So here’s my thing with a lot of power metal, the key part of the genre that sits at the crux of my relationship to it: the success of any particular album relies so heavily on the listener’s ability to completely invest in it. Like the suspended disbelief that allows film audiences to sink unquestioningly into the universe a particular movie occupies, so each power metal album must create its own mini-universe, of fucking epicness, and convince the listener that it is worth abandoning reason for the duration of the album. Power metal can be the most stirring, glorious incarnation of the entire metal genre; it can also be utterly irrevocably ridiculous, and often manages to be both at the same time. What matters is how well a band manages this, and whether their bid to get the listener to believe the sweeping narrative they’re weaving with riffs and rhythms.
The first track of Winterstorm‘s third full-length album Cathyron begins with a moody keyboard passage, and gradually builds, adding martial drumming, some triumphal brass, and a few reverent choral passages. Then, the voices swell higher, are joined by a plaintive guitar solo – and suddenly, we can almost see a paladin, astride her might steed, cresting a mountain, her armour resplendent in the dawn, ready for her doom. The track— which is called “A Hero Rises” because of fucking course it is — manages to lure the listener in expertly. We’re invested in this fantasy world immediately, and it is worth the journey.
Lead vocalist Alexander Schirmer (almost all of the members contribute backing vocals as well) takes on the role of narrator, leading the listener through the maze. His voice has a slightly growly, matter-of-fact quality to it, neither ethereally beautiful nor overly aggressive, and it inspires the requisite measure of trust. Schirmer may not be an exceptional vocalist, but he is a stunningly good storyteller, which is exactly what Cathyron needs.
One of the best tracks on the album is “Windkeepers,” a fast-paced, high-energy number punctuated by a folk-inspired passage near the end that evokes a Hobbit dance party. There’s a desperation to the track as well, a kind of defiance, the sort of track suited to a feast during wartime. Things may be bleak, and any celebration might be dangerous, but it is necessary. “The Maze” may be the best track on the album, an unusual battle anthem that calls not for strength to defeat an enemy but the wisdom and intelligence to best an unnavigable labyrinth. It’s a piece about a test of cleverness and will-power just as intense and epic as any battle of blood and swords, and the novelty is an extremely welcome one.
Throughout Cathyron, if there is one element that stands out more than any other, it’s the choruses that power the tracks drive the album forward, and ultimately make Cathyron a success. They’re the lifeblood that carry the narrative, that make you want to raise your fist and shake a spear. Extremely catchy, they also tend to stay in your head long after the album is finished, giving anything you do in proximity to listening to Cathyron an extra little edge of epicness. Good power metal is all about escapism, Winterstorm have that quality down pat.