Mystras – Castles Conquered and Reclaimed Review

Castles Conquered and Reclaimed is the first release from Mystras, another outing from Ayloss of Spectral Lore fame. Following the epic Spectral Lore and Mare Cognitum split, which only dropped in March, I for one did not expect to see anything else from Ayloss in 2020, and certainly nothing of the scope and scale of this latest project. Castles seems pretty much designed to win me as a friend and avid advocate. First, it’s got a cool-sounding and intriguing title. Secondly, it comes wrapped in that gorgeous, monochrome, line-drawn artwork. Thirdly, it’s a mix of raw black metal assaults and traditional medieval folk songs. Lastly, you know, it’s the guy behind Spectral Lore. On paper then, I am Mystras’ official fanboy #1, but how does that bear out in practice?

Castles is raw, stripped back black metal. Forget the mournful beauty of Spectral Lore’s Gnosis or the epic grandeur of his contributions to Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine and Sol. The first of Castles’ nine tracks launches its assault with only a split second’s warning before the blast beats kick in and the mid-paced tremolo picking begins. Thereafter, the tracks alternate between medieval folk – sourced from English, Cypriot, Greek and Turkish, and Occitan history and legend – and brutal, almost second wave black metal. There is, however, significantly more subtlety on show here than in those heady days of the early 1990s, as Mystras combines harsh heaviness and a melodic edge with a storytelling ethos to generate a real sense of weight. The starkly beautiful ferocity of album closer “Wrath and Glory” is, appropriately, the peak of this for me, though for many it will be the epic “The Murder of Wat Tyler.”

The theme running throughout Castles is the misery of poverty and oppression, and what normal people must – and do – sacrifice to challenge that. It is a message that feels as relevant today as it did “One generation after the Black Death Swept the world with his Scythe,” a lyric from the 13-minute epic “The Murder of Wat Tyler.” The savagery on show there and in cuts like “The Zealots of Thessaloniki” are offset by the delicacy and fragility of Mystras’ interpretations of the likes of “The Cutty Wren” and “O Tsakitzis,” respectively a lay from the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and a Greek folk song about a mythical hero that stole from the rich to give to the poor. On these and the other traditional pieces on Castles, Ayloss is ably supported by a cast of guest musicians, such as Viktoria Taskou, who plays the yayli tanbur on “O Tsakitzis,” and Stelios Romaliadis, who contributes flute to “Contre Dolour”1 and tin whistle to the stunning “Ai Vist Lo Lop”2.

Castles is a striking album, principally for Mystras’ masterful weaving of the folk and black metal pieces. While the two aspects of the record are kept largely separate – “The Murder of Wat Tyler” being an exception – the sorrowful mood of the traditional pieces balances, and actually heightens, the undiluted fury of the black metal. The traditional pieces do somewhat steal the show, however, with the uncompromising metal at times treading paths that feel already well worn. That feeling is driven at least in part by the production. I have absolutely no doubt that the sound here was a deliberate choice and almost certainly one made by Ayloss to further convey the cruel harshness of the tales he tells. While I can appreciate that, the second wave BM drum sound remains flat and lessens the power of some sections of the record. What’s weirder is, it almost sounds like Ayloss himself realized this because the drum sound seems to improve over the course of the album, sounding significantly better on closer “Wrath and Glory,” than on the opening title track.

Castles Conquered and Reclaimed is a timely piece of work telling a sadly timeless tale. With it, Mystras issues a call to arms as many aspects of our world seem to be crumbling around us, driven by injustice, inequality and greed. There is much to enjoy from a musical point of view here, even if I do wish a few different production choices had been made, but there is a lot more here for those that want it. Of course, the message is not for everyone and, if you simply want to enjoy some solid old school black metal, which effortlessly builds in traditional influences, you can. If the message does interest you, however, I don’t think I can do better than to quote the last two lines of the record: “The fight against injustice is eternal, And Eternal we shall become.”

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 9 | Format Reviewed: ~260 kb/s VBR mp3
Label: I Voidhanger Records
Websites: |
Release Date: July 17th, 2020

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Anonymous, from the cycle of Cypriot “O” antiphons.
  2. Occitan folk song, translated “I saw the wolf”, with lyrics lamenting the poverty of the working class.
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