Given the right formula, the right ingredients, and the right opportunity, metal — music in general, but metal for our purposes — can be the gateway into new worlds. Using metal as a means for escapism is both wonderfully cathartic and cathartically wonderful. And I don’t mean that in the generic Nightwish-esque “how about that wanderlust, eh?” kind of way. I mean when metal grabs you by the throat, drags you across the threshold and laughs mercilessly when you try to explain that one does not simply walk into Mordor. At least, that’s what Keys of Orthanc are doing here. In case the name and clumsy reference weren’t a dead giveaway, this Canadian project by multi-instrumentalist Dorgul is using its powers for good by playing Lord of the Rings-themed atmospheric black metal on A Battle In The Dark Lands of The Eye…, their second full-length album in as many years.
A Battle In The Dark Lands of The Eye… is a union between fantasy-themed symphonic metal and atmospheric blackness. The guitar work is hazy and secondary, buried beneath a layer of fuzz that doesn’t always allow the riffs to surface. Above the fuzz rests crystal-clear synthesized strings, often accompanied by clean acoustic plucking. Tremolo leads, orchestral hits, and the occasional creative riffing emerge from the haze to dig hooks into the listener’s brain, often with great repetition and fanfare. But make no mistake, this is atmospheric black metal first, and the mood is dark and angry. Tracks like “A Lord’s Bane” and “Uruk Agh Burgûl” seek to tower over the listener, not unlike the band’s namesake. Darkness is the name of the game, and the vocals help with that: high-pitched shrieks atop deep roars, with the occasional baritone clean. In short, there’s a lot of variety here, and forty-six minutes of it to cover.
When all of these elements come together, the result is really enjoyable. After a mood-setting acoustic intro, “At the Gate” kicks off the album at a gallop. These first two tracks are a strong foundation for the album to follow, nearly blending symphonic elements that are reminiscent of their fantastical inspiration with cold black riffing reminiscent of Saor. Tremolo and symphonic hooks in “A Lord’s Bane” and “At the Gate” contrast nicely with acoustic and ambient pieces like the title track and the first several minutes of “The Old Castle of Durthang.” Throughout, the variety behind the vocals helps to add some much-needed feeling into proceedings, and when it all comes together, it comes together really well.
But what about when it doesn’t all come together? A Battle In The Dark Lands of the Eye… is not a perfect album, and there are two primary culprits behind this. The first is that which plagues all atmospheric projects: memorability. With this much distortion on songs that routinely rest closer to a ten-minute length than a five-minute one, it becomes unfortunately easy for songs to blend in with each other. I can recall the main hooks in “Lord’s Bane,” but I really couldn’t track the song in my head beyond that. “The Old Castle of Durthang” stands out for its acoustic intro (which is also a really nice interlude at that point in the album), but not for a whole lot more. Granted, undefined or heavily distorted riffing isn’t exactly uncommon in atmospheric metal; Wodensthrone’s debut (Loss), for instance, is an absolute haze of poorly-defined riffs — but it is filled to the brim with feeling — nostalgia, longing, pain. Keys of Orthanc’s fantasy-themed substitute, while suitably dark, doesn’t consistently reach the emotional impact it seems to be aiming for, which unfortunately limits the album’s replay potential.
Even when Keys of Orthanc do miss the mark, the end result is still enjoyable. Even in the album’s lowest moments, A Battle In The Dark Lands of The Eye… is a strong album. Fun at times, wistful at others, and plenty dark enough for this metalhead, this is still enough to make me a fan of the band. I will thus be eagerly awaiting their next venture into the dark lands of the eye.