Winterhorde is why labels want bands to release every two years. Back in September of 2010, I reviewed the band’s album Underwatermoon and really enjoyed their well-composed, interesting melodic black metal. My only complaint was that the lyrical tropes felt a little paint-by-numbers coming from an Israeli band; but the music was incisive and gripping. That was, however, six years ago. In that time Winterhorde got signed by Sweden’s ViciSolum Productions—moving on from being the only good band on their previous label’s roster—turned over four members of their band, have continued to develop their sound. I also managed to forget that they exist in the rush of my everyday life, which is why putting out a new album every six years is probably a bad strategy.
But, if you’re going to only put out a new album every six years Maestro is the kind of payoff that justifies the wait. As a whole, Maestro is complete. At 65 minutes—probably an appropriate length after a six year wait, but still in the danger zone—the album flows smoothly. Winterhorde combines a variety of sounds to make their sound work and which they execute expertly. Blasty melodic black metal is the backbone upon which the band’s sound is built, but they are far from limited. Melodic and classic metal, as well as orchestral influences, build the broad boundaries of Winterhorde‘s sound. Unique, but also familiar, combinations help pace Maestro, and the album is a gratifying listen.
The album’s first real song—”Antipath”—sets the stage for the entire album. Starting with a lonely violin over acoustic guitars, it gives way to rising orchestration and guitar-driven melodies, buttressed by blast beats. These contrasts define Maestro and make for its most engaging moments. “Cold” may start with a noir-inspired saxophone, but it gives way to a blast-heavy wall of sound on the back end. “Worms of Soul” borrows a page from Behemoth‘s playbook with horn-heavy orchestrations leading the charge only to give to a mid-paced groove and eerie female operatics. “They Came with Eyes of Fire” starts off with 10 seconds of acoustic work drawing from the same influences as fellow Israelis Orphaned Land before exploding into blasts. Yet while Winterhorde is always able to slow things down, bridging the heavy and the soft, they still leave the impression that Maestro is an unquestionably heavy album.
I point this out because while Maestro is a heavy album, it’s also a very diverse album. “Through the Broken Mirror” proffers a jazz feel and a waft of the 1970s. “Cold” gives a nod toward the sad land of Finnish melodic death metal, while “Dancing in Flames” features an Arcturus feel à la “The Chaos Path” and NWoBHM guitars. The 11:30 “The Heart of Coryphee” is probably the album’s finest moment, featuring the minimal, the epic, the beautiful, and the heavy all in the boundaries of one exquisitely composed track.
What’s interesting abound bands like Winterhorde is that despite obvious musical talent, the way they write relegates the musicians to gears in a well-oiled machine. With seven members—four of whom were added in 2014—Maestro lives up to its title, characterized by an orchestral feel. While guitarists Stoller and Naveh are good, they rarely flash. With a crushed master, it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate Sascha Latman’s bass in the mix and the drums sound like you’d expect them to: good, but not astounding.1 In fact, the most obviously notable of the performances is Z. Winter’s vocals, which carry the epic choruses on the strength of his cleans. While he’s not a highly dynamic vocalist, he is definitely a good one and his cleans elevate Maestro in comparison to Underwatermoon.
Maestro‘s only weakness is its production. While Winterhorde is dynamic, engaging, and uses a range of sounds and volumes, the combined work of V. Santura’s mix and Jens Bogren’s mastering job delivers something surprisingly flat. Because the music is so engaging, I continually return to the album. But every time I hear Maestro I wonder at the irony that such a dynamic band—who begs for a generous dynamic range due to the textures of the orchestra samples and the seven musicians—should be relegated to such a heavily compressed master. The power of a choir and the pummeling of baritone toms should rumble, but alas, it all feels a bit hollow.
Like with the batch of recent melodic black and death metal bands I’ve been reviewing lately, Winterhorde has a sound which excites me. For so long these scenes have been stagnant. Melodeath responded to its loss of status by getting depressed and staying home on Friday nights thinking about suicide, but melodic black metal disappeared. With this raft of great records that have been popping up lately, I feel a hope that maybe we’re finally turning the corner. Then again, “hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man,” so… y’know. You should probably just buy this album and enjoy it while it lasts.