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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.