Album Reviews

Vanden Plas – Chronicles of the Immortals: Netherworld II

Vanden Plas.  This German band’s name has long been synonymous with well-crafted progressive metal for at least two decades.  As has been their trend, especially in the last decade or so, Vanden Plas has been taking the theatrical concept-album route of epic albums with over-arching themes rather than their more independently crafted songs on their earlier albums.  As their musical theater life and their progressive metal band identities continue to merge, both become fertile ground for the other’s inspiration, and in this case, this album captures – and even goes beyond – what was experienced first on the stage.  Now as they foray into their eighth studio full-length studio release, they have pulled out all the stops in creating this ambitious double album chronicle of its own.  Chronicles of the Immortals:  Netherworld, Part II is essentially a second album follow-up to their prior 2014 release, Chronicles of the Immortals:  Netherworld, Path I, and finishes up the storyline of protagonist Andrej Delany, the main character from the acclaimed series Die Chronik der Unsterblichen (The Chronicles of the Immortals) by best-selling German author Wolfgang Hohlbein.  Their collaboration started before either of these last two albums were produced when Hohlbein, a fan of Vanden Plas, approached them to see if they would be interested in creating a rock opera of his book series for the stage.  That idea created the sold-out play Blutnacht (Bloodnight) that they wrote and performed in their hometown of Kaiserlautern at the Pfalztheater during the 2012-2013 season.  After their successful 25-show run, the group went into the studio to document their musical the Vanden Plas way with even more complex arrangements and fleshed out lyrics and storyline.  With one of the most consistent lineups in any band’s history, they are again helmed by Andy Kuntz on vocals, Stephan Lill on guitar, Gunter Werno on keyboards, Torsten Reichert on bass, and Andreas Lill on drums.  This album’s tracks contain visions eleven through nineteen, and includes over an hour of music as well as the longest song ever recorded to date by Vanden Plas.

The first track continues the story from where Path I left off, entitled Vision 11even – In My Universe.  It opens with plucked strings with a build first from a brass ensemble and then the unmistakable hard-hitting entry from the band for a powerful intro to both the song and the album.  The first verse enters as the band backs off to a more easy, bluesy style.  The heavier metal style, however, returns as it builds from the bridge and enters into the chorus, which remains heavy but remains somewhat easygoing in the vocals as they soar over the more punctuated guitar rhythms. The second verse resumes again as the first, and continues the pattern of picking up with a much heavier bridge and chorus, though in this second chorus, there is a greater presence of the supporting choir vocals.  Followed by the instrumental interlude led with a melodic guitar solo skillfully played by Lill, it continues the same rhythmic and chord undergirdings as the choruses, and shifts back and forth between the more lilting 6/8 and more regimented 3/4 beat.  Following this 30-second solo section, the instrumentation drops to a new channel with more orchestral instrumentation where sounds from percussion, bassoons, bells, strings, and piano take over the new melody.  This new portion of the song is very appealing and is my favorite part of the whole track with its smooth rhyming and clever lyrics sung so effortlessly by Kuntz and again supported by choral vocals. It has a classical feel with a slight melancholy jazz quality to it.  As it continues in the same vocal form, the instrumentation gives way from the more orchestral style back to the band’s formidable presence as the sinister lyrics continue in the unusually effective waltzy tempo. It effortlessly segues into a reprise of the second half of the chorus returns with a soaring finale note from Kuntz’s high tenor as the opening riff again closes the song, providing a rousing introductory number for the album.

Vision 12elve – Godmaker’s Temptation is a kind of sister song to Vision 3hree – Godmaker from the first album, and shares mirrored wording that helps to keep them connected together lyrically as well as musically with lines such as “Stay by my side, may adored one,” heard in Godmaker, and “Come with me my friend, stay by my side” heard in this one.  This song leaves the lilting feel of the previous track’s time signature and is in a straightforward 4/4 beat and is a forthright song that isn’t one of the more flashy tracks on the album but is solid.  It starts off fairly delicately, with some faint effects with the synth and a few strings and the vocals wispily enter with a relatively happy melody line.  After this brief 40-second introduction, things start picking up with plucked strings, the advance of some martial snare and guitar-led melody to begin the heavier tone to the song.  The first verse lays back a little with a more bass-driven accompaniment to the smooth vocal lines of the verse and into the bridge, but it builds up quite significantly into the more rousing chorus that has some fantastic harmonies to go along with the vocal melodies.  This style repeats again through a second verse with some additional vocal effects in the second bridge that return to usual in the second chorus, which leads into the guitar-led interlude that leads into the return of the chorus.  However, this time it drops to vocals only with a change in the vocals where, rather than singing melody and harmony, Kuntz sings the melody in the usual octave but parallels it also in a lower octave much deeper than his usual fare, creating a nice layered effect.  It also sets it up for a grand re-entrance of the band in full-force with a couple more reprises of the chorus until the song descends into a kind of dissonant, controlled-chaotic ending that comes to an abrupt conclusion.

The third track, Vision 13teen – Stone Roses Edge, is a song in particular on the album that epitomizes the sound that shows Vanden Plas’ maintaining a contemporary relevance in their musical progress but still retains some of their old school qualities that makes them who they are.  This song is something that would belong comfortably in their Christ0 – or even Beyond Daylight – era sound, yet it doesn’t sound dated; rather, it lends itself to keeping the music grounded in the unique Vanden Plas sound.  It begins quite ethereally with piano and synths only and echoic vocals as a prelude until the full band enters with gusto about 45 seconds in.  Chugging along at a rather brisk vivace tempo that immediately pulls the listener in, this track wastes no time in establishing the heaviness inherent in this tune.  The bridges between the verses and choruses drops a bit instrumentally to drums, bass, acoustic guitar, and vocals only, but the tempo never slows and the power of the song seamlessly resumes entering the powerful choruses.  The instrumental interlude is driven with prominent keyboard solos handled eloquently by Günter, which hand off to a melodic yet shredding guitar solo played effortlessly by Stephan.  After the instrumental interlude the song takes a different direction.  There is a musical channel that keeps the tempo but is played in a more suspended style with lighter instrumentation, which then morphs into a brief section that is like one of the signature Vanden Plas’ easy-going “lounge” moments with light, almost jazzy, drums, piano, and wispy vocals that ease the listener’s guard right before punching back into the chugging chorus.  The song ends with parallel parts played on keyboard and guitar at an equally mind-blowing rate, building up into the abrupt finale to this very groove-driven song.

Vision 14teen – Blood of Eden is the longest song on the album – and the longest in Vanden Plas recording history thus far – at 13:17 long.  It is divided into 3 subtitles – All Love Must Die, The  Rite, and  This is the Night.  It is essentially a medley of three songs but they weave so seamlessly together that it still comes across like one long track.  It starts off tenderly with a piano and cello opener as the vocals soon enter for the first verse with an increase in strings and building of the band’s entry going into the bridge.  Guest vocalist Julia Steingass joins Kuntz at the end of the bridge and the chorus in a duet, fading out as the second verse commences but returning again for the second bridge and following choruses.  The intensity of the music continues to build to become more band-focused and less orchestral at the chorus reprises again for a third time, though it still remains a fairly easy-going piece.  As the last chorus ends around the five-minute mark, the instrumentation drops down to an eerie segue of piano, strings, and chimes…and then with a timpani roll, the keyboards come in with speedy riff as the rest of the band enters with a more aggressive stance for a lengthy instrumental segue into the second motif of The Rite.  The verse of this portion has a strong blues/jazz influence while still remaining steadfastly melodic metal.  As it builds up, the next stanza’s music stops like a grand pause, and drops suddenly to only vocals and a light accompaniment by piano, bass, and percussion with some synth effects, although going into the chorus, the aggressive style returns.  However, as per Vanden Plas’ typical dichotomous style, the song shifts yet again to a delicately sung vocal in stark contrast to the previously heavier approach as the instruments suddenly drop out except piano, and incorporates some smooth harmonies that are almost like a countermelody to the main vocal line in the second half of the stanza.  The instrumental interlude begins with a guitar and keyboard solos based on the main chorus riff with choir vocals in the background.  Again, the song fades to primarily piano and vocals with guitar accents, but then builds up again with powerfully delivered vocals with the return of the more aggressively played theme of the song that segues into another lengthy instrumental solo segment featuring both piano/synth and guitar with a very defined rhythmic ending that only adds to the epicness of the song.  One of the fantastic parts about this song, especially in this portion, is the inclusion of 4 different languages – German, French, Italian, and English – presenting the challenge of sometimes changing languages line to line or even within one phrase, yet sung effortlessly between them by Kuntz. After this strong ending, another ominous piano and string segue commences into the final subsong around the 12-minute mark.  The chorus motif from All Love Must Die returns again in the short third segment that is This Is the Night, though the lyrics are different in this 5-line chorus in which Steingass‘s vocals return and the song ends with the same piano line as in the introduction to Blood of Eden, like a finale reprise in this track that is a mini-musical in and of itself.

Vision 15teen – Monster is a song of many layers. First of all, this song cleverly connects to Vision 2wo – The Black Knight from the first album, where there was a foreshadowing of the lyrics and melody in that song that become the main chorus of this heavier, more aggressive piece. Whereas the faint choral voices at the end of The Black Knight ethereally sing “I am a monster/ I am a saint/ I am a monster/ I am a vampyre,” the chorus of Monster brings it to the fore in question form, as Kuntz himself sings “Are you a monster? Are you a saint? Some kind of vampyre?  Monster! Monster!”  Not only that, this song also weaves connections to Vision 1ne, where the lyrics and vocal lines are nearly identical to the sung portion of the very first song of this rock opera, where it starts off “There’s a fleck on my soul, and it forces me to find something inside of me that I cannot deny” and ends with “that’s the price I will pay;” in Monster, the verse starts with “There’s a fleck on my soul, and it forces me to lie; something’s inside of me that I cannot deny” and ends with “Any price I would pay….”  Though remaining melodic, this song has a more raw and compelling nature to it than some of the other pieces.  This can be seen most evidently in that this track also connotes another “first” for a Vanden Plas track in their history:  dirty vocals.  For the first time ever, there are growls on the lyrics “Monster” during the chorus, spoken by Falk Leidemer.  Now, one should not fear that Vanden Plas is turning into a death metal or “screamo” band, since this vocal style was included for a very specific purpose.  It was quite apropos for this song, especially on the one lyric it is chosen to be spoken on actually helps to set the tone for the topic of the song more effectively.  Another interesting note is that the beginning of the chorus seems unusually upbeat in the melody before starting to dig into the latter half of the chorus with the more aggressive vocals and darker tone of the song as a whole, again showing the prowess in dichotomies for which Vanden Plas is well-known to piece together and make work in some mystical way.  This song gives us more insight into the protagonist, and is yet another musical and emotional roller coaster that the band has effectively taken us on.

The sixth song is Vision 16teen – Diabolica Comedia, and starts off with a tinkling piano introduction, which splashes into an energetic orchestral-band opening, dropping to piano only with some eventual support from bass and drums playing the main melodic motif of the song in a slow, waltzy 3/4 time.  This diverse introduction continues for about a minute and a half into the song before the vocals for the first verse begins.  The instrumentation is light and complementary to the vocal lines, but it does have a strong bass drive to it, moving it forward while maintaining a lightness at the same time.  However, the lightness begins to dissipate entering into the bridge and chorus that build with stronger instrumentation and layered vocals, after which the song enters into a brief instrumental segue into the next verse/bridge/chorus cycle.  The first lengthy instrumental interlude follows the second chorus featuring Werno on keyboards that sounds very guitar-like, and as it echoes into the last note of the solo, the soft piano enters again to usher in a third bridge that continues into the first part of the chorus that paves the way into the second lengthy instrumental interlude, this time featuring Lill on guitar.  A reprise of the chorus twice more resumes after this solo, complete with additional choir vocals, for a fitting finale that ends again on the main countermelodies features throughout the song.  This song is somewhat more repetitive than the other tracks, but provides enough variation throughout that it still seems balanced and not too drawn out as it could have been.

Vision 17teen – Where Have the Children Gone is a track that seems to be a mirror to the seventh track from the first album, Vision 7even – The King and The Children of Lost World.  This track, however, is at a more relaxed largo tempo.  It begins with a fairly short introduction with cello and piano, and begins with the first verse without much adieu.  It remains fairly innocuous without percussion, focusing mostly with piano, arpeggiated guitar, and a light traveling bassline.  However, the song picks up girth at the chorus with a much crunchier and chunkier approach that has more immediacy in the tone.  Things scale down again entering the second verse, back into the more easygoing style with smooth vocals and the inclusion of light percussion the second time around.  The chorus again rebounds with much more driving force and then segues into a channel that keeps the same measured 4/4 tempo, but the feel of the song really changes here, with emphasis on both slow and fast triplets (slower in the deliberate guitar rhythms and fast triplets in the kick drum) while the vocals parallel this shift and are sung with more urgency.  The guitar-led instrumental break soon follows, and the familiar chorus then returns.  The vocal layering, during the choruses especially, are a real audible treat as the song’s finale fades out from the last triumphant note sung for an admirable 12 seconds with an eventual ritard of the heavier rhythms to close it out.

With a cinematically ominous beginning, Vision 18teen – The Last Fight continues the tale of the arrival of Delany‘s final battle.  (Hear in the video below)  After this music sets the ominious stage to the song, the band bursts upon the scene with their powerful intro, fading down into the beginning of the first verse.  Delivered smoothly by Kuntz, the effortless connection between lines soon give way to a choral interlude that builds into the chorus.  Complete with lush vocals and a driving 16th note beat from Lill‘s kick drum especially dominates this soaring chorus in a solid, supportive rhythm.  After a more aggressive segue into verse two, it again returns to a lower intensity than the chorus, but builds sooner and quite easily into the memorable chorus for a second time.  A second chorus continues in the same vein as the original first chorus, and then appears a middle channel to the song that alternates with keyboard-led instrumental portions with the choir singing the fate of protagonist Delany, stating that he will “die here, you will die here” in a few rounds before a new instrumental section that changes style and even shifts into a 3/4 time signature that becomes more whimsical as it continues.  Shortly after, the song returns a tempo in its original 4/4 time again, and the featured guitar interlude continues with a beautifully melodic solo.  After the more aggressive segue motif with featured keyboards, the chorus resumes with a second, slightly changed chorus that follows in a more suspended style before ending the song with the much more aggressive and driving riff that shows itself occasionally throughout the track.  Again, this song follows typical Vanden Plas style of changing time signatures, varying dynamic levels – drastically at times, and modifying styles and approaches throughout the song, weaving all of it intricately together.

With the musical theater provenance of these last two albums, it is no surprise that this last song is a very fitting finale to the whole Chronicles of the Immortals saga.  Vision 19teen – Circle of the Devil expertly weaves motifs from the first album throughout this piece, and is more than just a medley of past pieces in this series.  New lyrics are introduced, but with the same vocal lines and melodies as well as new musical material is included to bring this epic tale to an appropriately rousing end.  This is one of my favorite tracks of all, especially because of the expert quilting together of so many of the previous themes in such a meaningful, thoughtful, and flawless way that ties it up together so nicely like a well-packaged gift.  It begins with the same melancholy music that Vision 1ne begins with, though with no narration and the vocal lines enter just as effectively with a similar verse structure from Vision 6ix – New Vampyre but with melody that fits the first theme of the Vision 1ne music.  This segues into the music and similar lyrics to the Vision 5ive – A Ghost’s Requiem, sung in the beginning by a muted choir only with chimes, strings, and timpani, the vocals of which become clearer as the verse continues with a martial snare beat and orchestral accompaniment, building as it continues until the entry into the unique chorus of the titular song that fits well into the melodic theme of A Ghost’s Requiem.  This chorus includes a band-focused instrumentation, with a strong choral presence in the background under Kuntz‘s soaring vocals and later Lill‘s soulful guitar solo.  After this chorus comes to an end a unique portion of the song that picks up the pace in a moderately fast 3/4 time that has a slight waltz feel to it but remains a steadfastly upbeat rock opera sound. The vocal and instrumental countermelodies throughout this portion along with the instrumentation is fantastic, and then continues with an absolutely stunning rendition of the chorus with just the choir, malleted handbells, and snare drum that diminishes with a quite slow ritard.  This sets up the song for a triumphant timpani roll into the reprise of the first and last portions from Vision 14teen – Blood of Eden, expertly juxtaposed in a duet with Kuntz (carrying the All Love Must Die melody) and returning guest vocalist Julia Steingass (singing the This is the Night melody), melding together at just the right moments for a truly grand finale closing out with a final chime in true theatrical fashion.

Telling the story of Andrej Delany, an immortal warrior and swordmaster who journeys to find the source of immortality and encounters a number of historical and mythical villains along the way, the Chronicles of the Immortals I and II condense the expansive series into just two albums.  As he struggles to face which path he should follow – to find his son Marius, whom he thought was dead;  Maria, the love of his life; and the souls of lost children, or to follow a shapeshifter who tries to convince him to join him to overthrow the old gods of the Pantheon – the album follows his path to the end.  Illustrating the second half of this tale, Chronicles of the Immortals: Netherworld II is yet another masterpiece in the Vanden Plas discography.  In many ways, I liked it even better than its first counterpart with its own melodies and arrangements, but in reality, this album should really be taken into account and listened together with Chronicles of the Immortals:  Netherworld Path I for best effect.  Because this album and its predecessor were studio arrangements of the play Blutnacht, its theatrical and cinematic effect is no surprise.  To create the studio album, things were adjusted to make it more band-centric (such as Kuntz singing all the lead vocals, rather than each character’s voice as would be acted in the play, the addition of more guitar solos and orchestral arrangements), and it translates quite nicely to an epic, rock opera format.  This is Vanden Plas’ strength, along with their stellar musicianship and musical cohesion, which helps to define them in the genre.  They have found their niche and have consistently performed top notch all the way, shown yet again in this album.

All of the band members remain at the top of their game, with no signs of slowing down or having any lack of passion for what they do.  They are so consistent as a band that I always wonder how they will compare with each previous album and not appear to decline, but their musical prowess in both technically performing and the solid and emotionally created songwriting primarily by Andy Kuntz, Günter Werno, and Stephan Lill keep them coming back with fresh ideas, thoughtful lyrics, and amazing new music every time.  Individually, each member brings great talent that creates a greater whole – Andreas‘ drums are always spot on, and he can navigate any tempo, rhythm, dynamic, or style (which each song often calls for); Torsten‘s bass is very solid with Lill‘s drums and he can easily switch between holding down the rhythm or traveling around on a melodic or complementary bassline; Stephan‘s guitar work shows his abilities with both digging in with chunkier rhythms or soaring with a melodic solo; Gunter‘s piano and keyboard work provides so many musical layers, motifs, and textures that really add emotionally and compositionally to every piece; and Andy‘s trademark vocals remain strong, able to showcase different styles and dynamics, and indicate no problems still reaching the high, stratospheric notes when called for.

On this album, the band continued with successful collaborations from the past.  They recorded, mixed, and mastered the album with Markus Teske of Bazement Studios, rendering excellent production quality yet again.  Stanis-W Decker also returned to create the stellar album artwork that complemented the last album’s artistic themes. All around Chronicles of the Immortals: Netherworld II is a piece of art and is one of those albums that is an undisputed requirement in any progressive or melodic metal fan’s collection (along with its counterpart album, in this case).  Vanden Plas is synonymous with quality, and with this newest album, you can’t go wrong.

Read the interview with Vanden Plas’ Stephan Lill here.

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