What I’m going to say here should surprise no one: I love the new Evergrey album. In all honesty, I hate giving out “10/10” ratings, as I base my ratings on various factors, one of which is my trusty gut. And my gut tells me, without a doubt and practically from my very first listen, that A Heartless Portrait (The Orphean Testament) will go down as one of Evergrey’s greatest records. The album releases on May 20th through Napalm Records.
Sweden’s Evergrey, in my view, are the unsung heroes of a more emotional type of metal. They’ve been making music since 1995, and have journeyed through various eras in their sound. Well, the band has recently signed with Napalm Records, and so a new era begins here. In my view, Napalm is the best possible place for them. The lineup is unchanged from the last few records, being Tom S. Englund on vocals and guitars, Henrik Danhage on guitars, Rikard Zander on keyboards, Johan Niemann on bass, and Jonas Ekdahl on drums.
The band is finding themselves inside what some might call a renaissance of their own sound. The last few records, in my opinion, are almost unparalleled in their entire career. In fact, I named 2021’s Escape of the Phoenix my “album of the year” a few short months ago. It’s almost surreal that they are back again so soon. Typically, that would concern me, as there are few bands that can release albums back to back, at least without adding filler or without losing some passion along the way. Evergrey, though, has perhaps more passion than ever, it seems. How does a band achieve this almost 30 years into their existence?
I have listened to A Heartless Portrait at least 25 times since the promo dropped into my inbox a month ago. I have scrutinized. I have criticized. I’m rather cynical by nature, and so I needed to be convinced. Not only does this album hold up to anything the band has created, I can detect subtle changes in the band’s approach, in how they want to express themselves. There is more playfulness and teamwork in tone, but also complexity and difficulty in the level of music. They take the “Orphean” part of the title seriously, taking us on a winding odyssey through a personal underworld in entrancing and melodious fashion.
On the surface, this album represents Evergrey’s sound well. It has the dark emotional content, the fantastic twin guitar attack, piercing and melodramatic keys, and a rip-roaring rhythm section. The melodies are haunting and little spacey, and the songs are well-written and tightly guided by veteran minds and hands. But I feel a change in the band’s energy and vocal delivery, and maybe even in the way their vocal melodies are composed. Tom has been working with his side project Silent Skies, which features his purely emotional vocals up against piano work, and that stripped down setting has apparently awakened something within Tom. His vocals here are perhaps the best he’s every provided for Evergrey, with far more elongated notes, creative twists, and complicated harmonies than ever before. It feels potent and fresh to my ears, especially considering that this band is my favorite metal band ever. How can a band turning 30 years old soon still create such awe for me?
I’ll admit that this is the album I needed right now. After a tough couple of months mentally, hearing a new Evergrey album has awakened me from that proverbial slumber. There are certain songs on the album, too, that already feel part of my very soul. It started with the first single, “Save Us”, a grand and almost spiritual experience. My kids even took to the song. Soon, we received “Midwinter Calls”, a song with more reservation and subtlety in its veins, but also with a knockout of a vocal hook that I absolutely love. Finally, “Blindfolded” arrived, and the kinetic energy within its chorus and music video is enough to whisk anyone away to deeper worlds.
Those three songs aren’t even the best on the album, though. I would point to “Ominous” and “The Great Unwashed” as my favorites. After hearing “Ominous” a few times, I had to message Tom (something I don’t typically do because I try to respect a musician’s space). Anyways, I told him that the song is a “brilliant, weird, and addictive” song, and I still feel that way. He replied that it is “absolutely his favorite” from the new record. Seems I was on to something. The rhythms are completely outside the box, the hypnotic background voice at one point reminds me of something from Recreation Day, and the song feels like trying to find your footing on the cusp of something that will change your life forever. At its core, though, “Ominous” is a hyper-melodic, expressive song, one that uses all these elements to feel limitless and deeply personal. Every time I hear it, I still can’t believe how good it is.
“The Great Unwashed” took more time for me, but I can’t get enough of it now. This song always makes me feel free, almost unchained at heart. I love the smooth-as-butter chorus, the spellbinding guitar work, and the inherent drama of it all. It feels spacey and cosmic to some degree, as well.
I love every single song, though. I really like “Call Out the Dark” for its powerful confidence. It follows the crazy “Ominous” with a tight and catchy melody that only this band could write. I love the heavy and haunted “The Orphean Testament”, the energetic “Reawakening”, and the emotional space of “Heartless”. That last one has such a gorgeous atmosphere and one of my favorite choruses on the record. Finally, the one and only ballad is the closer, “Wildfires”. No one does ballads like Evergrey, and this doesn’t disappoint. There is a cavernous well of emotion here, like spreading fire literally and metaphysically. This song, to my ears, could easily have been on the recent Silent Skies record, it has that level of beauty and tender expression.
Maybe I’m just an Evergrey fanboy, but I’m definitely unashamed of that fact. Evergrey has never made a weak album for me, and A Heartless Portrait is simply more striking and commanding evidence that they are the best metal band in the world. I’m not afraid to say that. How can a band almost thirty years old still hook me with such fervent reflection and inspiring presence?
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