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The Miskolc Experiment - 70%

Sean16, June 20th, 2010

This is a perilous exercise. And this is a far too common one. I’m pretty sure a few years from now we’ll have to single out rock/pop/metal bands which have NOT played with a symphonic orchestra at least once. Alright coming to Therion, perhaps the only orchestral metal band which hasn’t usurped this name, it at least doesn’t look totally out-of-place. So for the encounter of the metal world with the classical music one (to approximately quote Christopher Johnsson) we get a show divided into two parts: the first part opens on a reworked version of Therion’s dark, gloomy epic Clavicula Nox performed by the orchestra and classical singers alone, followed by excerpts of classical pieces on which the band will add its little personal touch, while the second parts looks more like a standard Therion show – only with white shirts, bow ties and a genuine orchestra.

Let’s put it clearly, while the band overall did the job quite well on both the metal meets classical music and the classical music meets metal parts, the big drawback here is the production. Conveniently mixing a symphonic orchestra and an electrified rock/metal band on the same stage isn’t an easy challenge – perhaps even an impossible one. In spite of all of Johnsson’s claims and purposes, the band WILL always end up partially overwriting the orchestra, that’s simply a TECHNICAL issue, more than any kind of moral one. This important reservation set apart the arrangements aren’t badly done, Mr Therion obviously knowing the classical music / opera world pretty well if there was still any doubt left.

The choice of the classical pieces could be endlessly discussed, and will leave a strong taste of frustration regardless of what it eventually is, given said pieces couldn’t be performed in their entirety due to the show length and format. Playing (very) short excerpts of operas and symphonies is for sure a heresy, but a heresy which could hardly have been avoided but by choosing a single piece to be performed for the entire show, what wasn’t the initial goal. Now amongst the chosen excerpts you’ll find a predominance of opera of course, and amongst it a predominance of Wagner, which is hardly surprising to anyone knowing Therion and Christofer Johnsson a single bit. However, coming to this same Wagner the choice of not less than three excerpts of Rienzi is pretty odd considering it’s a rather obscure, early work not really representative of the Master’s style, but perhaps the unlimited respect Johnsson is paying to the later works prevented him from doing anything with them – except for a rendition of Siegfried (Notung! Notung! Niedliches Schwert) which is probably the highlight of the first part. Wagner was obviously meant to be the main dish, and the other excerpts to work only as mere complements. Amongst those, the short excerpt of Saint-Saens 3rd Symphony is most delicate and charming, strongly contrasting with the worn-out and almost vulgar Dvorak’s New World Symphony – c’mon, everyone has covered the damn stuff now (including Rhapsody if I’m not mistaken, you would have thought Therion to be more subtle).

Besides, there’s the eternal question: did the band, the electric guitars, the drums, really add something? Of course, no. Wagner, Mozart haven’t waited for them to sound great. Siegfried would kill anyway, and indeed a good part of Notung!.. is performed without the band. However, Therion isn’t disfigurating the classical works either and, again, could hardly have been asked for more – this is a perilous exercise. Eventually is a (semi-official) band member would have to be singled out in this particular show this would be Lori Lewis, definitely the best voice to have worked with Therion so far, who alone would make this release valuable. This is no wonder as a classical-trained singer she shows her full – huge – potential with classical musicians.

The second part of the show is above all a unique opportunity to hear, and see, Therion songs performed fully live, meaning with a live orchestra replacing the usual tapes. Again, there’s this little reservation about the production I already mentioned, and all this could have sounded undoubtedly better, but there’s no need to be too picky – on a sidenote this isn’t the very first time the band makes such an attempt, as they performed at least a few shows in 1999 with a strings quartet on stage. The setlist will be of particular interest to the fan, as it features a mix of classic songs and songs the guys seldom, or never, play live. The latter include the as slow as majestic Eternal Return, an unjustifiably overlooked track from the Deggial album, the epic closer from the same album, Via Nocturna (a song they also played on the 2007 Anniversary Tour, though), complete with its mad witches dance (which unfortunately suffers quite a lot from the production) and introductory organ part, as well as probably the most unexpected track ever... Sirius B. I have to admit as much as I hold the album of the same name in high esteem, the same can’t be said of this song which is more a lengthy semi-ambient interlude than a genuine “song” to begin with – but you know, Therion will no longer be Therion the day they’ll stop surprising their listeners.

On the “classics” side Schwartzalbenheim is for the first time performed in its entirety, including the ominous brass intro which had been so far always truncated from the live versions, restoring this great song back to the full glory of its initial album version; the same may be said about The Draconian Trilogy becoming again, well, a real TRILOGY with the return of the wonderfully arranged “Opening” part – probably the highlight of the whole evening. The Rise of Sodom and Gomorrah was mandatory; though that one is usually played in its “full” version hearing a sampled strings intro while the band stands idle on stage had so far always looked a tad ridiculous, what of course is no longer the case with the real orchestra. Picking the Grand Finale from Theli is a nice alternative to the eternal To Mega Therion, the gentle ballad Lemuria sounds as nice as usual and coming to Blood of Kingu if having the orchestra playing will be far more anecdotal – it’s primarily a full-strength metal song, which consequently works well even with mere samples – it’s an ever-renewed pleasure to see Mats Leven fronting HIS song in all his rock-star exhibitionism, though he’d definitely need a true, complete metal stage to shine at his full potential.

Bonus features include a documentary mixing excerpts of the show preparation with various panoramas of the Miskolc city probably put there at the mayor’s request, the kind of stuff you’ll never watch but once, and excerpts from the similar show the band did in Bucharest earlier in the same year. This one is more interesting as it includes songs which weren’t performed on the Miskolc show, like The Flight of the Lord of the Flies or the intros of The Wondrous World of Punt and The Khlisti Evangelist, two top songs one may only regret they weren’t played in their entirety. All this eventually summing up to a release which is of course mandatory to the fan, shedding a new light on an ever-changing act, but which I wouldn’t probably recommend to the newcomer I’d instead advise to pick the 2006 Live in Mexico City to get a far more complete Therion panorama.

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.

Superfluous - 50%

WARWREN, August 27th, 2009

When I heard that Therion was going to do a release with an orchestra, I got excited. There are incredibly few bands that have any business working with an orchestra. I believe that Therion are one of those few. When the preview clip of Dvorak's 'Symphony No. 9 excerpt' came out, my excitement grew. Unfortunately, reviewing the entire product, it falls short of expectations.

It's a well executed work. However, the band adds little to the classical compositions and the orchestra adds little to the Therion songs. Also, the song selections for both sections is wanting. I'm not a big fan of Wagner and the song selection does nothing to convert me. I can't help wonder why 'Ride of the Valkyres' - certainly Wagner's most famous work - was not included?! After the exciting Dvorak's excerpt, the classical music section loses momentum. And by the last Wagner song, the only thing keeping me awake is that thought that if I wanted so much Wagner I would go out and buy a Wagner CD. The Therion section picks up with a Therion standard - 'Blood of Kingu'. Again, some of the tracks are snoozers. And then a closing with a couple of up-beat standards. Not an impressive set list. Even so, the orchestra serves little more than to provide background abiance.

The rating of 50 is based on a 50/50 chance of whether someone would want to pick this up. I love music DVD's. And I love Therion. So this is an okay addition to my music library. However, this CD + DVD is really only for the true Therion enthusiast. Casual fans need not bother with this release.