Mystras – Empires Vanquished and Dismantled Review

When Mystras’ first outing, Castles Conquered and Reclaimed, dropped last year I expressed some surprise that Ayloss had the capacity to write and release another record, alongside the epic Spectral Lore and Mare Cognitum split, never mind something of the scope of Mystras. Castles paired raw, harsh black metal with traditional medieval folk to offer a scathing and emotive assessment of the poverty, oppression and injustice suffered by medieval European peasants and the sacrifices made to fight back. Scroll forward a year and Mystras is back with their sophomore effort, repeating last year’s feat, as Empires Vanquished and Dismantled follows Spectral Lore’s Ετερόφωτος, which came out in April, receiving caveated praise from Doom_et_Al. I wanted to love Mystras’ debut but it was ‘merely’ a very good record, held back by a slight lack of inspiration in the black metal aspects of the record, which was emphasized by production issues. The folk aspects, however, were masterful and lifted the whole. Has Ayloss addressed those relatively easy-to-fix issues on Empires Vanquished and Dismantled to fully deliver on the promise of this project?

Where Castles dealt with peasant uprisings, on Empires Mystras has upped both the stakes and the scope, moving to tackle the ills of medieval imperialism. This includes a brutal and abrasive two-part take on the capture, and subsequent loss, of Jerusalem by European crusaders on “On the Promises of Angels” and the 14-minute “The Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem,” respectively. Every bit as epic as it should be given the subject matter, Empires also see Ayloss tackle a successful Bulgarian uprising against the Byzantine Empire in the 12th century on “The Favor of the Saints,” with the story of the record told through raw, vicious black metal, while the traditional folk pieces layer on the mood and flavor of the times that Mystras examines.

The harsh tracks on the record remain visceral and organic in their bludgeoning fury but also weave in both more melody and nuance than those on Castles. While the second wave influences are unmistakable, they sit alongside the likes of Paysage d’Hiver and, as the record progresses to “To the Builders!” and closer “In the Company of Heretics,” Fluisteraars and Obsequiae. Ayloss’ vocals are a swirling mix of harsh shrieks, roars and rasps, often double-tracked, as on album highlight “The Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.” While this leaves the tales woven in the lyrics largely unintelligible to the casual listener, it’s effective as a style to convey the bloody chaos of medieval warfare. These furious assaults alternate with the folk pieces, which again feature myriad contributions from traditional musicians, including Stamatis Zafeiropoulos on the Turkish ney (a reed flute). Combined with Matthew Dakoutros’ violin and additional percussion from Dimitris Corax Avgoustinos, the ney serves to give opener “The Nightingale” a Middle Eastern flare that sets up the record perfectly. Indeed, Zafeiropoulos’ ney is the haunting cornerstone for most of the traditional pieces here, as well as the drone-driven “Cheragheh Zolmezalem (Oppression’s Fire).”

Just as on Castles, so here, Mystras keeps the black metal and traditional folk elements of the record largely segregated, rather than trying to weave folk influences into the blackened tumult. This is hugely effective, both in allowing the black metal room to breathe and do its pummelling work but also in fully developing the Arabic and Byzantine atmosphere—as opposed to the medieval European vibe of Castles—that is so crucial to making Empires the huge success that it is. Whether it’s the soaring and warbling vocals of Nina Saeidi on “Cheragheh Zolmezalem (Oppression’s Fire)” combining with what I guess is Ayloss’ own chanting vocals, or the savage intensity of the black metal blasts and tremolos of “On the Promises of Angels,” the whole is brought together exceptionally well. The one slight exception to this is German language piece “Wie Schändlich es ist,” featuring operatic vocals from Carling Chiu. Well performed though it is, it feels somehow out of place against the rest of the record and breaks the rhythm of the piece slightly.

The production on Empires is a marked improvement on that seen on Castles. Again mixed and mastered by Ayloss himself, the sound on show from Mystras here succeeds in allowing the melodies and subtleties to properly shine through the frenzied attacks, like on the stunning “The Favor of the Saints,” without sacrificing the gritty, raw edge that makes it so emotive. While an unmistakable continuation of Castles, both in theme and approach, Empires is also a significant step up. It feels both more complete and more textured, making for a more compelling listen, despite being nearly a quarter of an hour longer and clearing the 60-minute mark. With Empires Vanquished and Dismantled, Mystras has delivered on the promise set out on its debut.

Rating: 4.0/5.0
DR: 10 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: I, Voidhanger Records and Stellar Auditorium Productions
Websites: |
Releases Worldwide: November 5th, 2021

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