If you pardon the slight rant to start things off, I tend to find that symphonic metal is a subgenre of metal which can be difficult to do well, despite the reputation it has among some metal fans: at the end of the day, combining classical music with metal music, while not as strange as it might look on paper (there are classical songwriting structures involved in metal music and the bombastic nature of both genres is hard to ignore), is difficult to do because classical music relies on subtlety, building towards a crescendo and creating an atmosphere and metal music, while certainly capable of subtlety, generally tends to be known for being loud and not especially subtle. Trying to integrate metal into classical music well is not a case of having a keyboard play a few chords in the background of a metal song or having an electric guitar playing ‘O Fortuna’: it’s writing the whole music to integrate all of the key elements of classical music around the typical features of metal music. This is probably why the best symphonic metal bands have key songwriters who actually are capable of writing excellent classical music in its own right: because they have that core knowledge already, they know what instruments and sounds work with typical metal instrumentation and sounds and can arrange the material to play to the strengths of both genres.
Anyway, with that off my chest, let’s start talking about Midnight Eternal. Well, they’re a very new band to the metal scene, having formed in March 2014 in New York City. They originally started out as a fun project between two members of the band Operatika (a band who have been around since 2002 who released a record in 2008 and who apparently are still active, despite the fact their last release was a single in 2012), Mike LePond (best known for being Symphony X’s bassist) and Daniel Prestup (best known for the bands Spider Rockets and Rivera Bomma, the latter of which, if my research is right, is also a band LePond is in), with the plan being just to record a two song demo. During the recording for the album, though, the band found vocalist Raine Hilai (who apparently has done some solo music, although I can’t find details on this) and they decided to make it a full band. LePond was replaced with Greg Manning (also of Spider Rockets, but also a member of Zamora) and, since then, the band have been basically opening for various bands, including Xandria, Delain and The Agonist (the latter of which seems like an odd choice to me on me, but hey, Alissa White-Gluz has been a touring vocalist with Kamelot for a few years now and they’ve done stuff influenced by classical music, so maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised…).
This self-titled record is their debut album and second release after the earlier mentioned demo (which I haven’t been able to learn the name of). Honestly, I think this is a very good record, but I do feel that it suffers a bit from the typical issues that drag down a lot of symphonic metal bands in that most of the symphonic elements don’t really feel like they have been properly integrated to the band’s sound.
Let me start by clarifying my previous comment a bit: the band’s sound, surprisingly, doesn’t feel as heavy on the symphonic element of the symphonic metal style as you might expect, with the symphonic elements usually feeling more like they’ve been pushed into the background of the band’s sound. They do make appearances across the record (the opening of ‘’Till the Bitter End’ certainly shows good use of them), but they’re obviously keyboards as opposed to a full symphonic orchestra (although, considering this is the band’s debut album, I will admit that expecting a full symphonic orchestra on the record is a bit unreasonable: those things are expensive to hire!) and they tend to not take up a prominent role in the band’s material. Now, admittedly, symphonic metal does not need to have those happen to be good, but it does mean that the record feels like the symphonic elements are more akin to a set dressing than an actual core part of the record, which is not a good vibe to be getting when the entire point of symphonic metal is to incorporate classical music elements with metal music! Beyond that, however, the band’s sound is very much in the power metal style of things and would be recognised by most people as being in the symphonic metal spectrum of music (thanks in part to Hilai’s vocals, which I’ll discuss in more detail later). It’s nothing original, but it works.
The songwriting on the record is honestly the saving grace of the record on the music front, as it is honestly really good overall and comes close to making up for the earlier paragraph’s worth of criticism for me. The vast majority of the songs don’t really deviate too much from established songwriting structures, but the end result is still very interesting to listen to, with well written choruses (I would probably say my favourite is from ‘Signs of Fire’, but they all are fairly memorable), some very good opportunities for some interesting performances (‘Repentance’ and ‘Shadow Falls’ showcase some incredibly speedy performances which gives the musicians an opportunity to show off their skills) and even some strong solo work from keyboardist Boris Zaks and guitarist Richard Fischer across the record. It’s not going to set the world on fire, but I can’t say the songwriting is bad in good faith because it really isn’t: there’s a lot to appreciate here.
The instrumental performances are honestly fairly good overall, with everyone providing varied performances on a variety of tempos across the record. Nothing especially virtuosic is displayed on here, but this is a band who clearly appreciates that doing the same thing for a whole record isn’t especially interesting and does their best to keep things varied, which I respect the band for. I personally think the star of the record on the performance front is Prestup, who demonstrates that he would be more than capable of playing material in a huge number of metal subgenres if he was called upon to do so, but, really, there’s no disappointing performances on here.
Hilai’s vocals…I’m not going to lie, I love Hilai’s vocals! She has a solid range, is capable of singing in an operatic style, a more poppy style which is very pleasant to listen to and her more typical style which sits somewhere between the two, and does it all with a decent amount of power and in a controlled way that shows she has a well trained voice on a technical level. She isn’t the best female vocalist I’ve heard in the world, but her voice is very good overall and I will admit that her performance is one that I have a lot of respect for. Fischer and Manning also provide vocals on the record and they do a respectable job, with some high pitched falsetto screams and extreme metal vocals popping up on the record alongside some respectable clean vocals.
The production on the record is pretty much fine aside from my usual bugbears (which are a mastering job which might be a bit louder than is completely reasonable, though still fine overall, and a bass presence which should have been a bit stronger overall). I do think the keyboards might be a bit too quiet at points, but, really, the sound of the record is very solid, having clearly been engineered by someone who knew what they were doing, and the mixing and mastering have mostly been handled well, getting a great sound from the instruments without necessarily damaging them from an overly loud mastering job. Seriously, the production side of the record is pretty good overall, so credit to everyone involving in that!
Ultimately, Midnight Eternal is the sort of record that I’d put under the label of “symphonic metal fans only”, but not because it is a poor record that only fans of the genre will be able to appreciate: the songwriting is more than strong enough to dispel that belief and the performances are very solid overall on the record. It’s probably going to be a bit of a tough sell if you’re not already a fan of symphonic metal (hence the label comment), but those who are symphonic metal fans should really enjoy this release overall and, for a debut album, it’s actually a lot better than might be reasonably expected. While I do think there is room for development in the future, there are certainly FAR worse debut albums out there than this and I’m really curious to see where Midnight Eternal goes from here.
Midnight Eternal will be released on the 29th of April by Inner Wound Recordings. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.