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An interesting package crossed my desk recently, with a unique hook to it: the band in question, a two man operation long since having gone their separate ways, had not only reunited, but gathered together a group of fellow musicos to perform for the first time ever outside a studio setting.

One wonders how to properly class Empyrium.  Are they, as some vocals and certain orientations in inspiration, artwork and so forth may seem to indicate, some ersatz black metal act?  Are they more of a mopey semi-doom, semi-gothic act ala Type O Negative, Moonspell or Paradise Lost?  Or are they a fairly mainstream European folk act, without the usual stagecraft and bombast such “pagan metal” acts generally bring along for the ride?

As such, there’s not a hell of a lot to offer in terms of the concert video.  What makes it special has already been hinted at, and will be addressed further as we proceed – but visually, there’s just nothing there.  It’s well shot, the sound is crisp and the lighting is appropriately moody, but there’s just not a lot to it.  While there’s some merit to the music itself, which again will be addressed shortly, one wonders why it was even committed to celluloid (or video, to be more precise).  The CD should suffice in a case like this, where there’s really nothing particularly visually arresting to draw the eye, and the end result is just sort of cold and dry.

While the music certainly has its merits and it’s clear some effort has been put into the compositional structure thereof, in all honesty, I’ve seen more exciting performances from symphony orchestras and string quartets – and forget about the bombast and emotional connection a well staged opera can bring to the table.  While the ballpark is more in the realm of those subgenres and variations of metal called forth earlier, in the end, one half expects to see an audience filled with ladies in eveningwear and opera gloves, with escorts in suit and tie, if not tuxedos.  Call it classical lite.

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In addition to the performance itself, which as noted comes in both visual and CD form, the package comes with a full length (nearly 2 hour long!) documentary.  Here bandleader and driving force Markus Stock talks about the history of the band from the traditional black metal days of Impurity in the early 90s, and how changes in the scene led them to expand their own sound to the more keyboard inflected, cleaner vocalled gothic cum doom metal of Empyrium.

An amusing moment early on comes when he notes that if a band came to him nowadays with the approach his own band took in the more adventurous early days, he’d essentially laugh them out of the studio.  hmm…there’s definitely a message there, though it may not be the one Stock intends…

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In the course of cycling through their discography, Stock speaks of how growing up in the Rhoen helped lead Empyrium towards a more Mortiis like approach on their debut record A Wintersunset, which showed them to be influenced by the Norwegian black metal scene’s attention towards inspiration from nature and the non-industrialized world around us.

A further questionable moment comes when Stock speaks of the naivete of the band’s first album, where he had the audacity to record without the use of a click track (gasp!).  For a guy who posits being so strongly influenced by the natural, it seems a bit odd that he feels such antipathy towards traditional production technique and the normal ebb and flow of meter that comes as part and parcel of natural musicianship, rather than the overly computerized, lockstep “perfectionism” of today’s more anal, if thereby quite soulless, approach towards music production…

With their second album Songs of Moors and Misty Fields, extensive experimentation with four track recording led to another change in their style and performance, allowing for a wider ranging and more effusive sound by means of the then-standard practice of bouncing multiple tracks down to one, and thus gaining more space to include additional instrumentation and add on effects.  With an admirable lack of concern towards radio airplay and commercial success, the band continued to grow and alter their sound – whether or not it was an improvement is in the eye, or more aptly ear, of the beholder/listener.

By the third album Where at Night the Wood Grouse Plays, Empyrium had begun to leave behind what Stock refers to as the “metal era of the band”, softening the sound and losing founding member Andreas Bach in the process.  With a near soundtrack composition approach, Stock continued to move towards a more acoustic and traditional Euro-folk approach, and with the addition of Thomas Helm, they rolled straight into early Ulver territory (whose inspiration for this period Stock openly admits to).

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Like Burzum, he also began to tap into the artwork of Theodor Kittelsten, showing a nearly direct parallel movement between Empyrium and the then-contemporary Norwegian black metal scene – whither the one goeth, the other followeth…still in all, you can have worse inspirations than the first 3 Ulver records, much less the first 5 Burzum ones, so take that as you will.

From here on out, things really lock into something of a holding pattern – it’s arguable whether there’s been any actual change or progression from Where at Night the Wood Grouse Plays and Weiland or tracks recorded far more recently for the Retrospective and Whom the Moon a Nightsong Sings comps.  As such, it was probably no surprise that the band folded early in the millenium, as members went on to work with other bands and projects unrelated in style or approach to what Empyrium was going after musically.

Now reunited, the duo of Stock and Helm have augmented the band with a fairly extensive coterie of live players (nearly half of whom actually hail from France!) for the new Into the Pantheon live DVD and record, marking the very first time the band has stepped outside the studio to perform in public, as it happens for the Wave Gotik Treffen festival back in 2011.

The bottom line about all this is a point I’ve been hitting at all along here.  It’s undeniably clear that Stock is a “serious musician”, and approaches his compositions with a nigh-classical conductor level of gravity.  But does this make for great music, the sort that you feel in your bones, that pulls at your innards and fills the listener with fire, inspiration, expression of raw emotion?  For some, the approach of a band like Empyrium may very well fill that bill, but I’d hazard an educated guess that those folks would be of a chillier, more Nordic temperament, cool and far less fiery and impassioned than at least half of my own heritage.

For me, this stuff is nice, and certainly impressive enough on an intellectual level…but at the end of the day, it doesn’t move me – a failing I note often with modern music, and that resulting from a more structured compositional approach, with a bean counter-“perfect” anal production style.  Give me raw, dirty, and yes, sloppy, but from the gut, from the heart, from the burning depths of emotion and soul, over something like this, which just leaves the listener with a Prozac-like sense of flattened affect, any damn day.

While live performance from a band like Empyrium and with the sound they’re going for is consequently a bit dull and un-metal in approach (or if you prefer, there’s precious little sturm und drang, drama and evocative stagecraft to draw the viewer or attendee in), the music is quite well structured and lush, and something of a welcome oasis amidst the expected bombast and strife metal (and particularly ‘underground’ variants thereof) expresses and appropriates as both modus operandi and overriding central concern.  It’s not the sort of thing I’d put on every day, but quite well done in terms of both arrangement and performance, and thus certainly nice to break things up every once in a while.

Besides, you’ve got to give the guy credit for (effectively speaking) working in the same band with his wife for so many years…just look at how well that went for Fleetwood Mac!

Ultimately more interesting for the lengthy documentary (essentially a long monologue by Stock, with occasional interjections from Helm and eventually the members of the cobbled together live ensemble) than its fairly straightforward and dry associated concert DVD, the value of the package comes down to where you mark yourself on the scale of Empyrium fans.  Hardcore obsessives will doubtless love this one madly, quivering with excitement at the prospect of seeing a long lost German black cum folk by way of doom metal band back together and performing in a live situation for the first time ever.

The rest of us will see a fairly mellow, unexciting performance video – well shot, but with hardly any visual appeal to merit watching rather than just playing the associated CD version.

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