Memory Garden – 1349 Review

Well, this is a yuletide surprise. A new Memory Garden album was not on my bingo card for Covid-ravaged 2021. To set the stage, Memory Garden emerged out of the 90s Swedish power/doom scene that birthed such acts as Tad Morose, Morgana Lefay and Sorcerer. Like these somewhat better-known brethren, their sound was regal, polished, classy, and bedecked in the finery of both doom and heavy power metal. Since their last release was way back in 2013, I’d assumed they were in the garden themselves, but now they’ve dropped a new platter in the swirling madness of list season. Apparently not much has changed for the band during their 8 years in limbo, as sixth album 1349 is the same kind of high-class fare they were churning out during their heyday. It’s dark, brooding and often beautiful, and it sits in the perfect sweet spot between vintage Candlemass and classic Tad Morose. This is known in the industry as the Wheelhouse of Steel.

1349 is a timely conceptual piece about Europe during the Black Death and it’s appropriately gloomy, glum and melancholic in its chosen color palette. Within this unfestive world the band crafts impressive set pieces that hit me right on the 90s nostalgia bone. Opener “Shallow Waters” is an winner that could have appeared on any of my favorite Tad Morose albums or even Candlemass’ underrated Chapter VI. Uber talented vocalist Stefan Berglund is thankfully still onboard and delivers a typically great performance that grabs your attention and holds it tight. The riffs are weighty and crunchy, the solos are majestic, and everything just clicks. “Pariah” sounds like a lost cut from Sorcerer’s The Crowning of the Fire King, and its doom meets traditional metal blend is spot on. “Distrust” dials up the doom crunch significantly and when Berglund ominously intones “Bring the Priest, we need him here,” it feels dire. This is exactly the kind of music I was soaking up ravenously in the 90s and it’s an unexpected delight to get such a big dose of it in 2021 and with such a high level of purity.

Highlights are plentiful, but “The Messenger” stands out for its poignant duet between Berglund and Josefin Bäck. It reminds me of the material on Pyramaze’s Legends of the Bone Carver, and emotion drips throughout. The title track is a memorable mood piece with a strong Sorcerer vibe, stellar vocal performance and hooks aplenty, and “The Empiric” benefits from the rousing guest vocals of Wolf’s Niklas Stålvind. Closer “Blood Moon” is a brooding denouement with a doomed man reflecting on life as he prepares for a date with the gallows. The line “seems clarity comes at the end of the rope” really twists the emotions, and the way the album ends with the creaking gallows rope is grim as fook. Add a punchy and powerful production by none other than Dan “The MAN” Swanö and there’s a lot to love about 1349. Are there negatives? I suppose there’s a bit of bloat on high-quality tunes like “Rivers Run Black” and “Distrust” but this is a minor issue and the album doesn’t feel long at 51 minutes.

I said it back in 2013 and I’ll say it again in 2021. It annoys me that a vocalist as skilled as Stefan Berglund isn’t more active. He’s just so good at what he does, channeling the best of Kristian Andrén, Urban Breed and Anders Engberg as he roars and soars in such restrained and tasteful ways. He wasted 8 years between Memory Garden outings when he should have been out there doing what he does best. He’s the ideal frontman for a morose concept piece like this and his presence elevates every song. Simon Johansson (Wolf, ex-Abstrakt Alegbra) returns to riff mightily and shred wondrously, and along with battery-mate Ante Mäkelä he makes some impressive things happen. There’s a lot of Candlemassive riffing, but at times the guitar phrasing sounds like modern-day Borknagar. Solos sometimes feel like they came from a late 80s King Diamond album and everything is kept elegant and upmarket. Add to this highly talented collective the significant kit talents of Tom Björn (Nightingale), who delivers a forceful, thunderous performance, and you’re in for a grand time dancing with the plague doctors.

1349 is Memory Garden’s magnum opus, and a significant step up from 2013’s Doomain, which was plenty good in its own right. Talk about a major comeback and a truly unexpected surprise as 2021 trots off the stage. Stately and somber, heavy but highly melodic, 1349 is the bleak holiday gift you should give yourself no matter how naughty you were this year. Memory Garden remembers but forgives.

Rating: 4.0/5.0
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: No Remorse
Releases Worldwide: December 17th, 2021

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