The movie Heavy Trip tells the story of Finnish band Impaled Rektum (because of course), who basically only exists in one member’s basement for more than a decade, constantly playing their favorite covers and loving the Small Town Metal Lifestyle. They’re obviously extremely adept at playing their instruments but just never bothered to write any music or take the next step. Obviously, such things eventually happen in the movie (to ends that are equally wacky, funny, and fairly adorable), but that extremely long band gestation period is the relevant point here.
Sweden’s Paranorm has been a band since 2008 and Empyrean is their first full length. While they have bothered to write original songs in the past ‒ they have a couple self-released EPs ‒ this is their first time working with a label and going the extra mile on things like production value (not that the early EPs sounded bad, just that Empyrean sounds pristine). Still, the parallels to their fictional Finnish counterparts are fun to ponder. It’s easy to imagine the Paranorm guys jamming for hours on end on their favorite classics, picking out the ideas that matter the most and making them their own, all the while honing their own instrumental crafts to a razor-sharp edge.
But the highest heights come later. First comes the hook, and the hook is absolutely the right-handed guitar work of Fredrik Kjellgren and Markus Hiltunen (the latter also handles vocals). There are so many moments on Empyrean where the rhythm guitars do wickedly precise, syncopated patterns on one note that will take you back to the first time you tried to accurately air guitar the bridge of “Damage, Inc.,” often with an increase in guitar intensity joined by drummer Samuel Karlstrand doubling a rhythm or adding an extra bit of technicality.
There’s a particular passage early in “Edge of the Horizon” that, after a purely melodic intro of acoustic guitars and smooth leads, the band simply let’s it rip. They then fill up the entire 9 minutes and 35 seconds with blazing thrash, shreddy and narrative solos, and sometimes extra complex accompaniment for said solos. The song probably doesn’t need to push the 10-minute mark, but both there and on other lengthy tracks ‒ such as the proggier and melodeathier title track ‒ there’s a feeling that the band is spreading their wings and just going for it. Even when they aren’t in epic length mode they still tend to use about all the tools in their kit. Regardless of the approach to any one section, every drum beat, riff, hook, lead, and bubbly bass line feels meticulously meticulously designed and combined. It’s obsessive, but it doesn’t necessarily sound obsessive. Or something along those lines. I don’t know… fly casual.
The “almost” in the note about the band being fully formed earlier was less about there being any real flaws in Paranorm’s sound and more about remaining, untapped potential. As stated, some of the longer songs could probably be a tad more efficient (which would also result in a shorter overall running time; the album is nearly 55 minutes long), but there’s never a moment where anything really meanders, so it’s more observation or personal preference than real criticism. However, Hiltunen’s vocals might be a sticking point for some. His screechy spokal style isn’t exactly commanding, but while it doesn’t add much to the overall experience, it’s also passive enough that it never distracts from the real reason we’re here: all that instrumental goodness.
Paranorm’s beginnings likely weren’t as humble, hilarious, occasionally tragic, or conveniently scripted as those of Impaled Rektum, but it’s fun to be reminded that before every sparkling breakthrough there are often years of trials and tribulations. We can easily hear some of those experiences in their early EPs, but for the band, the best memories are probably those jammy times when a tiny detail from a major influence sparked some huge breakthrough in their inspiration and songcraft. It takes many of those moments to get to a quality album, and many more to arrive at something as skilled and infinitely listenable as Empyrean.