Moonlight Sorcery – Horned Lord of the Thorned Castle (Avantgarde Music)

Friday, 6th October 2023
Rating: 8.5 / 10

Having thoroughly enjoyed Moonlight Sorcery’s tandem of EPs last year – Piercing Through the Frozen Eternity and Nightwind: The Conqueror from the Stars – it was only a matter of time before their first full length would inevitably drop. Brandishing a drastically different viewpoint of melodic black metal, these two EPs whet the appetite with raw energy that mainly ebbs from a constant flow of bright melodies combined with murky medieval dungeon-like aesthetic. Having since signed with Avantgarde Music, their debut record is here less than a year later in the form of Horned Lord of the Thorned Castle.

Despite the band’s penchant for lengthy release titles, this Finnish trio don’t beat around the castle walls when it comes to providing lusciously melodic black metal. Don’t take that statement lightly – the melodies are so ever present and bombastic that one would swear this is a really heavy power metal band. There’s also a comparison to be had with Stormkeep, evident within heavy usage of synthesizers to fully encapsulate that wonderfully nostalgic sound of a 90s side-scrolling dungeon crawling video game. Moonlight Sorcery definitively includes more punchiness and variety to their sound than their contemporaries, however, and that approach serves them well.

“To Withhold the Day” opens on spirited ground, with keyboards reminiscent of something coming from the mind of Janne Warman via the Hatebreeder era of Children of Bodom, along with blazingly picked guitar rhythms that set the mood. Soulful leads combine with bombastic synths to blast an upbeat-yet-creepy vibe that’s hard to put a finger on, but it electrifies all the same. “In Coldest Embrace” and “Vihan verhon takaa” cultivate frigid, vast atmospheres by the hand of Loitsumestari Taikakallo and his dizzying lead guitar sorcery, accented by vocalist Ruttomieli’s cavernous snarl. The rhythm side of the six strings is helmed by the gentleman known as Haaska, who’s frosty shredding is a large part of the engine that makes Moonlight Sorcery tick, exemplified especially inside the guitar driven “The Secret of Streaming Blood” and “Fire Burns the Horizon.”

Other elements are also at play, such as a delay-filled almost folky feel to the intro of “Yönsilmä,” of which breaks into a searing lead fleshed out by swaths of synth atmospheres and fancified licks. The high point of Horned Lord of the Thorned Castle comes in the formation of “Into the Silvery Shadows of Night,” which manages to slow proceedings enough to allow a smidgeon of breathing room on an otherwise pedal to the metal album. Said decision is a prudent one, consequently providing the gargantuan weeping lead of the album that’s one of the best you’ll hear all year, if not beyond that. The entire album is an easy decision to repeat, but this track in particular has resulted in repeat plays occurring a time or thirty. Notably, if the clarity and power of the overall sound profile of this record is surprising at all, it shouldn’t be – the legendary Dan Swanö is behind the mixing and mastering, and in this case (and all others, really), is exactly what the dungeon master ordered.

Moonlight Sorcery is a unique entity in that they make melodic black metal that at times sounds jubilant, yet still maintains a misty, cold aura that balances the enthusiastic with chilled fogginess. The record could have used more moments to stretch its legs like “Into the Silvery Shadows of Night” so eloquently accomplished, but that’s a quibble that doesn’t affect this scribe’s overall enjoyment significantly. Opinion is subjective, of course, and one can envision Horned Lord of the Thorned Castle also dividing some sectors of black metal fans with the firm influence of very contrasting styles mixed within. Within those divergences lies the overwhelming charm, as Horned Lord of the Thorned Castle is an extremely fresh and mystifying take on a specific stylistic approach to melodic black metal that hasn’t been executed to this level of skill and precision often. The bar has been set high, and with their current trajectory, Moonlight Sorcery will surely lift it even further into the night sky.

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