Despite numerous recommendations from plenty of people smarter than I, reading any Tolkien beyond some excerpts has eluded me. I have nothing against the man or fantasy in general, but tend to get caught up reading other things instead. So perhaps it’s inexperience or a biased understanding of the Lord of the Rings universe by playing Shadow of Mordor almost pathologically when that came out, but in Round Two of reviewing Italy’s Wind Rose I noticed something that wasn’t present in their Wardens of the West Wind success: this sounds like what I’d imagine Middle Earth metal would.
I’m not entirely sure what spurred on this odd and certainly not profound insight, but I can’t escape it. Perhaps it’s more directed towards non-futuristic, almost medieval fantasy worlds in general, but Stonehymn, Wind Rose’s latest, constantly evokes nature, swords, courage in battle, and a lively court and/or an old tavern in my mind. This is likely due to the conscious focus on more folk and less Pyramaze-y power that populated Wardens. This shows in the following ways: first, a much greater focus on vocal harmonies; second, greater emphasis on instruments that aren’t the guitars and bass, such as keys, choirs, flutes and the like; and third, what comes across as a conscious effort to make a soundtrack to a mental picture the band is trying to paint for us instead of a collection of high-quality standalone power metal tunes as Wardens was.
The above goes a long way in explaining why Stonehymn took so long to grow on me, and, unfortunately for my bosses, took me so long to write about. There are still Wintersun similarities here, along with Blind Guardian, but it’s basically all Time I and the most bombastic Night at the Opera and Beyond the Red Mirror types of thing now, and Wind Rose happens to be rather adept at making this style work. “Fallen Timbers” is a lively jaunt that remains engaging and rather thrilling all the way through, even evoking Alestorm with a well-placed accordion bit in its middle1. This is one example of many, as the arrangements here are all, by and large, strong and cohesive. Francesco Cavalieri has also improved his vocal range, adding an additional depth to the songs that may not have been possible on Wardens. Undiluted metal moments, such as the huge but brief melo-death riff that concludes “The Wolves’ Call,” really shine through thanks to the usual avoidance of such things, making them special highlights in their own right.
On first, second, or even third listen, Stonehymn can come across exhausting. Nearly fifty minutes long, it embraces musical maximalism for nearly its entire duration, and has almost no musical emotion save conquest and exuberance. Naturally, this leads to a lack of significant climaxes, because of little buildup overall. Even the breaks in the action, such as those in “The Returning Race,” feature layers of acoustic guitar, keys, and harmonized vocals. This is rich and dense music, and apart from the odd part here or there is enthralling while it’s playing but much harder to recall after the fact. This is not a knock against Wind Rose’s songwriting, but rather pointing out the lamentable but salient observation that nothing truly stands out as exceptional here, nor forces me to hit rewind and replay something phenomenal.
Stonehymn is a different record than Wardens in some crucial ways, but in terms of quality is essentially a side-step for Wind Rose. The band had a worthwhile vision and succeeded in achieving it, and while this vision certainly isn’t for everyone, it’s worth hearing if anything I wrote herein tickled your fancy. This is not a record to be taken in pieces, and requires some time and attention to enjoy. The production is clean, clear, and focuses on the vocals and other instruments, putting the more metallic elements more to the back not unlike Time I. While not possessing the same amount of replay value as Wardens, Stonehymn is an offering of merit that will please its intended audience, which as I gather is people who want a melodic, folky power metal record that has more elements of a soundtrack than a conventional metal album.