In the mid-90s, Therion’s Theli and that album’s operatic game-changer, “To Mega Therion,” entirely altered my perception of what extreme metal could be. And, in my opinion, the hits kept on coming: from the deeply nuanced Vovin to the Wagnerian Secret of the Runes and even the anthemic Lemuria/Sirius B double record, I was a Therion fan to the bone. I dug deep into the archives, appreciating the subtle hints at what the band would become sprinkled across Lepaca Kliffoth, Symphony Masses and even their 1991 death metal debut, Of Darkness. When they released Gothic Kabbalah in 2007, I celebrated their embrace of a more rock-oriented sound. I even sang the praises of 2012’s Les Fleurs du Mal ‘cover’ album of French pop songs (while fondly remembering their 2001 cover of Abba’s “Summernight City”) when many around me scorned it.
But then, somewhere along the way, their upbeat steampunk-ery lost me and I returned to my dark, comforting cave, mourning those lost days of bombastic, operatic glory… So the promise of Leviathan, with its description of Therion doing the unthinkable and releasing a record of “hit songs” only was very welcome indeed: sadly, it seems their definition of a Therion “hit” and mine are somewhat different…
The title track is reminiscent of Therion’s strange relationship with both metal and pop.
Nevertheless, despite the predominantly crowd-pleasing tone of Leviathan, I set to and discovered that even if they are nowhere near as dark as their early history, Therion is still a profoundly intellectually engaging act and their occult themes are as intriguing as ever – the packaging has just enjoyed a facelift. Take, for example, the sense of inexorable drive on “Psalm of Retribution”; a relentless groove that shows Christofer Johnsson and his collaborator Thomas Vikström’s accomplished songwriting to perfection. The vocal stabs and flourishes, while completely idiosyncratic, generate curiosity, dynamism and a unique Therion flavour.
This watermarked Therion trait also shines through on the carefully arranged choirs on “Nocturnal Light,” a gentle throwback to the Lemuria/Sirius B era. Furthermore, the “conversational” passages reinforce the operatic narrative that defines so much of Therion’s work. Copycats and latecomers to the symphonic metal stage often attempt to emulate this, but usually only as vocal duets: Therion’s masterful inclusion of instruments into this conversation drives home who really holds the title of pioneers in the genre.
Nightwish’s Marko Hietala provides a welcome change of vocal style for the rampage that is “Tuonela.”
One surprise addition to Leviathan is “Aži Dahāka,” an ode to the hydra-like Zoroastrian demonic entity. While recalling Gothic Kabbalah’s rock stylings, the staccato vocal delivery does seem out of character at first – but its dynamic shift back towards soaring operatics is one hundred percent Therion, although in this format it is also an effective foil towards the likes of Swiss goth masters Lacrimosa and frontman Tilo Wolff’s enviable vocal range.
Sadly, “El Primer Sol” and “Ten Courts of Diyu” are both solid songs in their own right – possibly even deserving of the title of ‘hits’ – but their placement in the album hierarchy as closers make them forgettable and less engaging than the remainder of the record.
Overall, Leviathan is less of the scaled monstrosity its cover art implies and, while no less monumental, is a far softer, gentler affair. For their 17th full-length album, Therion may not have written the eleven hit songs I was hoping for, but they have crafted something that will satisfy a far wider audience than just one gloomy bugger at a keyboard: Leviathan is clever, easy to listen to and amid the fist-waving, foot-stomping chaos there lies a central core of unshakable hard rock grit that ties the whole together.
“Die Wellen der Zeit” is an orchestral ballad, a moving and evocative visual accompaniment and a love letter to Richard Wagner, all at once.
Leviathan Track Listing:
1. The Leaf on the Oak of Far
4. Die Wellen der Zeit
5. Aži Dahāka
6. Eye of Algol
7. Nocturnal Light
8. Great Marquis of Hell
9. Psalm of Retribution
10. El Primer Sol
11. Ten Courts of Diyu
Run Time: 45:33
Release Date: January 22, 2021
Record Label: Nuclear Blast