What do you get when you take equal parts O(ld)peth, Rush and Devin Townsend, chuck it all in a cosmic blender and turn it on? The correct reply is ‘a throbbing erection,’ but second place goes to upstarts The Thirteenth Sun, set to release their debut full-length 5 years in the making. Though a relatively new band, the members are all experienced musicians, and with a debut like this, the Romanian quintet is bound to make a formidable crater when Stardust hits the shelves. It’s a fantastic slab of progressive music, a coarse blend of dreamy space-rock, grand and sweeping theatricality, and pounding sections of proggy death.
The opening hat-trick is the strongest part of the album, each track displaying the band’s knack for slowly climbing from laid back space-rock into a grand prog-metal cataclysm. “Universus” starts off with a quiet, bass-led air of mystery, with vocalist Rada’s warm voice guiding the song slowly into heavier territory. When the track is let off the reins halfway through, he evokes the gruff operaticism of Devin Townsend in a lofty cosmic display. “Pathways” follows in equal fashion, creating an intentional lull in a Rush-like manner before battering with tremolo riffing and pummeling double bass. Rada surprises on “Planes of Creation” with a fantastic åkergrowl, layering the music further and adding diversity to the vocals.
While the rest of the album isn’t quite as powerful as the opening trio, there is plenty of great material left, from the epic assault of “Universe is Burning,” via the ominous “Melting Skies,” to “Fabric of Time,” which features a few quieter passages that remind me of Subterranean Masquerade. These tracks are lengthier than the others and eschew the linear buildup template, making them harder to digest, so they take a little longer to grow.
With no choruses to speak of, it’s a task to remain consistently engaging, but the songwriting on Stardust is an absolute triumph in both length and breadth. Though the individual sections in each song are fairly simple, their arrangement make them all a journey. Nothing feels out of place, yet the album does not lack in twists and surprises. The layering is also superb, with synths evoking a spacey atmosphere that reminds me of King Goat, without going overboard with an 80’s style. Although the various instrumental layers fit together so well in the composition that separating them is a sin, I still have to give extra credit to drummer Septimiu Harsan (Pestilence et al) who switches between fast and technical one second, to slow yet diverse and evocative the next.
My prose is becoming sufficiently moist to water a football field, but it’s not a completely flawless album. The simplicity of the different track sections can bore a little when weaker strands go on too long, such as the near-silent midsection on “Universe is Burning.” This is largely negated by the strength of the rest of the material, however, because by the time you feel like something starts taking too long, it’s already in the past, and due to the progressive structure it never returns. The only true letdown is closing instrumental “Glowing Sun,” which misses any sense of development and feels included merely to prolong the end of the album. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t add anything, and because of its placement the album fades like a white dwarf star, rather than going out with a supernova.
However, this single mark has another merit to compete with. Stardust is infused with a wonderfully balanced and dynamic production. The sound is rich and open, avoiding the kind of suffocation many bands struggle with when aiming for a glorious operatic sound. The bass is present from the first second to the last with punch and clarity, even during the heavier sections. I doubt it’s possible to perfect the mix further: if anything, the vocals may be a tad forward, but the instruments sacrifice nothing and the lower position of the keys and synths allow them to influence the sound without overpowering it.
The Thirteenth Sun created one hell of a debut with Stardust. It’s easy to listen to since it’s not overly technical, but the superb arrangements drag you in like a black hole and keep you in orbit, hitting play again as soon as it’s over. The lukewarm finale is a minor smudge, but it does little to diminish the shine of one of my favorite albums this year so far. If only hardcore technical ability gets your panties dripping, you may consider this boring, but if you love great progressive compositions, don’t miss out on this.