I’ve said it before: we love finding gems amongst the post-apocalyptic ruins of the promo bin. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it is glorious. Perhaps the name Lör rings a bell? How about The Reticent? Heck, we can throw King Goat in there as well. All examples of unknown acts whose music blew us away. It’s a big part of why we review albums, to be honest. Sure the 0.5 and 1.0 reviews can be entertaining, but we would much rather have people talking about (and buying) the music rather than the review. Which makes me pretty happy to say I’ve found my latest gem in Birth of the Marvellous, the debut album from the shrouded-in-mystery band Sermon. Birth of the Marvellous is two things: it is a cinematic, epic, progressive metal concept album, and it is a masterpiece1.
Essentially a one-man project, Sermon prefer to remain anonymous for the short term. The concept, songwriting, vocals, and almost all musical performances are provided by our hero. Wise to the fact that not all drums are programmed equal, he opted for a real drummer. Enter Vader’s James Stewart, who absolutely lays waste to the proceedings in every song. Like the drumming—and everything else about the album—the concept is simple yet complex. Spurred on by a terminal cancer diagnosis of Sermon’s father, he was inspired to create an album based on The Wandering Jew folktale, with a couple of twists: here, the wanderer takes to preaching the word of Christ, but eventually searches for a different answer, and finds it in the Max Ehrman poem Desiderata. Like I said, simple yet complex. But don’t be scared off by the presence of theology in this album: Sermon presents this more as a message of equilibrium than religion.
The entire album exudes a sense of mythic proportions, from the lyrics to the instruments chosen. At a concise seven songs and 41 minutes, there is no fat to trim. Each moment of each song is essential to the story. “The Descend” sets a tone that remains throughout: thick guitars and bass juxtaposed against Stewart’s complex drumming, with our hero’s vocals conveying an epic feel, augmented by gang chants on occasion. “Festival” is short and ominous, with deep, reverberating toms and a muted hook, and again with emotional, regal vocals. The most aggressive song is “Contrition,” loaded with double-time drumming and a hammering riff. Its heaviness in an album loaded with Katatonia-like atmosphere and feel is a breath of fresh air amongst other more cerebral and deliberate cuts.
Those songs come in the form of the final trio. “The Preacher” and “The Rise of Desiderata” both exude and amplify the legendary feel of Birth of the Marvellous. Sermon have studied their prog history. The former could be considered the climax of the album, with a stellar, patient arrangement, while the latter brings back earlier lyrics and motifs and reworks them into an immensely satisfying denouement. And the minute in “Chasm” between 2:00 and 3:00 should serve as the ultimate example of a clean, simple, and effective arrangement.
Birth of the Marvellous is an album that has been put together with painstaking care. In the works for six years, Sermon took this album to producer Scott Atkins, who was key to its final sound. Atkins’ work is familiar to us—he produced albums from acts such as Gama Bomb and Cradle of Filth—but this has to be looked upon as his crowning achievement. Every sound, every instrument’s position in the mix, every choice of character in the vocals verges on perfection. While the vocals of Sermon are not the most technically amazing, they possess a definite charisma, whether in the hushed whispers, the Porcupine Tree-like muffled lines, the occasional growls, or the layers of gang vocals that shine a light on the fanaticism of certain parts of the story. Atkins eschews the usual hi-fi bass sound here, instead letting it rumble and throb strongly beneath the layers of guitars and rich Mellotron. There is no fault to find in regards to production.
Really, it’s hard to find any fault here. The seconds of “Festival” between 2:50 and 3:00 ring slightly empty compared to the rest of the song–that’s the only nit I’ve been able to jot down. How do I know Birth of the Marvellous is a fantastic album? In the twelve days prior to penning this review, I’ve played the thing more than thirty times–despite the fact that I’ve got literally dozens of other albums waiting to be played. I keep coming back to it, even when I shouldn’t. What Sermon have created here is nothing short of marvellous. Step aside, Soen: we have a new front-runner for progressive metal AotY.