Album Title: Red Dragon
Red Dragon is clearly inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, but the story is told with a great deal of subtlety -- you won't hear the word "hobbit" here, or even "dwarf". Instead, the lyrics distill the tale down to its essence, concentrating on the perilous journey, the battle with the dragon, and the ensuing tragedy of greed. The whole album is arranged as an unbroken piece of music, with each track flowing seamlessly into the next; if you're anything like me, this may have you playing it two or three times through without a break. Fortunately, Red Dragon delivers! The band's blend of heavy metal melodicism and death metal rhythm is perfect: the epic lead work is the first thing most will notice, but Helcaraxë backs it up with plenty of crunch. The songs here are a bit longer than on the last few albums, which gives the band space to pack in even more variety, but nothing's the least bit dragged-out, and the full running length is a comfortable 45 minutes. Likewise, this album puts more emphasis on melody than their earlier work, but not so much that it suffers as a death metal album. There are plenty of crushingly heavy parts on offer, including a few which rival the tracks on Ruination of the Heavenly Communion. The production is fitting, too: clear yet substantial, allowing each instrument to make its mark.
"The Thief" opens things up with a quiet, introspective two-part melody above a wandering bassline. The introduction of heavy guitar and harsh vocals shatters the mood, continuing into the galloping aggression of "Circle of Firelight". "Orcrist" speeds things up again with a flurry of headbanging sections and some guitar/bass work which brings early Amorphis to mind, before "A Fortune in Riddles" breaks things up with a short instrumental interlude. "Into the Fire and Sky" is a perfect example of the band's craft, alternating between crushing moments and soaring, catchy solos. Both build together into a crescendo worthy of old Amon Amarth, until "Skin Changer"'s vicious, shout-along vocals and jangling guitar lines bring things back to earth. "The Old Forest Road" combines twisted, start-and-stop riffing with snarled vocals to create a dark, oppressive atmosphere, all the more impressive given how relentlessly epic its surroundings are. The thrashing section in the middle is killer! The varied mood of "Dungeons" goes from somber to pained to triumphant in the span of just five minutes, ending in one of the best leads on the album. "Red Dragon" is simply monolithic -- the riffing, drum fills, and solos here are beyond great, skilled yet heavy as hell, and the vocals are the best on the record. Then the mood changes, and you realize that the dragon has only begun to wake...! Afterward, "The Arkenstone" delivers one last dose of reality, slowing things down in an epic prelude to the record's closing lament. Along the way are a thousand twists and turns, but take heed of Beorn's warning: it's death to leave the path!
Red Dragon might be Helcaraxë's masterwork: it's more unified yet more varied than anything they've recorded to date, and the result is endlessly listenable. I can't help but miss the slightly heavier atmosphere of the last album, but this one won me over immediately -- Red Dragon should please old-school death metal heads as well as those looking for a more melodic touch, and fans of viking metal ought to sit up and take notice. Highest recommendations.
Standout tracks: "Into the Fire and Sky", "Skin Changer", "Red Dragon"