In Remembrance: Therion Conjures the Past on Leviathan II

As Therion fans, we’re right in the middle of a glorious time period where contrary to the past decade of mostly silence, new music is being released at a nearly year or two clip that hearkens back to their late 90s run of continuous yearly album releases. The band’s newest effort is part two of the ongoing Leviathan trilogy, of which part one premiered in January of 2021 and wound up topping last year’s albums of the year list in a landslide. At the time of it’s release, Christofer Johnsson detailed out in interviews the overall plan for the trilogy, with the first album being the more epic, bombastic songs, while the second album would focus on the band’s more dark and melancholic side (album three to follow is said to be a diverse album collecting the more adventurous, heavier, and even folk-ier songs from the Leviathan sessions). The overall conceit for the Leviathan era is that Johnsson eyed this as a final frontier for the band, having tackled all the ambitious projects they’ve wanted to in the past (particularly with the recent metal opera Beloved Antichrist), they set about trying to write material that their fans would have wanted, something previously anathema to their process. Johnsson has described it himself as the challenge of trying to write a classic Therion “hits” album, and you get the gist of what he’s talking about, of trying to reimagine the essence of their most beloved and popular songs (because yeah there’s no actual chart hits in the Therion catalog to speak of singles wise). It’s an idea that is as wildly ambitious to me as any zany French pop covers album or grandiose metal opera, largely because it’s so infrequently done even within the tradition bound world of metal, to purposefully attempt such a thing.

The Leviathan sessions yielding more songs than Johnsson had anticipated is what’s led to this one album becoming a trilogy, and I’m grateful for that, it seemingly making up for all the quiet years in one fell swoop. And more specifically to Leviathan II, this album’s focus on the band’s more softer, melancholic side is something that I really appreciate because so much of those glorious late 90s albums were loaded with music in this vein. Classic gems such as “Birth of Venus Illegitima”, “Clavicula Nox”, “Raven of Dispersion”, “Eternal Return”, “Ship of Luna” — just to name a few, these were the songs that really made me fall in love with the band when I first discovered them sometime in 2000-ish when I randomly stumbled upon the band in a record store. Don’t get me wrong, I love their metal side, from the early death metal to the symphonic metal bombast, but Johnsson has always had a magical way with the band’s softer melancholic side, writing beautiful melodies and crafting for them inspired arrangements. It’s within this dichotomy that Therion’s sound exists, making them one of the most compelling artists in the symphonic metal world (and legit pioneers deserving of that title). And though Leviathan II touches upon the same fundamental elements that characterized those aforementioned classics, it also picks up where its immediate predecessor left off in being a very vocal driven album, as opposed to the very instrumental forward nature of late 90s Therion.

There are a couple moments on this album where this Leviathan I / Gothic Kabbalah esque vocal melody driven approach meshes with that older instrumental forward style, namely on “Cavern Cold As Ice”, and the lead single “Pazuzu”. The former might just be the most instantly accessible song on the album, with uptempo metallic riffs setting a quickened pace and Spanish vocalist Rosalía Sairem’s plaintive, rose tinted voice narrarating the song with a hooky vocal melody and genuinely emotional inflection in her performance. It might be the most, how should I say this… snappy(?) Therion song ever recorded at a quick 3:25 run time, but in keeping with the Leviathan playbook, its direct and to the point even as it eschews sheer heaviness in favor of bittersweet melancholy. As wonderful as Sairem’s performance is there, Thomas Vikstrom shines on “Pazuzu”, his regal tenor and alternating rough hewn clean metal voice both combining to spectacular effect on a fantastic track. The guitar solo here at the 3:07 mark is the vintage Therion approach to guitars, right out of the Accept and Scorpions playbook of wild, tastefully articulated 80s metal tinged goodness. It’s an interesting choice as the first single because I think it’s a bit of a grower as a song overall, but it does have enough of a balance of uptempo rockin’ riffs and a haunting, mysterious aura that might make it the likely candidate to be picked if not the most representative of the rest of the album. As an interesting aside, they’ve also included an “AOR” version of “Pazuzu” here, with well… AOR styled hard rock vocals in place of the classical tenor in the original version, and its a coin flip in deciding which I prefer because both have their strengths. Eclipse vocalist Erik Mårtensson contributes to both, and I’m actually having trouble discerning which parts he’s singing compared to Vikstrom because their tones get fairly similar at points, but either way both guys deliver the goods.

The most classic sounding song here is clearly “Lunar Colored Fields”, with its gentle soprano vocal introduction and subdued, evocative string arrangement sounding all the world like something that would’ve fit perfectly on Vovin or Deggial in all their heavily instrumental glory. The choral vocals that spring up when the song steps up the tempo a bit in the middle bridge are vintage Therion, dramatic and impactful while still casting a regal glamour over the soundscape. That uplifting, ascending choir at the four minute mark recalls shades of something like “The Wondrous World of Punt” from Sirius B, sharing the same sonic feel of spiritual ecstasy that makes for a transcendent listening experience. Similarly the elegant and mysterious balladry of “Hades and Elysium” has that distinct late 90s Therion feel, and I think it might be my personal favorite on the album for its sheer simplicity and utter beauty. Longtime Therion soprano Lori Lewis and Leviathan I’s star alto/soprano Taida Nazraić team up on this song and exchange gorgeous vocal passages to weave together the dreamy starscape that blankets across every second of this piece. Lewis is a Therion institution, her continued presence on Therion albums even though she’s not a part of the live lineup anymore is credit to Johnsson knowing he shouldn’t let go of a killer talent if at all possible. Nazraić is heard on four songs across this album, and though she doesn’t have a star turn like on Leviathan I’s “Tuonela” or “Die Wellen der Zeit”, her presence is heard in impactful moments throughout. Of particular note on “Hades and Elysium” is the flute playing of frequent Haggard musician Cătălina Popa, who I remember from her excellent work on the recent Suidakra releases.

On the heavier side of this melancholy drenched album, there’s a few noteworthy cuts worth pointing out, particularly “Codex Gigas”, a meaty and cleverly structured slow burn built on doomier riffs and thundering percussion. Vikstrom owns this song, his rich vocals full of drama and splendor in that killer chorus, one of the most satisfying hooks in recent Therion memory, particularly towards the finale when he’s joined by the Hellscore choir in all their glory. The heaviest jam here is “Midnight Star” where thundering riffs anchor aggressive verse passages with Chiara Malvestiti’s operatic singing gliding over the top, and Vikstrom swooping in like a hawk during the chorus with some of his most heavy metal sounding vocals ever. The song abruptly changes it up halfway through into a quieter, moodier introspective passage, with ghostly choirs, spare chord sequences, and a gradually building grand finale that gently subsides with an accordion sounding folk finish on the keyboards. Similarly on the bizarre and heavy side of things, we get some near death metal vocals on “Lucifuge Rofocale” (courtesy of one Chris Davidsson apparently… Johnsson himself has long retired from handling vocals himself), a first for a Therion album in years (perhaps Sirius B / Lemuria was the last time this happened?). The vocals here by all involved (including Hellscore Choir’s founder Noa Gruman in a solo spot) are incredible, but the highlight on this song is lead guitarist Christian Vidal’s smoking solo that leads the outro, a complex, highly articulate figure that at one point syncs up with the choir in the background to satisfying effect. It’s been hard for Vidal to really shake off the shadow of Christian Niemann to my ears, the latter just cast that large of a presence on Therion’s music during his era, but Vidal has really begun to make his mark on the Leviathan albums.

I’ve thus far neglected to talk about the first two opening songs here, but that’s not because I find them inadequate, on the contrary they’re all incredibly sharp in their own right, but their uptempo nature threw me for a loop initially when I was expecting the album to open with that softer melancholic side. That aside, “Aeon of Maat” is a meaty, solid opening punch in the Therion tradition of prior openers such as “Rise of Sodom and Gomorrah” and “Seven Secrets of the Sphinx”, a rockin’ uptempo affair that’s built around a hooky riff-vocal dynamic. It’s actually more of a spiritual sibling to Leviathan I’s opener “The Leaf on the Oak of Far” especially for it’s 80s metal meets classical musicality aesthetic. The following song “Litany of the Fallen” is a far more reigned in cut, with a bright choir sung chorus shining through the chugging guitars of the verse sequences. Both it and the also choir heavy “Marijin Min Nar” might be my least favorite songs on the album, not because I think they’re bad, but they’re just outshined in contrast to their surrounding songs and perhaps because I’ve been so wowed by the individual vocal performances on both Leviathan albums so much that having a choir handle the leads instead leaves me feeling a bit detached from them (no slight on Hellscore choir of course who are tremendous). For the last song I’ve neglected to mention, I really enjoyed both the violin parts and lead guitar figures on “Alchemy of the Soul”, a meditative piece of music that is sublimely beautiful in moments and also hooky in that very direct, no frills way that Therion have been employing a lot throughout the Leviathan project at large.

To sum things up, I’ve come away very satisfied by Leviathan II, though it’s hard to compare it directly to it’s predecessor given that its song makeup is so purposefully different. It’s delivered what Johnsson promised it would, a reimagining of the band’s melancholic, softer side via new songs, and reminded me that Therion are one of the most unique sounding bands in metal history (haters be damned, a lot of people have dismissed Therion over the past decade or so because symphonic metal got flooded with bands who were inspired by Nightwish and Within Temptation, and Therion somehow got shoehorned in with them… which only points out the sheer ignorance of those doing the criticizing). There are songs on this album that I’m going to keep going back to time and time again, just as on Leviathan I and hopefully on Leviathan III. I’ll admit the fanboy in me is very nervous at all this talk from Johnsson about how this is the band’s final challenge… does that mean he’s envisioning this being the band’s last few albums? I certainly hope not. I wrote in my original review of Leviathan I that this purposeful look back at their classic sound has seemingly reinvigorated the band’s creative spirit, and that in a funny roundabout way, they’ve actually made music that sounds fresh, inspired, and even treading on new ground at moments with all the lead vocal heavy performances. They’re on a creative tear right now and I hope Johnsson realizes that and keeps the music going for a long time to come.

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