Epic heavy metal is one of those few musical genres that still remains largely unexplored, and even more so in 1992. In fact, in 1992 a metal band of any sort had to be fairly bold to release an album and expect it to gain them a profit of any sort, as metal was quickly on the decline and the Seattle-based monstrosity called grunge was quickly on the rise. However, James Shellberg and his cohorts seemed to have no concern with popularity and success at all throughout their career, as is evident through their very esoteric musical style as much as the date of their releases. Despite the lack of commercial success with his previous band, Enchanter, Shellberg would not be deterred, quickly putting together a new mishmash of individuals and giving them the moniker “Longings Past”. Despite the fact that Shellberg was forced to switch from guitars to vocals for the album (due to an injury), Meadows of Maseilya was released very shortly after their creation.
It would be quite a feat to find anything that sounds remotely similar to this album, besides its 1994 successor or Enchanter‘s demo material. It shares a few similarities with Virgin Steele‘s 1990s material, and perhaps with the early work of Fates Warning, but in terms of what sort of feeling the composition creates, I have to say that Meadows of Maseilya is in a realm entirely of its own. In writing this album, Shellberg, Brown, and Miller seem to have stumbled across a very personal yet arcane feeling rarely ever seen in music, though often seen on paper in the form of fantasy literature. In essence, it feels that the band has transposed the magical coming-of-age quest of a young man from paper to cassette.
The album starts off by transporting the listener to the world of Tallahan, the classic fantasy narrator assertively setting the stage for the rest of the album over some cheap but well-executed keyboard symphonics. It immediately comes across as the cheesiest thing you’ve ever likely to have heard, perhaps something you would have heard in your cousin’s basement while playing Dungeons & Dragons in the late 1970s, but it does what it does unashamedly, and it does it well, tastefully leading into the first song of the album proper, “Peak of Almashia”. The song has a fitting title, conjuring up nothing more than the feeling of riding out towards some magical crag high in the mountains full of confidence, ready to face what’s out there. From “Peak of Almashia” to the finale, “Upon a Dragon’s Wings”, the album flows beautifully, staying, while imperfect, very consistent throughout.
The focal point throughout the album is Shellberg’s vocal performance, and I have to say that he lives up to the part. Despite the fact that he’s clearly not the most technically adept vocalist in existence, he is passionate and extremely dedicated to the role he portrays, never once straying from the viewpoint of the young male protagonist throughout the course of the album; he really seems as if he lives in a world of magic and dragons and secluded peaks, and is ready to face it head on. The personal feeling he manages to convey with this technique is, as I’ve said, practically unparalleled in metal, if not all of music. David DeFeis gives a similar and noteworthy performance in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Part II, but he can’t really compete with Shellberg. Mark Shelton probably could, except that his performance tends to convey a feeling that his character is on the outside looking in on events, or is an old man who participated in them long ago and is now recounting them. Shellberg presents a performance where he is the protagonist of a story, and it works really, really well.
On the other side of the spectrum, the only thing that disappoints me on this album is the drumming in certain areas, and the reason it’s disappointing is that it’s clear that whoever is writing the drum lines knows how to do it. It’s annoyingly inconsistent, due to the fact that, like the guitar and bass, the drumming was done by multiple musicians due a parting of ways of the original musicians (Sayle, Brown, and Miller left the band before the album’s completion). This is very disappointing as I feel the drumming could have been much more professional if done as intended, but such is the way of things. It fits in perfectly with the guitar in songs like the title track or “Peaks of Almashia” but in some of the more aggressive sections, such as in “Warming Embers”, “The Dream Catcher”, and “Dawns”, the drums seem almost at odds with the guitar, clashing as if the drums are competing to be faster. Now, I do realize that given the headstrong nature of these sections, such a technique doesn’t completely fail to convey the intended feeling, but at the same time, it seems that the events that happened with the band significantly detracted from the overall atmosphere.
However, the occasional drum slip-up is really my only complaint with this album, and it’s a very small one when compared to the mastery it achieves through most of its duration. As I said earlier, it really is incredibly consistent, as I’m sure the band knew was a necessary thing to achieve the feeling of a real young man’s life it presents us. Now, don’t get me wrong, the album has its stronger moments; it really seems to shine in the slower, more introspective sections. However, these would become stale very quickly if they weren’t interspersed with bouts of confidence and aggression. In fact, the album would also fail to be a realistic story if it weren’t for those ups and downs, as I’m sure the band was aware of when they were writing it. Meadows of Maseilya truly is the tale of a young man; full of youthful hope and confidence in “Peak of Almashia”, at peace in the slower section of “Warming Embers,” then more confident again and more experienced later in the song and in “The Dream Catcher”, indicating the experience he gained in “Peak of Almashia”, and thus further establishing a sense of verisimilitude; thoughtful and surrounded by an arcane wonder in the title track, which is really the crux of the album and the climax of the story; and finally looking back over what he’s already thought and accomplished in “Dawns” and “Upon a Dragon’s Wings”.
Long story short, this is a truly unique album that captures a feeling wholly of its own (at least in my experience) and anyone into epic metal, concept albums, fantasy literature, or even music in general, should check out this masterpiece, given the chance. This album really feels as if it’s the first and one of the only of its kind, and while musically flawed, has succeeded in mastering what nothing and no one else has really accomplished. It really is more or less an epic fantasy transposed to music, and Brown, Miller, and Shellberg really concocted something timeless here. Fellows, my hat’s off to you.
Favorite Tracks: “Warming Embers,” “Meadows of Maseilya,” “Upon a Dragon’s Wings”