Heavenwood charted a strange course over their 20-year career. Coming out of the Portuguese metal scene at the same time as Moonspell, the two bands shared a love of dark gothic rock mixed with elements of black and death metal. Their Diva debut played like Wolfheart filtered through Crematory and The Cure and though less heavy than Moonspell, they were almost as interesting. Follow up Swallow saw them perfecting a rocking mixture of goth and metal, taking cues from The Cult and Paradise Lost to arrive at a very enjoyable style. Then came a ten year hiatus and a radical shift of direction toward the kind of hybrid symphonic goth/black/death style as Septicflesh, Nightfall and to a lesser extent, Rotting Christ. 2011’s Abyss Masterpiece had truly excellent moments but lacked cohesion. Now 5 years later they return with The Tarot of the Bohemians Part I and yes, this is yet another of those multi-volume concept albums we love so much at AMG. It’s also their most ambitious offering by a wide margin, merging numerous genres and attempting to walk the line between bombast, heaviness and accessibility.
The concept is a simple one: each song tells the tale of a specific tarot card. Opener “The Juggler” sounds like a more radio-friendly Septicflesh, replete with choral chanting and chaotic symphonics alongside heavy riffing. Vocals veer from death rasps to clean, goth-style singing and they somehow manage to make it fit together while wedging in a memorable chorus. “The High Priestess” is even better, mixing doomy riffage with forlorn vocals and a great melancholic build toward an upbeat, almost triumphant chorus. It’s very effective and the inclusion of little details like trumpets and horns blaring in the background add an unusual flavor. The quality writing continues on “The Empress”‘ which takes the best elements of goth bands like Darkseed and End of Green to craft a simple but rocking tune with a catchy, emotive chorus you’ll like immediately.
From there they manage to keep things interesting with stylistic changes and the use of various symphonic bells and whistles. “The Pope” is like Gothic era Paradise Lost with more keyboard fetishism and emo cleans, and “The Lovers” is straight up ear-catching goth-rock. “The Chariot” starts off like a lost cut from Samael‘s Ceremony of Opposites before going full Crematory on your ass, and closer “The Hanged Man” makes smart use of female vocals to shake things up as the album winds down.
At an hour and change, Tarot is too long for it’s own good and though no song feels like filler or qualifies as a dud, not all can match the quality of the album’s first few cuts. With material as all over the map stylistically as this, less is usually more to help prevent the listener from being overwhelmed, and by the 10th track I was definitely whelmed. Sound-wise it’s acceptable but feels a bit too crowded when they really pile on the symphonics. A greater DR would likely have helped create some breathing room, but it isn’t a disruptive issue overall.
This is a dense album with lots going on and the band brought in a host of guest musicians and producers to help flesh(god) out their ginormous concepts. Guitarists Ricardo Dias and Vitor Carvalho do some impressive work leapfrogging across genres and styles, managing to craft quality goth, death and black metal riffs to fit the various songs as needed. They aren’t particularly flashy players but they know how to drive a song with a riff. Dias is also credited with the orchestral arrangements, which are omnipresent and generally well executed. They aren’t always as well anchored to the core of the music as with Shade Empire and Septicflesh, but they certainly work. Ernesto Guerra was required to pull off multiple vocal styles to make this all come together and he should be commended for his solid performance. His death roars are respectable and his singing is often quite emotional. Considering he’s a fairly limited vocalist, he really stretched his capabilities and helped put the material over the top.
The Tarot of the Bohemians Part I accomplishes what Abyss Masterpiece couldn’t quite achieve. It’s a big, diverse album with lots to absorb, but it’s oddly accessible at the same time. It may take a few spins to fully reveal all that’s going on, but it’s definitely worth the time and effort. It’s way more than I expected from Heavenwood at this stage of their career and it has me quite anxious to hear what Part II has in store (gee, maybe it will be a triple album!). Adventurous, weird and chaotic, and that’s what metal is supposed to be, right?