Every once in a while, I’m put in a position where I have to explain to some wide-eyed innocent how it could possibly be that I don’t care much for Nightwish. The only reason this happens, mind you, is because of the band’s undying popularity and colossal influence in their genre. My problem? I like symphonic in my metal. But I don’t like the band that everyone seems to copy to get there. So why would I pick up Hollow Mirror, the debut full-length from Danish band Ethereal Kingdom? The advance track screams Nightwish-core, and the promo sheet calls this music “for fans of Nightwish, Epica, Wintersun.” Why? Because I’m an optimist, that’s why. I live for pleasant surprises.
When Ethereal Kingdoms say their music “is for fans of Nightwish, Epica, Wintersun,” they mean it. Like Nightwish, their orchestral elements are smartly-conceived, and used with strong effect throughout (“Embrace Me”). Like Epica, those same orchestral elements are dominant, second only to Sofia Schmidt, the impressive singer, burying the guitars in their dense glory for most of the album (“My Kantele”1). Also like Epica, the beauty-and-the-beast singing style sees Schmidt contrasted with hardcore harsh vocals. And like Wintersun, the band allows elements of blackened folk to seep into their music, using occasional blasts of intensity to keep things fresh (“Endings”). And yet, Hollow Mirror exhibits a sound that is all Ethereal Kingdoms’ own, a refreshing tale told by a band that manages to sound distinct from its influences despite drawing heavily on them for their sound.
As a result of this apparent confidence, Hollow Mirror deftly dodges many common pitfalls new symphonic metal groups so often fall into. “Beginnings”2 is a great example of this. Upbeat, catchy, and boasting a memorable chorus straight out of 2005, the song feels warmly nostalgic, rather than redundant. The violin lines that give the song its edge are more than welcome, as are, surprisingly enough, the narrative touches that decorate the tune. By any other band’s standards, Hollow Mirror overuses narration to a criminal degree. So kudos goes to the band for using readers (or samples? I really don’t know) who can actually act. “It’s empty… all empty!” is not a lyric I’m especially optimistic about in any kind of symphonic metal, but since the reader actually sounds like this emptiness is somehow going to get his family killed, I find I like it. It’s these kinds of details that really help Hollow Mirror stand on its own, without sounding like a knock-off of other symphonic bands.
Unfortunately, Hollow Mirror does not dodge all of the pitfalls new symphonic metal groups so often fall into. A few songs, for instance, actually do sound like poor attempts at copying the early Nightwish style. “Heartchamber” in particular is guilty of this, so it’s a shame that it’s the lead single off of the album; it is not representative of the overall quality of Hollow Mirror. More distressing, however, is the inclusion of hardcore-style harsh vocals as a counter to Schmidt’s singing. In opener “Distance,” I liked them; raspy and low, they were pushed back far enough in the mix as to be a texture, rather than a focus, for the song. A few tracks later, however, and “Ashes Within” puts them front and center, revealing a troubling issue: there is no aggression behind the harsh vocals on Hollow Mirror. Given prominence, as in “Ashes Within,” these vocals sound more like gasps for air than shouts of anger, as though the uncredited vocalist is focusing more on getting the sound right than the necessary feeling for the verse. The affected songs quickly lose steam as a result and every one is a huge missed opportunity to my ears.
Hollow Mirror is a surprisingly fun symphonic metal album; modern, accessible, and earnest in feeling. The orchestral compositions are strong, the singing is terrific, and I have no complaints about the production. At a point where complaining that new entries in this genre sound like their idols is itself becoming a redundancy, a band like Ethereal Kingdoms is a welcome addition to my collection of symphonic music. Any album that can make me enjoy over-used narration has to be worth a visit now and again, right?