Paranorm – Empyrean Review

I still remember the day that I purchased Death‘s Symbolic. As a fairly late adopter of heavy metal at the over-ripe age of 20, I spent the first five or so years of my metal life diving into some of the genre’s seminal discographies. The classic periods of Maiden, Priest, Metallica, and Megadeth served as the core of my curriculum, and as I studied the map of metal evolution, all roads forward seemed to lead me straight to Death. By the time I purchased Symbolic, Chuck was long gone, and I felt an almost mythical weight upon me as I began to explore his work. The quintessential example of how a record can be technical and progressive without ever devolving into overwrought complexity, Symbolic is without a doubt one of the most perfect achievements in the history of music. So why the hell am I talking about a record that turns 26 next month when I should be talking about up-and-coming Swedish thrash band Paranorm and their debut album Empyrean? I don’t know, but let’s find out together.

This may be their debut full-length, but Uppsala’s Paranorm are no spring chickens in the thrash game. According to legend — and the band’s social media accounts — Paranorm was formed by three high school friends on a hot summer night in 2007 to the sound of Megadeth‘s Rust in Peace blasting from the stereo. After an initial run of a demo and a couple EPs, the band has been quiet for the last seven years. What could they possibly have been doing during such a long break from writing? If Empyrean is any indication, they spent the time searching for, discovering, and studying some powerful relic that confers ancient, arcane knowledge of the five magics of metal mastery, because this record is a progressive thrash metal monster. Yes, there will be those who shout Vektor as a primary reference here, but to my ears, Empyrean finds Paranorm channeling Rust in Peace, Master of Puppets, and Symbolic as they weave a tapestry of thoughtful, brilliant violence.

Lead single and album opener “Critical Mass” doesn’t waste any time letting you know that Paranorm will take no prisoners on Empyrean. The intro riff reveals the record’s to-die-for guitar tone, and lead guitarist Fredrik Kjellgren fires off a snappy shred solo before the first verse arrives and rhythm guitarist and vocalist Markus Hiltunen drops in with a growl that straddles the line between death and black metal. That verse is immediately followed by a short but breathtaking riff that bathes in the transcendent glory of Chuck Schuldiner, and the main riff reveals Paranorm‘s tendency to bolster their thrash sound with a touch of Swedish melodeath. The song packs an impressive amount of technical skill into a mere five minutes, but it never loses its identity as a fucking thrash track. It’s a microcosm of the universe that is Empyrean, a record that throws so much at you that you can’t possibly absorb a quarter of it on the first spin, but also comes loaded with enough groove and melody to be immediately accessible.

Each and every track found on Empyrean is a raging banger. “Immortal Generation” questions the impact of technology on the human condition with intricate high string riffs and some of the most beautiful leads I’ve ever heard, “Cannibal” runs on pure, uncut Megadeth riff power, and “Intelligence Explosion” is an impossibly fast tornado of souls with an excellent Iron Maiden-style harmonized lead section — and these are just some of the shorter songs. The longer tracks are where the magic really happens, Lucretia. “Edge of the Horizon” begins with a lone acoustic guitar that builds to a brief flamenco fever before the electricity comes back on for a melodic flourish, leading to the arrival of an absolutely filthy “Disposable Heroes” riff that carries us off on a journey rife with guitar histrionics. The epic title track and “Desolate Worlds (Distant Dimensions)” both feature frantic rhythms but dial up the emotive melodicism with majestic middle sections. Some might complain that Hiltunen’s vocal delivery is a bit one-dimensional, but these songs already have a lot going on. I find the vocals perfectly suit the style and actually ground me to the songs while the guitars are off going bonkers. In the end, Hiltunen and Kjellgren fill eight tracks and 54 minutes with riffs and leads that remind me of Hetfield, Schuldiner, Mustaine, and Friedman. To put it simply, these guys are a god-tier guitar duo.

So why did I spend the entire introduction to this review talking about a Death album? Because listening to Empyrean reminds me of the way I felt as I unpacked Symbolic over the weeks and months after I got it. Thanks to its strong influences, I get a wonderful sense of nostalgia while listening to this record, but after two dozen spins, it still makes me feel as if I’ve never heard anything quite like it. Paranorm makes thinking-person’s metal, but holy wars, Batman, it’ll still give you the punishment for which you’re undoubtedly due.

Rating: 4.5/5.0
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Redefining Darkness Records
Websites: |
Releases Worldwide: February 26th, 2021

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