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'Gothic Kabbalah' (Nuclear Blast)

Review by Jeff Maki
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I am vaguely familiar with Sweden's Therion, seeing their name constantly across the net on metal sites and hearing select tracks from their extensive discography. Other than this, I have little knowledge of the band, knowing only that they push the envelope of heavy metal and extreme music.

Therion started way back in 1987 as a death metal act, evolving with each release, incorporating folk and symphonic metal, keyboards, choirs, female vocals and other experimentation, while still retaining elements of traditional metal. Because I haven’t heard the bulk of the band’s past material, this review will be treated as if I'm hearing the band for the first time.

Gothic Kabbalah is a two-disc album which includes 15 tracks. For the recording, the core of the band is still intact with founder/guitarist Christopher Johnsson, drummer Petter Karlsson, and Kristian and Johan Niemann, lead guitarist and bassist, respectively. Johnsson gave up his vocal duties prior to the album, thus session members were also required, including vocalists Mats Leven (Yngwie Malmsteen) and Snowy Shaw (Mercyful Fate, King Diamond), and female vocalists Hannah Holgersson (studio lead/soprano) and Katarina Lilja (lead vocals). Various other instrumentation too extensive to list also was used for the recording; I would not know where to begin.

Gothic Kabbalah is truly like nothing I have heard. The album is a dark, epic, innovative and, yes, somewhat gothic metal soundtrack. It requires repeated listens to fully appreciate the amount of work involved with this project and to embrace the numerous different musical styles. Upon pushing play, you're immediately introduced to the highly operatic female lead vocals, which intertwine here with a more traditional heavy metal male vocals. The style takes some getting used to, but during parts to which they are suited, you eventually find that they work perfectly. Lead vocals provided by Katarina Lilja are of the more traditional metal sense and make symphonic-goth-metal anthems such as “The Wisdom and the Cage” instantly memorable with impressive hooks and beautiful choruses. Add an organ (or at least what I think is an organ), atmospheric keys and virtuoso guitar work with this vocal performance and “The Wisdom and the Cage” is the strongest track of the first disc. “Sons of the Staves of Time” features fist-pumping, power metal lead male vocals not unlike those of Sonata Arctica or Blind Guardian. “Tuna 1613” has the most metal sound of any tracks on disc one, with a chugging riff, distorted vocals and ridiculous organ solo in the latter half. The folk-chanting ending of “Trul” will bring a smile to your face and is just one of the more accessible parts of the album.

I am confused about one thing. As I am listening to the promo of this album, all 15 tracks are contained on one disc, so why the need for a double album? The material of each disc is not far removed enough to stand on its own, thus giving the impression Therion just wanted another two-disc release under their belts. Maybe the answer lies within the packaging from the official release or in the album's underlying theme.

On disc two, “Three Treasures” is a folk-metal masterpiece, a slower, brooding sound gives way to a majestic chorus reminiscent of Pink Floyd with the melodic lead and background layered vocals. “Chain of Minerva”'s gothic chants give the listener visions of a medieval religious proceeding. “T.O.F. - The Trinity” is Therion at its symphonic metal best, with a galloping rhythm, more classic virtuoso guitar work and massive orchestration. Several songs have an Arabian feel, such as the luring sound of “The Wand of Abaris” or the backing instrumentation of the noticeably heavier, epic album closer “Adulruna Rediviva.”

Therion requires its listeners to have an open mind with it's broad musical landscape and the band's insistent approach to break new ground and not re-tread over recycled ideas. On the downside, with so many vocalists contributing to the effort, it's hard at times to distinguish who is doing what and the album suffers mildly from not having one prominent voice in every song. The session members do an outstanding job, however, presumably under the constant direction of Johnsson.

Christopher Johnsson seems to be a masterful composer after hearing this release. I wonder if he would have been mentioned in the same breath as other classic composers, had he lived in that time.

Gothic Kabbalah is not a conventional album and not something to play at your next beer party. The music is to be taken in as a whole and multiple spins will be needed to appreciate the complexity. It's unlikely that all metal fans will be drawn to this album. However, this is a perfect representation of forward-thinking metal, an album that could help an average person gain a new respect for the entire genre.