WHEEL – Preserved in Time (2021)REVIEW

Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten, / Daß ich so traurig bin; / Ein Märchen ans alten Zeiten, / Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.” Heinrich Heine, Die Lorelei

Time, when posited as the greatest burden upon generations, acknowledges via folklore the necessity of equity in passage. An never-ending relay previously assigned to Gods as their cosmic baton-passing duties would eventually sink into parable for human application, toil in preparation for rest and retirement on completion of one’s individual role as bearer of whatever torch society or “western” culture insisted they’d pass. Without the constancy of tangible community current generations unburden themselves of mounting knowledge, its weight escaping them and passing as deferred maintenance to the next carrier or, perhaps a freshly perpetual abyss of meaning. What generation’d shirk this burden is ultimately doomed as a fish in an untended bowl, set to sun and eating grime to prolong a hopeless situation. In observance of inescapable duty, existential doom itself becomes the driving emotion that’d find weight returning to soft, weakened backs. To embrace one’s ownership of this ruefully passed division of time and shoulder it under the brace of great pain once again most often finds purpose returning to the Sisyphean realization of the flesh; The tension of life’s work will never ease for the simple fact that it’d created the primate sentience to start. We must embrace this idea that we are destined to crash against the rocks, crushed by the limitations of time long before reaching a state of transcendental goddamned anything and instead celebrate cognition as reward enough. Consider Dortmund, Germany-based epic doom metal quartet Wheel as siren to doomed realization, to see death without delusion and still set bearing towards the jagged, watery end beneath the singing stone. ‘Preserved in Time‘ arrives after a leagues rest, a prolonged death and a resurrection encased in an eight year berth that’d serve as inspiration and ample preparation for the mountain of a moment it is today.

From their earliest point of conception as Ethereal Sleep in 2006, a melodic doom band influenced by the “Peaceville three”, the major goal of the fellowes still steadfastly conjuring Wheel was to convey emotion strong enough to match the heaviness of doom metal. The catch of course being that the guitarist would decide it’d be preferable to head in a more traditional direction and regroup in 2009 as Wheel. They were not teenagers having a bit of fun at this point, they’d gotten most of their formative years out during the early 90’s in power metal and thrash bands along the way. As a result these Dortmund-area fellowes would arrive in relatively flawless form starting with their first two song demo (‘Demo 2009‘, 2009) which’d serve as a brilliant preview of their celebrated self-titled debut album (‘Wheel‘, 2010) a year later. Their influences then and now aren’t wildly different as a blend of early Trouble‘s dramatic yet brutally heavy sound and the equally thrilling bombast of classic Solitude Aeturnus serving a few over the top moments. Foundational observations, of course, as the gates of doom burst open into the 2010’s beyond the exit of Reverend Bizarre there were yet few bands capturing the melodramatic and sincerely affected work of 90’s Solstice and Warning and this’d been the major reason I’d personally gravitated towards their work. Whereas doom metal advocates were losing their minds over debuts from Magic Circle and Pallbearer (and rightfully so) I’d been pushing the second Wheel record (‘Icarus‘, 2013) nearby for its better developed ‘epic’ qualities and passionate vocal performances. To this day it is one of my all-time favorite doom metal albums for its incredibly expressive vocals via Arkadius Kurek and elements of epic heavy metal, the whole of the experience is over the top in conveyance of ambition’s madness and the souring tragedian narrative resultant. And then, everything went black…

A machine that goes on distended by circumstance eventually breaks down and it sounds like life, family and careers had prevented Wheel from pulling back into view again. Having followed the band on social media for a decade at this point it wasn’t necessarily a bout of endless promises but instead a few false starts where the search for a vocalist other than Kurek would begin around 2017 in brief employment of Midnight Rider‘s revered Micha Baum in ~2018. Of course it just cannot be Wheel without the same vocalist and thankfully Kurek returned to the band in 2019. Why such an emphasis on the man’s vocals? Well, think of ‘Watching From a Distance’ with a different performer at the helm, it’d surely be good but there is a certain magic to the way those pieces fit with the right character in ear, and this fellow manages to bring a more impressive performance with each album. Hints of atypical power metal phrasing and tempered use of vibrato for emotional conveyance help the vocalist’s work stand out, only somewhat comparable to what Dawn of Winter and Rob Lowe-fronted Solitude Aeturnus had done in prior decades. So, we can piece together the considerable space between releases and you might’ve inferred that Wheel‘ve not lost their emotional magick or drastically changed their style… this new album rules right? Yep, the title ‘Preserved in Time’ is itself a practical assertion, a statement that these German folks haven’t lost their touch or their passion for the craft of traditional doom metal delivered via ‘epic’ and affecting movements.

Whereas ‘Icarus’ was essentially an epic heavy/doom metal album with patient reveals and nigh cinematic compositions ‘Preserved in Time’ maintains those high standards of performance while shifting their weight towards relatively concise ~5-7 minute traditional doom metal songs. This lands somewhere in the ballpark of Solstice‘s ‘Lamentations’, a similarly affected release with reasonably sized epics that retain the memorable bustle of traditional doom metal at a slightly altered scope. The production values are of particular note here in terms of realism, though the mix/master from Dennis Koehne certainly doesn’t read as raw by today’s doom metal standards it does feel as if Wheel are intent on giving us a realistic rendering of these pieces, without concern for a click-track nor minor flubs. Though the sound of this record is bold and warm it does have a bit of a saw-toothed bite compared to ‘Icarus’ at high volume. It is admittedly a subtlety and their performances are flawless to all but the most strained ear yet it does count for something that a certain philosophy of realism and ease of recording process (in their rehearsal studio) speaks to grand results. The gist of it is that we’re getting Wheel at their best, loose-shouldered and still passionate about songs they could’ve easily overworked into high-falutin, anxietous monstrosities. The fidelity here is yet strong, but it is undeniably the memorable songwriting that’ll inevitably leave its mark upon the listener.

Knowledge of ancient mysteries, lost folklore or some universal mystic truth lies somewhere within this tunnel of dramatic traditional doom metal expression, positing time as a vessel to preserve meaning as long as our memories can carry it on, those who deign remember the continuum of human consciousness are burdened and enlightened at once. What remains of us beyond death? The entrance of opener and first single “At Night They Came Upon Us” has the visceral-yet-mysterious flair of a gnostic parable delivered with arabesque heavy metal countenance, classic in structure yet reaching for the deepest melodic hooks as soon as the stage is set. Though I’ll have to chalk it up to synesthesia that I’d feel a certain ecstasy as a soul-flattening dread were conveyed, this piece alone could’ve sold the album to me as an established fan of Wheel‘s work. The ~4:55 minute mark is a statement of composition that distinguishes ‘Preserved in Time’ from ‘Icarus’, a bit of keepin’ it true heavy metal stomp set within guitarist Benjamin Homberger‘s signature that suggests this album will feature both traditional doom metal elements and some aggression; It likewise speaks to the part of my brain that is still quietly obsessed with ‘Ancient Dreams‘ for its unique properties. “When the Shadow Takes You Over” brings a shade of what should read as early Pallbearer or Warning adjacency to some degree, an expressive use of melody as soon as they break into chorus; I’d point to the verses as prime showcase for the level of meaningfully ordered detail that Wheel‘ve become known for though, as will be the case with the rest of the tracklist, the most pronounced melodies are what’ll stick with most listeners to start. “After All” is arguably more about being in the moment of the performance, a strikingly achieved piece that carries its own sinking momentum. This read to me as a sort of “revision” of the best aspects of their debut, picking up the pace and conviction of the vocals while retaining the traditional doom metal movement. Of course the placement of “After All” was likely chosen specifically to lead into the obviate highlight and second single “She Left in Silence“, a fine example of Wheel “showing their work” in terms of all manner of honing in on their craft and emphasizing their finest qualities during an extended hiatus. The biggest hooks on the record are arguably summed here at the sentimental peak of the record, the end of Side A. By keeping the structure of the song fairly simple its moment of potency is profoundly felt.

Well, I am the crate-digging weirdo who thirsts like a vampire for the deep cuts what cardboard and plastic has to offer so of course I will suggest that Side B is where the true beast of burden resonates on ‘Preserved in Time’. Are we doomed to be defined beyond death by the circumstance of time, of the era we lived? “Aeon of Darkness” reprises some of the desert-borne arcana of “At Night They Came Upon Us” and uses this mystère to serve a full blown epic, an impassioned insurgence that should stir even the most stoic or jaded doom metal fan into its throes. It is the most confrontational moment on the album pleading with questions and providing darkest answers all while striding forth via a ruinous doom metal tarantella to back this inner dialogue. Here the guitar arrangements are entirely on fire for my taste, sprawling one moment and whirling in maddening unison the next. We are also served perhaps the most broad showcase of Kurek‘s vocal range here, as he can be found likewise soaring one moment and brooding in various corners of the mind beyond. “Aeon of Darkness” ensures that ‘Preserved in Time’ not only keeps its energy up but Wheel‘s statements captivating. The harsh vocal touches, brutal lyrics and sort of Argus-esque austerity of “Hero of the Weak” paired with the nearly nine minute closure of (the most ‘Icarus’ feeling piece) “Daedalus” are perhaps yours to discover in great detail as I’d want listeners to wade through the incredible wealth of Side B on their own.

The full listen is essentially flawless in order and effect, fluidic momentum sustained with several profound emotive moments that directly engage and challenge the activated mind without any spraining moments. ‘Preserved in Time’ is a traditional doom metal album of epic affect yet fairly natural proportions, easily digestible at face value yet increasingly profound as the emotional language of the album’s highs and lows provide greater meaning when the neatness of placement is observed. If the thought was, “This one needs to count, to go for it and raise the bar yet again“, bravo as Wheel have outdone themselves with pieces of old and new world artistry within the fabric woven. I’d honestly struggled with the score on this one as I am just too much a fan of this band since ‘Icarus’ to not embrace the next of kin, this beautiful purple bastard of an album, with full welcome into consciousness. I rarely give a full recommendation for the sake of perfection so, instead I will suggest that the highest standard for traditional doom metal, and emotionally profound heavy metal for that matter, is hereby met. Highest recommendation.

Highest recommendation. (100/100)

Rating: 10 out of 10.
TITLE:Preserved in Time
LABEL(S):Cruz Del Sur Music
RELEASE DATE:April 9th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Epic Doom Metal,
Traditional Doom Metal

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