Falconer Rising: The Return of Power Metal’s Best Kept Secret
If you’ve been needing something to be thankful for lately, here’s something: Stefan Weinerhall, guitarist/songwriter of power metal’s mighty Falconer is still writing and recording music. I only bring this up because it appears that this was in doubt for quite a long period of time following the release of the band’s last album, 2011’s Armod. For a short while, all we had to go on in terms of evidence that points to this was Weinerhall’s own cryptically worded message in the latest press release announcing their new album, in which he stated, “After an eight-month complete break from music on the verge of quitting it, I finally returned with a feeling of hunger, power and commitment to the songwriting.” But in a recent interview with Zach Fehl of Metal Insider, Weinerhall expanded on that slightly by making reference to the years since Armod being punctuated by personal tragedies, the pluralization there seemingly emphasizing just how much of a personal crossroads Weinerhall found himself at. But he explains that the time apart from music made the heart grow fonder, as it does, and nostalgia kicked in for him and the result was a journey back through music, resulting in the eighth and newest Falconer album, Black Moon Rising. I’m glad that Weinerhall made it back from his personal and musical abyss, because there are power metal bands by the dozens and dozens, but none of them sound anything like Falconer. They are one of power metal’s uncut emeralds amidst ordinary gems.
Some of you might remember my earlier feature on Falconer, in which I aimed to present to the reader ten select cuts from the band’s discography in an attempt to make a fan out of them. It also might have demonstrated that my love of the band has run long and deep, and that the promise of a new Falconer album is a major metal event in my world. I’ll preface my comments on Black Moon Rising by saying that I found Armod to be a satisfying listen, if not an ultimately compelling one. I think part of it was that the Swedish language vocals were somewhat inhibiting for a band that I’m normally accustomed to understanding every word and syllable (with Mathias Blad’s non-metal, theatrical approach towards singing, that vocal clarity has become something of a band trademark —- it’s “absence” was noticeable). The other factor might have been that Armod was distinctively heavier, faster, and more aggressive than any other album in the band’s discography up til that point, even at times approaching the stylistic tendencies found in black metal (blastbeats anyone?). It heralded the full realization of a musical shift that had started to develop on 2008’s Among Beggars and Thieves, on songs like the excellent “Pale Light of Silver Moon”. I wasn’t opposed to Falconer getting faster or more aggressive —- they were always a heavy band from their debut onwards, but where songs on Among Beggars and Thieves would merely dabble in a little extra ooomph, Armod went whole hog with it and the classic melodic trademarks we were all used to got pushed to the wayside.
With all the previous talk of nostalgia and a band returning from the brink of death, you’d expect Black Moon Rising to come off as a slice of classic Falconer (and if you need a discography reference point, I’m referring to the triumvirate of Falconer, Chapters of a Vale Forlorn, and Northwind), but startlingly enough this album sounds like its picking up exactly where Armod left off in terms of musical direction and overall aggressiveness. Yes I know its sung in English and that should make it different enough, and on the whole its a fairly good album, but its not a great album —- its missing so much of what makes a classic Falconer album. The last of those classics, Northwind, was a diverse collection of songs with different tempos, styles, dynamics, and ever changing song structures. A frenzied track like “Spirit of the Hawk” would be immediately followed by the slow, stomping, almost Oriental sounding “Legend and the Lore”, itself followed by the mid-tempo Celtic-tinged wistful rocker “Catch the Shadows”. On Black Moon Rising, the album passes by like a blur of frenetic tremolo riffs over blastbeat level percussion with nary a moment to pause and catch it’s breath. I am aware of the irony of a review on a metal blog decrying an album for being too fast, too aggressive, too… well, heavy, but in Falconer’s case its coming at the price of their innate melodic strengths. Its a detriment.
As I said above though, this is still a good album, a testament to Weinerhall’s skill as a master songwriter that he’s still able to hammer out at least one classic and a few close-to’s here. The classic comes in the form of the most obviously Falconer sounding song on offer, “Halls and Chambers”, a rare moment where the tremolo riffing ceases long enough to provide sections of space and structure to a chorus that the album’s best. This could’ve been an outtake from the band’s debut or Chapters From a Vale Forlorn, its that evocative of the musical spirit of that era. Fellow guitarist Jimmy Hedlund and Weinerhall even get to indulge in a wild, unbridled classic Falconer styled guitar solo after the chorus and later on in the song, a bit of delicate acoustic guitar on a quiet bridge. Similarly, “At the Jester’s Ball” is a welcome departure from excessive aggression and speed, with its playful tempo shifts and almost waltz-like rhythmic structure within the chorus, where the always unhurried Blad delivers one of his most dexterous vocals to date in his lyrical verse to refrain transition: “I am dancing in the waltz, come join in one and all”. I love the way he leans on his inflection of the word “dancing” there… its a sleek and smooth maneuver that eases in the rest of the line like a see-saw shifting down towards one side. Speaking of Blad himself for a moment, the man is as expected on top form here, seemingly ageless it seems, a boon granted by his non-metal vocal approach —- he still has incredible range, and his delivery is all his own within the metal world, no one touches this guy.
My favorite song of the moment is “In Ruins”, a moderately fast song that slows down long enough for some classic Dio era Sabbath-isms on guitar, as well as a chorus as sharp as the sword’s edge. Weinerhall knows how to conjure up some beautiful drama, as he shows on his expertly crafted opening line during the refrain, “In Ruins —- are the pillars of eden!” Following just behind are “There’s a Crow on the Barrow” and “Dawning of a Sombre Age”, the former one of Weinerhall’s ultra-speedy, tremolo laced cuts that manages to keep its melodic integrity perfectly preserved with its injection of Blad’s expansive, cinematic vocalizations during the refrain. The latter is a slow building, surging, and oddly anthemic song (given its title and lyrics), where Hedlund and Weinerhall trade off hard rock-tinged riffs and melodic twists to satisfying effect. I also have to mention how the album closer “The Priory” has been growing on me —- its an odd bird of a song but its diversity here is the key to its success, Blad sounds incredible on the refrain (can’t tell if those are vocal effects or if his voice is just that awesomely capable). What I do miss on this album is the presence of a good, old school styled Falconer ballad. They give it a shot on “Scoundrel and the Squire”, but it just sounds like a b-side grade cousin to Chapters From a Vale Forlorn’s “Lament of a Minstrel”, down to the mid-tempo pace and heavy, thudding riffs. The difference is that the latter had beautiful melodic thru lines and rock n’ roll swing and verve, while the former just plods along. That being said, even if it had worked, I would still have missed Falconer’s penchant for acoustic laden balladry… I hope those come back.
So there it is, after many many repeat listens, the most fair verdict I can lay down for a new album by a band that I’m simply relieved to have back. I’ll reiterate, its a good record, but one for existing fans only. If you’re new to the band, check out one of the three classics I mentioned earlier in the review, you can’t go wrong with any of them. Wow, this is sounding like a sales pitch… not where I usually like to go in writing but dammit, this is Falconer, a merely good album by them is considered a career misstep, so you should probably check yourself if you haven’t ingratiated yourself into their discography by now.