MYSTRAS – Empires Conquered and Dismantled (2021)REVIEW

The competitive stride of disenchanted youths towards the bigger picture of human existence eventually hits the roadblock of purpose, that which is assigned to the lost and/or unthinking and that which is found in defiance of thee assignor — All of it the generational detritus of a folly-ridden species, former tree-apes cursed with imaginative thought and decidedly manipulative hands long freed from the craft of survival. A picture of a castle crumbled to the ground by war and built into forum should thusly provide perspective to the order of magnitude a view of the Earth from space might offer, a reality of nature distorted by hideously self-consequential beings. It is the manipulator’s hands which concern and confront the the righteous ideation of Athens, Greece-based solo ‘epic’ folken black metal act Mystras whom wields the toppling of ancient empires as a pike to slash and reveal the weakness of the oppressor in their many forms throughout history. ‘Empires Conquered and Dismantled‘ is yet itself a rapid follow-up to a heralded predecessor, an iteration that builds deeper expectations of conceptual narrative presentation while further developing stylistic forms which’ll assuredly allow for greater movement about these histories for the ages in the future.

Though atmospheric black/folk metal rarely escapes the influence of pan-European/Germanic pagan faith in mind Ayloss‘ (Spectral Lore) drive as an artist doesn’t pull from these fonts of patriotism, religion (that I know of), or any sort of identity sourced from the ruling or oppressive class and instead takes his inspiration from defiance, uprising, revolt and (ideally) the freedom of the populace from oppressive rule. Mystras appears specifically designed as a vehicle for this purpose, making the connection between ripples of medieval European caste and the structures that lord over civilizations today; The artist has adopted the self-description of “medieval black metal against empire and aristocracy” to illustrate this ideation alongside a brief statement that he creates via a “purely anti-fascist and anti-nationalist perspective” and this goes hand-in-hand with a lyrical focus on violent class struggles beside the cause-and-effect of medieval European conquer and colonial expansion beyond. I get a mild hint of the ‘punk rock librarian’, or, the purpose-driven hand of a defiant scholar from the project’s themes at face value.

What hangs in mind as I consider this theme is basically: Can you make out any of the lyrics enough to discern the subject matter with the appropriate impact? As much as I listen to black metal on the regular I generally do need a lyric sheet, so, there won’t be much I can dig into beyond symbolism and what implied meaning is ‘ready on offer. From what I’ve gleaned in my time with ‘Empires Conquered and Dismantled’, and the project in general, is this keen observation that all empires fall and that the imperium will eat itself from within, yet the consequences of imperialism and colonialism inarguably continue to cannibalize the spirit of the people for periods of geologic time compared to the ruling class. A crumbling castle ruin is itself the ultimate symbol of this mindset. I won’t assume the album’s message is a call to action in the present day but most listeners will likely identify the choices of historical focus herein as similar enough to the cracks forming in modern day empire as humanity shambles toward endtyme.

The previous album (‘Castles Conquered and Reclaimed‘, 2020) certainly wore its Obsequiae-esque medieval melodic influence in a forward manner but by way of an intentionally raw/lo-fi sound, which garnered some slightly misguided comparisons to Panopticon at the time. The grand epic of “The Murder of Wat Tyler” on that album indicated a sort of conundrum wherein the ‘epic’ Greek black metal influence from the 90’s upon those aforementioned bands began to manifest more boldly in the longer-form pieces from Mystras; It makes just as much sense to reference bands like Nocternity and Macabre Omen today when considering this style of ‘epic’ folk black metal but it is certainly not a great fit if we are looking for similar acts to generate an exact pool of interest, we may as well look to certain Spectral Lore EPs for similar guitar work. We can however approach the suggested focal point of this ~64 minute album’s otherwise fragmentary narrative for some separation and growth beyond Mystras‘ previous album, specifically the first two out of five total black metal pieces it contains.

Starting with “On The Promises Of Angels”, a piece which thrillingly considers the conquest of Jerusalem, we find the rise and eh, you can guess what “The Fall Of The Kingdom Of Jerusalem” narrates in implication of the end of Saladin’s reign. The production space and stature has improved twofold to a somewhat professional standard, giving space to the instruments and allowing voice enough to the guitar, which matches the intensity of the rasped and oft-layered vocals; Beyond this, the riffs themselves arrive in purposeful strings that narrate heroic action and mayhem from a tragedian point of view. The guitar work offers strong enough centerpiece, you’ll even get a hints of Rotting Christ throughout “On the Promises of Angels”, but “The Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem” is unavoidably major here at over 14 minutes long and will likely be the one to “sell” the album to attuned ears. The equally epic “To the Builders!” is even more of a highlight for my own taste with its Kawir-esque persistence and grandeur, matching the energy of the opener and keeping Side B from being the butt-end of the experience. The full listen nonetheless begins to lose some of its poignant folk metallic flair as we approach the later pieces on the running order. The somewhat convoluted arrangement of “The Favor Of The Saints” illustrates the 12th century events which lead to the toppling of the Byzantine Empire but fumbles a bit with the actual guitar melody, tying too many knots to follow. This does not interrupt the flow of the album itself but does require some patience to allow the song to suss itself out and make the larger statement it carefully threads.

This black metal centric material is itself thrilling, even a bit challenging in and of itself, and at certain points of reflection I’d begin to wonder why Mystras wouldn’t simply group the five black metal songs on this album and clip away the Arabic and German folk pieces in between. The magic of digital files allows this on my part and in this form ‘Empires Vanquished and Dismantled’ would still amount to a solid ~47 minute record, yet this crucially dissolves the knack of Ayloss‘ skill in curating larger conceptual experiences rather than simply banging out black metal albums. The focus on folk interludes and composed standards (or, covers of traditional pieces) insists upon a patient and immersed listener, you’ll need to dig in to avoid a bit of “…and the kitchen sink” syndrome; The main difference isn’t that these black metal to folk ratios are vastly different compared to the previous record but that the fidelity of all tracks matches across the board and these are notably placed in direct enhance of the narrative itself, taking cues from Arabic (“Ah Ya Zein”) and German (“Wie Schändlich Es Ist”) pieces rather than generalized “European medieval” fare. These offer meaningful separation between the major action of the black metal songs on the album just as they did on the first album but this time around the Ney, a flute primarily associated with middle-eastern music, is prominently featured in most of these folk pieces via Stamatis Zafeiropoulos. The most prominent song you’ll likely stop and take stock of is surely “Cheragheh Zolmezalem (Oppression’s Fire)” which likewise features a vocal performance — As much as I was inclined to find these pieces vestigial upon first approaching ‘Empires Conquered and Dismantled’ they ultimately serve to elevate the full listen into far greater sophistication than if they were absent.

I am glad that I spent some extended time examining the fine detail of this second Mystras album, having found ‘Castles Conquered and Reclaimed’ tasteful yet unfocused and passing on a deeper look last year. Though this follow-up avoids plain iteration and elevates the ideal posited on the first album in mind its demanding of my own patience was a hill to climb to start, by separating the black metal pieces from the folk songs and then recombining them ‘Empires Conquered and Dismantled’ somehow made a bit more sense. All would ultimately cohere into grand form through repeated listening though I could’ve gone for more pronounced riffs or something with a bit more of a ‘hook’ for this style. The important consideration going forward would be to combine these folk and black metal elements in a way that is even more directly related, cutting away the need for standards/covers to achieve the intended setting. As is, Mystras‘ second album is an impressive ‘epic’ and a memorable black metal record which presents a unique point of view. A high recommendation.

High recommendation. (79/100)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
TITLE:Empires Conquered and Dismantled
LABEL(S):I, Voidhanger Records,
Stellar Auditorium
RELEASE DATE:November 5th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp
GENRE(S):Atmospheric Black/Folk Metal,
Epic Black/Folk Metal

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