[Cover illustration by Loukas Kalliantasis]
Considering the extremely wide range of styles Ayloss has brought to Spectral Lore over the years (atmospheric black metal, electronic, chamber, a general progressive mindset, etc.), it might come across as a little surprising that he’d choose a different name for his latest project. But Mystras is about more than just the stylistic shift – and there is a stylistic shift – it’s also about honoring the timeless spirit of righteous rebellion. The name comes from a city that was long the capital of the Despotate of the Morea, from which the Byzantine Empire held power over the Peloponnese. Fittingly, the track referencing Mystras isn’t just the band name, but “Storming the Walls of Mystras,” as if the title Castles Conquered and Reclaimed wasn’t hint enough for you.
The full package ought to appeal immediately to fans of such bands as Obsequiae or even Windir, but the whole of Mystras is unlike any one band from the past. It’s simply too… Aylossian in nature, really, a descriptor that might not mean much to you but surely means a lot to Spectral Lore fans who have spent hours mesmerized by the man’s spiraling, tempestuous lead guitar work. His style is all his own, often sounding extremely improvised (or in the case of his wondrous Gnosis EP, actually improvised), but always with a focus. Despite much of the foundation of Castles Conquered being decidedly raw and not dissimilar from 90s Darkthrone or Nattens Madrigal-era Ulver, Ayloss’s leads help to shape each song into a journey, often arriving at a high point early but finding extra levels later on.
In “Storm the Walls of Mystras,” for example, each passage feeds the next in a manner that feels perfectly organic but is absolutely gripping. The melodies of rhythm riffs inform simple lead patterns, from which grow more complex, improvised soloing. The soloing leads a dramatic swell in intensity and blasting as it also informs later riff melodies. When clean guitars rejoin the fray over the top, they come across more like chimes than a conventional metal instrument. So the record is raw, sure, but it’s also progressive and emotionally complex.
It’s much more than the leads that give this record a unique spirit, however. It doesn’t take long in the opening title track for distant washes of keys to add to that “castle-y” feel, while at other times Mystras employs “choirs” for similar effect. Some tracks also utilize folksy, lilting guitar melodies in softer passages before these motifs are echoed and transformed by the leads. “The Murder of Wat Tyler” does another smart bit of hero worship with the types of drum bombast made famous by Manowar and Bathory (the mid-tempo kick, kick SNARE kick drive), only to further the connection with some majestic chanting. Even Ayloss’s vocals add to the album’s sneaky depth, at different times being muffled shrieks, desperate wails, or half-singing, often layered in a way that expands the album’s atmosphere despite the apparent density of sounds.
This trick can be largely attributed to the production, which is lo-fi to the point that you might initially be a little shocked by the treble of the rhythm guitars, but is really quite nuanced. (Actually, if you saw Nattens Madrigal above and kept reading, you probably won’t be shocked.) Every element has an incredible amount of space in which to move, and move it all does, almost constantly, both in terms of actual melody and throughout the many layers. Even the bass is perfectly audible as it dances around the hammering drums and swirling leads. Really!
The lyrical message, songwriting, impassioned performances, and perfect(ly raw) production combine to make Castles Conquered and Reclaimed a spirited and extremely refreshing black metal record. Mystras celebrates freedom fighters from centuries past while delivering a bit of a timely reminder that current battles are not new battles. It might appear to be a direct subversion of black metal tropes, but it still manages to sound like and be about thee ways ov olde, so feel free to don your tunic. Plus, it’s quite nice when great sounds don’t come packed with shitbaggery (that shouldn’t have to be a bonus, right?), and this album is a goddamn thrill ride.