Dragonland – Under The Grey Banner
I’d be a rotten liar if I didn’t admit that this was one of my most highly anticipated albums of 2011. After groundbreaking symphonic power metal albums Starfall and Astronomy, Dragonland fans have been left for five long cold years, wondering when their multi-faceted power metal behemoth would return. Finally, rumblings began, including that Dragonland was returning to its roots in fantasy, rather than the science fiction-inspired Astronomy. For some, this might mean an immediate dismissal of the new work as just another silly fantasy concept album. Now, fantasy content has hardly been something that I’ve avoided in the past, and when I discovered just how much effort that the band has put into developing this world and its imagery, I realized that at last the world might again witness a mature fantasy power metal work the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Blind Guardian’s mighty Nightfall In Middle-Earth.
Now that readers are rolling their eyes at a comparison to one of power metal’s finest albums, it’s my delight to tell you that Under The Grey Banner succeeds in areas that even Nightfall… did not (not to say that it blows that album away, if you’ve read my review). This comes with the territory of adding hefty symphonic elements to an album, and I tell you that Dragonland creates atmosphere in great swirling clouds, unlike any other speedy power metal album I’ve ever experienced. What’s more, there are a whole lot of paralyzingly exceptional melodies to go along with all of that color. The degree to which Dragonland succeeds in supplementing each and every song with extraordinarily well-placed and complementary nuances (well-placed waves, winds, birds, etc., blended so well) is something I wouldn’t have thought possible. However, with a band that has regularly improved itself with every release, it’s only what you hoped for after such a long leave of absence.
Right, you’re skeptical. I don’t blame you. While I can’t provide the story of the album satisfactorily without the full lyrics booklet, I am most certainly prepared and qualified to pay witness to the musical excellence here. Let’s start from the top, shall we? “Ilmarion” is like all of the symphonic openers to power metal albums, and you might not think anything of it. To my ears, the mounting drama that builds throughout this track segues effortlessly into the towering wall of keyboard and guitar that marks the beginning of “Shadow Of The Mithril Mountains”. Like any good opening combination, this pair of songs provides a dramatic and inspirational burst of energy, and one that carries over into the slower-paced but breathtaking “The Tempest”, with its spinning melodic journey through thoughts and dreams.
At this point, the clarion call is sounded with “A Thousand Towers White”, with one of the most subtly magnificent choruses that I’ve heard this year (or perhaps ever), and ending as abruptly as it begins. Wishing fervently for a copy of the lyrics to properly understand the story, I can still appreciate the excellent character voice of the antagonist in “Fire And Brimstone”, whose commanding shout turns any thought of cheesiness into a well-executed (ok, maybe still a little cheesy) scene of tension. Afterwards, and with a crack of thunder, “The Black Mare” gallops forth to the east with a myriad of musical emotions. From desperate flight to calm serenity, then hurtling headlong into a chorus of bombastic splendor in the blink of an eye, this is undeniably one of the most varied and mercilessly memorable songs that Dragonland has ever crafted. Thankfully, the mellow “Lady Of Goldenwood” provides a much-needed break for some violin, plot exposition, shimmering choruses, and elven mead before passing through the unseen to “Durnir’s Forge”. While perhaps one of the least immediately striking songs, the purposeful march (ever onwards and down) results in an almost dirgelike (perhaps we could call it…mournfully catchy?) chorus, supplemented by deep brass and dwarven chants to round out the experience.
Leaping from the depths, the journey takes the high road with “The Trials Of Mount Farnor”. Once again, the brass is omnipresent, and I believe that Dragonland makes more and better use of it than I’ve seen any power metal band do in the past. Taking their leave of the mountains, the narrative interlude “Throne Of Bones” plays with some recurring musical themes (“Shadow Of The Mithril Mountains”) and crafts them into a reprisal of evil foreshadowing that creeps at last into the eight minute title track. And a twisting and varied track it is, with more of that wonderful brass, cacophonous blastbeats, a confrontation between Ilmarion and his nemesis, and the finest climax to a fulfilling story that one could ask for. Ultimately, the excruciatingly smooth and peaceful “Ivory Shores” acts as a musical epilogue after the tumultuous events of the previous fifty two minutes of intensity, complete with waves and seagulls winging overhead in carefree flight.
Skeptical as I was at first about this album standing up to the hype, I find myself weak in the knees and watery in the eyes after what is my ninth or tenth listen to Under The Grey Banner. I’ve listened to many fans express their thoughts as to how this sizes up to Astonomy, and there’s no doubt in my mind that UtGB is all at once more mature, more consistent, more immediately grabbing, and more fulfilling after multiple listens. All of this, and I haven’t even fully invested in the story of the album (which is admittedly somewhat deliberate, without having all the lyrics). Even if you’re just up for a great fantasy-themed album without wanting to piece together the story, you won’t find any better. To fans of progressive and symphonic power metal: this is the pinnacle of detail, atmosphere, and slaying melodies that you are likely to find. If you are someone who objects to Jonas Heidgert’s voice (it just keeps growing on me), there won’t be a whole lot of redemption here, but it is his finest moment yet. For that matter, this applies to talent of the entire band and their compositional skills (And don’t forget Olaf Morck’s shredding!). After running on this long though, I think it’s high time that I shut up and simply insist that you buy a copy of Under The Grey Banner and experience the whole thing for yourself. I have no choice but to give this album a perfect score, so rarely do I enjoy an album so thoroughly. For the record, this is only the fourth or fifth metal album to receive such praise from me. To Dragonland themselves, I say: What on earth is next?
“There a thousand spires, glowing like fire in the sun. I see them rising o’er these open plains, and I know I shall remember forever how I saw a thousand towers white!”
Daniel’s Rating: 5 out of 5