[Original cover art by Axel Hermann]
Of all the bands that began their careers in more extreme terrain only to shift into sounds that were in some ways experimental, more commercial, or just downright different, Portugal’s Moonspell seems to get shorthanded on the accolades a bit. This is somewhat understandable, as they don’t exactly have the number of stratospheric highs of bands like Paradise Lost, The Gathering, or Anathema, but they also aren’t lacking in great material. Albums such as Irreligious, The Antidote, and Memorial all provide an addictive blend of baritone crooning, doomy tempos, catchy riffs, and varying levels of blackened aggression. At their best, they’re like some sort of velvet-draped midpoint between Type O Negative and the gothier side of Rotting Christ, with the very self-aware vampiric glare of Fernando Ribeiro always at the center of it all. Unlike many of their ambitious 90s peers, they returned to the extremity after their experimental phase and got heavier than ever on Memorial and Night Eternal.
But it was their initial evolution that continues to make them a favorite among the gloomier side of extreme metal, beginning with the blackened doom of the Anno Satanæ demo and the gothic and folk infusions on the Under the Moonspell EP (which were re-recorded and packaged together nicely as Under Satanæ in 2007). This early growth accelerated significantly on 1995’s Wolfheart, a classic of brooding, folk-tinged, and sometimes blackened goth that maintains much of the intensity of the early releases but for the first time really finds the band giving into their penchant for irresistible melody. Moonspell had a knack for infectiousness that simply wasn’t going to stay hidden for long.
Most importantly, Wolfheart arrived at the crossroads of their developmental sound and the full indulgence of their more accessible side. This and a few dozen other reasons detailed below continue to make it the essential Moonspell album more than 25 years after its release.
Unlike some gothic metal albums, Wolfheart is an incredibly diverse record, offering basically a different core sound on each of its tracks, ranging from blackened goth and driving metal to very “Old World” folk music and synth-driven rock. The gothic quality of it, then, comes not from just adding heavy guitars to a basic Cure or Sisters of Mercy template, but through the production, melodrama and melancholy, and Ribeiro’s mix of haggard wolfish growls and Peter Steele-ish crooning (complete with the occasional rolled R). Well, those things and a whole lot of lyrics about werewolves, vampires, and various sexy acts illuminated sexily under the sexy light of a sexy full moon.
The album kicks off in glorious fashion with “Wolfshade (A Werewolf Masquerade).” Like so much of the album, it manages to pack in a ton ‒ foreboding guitar lines (the main motif will stay in your head for days), Ribeiro’s insane charisma across every ghastly growl and sung line, touches of symphonics, and undeniable suspense ‒ all while being almost understated in its own way. Yes, understated. This style of music itself obviously isn’t subtle, but Moonspell stretches the song out in ways that allow it to breathe, and when it isn’t delivering some of the heaviest material on the record, it gets downright pretty during soft moments led by either shimmering clean guitars or João “Ares” Pedro’s deft, layered bass work.
“Love Crimes,” by contrast, is right in your face with the theatrics, bursting out with a hooky riff and quickly getting to passages of operatic female vocals (provided by the late Birgit Zacher), double kick drums, and some spoke-sung work from Ribeiro before arriving at a pretty Dissection-y lead. The tune carries an undeniable narrative quality both in the lyrics and music, communicating a kind of beautiful corruption that really wouldn’t be out of place on the soundtrack to Bram Stoker’s Dracula had the movie been directed by David Lynch… or something similarly weird.
Before Wolfheart delivers its biggest curve, it takes a turn for the almost normal with “…Of Dream And Drama (Midnight Ride).” While it features some of Ribeiro’s Steele-iest vocals (“When she shi-eee-ines!”) and a synthesized piano solo, it’s fairly conventional in structure. Put it in the hands of another band and it could almost be a NWOBHM tune—almost. But then following a soft interlude of guitar and flute, Moonspell goes full folk on “Trebraruna.” The track starts with an infectious hurdy gurdy melody (more likely a “hurdy gurdy” melody) and only layers it on from there, with hand claps, a great 6/8 lead backing up Ribeiro’s vocals (sung here in his native Portugeuse), and a general sense of merriment and exuberance. In short: it rules.
If “Trebraruna” was the album’s biggest deviation from the burgundy-curtained mean, then the next two songs are proof that the fangs are still out and ready. Live favorite “Vampiria” challenges “Love Crimes” in terms of Big Gothic Tropes, with plenty of keys, operatic female vocals, and Ribeiro doing a total Bela Lugosi impression early on, but still nails the nasty when things get heavy. It also appropriately ends with a “to be continued” tone, which acts as a perfect introduction to the synth-driven and driftier sounds of “An Erotic Alchemy.” At times the song appears to be headed towards a grand swell, but then settles into long passages of clean vocals (both male and female) and gently bouncing keys. More than any tune on the album, it has a “conducted” feel about it, which is saying quite a lot on a record that feels like it emerged fully formed from the sentient mind of a crumbling, centuries old theater. And like the song that precedes it, it ends in a way that leads perfectly into the next tune.
That tune is closer “Alma Mater,” and friends, a greater song Moonspell hath probably never written. It all centers on what can only be described as a perfect riff, one that manages to sound both raw and refined. When the bass and drums come in, themselves carrying tons of emotion, it’s clear how much thought the band put into every detail of this tune. Ribeiro delivers his most impassioned and desperate screams on the album, while his near whisper of the song title ought to elicit chills every damn time. When the tune arrives at its grandiose finale, it serves not only as a destination for the song, but for an album that hides a holistic arc in plain sight. Come for the vampires and lycanthropes. Stay for the brilliant and inspired music. Really folks, if this song doesn’t send a shiver up your spin and make you feel totally alive, you might need a check up from the (vampire-bitten) neck up.
Moonspell and Wolfheart are so revered in the band’s homeland of Portugal that the Portuguese Postal Service made a stamp in the album’s honor as part of a series recognizing the country’s greatest moments in rock history. Unfortunately, they used the terrible reissue cover instead of the great original, as you can see, but that doesn’t belittle the sentiment. Moonspell is big back home, and Wolfheart is a big reason why.
Wolfheart is also one the many glorious albums from the mid-90s when a heap of bands were just plain getting weird, at least in comparison to most of metal’s first quarter century. That brings us back to the last band and album to get the Diamonds & Rust treatment. Would we have albums like Wolfheart (and Wildhoney and Eternity and Mandylion and Turn Loose the Swans and Gothic and Theli and etc.) without Celtic Frost and Into the Pandemonium? Someone eventually would have broken those barriers had Frost gotten cold feet (sorry), but one gets the feeling that they might have accelerated the whole process. About eight years later, a band like Moonspell putting out an album like Wolfheart was seen as ‒ if not exactly conventional ‒ then also not at all shocking.
What might be shocking is how truly refined and elegant this album is, despite largely being about werewolves, vampires, and various sexy acts illuminated sexily under the sexy light of a sexy full moon. So if you’ve never dove into Wolfheart’s wonders but enjoy all things gloomy and dramatic, give this diverse, catchy, oddly progressive, beautifully haggard, haggardly beautiful, and downright seductive album a go. It isn’t just part of the heritage of adventurous and theatrical heavy metal, it’s one of the coolest gothic metal albums ever made, and so much more.
Moonspell circa 1995:
Fernando “Langsuyar” Ribeiro – vocals
João “J.M. Tanngrisnir” Fonseca – guitars
Duarte “Mantus” Picoto – guitars
João “Ares” Pedro – bass
Pedro “Passionis” Paixão – keyboards
Miguel “Mike” Gaspar – drums