Vanden Plas has been a very consistent act in the prog-power scene for over twenty years, releasing album after album of high quality music in the same vein as Anubis Gate, Threshold and early Dream Theater. They always offered plenty of shred, wank and noodle but took pains to keep the music accessible and memorable. Albums like Far Off Grace and Beyond Daylight left quite impression on my iron cranium and they’re yet to disappoint me with a dud album. Due to reasons somewhat beyond our control (we blame all former writers who aren’t here to defend themselves), we missed covering their awfully titled 2014 album, Chronicles of the Immortals: Netherworld Part I. Now that they’ve dropped Part II of this weighty saga, we decided it was time to right our oversight, so now you get a double review of Germanic prog-power. You aren’t especially worthy of such magnanimous benevolence, but we’re such caring and sharing overlords, we can’t help ourselves. Let them eat Plas!
Part I opens with a particularly cheesy narrative similar to that on Manowar‘s “Blood of the Kings” with that same faux-Shakespearean accent metal bands feel compelled to use. Thankfully this is forgotten once “The Black Knight” takes flight in vintage Vanden Plas style with stellar vocals by Andy Kuntz backed by crunchy riffs and tasteful harmonies. This is a classic example of their sound – light on the in-your-face prog tendencies, but strong on melody and hooks with shifting moods and tempos that never feel convoluted. It’s surprisingly easy to digest and enjoy and that’s always been their secret weapon. The same can be said of follow up “Godmaker” with its big vocal hooks and soaring chorus built to accentuate Andy’s clear, smooth vocals. There’s more than a little modern Threshold in their style and it works well for them.
Standout moments also include the beautifully moody excursions of “New Vampyre” where the band channels the better angels of Threshold and Symphony X without losing grip on what makes them who they are. The weeping guitar-work really hits home, and the song’s melancholia is nicely offset by some dexterous instrumentation on the song’s back-end. “Soul Alliance” is also solid with a catchy chorus and a slow build to a strong finish.
There are no bad songs, but some do feel rather languid and there’s an overall energy deficiency which makes the album feel like it’s dragging after a while. The use of short musical interludes like “Misery Affection Prelude” and the choral-orientated, Nightwish-like “A Ghost Requiem” are well-executed but feel like unnecessary fluff, especially with choral segments popping up elsewhere on the album. Likewise, there’s a tendency to dilute good songs by stretching them out too long as with “The King and the Children of Lost World,” which easily could have been trimmed by a minute or two. “Misery Affection” is a soft duet between Andy and Julia Steingass and though it’s quite pretty, it comes across as a tad dull, though it grows with repeat listens.
The key to Vanden Plas‘ appeal for me has always been the powerful vocals of Andy Kuntz, and he delivers in spades across the entire album. He has a rich, engaging voice and knows how to use it maximum advantage. He picks his spots to hit high notes and possesses a natural flair for dramatic phrasing. Without his pipes, this material would be far less impactful and he’s definitely the key to their sound. Stephan Lill is a gifted guitarist who can wank with the best, but generally opts for an understated approach. His solos aren’t the million note spectacles of some progsters, but they’re often more emotional, colorful and meaningful. He usually shares the pyrotechnics with keyboardist Gunter Werno and sometimes steps aside entirely in his favor, and that’s commendable. The entire band shines throughout Pt. I and manage to do what Dream Theater is no longer capable of – writing songs with prog elements that remain contained and constrained.
Pt. I is an enjoyable, interesting album and while more up-tempo, aggressive moments would have made a big difference, it’s still high-quality prog-power with loads of slick musicality to marinate in. That’s what we’ve come to expect from Vanden Plas and they delivered yet again.
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 256 kbps mp3
Chronicles of the Immortals: Netherworld Pt. II
Part II is a continuation of the concepts laid out in its predecessor, but takes a much more ambitious approach. While I enjoyed most of what Pt. I had to offer, the overall lack of energy did wear on me. Pt. II corrects the energy deficit with heavier, more dynamic writing, but it seems in the year-long interval since the first installment, they lost the ability to self-edit their compositions, and this causes a new set of issues.
Things certainly begin well with the very Kamelot-esque symphonic power of opener “In My Universe.” It’s big, bombastic and symphonic, but remains accessible and features an effective, if not overly restrained chorus. I couldn’t shake the feeling there should be more pop in said chorus, but Andy’s vocals insure success despite a segment that inexplicably reminds me of Quiet Riot‘s “Mental Health.” “Godmaker’s Temptation” is even better, with a slick build toward a big payoff at chorus time and a huge Tad Morose vibe. The positive momentum keeps rolling on “Stone Roses Edge” which is much more aggressive and urgent in delivery. Heavy, fist-pumping riffs expertly blend with a great performance from Andy and making it all the better, there’s a strong Fall of the Leafe influence, which I love. This song showcases everything I love about the band in one tasty soundbite and it’s the best of the whole Netherworld saga.
Then things get more convoluted and obscure as the band explores far proggier and less accessible soundscapes on the thirteen minute “Blood of Eden.” It’s actually a very good song with some standout moments (Andy’s much higher than usual vocals shine brightly), but it’s guilty of overstaying it’s welcome when it could have ended at several points (technically known as Lord of the Rings Syndrome). They course-correct with the very linear “Monster” which sports a simple but effective chorus and introduces harsh vocals to shake things up, but this too runs about two minutes too long.
The remainder of Pt. II is a mixed bag. While “Diabolica Comedia” is direct and enjoyable, “Where Have the Children Gone” is a flat, symphonic-laden ballad that grinds things to a halt. It’s the kind of song you want to like more, but don’t and it’s the only skippable track I can recall in recent Plas history. “The Last Fight” is the anthemic powerhouse Pt. I desperately needed and it’s quite gripping, but closer “Circle of the Devil” gets bogged down in a host of overwrought emotions and choral masturbation as it limps to an overdue finish.
At a very bloated hour-and-five minutes, Pt. II partially collapses under the weight of its pretensions. Almost every song could be edited down and be better for it, and by the time the last two tracks arrive, the fact each exceeds seven minutes is the final kick in the teeth for anyone with even a mild case of ADHD. There’s a feeling the band tried too hard on this one, getting bogged down on the size and scope of the project instead of just crafting the best material they could.
All criticism aside, even when off their A game, Vanden Plas is still a formidable beast and there are several great songs here along with a lot of good music. If you have a patient temperament and time to spare, Pt. II may be exactly the prog-power you need to wile away the small hours. Definitely worth investigation, at least for cherry picking purposes, but Pt. I gets the nod for the more consistent album. Here’s hoping they dial things back for Pt. III.