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After two simultaneous albums in 2004 then a double album in 2007, just one hour of Therion seems a bit paltry. I suppose I've been spoilt a little. Although the death metal 'head in me wants to cling stubbornly to ...Of Darkness, in all honesty I'm pretty convinced the 2004 duology and Gothic Kabbalah are Therion's finest records. Sitra Ahra is the final part of a quadrilogy that began with the 2004 albums, and much of the material here was written alongside those albums and the Gothic Kabbalah material.
The vocal arrangements on Sitra Ahra follow the 2004 material and earlier albums, with female vocal solos augmented by big-sounding male choirs, and with Snowy Shaw and Thomas Vikstrom relegated to complimentary roles. Vikstrom, famous for captaining a sinking ship when he recorded vocals for Candlemass at their lowest ebb, is a good find for Therion and his often one-line contributions sound awesome.
Although the vocals are more in line with Deggial, the songwriting derives equally from Gothic Kaballah, with a reduced power metal feel and also references to the expansive songwriting of Deggial. The guitars retain the bouncier sound from the previous album, less chunky and distorted than they were in the early part of the decade. It makes sense that this wouldn't have meshed with Sirius B or Lemuria, as it bears more of the curious quirks and proggy rhythms of Gothic Kabbalah - the upbeat bass riff in the verses of the title track, for example, and the interesting structures of songs like 'Kings of Edom' and 'Hellequin.'
The melodies and riffs aren't too original for this band, but the construction and attention to detail is what puts it above and beyond. The standouts here are the epics, and with Sitra Ahra they are at tracks 2 and 4. 'Kings of Edom' is easily among Therion's finest songs, winning me over with its epic, romantic oboe lines and power chords the way 'Adulruna Rediviva' did at the end of the last album. Halfway through it breaks into an awesome, edgy power metal break (all sizzling guitar chords and hissing snares) that hampers my ability to type descriptions of it.
'Land of Canaan' is a ridiculously eclectic explosion of ideas, flutes, chimes, accordions and spanish guitars whipping you from one culture and time period to another throughout its nearly eleven-minute running time. It even gets quite funky with the upbeat rhythms, scat piano and twanging instruments at the halfway mark. The bass guitars here and on the rest of the album are better than on any other Therion effort, right up there in the mix and groovily complimenting the grandiose choral singing. It's in the list for best song this year.
Therion draw more and more these days from old proggy tropes from yesteryear and also from more happy sounds.'Cu Chulainn' is worth a mention for its wonderful big, celebratory chorus, Therion sounding more effervescent and joyful on this disc than before. 'Unguentum Sabbati' combines slamming riffs with male lead vocals and the famous melody from Pink Floyd's 'Echoes.' 'After The Inquisition' features more whining keyboards (sounding for all the world like some '70s US prog-rock) and even a children's choir. I'm not sure where I stand on this. Some people will hate it, and it is admittedly a bit cheesy with the hammond organ outro accompanied by this bunch of young'uns singing. Considering the astounding brilliance of the first two parts 'Kali Yuga III' doesn't quite cut it, but mostly because it seems to have been written to almost fit with the aggression and pounding heaviness of the Sirius B tracks, and had the guitar tone been as heavy then this would have made a fitting conclusion with its rocking lead vocals and smooth synths.
I rather selfishly expected all the brilliance of an expansive double album condensed into one hour here, but the album isn't quite as audibly chocolate as it could have been. 'Hellequin', '2012' (who else is bored of songs with this title by now? Just imagine when we actually fucking get to the year 2012), 'The Shells Are Open' and 'Din' all have interesting features and memorable parts, but don't quite tie together with the awe-inspiring cohesiveness of Gothic Kabbalah. Perhaps limiting himself to one disc is not a good idea for someone who thinks as big as Christopher Johnsson does.
Most of the really good stuff is during the first four tracks of the disc, and though there are plenty of great moments after its not as strong a showing for Therion as usual. With the title track and those mentioned excellent epics aside, the majority of the album doesn't quite have the diversity and immediate appeal of Gothic Kabbalah, and the explosive intensity of 2004 songs like 'Blood of Kingu' and the first two parts of 'Kali Yuga' might not be happening again, BUT Therion succeed in crafting a layered and complex album that pushes their sound in a variety of directions like a man trying to escape from a latex egg. Well worth picking up if you already have their other stuff from the 21st century.