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Weird and self-defeating, but pretty killer - 70%

Magruligox, December 28th, 2009

Since the mid-90s, Sweden’s Therion have derived an international career from band-leader Christofer Johnsson’s dream of integrating metal with classical music. Their newest release, The Miskolc Experience, is a live collaboration with an orchestra and 62-piece choir spanning two separate sets of highlights from famous operas and Therion originals in a DVD/ two-CD package. While professionalism abounds in its filming, recording, and musical prowess, The Miskolc Experience’s real selling point is the fact that it is an experiment in which monumental failure is a considerable risk. The album doesn’t make for a continuously enjoyable listening experience, but it is a compelling document of Christofer Johnsson’s dream verging on reality.

The state-of-the-art recording makes this album a sonic oddity, capturing the expansive tonal range of the orchestra while prioritizing the bass-heavy crunch of the metal band. The guitar tone is crisp and thick, and remarkable-yet-restrained drumming drives much of the material’s forward momentum. The classical instruments are startlingly articulated in the mix, their alien timbres nearly psychedelic as they burst into under-utilized areas of the heavy metal ear.

Listeners put off by performance flaws may not be able to hear past the under-rehearsed strains of the choir and certain instruments in the orchestra. Flutes, oboes, and horns lag in various songs, and during a few shaky moments, it sounds as if the singers either self-consciously lower their voices or get turned down in the mix. This makes it hard to tell whether that noise in the distance is the adoring crowd, or the shrill cries of classically trained vocalists floundering in a sea of Swedish metal.

Even more off-putting are the arrangements. A conservative musical ethic pays off in the elegance of Therion’s originals, but that ethic at work in these opera excerpts is nearly offensive. Christofer doesn’t trust metal not to embarrass him in this black tie situation:

“as long as one picks short and musically simple pieces... It’s a fine line between what is vulgar and what is art in this field…”

Many bands have demonstrated that metal performance techniques can be as subtle as those found in any form of traditional instrumentation. From a metal viewpoint, these opera excerpts are simple-minded gallops through a series of chugging power-chords. Due to lack of context, they seem to drop dead at the feet of a rather stunned crowd. It’s like listening to a promotional CD on which every track fades out after thirty seconds. One thoroughly integrated treatment of a single opera would have been far more difficult, but infinitely preferable.

The two pieces that conclude the performance ensure that all is forgiven. The first of these is a supercharged version of “The Rise of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Monolithically heavy, with its blossoming classical flourishes kept in time by the inertia of unstoppable guitar groove, this song reveals the spirit of Celtic Frost majestically cloaked in a towering wall of multi faceted drone. It really makes the weight of centuries a fun burden to bear, and makes Southern Lord look like a bunch of cynical underachievers. The ensemble capitalizes on the momentum with “Grand Finale,” a climactic burst of dark, soundtrack-esque classical metal. On the strength of these two tracks, I dub the experiment a success. And based on the moments of brilliance elsewhere scattered throughout this massive and hasty group effort, I propose that it is well-worth repeating.