Milan’s Adramelch are one of those bands. You know the kind I mean – the ones who never acquire any mainstream recognition or even any particularly visible cult following, and yet who somehow keep stubbornly persisting through the years and eventually through the decades. What notoriety they do possess, they owe largely to their 1988 album “Irae Melanox,” feted by genre fans as a classic of raw progressive power metal, stylistically situated somewhere between Fates Warning and Manilla Road. Much like their kindred spirits in Fates Warning, their output since reforming in 2003 following a 15-year hiatus has moved away from the grit and fury of 80s metal towards mellower, more accessible territory, to the point where it’s difficult to say if they’re now an unusually easygoing power metal act or a progressive rock group occasionally gesturing in the direction of dual harmonies and power chords. “Opus,” the band’s fourth full-length, is nothing less than the end of an era – Adramelch have announced that this will be their final recording together, and the capstone of a career that dates back to 1986.
Saying that a band have “matured” over the years is all too often a condescending platitude packaged as a compliment, a backhanded way of insinuating that they have lost what youthful vigour, vitality and relevance they may once have had. However, if one band in ten released an album with the class, sophistication and intelligence of “Opus” in the twilight years of their career, the connotations attached to the term “mature” would quickly die out. The sensibilities of power metal are recognisable here, but shorn of the foibles that so often hold the genre back. Adramelch have taken the creative energy that goes into making songs faster/louder/bigger/longer and channelled it instead into crafting songs of exceptional delicacy and nuance, songs which, when probed, reveal depth and detail and beauty.
“Opus” proceeds, for the most part, at rather relaxed tempos; Gianluca Corona and Fabio Troiani’s guitars shy away from root-note driven riffs, favouring articulately-phrased licks and chord progressions. Dextrous, fibrous melody lines twine around one another – working in concert with Vittorio Ballerio’s brittle, crystalline vocals and Luca Sigfrido Percich’s fill-driven drumming (influenced, I suspect, by the work of Mark Zonder), Adramelch’s instrumentation has a light, airy character to it. It actually reminds me of the recent output of Cynic – obviously, Adramelch lack the Floridians’ grounding in extreme metal, but they are both characterised by a sound that is layered without being saturated or excessively dense. The separate instruments are interwoven in dynamic and complex counterpoint, but they don’t try to fill up every gap inthe mix with notes.
Listen, for just one example, to the ending of “A Neverending Rise” – between the acoustic guitars, the lead guitars, the bass line and the layered vocals, there are four or five distinct melody lines operating in tandem, coalescing in service of the whole but at the same time individually discernible, laden with details to reward an attentive ear. It’s a rich album, one which becomes more deeply satisfying and pleasurable the more closely it is scrutinised.
The songs themselves are built with the same care on macro level as the musicianship displays on a moment-to-moment to basis. Although complex, they avoid the indulgences associated with the progressive label – the longest comes in at under seven minutes long, and they eschew the multiple movements of self-important “suites” – all of the songs develop and grow out of a core of melodic ideas. Adramelch write with delayed gratification as a guiding principle, building steadily and organically towards glorious crescendos – almost without exception, the best moments of their songs come in the last two minutes. One could easily begin listening to “Fate” or “As the Shadows Fall” and, in the absence of any immediately obvious hooks, write them off as needlessly languid or even dull on the basis of the first couple of minutes. Don’t.The melodies fill out and thicken, working towards an end point where all of the pieces fall into place.
Yet even that’s not the most remarkable part of “Opus;” that would be the sense of emotional tenderness and warmth that suffuses its every beat and bar. The melodies seem to occupy a paradoxical register, being at once euphoric and remorseful; the tone they create is elusive, something like nostalgic reminiscence, contextualised by the wisdom and deeper understanding of age. I imagine this is at least partly self-reflection at work on the part of the band – it’s hard to think otherwise listening to “Pride” when Ballerio sings (in that wonderfully fragile, heart-on-sleeve voice that calls to mind Roy Khan or Tommy Karevik): “and everyone knew that we could not last forever.” The album seems acutely aware of its duty to serve as both the apotheosis and the final statement of Adramelch’s career, in much the same way that While Heaven Wept’s “Suspended at Aphelion” did last year. However, where that record took emotionalism to maudlin extremes, trying to turn every moment into a heart-wrenching climax, Adramelch keep things reserved, tactful, life-sized… honest.
It’s curious that the album Adramelch intended to serve as a farewell has served to reinvigorate my interest in progressive metal when it’s been in the doldrums for the last few months. “Opus” is, quite frankly, a marvel, as fine an exit from the world of recording as any band could reasonably hope for – fathomlessly intriguing, nuanced and, yes, mature, the product of decades of accrued experience being drawn upon and artfully applied. A gorgeous album, a moving album, a necessity for fans of progressive and power metal, and for me, a highlight of 2015.
01) Black Mirror
02) Long Live the Son
04) Northern Lights
05) Only by Pain
06) A Neverending Rise
09) As the Shadows Fall
10) Forgotten Words
11) Trodden Doll
12) Where Do I Belong?