[Album artwork by Kerem Beyit]
“You bet your sweet ass we can,” replied the heroes of Twilight Force.
Here’s what I had to say concerning At the Heart of Wintervale a couple weeks ago in one of our Most Anticipated Releases of 2023 articles:
The Kingdom of Blashyrkh has new neighbors, and those neighbors have big inflatable variants of Link, Ganon, and Princess Zelda up in the front yard all year ‘round. They also never take down their Christmas lights, they wear costumes when they leave for work in the morning, speeding away in neon green and lemon yellow Mitsubishi Mirages, and they’re still costumed when they come home late in the evening. On the night The Rings of Power premiered, there were fifteen cars parked out on the street, and I’m pretty sure actual ents paraded into the neighbor’s front door. The Kingdom of Blashyrkh has new neighbors, and those new neighbors are Twilight Force.
It stands to reason these guys are wise to the presence of Immortal, so I still don’t really understand the title of the record. Hell, T-Force keyboardist / composer Blackwald also spends time in the epic black metal band Ages—he must be aware this record is precisely one “vale” shy of a Xerox of Immortal’s most celebrated release. But then, what does it really matter. Some might venture to say Immortal slowly morphed into an entity three shades shy of power metal anyway, so let’s just assume Blashyrkh has expanded its foothold and move forward with the (fairly regrettable) answer to question number one: No, At the Heart of Wintervale does not contain a single guest BLECH! in its perfectly pithy 45 minutes.
And as long as we’re addressing some early crucial Qs, let’s go ahead and touch on the next four that could very well be the most pressing:
How’s the production?
Good production. Certainly better than 2016’s Heroes of Mighty Magic, and perhaps a shade more balanced and attentive to the riffs as compared to 2019’s Dawn of the Dragonstar. The bulk of my listening has been delivered through a pair of Beats Fit Pro earbuds, and the record sounds quite ample, balanced, and properly bombastic through those relatively petite dynamos.
Is it speedy?
You bet. Some of the speediest speed TF’s offered in a decade, including a handful of moments that feature—gulp—blast beats. I have no previous knowledge of new drummer Isak “De’Azsh” Olsson, but I would say this record puts him to a proper test that’s passed with furiously flying colors.
Is it… different compared to previous works?
Yes and no. It is undeniably Twilight Force right from the jump, but it’s a little less… um… “Christmassy” in its deep orchestration, and the song “Dragonborn” comes as close to pop as the band has ever ventured. (Don’t let that scare you away just yet.)
Is it awesome?
Yes, my little Smurfs, At the Heart of Wintervale is absolutely awesome. While it’s true that power metal junkies can be just as welded to the past as any other shade of metal fiend, it’s very easy to picture this record winning over new fans—the young and the not-so young—to a point where Wintervale could place at or very near the top in perpetuity. No, it probably won’t win the day for those hoping for a jump back to the more straightforward blistering of Tales of Ancient Prophecies, but anyone hoping to experience Twilight Force reinstating their dominance in the symphonic power realm and pushing the adventure / fantasy / CPRG narrative to new heights, you stand to reap epic rewards.
LET’S KICK ALL THE TIRES…
1. “Twilight Force” [4:12]
As has become standard for the band, Wintervale opens with a song whose fundamental objective is fairly straightforward: hook the listener harder than Frank Cotton at a Cenobite pool party in Hell. Mission accomplished with “Twilight Force” (how have they not used this title before), an opener that’s fittingly zippy, bright and melodic as the day is long, and oh what a gloriously catchy chorus to properly set the stage. Mind the first evidence of furiously flailing drums around the 3:30 mark.
2. “At the Heart of Wintervale” [4:51]
The title track follows, and what quickly becomes apparent is the fact that Twilight Force has spent the 4 year gap elaborating on and perfecting the art of the short story. Yes, the comprehensive narrative behind Wintervale remains tethered to dragons, wizards, crystals and knights, but these songs feel much more self-contained, with a song like “At the Heart of Wintervale” managing its own epic story with all the speedy, exhilarating power and swirling orchestration you’d expect from a 12-minute tale all sewn into a tidy 5 minutes. In fact, the whole of the record is a model exercise in how to cleverly manage a massive amount orchestral drama and adventure in a way that’s surprisingly succinct. In essence, Wintervale does more with 45 minutes than most other symphonic power records do with an hour+.
3. “Dragonborn” [4:00]
“Dragonborn” will likely raise some eyebrows. It’s a jolly, medieval romp from the gate that quickly morphs into… You know, I really don’t have a better way to explain it beyond comparing its overall approach to a classic 80s’ sitcom theme, so stuff that and some Longbottom Leaf in your pipe and smoke it. The only thing missing from this extended title sequence is a series of friendly “turn & smiles” from the stars of The Dragonborns, which absolutely should be a show that features the members of Twilight Force in full costume trying to make their way as an offbeat family suddenly warped into the hectic streets of Chicago.
4. “Highlands of the Elder Dragon” [10:33]
The album’s first true epic lands next. The 10-and-a-half-minute “Highlands of the Elder Dragons” might seem a little light at first blush—commencing with a whimsical bit of dreamy orchestration and requisite “hobbit reading from his memoirs” opening narrative, plus an even softer and sappier midpoint—but from about the 6-minute point forward it throws down some of the most epic and intoxicating melodic back-and-forthing the band has managed to date. Blackwald’s orchestrations and keyboard antics have found the next level, and Lynd’s lead work absolutely kicks into a newfound higher gear. You might soil your woolen breeches right around 8:00, so gird yer loins.
5. “Skyknights of Aldaria” [5:14]
Okay, stay with me now. “Skyknights of Aldaria” is not only one of the best songs I’ve heard from Twilight Force to date, it’s amongst the very best symphonic power metal songs of the last decade. How the hell this track manages to only be 5 minutes long defies explanation, as it crams everything one would hope to experience from a 2hr cinematic fantasy extravaganza into a mighty blunderbuss and fires all of it at once directly into the listener’s beaming face. The orchestration is big-BIG bombastic; the perfectly layered choruses are cleverly offset by blazing blast-beats and the tuffest riff (1:30) the band has carved since Tales; there are fresh elements of dark wickedness through evil laughter and grim intonations; and the song just generally and wholly fricken rrrrips, man. Alessandro Conti! I’ve always loved this man’s voice, but a song like this forces you to realize just how close he can come to the classic late ‘80s Michael Kiske style that’s kept a record like KotSK pt2 as the pinnacle of Euro power for 35 years and counting. “Skyknights of Aldaria” is the song you play for your friend who still pretends to hate power metal.
6. “A Familiar Melody” [1:19] & 7. “Sunlight Knight” [4:29]
“A Familiar Melody” is a very smart follow-up, offering a much needed respite in the form of a short medieval ditty that’s as pretty and golden as a Tolkien meadow before eventide. It’s a perfect bridge into the album’s second single “Sunlight Knight,” which finds the record circling back to a more classic form of speedy power that scales back the orchestration in favor of going hard in the paint with vocal hooks and sizzling melody (plus a brief and fun run of 8-bit salsa).
8. “The Last Crystal Bearer” [10:21]
Rounding out the 2023 adventure is “The Last Crystal Bearer,” Wintervale’s second 10-plus minute epic, and the album’s most orchestral piece by a country mile. It’s a very ambitious and dramatic closer that’s packed to the rafters with high-flown horns, sweeping strings, and a full assortment of roles / voices carried out by guests not at all credited in the promotional materials. Blackwald has definitely made impressive strides as a composer, and it’s certainly worth mentioning again that the choice by him and Lynd to underscore more bombastic / darker elements in lieu of, um, unreasonable orchestral tinkling is very much appreciated on this record. “The Last Crystal Bearer” is a fittingly theatrical closer, but it’s worth mentioning that the Nuclear Blast digibook version throws down three more songs: a fully medieval, folky return of the sapphire dragon from 2016’s Heroes of Mighty Magic with the relatively brief “The Sapphire Dragon of Arcane Might is Back Again,” and then fully orchestral versions of “Skylights of Aldaria” and “The Last Crystal Bearer.”
Ultimately, I’m still sticking with something else I mentioned concerning Wintervale in that final installment of our Most Anticipated Releases of 2023 piece from a couple weeks ago:
Whether or not you’re bouncing like a Corey Feldman check in anticipation for At the Heart of Wintervale’s pending liberation depends largely on… Well, how you feel about the rest of the band’s releases.
That may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s true; no one expects Twilight Force to break a four year silence with something that sounds like a lost Type O Negative record. You pay the price of admission here because you’re fairly sure what to expect from T-Force: buoyant, charged, epic symphonic power metal that’s as chained to clichéd dragon / wizard / warrior elements as one could possibly get without being held captive in a pit below George R.R. Martin’s palatial estate. Despite Twilight Force’s unyielding trajectory, however, they still really know how to deliver the goods, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the years since 2019’s Dawn of the Dragonstar weren’t exactly spent twiddling thumbs and binging Judge Judy with every inch of their free time. Twilight Force really seem to enjoy doing what they do best (thank goodness), and with At the Heart of Wintervale, they’ve found a surprisingly succinct and powerful way to do it better than 97% of the doppelgängers attempting a similar feat.
Where to next? Anthems to the Springbasin at Dusk? Sign me up.