Trying to cobble multiple metal genres together into a unified and effective sound is no easy feat. Especially when setting out to weave epic traditional metal into black metal and melodeath. Too much of any one ingredient and it all starts to go off the rails. Thus finding that elusive sweet spot is an alchemic challenge few bands are equal to. Lunar Shadow almost pulled it off on their 2017 debut Far From Light, but a few issues conspired to undermine some of their otherwise good works. Still, it was an interesting album with some compelling moments and it oozed potential and what ifs. Now they’re back with a new frontman and a more evolved, mature approach to genre crocheting on The Smokeless Fires. They’re still trying to shoehorn extreme metal ideas into a core traditional/epic/NWoBHM sound, and as with their debut, it isn’t always a seamless integration. When it works though, look out! Add in some new goth-metal elements and there’s a whole lot to digest.
Opener ” Catch Fire” begins with stately, elegant piano lines before guitar leads join in, epic and traditional at first, before racing off into something like an Iron Maiden meets early Overkill gallop. Some of the successive riffs incorporate subtle black metal patterns without fully going over to the dark side. Soon the high-pitched vocals of new voice Robert Röttig join the fray and we’re off to the genre demolition derby. The guitars leap from classic to black and thrash metal inflections every few seconds, but somehow it all feels cohesive instead of jarring. The song is chocked full of brilliant guitar-work, hooky harmonies and endless tempo-shifts, but it feels natural. Thus a lofty bar is set for the remainder of the album, and the band has to fight to keep things at such a high level. Followup “Conajoara No More” comes close, with exquisite, sometimes beautifully delicate guitar-work. The song sits close to Atlantean Kodex with nods to myriad 80s classic metal acts, but the whole is held back slightly by the vocals. Röttig doesn’t always project a big enough presence to compete with all the melodious trilling and exuberant riffing and he gets a lost in the riff maelstrom at times.
This issue is alleviated on the fantastic “Roses,” which throws a curveball and opts for a much more restrained, dark wave goth rock sound and mood. The trilling leads morph from aggressive to harmonious and Röttig comes into his own as a vocalist, fitting perfectly with the music. It’s the standout song and very compelling, like early Icarus Witch but better. “Pretend” is similar in mood, but with somber, melancholy piano, almost like the long forgotten prog metal act Exxplorer. The gorgeous, emotive guitar-work is a thing of beauty and Röttig delivers a stellar vocal performance, touching and vulnerable. Some of the issues that plagued the debut are still lurking elsewhere though. “Red Nails (For the Pillar of Death),” The album’s longest cut, is also the most black metal influenced and at times successfully merges this element with NWoBHM riffs and haunting atmospheres. But here the hyper transitions start to take a toll and things sound a bit less stable. Worse, Röttig tries to hit high-pitched screams well outside his range and they sound really amateurish and awful. This functions like a bowling ball dropped on the listener’s toes, yanking them out of the hypnotic mood the song slaves to create. However, things wind out well with the mighty, mightiness of “Hawk of the Hills,” which takes Manowar, Maiden and Warlord and roasts them over the epic flames of Dissection‘s melodic black metal to create the most trve fajita you’ve ever tasted (though those godawful Little Prince Diamond screams make an unwelcome return here as well).
Much of the album’s 44:29 works very well. There are still some abrupt leaps between styles, but for the most part, the band has grown and become much more fluid in their composing and playing. The guitar-work by Max Birbaum and Kay Hamacher is out of this world, sometimes glorious, other times breathtaking, always interesting and captivating. Röttig may lack the vocal presence to carry the heavier numbers convincingly, but even then he isn’t outright bad, just a bit small amidst the big riffs and harmonies. Not a deal breaker by any means.
This is a mega-talented band and it seems they’re starting to live up to the big potential promised on their debut. If they keep improving in leaps this significant, the sky is the limit for Lunar Shadow. I want it to be a touch more consistent, but the goods are delivered and they’re pretty damn impressive. Spin this and prepare for a roller coaster ride through genres.