The process of writing a new album could be compared with a mountain climb. In case of a concept record, the mountain is much higher than your average one, the path twists and turns all the way up, and you regularly encounter various obstacles. You also have to plan the ascension thoroughly, define the route beforehand so you won’t get lost somewhere along the journey. To reach the top you’re required to work hard and tirelessly, but when you’re done, you can sit back, admire the result and be rightfully proud of it. With concept albums, this is hardly different. On the first, planning stage, an arduous decision has to be made: will it be a completely new story, written from scratch, a tale based on a book or a movie, a recollection of certain historic events, maybe something else? Another noticeable hindrance is the creation of lyrics, for it takes a lot of inspiration to write while balancing on sharp edge between over-complication and excessive simplicity; and the restrictions and limits the story poses to a writer don’t help either. And even more importantly, both music and lyrics should complete and enhance each other, making the story unfold the right way to capture the listener’s attention whole. It can be achieved only through putting your very soul into work, and when all is done, the satisfaction and enjoyment are immense.
The fourth studio album Ring of Fire put out is indeed a concept album. Their three initial members, Mark Boals on vocals, Tony MacAlpine on guitars and Vitalij Kuprij on keyboards reunited after a nine year hiatus, and were joined by Timo Tolkki (Stratovarius, Avalon), this time on bass, and Jami Huovinen on the drums. The story is based on the Siege of Leningrad, the famous and integral part of World War II. The siege took its place in 1941-1944, lasting 872 days, but the ring of Nazi army was broken in January 1943, making the last year somewhat easier for citizens. The previous winter turned out to be the worst period of siege, for it was one of the coldest and longest in a hundred years, and people nearly had no food, receiving only 125 grams of bread every day, with almost no ways of evacuation, starving and freezing to death on the streets. According to statistics, thousands of people died each day in that winter, and that made it the most lethal siege in world’s history. Still, Leningrad has endured it despite all the losses, and it is indeed an extreme display of heroism of Russian people.
There are a lot of books describing either the memories or collected facts about the siege, but it is the first time I see someone daring to picture it with music inside the metal genre. Perhaps, the event itself is the reason, as there’s not much going on inside or outside the city, except for attempts to lift the siege, and you have to build your concept around people’s feelings, thoughts and dreams. And this is mostly what Battle of Leningrad does. When each day is absolutely identical to previous one, when nothing happens, when people are desperate to live just one more day, and then one more, and again, never knowing if this will end, it could be tremendously hard to keep your release diverse enough, so I applaud the band not only for attempting to do it, but for succeeding too.
Even though I classified Battle of Leningrad as neo-classical power metal, some unusually heavy and dark sections make their appearance too, which is fitting for an album about the act of war. Mother Russia, for instance, features a chorus made of such moments, quite the opposite of the bridge, which in its turn, it seems, is appropriately based on Russian National Anthem chorus melody. The verses both here and in They’re Calling Your Name are concise, made of two lines and not especially memorable. The latter tune also has an angry feeling building up rather successfully.
The record takes its time to finally go full-power, reaching the high capacity at the third track, Empire. It describes the attackers, sprawling over the world in conquest, and on one hand it makes a note about their armies’ greatness, while on the other hand it shows disapproval towards their actions. Now that’s a clever way to write it. This song has a progressive touch to it mostly due to intricate keyboards; it is also pretty huge, with operatic vocals and reckless, epic ending, desperate in its own way. Land of Frozen Tears, however, is a stark contrast to Empire, and strangely these two songs are forming an outstanding sequence. In this classic power ballad, the point of view is back to a besieged city. People here are suffering, hopeless, miserable, waiting for their inevitable death, and the song reflects it as precisely as it is possible not deviating from the genre.
If I was persuaded to pick one single piece going against the album’s spirit the most, it would be the longest one, Firewind, for every time the chorus comes up in my headphones I can’t help but envision Russian people dressed in their traditional folk clothes performing a neat round dance. Being placed after Land of Frozen Tears, it feels especially awkward and distracts me from the whole message it’s trying to deliver. However, listening to this song outside of the context allows me to see it in different light and appreciate it a lot more. Next one, a swift, energetic Where Angels Play exposes yet another starving soul’s mind for us, filled with dreams of having wings to fly as far as possible from the hell Leningrad in these years. As there were airborne evacuations planned and executed throughout the siege, one day this wish even could have been fulfilled, we are never told.
Now if you have assumed the record is irrevocably fixed on power metal, fear not, the title track pushes it beyond the boundaries of said genre. Sombre, crushing and ruthless to some extent, Battle of Leningrad is by far the most successful representation of siege and war on the disc. This song also benefits from a steady, unhurried pace, reminds me of few Black Sabbath tunes and helps the whole work reach the highest point. After it, the power and energy seem to ebb away. No Way Out is one faster track; decent enough, but overshadowed by title track and therefore falling flat a bit. Summarizing all the people had gone through, Our World pictures very bleak yet emotional image, going from mellow and quiet approach to stunning scream of desperate determination of defenders to hold on till everything’s gone. This song offers a perfect closure to the story and at first listen I was deeply surprised when another track, Rain, has started. I can draw a vivid comparison with how Kamelot closed The Black Halo with Serenade, and though this is no play set for a New Year’s Eve festival, Rain seems as out of place as Serenade does for me. This decision is polarizing, that I can say.
As a concept album, this record leaves a mixed feeling. There are a couple of occasions when music fit the story like a glove and lyrics are weaved perfectly into the picture, and there are a couple of moments the band’s ideas do not work at all. As for the strength of songs on their own, no complaints there. So even though Ring of Fire didn’t fully manage to find the perfect balance of storytelling, this contribution to the metal scene is quite attractive, and I can recommend it to people at least briefly familiar with genre.