Before we dive fully into celebrating Therion’s 1996 album Theli, a couple of disclaimers: First, I have not been listening to this album for 20 years, so I’m not going to sit here and claim that I experienced what it meant for metal when it came out. Far from it, as you will read. Second, I don’t know most of Therion’s post-Theli material, so I also can’t paint a grand “magic-before-the-fall” stroke about their career. In other words, this is less of a celebration of 20 years of Theli than it is a good excuse to write about a fantastic piece of music.
Now then, onto the symphonic madness…
Yes, Therion’s classic Theli turns 20 today. At the time of its original release, Therion had been in the process of a slow but gradual transition away from their death metal roots, and were coming close to a new artistic breakthrough with 1995’s Lepaca Kliffoth. In the mid-90s, such an evolutionary mindset put them in the company of a fair number of brilliant bands: Paradise Lost, Anathema, The Gathering, Tiamat, Amorphis, etc. However, as with these bands, the only common thread for Therion was that they saw no boundaries to their development. Whereas Anathema started down a path that would eventually see them as one of progressive rock’s most standard bearing bands of the new millennium and The Gathering found some balance between Radiohead-ish alt prog and bombastic rock, Therion fully indulged their love of the grandiose. The result was an album for which there could be no overuse of adjectives. Theli was and is beautiful, odd as hell, theatrical, pompous, melancholic, triumphant, glorious…
…and everything in between. It is over-the-top not as a mindset (that would be their later material), but by simple virtue of the ingredients used. Most of all, it is a meticulously crafted, perfectly flowing, absolutely gorgeous collection of music, and perhaps the greatest achievement in the oft-lambasted “symphonic metal” genre.
Of course, there has been far more ridiculous music made in the years since, as Theli just sounds “extremely 90s” by nature at this point, but very little of what has been released in its wake has made such perfect use of the symphonic metal elements. Said elements included a full choir (sometimes just the gals, sometimes just the guys, sometimes everybody), a very busy piano, heaps of keyboards emulating other instruments (strings, harpsichord, horns), a full range of vocal sounds including some wonderful crooning courtesy of the inimitable Dan Swanö, and an equally ranging metal attack. The latter ranges from hints of the band’s former death metal to the type of gallop that would be at home on an Iron Maiden record if the vocals were different (“Invocation of Naamah”).
The key is that Theli does not use its symphonic and choral elements as embellishments for this underlying metal, but as the driving force, a point that is clear from the opening bars of “To Mega Therion.” So much music in this vein seems as if the various ingredients are pieced together after songs are written, but Theli has the feel of music that was conceived of and arranged as such from the very beginning. Nothing is superfluous or extraneous, and there is a lot going on that could feel this way: Guitars and piano trading off neoclassical lines; call-and-response of the female choir and the album’s most rifftastic moments in “Cults of the Shadow”; the deliberate dynamics in “The Siren of the Woods”; and doomy/gothy passages during “In the Desert of Set” – it’s all so varied, so packed with detail and nuance that it could fall apart in lesser hands. In other words, it’s more than good enough to overcome that cover art.
Way more than just good enough, indeed. Theli represents one of those truly rare moments in music: when absolutely everything clicks for a group of masters. Nothing on the album exemplifies this truth better than album centerpiece “Nightside of Eden.” This sprawling, instantly sing-along-able slab of gothic wonder not only features the most memorable of Swanö’s contributions, but backs it up with devilishly fun staccato choir parts, some true sorrow in the middle passages, and a touch of shreddy soloing towards the end. Hyperbole warning: the song is nothing short of a masterpiece within a masterpiece, and the kind of track that elevates and is elevated by everything around it. But that’s just what happens when masters achieve their mastery, right? See also: Gorguts and “Nostalgia,” Opeth and “The Drapery Falls,” Amorphis and “Black Winter Day,” etc etc etc.
As stated, I have not been listening to Theli for 20 years, nor do I possess the perspective to properly paint its place within Therion’s full career. But here is what I do know: I have heard thousands of albums in my life, and Theli stands truly alone in both style and quality. I get a kind of satisfaction and experience from this album that is duplicated nowhere else in my collection, and that is something to celebrate regardless of anniversaries or historical significance.
Still, it’s hard to completely separate the album from its 90s context. As a person that spent the mid-90s in a small town, thinking that his love of Chaos A.D. and Far Beyond Driven made him an Advanced Heavy Metal Fan, I will always be a tad jealous of the folks that got to experience the decade’s great experimental explosion as it happened. To hear Wildhoney and Tales from the Thousand Lakes and Alternative 4 and Nighttime Birds and yes, Theli when they were first released must have been truly wondrous. To observe the simultaneous cries of metal betrayal and musical praise from fans and magazines and everyone else would have been entertaining. Suffice it to say that such widespread experimentation would cause quite the kerfuffle in today’s blog- and hot take-dominated landscape, but it would still be fascinating to watch.
But that is a discussion for another time, and I’m in danger of flying way off of the rails as I attempt to wrap up this praise piece. One last time with feeling: Theli is an incredible piece of music that deserves a renewed look if you have long since forgotten about Therion, or a first look if you have never heard it. It is one of the most wonderful bits of weirdness in a decade dominated by bits of weirdness, and a bonafide heavy metal classic.
Hit play, and don’t be ashamed to “air conduct” as much as you air guitar.