If you haven’t heard of Germany’s Atlantean Kodex before, that’s understandable because they are only recently receiving the kind of critical acclaim that is turning quite a few heads thanks to their amazing new record The White Goddess. I myself only listened to them after 2013 had passed, thanks to seeing their high placement on Adrien Begrand’s Best of 2013 list. Atlantean Kodex play power metal, or as some prefer to call it to avoid negative stigmas, traditional or epic metal. The caveat is that all this new found attention is coming from far more than just relatively underground power metal sites/blogs —- as the band have been turning the heads of writers at a few big platform publications such as Pitchfork, Stereogum, Popmatters, and Vice. Yes you’re reading that right, a release by a power metal band from the birthplace of the subgenre itself is receiving the kind of attention that is normally reserved for critically acceptable black and death metal bands. Their success in this regard is the product of two parts smart marketing and pairing with highly regarded indie record labels (Cruz Del Sur/20 Buck Spin), and one part a blending of such disparate influences as Manowar and Bathory —- a combination that practically begs to be investigated.
Its important to note that Atlantean Kodex are a relatively young band in a strange way; they formed in 2005 but have been quite content to take their time in creating new music, as The White Goddess is only their sophomore full length album. However it might be one of the most important power metal recordings of all time, not only due to its undisputed excellence, but for what it could mean for the future of a subgenre long maligned in the United States. In this regard, Atlantean Kodex are venturing into unknown territory, being the first power metal band to achieve critical success from non-metal media platforms in the post-social media era. Surely this kind of success would not come from the genre’s long standing forefathers, its torchbearers such as Blind Guardian, Rhapsody, Kamelot, Iced Earth, Avantasia, etc, etc —- the fix was in against those bands perhaps simply because their origins predate the current era. Its always easier for the media to disregard something long established with lazy labels and critical adjectives (ie cheesy, pretentious, dinosaur, etc) than it is to actually do the work and understand why these artists are as popular and loved as they are.
What makes The White Goddess great isn’t exactly groundbreaking on a conceptual level —- its simply quality songwriting, excellent musicianship, and a vocalist that sells it all with soaring conviction. The same qualities could be attributed to many other fine releases by other bands within the genre. Where Atlantean Kodex strive to differentiate themselves is by adding shades of melancholic doom to their take on power metal, which makes everything sound heavier, with a tendency to lean on slower, steady tempos, often with ample use of space and silence. Evidence of the latter can be found on the slow and brooding eleven minute long “Heresiarch”, where isolated bass lines sometimes are the sole instrument rumbling along during the verses. The clear album standout here is “Sol Invictus” (another ten minute plus track), the album’s clarion call that boasts a punishing heaviness not only from sledgehammer riffs, but from the brutal attack of the rhythm section —- drummer Mario Weiss is one of the most talented and unheralded drummers in metal today, his percussion is at once relentless, assaulting, and artful. The chorus here puts the spotlight on vocalist Markus Becker who commands your attention with a performance that is Imaginations-era Hansi Kursch esque. I’ll spare you a track by track dissection here, the entire album is jawdroppingly amazing, but my personal favorite has to be “Twelve Stars and an Azure Gown”, a semi-ballad that wrenches out emotion from every note. At times throughout the song, metal fury is pierced by moments of haunting, doomy, ethereal beauty. I mentioned Bathory as an influence earlier, and its extremely difficult to pinpoint one particular moment where Quorthon’s work really comes through, because its simply everywhere, ingrained in the fabric of Atlantean Kodex’s sound and approach to songwriting. You hear it alongside the Manowar-ish influences and it sounds completely natural.
Lyrically, this is top tier level stuff that transcends power metal boundaries despite using many mythological references. The underlying theme of the album is the rise and fall of modern Europe, but these lyrics are ancient world imagery rich and full of obscure mythological metaphors, as guitarist Manuel Trummer explained to VICE, “The figure of the White Goddess is an allegory for this life/death relationship. She‘s an pan-European deity who shows up in all religions from ancient Greece to the Nordic pantheon, but she‘s always associated with aspects of life, death and rebirth.” Many of you that read this blog often already know that I’m big on lyricists within metal, that is, quality lyricists which are few and far between. This is band that has put as much work into their lyrics as they have their music, a rare tendency in power metal even, which is a shame because I thought Trummer had a point when he talked about the lack of need for focusing on lyrics in other, more extreme genres of metal: “with all these Cookie Monster vocals in brutal death metal, metalcore, deathcore, etc., you can‘t understand the lyrics anyway. A lot of this new kind of metal is about physical power, about experiencing your own body, about extreme feelings and situations. There‘s simply no need for elaborate lyrics.” And that’s a good jumping off point to say that I think The White Goddess could be a turning point for the future of power/trad/epic (whatever you want to call it) metal —- it certainly is going to be a benchmark going forward at the very least.
The possibility exists now, however small it is, that this album’s critical success could pave the way for more power metal bands to get first time, or simply longer “looks” from the mainstream media, particularly here in the United States. More pressingly, it could inspire many power metal bands that are either stuck in a formula, or afraid to get “arty” to go ahead and take chances with their music. I must admit to wondering idly whether or not The White Goddess would have received the kind of attention it did from those big platform sites had it been released on Century Media or Nuclear Blast, and featured cover art that looked like it belonged more on a Gamma Ray record (as opposed to the one they chose, which could be a Candlemass cover). It was a savvy marketing move, and no one can fault the band for that.
Thanks to Atlantean Kodex’s late 2013 success, I have an interesting idea brewing about 2014 being a resurgent year for power metal, as we are likely going to see most major bands within the genre release new albums throughout the year (Iced Earth for example already have —- review forthcoming), and this could be the year that some of these guys finally get the attention from larger circles that they are so often denied. I look at Atlantean Kodex’s dent in the tastemaker’s media platform as just one part of this potential future, Pharaoh certainly turned major heads (such as Lars Gotrich of NPR) with 2012’s Bury the Light record —- but more than just isolated examples however, is an undercurrent of what I feel might be an overload of the extreme metal spectrum. Death and black bands tend to take up the majority of critical attention, and I’ve been noticing that a few writers out there are getting seemingly bored with it all, and that the prospect of a metal band with actual singing is becoming a more and more appealing idea. Its going to be interesting to look back at the end of this year and see if my prediction is right.
February 6, 2014
I’ve heard of these guys before but haven’t really took the time to listen to them until now when you posted that song so thanks for that. Going to get this and their other album
February 6, 2014
Great! Its a tremendous record!
February 6, 2014
Thanks for the review,ordered this and the demo on the back of it
. By all accounts the middle album doesn’t hit the same level?
February 6, 2014
Their first album is pretty good but I find “The White Goddess” to be on a whole other level.
February 11, 2014
Ah man – I feel kind of let down by this one. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll go back and listen to this in its entirety but, when you said “power metal”, I really was hoping for Sonata Arctica or even another up-and-comer ala Serenity. The thing with power metal is that it has to be fun – the mark of a good power metal band is an acute awareness of their own cheese; they know the lyrics/keyboards are over the top, they know the style is essentially glam rock cum heavy metal, so they compensate for it with melodies up the ying-yang and neo-classical virtuosity come solo time.
THIS, on the other hand, I feel is actually an example of why good power metal rarely gets a look in outside of Europe – there’s no fun, no adventure to be had. It’s all just taken TOO seriously. Avantasia’s Scarecrow Trilogy and Cain’s Offering ‘Gather the Faithful’ (why did this never get a follow up record!?!) are prime examples of how great the genre is – for every lyric that makes you cringe, there’s a hook that makes you smile. Bands like Sonata/Kamelot have only been able to inject the darker, more prog elements into their more recent works by way of putting out quality album after quality album of carefully crafted songs, gradually reducing the cheese over the years.
Unfortunately, the closest thing I can compare these guys to is Evergrey – “oh my god, I’m so sad, listen to my conviction, isn’t this subject just so emotional” – both great bands in their own right, but ultimately spoilt by trying to be too deep, too profound, too soon.
February 11, 2014
I’ll have to disagree with your take based on two things, the first being that good power metal as we all know it doesn’t necessarily have to be aware of its own “cheese factor” so to speak. I think right away of classic albums by Blind Guardian or Nightwish or even the aforementioned Sonata Arctica, these are bands/songwriters who are writing stuff with passion and conviction, and though someone else might find it melodramatic, and over the top in cheese factor (man I hate that term), those artists do not —- and I don’t for that matter either. I suppose it can be argued that bands like Hammerfall are a different story, but its all in the eye of the beholder. I just don’t think that good power metal automatically indicates that its deserving of what is pretty much a negative stereotyping.
What I like about Atlantean Kodex is that like Kamelot and those other bands listed above they’re not afraid to take themselves seriously (and that’s where their Bathory influences shine through moreso than their Manowar influence). But when you argue that that very quality is why good power metal bands don’t get quality looks here in the United States, its confusing because Atlantean Kodex IS getting far more critical acclaim than any other power metal band in the States. That basis for an argument is already sort of nullified. I would argue its the over the topness of certain metal bands that may have a slight hand in keeping alot of potential listeners AWAY from power metal. But that’s a whole other argument. I had to type this fast, running out the door —- I’ll come back and see if I can add anything later.
February 11, 2014
I agree with Pigeon. I can give you a long list of power metal bands that aren’t cheesy and I can count on one hand the ones that are.
Point is that you don’t need to be cheesy to do quality power metal /story!