Vexillum - Unum - (9/10)
Published on November 1, 2015
Limb Music has had an uncanny ability for tapping new talent, arguably more so than any other label specializing in the more melodic and accessible side of the metal coin. As the original spring board for Rhapsody (Of Fire) and Luca Turilli’s early independent ventures, they were instrumental in the eventual popularization of symphonic power metal (a legacy they’ve continued with the equally spellbinding Ancient Bards), and were also heavily involved in a number of more melodic strains of power and progressive metal gaining traction in the early works of Mob Rules, Black Majesty, Zandelle and Pagan’s Mind. What is perhaps less known is Limb’s subtle involvement in a number of bands that, while not officially part of the folk metal scene, did exhibit some traits of the then relatively new strain of metal that was manifesting in outfits like Ensiferum and Elvenking in the early 2000s, particularly in the outfits of Galloglass (now sadly defunct) and Human Fortress. With all of this history taken into account, it is with little surprise that a newer and very formidable Italian outfit bearing some degree of similarity to Elvenking, but with much more of a driving power metal character, would emerge from their ranks, in this case going by the name Vexillum.
While Unum is this bands third studio outing, and only their second as a member of Limb’s roster, it listens like a fresh newcomer to a scene that has seen some ebb in recent years due to hit or miss activity out of the likes of Elvenking and Ensiferum (discounting their latest offerings which were needed returns to form). Their stylistic niche bears a bit more similarity to Blind Guardian in how it tends towards a speed/thrash character in its rhythm section approach and generally fast and furious delivery while avoiding any extreme metal moments, but it definitely leans a bit more strongly in the folksy direction and showcases more prominent acoustic sections and an expanded instrumentation of real and synthesized instruments that finds a comfortable middle ground between the bombast of outfits like Equilibrium and Turisas and the more humble late 1990s power metal sound exhibited throughout their more metallic moments. Perhaps the best way to picture this album is as a near 50/50 amalgamation of Nightfall On Middle Earth and Heathenreel, taking on the brevity and straightforward character of the latter a bit more but also taking on the high energy character of the former quite strongly.
Musically this album is a fairly complex affair with plenty of mixed up references to many of the aforementioned bands, but curiously enough Unum is just a bit more geared towards its vocal performances. At the center of things is lead vocalist Dario Vallesi, who embodies the same sort of clean and smooth croon of Elvenking’s early work before Damna started screaming, but with a somewhat deeper and less airy character. But despite being the principle character in this archaic musical play, Dario shares the stage with four guest vocalists, each one a far more prominent figure with extremely distinctive sounds that serve to tilt this album into something of a shorter version of a folksy answer to early Avantasia. Freedom Call’s Chris Bay utterly steals the show on the quite fast and fun melodic romp “The Jester: Over the Clouds”, Blind Guardian’s own Hansi Kursch turns an already impressive speed thrashing homage to his own work in the mid 90s with said band into a full out tribute on “The Sentenced: Fire and Blood”, ex-Visions Of Atlantis and current Jaded Star vocalist Maxi Nil (who also made an appearance on the previous Vexillum album) makes an impression on the melodic and more grooving “Lady Thief: What We Are”, and the well-know ex-Malmsteen and current Iron Mask vocalist (among others) Mark Boals makes an impressive racket on the semi-folk ballad metallic affair that is “The Hermit: Through the Mirror”, literally founding out all the high points of this album, though the opening song where Dario stands alone also comes off quite strong.
Overall this album is extremely strong from start to finish, and is stylistically consistent almost to a fault, despite existing as a rather multifaceted blend of several prominent folk and power metal acts. Nevertheless, it does sort of teeter off a bit towards the end as the band opts to finish things with two cover songs that, while good, don’t quite stack up to what come before and almost function more as limited edition bonus songs, even though they are not exclusive to any limited release. Granted, this would leave an album that would be about as long as Twilight Force’s recent debut, itself suffering from the lone Persian flaw of being just a tad too short for its own good. But regardless to whether one is looking for an album to be 30-40 minutes long or 40-50 minutes long, this is definitely an opus that makes good use of its time and doesn’t have any outright dud moments to speak of. It’s great for visualizing a lofty landscape somewhere in a Tolkien novel (“The Way Back: The Clash Within” actually starts off like an outtake from one of the recent Hobbit movies), for just sitting around a camp fire with a couple of beers, or just to listen to for all the fast paced fun and infections folksy hooks.