Although they initially seem like completely different forms of music, classical and heavy metal have always fit together on record rather well. Going back to Deep Purple’s 1969 live album Concerto For Group and Orchestra, recorded with London’s Royal Philharmonic orchestra, the bombastic, overblown, operatic qualities of metal suits the grandiose, sweeping arrangements of orchestral scores beautifully at times. Through the 1970s and ‘80s, as progressive rock acts like Yes and ELP dove into the classical thing headfirst, hard rock and metal bands continued to dabble in orchestration every so often, and when it was done well, exemplified by Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and Rainbow’s “Stargazer”, the results were astonishing. American bands Queensryche, Savatage, and Dream Theater all brought in a strong, classical influence in their music as the ‘90s came along (and let us not forget Yngwie Malmsteen’s pompous Concerto Suite For Electric Guitar And Orchestra In E Flat Minor Op.1), but it wasn’t until midway through the decade that symphonic metal would truly take off, thanks to those always-industrious Scandinavians.
Coming on the heels of two 1994 albums which blended dense black metal arrangements with more ambient soundscapes, Tiamat’s Wildhoney and Simael’s Ceremony of Opposites, Sweden’s Therion upped the ante with the much-revered, landmark 1997 album Theli. Taking the orchestral idea and blowing it up to Wagner-esque, operatic proportions, complete with keyboards, choirs, and a full orchestra, it was a very majestic piece of work, as beautiful vocal melodies meshed flawlessly with the band’s ultra-heavy musicianship. In the years since that album’s release, other bands have followed Therion’s lead, most notably the terrific female-fronted European bands The Gathering, Nightwish, and Lacuna Coil (consequently, the influence of those three bands can be heard in the mainstream rock of Evanescence), and even the more extreme black metal bands, such as Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir, employed full orchestras on their most recent records. Yeah, if you like your metal huge, majestic, melodic, and deliriously over the top, it’s a good time to be alive.
Therion, meanwhile, have faithfully stuck to the formula set by Theli. Led by primary songwriter/guitarist/sometime vocalist Christofer Johnsson, who is now the only original member remaining, the band has slowly been refining that sound, with each subsequent album getting bigger and bigger in scope (the most recent effort being the 2001 concept album The Secret of the Runes), and their new one is their most massive yet. Though it’s not as groundbreaking as Theli, Therion’s new double album Lemuria/Sirius B is every bit as good, marking the pinnacle of Johnsson’s long career, as the trademark Therion sound is at long last realized to its absolute fullest. There’s no other way to put it: this album is epic, in every sense.
Employing the services of no fewer than 171 guest musicians, including the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, Prague’s Kühn Mixed Choir, and a host of opera soloists, Lemuria/Sirus B boasts a gorgeous sound, as orchestra, choir, and band (rounded out by lead guitarist Kristian Niemann, bassist Johan Niemann, drummer Richard Evensand, and vocalists Mats Leven and Piotr Wawrzeniuk) fit remarkably well together. When it’s not done properly, orchestration can often completely disrupt a metal song (see the late Michael Kamen’s accompaniment to Metallica’s “Fuel”, or the Scorpions’ disastrous orchestral rendering of “Rock You Like a Hurricane”), but on this two-CD set, everything fits comfortably, a credit to the songwriting of Johnsson, which has evolved leaps and bounds in the past decade.
Lemuria and Sirius B were originally intended to be two separate albums, but when heard as a full, 100 minute piece of work, the two flow into one another perfectly. Johnsson’s lyricist Thomas Karlsson delves into world mythology, legends, and ancient history on both records, and the set comes off as a musical chronicle of mankind’s fascination with the paranormal, and the search for spiritual enlightenment; songs delve into such subjects as Greek, Mayan, Nordic, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and even Kurdish mythology, Hindu theology, lost civilizations, as well as Russian and Scandinavian history, and although some might blow off the lyrical themes as being as goofy as anything Ronnie James Dio ever did, there’s a sincerity in Karlsson’s lyrics, a true fascination in the subject matter, that it’s next to impossible not to get swept away by it all.
Musically, Lemuria/Sirius B eschews the death metal influences in the guitar riffs; if Dimmu Borgir’s masterful Death Cult Armageddon took symphonic metal to its darkest extreme, Therion veers off in more of a traditional, power metal vein, as Johnsson and Niemann’s guitar work start to greatly resemble the slick, midtempo riffs of Helloween, Savatage, and Nevermore. The combination of band and orchestra is excellent throughout, but the opening tracks on both discs stand out the most; after an opening horn fanfare, Sirius B‘s “The Blood of Kingu” charges out of the gates, a prototypical traditional metal arrangement, as Leven’s powerful, rough-voiced yet melodic vocals engage in a dialogue with the choir. Meanwhile, the brilliant “Typhon” kicks off Lemuria with a monstrous riff that’s interrupted by an astounding vocal arrangement that features the choir, as well as soprano, tenor, and bass soloists, which then leads to the chorus, sung by Johnsson in a beastly death metal growl. The contrast between the two vocal styles, the angelic and the demonic, is enthralling.
The rest of Lemuria/Sirius B stays the course, with never a dull moment, as both discs are peppered with anthemic rockers (“Dark Venus Persephone”, “Abraxas”), touches of Iron Maiden-style guitar flourishes (“Three Ships of Berik”, “Son of the Sun”), and softer, more introspective moments (“Lemuria”, “The Wondrous World of Punt”). We’re also treated to some fabulously dark, almost gothic sounds (“Feuer Overtüre/Prometheus Entfesselt”, “Sirius B”), and most interestingly, some gorgeous orchestral arrangements written by Johnsson, climaxing with the stirring “Voyage of Gurdjieff (The Fourth Way)”, proof that if he ever wanted to score a fantasy movie, Johnsson would be more than capable.
Double albums rarely live up to expectations, and such a feat is even rarer in metal music, but Therion has done just that, as it’s progressive, yet catchy, aggressive, yet accessible. Lavishly produced, and just as lavishly packaged, with stunning visual design and artwork accompanying every song (the German edition comes in a beautiful glossy digipak with a slipcase), Lemuria/Sirius B is a massive achievement in symphonic metal, the work of masters at the very top of their game.