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A Power Metal Enigma - 85%

A Friendly Observer, September 1st, 2018
Written based on this version: 2012, CD, End of the Light (Digipak)

The enigma of Elisa-era Dark Moor is something to behold: at the peak of the symphonic power metal genre's prime, seemingly out of nowhere comes this pair of phenomenal albums by this band from Spain, a country way outside of this genre's typical radar. Nothing they'd released until then demonstrated potential on this level: 1999's Shadowland features mediocre songwriting and unlistenable production. Then comes 2000's Hall of the Olden Dreams, which features some knock-out hooks and an incredible sense of atmosphere. But while some consider that album the band's best, in my eyes it prepared the groundwork for their definitive statement, The Gates of Oblivion.

Killer opener 'In the Heart of Stone' is quintessential Dark Moor: urgent guitar work with baroque synthphonic stylings -- the latter of which complements the former, rather than dominating it. The chorus is one part of the song rather than being the anthemic centerpiece that holds the music together. Elisa's contralto vocals are almost shocking in a scene filled with so many divas. Like the chorus, she is strong, but not the main attraction; she is the singer, not the Female Vocalist (TM). Still, she does get some time to take the lead: ballad 'Your Symphony' is full of dreamy synths that are folkish without devolving into melodic cliches. The warm moods evoked by the somewhat-counterintuitive melodies of this album are quite different than what I am accustomed to from power metal, and nowhere is that more evident than on that song. It is miles away from what the icy Nordic acts could come up with -- it is far more relaxed and sincere. Those seeking melodic cliches will find them on the bonus track, which uses an evocative but too-familiar synth line to summon images of ancient Egypt.

There is an enthusiasm and taste for adventure that pervades the record without resorting to stories about knights and wizards and magic. The adventure they seek is another kind the Nordic acts know little about, but which is more familiar to geographically similar acts like Portugal's Oratory: the glory of imperial journeying. "A New World" is inspired by the highs and lows of Spain's explorer past, and features a particularly punchy hook. Interestingly, the album's second half might be stronger than the first: there's a late-album triumph in 'A Truth for Me', which gets the album's best verses, and 'Night of the Age' evokes one of the most striking atmospheres of the record. The journey from there to here leads us through a few unnecessary synth interludes, which, while pretty and well-composed, just don't sound 'big' enough when carried by only electronic sounds.

All of this is just a prelude to this band's magnum opus, the final track, their 11-minute tribute to Mozart, 'Dies Irae (Amadeus).' It is hard to overstate how good this song is; it might be the most authentic tribute to classical music I've encountered in metall. The fact that it manages to make the most overplayed passage of 'Lachrymosa' sound fresh is testimony to how awesome this song is. It is so infectious, passionate, and natural; every band member shines, the song never loses momentum. Everyone gets a chance to show off their technical skill here, too -- and without sacrificing musicality. Listening to this track, one is truly taken with just how talented this band is.

And yet, at least for this incarnation, it was also the band's swan song. After only two albums, Elisa and the men of Dark Moor parted ways, and went in different musical directions. Consequently there is a mystique to this album, like its existence is a happy accident. It is not a masterpiece, but it is must-listening for anyone who enjoys this genre of metal.