Disc: 1 1. Der Mitternachtslöwe 2. Gothic Kabbalah 3. Perennial Sophia 4. The Wisdom and the Cage 5. Son of the Staves of Time 6. Tuna 1613: Momentum Excitationis 7. Trul 8. Close Up the Streams Disc: 2 1. Wand of Abaris 2. Three Treasures 3. Path to Arcady 4. TOF - The Trinity 5. Chain of Minerva (2012) 6. Falling Stone 7. Adulruna Rediviva
Over their 20 year career, Therion have been one of Europe’s most innovative and consistently successful metal groups. From their early days as death metal through the symphonic concept album ‘Secret of the Runes’ and beyond, this brainchild of Christofer Johnsson has amassed a remarkable discography and a long list of iconic characteristics. However, when the United States are concerned, that list must also include the addendum of ‘criminally underrated’; for all Therion’s success on their home continent, in this country they remain largely overlooked. One might say that their style is a tough sell this side of the pond, but Therion are truly an exceptional case. Indeed, they set a bar as high, if not higher, than all other bands classifiable as symphonic metal. With their 11th studio release, ‘Gothic Kabbalah’, that tradition continues with distinction.
This release (their second straight double LP) is an especially unusual entry into Therion’s already highly original canon, for a number of reasons. First among these is the instrumentation, which has been scaled-back significantly since the predominantly orchestral and choral compositions of 2004’s ‘Lemuria/Sirius B’. Instead, ‘Gothic Kabbalah’ is foremost a heavy metal album, with nearly every song relying on the traditional drum/bass/guitar combo approach and relatively traditional lead vocals. The choirs and symphonies do of course make their appearances, but they are generally held to supportive roles, outside of the 13-and-a-half minute closer ‘Adulruna Redivivia’.
Also unlike previous albums, ‘Gothic Kabbalah’s songwriting has a distinctly ‘prog’ atmosphere, stemming both from rhythmic subtleties and fiery soloing from a variety of instruments, including a flute and Hammond organ. Entertaining as those are, the most memorable solos are those provided by lead guitarist Kristian Niemann, a long-unheralded virtuoso, who finally has been unleashed on a major stage and does not disappoint. Throughout the album, Niemann showcases an inventive style, often favoring sweep picking and unorthodox patterns at dazzling speeds that he contrasts with beautiful, smooth legato during more melodic interludes.
These overarching stylistic changes are primarily due to a shift in songwriting duties. Previous albums have mostly been the product of Christofer Johnsson’s songwriting, but the writing of ‘Gothic Kabbalah’ was much more democratic, with Johnsson soliciting much of the material from his band members (drummer Petter Karlsson in particular). As a result some fans will bemoan the transition, and those who listened to Therion for the symphonic element alone will indeed find disappointment here. However, ‘Gothic Kabbalah’ has much to offer the patient listener, and after a couple warm-up spins proves to be closer to their erstwhile symphonic majesty than the first listen would suggest.
For, while the amount of classical instrumentation is technically less than it has been, ‘Gothic Kabbalah’ remains one of Therion’s fullest and and complex to date. From that strong progressive foundation, Johnsson weaves in the symphonic embellishments with efficiency. With his years of experience, Johnsson needs only a flurry of a few horns at just the right spot to accomplish the same effect it once took him a full ensemble to achieve. Admittedly, no single instrument section can match the gusto of a full orchestra, but ‘Gothic Kabbalah’s arrangements are rich and full enough to stand strong as they are.
And, of course, mention must also be made of ‘Gothic Kabbalah’s exemplary lead vocalists: Mats Levén, Snowy Shaw, Katarina Lilja, and Hannah Holgersson. Each has a unique timbre and style, and despite this is being the first Therion to approach its lead vocals so, the four trade off with remarkable grace through solo, duet, and choral arrangements without any clutter or distraction.
To be fair, a few passages on the album do drag a little, mostly during the second half, but even the slowest songs have at least one melodic theme that makes them worthwhile. And besides, for an album of 80+ minutes in length, ‘Gothic Kabbalah’ maintains a remarkable energy, straight through ‘Adulruna Redivivia’s epic strains.
In the years to come, ‘Lemuria/Sirius B’ may still go down as Therion’s masterpiece—and deservedly so—but this album that follows is an equally notable achievement in its own right. Controversial though it may be, ‘Gothic Kabbalah’ is undeniably another of Therion’s epochs that masterfully displays their ambition, tireless creativity, and intrepid vision.
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