Bavarian Heavy metal band Atlantean Kodex return with their third opus The Course of Empire after a long six year wait following the excellent The White Goddess. This band is known for their penchant for the grandiose and is deeply rooted within strong Bathory and early Manowar influences played in the style of Solstice, but this time round the band add influences from Dio while maintaining the bardic tradition at the heart of this band. This record seeks to add a much grander cinematic scope to the music and the band do so with a much more maximalist approach to aesthetics in this sparse style of composition.
The brainchild of Dr.Manuel Trummer who is a doctor in comparative cultural studies and art history and an Extreme metal musician. In metal such credentials tend to mean nothing (Agalloch’s lyrics are idiotic despite the doctor of literature writing them) but Manuel’s lyrics depict a pre-modern Europe united by a common ancient heritage but unlike the fallacy that many bands and “pagans” have espoused, Europe did not come to be in a vacuum but is entrenched with various eastern traditions and was forged and shaped by the advent of Christianity. The band never make shallow political statements of any kind but rather to illustrate the greatness of the old continent while at times deviating from historical fact in order to show the majesty of such a land that has been destroyed by politics. While many newer bands revel in the tongue in cheek nature of their lyrics while hiding behind the curtain of cliches and irony, Atlantean Kodex take pride in crafting their lyrics from various texts and beliefs that existed in Europe.
Empires rise, empires fall.
Conquering kings sleep in timeless halls
Freedom and Glory, corruption at last.
Ever westward the course of empire takes its eternal way
The riffs are composed of long power chord sequences entrenched within the minor scale and every so rarely exploring chromatic possibilities in between short forays in the harmonic minor scale. The riffs being very long, there is little need for repeating them and this allows the band to end them without any kind of resolution in a manner that leads each riff directly into the following riff smoothly. The cadenced and rhythmically minimalistic riffs are now supplemented with the syncopated riffs of Holy Diver that don’t seek to hide the chord progression but signify moments of increasing tension or a release such as a chorus. “He Who Walks Behind the Years – The Place of Sounding Drums” executes this masterfully where multiple held power chord sequences lead directly into the bouncier and uplifting chorus. The harmonised melodies are still prevalent and operate under the same logic as the riffs but on “Lion of Chaldea – The Heroes’ Journey” they take the leading role as both guitars deviate ever so slightly from the comfort of harmonising in thirds.
The bardic elements are still just as strongly rooted in the heart of these compositions but less for narrative purposes but rather as a way to contrast and build up to the bombastic choruses. Though on The Course of Empire, these passages do have an annoying habit of appearing at the wrong place. On “Chariots – Descending from Zagros” the introduction is the most menacing Atlantean Kodex have ever been but as the melody twists and turns towards resolution, it comes to an abrupt end for a vocal section that borders on pop like sentimentality but is saved by the excellent riff that follows after. “The Innermost Light – Sensus Fidei” is probably the biggest faux pas here as the narrative aspect is pushed so far that that the melodies don’t have time to properly develop beyond a backing role despite the runtime of this piece; which shows that Atlantean Kodex need time to fully carve their songs. On “The Course of Empire- All Thrones in Earth and Heaven” that uses the ending motif on introduction “The Alpha and the Occident – Rising from Atlantean Tombs” to create a powerful vocal based moment that explodes on the album’s climax. Overall these sections have embraced modern techniques in order to aggrandize the epic nature of the music here but do so with mixed results and often diluting their impact.
The arrangements on here apart from the aforementioned faux pas are truly well thought out as each introductory track is actually part of the song and for some reason cut off from its parent song. The long song lengths are justified by the overall length of each part and the way take their time in building up to the climaxes of these songs which are the large and soaring choruses. The band often develop the final chorus with multiple repetitions towards a crescendo and sometimes will continue for iterations that lose intensity in search of a conclusion. The major problem with this album is that the maximalist approach that the band take at every turn creates some laughable choices. Inappropriate “woah woahs” flood most of the pieces here, some guitar melodies show too much major scale noodling, gratuitous guitar solos that come for no apparent reason. These tasteless moments are thankfully brief enough to ignore but they squander the impact of the album tremendously.
It seems that Atlantean Kodex have exhausted every avenue possible for the basis of their sound and the chinks in the chain are starting to show here as the band try to “outepic” themselves. There is a lot of experimentation in regards to embracing a warmer Heavy metal/Hard Rock atmosphere and the fuller aesthetic. The Course of Empire is overall an anthemic record from the most important Heavy metal band in recent years.