Twilight Force – At the Heart of Wintervale Review

Twilight Force’s Dawn of the Dragonstar should have been on my 2019 year-end list. Hell, I should have at least written a Things You Might Have Missed piece on it. Yet in retrospect, at the time, the prospect of fully embracing Twilight Force was borderline embarrassing, even for me. Their preceding record, the exceptionally titled Heroes of Mighty Magic, cast a forward shadow over my impressions of the band. Heroes was a hugely divisive monolith of blindingly glossy symphonic power metal, so overproduced and oversugared that it makes Fellowship’s iconic The Saberlight Chronicles sound like Immolation by comparison. Yet over the years, Dawn of the Dragonstar prevailed, winning me over to the point where I consider it one of the genre’s best in recent times. Its follow-up, At the Heart of Wintervale, doesn’t quite reach its predecessor’s heights. Yet it fulfills the grandiose promise of its own incredible cover art all the same, making it unmissable for power metal fans.

One of the best things to be said for Twilight Force is that each subsequent record tinkers with their formula in meaningful ways, and Wintervale is no exception. This album feels, on average, slower and more experimental than its predecessors, though no less bombastic and flamboyant. Opening with the eponymous “Twilight Force,” Twilight Force reveals a side that’s closer to Gamma Ray and Helloween than [Luca Turilli’s] Rhapsody [of Fire], although its chorus is eager to indulge in the same swells of symphonic grandeur that have always defined the band. “Dragonborn” tempers energy levels further to conjure something that feels like Avantasia performing a jaunty medieval jig, and is wholly unique within the band’s catalog. Even “Sunlight Knight,” which could have been standard Twilight Force fare, is injected with a kinetic video game vibe and a delightful break of instrumental calypso music, plus a hilariously excessive climax. Ultimately, Wintervale triumphs through confidence and regularly experimenting with novel ideas while staying true to the core tenets of Twilight Force’s identity.

Of course, no Twilight Force record is complete without an excellent ten-plus minute epic, and “Highlands of the Elder Dragon” is as good as any in their repertoire. It’s not quite as transcendent as “Blade of Immortal Steel” (which might just be my favorite long-form power metal track), but it’s pretty close. In keeping with Wintervale’s commitment to trying new things, it is also the most dynamic track the band has ever written, punctuated by piano and choral breaks, plus a handful of clever time signature changes. Conversely, the album’s other long-form track, “The Last Crystal Bearer,” is easily the band’s worst. It abandons Twilight Force’s instrumental strengths for an awkward narrative focus, putting its full weight into storytelling and symphonics, resulting in a final product bereft of excitement. I would have absolutely scored Wintervale higher, if not for this one weird track.

At the Heart of Wintervale emphasizes high-flying speed less than its predecessors, and while I miss the band’s sheer DragonForce-esque velocity, the embellishments of new drummer Isak Olsson ensure the proceedings are anything but boring. Olsson’s playing is technical and bursting with personality, but more importantly, this guy drops blastbeats all over this record. Hell, “Skyknights of Aldaria” is so dependent on blastbeats and tremolo riffs, that swaths of this song could easily be rearranged into a legitimate piece of symphonic black metal. Otherwise, the performances are excellent as ever, with Alessandro Conti further proving that he is far more than a mere replacement for ex-vocalist Christian Eriksson, and Philip Lindh continuing to provide some of the most creative solos in all of power metal.

With At the Heart of Wintervale, Twilight Force reveals a clear hunger to iterate on their unmistakable sound, without ever once betraying what made it so endearing in the first place. Between this album’s adventurous spirit and vastly improved mixing and overall production, I have never been more confident in the future of this band. I hold a latent worry that future Twilight Force records may trend towards the failures of “The Last Crystal Bearer,” but discounting that track, At the Heart of Wintervale might just be the band’s finest effort to date. Hell, who am I kidding; even with that song, it might still end up being my favorite power metal record of 2023. Just buy the damn thing and allow yourself to embrace unfettered joy in a way only Twilight Force can provide.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: V0 mp3
Label: Nuclear Blast
Websites: |
Releases Worldwide: January 20th, 2023

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