Throughout their career, Equilibrium have managed to create some of the most effortlessly epic and delightfully energetic metal this side of Blind Guardian. Now, with their new album Armageddon coming out August 12th, let’s dissect Equilibrium’s discography so we can see where they’ve been, and where they might be going.
Turis Fratyr (2005)
From the furious opening whallop of the mighty “Wingthor’s Hammer”, Equilibrium pulls no punches. Turis Fratyr drips with the energy of a young band’s debut album. The charging guitar that provides the thrust of the melody is often spelled by the keyboards, which allows each to sound refreshingly welcome when they provide the lead. Turis Fratyr is a masterclass on the tasteful use of unconventionally metal instruments. When they synths aren’t assertively grabbing the lead, they provide gorgeous background textures that filter through the sound without overpowering it. The flutes, when they appear, do so in bursts instead of meandering throughout the whole song. This general recipe of tasteful moderation creates wonderful contrasts in sound that keeps everything in, well, equilibrium.
But despite the magnificently tight songwriting, perhaps the single most impressive aspect of the album is the otherworldly performance from vocalist Helge Stang. When I first listened to the album, I thought there must be multiple vocalists because I’ve never heard someone who could handle the wide range of pitch and style covered over Turis Fratyr’s runtime. Helge belts out everything from pig squeals, grunts, and low death growls to a spitfire delivery and a high-pitched snarl with a level of competence that suggests total specialization in each technique. Although they use it in almost every song, one of Equilibrium’s coolest tricks is when Helge lets loose a long, terrific scream to catapult a song to it’s zenith.
There are a hundred different ways to say it, but any way you slice it Turis Fratyr is a premier folk/symphonic metal album, and arguably the best album Equilibrium ever released.
And here lies the reason Turis Fratyr is merely “arguably’ their best. Sagas is a more deliberate effort than Turis Fratyr, with songwriting that is generally more focused on building upon a theme than gracefully stacking good riffs together. Again, the opener provides a good snapshot of the treasures within: “Prolog Auf Erden” has a clear and calculated buildup and release of tension, in stark contrast to the restless fury of “Wingthor’s Hammer”. However, despite a slight change in general direction, many of the songs on Sagas would be a musical fit with Turis Fratyr. The same contagious energy present on their debut abounds here, and keeps riffs flowing from one to the other with seamless alacrity. Some best moments of the album would have been easily imitable on the debut, such as Helge’s shredding shriek near the end of Blut Im Auge.
But “Mana” most certainly was not in the band’s wheelhouse three years prior. This behemoth of a song features more progression and folk instrumentation than the band had ever attempted, and does so with fantastic success. Despite it’s length, “Mana” always has fresh ideas up it’s sleeve that continuously build the song to greater and greater heights. Sagas is a more than worthy successor to Equilibrium’s debut, the strength of their formula.
And then the trouble began. The mayhem started just months before the release of their third album, with the ouster of the peerless Helge Stang and drummer Manu Di Camillo. In a scant month, Robert Dahn was discovered and anointed as replacement. But despite his trial by fire, Robert Dahn casts a decent facsimile of Helge. He does not have the range of Helge, but his growls are excellent. So, then, what is wrong with this album has little to do with the upheaval in membership.
The trap that Equilibrium fell into with this album is that they came to identify too closely with the label of “epic”. For what it’s worth, they’re one of the only bands on the Metal Archives I can remember seeing whose genre is listed as “Epic Folk Metal”. Equilibrium’s first two albums were grand, sweeping, epic affairs, certainly. But they were epic because the songs were well-written and reached natural, epic-sounding crests. On Rekreatur, it is painfully clear that every single note is minutely crafted with the goal of sounding epic. This isn’t such a big deal if it’s done with the kind of moderation Equilibrium was so adept at in their early career. “Mana” is certainly guilty of attempting to sound constantly epic, but it works because much of the rest of Sagas does not.
Rekreatur is saved from mediocrity, however, because its ceaseless contrivances to sound “epic” are its only glaring flaw. The melodies are as strong and sweet as ever; they simply don’t stand out because every second is straining to stand out. The wonderful contrasts that made Turis Fratyr so balanced are woefully missing here. The only escapes are in the interestingly tropical melodies of “Die Affeninsel” and the more straightforward, guitar driven assault of “Fahrtwind”.
Still, despite its shortcomings, Rekreatur is an enjoyable although flawed effort.
Erdentempel is a frustrating album. It doesn’t suffer from epic-obsession nearly as badly as Rekreatur (although it’s still an issue). On some songs, Equilibrium prove that they can progress past their old formula. But on others, they seem to have forgotten what a successful song sounds like. “Uns’rer Floten Klang” is a standout song for its ability to transport the listener to a raucous German tavern with its irresistibly jaunty folk instrumentation. This kind of targeted atmosphere is not something Equilibrium had done before, and they manage to do it very well. Fresh off this success, then, the abject failure of “Heavy Chill” is all the more maddening. After a promisingly intense beginning, the soaring keyboards fade away and are replaced with the pleasant squawking of seagulls. Seriously. Ambient beach noises cloak a boring palm-muted riff. A tepid chorus and some random “Whoa-oh-ohhh”-ing follows. A bawdy German tavern is an atmosphere well within the scope of Equilibrium’s capability, but a beachside cabana could not possibly be further.
And then comes “Wirtshaus Gaudi”, which has exactly the same problem. Except this time we’re whisked away from some pretty good riffs to a carnival. Yippee.
But besides some badly executed bad ideas, Erdentempel is frustrating because it lacks the energy and conviction of their previous albums. The keyboards lead too much, leaving little room for the guitar to capture a metal listener weaned it’s distortion and aggression. There are less good riffs on this album than on one half of any other album. The snare gets tough to listen to after a while. Although Erdentempel is worthwhile, and even exciting at times, it frankly isn’t a great album. Mediocre albums are always more frustrating coming from bands that have proven they are capable of producing excellent ones.
So what’s next? Although Equilibrium’s new album Armageddon will not be released until August 12th, they have released a single. Brace yourself. It’s awful. It sounds like the most gimmicky parts of “Wirtshaus Gaudi” and the most strained moments of Rekreatur with almost no creativity or passion. “Born to Be Epic” is clearly not meant to be taken seriously and (almost) certainly will not be representative of the album as a whole. But the fact that this song was chosen to precede the album’s release does not bode well.
Whatever may come August 12th, Equilibrium has shown that they are a band capable of great successes as well as disappointing failures. Let’s hope this one falls solidly into the “successes” category.