Defeat Or Defiance: Serenity’s The Last Knight

It’s an interesting moment for our Austrian friends in Serenity here in the wake of the release of their seventh album The Last Knight. They’re having to follow up the extremely divisive Lionheart, an album that I was largely critical of in my review and still feel that way for the most part. Setbacks have plagued this endeavor from the get go, starting with the mixed reception to the “Set The World On Fire” single a few months ago, and a somewhat better yet problematic reception for the most recent single in “My Kingdom Comes” which got tagged with being a rip off of Kamelot’s “Veil of Elysium” (I can kind of hear what people are talking about), suffice to say it’s been an inauspicious launch for the new album. I think if we look back on the band’s career, they had a stretch from 2008-13 that a broad swath of the power metal community would agree on (both at the time and retrospectively) as being one of excellence, where the band captured our ears and hearts with their Kamelot meets Sonata Arctica blend of Euro-power. So I was quite worried then in 2015 when they announced that they’d be working on a new album without their longtime guitarist and co-songwriter Thomas Buchberger, as well as the departure of contributing vocalist Clementine Delauney. But they surprised us with Codex Atlanticus, which I thought was a really fun and exciting experiment for them, the album length concept of the life of Leonardo Da Vinci inspiring vocalist Georg Neuhauser to take command of the songwriting process with a greater emphasis on vocal melodies and symphonic elements propelling the songs. It was the most major key forward album of their career, a lush, verdant, theatrical affair that at times had splashes of broadway in its sound (check “The Perfect Woman”). As a fan, it filled me with confidence that the guitarist change and more importantly, the loss of one of the band’s major songwriters wasn’t going to impact them that much. Then Lionheart happened.

The problem with Lionheart, I suspect, stems in large part due to its lyrical theme about the crusades of King Richard I of England. The battle and glory soaked lyrical approach that Neuhauser chose to depict seemed to push him towards giving these songs a heavier, more aggressive footing. That wasn’t inherently a bad idea, but my theory is that without the knowing finesse of his old bandmate Buchberger on guitar to add the heaviness factor without taking too much away from the band’s overall melodicism, that trademark Serenity yin-yang balance slipped out of Neuhauser’s grasp. Sure it still sounded like the band, but Christian Hermsdörfer’s riffs were too upfront in the mix while being relatively simplistic and chug-a-chug to justify their prominent role, a distracting annoyance that plagued the album as a whole. To make matters worse, almost every song seemed to mirror each other in tone and sentiment —- all brash bravado and epic battle hymn and none of the light and shadow shading of the band’s pre-Codex material (barring “My Fantasy” towards the end of the album which finally offered a welcome heaping of melancholy to cut the incessant cheer). The dichotomy of unnecessarily aggro-riffing with a triumphant tone without any fluctuation was a jarring experience, and made potentially good songs sound severely flawed. The result is an album that is still regarded as largely below average, and that’s me putting it diplomatically, I won’t tell you what some of the guys at r/PowerMetal have to say about it. So why the step back in time to revisit these last two albums? Because newcomers to the band might not notice, but I tend to think its helpful for longtime listeners of a band to have a sense of context in considering a band’s newest effort, not only to check themselves against negative prejudices, but alternatively, to suss out exactly why it is they might have negative feelings towards new material.

For my part, I’ll just come out and say that The Last Knight is a rebound from the woeful Lionheart, though not as strongly as I would’ve liked. First of all, is this singular figure biography approach for a whole album just going to be the way things are going forward for Serenity now? They’ve always written about historical figures on their older albums, but they were a jumble of topics and ideas, which seemed like a wiser way to go about things. But Neuhauser seems hell bent on putting his history doctorate to full use and has devoted the band’s last three records to singular figures, this time focusing on Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. I’m not too familiar with his biography, but it does seem that the impact of this topic on the songwriting this time around has conjured up a more nuanced blend of light and dark that we’re used to in the Serenity DNA. That in itself makes this a more layered, deeper album than the surface level rah-rah glory worship of its predecessor, but also takes advantage of the band using Sascha Paeth as producer for the first time ever. Paeth is used to working with shifting tones, a blurring of major and minor keys with his experience producing for Kamelot and writing for Avantasia, and he does an admirable job here of highlight the band’s strengths. Neuhauser brings back that old school Serenity feel with onpoint songwriting on cuts like “Wings of Pride” and “Call to Arms”. The former has a romantic blush to its frenetic, speedy power metal tempos, as well as an appealing balance of loud/quiet dynamics and a chorus that is stirring. The latter is quintessential Serenity, with an unforgettable melodic hook built into Neuhauser’s soaring, powerful vocals in the chorus. They’re tracks immediately worth seeking out if you were one of the few put off by the album’s singles.

Speaking of which, yeah, you know that I keep banging on about how bands tend to pick the worst tracks to preview an album? I present exhibit number 35,432. And truth be told, I actually think “Set The World On Fire” is a really fun, quality song with an unforgettable hook —- the flashpoint that is setting off alarm bells amongst the power metal community is the sonic production gimmickry that is similar to what Beast In Black is doing. I’ve identified this as being either the vocal effect on Neuhauser’s voice in the vocal only intro, the easy, simplistic musical bed in the verses, or more accurately the moment at the 2:50 mark where Herbie Langhans joins in for a guest vocal spot and is backlit by some seriously glaring modern production gloss that sounds like an electronically generated rhythmic pulse. But all those things together don’t overshadow what I think is a wonderfully vibrant, fully arcing chorus that is right in Neuhauser’s wheelhouse as an expressive vocalist, leaving him lots of room for inflections and emoting. And in rejection of those Beast In Black comparisons, it’s one song people, and I can’t hear any of those same details anywhere else on the record. That being said, if it were simply an album cut instead of the highlighted first single, I think the reception to it would have nowhere near the amount of accusatory venom its been bitten with. A better choice might have been what turned out to be the second single in “Souls and Sins”, a moody, mid-tempo groove based cut that reminds me of the subtle complexity that defined the songs on War of Ages. Here we have an example of Neuhauser and Hermsdörfer being on the same page in terms of how to balance a gritty, grounded heaviness without smothering the power of the vocal melody in carrying the melodic load.

I’m also fond of the Death & Legacy era recalling “Queen of Avalon” with its medieval accents, and the richly beautiful power ballad “My Farewell”, which only gets better the more you listen to its various nuances. The opening “Invictus” is also the kind of Lionheart-esque thing that would have ruined this album were it full of its duplicates, but in an isolated moment, this slice of pomp and glory actually works as an energetic appetizer. Less effective yet still passable is “Keeper Of The Knights”, a song that isn’t short on urgency in its attacking tempo, but seems to lack a quality hook to go along with it. The glaring problem children of the album should be readily apparent to any experienced Serenity fan —- it’s all the tracks where the band is stepping out of the sweet spot that defines their sound, that nexus between a thick, dark sound and bright, soaring melodicism. The aforementioned “My Kingdom Comes” features dreadful screaming vocals, and this isn’t the first time the band has experimented with them, but they really have no place in the band’s palette. There’s also a haphazard approach to the staggering of tempos throughout this song, with no real flow or discernible reason as to why each tempo shift occurs at all. In other words, its a hot mess. Ditto for “Down to Hell”, where we’re treated to an unnecessarily aggro riff for aggro riff’s sake —- which not only isn’t impressive coming from a band that we’re all locked into for the melodies, but doesn’t do much to distract from the absolutely lackluster songwriting displayed here. That may be a harsh reaction to a song that simply isn’t that good, but the sooner Neuhauser and Hermsdörfer realize that they should take every pain to avoid following Kamelot into heavy riff edginess territory, the better off future Serenity albums will be. That being said, this album deserves a serious, focused look from disgruntled Serenity fans who wrote it off because of their initial impressions. It’s all too easy with streaming to just move onto the next thing, but this is a band we’ve loved in the past, and they’re owed the benefit of extra time.

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