Artist: Vanden Plas
Album Title: Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld
Label: Frontiers Records
Year of Release: 2014
‘Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld’ is a grand title, some might even call it over-the-top or pompous. For a lot of bands, such an album title would cause untold damage, as the music behind the title fails to live up to the billing. In the case of German progressive metal stalwarts Vanden Plas though, this is not a problem. In fact, we have perhaps come to expect nothing less and long-term fans like yours truly actually welcome the grandiosity because we know that the title is not just empty words.
Beginning life in the mid to late 80s in Kaiserslautern, Vanden Plas, who are comprised of Stephan Lill (guitars), Torsten Reichart (bass), Andy Kuntz (vocals), Andreas Lill (drums) and Günter Werno (keyboards), have steadily grown into one of the best and most highly respected progressive metal bands that the genre has to offer. Each of their seven studio albums released to date have displayed both quality and a maturity of song writing that has ensured an impressive longevity in an ever-increasingly volatile music world. When prog fans on respected forums talk about Vanden Plas albums being ‘blind purchases’, you know that the quality is there.
Early releases, such as the 1994 debut ‘Color Temple’ and 1997’s ‘The God Thing’ were very much what you could describe as ‘standard’ prog metal. Well-written and executed, the albums nonetheless contained all the chops, time changes and understated melodies that typify the genre. The Vanden Plas of 2014 however, is a very different beast.
Over the years, the band have become increasingly interested in the theatre, becoming more and more involved with stage shows and rock musicals. This flair for the dramatic has naturally rubbed off on the quintet’s studio releases, with the last two in particular taking the aforementioned grandiosity to a whole new level. 2008’s ‘Christ 0’ recounts the tale of the Count of Monte Cristo to an explosive backdrop, whilst 2010’s ‘The Seraphic Clockwork’ upped the ante with a convoluted story about a clockmaker, good versus evil and time travel. The latter, thanks to the heaviest and most diverse music of their career, stands as their masterpiece, a near faultless body of work that remains a personal favourite four years on from its release.
‘Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld’, however, takes the concept story idea to a whole new level. In conjunction with renowned German author Wolfgang Hohlbein, the band created a new rock opera based around Hohlbein’s ‘Chronicles Of The Immortals’ novels. Needless to say, the opera sold out for each of it’s 25 performances in Kaiserslautern and now Vanden Plas have created an album based on the stage show. More accurately, this is a double album, with part two rumoured to be scheduled for a 2015 release. I certainly hope that this is true because once again, Vanden Plas have delivered and delivered in spades.
The album begins suitably theatrically, in the vein of a film score with vocalist Andy Kuntz taking on the role of narrator atop a quiet yet dark and brooding classical soundscape. It’s not too long however before Kuntz’s unmistakable voice soars over an increasingly metallic piece which builds the tension ahead of the main body of the album.
‘Chronicles…’ is divded into ten ‘Visions’ but the album has the feel and flow of one giant track, where individual songs, strong as they are, play second fiddle to the overall concept, both musically and lyrically. Throughout the album’s hour or so length, there are noticeable threads, such as a recurring central melodic motif. The fact that this melody is utterly beautiful and beguiling only serves to underline just how impressive this album is.
Unlike many prog albums, ‘Chronicles…’ is also properly heavy. Just listen to the opening riff of ‘Vision 3hree – Godmaker’ and you’ll instantly understand what I mean. Unrelentingly powerful double-pedal drumming and monstrous bass work create an impressively strong framework upon which sit riff-hungry guitars that growl and shriek with real intent. The guitar tone throughout offers a satisfying crunch and the sparingly used lead runs are expertly crafted to provide that most metal of embellishments without detracting from the overall feel of the music. All of this is then wrapped up in some stunning keyboard and synth work, that adds depth, warmth and richness to the compositions. Always present, it is often subtle but comes to the fore when required, underlining that dramatic, filmlike feel to the vast majority of the material.
The other big strength to this album is the sheer variety on offer. Given the band’s penchant for the theatre, it comes as no surprise to learn that this is an album that provides drama and pomp from start to finish, be it via the use of clever tempo changes, the contrast between all out bombast and quieter introspective and reflective moments or via a varied vocal approach. Kuntz is a great front man with a unique voice but when joined by a female voice for an occasional duet (‘Misery Affection’) or a full-on choir (‘A Ghost Requiem’), it really stands the hairs up on the back of your neck.
If I had any small gripe, it would be that the album feels a little too short. This may seem to be a churlish thing to say given that the album sits around the hour mark. However, so good is it that you want it to go on for another hour and when it comes to an end, I’m left thinking ‘already?’
That said, blessed with a fabulously strong and clear production and really beautiful cover artwork, ‘Chronicles of the Immortals: Netherworld’ is the complete package, the real deal. Is it too early to be talking about potential albums of the year?
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