Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Serenity's 'Codex Atlanticus' - Album Review

The Austrian symphonic power metal band Serenity, while never rising to the heights of many of their peers, have been releasing solid albums since releasing their debut album, Words Untold & Dreams Unlived, in 2007. While I have enjoyed most of their albums on a casual basis, most of their work has never blown me away. The exception to the rule was 2011's fantastic Death & Legacy album, the band's third album, which featured in my Top 10 albums of 2011 list and contained plenty of extremely memorable and bombastic metal anthems. As is with many bands, line-up changes really ruined Serenity's momentum. Keyboard player and songwriter Mario Hirzinger left the band in 2012, and 2013's War of Ages seemed to lack the spark of the previous album. The addition of Clémentine Delauney as a permanent female vocalist did not help either, as Serenity seemed to shoehorn vocal parts in for her were they were not really necessary. Despite her being a good singer, I think her departure from the band last year was for the best, as now frontman Georg Neuhauser's voice once again takes centre stage where it belongs. Guitarist and songwriter Thomas Buchberger also left the band last year, leaving only one of the main songwriting trio remaining. Serenity seemed over, but the band have bounced back with a more condensed four-piece line-up and a really stellar release in the form of fifth album Codex Atlanticus. Joining Neuhauser, founding member and drummer Andreas Schipflinger, and long-time bassist Fabio D'Amore, is new guitarist Chris Hermsdörfer (Visions of Atlantis). Hermsdörfer has jumped on board the Serenity ship with both feet, as he has co-written the entire album with Neuhauser and producer Jan Vacik - and the three have formed a formidable spngwriting team. In writing Codex Atlanticus Serenity seemed to have attemped to push the melodies forward and make them stand out. While the bombastic symphonic arrangements are still there, they take a backseat to solid songwriting. Some of the band's catchiest songs appear on this album, and for that reason I can see myself listening to this one quite often. Style wise, this album is typical Serenity fare, but just more memorable and melodic than usual. There are a few subtle changes however. One of them is the fact that D'Amore has expanded his role a little and now contributes vocals occasionally. He does not sing lead often, but his grittier tone works well in contrast to Neuhauser's soaring smooth delivery and the two play off each other well. The album is a concept album of sorts, with all the songs being based around the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci.

After the obligatory orchestral intro, which also happens to be the album's title track, Codex Atlanticus gets under way with Follow Me. A gentle piano melody soon leads into a muscular metal riff with a dense orchestral backing that is in typical Serenity style. Relatively low-key verses ensue, with some excellent clean guitar playing to back up Neuhauser's breathy delivery. The song gradually builds up towards the song's chorus which, while memorable, is not the anthem it could have been. It still works well however, and you get the impression that the new-look Serenity mean business. Hermsdörfer impresses instantly with a myriad of styles, including a tasteful solo midway through. Sprouts of Terror opens out with a riff that would not be out of place on an 1980s Accept album, but the orchestral stabs soon dispel this illusion. D'Amore opens the vocals with his rougher voice, which fits the faster speed metal feel of the song. As soon as a more melodic section arrives, Neuhauser comes back in as the orchestral dances around his direct vocal melodies. The chorus is a real winner, with a slower tempo and some really soaring vocal lines. This song is something a little different from what Serenity has done in the past, and it works really well. Hermsdörfer's guitar dominates again, and D'Amore's vocals really help to add a harsher edge. Iniquity is classic Serenity however, and opens with a delicate xylophone line before exploding into a real symphonic rocker with a huge orchestral and choral arrangement which recalls the style the band used on Death & Legacy. Much like with Follow Me, the song has fairly low-key verses with Schipflinger's tribal drumming leading the charge while Neuhauser croons over the top. As is expected too, the chorus is an epic affair, with some extremely catchy vocal melodies that stick with you almost instantly. The orchestrations compliment the vocals perfectly, and the wall-of-sound metal approach used by the rest of the band proves to be the perfect backing. Those who enjoy the really bombastic end of Serenity's work will love Reason. The opening cacophony is a symphonic feast, with some fabulous orchestrations sitting over the fast metal riff. The energy is barely let up throughout, with crunching power chords in the verses and a bouncy chorus with striking vocal lines and tight drumming. Hermsdörfer's solo is excellent too, with a good mix of precise melody and shredding showboating. He seems to be a real asset to the modern Serenity vision. With a Celtic/folky intro, My Final Chapter is the first of the album's true slower numbers. Neuhauser's smooth vocals are backed by a booming piano line and some atmospheric strings. The song does gradually build up somewhat, but it never becomes anything other than a ballad. It works well however, especially the slow guitar solo, and helps to give the listener a break from the bombastic metal anthems found so far.

Caught in a Myth opens with some strange, almost industrial, sounds, but this mood is soon dispersed when the song's main riff comes on. The verse a stop-start affair, with bursts of deep bass guitar, and Schipflinger's hi-hat work. The chorus is another strong moment, with some great power metal vocals and subtle orchestrations. That being said however, the song does not feel as strong as others on the album, and probably suffers from being quite similar to much of what has come before. It is certainly enjoyable, but does not hit home like the first half of the album. Fate of Light, with another speed metal-esque riff, ends up sounding a little like a Rhapsody of Fire song with the layers of choral vocals plastered on during the intro. The end result is much smoother than the Italian band would ever be however, with Neuhauser's vocals dominating and having space to really breathe. It is songs like this that have caused Serenity to be compared to Kamelot in the past, and this sounds like something that could have been on their The Fourth Legacy album, before Kamelot really came into their own by adding various progressive touches to their songwriting. There is another great guitar solo in this song, with some very fast sections. The Perfect Woman, about the Mona Lisa, is another good slower number that features the vocal talents of go-to metal session singer Amanda Somerville. The song's piano, and overall mood of the piece, brings musical theatre to mind as it has that accessible quality. Despite it being largely slower number, there is still quite a lot of energy here, with some dramatic string sections and an emotional vocal delivery. Somerville's lead vocal sections only serve to enhance that theatre feeling, and it works really well - again sounding different from anything the band has done before. This is a song that did not really stand out to me at first, but now it has become one of my favourites on the album, despite how cheesy it is. Spirit in the Flesh is another old-school sounding Serenity song, with a great soaring guitar lead during the song's intro and some double-bass drumming. This song is my favourite on the whole album, because it contains all the hallmarks that made me love the Death & Legacy album so much, and it is chock full of memorable melodies. The chorus is easily the album's best too, with Neuhauser and D'Amore trading vocal lines and complimenting each other well. The band filmed a video for this song (and Follow Me) and I can see why, as it really hits you straight away. I think this song will be in the band's setlists for years to come. A moody piano motif heralds the arrival of The Order, the album's final song. It comes across as an epic, ambitious song, but deep down it is quite a simple beast. This is no bad thing however, and it works really well to close out the album with a piano-heavy rock sound and plenty of strong orchestrations. Neuhauser sounds fantastic here, and this could possibly be his best vocal performance on the album. Overall, Codex Atlantic is a strong come back album from Serenity after the weaker (in my opinion) War of Ages. This is already my second favourite work by the band, and in time even that could change. Excellent stuff!

The album was released om 29th January 2016 via Napalm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Spirit in the Flesh.

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