Olórin – Through Shadow and Flame Review

I’ve never made it a secret that I’m a die-hard Tolkien fan. If there were any doubts about that, you need look no further than my moniker and my avatar, both of which pay homage to Finrod Felegund, the elf king of Nargothrond (easy, ladies). While I like to think of myself as simply wise in the lore of the Elder Days, fellow AMG reviewer and good friend Doc Grier tends to prefer terms like “nerd” and “worthless” and “please stop.” It’s no surprise, then, that the first full-length release from Olórin (taken from the wizard Gandalf’s original Maia name) would set my Hobbit-loving heart all aflutter. Billing themselves as “LotR Doom” and entering the fray after a decade of EPs and demos with a Tolkien-inspired concept album entitled Through Shadow and Flame, it would seem these Istari from Illinois know exactly what it takes to grab my attention. But was I as captivated by this album as Beren when he first beheld Lúthien? Or was I left more bitter than Túrin Turambar?

Through Shadow and Flame is a concept album based on the epic battle between Gandalf the Gray and the demonic Balrog, kicking off on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm deep within the mines of Moria. For those unfamiliar with the books, this is the scene in “The Fellowship of the Ring” that spawned all those “You Shall Not Pass” memes. Beginning with the wizard’s fall into the abyss in album opener “Black Chasm” and culminating with his death and rebirth in the final track “The White Rider,” Through Shadow and Flame explores a simple but grandiose story; one with all the classic sword and sorcery hallmarks that lend themselves to an epic doom masterpiece. Unfortunately, Olórin are unable to reach those lofty heights due to an immediate and unfortunate issue: vocals that even Maglor the minstrel couldn’t save. 

It’s difficult to make the case that an entire album of serviceable doom is derailed by a vocal performance, but that’s the unenviable position I find myself in after multiple spins of Through Shadow and Flame. This issue is apparent from the very first track, when vocalist Clay Sibley launches into his inaugural wail. Whether from lack of preparation, training or skill, Sibley’s flat, wince-inducing voice takes you out of the immersive world Olórin try to create. Sometimes, an off-key vocal delivery can create a truly powerful moment, reinforcing a specific emotion and emphasizing the essential humanity of the singer. That isn’t the case on The Shadow and Flame, where the unsure, warbling vocals seem less like a stylistic choice and more an unfortunate reality the instruments are trying hard to work around. While this is a recurring problem throughout, it’s worse on certain songs. The rough, powerless delivery of the line “flames of red!” on second track “Descension” and Sibley’s unsteady, struggling-to-keep-up feel on the otherwise effectively eerie “Ringwe” are some of the worst offenses. An album dedicated to a fiery battle between a demi-god and an ancient monster should feel appropriately epic. But even backed by the heft of solid playing, the vocals take every ounce of “epic” out of “epic doom”.

Singing aside, Olórin can produce some genuinely engaging music. There are some really catchy riffs on display here, with plenty of ear-worms and hooks to spare. Opener “Black Chasm” works hard to get you pumped for the unfolding battle, and the musical performances on “The Endless Stair” paint an effective picture of two exhausted enemies battling their way to the top of a desolate mountain. “Durin’s Tower” picks up the chugging, doomy energy as the fight draws to a bloody conclusion, and closer “The White Rider” would make for a triumphant finale if it weren’t for the vocals and a double bass mix that functions more as the disorienting musical equivalent of a strobe light.

It feels harsh to give an album a low score based primarily on poor vocal delivery. I went into Olórin’s latest excited for a doom-laden exploration of my favorite fictional world, and came away a disappointed nerd. Sadly, effective riffs, book-accurate lyrics and Kevin Hester’s heroic drumming can’t save Through Shadow and Flame. It seems serendipitous that the aforementioned Túrin Turambar’s last name means “Master of Doom” in Quenya. Because while I’m holding out hope for future improvement, as of right now, I see no doom mastery. 

Rating: 2.0/5.0
DR: 10 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Rafchild Records
Websites: olorin.bandcamp.comfacebook.com/OlorinDoom
Releases Worldwide: June 29th, 2021

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