Malokarpatan – Vertumnus Caesar Review

[Cover art by Astrid Bergdahl]

Malokarpatan is an incredibly rare breed of band. Not so much in style, as their medieval, folklore-charged, melodic and progressive black metal isn’t all too rare over metal’s history, but they excel and stand out in a couple key areas that make them truly special. First, they maintain a very “old metal” feel despite constantly evolving, and second, they excel and meld their music together in ways that should excite ears outside the typical target areas of their genre tags.

Release date: October 27, 2023. Label: Invictus Productions / The Ajna Offensive
First, the old and new. Paying rather obvious homage to the past while staying on the forward path is tough, so much so that there is likely a whole heap of art fans, creators, and commentators that feel these two goals are naturally at odds with each other, that to truly break new ground means destroying one’s gods and looking only to the future. But the beauty of expression and music is that there are always new ways to twist old spells into something newly enchanting, even if the original spell feels ancient by design. To do so demands a special combination of understanding your influences, skill, and creative restlessness.

In not even a decade, Malokarpatan has proven to fit the bill. The Slovakians achieve this feat through their preposterous talent level, quirky vision, and undeniable chemistry, a truth proven even more by the magnificent Vertumnus Caesar, their fourth full length. The folksy and mystical melodies, instrumentation, and overall vibe add up to metal that sounds Capital-O Olde. From Mercyful Fate and Mortuary Drape to Master’s Hammer and Manilla Road, Malokparatan finds plenty of inspiration and kindred ensorcelling spirits just within their local part of the alphabet, and their love of NWOBHM, 70s prog rock, and proto metal is just as obvious. But there’s so much more here than a mere throwback, as Malokarpatan manages to take mostly the usual set of tools (guitar, bass, drums, keys, usually harsh vocals, and a fair amount of flairs) and craft something that feels without a single real parallel.

The band’s obsession with evolution ‒ not to mention their knack for pushing these sounds into pretty unique terrain ‒ makes them more truly progressive than most of the bands given the “prog” label (even if they aren’t playing 10,000 notes a minute). Okay, that might be a bit of a stretch, but only a bit, because this is one ambitious band. And the bad news for the competition is that they’re simply better at this than just about everyone else. (And have so many killer ideas that they need more bands to get them all out.)

How has Malokarpatan reached this level, you ask? For one, they seem to have stopped repeating themselves. While both are great, the much rawer debut Stridžie dni and sophomore album Nordkarpatenland definitely had some material that blended together a bit. By stretching out on Krupinské ohne, Malokarpatan managed to both diversify and deepen their songwriting, a trait they show even more on Vertumnus Caesar. Each tune has its own vibe and feel within the whole, beginning with the gentle escapism of intro “Na okraji priepaste otevíra sa hviezdny zámek,” which is not the last time the album exhibits heavy early King Crimson vibes with almost stately theatricality. Proper opener “Koár postupuje temnomodrými dálavami na juhozápad” has a ton of thunder, dynamic shifts, and just oodles of hooks. A late section full of harpsichord sounds and other medieval flairs helps usher in the solo-fueled finale, more proof that Malokarpatan always keeps an eye on the journey.

This matters both within and between songs, as the ensuing title track immediately shifts to a bit of Master’s Hammer worship (the slow blasts) and riffs that feel as rough as a saw that isn’t quite making it through a solid slab of oak. It’s menacing and a little demented but the synths and solos keep the fist pump factor on high, while the soft outro brings back the relaxing magick. “Vovnútri chlácholivého útočišta kunstkamru” also brings a shift, with both boogie riffs and trill-heavy solos that would bring a serious smile to Uli Jon Roth’s face. Even instrumental “Panstvo salamandrov jest v kavernách zeme” works as a standalone song rather than some interlude, with its varied use of keys (which sound ancient, warbly, and rather Computer World at different times) and a gorgeous flute during its resolution.

Every track brings additional flavors while continuing an overall journey that somehow feels extremely efficient at 47 minutes. From the return of early black metal and spooky-but-sci-fi synths in “Maharal a Golem” to the Maideny leads and buzzy tension in “Mnohoraké útrapy milostpána Kelleyho,” the latter stretch provide just as much excitement as the initial tracks. Finale “I hle, tak zachádza imperiálna hviezda” brings out all the guns, somehow being heavier, chunkier, meaner, and sassier than everything else on the album while using bell tolls, cowbell, more infectious leads, and an outro that matches the early prog feel of the album’s beginning. It completes the album’s arc in glorious fashion without taking away each song’s ability to stand on its own.

Which brings us to another thing Vertumnus Caesar really has going for it: Malokarpatan doesn’t make mistakes. I don’t mean that they’re technically flawless or anything ‒ “tech” this is not ‒ but there isn’t a single obvious thing about this album that could be improved to make it better. The songwriting is impeccable both in terms of melodic choice and overall flow (each hook feels perfectly placed without being obvious), every instrumental tone is meticulously chosen for the passage (especially on all those keys), the clean vocals come at just the right moments for maximum majestic drama, and the playing has a tight-but-unstuffy feel to it that gives the riffs just the slightest bit of a tasty rough edge. Of particular note is the drumming of newcomer Axel Johansson (Chevalier, Hands of Orloc, more), who meets the band’s dynamics at every opportunity and finds plenty of time to get in on the hook action as well. Even the reverb on HV’s gruff, goblin spokals is ideally balanced to enhance his charismatic but understated, mystical performance.

Between the lack of repetition or even trace of flaws, Malokarpatan basically decided to stop making outs. But as much as Malokarpatan continues to evolve and expand their sound, it bears mention that Vertumnus Caesar might not be the single biggest stylistic leap this band has made. That honor probably belongs to the massive jump in scope they took from 2017’s Nordkarpatenland to 2020’s magnificent Krupinské ohne, but the latest again proves them incapable of sitting still in terms of either precise style or capabilities. Your personal preferences might see you reaching for one album or another, especially if you prefer a greater volume of black metal, but if you try to argue that this band isn’t growing on every album, you will lose. To yours truly, this is their finest record yet, but most importantly…

This album is preposterously, ridiculously, ludicrously fun and engrossing. All that honoring of the past, looking to the future, and songwriting and production perfection are well and good (or GREAT, really), but Malokarpatan gets that we’re here to enjoy life, and Vertumnus Caesar is an escapist and joyous set of music that ought to appeal to a very wide spectrum of metal and rock fans.

So let’s spin back around to that second main point from way up there. Vertumnus Caesar is so well written and far reaching that it deserves to be heard by fans of Malokarpatan’s various influences, even if said fans don’t typically reach to this band’s specific (or supposed) niche, persnickety sillies that they are. Maybe @BigBoss_Man666 will appreciate that it provides both a good hellish hex and a traipse through the Misty Mountains. A crusty curmudgeon like @CronosHairLineWtchr might finally be convinced that flutes and bells and synths have a place in extreme metal after years of yelling at Untrue Clouds. Old school prog heads like @IanAndersonLegLift71 might find that their love of Aqualung is compatible with harsh vocals. Other fans (like, oh, let’s call one of them @HoldDeMaio10) will appreciate that it has tons of pure metal muscle without any of the macho crap. Malokarpatan’s captivating songcraft means that their genre splicing should act as a magnet for such fans, not a repellant that pushes the band into a corner. That’s quite the feat.

Vertumnus Caesar is a truly wonderful album. All are welcome in Malokarpatan’s illustrious court.

Malokarpatan is:
As – guitars and vocals
HV – lead vocals and bass
Peter – bass
Axel Johansson – drums

…and various friends.

Posted by Zach Duvall

Last Rites Co-Owner; Senior Editor; Obnoxious overuser of baseball metaphors.

  1. Great review that opens up the doors of perception to this talented, unique and somewhat unusual band. I’d heard 1 or 2 songs from Malokarpatan before, but now I am started to get really interested.


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