More often than not, two things generally come up when conversations turn to Sweden’s greatest influence on heavy metal: Yngwie J. Malmsteen and Swedeath. It’s an understandable consequence—the prior taught us the importance of giant sunglasses and undoing the first five buttons on a shirt in order to perfect diminished seventh arpeggios, and the latter made a colossal impact on the sale of Boss HM-2 Heavy Metal pedals.
What often gets neglected, however, is Sweden’s overall impact on power metal. Also a fairly understandable (even if grossly unjust) consequence—power metal doesn’t exactly net the most headlines these days, particularly here in the U.S. and A., and the more exuberant Euro style of the offshoot that Germanic stalwarts such as Helloween and Blind Guardian set in motion didn’t really start running with full force in neighboring Sweden until nearly a decade later when Hammerfall released their pivotal debut, 1997’s Glory to the Brave. Yngwie clearly helped set that stage, as well as the heavy-hitting Heavy Load, and there were others such as Narnia, Tad Morose, Evergrey and Nocturnal Rites flirting with the style early on, but “true power metal” as we’ve come to accept it in the modern age launched in Sweden at the hands of Hammerfall and made its biggest strides in the early 2000s when collectives such as Nocturnal Rites, Persuader, Falconer, Lost Horizon (!!!), Dragonland, Dream Evil and Axenstar collectively pushed a Swedish pin on the power map.
Since then, Sweden has regularly proven itself a notable force in this steadfast off-shoot, thanks in part to the continued efforts of Hammerfall and the particularly prevailing Sabaton, but also by virtue of consistently throwing down in-demand releases that explore the full spectrum power has to offer, from the most candy-coated to the surprisingly tough. 2019 is not much different, offering up quite a few new releases to those who keep power on the radar:
- Hammerfall – Dominion [August 16th, Napalm Records]
- Sabaton – The Great War [July 19th, Nuclear Blast]
- Narnia – From Darkness to Light [August 2nd, Independent release]
- Twilight Force – Dawn of the Dragonstar [August 16th, Nuclear Blast]
- Majestica (featuring Tommy ReinXeed) – Above the Sky [June 7th, Nuclear Blast]
- NorthTale – Welcome to Paradise [August 2nd, Nuclear Blast]
Surely, the first two releases listed above stand to make the widest impact, but nestled alongside all of them is a record that should be making considerable waves: The Gathering, the first full-length in 17 years from Borås, Sweden’s Freternia.
If you’re already familiar with Freternia through their previous two full-lengths (2000’s Warchants & Fairytales and 2002’s A Nightmare Story) and haven’t yet picked up on The Gathering, here’s the great news: this record is hands down the best work they’ve done to date. The previous two ain’t exactly in need of excessive whistle-blowing, but they’re less refined compared to this, particularly the debut. Turns out, all Freternia really needed was a 17 year gap and some new blood (Nicklas von Porat—brother of lead guitarist Patrik—on bass, and new drummer Oskar Lumbojev), because The Gathering comes across like a magnificent phoenix rising from the ashes.
Opener “Reborn” is clearly and purposely intended to set the table as it displays most of the band’s maneuvers in a tidy 4.5 minutes—bright and aggressive from the gate, appropriately melodic, and with the sort of infectious chorus that has the power to hook your brain for days.
What follows “Reborn” (which is a lot; this record’s principal flaw is that it hulks out at over an hour) makes use of a similar design, but with varying levels of heaviness and speed. The record never quite reaches the velocity of some of their speedier peers, but the crunchy weight of the riffs paired with liberal doses of gang-shouted vocals makes it clear that Freternia’s influences are as much Nevermore and classic Running Wild as they are Helloween. Songs such as “In Solitude” and “Fading World” feel the darkest and heaviest, so they recall the tougher stance pushed by a band like Persuader, but that’s suitably offset by the “prettiness” and elegance at the heart of tracks such as “End of the Line” and especially “Change of Life,” which boasts the record’s most sweeping design and a notably golden chorus.
Freternia is at their strongest, however, when the songs are allowed to wander and mix & match a bit more—coarseness and alluring melody blended together equally, and all inside a surprisingly brief five (+ or –) minutes. For example, “The Escape” and “Eye the Shadow of Your Sins,” which both come across like a grittier, less “Marvel superhero” version of Lost Horizon. Or “Dark Vision,” which fluctuates between galloping and soaring from one moment to the next, and benefits from spotlighting a guest vocal appearance from Johannes Nyberg (ex-Zonata) in its closing minute.
Beyond the overwhelming amount of material presented, there really isn’t much to pick apart here. The record does admittedly feel like “a collection of tracks cobbled together over the course of 17 years of absence” (duh, right?), which clearly isn’t a bad thing, but sometimes power metal can manage to feel all the more impactful when a record focuses more on flow inside an efficient, inclusive storyline. That’s a super nerdy nitpick, though, and expecting a band that’s been gone for nearly two decades to do anything other than wallop you upside the head with as much as they can upon their return is several shades of cracked.
Gauging the necessity level of a record like The Gathering is pretty easy: if you’re a long-time power metal fan and beam when a somewhat bygone band decides to rekindle the fires for a triumphant comeback record, this is a veritable slam dunk. If you’re a casual fan who mostly finds the lighter side of the offshoot to be… unfavorable, you should absolutely give Freternia’s brand of legitimately powerful power metal your attention. And if you’re one of those fools who still thinks power metal in general sucks the big one, perhaps consider throwing yourself off a short pier while wearing the latest trend in concrete shoes.