What happens when a man takes off his Bathory crop top and wears Pink Turns Blue shirts for promo-shoots of his new album? Not necessarily bad things.
Germany’s Lunar Shadow have been making quite a few melodies in the last years with Max Birbaum leading the way. A short EP in 2015 -which was only an early sign of what’s to come- was followed by their fabulous debut full-length in 2017, titled Far From Light. The album could be called beautiful in a way many heavy metal albums can’t. Pretty melodies, some of the smoothest guitar leads in recent times, and tasteful acoustic moments were accompanied by a prevalent melodic black metal touch and made a collection of long structured songs averaging around 8 minutes each. Alex Vornam’s vocals which usually sound like a mellow John Lennon don’t hesitate to go high and brave when they need to and tell stories of epic, sad, and hopeful tales of fantasy.
In June, 2019, Lunar Shadow are coming back with their sophomore effort, Smokeless Fire. I will admit that when I saw the album artwork, especially the removal of their awesome logo, I was quite worried for the direction they could potentially take. Upon hearing the album I was immediately relieved. Surely there are things that have changed and other things that remained the same after the debut but this is still the Lunar Shadow I loved a few years ago. As further reassurance: the logo still exists on the booklet and the album cover is a stylistic choice which actually is in line with the sound of the album.
First of all, the two main factors that split the listeners of debut in half: the vocals and the length. Vornam’s vocals were one of the most divisive components of the debut album, followed by the 57 minutes length. A while after the album, the band separated their ways with the vocalist Vornam and spent a specific touring period with their bassist Sven Hamacher taking up the vocals duty which resulted in a first wave black metallized version of Lunar Shadow on stage. Eventually they are joined by Robert Röttig, a local fellow for them, and this finalised the line-up of the new album. If you were one of those who loved the debut but could not get used to vocals, here is a new opportunity for you to get into the band. If you were one of those who loved the vocals on the first album as it is –like I did– fret not, the change in vocals might take a couple listens to get used to but it is most certainly not a movement in a bad direction. The length is also shorter this time with the album clocking in around 45 minutes for those who thought the debut could be shortened a bit.
With these two out of the way; we can focus on the new album, what new things it brings to the table and what it carries on from the debut. There are some riffs and melodies in the album that almost feels like are taken directly from Far From Light. They sound so much like the debut that even on my initial listen I thought I knew where some melodies were going and what the next note was going to be, as if I heard it before. It is up to you to decide if this can be called re-cycling old material or having a signature sound. I tend to be on the latter camp only because even with these riffs and melodies, the album manages to feel entirely fresh. Not to compare two bands, however, don’t we all hold Running Wild in extremely high regards (deservedly so) without being bothered by the reuse of some old melodies and guitar licks as long as it’s not in the pure self-plagiarism area, after all? I’m not only chalking up the familiar melodies to Birbaum having a particular riffing style, I’m also actually enjoying the songs with those melodies on the new album the most.
What’s different on Smokeless Fire is why it still feels very fresh and new. This time the album is much more personal than the debut, reflecting the personal experiences of Birbaum more obviously. Songs about life, love, and sorrow replaced the songs about Cimmeria or krakens on the debut; doubling down on the dark and gloomy atmosphere. Their signature sound is wrapped in new layers. Very small post-punk touches that mostly manifest in the production, the tone, and the overall feeling of the album is the first new layer on top of the melodic black-inspired epic heavy metal of the band. Another is the prominent use of piano which essentially replaces the acoustic guitar sections of the debut. The difference between the “non-metal” tracks on both albums emphasizes this change very well, piano laden “Pretend” is in place of guitar driven “Gone Astray” from the previous album. Melodic black metal influence is mostly in the riffing style this time, gone are the “harsh” back vocals and black metal drums of Far From Light.
The album is quite consistent all the way through with no particularly weak moments ,but last three songs is the absolute peak of it all. With the streak of “Laurelindórenan”, “Red Nails (For the Pillar of Death)”, and “Hawk of the Hills”; Lunar Shadow managed to write one of the best B-sides of 2019. These songs have also coincidentally the moments that sound like Far From Light the most.
Overall, Lunar Shadow have gone in a darker, moodier direction after their debut. It is “softer around the edges” and more atmospheric, but the first and foremost foundation is still the extremely melodic heavy metal riffing of Max Birbaum with a healthy amount of black metal influences. Regardless if you liked their debut or not, get ready for the second round with the band, closer and more personal this time, on June 21, 2019 when their new album, Smokeless Fire, is released by Cruz del Sur.
Album rating: 92/100
Favorite song: Red Nails (For the Pillar of Death)