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Vanden Plas > The Empyrean Equation of the Long Lost Things > Reviews > lukretion
Vanden Plas - The Empyrean Equation of the Long Lost Things

The Perfect Equation - 87%

lukretion, May 15th, 2024
Written based on this version: 2024, CD, Frontiers Records

Active since the late 1980s, over the years Vanden Plas have become a prominent name in the European progressive metal scene. Their distinctive trait has always been an exquisite ear for melody, ensuring the music always remains accessible despite its structural and technical complexity, resonating deep within the heart and leaving a lasting impact. Their latest album is no exception, continuing a stream of strong releases that has arguably had no missteps since their 1997’s breakthrough record, The God Thing. One significant change has occurred, however, relative to previous albums. If until last year Vanden Plas could pride themselves of having one of the most enduring line-ups in rock music - with literally zero changes since their 1994’s debut Colour Temple -, in January 2023 the band announced they were amicably parting ways with keyboard player Günter Werno. To fill in such big shoes, the band recruited Italian multi-instrumentalist Alessandro Del Vecchio, a man with an incredible pedigree of collaborations both as songwriter, player and producer (Edge of Forever, Jorn, Ronnie Romero, to name just a few).

Understandably, there was a lot of curiosity surrounding Del Vecchio’s recruitment for the new album, The Empyrean Equation of the Long Lost Things. The excitement was further compounded by the fact that already very early on in the production phase the band described the new record as a return to a heavier sound, akin to their mid 1990s / early 2000s output. Those pre-release announcements turn out to be accurate, with the disclaimer that the meaning of “heavier sound” should still be understood within the deeply melodic and harmonious aesthetics of the band’s musical identity.

In fact, The Empyrean Equation … reminds me somewhat of Vanden Plas’ 2002 Beyond Daylight, for its slick songwriting – rich in melody but still packing a discrete punch thanks to passages where muscular guitar riffs and energetic and hard-hitting drumming impart a hard, edgy feel to the music. The two albums are also reminiscent of one another for the deep sense of longing and yearning that pervades the music, and for the alternation of longer, complex suites with shorter, punchier songs. The former are undoubtedly the highlights of the new record. Clocking respectively at 10, 8, and nearly 16 minutes, “Sanctimonarium”, “The Sacrilegious Mind Machine”, and “March of the Saints” are among the best songs ever written by the band. They all have a similar structure, starting with a canonical verse-chorus repetition that is used to “hook” the listener with a catchy and easy-to-digest incipit, before the song lets wild and unwinds in a more complex, multi-part mid-section with plenty of instrumental passages and solos, to eventually return to the initial musical themes in the coda. The multiple melodies introduced throughout the extended play of each song flow splendidly into one another and the arrangements strike a perfect balance between complexity and accessibility – a combination that make the songs feel much shorter than their actual duration. The more compact tracks (“My Icarian Flight”, “They Call Me God”) are no less enjoyable, particularly the latter song, a ballad-like number graced by a fantastic chorus melody and a poignant crescendo in the second-half.

The band members’ performances are top notch all around. Singer Andy Kuntz is particularly impressive, showcasing a voice that has not aged even one bit and feels as powerful and melodious as it did three decades ago. The way his vocals convey emotional depth and powerful feelings is simply phenomenal. Guitarist and main songwriter Stephan Lill shines throughout the album too, both for the well-constructed solos and for the great feel he creates between his guitar parts and the ever-shifting, yet ultra-tight, rhythmic section (Andreas Lill, drums & Torsten Reichert, bass), ensuring the music feels both varied and solid. New member Alessandro Del Vecchio slots into Günter Werno’s vacant position with ease and without altering too much the role the keyboards have always played in Vanden Plas’ music. The main difference lies perhaps in his choice of slightly more vintage keyboard sounds (lots and lots of Hammond organ) compared to Werno, hinting at Del Vecchio’s hard rock heritage, which is a nice twist that fits seamlessly into the compositions. The production, handled by long-time collaborator Markus Teske, is also good, although it sacrifices somewhat depth and dynamics to prioritize immediate impact and loudness, which I am generally not a big fan of.

The Empyrean Equation … is a nearly flawless album, if it were not for its somewhat underwhelming, slow-burn kind of a start. The two songs that open the album, the title-track and “My Icarian Flight”, are arguably also its weakest moments, especially the former – a long-winded, mostly instrumental, three-part piece that introduces several of the themes later developed in the album, but in a way that feels a tad disjointed and drawn-out. The album’s other main blemish is the fact that the overall range of emotions and moods explored might feel somewhat narrow – tightly centred on conveying passionate yearning and longing – in a way that may come across as overly indulgent. Other reviewers have described this as a case of “laying the emotions too thick”, but I believe it is actually excessive uniformity in the moods the album explores that bogs it down somewhat. The addition of one or two songs exploring completely different themes and atmospheres would have reduced this effect significantly.

Nevertheless, The Empyrean Equation … is probably one of Vanden Plas’s best records, no question. It showcases a band in full command of their sound and at the peak of creativity, despite the departure of Günter Werno, who had been one of the band’s main songwriters and arrangers in previous records. New keyboard player Alessandro Del Vecchio may not have had the opportunity to contribute much to the songwriting this time around, but the subtle vintage hard-rock vibes he added to the album’s sound fit very well its sonic identity, making me feel that an exciting and bright future lies ahead for Vanden Plas. Now – for how many bands can you actually say that after 40 years of activity?