Shredding: Moonspell

Join us for another shredding feature, as we celebrate three decades of sublime gothic metal with Portuguese legends Moonspell!


Thirty years. That’s how long Moonspell have been around. It was 1992 when the band was founded from the ashes of obscure black metal act Morbid God. Fast forward to 2022 and, with 12 studio albums on their belt, the Portuguese have become one of the most well-known heavy metal bands on the planet. Their music legacy is made of an incredible string of stunning studio albums, which I ranked below for you from “worst” to best. Note the quotation marks around the word “worst”: I could not bring myself to write it otherwise, because, honestly, nearly all Moonspell’s records hold a special place in my heart. Almost every single one has made it in my top 10 end-of-year list of their respective release year. More than one is among my desert island discs. To say I have a huge admiration for the band would be an understatement.

In preparing this list, I have been asking myself: what makes Moonspell so special to me? Here are some thoughts. First, I don’t think I can find many other metal bands that have put out albums of such a consistently high quality throughout a career that spans three decades. But there’s more. Nearly each record is truly unique in the band’s discography. Moonspell are one of those rare bands who constantly experiment with their sound, bringing to the fore different influences on each new album, be it black/death metal, gothic metal, industrial rock, folk or electronica. The result is a vastly diverse discography that invariably keeps fans unsure about what the next album may sound like. Some hate this – and Moonspell have surely lost more than one fan along the way because of this. Personally, I find it an essential aspect of artistry.

Diversity and consistently high-quality output are the hallmarks of great bands, but there’s one more characteristic that I think makes Moonspell really stand out compared to other metal acts. And that’s identity. Nearly all Moonspell’s albums sound like something that only the Portuguese band could have written (and the few ones that don’t, have ended up at the bottom of my list). Their musicality is instantly recognizable – no matter whether one LP leans more towards the gothic or black/death metal end of the spectrum. There is a quintessential character – a unique Mediterranean warmness – in the band’s sound that speaks to their roots as individuals. It transpires from singer Fernando Ribeiro’s lush and mellow clean tone that perfectly captures the saudade typical of certain Portuguese music tradition. It comes through Ricardo Amorim’s distinctively melodic guitarwork and Pedro Paixão’s warm, atmospheric sound design. And then there are of course the subtly tribal drum patterns that Mike Gaspar has laid down album after album since the very beginning of the band’s career (and it will be interesting to see how new drummer Hugo Ribeiro will interpret and carry on this heritage).

Perhaps it’s because I’m Italian, but there is something in this Mediterranean approach to metal that connects deeply with me. It is part of the reason why I became instantly enamoured with Moonspell when I heard the first notes of their debut LP Wolfheart. And it is why, thirty years later, I am still looking forward to each new release by the band with the same excitement and expectation as back then. I honestly don’t think I can say that of many bands that I have been listening to since my teenage years.

Anyway, enough with the introduction now! Here is the list. Enjoy – and do let me know your thoughts in the comments!


#12 – NIGHT ETERNAL (2008)

Many will be surprised not to find in the lowest position The Butterfly Effect – arguably the most divisive record in Moonspell’s discography. However, that album has at least a definite sonic identity, which partly redeems its misguided musical direction. Night Eternal instead does not sound like a coherent album at all, but just like a collection of disparate songs that are not well amalgamated together and, most importantly, lack that special and unique musicality that has characterized most of the band’s other output. And by Moonspell’s standards this is certainly a worse sin. Night Eternal starts in the same harsh black/death metal style as the band’s previous album Memorial, but halfway through it changes tone, veering towards a softer goth rock sound that brings to mind The Sisters of Mercy and Type O Negative. In a couple of songs (“Shadow Sun”, “Hers Is the Twilight”), the band try and merge these two styles together, like they had successfully done on The Antidote or Wolfheart, but the results here are not nearly as remarkable – almost as if they could not find the right alchemic formula to fuse their two sonic personalities. Moreover, a lot of the material is fairly bland and lacklustre, especially when compared to the large majority of songs from the band’s discography. While not a complete failure (“First Light” is stunning and “Scorpion Flower” features Anneke van Giersbergen who is amazing as always), this is easily Moonspell’s weakest record to date in my opinion.

 

 

#11 – THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT (1999)

You did not have to scroll very far down to find The Butterfly Effect, after all. Born under difficult circumstances (the lukewarm response to their previous, super-ambitious LP Sin/Pecado; the ongoing fight with former bassist Ares), Moonspell’s 4th full-length stands out as the odd one in the band’s discography. It’s an experimental record that draws influences from industrial rock, electronica and even ambient music, more than gothic rock and metal. Although Moonspell have often played with the most diverse influences, things are pushed too far here, in directions that almost denature the essence of the band’s sound. What’s more, this new direction does not actually work very well, as most of the material just feels forgettable. Add to that the fact that guitarist Amorim and drummer Gaspar (two of the driving forces behind Moonspell’s music) were largely uninvolved in the process of writing and recording the album – and that this shows in the way they actually play on it -, and you have a difficult album that is very hard to like, despite a handful of tracks that show potential (“Soulsick”, “Butterfly FX”, “Tired”, “Can’t Bee”).

 

 

#10 – ALPHA NOIR / OMEGA WHITE (2012)

Moonspell’s 9th studio LP was originally intended as a double-album, with one disc (Alpha Noir) focusing on the more extreme side of Moonspell’s music, and the other (Omega White) on the band’s softer goth rock leanings. Alas, the ambitious plan was botched by misunderstandings between the band and the record label, which released Omega White as a bonus disc to Alpha Noir and only in a special edition of the album (nowadays unfindable in physical format). Despite this massive cockup, Alpha Noir/Omega White gets a lot of things right. Both discs contain a bunch of truly inspired tracks that have rightfully earned a place among the fan-favourite songs by the Portuguese band (“Axis Mundi”, “Em Nome Do Medo”, “Opera Carne”, “Whiteomega”, “A Greater Darkness”). However, many other songs sound slightly derivative and too close for comfort to the band’s influences (melo-death bands like Dark Tranquillity and the goth rock greats such as The Sisters of Mercy and Fields of the Nephilim). Perhaps this is a side-effect of the choice of separating the two “sides” of Moonspell’s music across two separate discs: the band’s uniqueness lies in the conjugation of the two extremes and the magic gets somewhat lost if one focuses only on one side at a time.

 

 

#9 – MEMORIAL (2006)

After carving their way out of the mid-1990s experimental phase (Sin/Pecado; The Butterfly Effect) with a well-received return to gothic sensibilities (Darkness and Hope; The Antidote), in 2006 the Portuguese released their most brutal record since their debut EP Under the Moonspell. Memorial marks a return to roots, with the band strongly reclaiming their place in the extreme metal universe. Ribeiro’s lacerating harsh vocals wrestle against an impressive wall of sound, while Amorim plays fast and aggressive guitar riffs and Gaspar offers a barrage of double-bass runs behind his always inventive stick work. Meanwhile, Paixão’s keyboards weave very prominent symphonic textures, pushing to the foreground Moonspell’s symphonic black/death metal influences. Memorial contains a good amount of strong tracks, although there are also a few weaker ones that verge dangerously close to the filler zone. In fact, I like to think of this record as a doughnut: the outer layers (“Finisterra”, Memento Mori”, “Once It Was Ours!”, “Luna”) are great, but the material in the middle is slightly disappointing (“Blood Tells”, “Upon the Blood of Men”; “At the Image of Pain”). Overall, Memorial may not be Moonspell’s best work, but it makes for an interesting listen and certainly continues the band’s tradition of putting out records that are not mere copies of their previous ones, managing to cover new ground without straying too far from their unique sonic identity.

 

 

#8 – EXTINCT (2015)

Released in 2015, Moonspell’s 10th studio album is a continuation of the catchy goth rock sound that the Portuguese had already experimented with on the Omega White disc of the Alpha Noir/Omega White twin release. In fact, Extinct may just be the catchiest Moonspell’s album in their entire discography. Each of its 10 songs is packed with earworming melodies that stand out in all their glory thanks to a lean songwriting and a superb sound (“Medusalem”, “Domina”, “The Future Is Dark”). Extinct also packs a punch or two, with a handful of songs that hark back to the heavier moments of the Lusitanian band (“Breathe (Until We Are No More)”, “A Dying Breed”) – resulting altogether in a fairly well-rounded and satisfactory record, and probably their best effort since Memorial. However, I cannot help but feel that, like Moonspell’s previous two records (Night Eternal and Alpha Noir/Omega White), Extinct somehow fails to fully capture and reflect the band’s unmistakable personality. To some extent, it sounds derivative, with influences that are slightly too obvious to spot, and it lacks the charm and differentiating touch that made many other Moonspell’s albums so special and unique. If the music is as good as (much of) that on this LP, the sin is certainly forgivable. But, seen in the grander scheme of the band’s entire discography, it’s impossible to not walk away from this record feeling slightly discontent for an album that is damn good, but just not special enough for Moonspell’s standards.

 

 

#7 – DARKNESS AND HOPE (2001)

Moonspell’s 5th full-length album Darkness and Hope was meant to be a fan-pleasing return to the sound of Irreligious, after a couple of more experimental LPs that had not been received as well as the band had hoped (Sin/Pecado; The Butterfly Effect). Paradoxically, however, Moonspell ended up writing one of the least accessible albums in their discography. The minimalistic songwriting and arrangements that run through the record are both its main strength and what makes it such a difficult album to get into. There is no melody or hook that jump at you. The instrumentation is kept to a bare minimum, with bass and drums often left alone to carry the songs, while guitars and keyboards offer only sparse bursts of color and atmosphere. It takes more than a few listens to appreciate the album’s subdued mood. Only then songs like the title-track, “Firewalking”, “How We Became Fire”, and “Than the Serpents in My Arms” open up in all their obscure beauty. If you can, get your hands on the digipack version of the album that contains “Os Senhores da Guerra”, a cover of Portuguese folk band MadreDeus, which is one of the highlights of this strange and difficult, but ultimately rewarding album.

 

 

#6 – HERMITAGE (2021)

The band’s latest effort to date, Hermitage, is an album that only an act as classy, talented and experienced as Moonspell could have written. “Mature” is probably the word I am looking for. The record oozes sophistication and aplomb as it takes the listener to a dazzling journey through different shades of dark rock, anchored in the band’s classic gothic sound, but modernized with a multitude of different influences, from modern progressive/alternative rock, to psychedelia, to jazz and electronic music. Similarly to the previous album on this list, Darkness and Hope, also Hermitage may feel difficult to grasp, almost hostile at first, because of its understated melodies and minimalistic, stripped-down arrangements. But it is definitely a grower and when it finally opens up, it is deeply intoxicating with its obscure romantic atmosphere. Songs like “The Greater Good”, “Common Prayers”, “All or Nothing” and the title-track are among the best songs ever written by the Portuguese band, showing that Moonspell are still a fresh and very relevant voice in today’s metal, nearly 30 years since they have moved their first steps in the scene. This is a massive achievement, and one that not many of their peers can claim to have fulfilled.

 

 

#5 – WOLFHEART (1995)

Moonspell’s iconic debut LP Wolfheart is not perfect and sometimes it bears the signs of the young age and inexperience of its creators, who were all twenty-somethings at the time. But it also clearly shows how inventive and talented Moonspell were from their very inception, mixing black metal, gothic rock, folk, and heavy metal with a distinctively progressive and experimental approach, to create a fresh and original own style. Packed with great ideas and songs, Wolfheart shows a combination of audacity and skill that is hard to come by in debut albums. Each song is different from the other and yet, miraculously, the record possesses a strong sonic identity that strikes the listener as original and exciting. In a period where album releases started to grow exponentially, saturating the market with clones of clones, Wolfheart was a most remarkable exception and showed that Moonspell were a force to be reckoned with, with a unique voice AND something to say. It was impossible not to pay attention back then and still is today, as one cannot but marvel at the sheer beauty of songs like “Alma Mater” and “Wolfshade”, which are probably the crowning achievements of Moonspell’s debut LP.

 

 

#4 – THE ANTIDOTE (2003)

One of the things I appreciate the most about this record is that, while it is not as experimental as Sin/Pecado or The Butterfly Effect, it is also not a simple “let’s get back to the sound of the origins” affair, which was perhaps the syndrome that had restrained the band’s creativity and energy on their previous album, Darkness and Hope. The Antidote is instead determined to carve its own path in the band’s discography, rearranging the traditional building blocks of the band’s sound (black metal; gothic metal/rock) in a new guise and, in the process, reinventing the band’s musicality. The first half of the album is simply phenomenal. As the tracks from “In and Above Men” to “Capricorn at Her Feet” bleed into one another, I am simply floored by the energy and dynamism of the material, which grabs me both at an instinctive and cerebral level. The second half drags a little, mainly due to the inclusion of two subpar tracks like “A Walk on the Darkside” and “Crystal Gazing”. However, despite its unevenness, The Antidote is a great record, containing some of the best material Moonspell have composed since Sin/Pecado and stands out in the band’s discography as one of their most organic, fresh and imaginative albums to date.

 

 

#3 – 1755 (2017)

After a series of slightly disappointing albums (Night Eternal, Alpha Noir, Extinct), Moonspell’s 11th studio album 1755 feels like a massive return to form and a powerful reminder of why many believe that the band thoroughly deserve a place in metal’s pantheon. The main problem with albums like Alpha Noir and Extinct was that, although pleasant and accomplished, they somehow failed to fully capture the Portuguese’s unique style and personality. 1755 is the exact opposite: it packs tons of Moonspell’s special charm and appeal, and it genuinely feels like an album that only the Portuguese could have written. The whole album is an exhilarating musical voyage that never ceases to amaze me every time I put the disc on. The tracklist is superb: nearly each song deserves the status of masterpiece, from the symphonic bombast of “Em Nome do Medo” (an orchestral re-working of the classic Alpha Noir’s track), to the irresistible tribal rhythm of “Desastre”, to the amazing emotional rollercoaster provided by the album’s closing trio of songs, “Ruinas”, “Todos os Santos” and “Lanterna dos Afogados”. 1755 is one of those rare records that are capable of stunning the listener on first listen thanks to the explosive and exuberant compositions, and yet are incredibly nuanced and deep in the arrangements, so that they grow even bigger and deeper with each new spin. 1755 is simply one of the best records written by the Portuguese band and it easily beats anything Moonspell have written since Irreligious / Sin-Pecado.

 

 

#2 – IRRELIGIOUS (1996)

The Portuguese must have felt the pressure when they entered the studio to record the follow-up to their strong and very well-received debut album Wolfheart. Would the sophomore album be as good and as successful? Released in 1996, Irreligious blew all worries away, and, if anything, exceeded the expectations that Wolfheart had created. Everything on Irreligious sounds better, bigger and bolder. The songwriting is superb, with songs that I still consider today among the best ever produced in the genre. The single “Opium” is probably the most obvious example. This song is a classic, and if you can listen to only one track from this album – or Moonspell’s whole discography -, then this must be it. But Irreligious contains plenty of other highlights. In fact, the whole album is one big highlight moment for me, with iconic tracks such as “Awake!”, “For a Taste of Eternity” or “Ruin & Misery” and that perfect closing trio, “Mephisto”, “Herr Spiegelmann” and “Full Moon Madness”. There is no way around it: Irreligious is a masterpiece. It’s an album that has stood the test of time and has risen to be one of the best records not only in Moonspell’s discography, but in the gothic metal genre as a whole.

 

 

#1 – SIN/PECADO (1998)

My feelings towards this album may not be widely shared in the metal community. In truth, even my younger self would have probably disagreed with what I am about to say, but Sin/Pecado is Moonspell’s crowning achievement. It is one of those fully immersive records that take you by the hand and transport you in a completely different universe where you can lose yourself for a while, marvelling at the strange sonic creatures you encounter along the way. The voyage is adventurous and the myriad sonic landscapes Moonspell explore may be disorientating at first, but ensure a very entertaining and never boring listening experience. There is plenty of highlights too. From the strange and uncomfortable harshness of “handmadeGod” and “2econd Skin”, to the glorious tranquillity of “Mute”, “Let the Children Come to Me” and “The Hanged Man”, to the electronic futurism of “Dekadance”, the album bursts with potential singles. But it is the sum of the parts that truly exceeds its individual components, as the songs makes most sense when listened to in the sequence of the tracklist. There are a couple of episodes where Moonspell may have pushed things just a little too far (“Eurotica”), but these are minutiae when compared to the sheer brilliance of the music on this album. Sin/Pecado is one of my desert island records: it is experimental, sophisticated, immersive, adventurous and original. It sounds like nothing else that was released around that time, and even if it were to come out today it would be regarded as a bold genre-bending piece of music. Abandon all prejudice and immerse yourself into this album. You won’t regret it.

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