Any magician will tell you that the key to most tricks is misdirection: draw the audience’s eyes away from where they should be looking by any means possible. While their attention is averted, the sleight-of-hand takes place. What separates the greats from, say, Magician Bob at your niece’s third birthday party, is the seamlessness with which this technique is performed. Or to put it bluntly, if you notice that you’re being distracted, they’re doing it wrong. This thought crossed my mind while listening to Flames of Eternity, the new album from the multinational outfit Imperia. Formed in 2004 by Norwegian Helena Iren Michaelsen, the band plays an expansive and emotive hybrid of symphonic and power metal. Flames of Eternity is their fifth album, following 2015’s Tears of Silence. That one was about as subtle as a charging rhino, and the question in my mind was, has the band introduced subtlety and restraint into their bag of tricks?
The first major issue with Flames of Eternity is just how much is going on. The most effective symphonic metal uses orchestration to enhance the melody, not wrestle it to the ground and pummel it into submission. Imperia, sadly, have yet to heed this lesson. Take the track “The Otherside.” A piccolo introduces proceedings before a violin takes over. A guitar backed up by an entire choir then thrashes its way into the mix. All this occurs within the first minute, and it’s bewildering. In other songs, riffs enter triumphantly, and then scurry away when they’re overpowered by, for example, French horns in “The Scarred Soul” or pianos in “Unspoken Words.” The musicians apparently don’t trust the song-writing to carry them and therefore insert weird orchestration as a crutch. Things don’t improve as Flames of Eternity progresses; more violins, more pianos, flutes, harps, even—I’m not joking—an oboe1 make appearances at some point. These feel intrusive and distracting rather than organic. Almost every single chorus feels like it’s augmented by an entire orchestra just to lend it weight and let you know that this is meaningful music, dammit! Imperia loses all sense of dynamism when every beat and note is so heavily emphasized and infused with importance.
The diverse and overpowering orchestrations would perhaps be bearable if the songwriting were stellar, but oddly enough, Imperia seems short of ideas. While isolated moments land, many of the songs (“The Ocean,” “A Crying Heart”) meander aimlessly with predictable chord progressions and too much repetition. And when they run out of steam a few minutes in (which happens frequently), Imperia deals with this inconvenience by throwing in endless solos, not a single one of which I can actually remember. The lyrics simply compound the problem. Generally, I don’t care too much what people are singing about, especially if I can’t make out the words. In this case, Imperia has something to say. “Fear Is an Illusion” presents us with: “Fear is an illusion, don’t let it get in your way/You are enough as you are, so remember that every day.” Hard to know which is worse: the awkwardness of the rhyme, or the banality of the message. Things only get worse on “Beauty Within.” Behold: “The most beautiful heart is the one that gives/The most beautiful heart is the one that brings out the beauty in you.”
It’s not all terrible. Michaelsen has a lovely voice and largely carries Imperia and Flames of Eternity. She is clearly earnest and almost manages to sell some of the cheesy lyrics. Weirdly, in songs such as “Book of Love” and “Blinded,” she sometimes slips into “operatic mode,” which is so jarring I thought on first listen it was a police siren going by. In the few moments when Imperia isn’t bombarding you with needless symphonic instrumentation, it’s clear that these guys are talented musicians. Riffs, when given room to actually breathe, such as the ones in “Fear Is an Illusion,” are catchy and exciting, reminiscent of Within Temptation or Nightwish.
Overall, though, Flames of Eternity is a bombastic and undisciplined mess. It’s not self-aware enough to pass off as cheeky fun, and too silly and cheesy to hit the meaningful beats to which it aspires. I suspect the musicians of Imperia know this, which is why they throw everything (and I mean, everything) they can avert your gaze. But no amount of distraction can hide the fact that this particular bag of tricks is empty.