Atlantean Kodex: Power Metal’s Unlikely Heroes?
If you haven’t heard of Germany’s Atlantean Kodex before, that’s understandable because they are only recently receiving the kind of critical acclaim that is turning quite a few heads thanks to their amazing new record The White Goddess. I myself only listened to them after 2013 had passed, thanks to seeing their high placement on Adrien Begrand’s Best of 2013 list. Atlantean Kodex play power metal, or as some prefer to call it to avoid negative stigmas, traditional or epic metal. The caveat is that all this new found attention is coming from far more than just relatively underground power metal sites/blogs —- as the band have been turning the heads of writers at a few big platform publications such as Pitchfork, Stereogum, Popmatters, and Vice. Yes you’re reading that right, a release by a power metal band from the birthplace of the subgenre itself is receiving the kind of attention that is normally reserved for critically acceptable black and death metal bands. Their success in this regard is the product of two parts smart marketing and pairing with highly regarded indie record labels (Cruz Del Sur/20 Buck Spin), and one part a blending of such disparate influences as Manowar and Bathory —- a combination that practically begs to be investigated.
Its important to note that Atlantean Kodex are a relatively young band in a strange way; they formed in 2005 but have been quite content to take their time in creating new music, as The White Goddess is only their sophomore full length album. However it might be one of the most important power metal recordings of all time, not only due to its undisputed excellence, but for what it could mean for the future of a subgenre long maligned in the United States. In this regard, Atlantean Kodex are venturing into unknown territory, being the first power metal band to achieve critical success from non-metal media platforms in the post-social media era. Surely this kind of success would not come from the genre’s long standing forefathers, its torchbearers such as Blind Guardian, Rhapsody, Kamelot, Iced Earth, Avantasia, etc, etc —- the fix was in against those bands perhaps simply because their origins predate the current era. Its always easier for the media to disregard something long established with lazy labels and critical adjectives (ie cheesy, pretentious, dinosaur, etc) than it is to actually do the work and understand why these artists are as popular and loved as they are.
What makes The White Goddess great isn’t exactly groundbreaking on a conceptual level —- its simply quality songwriting, excellent musicianship, and a vocalist that sells it all with soaring conviction. The same qualities could be attributed to many other fine releases by other bands within the genre. Where Atlantean Kodex strive to differentiate themselves is by adding shades of melancholic doom to their take on power metal, which makes everything sound heavier, with a tendency to lean on slower, steady tempos, often with ample use of space and silence. Evidence of the latter can be found on the slow and brooding eleven minute long “Heresiarch”, where isolated bass lines sometimes are the sole instrument rumbling along during the verses. The clear album standout here is “Sol Invictus” (another ten minute plus track), the album’s clarion call that boasts a punishing heaviness not only from sledgehammer riffs, but from the brutal attack of the rhythm section —- drummer Mario Weiss is one of the most talented and unheralded drummers in metal today, his percussion is at once relentless, assaulting, and artful. The chorus here puts the spotlight on vocalist Markus Becker who commands your attention with a performance that is Imaginations-era Hansi Kursch esque. I’ll spare you a track by track dissection here, the entire album is jawdroppingly amazing, but my personal favorite has to be “Twelve Stars and an Azure Gown”, a semi-ballad that wrenches out emotion from every note. At times throughout the song, metal fury is pierced by moments of haunting, doomy, ethereal beauty. I mentioned Bathory as an influence earlier, and its extremely difficult to pinpoint one particular moment where Quorthon’s work really comes through, because its simply everywhere, ingrained in the fabric of Atlantean Kodex’s sound and approach to songwriting. You hear it alongside the Manowar-ish influences and it sounds completely natural.
Lyrically, this is top tier level stuff that transcends power metal boundaries despite using many mythological references. The underlying theme of the album is the rise and fall of modern Europe, but these lyrics are ancient world imagery rich and full of obscure mythological metaphors, as guitarist Manuel Trummer explained to VICE, “The figure of the White Goddess is an allegory for this life/death relationship. She‘s an pan-European deity who shows up in all religions from ancient Greece to the Nordic pantheon, but she‘s always associated with aspects of life, death and rebirth.” Many of you that read this blog often already know that I’m big on lyricists within metal, that is, quality lyricists which are few and far between. This is band that has put as much work into their lyrics as they have their music, a rare tendency in power metal even, which is a shame because I thought Trummer had a point when he talked about the lack of need for focusing on lyrics in other, more extreme genres of metal: “with all these Cookie Monster vocals in brutal death metal, metalcore, deathcore, etc., you can‘t understand the lyrics anyway. A lot of this new kind of metal is about physical power, about experiencing your own body, about extreme feelings and situations. There‘s simply no need for elaborate lyrics.” And that’s a good jumping off point to say that I think The White Goddess could be a turning point for the future of power/trad/epic (whatever you want to call it) metal —- it certainly is going to be a benchmark going forward at the very least.
The possibility exists now, however small it is, that this album’s critical success could pave the way for more power metal bands to get first time, or simply longer “looks” from the mainstream media, particularly here in the United States. More pressingly, it could inspire many power metal bands that are either stuck in a formula, or afraid to get “arty” to go ahead and take chances with their music. I must admit to wondering idly whether or not The White Goddess would have received the kind of attention it did from those big platform sites had it been released on Century Media or Nuclear Blast, and featured cover art that looked like it belonged more on a Gamma Ray record (as opposed to the one they chose, which could be a Candlemass cover). It was a savvy marketing move, and no one can fault the band for that.
Thanks to Atlantean Kodex’s late 2013 success, I have an interesting idea brewing about 2014 being a resurgent year for power metal, as we are likely going to see most major bands within the genre release new albums throughout the year (Iced Earth for example already have —- review forthcoming), and this could be the year that some of these guys finally get the attention from larger circles that they are so often denied. I look at Atlantean Kodex’s dent in the tastemaker’s media platform as just one part of this potential future, Pharaoh certainly turned major heads (such as Lars Gotrich of NPR) with 2012’s Bury the Light record —- but more than just isolated examples however, is an undercurrent of what I feel might be an overload of the extreme metal spectrum. Death and black bands tend to take up the majority of critical attention, and I’ve been noticing that a few writers out there are getting seemingly bored with it all, and that the prospect of a metal band with actual singing is becoming a more and more appealing idea. Its going to be interesting to look back at the end of this year and see if my prediction is right.