Opera Diabolicus – Death on a Pale Horse Review

I like to think I’m one of Snowy Shaw’s biggest fans. In the old days, I would research the Archives and spend afternoons scouring the local record stores and interwebz for his shit. Though I initially (and not surprisingly) discovered Shaw through King Diamond, I fell in love with Therion, Dream Evil, Memento Mori, Notre Dame, and the one-off, life-changer that is Illwill. I know at one point I had to have heard Opera Diabolicus’ 2012 debut 1614. But maybe not. Regardless, Opera Diabolicus is far more than just Shaw. Back in 2012, gothic, rock-opera masterminds Adrian de Crow and David Grimoire surrounded themselves with the exceptional talents of Shaw, Mats Levén (Therion, Denner/Sherman, ex-Candlemass, and ex-Yngwie Malmsteen), and Niklas Isfeldt (Dream Evil). The debut was a fun journey, but sophomore effort Death on a Pale Horse has even more surprises nine years later.

Along with Shaw and Levén, the band adds some stellar vocals from Madeleine Liljestam (Eleine), Angelina DelCarmen (Charetta), and guitar solos from King Diamond legends Andy LaRocque and Michael Denner. But the backbone of the album is all the other guests. These lesser-known individuals supply the keys, strings, pianos, and organs that make up the record’s core. It’s an unbelievable lineup with a lot of moving parts. But, somehow, the band keeps this chaotic metal opera about “witchcraft, the black death and revenge!” together. Even after dozens of listens, I still don’t know how they did it.

Death on a Pale Horse is all over the place, adding layer after layer to the already endless layers. Yet, it has significant flow and works as a great concept album. After the opener sets the sinister tone of the album, the story begins. And you’re immediately thrown into the absurdity that is “Bring Out Your Dead.” Levén’s theatrical, Jørny vocals intertwine with hit-and-run choirs in the same vein as Therion. The cruising riffs combine with Dimmu Borgir orchestrations, King Diamond organ, slick guitar solos, and head-turning key work. Not only is there the kitchen sink, but you also have the faucet, plumbing, and an ocean’s worth of water. Without a break, “Second Coming” knocks you flat on your ass with Symphony X riffs, Nightwishy female vox, signature LaRocque/Denner solos, and a Candlemass-esque chorus. When you think it’s over, it just keeps going. We’re only three songs and eighteen minutes in, but I’m already exhausted.

With eight tracks remaining, the back-to-back-to-back “Darkest Doom of the Brightest of Days,” “A Song of Detestation,” and “Little Sister” give you a taste of everything you can expect on the album. The backbone of “Darkest Doom of the Brightest of Days” is the driving King Diamond riffage and vocals. Levén, the song’s harsh vocals, and the booming choir spend the first half fighting for dominance. The chugging riffs and melodies climb higher and higher as Levén breaks free and soars with endless passion before the song finally gives way to soothing acoustic guitars. “A Song of Detestation” is a complete one-eighty to its predecessor. Shaw takes the lead and the guitars, drums, and choirs hit like a ten-ton hammer. After some interesting violin work and a goofy keyboard solo, the riff returns, and the male/female duet brings us to a close. “Little Sister” is the shortest and most beautiful of the lot. And, somehow, it’s another one-eighty that doesn’t complete the circle. The acoustic guitars, piano, violin, and male/female vocals are simply perfect. The lyrics, though, might find you struggling to see the beauty in the horror.1

Unfortunately, I need 1,200 words to tell you how much I love this album. But no one wants to read that. Instead, I’ll say Death on a Pale Horse squashes their debut. And, while the vocals and atmospheres are center stage, the riffs are massive and satisfyingly headbangable.2 As I’ve said before, the worst part about concept albums is their lack of songwriting and storytelling cohesion. Death on a Pale Horse doesn’t have this problem. The album might be a touch too long, but each song plays its proper role in this crazy journey. The vocal approach, the intensity, and the beauty of the album coincide perfectly with the sinister story. If this thing were a turkey, it’d be big enough to feed the lot of you.

Rating: 4.0/5.0
DR: 5 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Season of Mist
Websites: operadiabolicus.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/opera.diabolicus
Releases Worldwide: November 26th, 2021

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Muhahahhaha…
  2. If no one told me what this was, I’d assumed Michael Denner and Hank Sherman wrote the riffs in “Night Demon” and “At Nighttime.”
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