I could probably go on at length doing a point-by-point breakdown of Pathfinder’s sound, but it occurs to me that I don’t really have to. All I have to do to give a complete and accurate impression of what this young Polish power metal act’s sophomore effort is all about is to recount the lyrics of the chorus to the album’s second track:
“METAL IS ETERNAL
LIKE EARTH, FIRE, WIND AND WATER
FIFTH ELEMENT IN THE SPACE-TIME
ULTRA POWER FOR MY BRAIN
METAL FEEDS MY FANTASY
MAKES ME MASTER OF MY WILD DREAMS
LIKE EARTH, FIRE, WIND AND WATER
SUPER METAL ARMS MY WILL”
(Note: the capitalisation here isn’t mine. This is exactly as it appears in the lyric booklet.)
That’s pretty much all you need, isn’t it? Pathfinder (PL) sound exactly like what you imagined upon reading that, except more so: all the most absurd elements of Manowar, Dragonforce, Blind Guardian, Rhapsody of Fire, Sabaton et al., smashed together with giddy abandon and unified by the desire to create the most concentrated deluge upon the senses that modern audio recording technology accommodates for. Those whose gag reflexes just activated at such a thought need read no further, and I say that without any judgement on my part. There are two possible responses when faced with such total, unrepentant aural excess as Pathfinder’s; either to write it off as the most tawdry and superficial pabulum produced by a musical culture whose love of excess has gotten away from it, or to give in and go along with it in its hedonistic pursuit of glory.
I can honestly say that I’ve never been bothered by what you might call cheese. The first obligation of entertainment is to be entertaining, and if in doing so it wears its artifice and its eagerness to please on its sleeve, then I’ll only respect it the more for its earnestness if it successfully engages me. It’s for this reason that I was absolutely entranced by Pathfinder’s 2010 debut album Beyond the Space, Beyond the Time; at a time when so much power metal seemed meek and half-hearted in its attempts to evoke storybook heroism and grandeur, that record seemed like it descended from the heavens like a screaming falcon, evoking the kind of furious, warlike energy and mythic scope that symphonic metal seems like it should on paper and yet so frequently falls short of, unabashed in its mission to make the listener feel alive.
Less than two years separate the releases of BTS,BTT and Fifth Element, and this second outing finds the band determinedly staying the course they so firmly established on their first go ‘round. The same firing-on-all-cylinders, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach is on display. Bassist and founding member Arkadiusz E. Ruth’s thunderous and omnipresent orchestration underpins the blizzard of notes laid down by guitarists Gunsen and Karol Mania, who seem to deviate from their lightning-fast rhythms at the slightest provocation from the songwriting in order to indulge in duelling solos, both with each other and with keyboardist Slavomir Belak. Simon Kostro, whose sonorous and commanding voice periodically erupts into piercing falsettos and pseudo-harsh rasps, shares vocal duties with the ear-candy soprano Agata Lejba-Migdalska and mezzo-soprano Katarzyna Materna. Also going on throughout all of this, of course, is the double bass carpet bombing laid down by Kacper Stachowiak. Amidst all of this incredible volume of instrumentation, I could bemoan the loss of identifiable and memorable riffs swamped in the sheer excess of notes, but this would, I think, be missing the point. The music Pathfinder write is no more meant to be catchy or infectious than that of, say, Burzum; its primary mission is not to worm its way into the listener’s mind and preserve itself there, but to provide as concentrated an infusion of adrenaline as possible in the time that it’s playing, an hour’s worth of set-piece moments that prioritise the immediate sensation of revelation, of “holy shit, I can’t believe what I’m hearing” over making a lingering impression. In this sense, Pathfinder arguably have more in common with the sorts of production companies dedicated to cinematic trailer music that have started cropping up in the last few years such as Immediate Music and Two Steps From Hell than they do with classic power metal.
Judged according to these standards, I can’t help but find Fifth Element slightly deflating after the majestic trip that was Beyond the Space, Beyond the Time. At no point does Fifth Element touch the heights of ludicrous audacity that the band showed with the full minute of shredding that formed the cold open to “The Whisper of Ancient Rocks,” or the impossibly high note Kostro hit at the climax of “Beyond the Space, Beyond the Time.” Pathfinder have set themselves up as the ne plus ultra of symphonic power metal, the same way bands like Brain Drill and Viraemia are to tech death, and if a band make it their business to push a certain extreme as far as it will go, then surely it’s fair to judge their work according to the linear metric they set out for themselves, no? By Pathfinder’s own paradigm then, Fifth Element is a definite step back from its predecessor in that it never attains the same lofty peaks of awe, and as such, the parts of my brain that should have been overwhelmed found themselves instead fixating on niggling problems, like Kostro’s jarring jumps into squealing falsetto stings, or the sterile and over-processed guitar tone.
With that said though, the moments of doubt and frustration were overwhelmingly overshadowed by those of glee, pumping my fists and banging my head, utterly unconcerned by the ultimate superficiality of it all. The generally astronomical standard of musicianship and the band’s collective aura of childlike joy win the day, each song like a present being unwrapped on Christmas morning. Pathfinder successfully avoid the pitfall that has so long plagued their contemporaries in Dragonforce; where Dragonforce’s songs all follow much the same template and quickly blur into numbing monotony, Pathfinder imbue each track with a distinctive hook; while the overall tone is still “all epic, all the time,” the band realise that there is more than one viable route to arrive at that conclusion; the rousing war hymns of “Elemental Power” and “Ready to Die Between Stars” distinguish themselves from the romantic tragedy of “The Day When I Turn Back Time” or the anticipatory menace of “March to the Darkest Horizon.” The result is that the album remains consistently engaging, continually producing new shiny trinkets out of its seemingly bottomless sack.
Most importantly, Pathfinder’s earnestness is never in doubt. As ridiculous as their lyrics’ rote recitation of scattershot high fantasy clichés may be, the music imbues them with heft and solemnity. Fifth Element follows the cardinal rule of good cheese, which is that however absurd a premise, it should be realised with the fullest effort its creators can afford. If there was any indication that Pathfinder treated their own absurdity with anything resembling irony or detachment (the very reason I’ve never been able to get into Rhapsody of Fire), the whole project would come crashing down about them. As it is though, every band member seems to be committed body and soul to their central conceit of majesty and fantasy, and the effort and passion they inject validates the listener’s escapist impulse, allows us to immerse ourselves. Pathfinder are aural confectionary to be sure, empty calories, no doubt. But goddammit, we’re human, and their triumphant, joyous escapism feels nice. When it’s executed this well, that should be all the justification it needs to exist.
01 Ventus Ignis Terra Aqua
02 Fifth Element
03 Ready to Die Between Stars
04 The Day When I Turn Back Time
06 March to the Darkest Horizon
07 Yin Yang
08 Elemental Power
09 Ad Futuram Rei Memoriam
10 When the Sunrise Breaks the Darkness
12 Spartakus and the Sun Beneath the Sea