There are few moments when I hear a new album for the first time and I stand back and am very, very impressed, fewer still are the times when I am stopped in my tracks by the brilliance of a new release and, you can count on the fingers of a one-armed man the times when a new record is a pivotal moment in my musical journey, one that becomes musical Nirvana. The releases that fall into the final category are not necessarily from the same genre or even artist, they just have that ability to freeze time and make everything around me, my normal life, irrelevant for the best part of an hour. Step forward Vanden Plas and their new release Chronicles of the Immortals – Netherworld, musical Nirvana? Trust me, if this doesn’t become a musical awakening for you, you have no soul, wear horns and have the number ‘666’ tattooed on your arm.
I have a small confession to make at this point, the only previous record of Vanden Plas’ that I have listened to is their last release The Seraphic Clockwork and, whilst I was mildly impressed, it never did enough to remain in my musical collection. Vanden Plas have been stalwarts of the progressive metal world since their first release Colour Temple in 1994 and, including The Seraphic Clockwork, have released 7 albums (including one live release) to date. The bands line up consists of Andy Kuntz (vocals), Stephan Lill (guitars), Gunter Verno (keyboards), Torsten Reichert (bass) and Andreas Lill (drums).
Chronicles of the Immortals – Netherworld is a new dimension for the band, continuing their artistic growth and development from album to album. In collaboration with best selling German author Wolfgang Hohlbein, the band created a rock opera for the stage based on the author’s ‘Chronicles of the Immortals’ series and composed 19 songs for the stage production. The result of this collaboration, Bloodnight, with Andy Kuntz in the lead role, sold out 25 performances in the 2012-2013 season at the Pfalztheater in Kaiserslautern.
The next step for the band was to turn the successful theatre piece into a Vanden Plas album. “Chronicles of the Immortals – Netherworld – Path 1” has 10 tracks comprising the first act of “Bloodnight.” “Path 2,” the second half of the album, is scheduled to bring the story to a conclusion in early 2015. Kuntz, in agreement with Hohlbein, adapted the stage version to fit an album format.
The theme of “Chronicles of the Immortals – Netherworld” examines the essential question of human existence. What is immortality? Andrej Delany knows the answer. Those who meet him sense that he is somehow different from them, more powerful, more experienced. They call him a sorcerer, revile him as a vampire or a demon. Yet he differs from them in only one aspect: he has lived much, much longer than they themselves have. Andrej desires only to be a human being, but he is incapable of sharing his life with mortals, but which of the archaic shadow beings is heresy and which is illumination? Which wants to help Andrej – and which wants to deceive and destroy him? He must choose which vision to follow, for in the end the truth lies only within him.
The album starts with VISION 1ne, where Kuntz plays the role of storyteller to set the scene, narrating over an orchestral score that is foreboding and menacing and yet, at times, has a feeling of hope when the piano lightens the mood. As the light vocal begins to sing over the piano and string arrangement, it is a delight and, when the voice breaks out with all its power there is a just a hint of what is coming from this amazing vocalist.
VISION 2wo THE BLACK NIGHT begins quietly before a powerful riff kicks in ably assisted by the classy keyboards and impressive rhythm section, the beat is insistent, carrying you along on a tide of emotion. The vocals power into the track and everything focuses on the voice as it recounts the story, the lighter moments where the piano provides the backing give a lucid feel to the song but it is the powerfully driven vocals and staccato riffs that lead us on. The marked contrast between the two musical factions is paramount to the epic feel of the track and, when the first solo of the album fires into being, I am hooked, this is incredible stuff. There is a fine interlude of acoustic guitar and lute-like keyboards that mesmerises for a short while but the thunder and lightning are never far away, the coruscating guitar runs and pounding drums set the scene for the mighty vocal of Kuntz to shine, the choral section is genius. There is no part of this song that can be considered anything but amazing, I am left open mouthed as it comes to a close.
There is no pause before another potent riff introduces us to VISION 3hree GODMAKER, menacing and intense. As the riff breaks, the vocals glide in over a repeating piano note, snatches of the riff fire in at intervals, then an industrial melting pot of guitar, drums and keyboards provides a barrage of musical thunder. Kuntz’s vocals provide a sharp thrust into the mix, all diamond hard but with a melodic edge, I’m beginning to feel this guy could have one of the best voices in rock. The backing to the vocal is a brilliant piece of music, short and sharp riffs along with a superb keyboard note, the chorus is glorious and the solo that breaks the reverie burns bright and hot, another incredible track then comes to a tumultuous close. The next act, VISION 4our MISERY AFFECTION PRELUDE is a beautiful and tender piece of music, an impassioned duet that is perfectly matched with piano and strings, short but delightful.
As the tenderness ends, a feeling of foreboding takes over and we come to a section of three songs that really epitomise the album for me, just about perfect in their construction and execution, first is VISION 5ive A GHOSTS REQUIEM with an imposing introduction of dramatic drums and portentous piano, the addition of a lighter keyboard and a haunting melody from a childlike voice increases the drama and, when the choir joins in, the transformation to something really special is complete. The way the song grabs your attention and holds it in place is very clever and Kuntz shows the operatic side to his repertoire with an imperious performance, there is something theatrical to the feel and, it is evident by this track, that the album is adapted from a stage performance.
The next part of my stand out trio is VISION 6ix NEW VAMPYRE and, to be honest, I’m still deliberating as to whether this or the next track is my personal favourite on the album but, I digress. There is an immediacy to this song from the start, a really compelling introduction where a forceful guitar riff trades blows with almighty keyboards and the huge rhythm section to provide a maelstrom of music. The vocal performance is, again, skilful and dynamic, starting low and precise before rising to become omnipotent and otherworldly and, the way the keyboards take centre stage to back Kuntz’s voice on the more powerful sections is a work of genius. The industrial strength guitar riffs that run throughout the song give a real feel and dynamic to the music so that, when the lighter guitar on the interlude is introduced, it is given even more of a counter point. The diverse musical section that follows is a melting pot of inventiveness and I’m still picking up on highlights of this song after multiple listens, the music has the ability to work its way inside you and take over your soul and, trust me, that happens very rarely nowadays.
VISION 7even THE KING AND THE CHILDREN OF LOST WORLD is the final part of my own trilogy of tracks and is just a stupendous piece of music that is incredible from the intricate and yet all-powerful intro through the astonishing vocal delivery and awe-inspiring musical performances to the stupendous conclusion. I said that the music works its way inside you well, on this song it is like a blow to the solar plexus that you see coming and welcome with open arms, it shakes you to your core and leaves you salivating, breathless and demanding more! There is a section in the middle of the track where a gentle piano plays and is overlaid by a fantastically harmonised vocal with choral melodies and an intricate guitar playing muted in the background and that finishes with an extraordinarily gut wrenching guitar solo that left me transfixed and with tears of joy in my eyes. It is music like this that, for me, epitomises Shakespeare’s immortal line “if music be the food of love, play on” and the way the song leads out with an elegant and exquisite piano note, just leaves me wanting more, like I have withdrawal symptoms.
VISION 8ight MISERY AFFECTION starts with one of the most endearing piano introductions you will ever hear and, when the strings join in, it is just delightful. The vocals are graceful and full of emotion, when the female voice joins in to perform the duet there is something almost ethereal about the performance that plucks at your heartstrings. When the guitar strikes up with an authoritative note, the song takes on a more dynamic feel, emphasising the passion and sentiment of the vocals, another track to leave a mark on your soul.
The distorted guitar note at the start of VISION 9ine SOUL ALLIANCE heralds an intro that rapidly becomes one of the most intense and dynamic on the album, pure progressive metal that takes influences from all over and turns them into one prodigiously coherent whole, the keyboards firing licks from all different angles and the guitar burning bright, hard and very heavy. Once the vocal kicks in there is a brooding sense of menace to proceedings, dark and dangerous and matching the forceful guitar and probing keyboards. That combination of guitar and keyboard is the true driving force on this song giving Kuntz free reign to deliver one of his fervent and impassioned vocal performances. The guitar run in the middle of the song, complete with the energetic and pressing keyboard note precedes an interlude that is almost ambient dance music, weird but, strangely enough, it works as part of the greater whole. The song runs out to another dose of that progressive heavy sound and Kuntz’s exceptional voice.
I am afraid that we have come to the final instalment of this totally immersive experience (for it is surely more than just music) provided by the group of musical sorcerers also known as Vanden Plas, VISION 10en INSIDE. As is the case throughout the rest of the album there is no pause or break before the track is introduced to us by a smooth, repeated guitar note and orchestral strings, however, it is not long before that incredibly intense wall of sound that has become a hallmark of this record is unleashed upon the audience, thunderous drums and an epic riff with some delightful squeals that hit your aural sensors hard. The coruscating guitar run that follows is another work of art forged by these exceptional musicians. And, taking centre stage as usual but never dominating, is Andy Kuntz, a powerhouse vocalist indeed, he has the uncanny ability of making his voice stand out but always keeps it part of the bigger picture. I appear to be running out of superlatives as I listen to the final act of this imposing rock opera (and that doesn’t happen very often, if at all!) but, there are many more nuances to be found in this track, different vocal arrangements burning guitar licks and an incredibly tight and incessant drum beat. As befits the final track on the album, it does not flit away quietly hoping that no-one notices, no, the ending to the song is as full of pomp and circumstance as the rest of the album and comes to a suitably bombastic ending, suddenly leaving you feeling empty inside, like you have lost something and, half deaf with an unrelenting ringing in your ears.
Right, before I go and listen to the album for the umpteenth time it’s time for the conclusion. It is way too early to talk about albums of the year when we are only in February but, after experiencing the aural splendour of Chronicles of the Immortals – Neverworld, it is going to take something that can provide a Eureka moment to replace it at number one in this reviewer’s list. Speechless, open-mouthed, slack jawed, call it what you like, it has been many a year since a new release has affected, influenced and impressed me as much as Vanden Plas’ latest offering and, do you know the best bit? Part 2 is yet to come!