It’s been a pretty stellar year for the musician known as Ayloss, aka Spectral Lore, aka Mystras. As if the monumental split he put out with Mare Cognitum from earlier this year wasn’t good enough, he returns with a new project, a new concept and even more inspired ideas, courtesy of medieval history and its surprising parallels to modern times. Castles Conquered and Reclaimed is both a love letter to a time long ago and a call to action against the current state of affairs, all wrapped up in soaring melodies, nasty riffs and furious beats.
Castles Conquered and Reclaimed aims to take raw, lo-fi black metal and give it a medieval flair, sonically and lyrically. The obvious comparison here would be with Obsequiae, but while they share a thematic similarity, they are different enough in sound that it would be hard to confuse them for each other. Where Obsequiae is delicate, refined, sleek and restrained at times, Mystras goes for a less subtle approach. The production on the album is intentionally low fidelity (in a good way, trust), and it is much rawer and coarser on the ear than the crisp harmonies that you might expect. There is more of an emphasis on the riff than the melody, although there’s plenty of those mixed in. While Ayloss still composed the majority of the music and performed the majority of the instruments on Castles Conquered (not to mention produced, mixed and mastered it), in order to achieve the medieval feel that is central to the sound of the album there are a fair amount of guest musicians playing some interesting instruments to the mix, particularly on the interlude tracks, which are covers of actual medieval and Ars Nova tunes. In between the furious, raw and aggressive black metal, these stand out as a way not just to break the pace, but to reinforce the parable of the album.
Medieval and renaissance music tends to conjure images of noble kings, queens and lords and resplendent knights, but Mystras stands in direct opposition to those tropes. “The album tells the stories of those downtrodden under the shiny heels of knights and lords,” Ayloss explains. “Those who chose to rise up for freedom against innumerable odds and that most often perished, sacrificing themselves for the well-being of the next generations. Mystras is Medieval Black Metal against Empire and Aristocracy.” Both the black metal tracks and the folk covers tell stories of common people who did extraordinary things, like steal from the rich to give to the poor, or they are songs of lament for the condition of the working class, or they tell of uprisings against corrupt lords, but all of them are about the strength of people in solidarity, fighting for their place in the world against those that would stand on their backs without a care. It’s not quite the medieval story that you might expect, but it’s one that absolutely needs to be told, both for an understanding of the past in proper context and for its application to society today.
In terms of the actual black metal on here, it’s much more straightforward than, say, Spectral Lore, but boy does it rip. There are killer riffs abounding on this one, and the amount of energy in these songs is a funny juxtaposition with the fact that they are about events and people hundreds of years old. The fact that Ayloss subverts these tired historical tropes seems to breathe new life into the subject matter, and it clearly inspired him because these are just really great black metal songs. Cuts like the title track or “The Murder of Wat Tyler” showcase the furious, unfiltered aggression that goes into that classic lo-fi sound, with buzzsaw guitars, blurry blast beats and overdriven growls. If you’re an astute reader of this fine publication, you should know better than to confuse “lo-fi” with “bad,” but just in case: don’t. While I kind of wish the drums were a little higher in the mix, overall, the production is really solid, and all the intentional stylistic choices Ayloss makes, I feel, help to reinforce the overall flavor of the album. There’s plenty of little parts that you can easily pick out that really help the album shine, like the insanely catchy melody that ends “Wrath and Glory,” or the bouncy bass in “The Zealots of Thessaloniki,” or the pummeling riffs in “Storm the Walls of Mystras.” In contrast, the interlude tracks are very clean, with old-school instruments like flute, tin whistle, violin, skin drums and yayli tanbur (think banjo meets lute, except you bow it). Every one of these pieces feels curated in a way that flows really well with their metal counterparts. In fact, the whole album meshes in a satisfying way. The black metal sits at 11 pretty much non-stop, but these interludes help break the album up into chunks that hold the attention span quite nicely.
I’m honestly not sure if Mystras is just a one-off project or if there’s more to come down the road, but I sincerely hope so. Ayloss is clearly a busy guy, and Spectral Lore certainly isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but I do believe that this is just as important of a project and I would hate for it to get lost somewhere. Both ancient and timeless, Castles Conquered perfectly captures a message and a passion that is desperately needed right now, in addition to being ripping good black metal on top of it all.