[Cover artwork by Gyula Havancsák]
“It’s all fun and games until someone gets the Black Death.” ~ Albert of Saxony circa 1346, probably
I’m not sure if any of you were there, but the early 1300s were awesome. Blow-out castle bashes with Earls draining moats so they can refill them with mead, hammered knights swinging from chandeliers, foot soldiers and serfs alike shrooming together and tripping balls out on the streets, rotund monks guzzling ale bongs the length of keeps, lords & ladies (and lords & lords and ladies & ladies) rubbing leathers around virtually every corner—just a massive party 24/7, and absolutely nothing at all to worry about.
And then the rats came…
A very specific kind of rat bearing a very unique sort of flea, all inbound to Party Central thanks to… Well, climate change, apparently. And buddy, nothing crashes a good party quite like a ruinous plague.
Clearly, a topic such as the Black Death has a very regrettable relevance to life in the modern age, and while there are plain and marked differences between a plague (or the plague) and a pandemic such as the coronavirus (bacterial versus viral being the foremost), what happened throughout Eurasia and North Africa in the mid 1300s offers up a grimly applicable theme for examination in 2021 because humans are, you know, generally pretty averse to having massive swathes of the population wiped out by unseen invaders, and our reaction to such hardship is…well, fairly predictable, even with the benefit of an additional 600+ years of science and “progress” under our belts. But, as we will unfortunately endure time and time again (and again, and again): push Mother Nature too far and find out what’s up.
Misery of this nature is ripe pickins for the music realm’s most grim end of the block, and the smart metal band will opt to avoid the still too raw present day misfortune in favor of exploring a link to the past because… well, the woeful tale concerning what we’re currently dealing with still ain’t close to its endpoint. Plus, as we’ve repeatedly learned over the course of human existence, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Apropos aside: If you’re the sort who might hope we’ve come a long way with respect to evolution and altruism in the face of dismal adversity over the last 600-700 years as a species, I invite you to take a gander at the following article that torches those hopes to slag. Plot spoiler: The opening paragraphs of this article were obviously in jest—the century or so leading up to the Black Death were anything but Party Central, and the parallels to the modern age are alarmingly analogous. In a nutshell, humans are forever doomed to repeat our mistakes. And the laughter of the gods didst shift the tectonic plates.
Let’s see, where were we…
Oh, yes! Smart metal bands, the Black Death, and being doomed. Please welcome to the discussion, quite possibly the most underrated epic doom band of all time, Sweden’s Memory Garden.
Formed waaaaaay back in 1992, this crew of intrepid explorers has spent lo these many years delivering largely unheralded gem after gem that bridges a unique gap between the sort of epic doom first hammered out by the likes of Nemesis / Candlemass / Mercy / Sorcerer and an early form of power metal that took flight largely in the US throughout the early and mid 80s. In short, it’s soaring doom with a little extra OOMPH in the corners, featuring an equally soaring vocalist who expands the OOMPH even further. It’s DOOMPH metal, which is a term I have very proudly just made up, even if it doesn’t really sound like the most flattering descriptor when you YELL IT VERY LOUDLY TOWARD ANYONE WHO WALKS BY.
Addendum: Memory Garden has flirted with, um, “popularity” in the past—the sort of flirting that results in a two record Metal Blade deal for 1998’s Verdict of Posterity and 2000’s Mirage, and a return to the Slagel stronghold for 2013’s Doomain. Memory Garden didn’t exactly become synonymous with Candlemass as a result of that partnership, though, so full-length number six, 1349, begins their journey with Greece’s No Remorse Records. And ohhhh, yes—good things come to those who wait, as this record represents the very best material the band has released to date.
What’s shifted a bit this time around is the fact that Memory Garden seems increasingly interested in supplementing their brand of epic doom with an inventive form of hustling that hints at, for lack of a better term, “progginess.” It’s not something anyone would call straight-up prog metal, but there’s an innovativeness afoot on nearly every song that conjures visions of fellow Swedes Isole, who remain equally clever with dishing out twists and turns inside a doom template. Furthering the Isole comparison is Memory Garden’s continued focus on the really dense riff that 2013’s Doomain already hinted at. Listen to a song such as “Distrust”—that big swingin’ riff struts from the gate like Fox Skinner and the Grand Magus crew riding atop a wolf, and it eventually winds hither and thither into an intriguing bit of snappy sashaying that’s lifted by some beautiful lead-play around the 2:45 mark.
That heaviness pushed by “Distrust” dominates throughout the record, but it’s balanced perfectly alongside the band’s characteristic accent on beautifully lifting and sweeping doom. A comparison to the equally excellent and unsung Forsaken (the epic doom / Malta version) is certainly apt, augmented by the fact that founding Memory Garden member and vocalist Stefan Berglund continues to invoke an ideal collision between Forsaken singer Leo Stivala and Christian Rivel-Liljegren of Narnia / The Waymaker. Berglund sounds crazy good front-to-back on 1349, delivering huge hook choruses, matching the soaring lead play of Simon Johansson (Wolf), and providing the ideal dramatis personae for a grim topic that certainly warrants his class of operatic drama.
Pacing is also really well balanced here, with the album’s more aggressive charges being offset by songs where a slower, darker atmosphere showcases the band’s affinity for classic Candlemassive doom. The wonderfully melodic and brooding “Rivers Run Black,” for example, or the gloriously somber and ominous mood delivered by “The Messenger,” which features guest vocals by Josefin Bäck, whose last involvement with the band apparently reaches waaaaay back to their 1993 demo.
In truth, there are highlights around so very many of 1349’s corners; essentially every song finds some way to weave and dip and curve around melodic gloom, stretches of charming mellowness, soaring melodiousness, big chorus hooks, and plenty of galloping victory. A song like “The Empiric” does a wonderful job of cramming most every arrow available in the band’s quiver into a surprisingly tidy 5 minutes, including a slick little vocal guest-spot by Wolf singer Niklas Stålvind, and it’s immediately followed by the crowing title track that’s heaped with shifting moods and an overall sense of immensity that makes it clear that Memory Garden is intent on conquering the close of 2021.
The core Memory Garden formula that has successfully charmed uber-underground doom freaks for the better part of the last 25 years remains fully intact with 1349, but the level of triumph this time around is noteworthy enough to conclude the following: 1349 is the sort of conquering record Memory Garden deserves to release in 2021. They’ve put in the years, all players are at the top of their game, the production is perfect, and they very smartly jump backwards in time in order to establish a wickedly relevant theme for literally everyone in the world right now. The result is not only the best album in the band’s discography, but a stealthy mutineer for anyone who allows those sneaky December releases to bulldoze a favorites-of-the-year list.
If you count yourself a fan of bands such as Candlemass, Sorcerer, Forsaken, Isole, Evangelist et al., and you’ve somehow managed to avoid the great Memory Garden over these many years, prepare to experience something infectious enough to require a plague doctor uniform while listening.
L to R: Ante Mäkelä (guitar), Stefan Berglund (vocals), Tom Björn (drums), Simon Johansson (guitar), Johan Fredrikson (bass)