Of all the bands that flooded the European power metal scene in the late 90’s and early 00’s, Sweden’s Freternia is certainly one of them. I’m not so much apathetic towards them as I am unfamiliar; I followed countless power metal bands in the previous decade, and while I’ve long known of Freternia‘s existence, I never got around to adding them to my rotation. In retrospect, they were a solid early example of Blind Guardian worship, and one that may have tapped into some serious potential, had they not fizzled out in 2002 after only two albums. When several members of Freternia formed Cromonic a few years back, I had thought that the latter band would serve as the former’s replacement, so I was a bit surprised when Freternia‘s comeback album, The Gathering, surfaced in the promo sump. Cromonic‘s debut was a legitimately great release, so could The Gathering have much reason to exist on its own merits?
The answer is surprisingly complicated, as The Gathering is sonically dissimilar enough from Cromonic to justify its existence, yet sounds even further removed from the old Freternia sound. In fact, this record would have felt right at home in the mid-to-late 00’s, when bands like Sonata Arctica and Power Quest were reworking their sound through a more progressive lens. This results in slower, methodical compositions, such as the Pyramaze-esque “Last Crusade,” but The Gathering isn’t without bouts of speed. It’s in the record’s fastest moments where the full potential for this new sound becomes lucid. “Reborn,” “Dark Vision,” and “Age of War” splice impactful rhythms with primo Euro-power speed-fluff, which translates into great moments and memorable refrains. And really, there are no major blemishes with Freternia‘s slower material, either, as The Gathering‘s persistent melodic personality is intriguingly grandiose and bittersweet.
Freternia‘s stacking of The Gathering‘s fastest offerings into the album’s front and back end results in a somewhat drowsy midsection, but these tracks could have been more digestible with a bit more care placed in songwriting. Songs will often jump between ideas and moods without perceptible planning, a problem especially evident during the funhouse eccentricities of “Fading World.” Some tracks, such as “Eye the Shadow of Your Sins,” conclude by introducing a brand new riff that feels disconnected from the music that preceded it. Others, like the otherwise catchy “The Escape,” exhaust a handful of legitimately good ideas by stretching them for two minutes longer than is really necessary. Freternia‘s inability to consistently deliver great ideas is The Gathering‘s biggest detriment, and at a bloated sixty-four minutes, its compositional pitfalls add up fast enough to dull my enthusiasm for its best material.
Though frequently frustrating, The Gathering‘s instrumental execution is a noticeable cut above that of the average power metal band. Axemen Tomas Wäppling and Patrik von Porat imbue their leads and solos with a level of soulfulness too often absent from the genre, while drummer Oskar Lumbojev offers a taut, surprisingly varied rhythmic anchor. The latter’s dynamic use of double bass is uncommonly exhilarating, making each speed burst a delicious piece of ear candy. When it comes to vocalist Pasi Humppi, however, my feelings are somewhat mixed. His range is impressive and his intense, emotive delivery is unmistakable, but he often slides awkwardly between notes, which occasionally reveals light auto tuning implementation. While unobtrusive (and certainly preferable to off-key performances), this is only one example of The Gathering‘s glossy, overproduced sound, an annoyance amplified by its ludicrously loud mix.
Freternia may be struggling to find its footing after many years out of practice, but I nonetheless find The Gathering more enjoyable than most middle-of-the-road power metal offerings. While most genre fare falls into this range due to being mediocre, I can’t say the same for this record. The Gathering is a legitimately ambitious slab of progressive-minded power metal that offers a respectable number of great moments, but my enthusiasm is subdued by its unwieldy length, inconsistent songwriting, and numerous production woes. Yet as it possesses multiple tracks I’ll be happy to revisit in the future, I believe Freternia’s newfound blend of retro and modern power metal to be one deserving of further exploration and refinement. Until that hypothetical day arrives, however, The Gathering is only mildly recommendable to genre devotees.