths on rare occasions, occasions which ironically almost redeem the aforementioned flaws on their own. "Sic Volvere Parcas" opens with an understated piano melody, but once the riffs come in you'd better hold on to something! Irrefutably killer, and something of a shame that these instances are so rare on Hesperia. Scattered about are a number of droning, minor chords linked with a driving groove, and through this the band manages to squeeze out a fair amount of mileage. The guitar tone itself is leaden and boomy, but is way too buried in the mix. It just has no chance with the keyboards hogging the listener's attention in such fashion. A passable balance belies numbers like "Bearer of Fate" and opener "Aeneas," which have their isolated appeals, with little of value necessarily lost when culled individually from the album proper. The former is the most convincing example here, reminding me of the soundtrack to Final Fantasy Tactics at times. A great track.
Mayhap I am just burned out on the symphonic style, but as a keyboardist myself I can at least appreciate what Stormlord is trying to do here on Hesperia. Synth-driven metal itself is so played out it isn't even funny, and originality is always at a premium, something these Italians possess far more than most. Through a composite of these values and sticking to their guns, I can safely anoint Hesperia with a passable rating. How much one gets out of this record (like most of Stormlord's catalogue) is a matter of personal taste and variance of disposition. If you are in the mood and want to spin something while getting your Dark Souls II fix, you will almost certainly enjoy it quite a bit. I just need my teeth kicked in now and again, and Stormlord pulls too many punches to reliably satiate on this one. Intriguing, but by no means a classic.
Stormlord has existed for 20 years or so. Most of their career - the time before their previous album Mare Nostrum - they were comfortable in the genre of mediocre death metal. Their efforts weren't particularly bad but... You know how it is with mediocrity. In their earlier albums they had scattered hints of what was about to come. Since Mare Nostrum (2008) which is arguably their best work to date, in my opinion their magnum opus, they have switched/developed the genre and matured musically to a point that is... just awesome. No more boring death metal guitar chugging, generic minor 3rd harmonies, amateurish riffs and song structures and so on. Hesperia is said by the band to be a concept album. For me it is a second part of a bigger concept which does not only entail lyrical themes (Greek, Roman mythology, battles, longing for those times) but their whole newly-found musical path and a dramatic increase in quality.
That new musical path contains several elements: heavy use of synths which are usually the driving force of the songs, the use of harmonic minor scales which give us that middle-eastern feel, slower pace with rhythmically dominant guitars, not to mention the epic lyrical themes. The interplay and integration of these elements is so goddamn perfect that I find myself in grave hardships when trying to put it in words. It might be argued that the structure of their songs is repetitive but they have hit the winning formula. Anyone with a reasonable experience of songwriting recognizes the sheer musical maturity that is present in this album.
So what is this structurally winning formula? The biggest reason I call it "winning" is the fact that it is hard to pin-point. The songs have a lot of ideas in them - that is certain, but the way they transition to one another often eludes me. They are so smooth they go unnoticed, yet they're evidently there. That is what I call musical perfection. The songs tend to start out slow with synths providing the melody and guitars the rhythm. Then it's essentially a black box. I've noticed that guitars often develop into a riff of some sort and then to a melody which is not imitating the synts at all yet fit to a song very well. The songs are near the 5 minute mark so the ideas switch up a lot.
I'd like to elaborate on the pleasant ways they use their guitars. Generally, in metal the mentioned instrument is a given. It is something that is constantly in your face and most of the time you are cool with it. However, the constant use of the guitar is also counterproductive in a sense that it strips the instrument of its newness, it removes the sense of wonder from the listener and therefore drops the perceived quality of the composition that it is apart of because it has been heard over and over... With the late Stormlord, this is not an issue. Instead you wait in awe to see what they are about to do next with their stringed instruments in any part of their songs on Hesperia. Restraint can be a beautiful thing.
Needless to say, the drums are awesome. This is a band that likes to show off their drummer from what I've gathered: their youtube channel has a bunch of their songs being played with the focus on their drummer. Their black metal styled vocals are one of the best I've heard. In fact they are so good that their main function to me is that of another instrument not the lyrical content itself. That's right, Stormlord is a band that can be rightfully considered epic without taking account of their lyrical themes! As said, those were mythological and grandly nostalgic without exceptions.
So after all that, why not 100% instead of 94%? Because of this albums predecessor Mare Nostrum. Hesperia is just not as good but I wouldn't have expected a better follow-up. I actually thought that Mare Nostrum was going to be a one hit wonder sort of thing. Gladly I was wrong, it is almost as worthy. Here's why.
The first song of this album - "Aeneas" - was unimpressive. While it was masterfully crafted it's constitutive parts lacked any sort of memorability to them. The content was weak while it was assembled together pleasingly. I'm still a bit unsure about the last song of the album which is around the 9 minute mark. It has many top-notch melodic ideas, unexpected instruments and such but I am left wondering whether this could have been packed into a shorter period of time, might be too dragged out. My last qualm is about the song "My Lost Empire" which uses the exact same rhythmic riff as its starting point as the song "Scorn" on Mare Nostrum as its main riffs ending point. The same phrase repeats quite a lot on both songs so it is bound to get noticed. I view it as a bad thing, not everyone does.
If you can appreciate the beauty of quality epic metal then this album is for you. It would be criminal to listen to this album and not Mare Nostrum aswell. Both of them - atleast for me - take several listens to fully grasp. If the first time doesn't do much for you, listen atleast one more time.