Twilight Force – At The Heart Of Wintervale – Album Review
Artist: Twilight Force
Album Title: At The Heart Of Wintervale
Label: Nuclear Blast
Date of Release: 20 January 2023
I hang my head in shame at the time it has taken to bring this review to fruition. However, I’ve finally mended the error of my ways and can offer my considered thoughts about ‘At The Heart of Wintervale’. To throw myself under the bus again, though, this is only the second time that I have ventured into the world of Twilight Force, the Swedish power metal outfit that sprang into life over a decade ago, releasing three albums in the process. I have their third album, ‘Dawn Of The Dragonstar’ in my collection but never listened to it as much as perhaps I should.
Therefore, when the opportunity arose to check out album number four, ‘At The Heart Of Wintervale’, it wasn’t an immediate no-brainer. In fact, had it not been for the utterly marvellous cover artwork, followed by a social media nudge or two, I may never have given it a try.
Based on the content of ‘At The Heart Of Wintervale’ I will definitely go back and re-listen to ‘Dawn…’, because this new record has pulled me under its spell. It isn’t flawless, there’s a bit too much cheese at times, and I still utter to myself ‘what the hell was that?’ on occasion, as they veer off the straight and narrow. But overall, if you want to be entertained by an over-the-top symphonic power metal album, you could do a lot worse.
Referring to themselves as ‘adventure metal’, theirs is a style of power metal that’s grandiose, folk-and-classical-infused, symphonic, and occasionally bonkers. At times it feels like I’m listening to (Luca Turilli’s) Rhapsody (Of Fire) or Avantasia, Lost Horizon, or a blend of all three and many more besides. At other points, I’m knee deep in a Disney musical, or sometimes a Hollywood action movie score. Whatever you might be reminded of though, there’s little doubt that the music is well executed and performed with real conviction, something that helps to elevate it from the masses of also-ran bands ploughing a similar furrow.
The sense of humour and adventure that Twilight Force conveys carries through their entertaining videos, and their chosen stage names. To illustrate this point for those of you who aren’t familiar, the sextet is comprised of bassist Born, drummer De’Azsh, rhythm guitarist Aerendir, and lead vocalist Allyon, alongside guitarist Lynd and keyboardist Blackwald who both contribute backing vocals, orchestrations, and are responsible for the bulk of the songwriting.
When a band self-titles a song or an album, it’s usually a sign that they are proud of the outcome. The opening track of ‘At The Heart Of Wintervale’ is exactly that, and it’s not hard to see why, as it’s one of the most compelling power metal songs that I have heard in some time. It isn’t in exactly the same mould of course, but there’s a full-throttle commitment that reminds me strongly of their aforementioned, and sadly defunct, compatriots Lost Horizon. No intros, or wasted time, we’re straight into the song, and it belts along at a fair lick, with drums and bass laying down a brisk tempo and rhythm, upon which vibrant guitars, keys, and orchestration all combine. The word bombastic is often overused, but is entirely apt here. Allyon’s vocals make an immediate impact within the properly rousing power metal anthem that does hint at the Italian bands with the word Rhapsody within their name. The chorus is catchy as hell and hugely multi-layered with rich orchestration, whilst the guitar leads that emerge later against a galloping backdrop are insanely fast neoclassical blasts of virtuosity.
The title track begins with a more theatrical, windswept intro, before launching into a slightly slower, but no less captivating power metal anthem. In fact, it feels just that touch more epic despite the reduction in pace, thanks to the lead guitars and bold orchestration, not to mention the expansive chorus that sees Allyon’s vocals soar pleadingly into the wintry soundscape. The bursts of blastbeats, the sparkling guitar leads, tight riffs, and moments of bold cinematics all come together mean that the album couldn’t have started in better fashion had they tried.
Other favourites on the record include ‘Skyknights of Aldaria’ that begins as if it is the score to a Blockbuster movie and rarely dislodges the thought given how integral the orchestration is to the overall composition, arguably as front and centre as anywhere else on the album. Spoken-word embellishments only enhance the theatrical overtones but for all of the over-the-top majesty of the song, it remains very much another high-powered, galloping power metal romp, with drums and guitar riffs ensuring the heaviness remains at the levels required to refer to the music as ‘metal’, something that perhaps others, and Twilight Force themselves, have failed to do at times previously.
The Latin salsa-inspired section within ‘Sunlight Knight’ is a bit of a eyebrow-raising moment but is just another example of a band not afraid to go in directions that are different and unexpected. The early Kamelot-esque chorus is the saving grace though, as it is my favourite on the album and ensures I return to it frequently in spite of the momentary ‘WTF’ moment.
Then there’s the double-digit ‘Highlands of The Elder Dragon’ which allows Twilight Force to indulge in something even more expansive should that even be possible given what has been discussed before. The intro is pure Disney, with tinkling up-beat melody and gentle narration. Somehow though, it works and within the blink of an eye, we’re into the meatier part of the song, dominated by Allyon’s rich and commanding voice. Laced with myriad twists and turns that incorporate choral arrangements, significant changes in tempo, and unashamed theatrical intent, it is arguably a little less on the heavy side. The guitars are there throughout but pushed just a little further back in the mix to allow the orchestration to make more of an impact. Regardless, it’s still a convincing track thanks to strong melodies and more of that undeniable full-on commitment to bringing their craft to life in such a way.
Where I feel that the quality dips just a little, is with the final two tracks on the album, ‘The Last Crystal Bearer’, and ‘The Sapphire Dragon of Arcane Might Is Back Again’. In the case of the former, it is another song that extends into double figures but, unlike its predecessor, goes over-the-top with narration that’s too toe-curling even for me, rather than focus on their strengths as a band, which are undoubtedly in their flamboyant and endearing musicianship. There are a few moments where I’m drawn in, but sadly these are outweighed a little by the overabundant commentary.
The latter could rival the best Bal Sagoth song titles in terms of ludicrousness and length. And given its slightly underwhelming closing folky acoustic presence that lacks the usual joie-de-vivre elsewhere, the name of the song is the most interesting part for my tastes.
There are also orchestral versions of ‘Skyknights Of Aldaria’ and ‘The Last Crystal Bearer’ offered as part of the overall package and, I have to say, that the latter works much better in this guise, emphasising the orchestral might that it does contain when stripped back in this manner.
Overall, it is impossible not to take a piece of this album to your heart. The size of that piece will depend on how much you enjoy symphonic power metal, but I defy anyone, whatever kind of metal you’re into mainly, not to crack a smile and get a little invested in the music of Twilight Force. The quality and commitment frequently shown throughout ‘At The Heart Of Wintervale’ makes it a record that simply cannot be ignored. Do so at your peril!
The Score of Much Metal: 87%