As many of you know, I fucking love concept albums. The musical stories of Iced Earth and King Diamond, for instance, are more a part of me than my own hair. And, because I haven’t reviewed that many concept albums in the last couple of years, I figured I was due. So, I grabbed the (so far) well-received debut record, The 39th Spirit, from the melodic-death outfit Malphas.1 With a concept album comes even more pressure than a typical release. Not only should the music be good, but it should seamlessly blend with the story. And it’s gotta be convincing. When I listen to King‘s The Puppetmaster, I can feel myself hanging from a hook at a long-forgotten puppet shop in “Living Dead.” I can feel the battle brewing in the barren wasteland of Iced Earth‘s “Desert Rain.” And I can feel the weight hanging on Immortal in Unleash the Archers‘ “Cleanse the Bloodlines.” What’s it feel like to make a pact with a demon to obliterate organized religion?
Well, it feels like a band trying to be epic for epic’s sake. Malphas‘ brand of melodeath combines typical genre stunts with keys and orchestrations, rasping and growling vox, and the stacking of every possible riff, lead, solo, and atmosphere possible. The result is a style that’s three parts melodeath, one part prog, and one part symphonic black. Every one of its ten tracks and every minute of its 2700 seconds encompasses every idea the band has conjured up. Even if some of them don’t make sense and the story gets lost in the album’s excessiveness.
Opener, “Invoking the 39th Spirit,” shows just such excessiveness as it unleashes a buttload of proggy drums, keys, guitars, and orchestration. The guitar licks pulse and shift, growing with complexity while the rasping vocal style tries to give meaning to its whirlwind of riffs, solos, and blasts. It ain’t the most interesting track on the album but it embodies—with some variations to the theme—what’s to come on The 39th Spirit. “Legions,” “Floods (An Act of God),” and the closing duo, “Heaven’s Fall I: Condemnation” and “Heaven’s Fall II: The Aftermath,” are also epic builders, providing their own contributions to the album. “Legions” has one of the better, and more-crushing riffs on the album, while “Floods (An Act of God)” alternates barks/rasps with clean vocals—mixing in keys, choirs, orchestrations, and fast-picking guitars in a very Dimmu Borgir way.
While these two songs have their own levels of epicness, it’s clear the closing pair were to be the most bombastic of the bunch. “Condemnation” is a growing number that has the frenetic key-work and riff-changing progressions of Symphony X, while “Aftermath” is the album’s 200-gun cannonade. Part I uses everything but the kitchen sink in its quest to grab the title of Most Epic. Part II uses 1200 tons of solid shot in its relentless assault to the bitter end. Epic? Yes. Worth the wait? Well, there’re better songs.
Those songs are “Red Constellations,” “Visions of the Burning Darkness,” and “Spells of Destruction.” While the album is not as fluid as I had hoped, these three tracks prove that The 39th Spirit has some continuity. “Red Constellations” opens with soothing acoustic guitars and melodic solo work before tapping into building atmospheres, chugging licks, and a chorus that out-choruses anything Wintersun has done in the last decade. Its follow-up takes a more symphonic-black approach, administering lots of Dimmu and Arcturus-inspired keys and effects while maintaining the uphill drive to the “Heaven’s Fall” closers. The last of the three roughs up the smoothness of the other two2 with marching drums, Machine Head-like guitar harmonics, and the most-kickass riff of the album.
In the end, The 39th Spirit is a competent album. Yet, the band’s insistence on shoving every possible riff change, every key-driven atmosphere, every orchestral interlude, and every known backing choral arrangement into each of its three-to-six minute pieces becomes overwhelming. And it’s because of this that the album becomes disjointed. And, at times, the concept gets lost in the random textures. Most of the leads and solos (keys and guitars, alike) are impressive but, even after a dozen listens, I still have a hard time knowing where I am on The 39th Spirit. Unfortunately, this makes repeat listens taxing and memorability low. That said, there is potential here and it’ll be interesting to see where the band goes from here.