[Artwork by Fursy Teyssier]
How are you fixed for melancholy?
All things considered, probably just fine, as I’m sure you’ve likewise had more than your fill of essentially every branch of sadness the universe has to offer in the modern age. But let’s take a brief and more systematic look at melancholy in particular and make an overly simplified case for it being quite healthy and a necessary part of life.
Origin: from the Greek // Melankholia — “melas,” meaning black, and “khole,” meaning bile. So, yep, the literal translation boils down to “black bile,” which sounds horrid and happens to be rooted in an archaic truth that medical professionals once believed extended bouts of sadness had everything to do with the spleen’s overproduction of black bile. Hey, why the hell not. Remember that we used to trust docs with bloodletting back in the day as well. Hats off to evolution.
Through the course of time, we have witnessed melancholy become renovated into a gentler, more elegant form of sadness used to characterize pensive recollections, longings, and every shade of wistful sentiment. This is clearly a decidedly different beast compared to depression or misery, and it’s one that finds a unique way of comforting a person’s spirit in an isolated sort of way that underscores the notion of “alone, but not lonely.” It is within this sphere that Germany’s Empyrium not only operate, but reign as overlords wielding a melancholic blade the size of a city bus.
Hello, you know Empyrium, yes? Let’s hope so. For the uninitiated (or under-initiated), however, here’s the 10¢ synopsis:
- Born in Bavaria around 1994 at the behest of Markus “Schwadorf” Stock (vocals, guitars, bass, percussion) and his early collaborator Andreas Bach (keyboards), with help from Schwardorf’s future wife, Nadine Mölter on flute.
- The early works—1996’s A Wintersunset… and 1997’s remarkable Songs of Moors and Misty Fields—offer a unique form of woodland black metal colliding with the sort of gloomdoom Peaceville tendered circa 1992. Hey, who doesn’t love the idea of early Ulver colliding with My Dying Bride, ruffled renaissance wear included.
- With 1999’s Where at Night the Wood Grouse Plays, Schwadorf’s penchant for atmospheric neofolk completely eradicates the metal element. Bach departs as a consequence of musical differences, and Schwadorf begins a new partnership with vocalist Thomas Helm, whose operatic style at last achieves the level of vocal theatricality the earliest Empyrium works endeavored in a decidedly more…wobbly manner.
- As Schwadorf’s vision for Empyrium begins to wane in favor of other projects, he presents 2002’s Weiland as a grand finale, folding in concepts created prior to Where at Night alongside fresh renditions of woodsy, Romantic-era classical / folk that incorporates flute, cello, violin, mellotron and just a hint of raspy vocals into an epilogue many consider to be a bona fide, bullet-proof classic.
- The dragon sleeps… For roughly ten years.
- In 2010, Schwadorf announces the return of the band, but things remain largely quiet until the release of Into the Pantheon in 2013, an emotionally crushing live recording (June 11, 2011 // Leipzig) that introduces two new songs: “The Days Before the Fall” and “Dead Winter Days” (amazing song).
- Schwadorf and Helm’s passion for neoclassical goth / dark wave becomes fully realized with the release of 2014’s The Turn of the Tides, an album that’s as much an reflection of how large an impact works from bands such as Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil has had as it is witness to new life moving forward.
- GAH! Hibernation once again following the decidedly brief The Mill EP in 2015.
Enduring fans of Empyrium have become rather cozy with the virtue of patience over these (gulp) 35 years. And despite the fact that other Markus Stock projects have been widely available throughout the spans of Empyrinactivity—even work alongside Thomas Helm, in the case of the doomy rock band Noekk—nothing really compares to the heart-rending enchantment and elegance of this particular project. AND YES, there is no escaping words such as “enchantment” and “ elegance / sophistication” when speaking of this band’s work—if you’re uncomfortable with notions of romanticism tied to metal, then Empyrium will always be a thorny investment.
With Über den Sternen, full-length number six, Schwadorf and Helm appear to have found the crossroads that most humans approach once youth travels far enough into the rearview to prompt melancholy on its own behalf: recalling and celebrating the (comparatively) carefree years of “square one,” but with the wisdom and experience associated with individuals who have harvested a mountain’s worth of life’s milk, honey and miseries along the long, winding road. In simpler terms, the record represents an ideal collision between the Empyrium of old and new, and above all else, it shows just how skilled the two have become at finding an ideal balance, both in terms of eras and with respect to shifting moods.
Über den Sternen spends precisely zero minutes mussing about before laying the first windfall on the table. “The Three Flames Sapphire” is a stellar introduction for what’s to come, and it features all the first-class ingredients that make this band so very unique and wonderful. Slow and delicate acoustic guitar welcomes the listener, a long and plaintive cello run settles you in, drums and bass jump the song into gear, and then Thomas Helm’s splendidly pensive tenor sweeps a bygone, fantastical wilderness in through the speakers. If you are unfamiliar with Helm and find yourself suddenly curious about the roots of his near preposterous ability, know this: Outside of his work with Empyrium and Noekk, he’s been a part of the Bayerische Staatsoper (Bavarian State Opera) for the last decade +, and his voice is one of the very best you will find gracing a metal record today. Period.
“The Three Flames Sapphire” spends the better part of its opening five minutes reacquainting the listener with Empyrium’s neofolk face, which is as serene and meditative as an isolated drift through a hidden grove. A metal riff makes a somewhat subdued appearance behind Nadine’s flute, and Markus Stock proves himself no slouch in the clean vocal department as his voice gets layered alongside Helm’s. Then, BAM: At the 5:30 mark, we’re handed the record’s first sweeping sword-strike directly to the heart, as a tremendously epic and melodic guitar run blazes the firmament and Stock’s sudden rasp adds the perfect touch of venom as he threatens, “VANISHED!! Into the DARK… Forever gone… and never… seen AGAIN.” The melody that ensues wouldn’t be misplaced on a record like Blackwater Park, but then that jaunty flute whisks us right back into the forest of Empyrium.
From there, each entry continues to underscore the band’s remarkable knack for balance—four of eight songs feature Schwadorf’s rasp that’s of course offset by sizable stretches of idyllic folk, and even the songs that feature no metal at all continue to convey a sense of heaviness through mood. Stock has added the hammered dulcimer to his arsenal, so expect to hear it often; it prettifies the heavy outset to “A Lucid Tower Beckons On the Hills Afar” before giving way to one of Helm’s most golden choruses, and it adds a grounding point to many of the record’s moments where the mood is notably ethereal.
Need a little more sweeten the pill? “The Oaken Throne” is wooded enough to sprout elms through the floor of the train if you’re not careful during your commute, and you will by God be stricken to the dirt by the sheer majesty of the doomy spell behind “The Wild Swans.” The coup de grâce, however, ultimately lands with the epic 10.5-minute closing title track, which melds every domain traveled by Empyrium over the course of the last 25 years into one of the most heart-rending finales metal has managed in a decade. Yes, by Hell, it’s just that good.
It feels a bit too discourteous to claim that it’s taken multiple decades for the ultimate vision of this band to find the surface, particularly considering how strong the full Empyrium catalog remains, but there is a level of truth to such a statement. It frankly speaks to the benefits of growth, perseverance and reconnection with the past in a way that elevates the end product to a new level, and it does so without losing sight of the original objective: enchantment through melancholic inspiration. Hey, gloom is unavoidable—might as well feel good about it whenever the opportunity reveals itself.
If you’ve been a fan of the band since square one, you will find endless pathways here with the potential to leave you smitten. And if you’re new to Empyrium in 2021 and find yourself interested in taking the dive, there’s really no better launching point than Über den Sternen. Melancholy never felt so good.