Extreme metal is a sub-genre that has grown considerably over the past ten to fifteen years. A multitude of albums released by endlessly ambitious bands from all over the world keeps pushing the limits of what metal can absorb while remaining engaging, creative and somehow even heavier. This much competition is very exciting for fans, but it also means that most of the tricks have already been pulled by one band or another. Winterhorde is a band from northern Israel that exists deep in the extreme realm of metal, and is one that sounds very comfortable in its own skin. They swiftly switch from genre to another without any overworked transitions and they make the whole journey sound smooth and natural. That is quite the challenge from the technical standpoint which requires a lot of dexterity from each member. Therein lies the essence of progress, where the music continuously evolves throughout an album’s span without coming off as a collection of scattered ideas.
Maestro is Winterhorde’s third full-length album, and it is undoubtedly one of the finest examples of progressive extreme metal this year. It comes nearly six years after the band’s equally lengthy sophomore record Underwatermoon, and it sounds very much like a painstakingly created record. This sixty-five minute masterpiece ebbs and flows as it presents a masterfully balanced blend of genres and influences. There’s a recurring theatrical element with a tendency towards epic compositions aided by guest appearances from an assortment of additional instruments. Yet, in between the clean vocals, emotive piano segments and string and brass embellishments, there’s a lot of metal, and it is heavy. Winterhorde’s take on extreme metal combines the violent essence of classical death metal and the trebly sharpness of melodic black metal with a strong emphasis on tight transitions that use melodies to bind everything together.
Maestro kicks off with a rather tame intro that makes way for “Antipath,” where the dramatic elements are on full display. Grandiose vocals and blast beats are followed by string instrumentation, clean guitar and a fantastically executed violin line on top of blast beats. The violin also adds an interesting depth to the sound on the eleven minute epic “The Heart of the Coryphee” which is meant to be the album’s peak. “Worms of Souls,” one of the heavier and shorter cuts on this record, comes with a vocal delivery akin to old school Morbid Angel and then transitions into fantastic tremolo riffing that evokes the blackest of metals. More black metal influences are found on “Chronic Death,” which mixes theatrical power metal elements, vicious chugging and a fantastic piano and lead guitar segment. “Cold” and “Through the Broken Mirror” are couple of shorter and faster tracks that are a bit more accessible than their longer more fully loaded brethren.
The title track and “They Came With Eyes of Fire” are by far the two most memorable cuts here. The former is really punctuated by the brilliant vocal execution, which is reminiscent of Remedy Lane-era Daniel Gildenlöw. The latter on the other hand is filled with intricately complied layers of sound in its first half that create an overarching sense of urgency. Then it’s brought down for a clean segment filled with evocative guitar work while with the guest female vocalist creates contrast then the whole thing is rounded off with an absolutely gut-wrenching guitar solo. Speaking of the additional vocals, it is worth noting that the guest vocals are used very conservatively just to provide contrast, thereby stepping away from the predictability of heavily using them as part of the ‘beauty and the beast’ setup that so many bands use.
Such fully loaded albums like Maestro usually take a few spins to start growing on the listener but this one breaks the mold. It sends all the right signals with its more memorable and catchy parts playing the role of nucleation points while the rest of the album slowly unfurls around these points to coalesce into a whole body of work that is indubitably more than the sum of its parts. The musicianship on this album is stellar and the production quality is on par with that as it allows each instrument to shine while maintaining the overall harmony of the group. This one is a definite candidate for the year’s end list.