Well I’ve been waiting for this one for a long, long time. Ten years in fact. A little biographical tidbit to put things in context: Therion is one of my favorite artists regardless of genre, period, easily in my top five and unlikely to ever budge from that position. I consider their music to be distinctly innovative, complex, and multifaceted in a way that dramatically differentiates them from other rock or metal based artists, even those we can rightfully call symphonic metal, a genre which Therion pioneered. Having said that, in the now going on ten year history of this blog, I have only been able to write about Therion a couple times, less than the amount you can count on one hand. Their last studio album proper was 2010’s Sitra Ahra, a decidedly difficult album that I can only partially enjoy at best even a decade later. The band released the wonderful Les Fleurs du Mal two years after that (this blog’s 2012 album of the year), but it wasn’t original material, being an album of French chanson cover songs. And of course, as reviewed here two years ago, we had the half-decade plus in the making opera (like, an actual opera) Beloved Antichrist, which I actually enjoy but again — I’m a fanboy so I took the time and effort to acquire that enjoyment.
In my review for that massive release, I voiced my worry that it would be another half decade before the band could get around to releasing a proper follow up to Sitra Ahra, considering touring obligations that would inevitably need to happen for obvious income reasons, and bandleader Christofer Johnsson’s desire to stage that opera (itself a lengthy undertaking no doubt). Now, I can only conjecture at this point, not knowing what his plans were for the band pre-pandemic. All I know for sure is that with all touring plans put on hold, it seems like the timetable on a new studio album was accelerated. This new album, Leviathan, is arriving years earlier than I anticipated it, and there’s word from Christofer himself that two sequels are already in the works to immediately follow it. As a passionate Therion fan, I’m not exaggerating in saying this feels like Christmas. Particularly so because the nature of Leviathan is so unexpectedly driven towards the idea of fan service, it really does feel like an armful of wrapped gifts on behalf of Christofer for the intolerably long wait. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge him taking the time to pursue whatever artistic ambitions he wanted to, nor do I think the opera was misguided, particularly after we’d experienced two decades of his career receiving mostly incredible releases. Yet how else to interpret and receive an album that’s described by the man himself as a purposeful distillation of the band’s most beloved eras?
The most surprising aspect of Leviathan then is how it manages to transcend that aforementioned fan service description and reveal itself to be one of the band’s most cohesive and inspired albums to date. I consider myself well versed in the band’s catalog, and in knowing those prior albums extremely well… yes I hear shades and echoes of Therion’s musical past in glimpses and flashes throughout. More than that however, I hear how a simplifying, stripping back, or dare I suggest a reductivist approach to the songwriting here has pushed the band to leap forward to a place they’d not explored quite in this fashion before. To put it simply, for an album billed as the distillation of Therion’s most popular moments, there’s a lot about this album that feels fresh, uncharted, and newborn. It took me more than a handful of listens to suss out why I felt this way, but I think it boils down to a few things. First, the song structures here are far more linear than we’ve heard from Therion in ages, eschewing the often bewilderingly clunky patterns that made up Sitra Ahra. While not as simple as verse-chorus-verse-chorus, the progressive tendencies that laced the songwriting on that aforementioned last album have largely been abandoned in favor of songs that hit their emotional apex quicker. One of my main private criticisms of Sitra was the sometimes frustrating sonic choices throughout, be it instrumentation or vocalist, created a barrier to what could have been incredibly affecting music. It’s a criticism I levy quite a bit at progressive metal, and one of the unspoken truths about Therion is how their music flourishes far better when it’s allowed to be more naturally flowing, its melodies a little more effortless, as they are all throughout Leviathan.
Pair that with another striking aspect of the new album, that being how the cast of vocalists and their melodies have wound up being the core feature and strength of these songs. This might not seem revelatory, but for Therion it’s kind of a rarity for their music to lean so heavily on the vocal side. Consider that the band’s intent on creating this record was to challenge themselves to try to invoke the spirit of their more popular era. Well, records from that late 90s-early 00s era such as Vovin and Deggial and Secret of the Runes, while laced with dramatic, rich vocals throughout, were largely albums built on meditative, hypnotic instrumental passages. I had always felt that particular aspect of that era (my introductory era as well) was what gave the band their mystical aura, this purposeful deployment of vocal silence. In that space, the band’s instrumental side offered beautifully dark, mysterious melodies that were able to express just as much as a singer could. That’s why 2006’s Gothic Kabbalah came as such a surprise when it was released, as suddenly the band’s lineup had expanded to include a whole cast of lead vocalists that they’d previously not had before, including Mats Levin, Snowy Shaw, and Katarina Lilja. That album was full to the brim of lead vocal centric songs, as opposed to the choir based work on most of the preceding albums, and as a result it stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the Therion discography (and as divisive as that album was at the time, I still think its spectacular and incredibly underrated). When I listen to Leviathan, I’m most reminded of Gothic Kabbalah in execution and spirit than any other period of the band’s history.
The small yet, I suspect, consequential difference between these two albums however is that Leviathan’s vocal approach is not just hyper-focused on lead vocal driven songwriting, but on melding that with the band’s traditional choir based vocals. I idly wonder how much this album arriving on the heels of the massive, vocal centric Beloved Antichrist opera had to do with it — that project’s writing tendencies lingering to impact these new songs. This is total conjecture on my part, but I hear the opera’s influence on songs like the utterly gorgeous, stately ballad “Die Wellen der Zeit”, possibly one of the most beautiful songs in the Therion cannon. Not only is lead vocalist Taida Nazraić a revelation with her incredibly emotive performance, but the delicately ethereal, almost floating orchestral melodies here are sublime. The Israeli choir Hellscore provides the blanket of voices that join Nazraić, and together they spiral upwards into a chorus that is transcendent, and remind me of some of those shimmering moments on Beloved Antichrist that I wish were longer (“To Shine Forever”, “Through Dust, Through Rain”). I hear this operatic influence permeating the awesome, dramatically engaging “Psalm Of Retribution”, where Mats Leven, Thomas Vikström, and Lori Lewis seem to engage in a back and forth sung dialogue as opposed to the typical male/female vocal dynamic. As an aside, it’s just so great to hear Leven on a Therion album again, he was part of my favorite era of the band (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite Therion albums Lemuria and Sirius B), and his distinctive rough edged vocal tone is an excellent contrast to Vikström’s smooth tenor.
Lori Lewis is joined by fellow veteran Therion soprano Chiara Malvestiti on “Nocturnal Light”, another richly operatic piece built on strong lead vocal melodies framed by a wall of choirs that are layered in the mix to sound ethereal and heavenly, as if sounding down from the heavens. Vikström is particularly impressive here, walking that tightrope between his classical tenor and the accessibility that a song with metal guitars would need — it’s as close as anyone has ever come to reminding me of Falconer’s great Mathias Blad. Again I’ll emphasize, this piece feels new to me, something that has hallmarks of classic Therion but it’s combination of elements is pieced together in a way I don’t think I’ve heard before. After many listens it’s risen to become one of my favorites on the record, along with the fantastic “Tuonela”, as buzz-worthy a single Therion have delivered in ages. Here ex-Nightwish vocalist/bassist Marco Hietala joins Nazraić in an elegant yet impassioned duet over a folky violin led melodic motif set against the backdrop of spectral choirs and chunky riffs. You’ve gotta hand it to Christofer for having a damn near perfect track record for knowing which uniquely distinctive voices will work as guest spots in Therion songs (in the past he’s used the likes of Dan Swano, Ralf Scheepers, and Hansi Kursch to name a few). Hietala’s unique delivery suits Therion, even his trademark wild vocal extensions that worked to hair raising effect in Nightwish conjuring that satisfying, fist pumping magic here.
As for Nazraić, I have to hand it to her for perhaps claiming the album’s MVP award, because although she was gifted with three of the strongest songs on the album, she manages to elevate all of them with genuinely glorious performances. This was my introduction to her, and I hope she’s utilized on the next two Therion records because she’s earned a new fan here. Her last performance comes on the album closer, the epic Asian influenced “Ten Courts of Diyu”, where she positively shines. Her vocal during the build-up to and during the refrain could squeeze emotion out of boulders. And again, I love the simplicity being shown here with the usage of silent pauses save for a few stray bass notes during the middle bridge. That moment in particular was one of the few things that reminded me of Vovin and Deggial, where Therion demonstrate an ability to shift the mood within the course of a song in such an elegant, seemingly effortless manner. And I would be remiss not to point out the fantastic performance turned in by Rosalía Sairem, particularly on the awesome uptempo (and endearingly cheerful sounding) “El Primer Sol”, as straight to the point and direct as Therion gets. Points also go to Vikström here for crafting a performance that blurs the line between distinguished classical tenor and rough-edged metal vocals. Sairem also turns “Eye Of Algol” into something special with a wild lead vocal delivery that reminds me of Katarina Lilja’s work on Gothic Kabbalah (there’s that reference again!).
I realize that I’ve spent most of this review discussing the vocal performances, but I just can’t emphasize enough how much this is a vocally driven, singer-centric album. If this is your introduction to Therion, you should know that it’s not always like this (not a bad thing mind you, but this is a band that has consistently changed things up throughout the years, apparently even when they attempt to revisit older eras!). So what about the rest of the band, of Christofer himself on rhythm guitars and lead guitarist Christian Vidal? Together I think their best moment comes on “Aži Dahāka”, as aggressive as the album gets within all things metallic, with Vidal spinning off some quick, dizzying lead patterns that are as joyfully melodic as we’ve come to expect from Therion. It’s been hard to consider Vidal as a replacement for the impeccable Kristian Niemann (Sorcerer), who was around for the band’s more guitar centric era. Vidal has been on two records now, spaced a decade apart, and he has glimpses and flashes of brilliance but I’ve yet to hear him really get a transcendent moment of his own yet. It was also strange that Snowy Shaw laid down drum tracks for five of these songs, but wasn’t used as a vocalist, particularly given his past work for Therion in that role. Here’s hoping he’s singing on the next two.
As for Christofer, his impact on Therion albums is more felt in the very fabric of every note and lyric rather than his Accept-ian rhythm guitars, and particularly in his musical instincts. I’m not going to exalt him and use words like “maestro” and “mastermind” like some overzealous PR people tend to throw around towards many other musicians. He’s just a metalhead like the rest of us, albeit one with a really creative vision and the ability to express himself through this vehicle of his own design. I’ll give him credit for steering the band in this direction, accepting his statement that it was as much a challenge for himself as it was a tacit acknowledgment of something fans would likely enjoy (spoiler alert: I’m enjoying it). But I think Leviathan succeeds on a level that he didn’t anticipate, that being the pushing of the band in a more vocally cohesive direction (whether intentionally or subconsciously). The result is a first for Therion, an album that sounds sweeter, warmer, with more heart on sleeve emotional resonance than they’ve ever conjured. It’s full of moments that remind me of why I fell in love with this band so much, of why I’m so quick to defend them from any detractors who just dismiss them with a cursory glance or worse, a lazy lumping in with other symphonic metal (or derisively, “corset-core”) bands. Therion are one of the most misunderstood bands in metal, their work needing no little amount of time and attention to properly appreciate and contextualize. The new album might not change that, but it’s certain to be appreciated as one of their best records by those of us who do get it.