“Cinematic” is a term you are more likely to see used to describe instrumental rock or neo-classical than metal. It’s that music in the background that supports the action and dialogue as if those two were the vocalists in an epic song, although if it’s good it will stand up well on its own. There’s a bit of post-metal like Dumbsaint that is literally cinematic, with film supporting live performances, but more than that, it’s music that you can listen to in the dark with your eyes closed and dream your own cinematic experience. Alcest is a good example of cinematic vocal-led metal, telling an engrossing story whether you speak French or not.
So, it was when I put on “Stormwinds of Ages” by Austin, Texas band Vesperian Sorrow that it immediately conjured up images of an epic tale of horror. The torturous cries of a giant mythical beast shackled to the ground – a prisoner of some barbarous clan – carve their way through the night air heralding an evil wind. Or perhaps it’s those of a dying man calling for wind to fill the sails of his stricken raft as he floats away down a dark river of blood. The opening strains may only last 58 seconds, but it introduces the tale that follows so well by letting you decide where this record will go, and it’s easy to choose a different adventure every time you listen to the hour of extreme metal.
There are elements of symphonic black metal, folk metal, death metal and more. Donn Donni‘s rasping, gravelly harsh vocals flow between anger and despair as they cut through the majestic soaring synth orchestra, wrestling drums and guitar for attention. The melodic guitar lines wax and wane through various hooks and the drums are mostly lightning fast but avoid the “clickety-click” by and large. At times the vocals are spoken, not sung, sometimes harshly, like in ‘Crown of Glass’ and at others more cleanly, as in ‘An Empire to Mourn’. ‘Casting Dawn Into Shadows’ introduces female voice care of guest vocalist Erika Tandy for added layering and counterpoint and towards the end her lines are also spoken. Additional vocals are provided by Jason McMaster and Jon Zig.
One of the many things Vesperian Sorrow do very well is their song endings. I often talk about how much rarer it is for bands to close a song well than to provide a memorable opening or body- too often the songs just fizzle out without purpose. These guys couldn’t be more different. There’s the fierce vocal cadence in ‘Death She Cried’ with short decay of the instruments, while closing track ‘Of Opiates and Accolades’ climaxes in a thunderous guitar chord before the synth takes us through a wavering but deliberate fade out over the next 45-odd seconds. “An Empire To Mourn” closes off in a similar way with an angelic chorus layered over the top and “Casting Dawn Into Shadows” exits with a strong warbling note from Tandy.
Despite the writing and performing skills on display, some cracks appear after ten or so listens. The average five-odd minutes each song lasts isn’t enough to fully realise the potential in the themes and while they are certainly cinematic, the songs aren’t truly epic like those from Opeth, Ne Obliviscaris, Be’lakor and others. The album as a whole does not live up to it’s epic and symphonic promise of the opening tracks, lacking in the contrast needed between the songs to tell a story. There’s also the problem of synthesised strings, which can’t compare with the real thing. Five minutes of Apocalyptica confirm this.
Austin has an international reputation for some of the best progressive instrumental rock in the world, and Vesperian Sorrow crashes through the delicate tremolo crescendocore of Austin post-rock with a great extreme metal alternative. Like most styles of metal, “Stormwinds of Ages” will have its lovers and its haters but it treads a path between overblown and overly simplistic without sounding for a moment like it’s looking for safe middle-ground.