I can never quite get my head around how quickly Bandcamp staked out such an integral position in my life. The online marketplace is responsible for expanding my listening horizons as well as keeping me attuned to what people I respect (and El Cuervo) find worthy of purchase. Plus, letting me truffle-pig for releases that might not hit the promo bin is how I found Æther Realm. It’s also how I came across Under Siege. The Italians’ folky, eclectic brand of melodeath hooked me from the start, and the notion that their debut might go unreviewed was too painful to allow.
Admittedly, I wasn’t sold initially. Expecting a slick slab of Italian melodeath and getting a faceful of bagpipes will do that. However, the intro to “Blàr Allt Nam Bànag” provides Under Siege an early opportunity to demonstrate its finest attribute: cohesion. Their debut utilizes a mountainous mish-mash of influences, ranging through deliberate infusions of power metal melody, crisp Finnish riffing, and campfire folk. The ability to marry these disparate elements under a melodeath umbrella that feels natural is remarkable. Those bagpipes may grate at first, but by the time they bleed back into the track’s finale, I’m sold. The record also benefits from thoughtful composition. The acoustic transition worthy of Lör that bridges into “Warrior I Am” looks like a throwaway, albeit a delightful one, once its melodeath mindset takes hold. Yet Under Siege‘s ability to intelligently twist back into that opening melody later on demonstrates a seasoned approach to songwriting that greatly benefits the proceedings.
Under Siege can also notch up the pace when need be. Album highlight “Time for Revenge” charges forward with a refreshing urgency blended into its mix of Aeternam and Insomnium. It’s tempting to ask the record to pick something and stick with it, but then Scandinavian stomper “Beyond the Mountains” comes along and I realize that it doesn’t matter what I think. With rare exception, Under Siege do what they want, when they want, and still succeed. Of course, that freedom isn’t without cost. My average spin whiplashes me through more namedrops than even my lazy ass is okay with. By the time I’ve worked through the Eva Can’t-meets-Running Wild of “Sotto Assedio” and sparkling Lör-turned-Ensiferum “One to Us,” I’ve questioned if I’ve accidentally shuffled my music library. Without the common Ensiferum folkiness linking everything together, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest a lack of focus or a true identity. This hodge-podge excels because it’s sold so damn well: without the capable performances or the earnest emphasis behind it, the record would easily unravel.
Certain stumbles further highlight how fine a line Under Siege walks. Both opener “Blàr Allt Nam Bànag” and finale “Bright Star of Midnight” seem poorly suited for their tasks. The former would fit better as a mid-album change-up, while the latter is an acoustic folk song akin to Ensiferum‘s “Wanderer” that feels out of place as the closer. “Invaders” clunks along with much less nuance, sounding closer to the C-tier dreck I’ve reviewed time and again than the stellar melodeath I’ve come to expect. The production too could use significant work, specifically in tamping down a set of overbearing drums that sound distorted and muddled throughout. Overall though, the record has teeth and it knows when to bite and when to grin.
Under Siege have a doozy of a debut on their hands. Their riffs are strong, their intent is clear and well-executed, and the element of surprise makes each track a new adventure. Certain circles will gobble it up, and while I can’t question its staying power, it will need to punch above its weight to make a dent on the list season conversations. However, if the Italians can hone their writing and make their peaks more consistent, they could find themselves in more rarefied air. They’ve certainly added their name to the bevy of strong releases already out this year. Something tells me it’s going to be a good year.