When songwriters are capable, determined, and well-measured in their craft, genre is little more than a choice of canvas upon which to employ the techniques and philosophies they’ve developed through their music. That isn’t to say some artists aren’t perhaps better suited to certain genres than others – I can’t imagine Tony Iommi having as much success exploding the music world with his tritonic rebellion if he had chosen to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter instead of being the centerpiece of the world’s greatest rock band – but that developing a signature sound transcends the underpinnings of any singular genre. We can see plenty examples of this in metal, actually: the great Takafumi Matsubara, whose style is characterized by his explosive bursts of hyper-melodic shred, is as clearly present in Gridlink as in Hayaino Daisuki; the same is easily said of Phil Tougas’ heavy metal- and neoclassicism-informed sound that shows its face just as often in First Fragment, Atramentus, and Eternity’s End.
Wish to Leave, the new release from German heavy metal stalwarts Lunar Shadow, is prompting me to consider this truth anew. To briefly recap, for those just tuning in: in 2017, Lunar Shadow released Far From Light, a resounding success within the emergent “new wave of traditional heavy metal” (NWOTHM) due to its refreshingly original sound. In a space where most artists seem content emulating the heyday of Manilla Road, Cirith Ungol, and Manowar, Lunar Shadow played with sonic concepts that have emerged since heavy metal’s golden age, integrating a sharp edge pulled from melodic strains of extreme metal (Guitarist and mastermind Max Birbaum often refers to Dissection and Jester Race-era In Flames as two of his favorite metal bands). This willingness to move beyond imitation, combined with Birbaum’s vaguely melancholic and folk-y approach to melody, made Far From Light an outstanding debut and gave the group instant cachet among the heavy metal literati. 2019’s successor, The Smokeless Fires, was mostly more of the same, albeit slightly more streamlined (perhaps a bit too much, depending on who you ask) and with Robert Rottig replacing Alex Vornam on the microphone. Based on the strengths of both records, Lunar Shadow rose near the top of the heavy metal revivalist renaissance alongside projects like Haunt and Eternal Champion.
It would seem the group (or Birbaum, at least) are not content resting on their laurels. As you have no doubt surmised at this point, or heard for yourself, Wish to Leave is hardly a direct followup to the first two Lunar Shadow records. The record is smokier, darker, more grounded – in sum, more in tune with classic gothic rock and post-punk than much else in the heavy metal sphere. It’s important to understand this as aspirational for their sound: in interviews, Birbaum cites Fields of the Nephilim and The Chameleons as important inspirations, and has all but outright stated that staying the established course would be a failure of artistic integrity.
Despite these overt changes, and Birbaum’s insistence that heavy metal is a stale genre, Wish to Leave is still very much a Lunar Shadow album in the vein of the group’s previous records. To be sure, it’s not along a straight trajectory from Lunar Shadow’s past works and it’s an altogether different beast than much of what the group’s peers are engaging in at the moment, but on a genomic level, Wish to Leave has a lot more in common with its lineage than is appreciable at first glance (or than the words of Birbaum and Cruz Del Sur may lead you to believe). It’s a gauntlet tossed, not thrown; every track still sparkles with the same magic that animated Far From Light and The Smokeless Fires no matter how much the gloomy presentation may suggest a complete sea change.
This is a good thing, to be clear. Lunar Shadow have a captivating personality that has only become more clear as they’ve intentionally stepped back from metallic pyrotechnics and taken on a more subdued approach. Opener “Serpents Die” recalls the same flight that kicks off Far From Light’s back half in “The Hour of Dying,” and while the former of these is noticeably more restrained, the differences aren’t enormous. They aren’t absent, mind you, as the verse of “Serpents Die” has an appreciably different quality to anything you’d find on a more traditional heavy metal record – the Fields of the Nephilim name drop is particularly apt – but overall, this is still a record just as centered around Birbaum’s melodic choices, and his tastes veer the same direction they have in the past even if the most outsized moments of heavy metal showboating have been sidelined. Think late 70’s/early 80’s Rush, where some of the spikiest bits have sloughed off with evolution but the core that remains is still inarguably heavy rock.
The atmosphere is noticeably different though: this record is tangibly darker without the guiding light of Romantic inclination and high fantasy. Where the past two records have been red and gold, fire and broadsword and sorcery with a hint of melancholy woven throughout, Wish to Leave is smokey indigoes and purples charged primarily by a fraught existential longing. A similar topography to that previously traversed, darkened by cloudy night and only lit by the moon’s slivers. Birbaum himself confirms that the lyrics of Wish to Leave were inspired by late night walks through Leipzig, and the record’s overall mood is appreciably more grounded as a result. But again, even here, Lunar Shadow aren’t entirely turning over a new leaf. Far From Light and The Smokeless Fires drew from that same well of ennui and longing, of love lost and endings without closure. The band have never not been on this emotional wavelength, but here it’s brought to the forefront rather than existing as a texture on the fringes.
The direct musical differences and the change in atmosphere compared to past records come through most noticeably on “I Will Lose You” and “To Dusk and I Love You,” the two tracks at Wish to Leave’s center. The former is an energetic but sullen piece of heavy rock with a surprisingly conventional verse-chorus-verse structure. Other than Rottig’s scratchy, unmistakably heavy metal vocals and a characteristically ripping solo, “I Will Lose You” is an almost radio-ready piece of uptempo gothic rock. “To Dusk and I Love You,” the closest Wish to Leave gets to “Earendil” or “Pretend,” is a vaguely Knopflerian piece of somewhat subdued rock shred, especially in its back half, which runs close to the less bombastic moments of Love Over Gold. (Side note: if the intersection of Dire Straits and metal sounds interesting to you at all, oh my God, please listen to Chapel of Disease). On both sides of these tracks, though, are metal-leaning rock songs, no matter how much chorus and delay is on the guitars. One spin all the way through, with “To Dusk and I Love You” immediately followed by “And Silence Screamed” and “The Darkness Between the Stars,” confirms this handily.
Wish to Leave occupies an appreciable liminal space; it’s a heavy rock record with a foot firmly planted in decidedly un-metal territory even as the specters of The Jester Race and Storm of the Light’s Bane still come through. It’s a guitar-centric album with plenty of shred and some extremely ornate moments, but stands out for being pared down in comparison to Lunar Shadow’s past offerings and the work of their contemporaries. Above this contradictory nature, though, is a clear identity: the most important prism for understanding Wish to Leave, for deciphering its place as the next stepping stone on Lunar Shadow’s trajectory, is that it is a record that has abandoned any pretense. The group no longer feel compelled to hide behind the Oz-like veneer of heavy metal theatricality, and in its place offer nothing but total honesty, even as they continue to hone their blend of traditional heavy metal, Gothenburg melodeath, and melancholic rock. If you can stand to leave behind the shredding bombast, the result is compelling. There’s very little chance this will satisfy every Lunar Shadow fan, but if Birbaum and company have shown one thing, it’s that they have a gorgeous and endlessly intriguing sound upon which to continue iterating. I, for one, will be ready and waiting to see where they go next.
Lunar Shadow’s Wish to Leave was released on March 19th. You can head on over to their Bandcamp page to grab it.