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The concept of swashbucklers adventuring on the high seas and metal music is not really a new thing, though it has only recently caught on as a commonplace lyrical pursuit amongst parties outside of the pioneering German act in said endeavor Running Wild. In the past 5 years there’s been a renewed interest in the topic, albeit a much more Hollywood oriented/comical take on the subject, bearing very little resemblance to the more historically accurate yet still fictionally oriented depictions set in “Under Jolly Roger” and “Port Royal”. In the midst of all of this is the latest Wuthering Heights album, which would seem to be a blatant attempt at jumping on the bandwagon, except for the fact that it’s actually a horse of a very different color.
Naturally to most already familiar with this band, their entire back catalog can be summed up using the same quote from The Wizard of Oz. The peculiar blend of European folk melodies, the mishmash of old guard heavy metal riffing and “Keepers” era Helloween choruses, vocalist Nils Johannson’s Tony Kakko meets Rolf Kasparek’s vocal character, and the somewhat unorthodox approach to structuring their songs stylistically, give this band a unique flavor that even sets them apart from the more progressive fringes of power metal such as Angra and Alkemyst. But this blend of sounds finds itself perfectly conducive to the seafarer’s plotline that is “Salt”, and springboards what would otherwise be another gimmick drenched ordeal into something that turns into pure auditory sweetness.
Taking its name from a common nickname given to the captain of a seafaring vessel, bearing either the insignia of the crown or that of the skull and crossbones, this album literally listens like a captain amongst mere sailors in the power metal realm. Barring the exceptions of “Away” and “Water Of Life”, which function more as introductory/in between material, all of the individual songs found on here are massive in scope, hitting nearly every imaginable variation on the heavy metal approach. Much like a progressive album with a hodgepodge of differing genre overlays, it almost gets to the point of being difficult to know where one song ends and the next begins, except for the unavoidably recognizable folk material utilized in place of the typical jazz and fusion influences of the former, interjecting distinctions like well defined political borders. To put it simply, this is music that can function both in a bar room drinking song capacity, as well as that of a lounge for technical showboating connoisseurs with an occasional fetish for sea shanties.
Though this was probably not intended as a strict concept album, the recurring thematic material at play definitely gives off that vibe from this album’s triumphant beginning to its rather dreamful dénouement. The mighty prelude “Away” is arguably the only pure representation of the power metal genre on here, drawing from that classic melodic formula popularized by Helloween in the late 80s, but with a buccaneer-like character to the vocal performance. It’s extremely short, consists of basically 2 verses, but really gets the ball rolling in spite of its brevity. Unlike the rather flat and novel vocal style heard out of Alestorm, Johannson’s delivery has a wider range that is more befitting the legacy of Kasparek, but softened and versatile enough to play more on the lighter side of the post-Helloween sound. One could almost refer to it as being a technically proficient variation on the common man’s approach to sign along material.
Insofar as each individual song goes, this album has essentially frontloaded most of the best material, although the rather ambitious epic attached to the end should not be overlooked. Immediately after the sudden drop off at the 1:30 mark of “Away”, what follows in “The Desperate Poet” may as well be a 6 and a half minute continuation of the same song. Taking most of its pointers from Helloween and Running Wild, with a structural approach slightly more comparable to Pagan’s Mind, and guitar majesty and multilayered vocal melodies aplenty, it cooks in about 8 or 9 different ways while keeping a sense of sameness similar to your standard Ensiferum album. Following on its heels is “The Mad Sailor”, which goes in a little more of a folksy direction with several prominent quiet sections and a massively impressive vocal display, but the same story of catchy goodness continues unabated.
As the album progresses, so too does the progressive elements. “The Last Tribe (Mother Earth)” shows a much more philosophical side to what is otherwise a mishmash of fatalistic and fun-loving pirate mayhem. The chorus breaks away from the folk clichés and instead moves into Neo-classical territory and almost sounds mournful rather than dance-worthy, or at least as mournful as a power metal song can get. Nonetheless, it is a scarce thing for this band to write something that could pass for the typical 3 minute radio hit, not when there is 6 minute plus, let’s see how many ideas we can cram into a song territory to pursue. By the time things get to “The Field”, things seem to get formulaic, but still don’t lose any thunder or prowess at roping in a good tune to come back to at the refrain. By the time “Lost At Sea”, the massive ending epic, hits the speakers, one is left to wonder where any new ideas could possibly come from. But as sure as the sun sets in the western ocean, this band somehow manages to outdo themselves and does the equivalent of what was accomplished on the astounding highlight song “The Mad Sailor” threefold, ending with a drowsy sounding bass solo to the sound of splashing waves and endless waters.
It behooves someone who is drawn to adventurous feats in his favorite metal genre to throw out words like perfection, but much like the sad case of the otherwise flawless “Blood, Fire, Death”, Wuthering Heights just couldn’t resist the urge to throw in a poorly timed piece of slapstick comedy. Suffice to say, on a Helloween album circa 1994, shouting “Abra-macabra” might pass unnoticed, but on a highly ambitious and otherwise serious album like this, on no less than the best song “The Mad Sailor”, it just doesn’t fly. It’s a forgivable Persian flaw, but unfortunately a very noticeable one. Nevertheless, barring this one misstep, there’s not a single instance of mediocrity, let alone lousiness, to keep the run-of-the-mill power metal fan from biting at the lure. For the more sophisticated swashbuckler, this album is literally the salt of both the earth and sea.
Stylistically Wuthering Heights is a unique hodge-podge of influences, and they are not ashamed of letting those influences shine through when most bands would keep to the conventional. A progressive metal skeleton houses folk, power metal and traditional metal with a hint of 80’s rock. On Salt, there’s a noticeable shift to the power metal side (Gamma Ray influence especially)
But what has always been my favorite attribute of this band is their whimsical song writing. The structure of the songs is such that it is interesting and unique. The songs will make sudden tempo changes or style changes with the least foreshadowing. If it was any other band, I might be left questioning their ability to put together a song, but the majority of the time they pull it off well. And it’s what makes Wuthering Heights so fun to listen to.
An example of this: in the song Tears, after a solo, an acoustic passage develops, it builds for a second, after a few measures, out of the clear blue sky, a tempo change into power metal fury! Then back into another lead. You just can’t see that acoustic part ending there, but it does. And they make it work.
When Nils sings in Astral Doors, the mediocrity of the band weighs him down. But in Wuthering Heights? There is no denying this guy’s excellence. He’s genuine. He’s powerful. He’s versatile. His voice isn’t thin and annoying like some power metal vocalists. His voice is full and commanding.
The awesomeness of these lyrics cannot be overstated. The abundant metaphors never cease in hitting the mark. I don’t find myself relating to and feeling so connected to lyrics often, but song after song on this album, I feel like I might as well have written them. The Mad Sailor paints a picture of someone accepting a tragic fate (be it personal fate, or the fate of the world), with a laugh and a drink!
“I will dance on the gunwale, as the ship’s going down, I will write no solemn epitaph for a world that’s gone insane.”
Weather the Storm, conversely, seems to speak to persevering through strife.
“Let that be the hope that we cling to, let that be the rope we hold on to, and when the Sun comes over the hills, I suspect we will be here still.”
The lyrics can really be seen as personal, or applied to all that’s going on in the world right now. The band has always had a lightheartedness about them, but ulterior to this is a profoundness that few bands achieve. This is epitomized in The Mad Sailor both in terms of the bleakness of the beginning of the song, and the upbeat chorus; and in terms of the dichotomy depicted in the lyrics.
The few negatives I see on this album, are the couple times where the sporadic song writing doesn’t seem to work. This essentially ruins Water of Life which upon it's beginning sounds of a classic Irish jig. But then it breaks very, very abruptly into a chorus which is just garbage. Absolute style and tempo change again, and it doesn’t work. It fails. And it fails bad.
The only other draw back I see, is some of the leads and solos are uninspired. Running through the scales, filling some space. The runs just aren’t as clean or as memorable as the last couple releases.
That said, the good outweighs the bad in spades. Right now, this is the most relevant album in the universe. To me personally, and for all the happenings in the world in general. This album provides a lot of catchy, intelligent, and genuine songs, and the theme helps to make the entire album feel relevant and cohesive. This is a band that I thought might have been passing their prime, but I stand corrected.
“Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the wise
To talk; one thing at least is certain, that Life flies:
One thing is certain and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.”
You might wonder why I started with a quatrain from the Persian poet and philosopher called Omar Khayyam, who lived in the latter half of the eleventh and first quarter of the twelfth century and whose philosophy could be summed up in a single epigram: “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” – "Carpe Diem! Memento Mori". It’s simply because after I finished listening to this album I had a strange feeling as if I finished reading the “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”, but this time only written in music not in stanzas.
What fostered my interest into Wuthering Heights, in the first place, is my brief encounter with Nils Patrik Johansson’s vocals on Richard Andersson’ Space Odyssey. Tracks like “Despair and Pain” and “Embrace the Galaxy” from Embrace the Galaxy (2003), “Dazzle The Devil” and “Astral Episode” from Astral Episode (2005) reveal such a superlative performance of his that instigating an interest into his endeavours becomes inevitable. Astral Doors and Lion’s Share, both from Sweden, are two other bands that have the privilege of using his beautiful voice, or should I say his hoarse penetrating voice depending on your point of view. But it wasn’t until I listened to Wuthering Heights that my enthusiasm for his singing grew. To my delight I discovered more than I bargained for. The music this band set out to play combined together with Johansson’s melancholy tinged voice maintains a relationship of perfect symbiosis. An equilibrium of forces equally important in the creation of a music with reconciling beauty of unusual kind. If good music gives wings to my soul then great singing flaps them. I have to admit that I have always had a soft spot for great singers and writers who keep an eagle eye on lyrics quality.
Wuthering Heights songs have always been very supple in its presentation, by which I mean they take great liberties with the amazing blend of genres. So musically this album is not much different from the previous two releases where Erik Ravn writes brooding music of outstanding quality and then the rest of the crew puts the finishing touches. But is it all that simple? Not from my point of view. You know it is only music after all but beneath the surface there should be far greater things to be discovered. You can get the finest instruments and then let the most talented musicians in the world play them. But what if the offering doesn’t harbour the feeling that affects right down within you? Then it’s all null and void. For me a masterpiece should send a shiver down the spine, otherwise it is altogether lacking in being impressive, if not in originality. There are many great bands out there. And a handful of them are the originators of genres followed with myriads trying to imitate them. When it comes to Wuthering Heights, this band is so highly original that you can’t imagine any other band even sounding like them let alone copying. Well maybe except for the tired cliché that Nils Patrik Johansson sounds a bit like R. J. Dio. Yes, indeed he does, but that’s all there is and nothing else. His voice has delicate human touch that will keep you warm and safe through the cold winter.
The album begins with a track called “Away” serving as a prologue that invites us to far away voyages of fantastic imageries. As this one rolls by a “Desperate Poet” enters the stage with these witty words: “If Shakespeare himself be raised from his grave / There’d be no words for the emptiness I feel” and right afterwards we enjoy some memorable solos reminiscent of the absolutely beautiful chorus before the song completely takes off. This one is easily one of their best songs and you can trace the relics of their versatile inventiveness in this particular song. The following two tracks “The Mad Sailor”, “The Last Tribe” and the fifth one “Weather the Storm” are almost just as good, each one showing variations and tempo changes throughout. The seventh track called “The Field” is equally interesting and has a truly impressive chorus which conjures me up pictures of simple country men lives moving across my field of vision. Each time I hear this chorus I can’t help but put on an indulgent smile and feel the will to trade my life for days gone by and dwell there for many eons whee there is neither pain nor gain. Once again here I turn to old Khayyam to paraphrase what this song depicts for me :
“Here with a little Bread beneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow”
The rest fares less well with little treasures in their own right. The last song “Lost At Sea”, being the longest and probably the least interesting for me would be better off without the annoying chorus that just spoils the integrity of the song. Though it may be a matter for debate for some, in my humble opinion had this chorus been replaced with the rousing verses that we encounter only in the next half of the song, going like: “Touching the stars / Perchance to dream…” this final track could have been one of their finest and only add to the strength of the record.
It would be difficult for me to name any other band during the last years which has so firmly taken hold of me. I haven’t felt so much passion for a band since the fledgling years of Skyclad back in the early 90s. “Salt” is a very good album, with each song looking like a separate poem that account for the expressions of an old sailor’s own life and experiences, whose paradise lies in the simple man’s wishes. Some albums take you a long time to get into, and others like this one just grab you, but still possessing the magic to steadily grow on you the more you listen to it. And if you do listen to it with lyrics in your hands, you will get the ultimate experience of this delightful rarity. You shall discover a rewarding music coupled with a noble philosophy which will guide you through the mysteries of life.
“Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the prophet’s Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Promise go,
Nor heed the brave Music of a distant Drum”
- Omar Khayyam