Album Title: The Return Of The Shadow
Label: Napalm Records
Date of Release: 3 June 2022
Am I the only one to get excited when a band returns from an extended hiatus? It is especially exciting when the hiatus began to feel like it might be more of a complete end, with hopes of a return fading with each and every passing year. Having been familiar with Finnish epic symphonic metal band Battlelore since the beginning of their career at the turn of the Millennium, I am delighted to see the band return with a new album some eleven years since their last outing, 2011’s ‘Doombound’. Admittedly the group reformed back in 2016 and have been beavering away since, but still, you never know whether something will materialise until the official announcement is made.
Entitled ‘The Return Of The Shadow’, Battlelore return us to the world of Tolkein in the only way that they know how. This record is actually named after the original title that Tolkein considered giving to the novel that eventually became ‘Fellowship Of The Ring’; this alone should underline the affection and attention to detail that the band demonstrate when it comes to one of the most celebrated fantasy stories of all time.
Somewhat remarkably, especially given that Battlelore is a septet, the same protagonists that featured on their last album are all present and correct this time around too. It means that vocalists Tomi Mykkänen and Kaisa Jouhki are joined by guitarists Jyri Vahvanen and Jussi Rautio, keyboardist/flautist Maria Honkanen, drummer Henri Vahvanen, and bassist Timo Honkanen.
With a line-up that is unchanged, it will cause very little surprise when I confirm that the musical output on ‘The Return of The Shadow’ will be familiar to anyone who has crossed paths, or swords, with Battlelore before. These guys have their modus operandi, and they are sticking to it. Previous albums have varied in terms of their quality and my overall enjoyment has also therefore varied. If I had to pick favourites, I’d suggest that 2003’s ‘Sword’s Song’ and 2008’s ‘The Last Alliance’ would feature. However, I am delighted to confirm that ‘The Return Of The Shadow’ can be added to this list.
What I personally like about Battlelore is, perhaps perversely, what others won’t enjoy quite as much. And that’s the way that the music is heavy and aggressive but also strangely smooth sounding and incredibly inviting. The music is full of growls, muscular riffs, and a strong rhythm section underpins everything, but the keys, ethereal female vocals, and generally mid-tempo pace of the songs creates a warmth and welcoming feel. I’m not sure if this is deliberate or not, but it is something that I find very endearing. I don’t mean to damn the music with faint praise either, because whilst I will often want to be smacked around the head by the music I listen to, I genuinely like the approach that Battlelore take. It’s bombastic and majestic but at the same time not overly cluttered or over-the-top. The fact that there are some wonderfully catchy and engaging melodies littered throughout the songs only adds to my enjoyment and raises this album above others within this genre that seek to over complicate matters without injecting enough memorability.
I didn’t realise that I had been missing Battlelore but, on this evidence, clearly I had.
I had hoped to mix things up a little bit by starting my deeper analysis of this album with a song buried somewhere within its heart. However, Battlelore have other ideas, because they produce a killer song right out of the blocks in the form of opener, ‘Minas Morgul’. The riffs at the start are really nice, and I love the chosen tone. The bass guitar is ever present, whilst the drums deliver fills and a little extravagance around the riffs. When the song opens up, we’re hit with some catchy synths, majestic orchestration, and a nice groove before clean male and female vocals duet over a quieter verse, giving them the space to take centre stage. The chorus is different however, complete with a faster tempo complimented by double pedal drumming and bolder orchestration. Growls appear later on to emphasise the heavier side of the band’s music, but there is no getting away from the fact that this is one catchy, anthemic track. Welcome back, Battlelore.
‘Chambers Of Fire’ is a chunkier beast and is likely to be a hit at summer festivals given its immediacy and no-nonsense, more aggressive attitude, underlined by a much more liberal use of deep growled vocals alongside Kaisa Jouhki’s soft approach. It has more of a folk-influenced melodic core, and I love the way that the second half is a much more delicate affair than the first until the final moments when the opening fist pumping chants return alongside the strong riffing.
I definitely feel that Battlelore are at their finest when they up the atmospheric and melodic quota within their compositions, and happily, there are several occasions on ‘The Return Of The Shadow’ when they duly oblige, starting with the delectable ‘Orcrist’ that features ethereal, synth-drenched passages led by Jouhki at her delicate best. The melodies are gorgeous, and even when we’re ‘treated’ to a spoken-word section that features the words ‘Goblin cleaver’ (I kid you not), I don’t turn my back in revulsion. It’s a bit cheesy and ham-fisted, but there remains a charm to it, mainly because the chorus is so damn irresistible.
Speaking of catchy, the slightly more up-tempo ‘Homecoming’ also fits the bill, with another strong, memorable chorus. The heavy, chugging riffing within ‘Elvenking’ is marvellous, but it’s accompanied by some simple yet fully effective bass lines from Timo Honkanen that rumble with real authority whilst Maria Honkanen’s flute adds delicate whimsy in clever counterpoint. ‘Mirrormere’ is another great song, featuring some prominent lead guitar lines early on before building a bittersweet feeling thanks to some sombre yet elegant melodies within the chorus. It also benefits from some of the boldest riffing and thunderous drumming by Henri Vahvanen in the mid-section.
For all that though, the star of the show for me sits at the very end of the album. ‘Shadow Of The East’ is simply stunning for a number of reasons. Firstly, I adore the guitars of Jyri Vahvanen and Jussi Rautio – the tone, assisted by the bass, is wonderful, especially when used as sparingly as it is within what is the slowest track of them all. Then there are the melodies that permeate from every pore, delightfully arresting throughout, culminating in a truly epic closing sequence, complete with orchestration, gently building metallic instrumentation, insidious growls, and muscular percussion. I could listen to this quasi ballad over and over again…and I have if truth be told.
You can be the fastest, the most overblown and pompous, the most dextrous, or the loudest. But what Battlelore more than ably demonstrate with this glorious return from the wilderness, is that none of that matters if the songs themselves aren’t engaging and memorable. At times, Battlelore can be loud, they can be fast, and they can be overblown and pompous. However, this is never at the expense of the songs themselves, which are almost entirely positive and thoroughly enjoyable. As I said earlier, some will criticise the band for not being edgy enough, or extreme enough. That’s their prerogative. Me though, I really like this album and I’m delighted to hear new material from Battlelore. Factor in the absolutely fabulous cover artwork and a bonus three-track EP entitled ‘Lost Lands’ as a bonus disc, and I’m making it ever more difficult for you to ignore this release. So don’t.
The Score of Much Metal: 92%
Check out my other 2022 reviews here:
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: