The anxiety of waiting for a sophomore album from a band that put out a great debut is unlike anything else on the planet. There is no other cocktail that blends excitement and trepidation in quite the same measures, and the more one loves that first taste, the more potent both emotions become. We’ve spoken on the site many times before about this exact phenomenon, and we’ve come up over time with a pair of methods that seem to be the usual ways by which good follow-ups come about: bands either branch out and do something different, trying to completely shirk listener’s expectations and create something that is just as good and fresh as their debut, or they stick to the formula they know works and try to tweak and refine it to produce an album that, by and large, avoids whatever lows people saw in the debut without losing any of the highs. Both have their own risks and rewards – a band that goes for something completely new is essentially rolling the dice on retaining any following they’ve built, but a band that tries to double down on what already worked may just end reproducing their debut album but devoid of any of the novelty or newness. Neither path is surefire, but pretty much all good second albums follow one of these.
Lunar Shadow find themselves firmly down the road of refinement. The Smokeless Fires is, in every way, a continuation of the German heavy metal band’s work on Far From Light, with the band seeking to replicate everything that made their debut so excellent without succumbing to any of the same complaints people had. And for the most part, it absolutely works. What we get on The Smokeless Fires is a sleeker, more refined and polished version of Lunar Shadow. While those who love Far From Light may lament the pruning of some of the band’s more cumbersome eccentricities for a tighter, snappier approach to the material at hand, at its core the Lunar Shadow sound remains exactly the same as that which we already knew and loved.
The changes to the band’s sound come in three distinct places: the vocals, the production, and the song length. Starting with the most obvious, original vocalist Alex Vornam has been replaced with Robert Röttig. Röttig’s voice is hardly a stark departure in the grand scheme of things, but something about his voice doesn’t hit the same antiquated timbre as his predecessor. Make no mistake, he is an excellent singer and checks all the correct boxes (seriously, listen to “Pretend,” because holy shit this guy can sing), but this change can take a couple listens to get used to because of the slight feeling of chronological dislocation. The production also sees the same temporal bump as the vocals: instead of the raw, slightly muffled, vintage sound of Far From Light, The Smokeless Fires is crisp, clear, and powerful. Obviously any listener’s mileage will vary with this particular change based on any number of variables, but this seems like more of a sidegrade than an upgrade in this particular instance. Better production is, of course, better, and I’m sure this album sounds exactly how Lunar Shadow want it to, but there is certainly something to be said for the nostalgic and vaguely antiquated sound of their debut.
Finally, the largest change – the tracks on this record are, on average, roughly a minute or two shorter than those on the debut. Although they don’t quite ditch the mini-epics, and their songwriting remains roughly unchanged overall, this has an enormous effect: The Smokeless Fires is a much tighter and snappier album than its predecessor. Comparing, for example, “Laurelindórenan,” which is the most stylistically similar track on the album to anything on Far From Light, we can see exactly what differs between the two: melodies that would have repeated only show themselves once, groovy riffs are faster than they would have been before, and acoustic interludes are kept brief, making them the short reprieve they were intended to be as opposed to movements within tracks in their own right.
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For all these differences between these two albums, though, Lunar Shadow’s excellent and unique core sound remains completely untouched. They continue to go above and beyond any of their peers in the ever-growing trad metal revival movement with their potent and touching combination of traditional and NWOBHM-style heavy metal with a slight flair of melodic black metal. The band are still in top shape, too: Max “Savage” Birbaum continues to write some of the best guitar melodies of the decade – and the man hasn’t given up an iota of his signature sound – and Jorn Zehner’s drumming continues to perfectly straddle the line between bombastic and overpowering. These men are still masters of their craft, make no bones about it.
Lunar Shadow explores different emotional territory here, too: where Far From Light was a self-indulgent high-fantasy romp through a full shelf’s worth of inspiration, The Smokeless Fires is more grounded and personal. Here, we find the band exploring themes of love, passion, and loss, and even though the band nods their head once more towards Lord of the Rings and Conan the Barbarian, the lyrics and music both feel much less escapist and more focused on genuine human experiences – melancholy, fury, love, sorrow, and the like. What it results in is a record that feels at once more alive and affirming, while also being darker and moodier. In a word, The Smokeless Fires is a much more robust record than Far From Light.
Taken as its own whole, The Smokeless Fires is an excellent record. Although the elements of its predecessor that it lacks amount to a few of that album’s more endearing idiosyncrasies, it makes up for any losses with its own character and personality, and some of those selfsame changes may be what attracts previous detractors to the band’s camp. And, of course, all of the songs it brings into the Lunar Shadow canon are all stellar. With The Smokeless Fires, Lunar Shadow are continuing their climb into heavy metal’s pantheon with aplomb and leaving just about everyone else in the dust.
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Lunar Shadow self-released The Smokeless Fires on June 14, with vinyl coming from Cruz Del Sur Music. You can check it out at their bandcamp page, embedded above.