Orchestration and keyboards in metal, especially extreme metal, will continue to be one of the genre’s most polarizing issues. When done well, the combination of choirs, orchestras, and pianos can enhance the power of the underlying song structures and take it from merely solid to way beyond epic. When not done well or over-emphasized, though, keyboards are tantamount to ruining a perfectly good steak by drowning it in nacho cheese. Fortunately, symphonic melodic death metal veterans Meadows End are masters of their trade, and their newest album Sojourn is yet another strong display of brawn and beauty as partners in tango.
The Swedish quintet, though unsigned to a label for the entirety of their career, have been around since 1998 and have continued to refine their potent, energetic brand of atmospheric, keyboard-driven melodic death metal. On a surface listen, Meadows End share much in common with modern Dark Tranquillity (especially the era of Damage Done through Fiction) with their reliance on huge melodic lead guitars and the interplay with keyboards — here, mostly along the lines of backing strings, some choirs, and pronounced piano melodies — but there are also strains of Amorphis’s folk stylings (“Heathen’s Embrace”), the dusky melancholy of Insomnium (“Angel Dreams”), and the stomping, war march rhythms of Amon Amarth (“End of Fallens”). That said, while those comparisons are all accurate, they sell short what Meadows End achieve on Sojourn.
Sojourn is actually composed of a large chunk of older material from the band that has been reworked and updated. Generally, this is something most bands avoid, but well-written songs stand the test of time, and in the case of Sojourn, the re-recordings sound like a very natural progression of the band’s previous outings rather than an arbitrary rehashing. For all its unabashed worship of all things Gothenburg, the songs hardly sound dated and erupt with urgency and energy, and Johan Brandberg’s fiery, articulate roars keep the beauty in check and prevent these songs from being too pretty for their own good. The songwriting, even with abundant keys and atmospheric touches, is based entirely on quality riffs and tight execution, with “Forever Haven” one of the fastest-paced cuts that still retains the towering majesty of the album’s more progressive sections. Additionally, Meadows End tap into the fret-dancing acrobatics of modern progressive metal throughout the album; “My Leading Command” teeters between rapid-fire leads and melodic lines over which the keyboards, often relegated as a backdrop, come to the forefront and form a counterpoint to the melody and chord structures. The suitably polished production also adds a modern edge to the album, and even with their stance to remain a DIY band, Sojourn certainly sounds like a major label release and would easily succeed on the rosters of Napalm, Nuclear Blast, or Century Media.
The album is not without its faults, though. It is a rather long affair –– 13 tracks with a total running time around 70 minutes –– and it is a lot to take in one sitting, but honestly, by the time the explosive drum fill starts “Deadlands,” you’re already in it to win it for the album’s duration. Meadows End are working with a rigid formula, and while it’s easy to let your eyes glaze over and just let the ethereal keys and very pleasant melodies phase into the background, there are enough tempo changes, earworm guitar hooks, and excellent transitions throughout to make each song have its own memorable moments. (I’ll have the chorus of “All of Them” and verse riffs of “Soulslain” stuck in my head for the next week, guaranteed.) On its first few listens, though, Sojourn nearly crosses the line into being too consistent for its own good to the point of homogeneity. It took me 3 or 4 listens before the distinctions really started to emerge, even as strong as the material is.
When it finally begins to unfurl itself, Sojourn is a remarkably strong album. Neither too heavy-handed in its symphonic approach nor guilty of just using washes of string pad behind generic melodeath riffs, it achieves its goals of being a majestic yet indisputably heavy album. How Meadows End have gone this long without much coverage is beyond me, because Sojourn is a proper beast of an album. I promise that’s not a pun on the cover art. Okay. It might be.