Atlantean Kodex - The Course of Empire - (9.5/10)
Published on September 17, 2019
Epic heavy metal; remember when this term was reserved for niche 80’s metal collectors on obscure metal forums and Greek and Italian blogspots? Seeing it become an increasingly everyday term and a style that has grown beyond the already vast reaches of its progenitors Manilla Road, Manowar, Cirith Ungol, Warlord, and Cirith Ungol has been both unexpected and pleasing. Always a niche style, this obscure doom-tinged and expectedly massive take on classic metal was distinct from both the NWOBHM of its time and often moreso associated with the original American school of power metal (of which more than a few bands take influence from or are a part of) but still stood as its own combination of sometimes 70’s inspired mysticism and grandeur with the 80’s advancements in riffcraft and songwriting, resulting in one of the most fascinating forms of metal to date. For quite some time it was not a very popular genre. In the 2000’s there were just a few established names like BattleRoar, DoomSword, later Root, and Solstice yet in this time of slim pickings, one of the genre’s most beloved practitioners would gradually prepare to take flight. In 2007 Germany’s Atlantean Kodex would debut with the cult classic EP The Pnakotic Demos and a small fandom would gather, one that grew massive after two albums with The White Goddess being particularly well received. A third album would be quite a ways off and in that time, their legend grew and spread assisted by a stylistic resurgence spearheaded by newer groups like Visigoth, Gatekeeper, Eternal Champion, and Wrathblade. This month they’ve returned to stake their claim for the throne with a third full-length somehow even larger and more towering than their already monolithic prior works.
Atlantean Kodex are best described as “big”. Yes, that sounds a little underwhelming but that’s the easiest way to describe their sound as a whole from their huge, clear, and booming production to the thunderclap of every single muscular Hammerheart-sized chord striking and exploding off in the distance. The Course of Empire builds on this with a great deal of additional melody and a stronger influence from earlier primarily American heavy and power metal from the 80’s, balancing out the massive mountain-moving doom-borne weightiness with adept lead playing and spirited rhythm guitar. Big, thundering chords form the backbone of these songs over which soar triumphant and smoothly sung midrange wails from Markus Becker with a surprisingly smooth execution that balance out barbaric warmongering might with a sense of almost folkloric mystery. While the songs are fairly long, they never enter prog territory with the focus being more on these huge, gradually unfurling epics where moments of marching verses and thundering riffs give way to sometimes nearly Blind Guardian sized choruses.
In spite of the often-esoteric nature of this subgenre and the half historical half mythic lyricism, Atlantean Kodex’s take on it is incredibly clear and easy to understand even if it hearkens back to ideals often considered ancient and hidden to more mainstream listeners. The emphasis on their sound is always on reaching heights of heaven-piercing power and they deliver this with a viscerally satisfying clarity and even more importantly, just sound so fucking heavy when they do it. It helps that the guitar tone is very, very dense which suits the similarly organic drum tone, both instruments separated appropriately to allow the singing to course clear through them like a river parting through a mountain. The master volume does come off as a little low oddly enough but for most this will likely be a small price to pay for a production that for all of its old school appeal, is only as clear as you could expect in the present day.
After a short but refreshingly immense introductory track, “People of the Moon” crashes with a surging set of tidal wave chords with a brisk galloping rhythm resolving with regal choruses where they let the impressively beefy guitar ring out to soaring tastefully layered choruses. They divide these with wild soloing burst out from the charge. “Lion of Chaldea” is more stadium-esque fistpump territory but it shows a stronger usage of lead guitar off of the bat using a particularly infectious lead for the verses. “Chariots” continues this energetic onslaught and veers into speed metal territory though its second hand transitions to a slow choir-backed set of soaring vocals patterns.
On the other end of the spectrum, “A Secret Byzantium” hearkens back to the slow dirge-patterns of The Golden Bough with its almost monk-like chants and thumping ambience. This will be the album’s most divisive moment; it doesn’t hit the same climactic highs as the other and enters an almost ritualistic sense of repetition. Thankfully, “He Who Walks Behind the Years” while it keeps a similar tempo ups the layered harmonies and mounting melodic tension but this is but a prelude to the eruption of pure epic metal majesty that is the title cut. A whole saga in and of itself, it starts off with the same straightforward crunching and forlorn melodies you’d come to love and expect but structurally is where it diverges. It uses a blazing soloing portion to signal the beginning of a harrowing climb through the frosty whipping winds and jagged heights of a veritable mountain of sweeping climactic riffing, almost making you feel as if you’re hitting what should be the end until an even more massive riff crashes out from around the corner and drags you further for its skyward ascent. You’d think that the poignant clean break would be the *actual* end but nope, one tumbling roll later and a newer chorus explodes outwards like a volcano blasting off in one final moment of those triumphant ringing chords capped by choice cymbal hits. The small outro at the end featuring a bit of German language speech is practically a breather before the film score sized exhilaration.
Atlantean Kodex is the perfect example of a band that plays it about as straightforward as you can get but never at any time pretends to be lowbrow, redundant, or reductive. They’ve called themselves regressive metal before in an old interview yet I feel they sell themselves a little short. Yes, this album is nothing “new” if you break it down into its constituent parts yet combined into this package, it doesn’t feel like a mere monument of worship to a lost age. Combining myth and history both real and musical, this album evokes the not just the romantic aura of ages past but also the storming turmoil and apexes of sheer power. Yet at the same time, just as it lyrically asks us to look beyond the past, so musically does it craft its own distinct identity and voice that for all of its reverence of the past is a definite work of contemporary musicians looking at the traditions of classic metal not as lost glory but ever-shining majesty. Although it does lose a bit of momentum around halfway through, its doomier numbers are the sort to gradually grow on you and even in the intro, interlude, and outro tracks that sense of hungry fascination and wonder that accompanies so many classic metal albums never at once really dims in each song. It is genuinely mythical and magical, triumphant rather than dark, and showcases Germany’s finest realizing the potential of their sound at its most absolute since The Pnakotic Demos. Whether you’re just dipping your toes in the deep waters of epic metal or have long since dwelt in its most sunken depths, The Course of Empire should be welcomed with a thousand hails minimal.