It always makes us happy to review albums with connections to other parts of arts & culture, simply because we can go very deep with our analysis. Arctic Plant's sophomore effort, "The Black Riders," is one of the best examples of referential concepts in modern prog. 4 of the 5 songs clock in at more than 10 minutes, and each include several different movements. Going through the whole 61 minutes of this piece of art, starting off with an entire classical overture, you are able to hear a piece from classic prog, metal, orchestral classical music, jazz, and many more fused genres. They tie everything together with the dark and mystical atmosphere based on The Lord of the Rings. In fact, the whole album is based on the Black Riders in LotR.
Perhaps the most interesting and impressive aspect of all is that Arctic Plant is a solo project. You heard that right. Each virtuous guitar solo, each drum part, each synth interlude, each jazzy keyboard lick, everything was composed and played by Philipp Rexilius. Well, except his sister's, Lisa Rexilius's, spicy bass contribution. This one-man, or one-family, project is perhaps all instruments contribute to a single and well-defined atmosphere. In very strong parts of the album, you can hear the sense of urgency backing synth line, the sense of mocking action in the bass lines; you can imagine the black riders with shocking detail before even reading or watching a single LotR production (well, you hear some parts of the story with sound effects and the narration). Overall, tightly bound to the concept with incredibly powerful multi-genre instrumentation, we were happy to listen to Arctic Plant's "The Black Riders" over and over again for this review.
Philipp Rexilius - drums, guitars, synthesizers, piano, orchestration, soundscapes, male voice-overs
Lisa Rexilius - bass guitar
Antonia Lenz - female voice-overs
1. Overture (11:34)
The album, starting with a literal classical overture, sets a very high bar regarding the commitment of the artist to the whole concept. Of course, not every band utilizing orchestration actually gives it the importance that it deserves but Arctic Plant's "Overture" was genuinely very refreshing to listen to as it reminded us the likes of Yes, Moody Blues and Genesis. From the beginning, much like the music itself, the ambition of Philipp Rexilius fills us with hope for the future of progressive rock and where he plans on taking it.
The first movement of the orchestration, about 5 minutes long, has a Medieval feel to it that reflects the origin of the Black Riders. Starting off with the main theme of the whole album, Rexilius sets the focus, making it clear that this is album is exclusively about the Black Riders themselves and nothing else in the LotR universe. Beginning with a soft narration of the flute, we are taken into a sovereign and tranquil world. The calm orchestration reflects the noble side of the Black Riders, when they were only men. It's important to note that some of them were Númenóreans, the most noble race of Men.
Assuming that Rexilius used orchestral patches to create these sounds, we are baffled by their quality. The strings, the horns and especially the flutes feel dynamic and realistic. The arrangement itself reminded us of Howard Shore's original score for the movies but with more emphasis on melody and less silences throughout.
The first movement ends with majestic strings and after a small pause signaling a change in atmosphere, we are confronted with a more energetic and percussive-heavy movement. The staccato strings and the steady snare drum beat create the tension needed to propel the song forward while the horn section blasts the theme to fill your ears with the majesty of the Black Riders. This movement also features some back and forth between the strings and the horns, perhaps to highlight the dilemma of the nine Men as they slowly go under the command of Sauron. It is definitely the most exciting movement, which is interesting since usually in classical music, the second movement of an overture is slower than what comes before and after.
With repetitive snare hits, another small pause (this time more abrupt than before) paves the path for the third and the final movement of the overture. This movement starts much slower and calmer, with a steady harp laying the chords. It's nice to see a variety of instrument utilised to create an authentic orchestra texture. Around the 10 minute mark, what feels like the climax of the whole overture indicates what we've interpreted as the moment when the Powerful Nine became the Black Riders as we know them. It is only fitting that what comes next is the main theme of the whole album, played this time with peaceful string instruments (a reference to the beginning of the overture) as a reminder of who the Riders are and where they actually came from...
2. Nine Kings (12:37)
Going through the whole 12 minutes of "Nine Kings" almost exhausted me. The song never calms down, racing through a series of upbeat and mighty sections. As with all work of Arctic Plant, there is not one section that we can call has a bigger importance for the song. It starts and ends with a certain melody based on a classic prog rock setup: synth lead, drums following the melody religiously, and a guitar power chords carrying it all. The next section, perhaps the only slow and low volume section, is a very tense bridge into the incoming 10-minute craze. The drums accompanying like in a marching band is reminiscent of medieval film scores. Rexilius starts narrating an excerpt from the book describing the Black Riders:
They were once Men. Great Kings of Men. Then Sauron the Deceiver gave to them nine Rings of Power. Blinded by their greed, they took them without question, one by one falling to darkness. Now they are slaves to his will. They are the Nazgûl, Ringwraiths, neither living nor dead. At all times they feel the presence of the Ring, drawn to the power of the One. They will never stop hunting you.
Matching with the creepiness of the last sentence, the song builds up into a thrilling and triumphant chorus. Till the end of this section, the chords get tenser and tenser, and we sense a resolution. However, I found the resolution quite cheesy and unfitting to the atmosphere. The grand piano interlude afterwards was also unfitting and sounded hopeful and bright instead of gloomy (which I understood to be the main tone of the album). Fortunately, the same marching band rhythm came to restore the atmosphere and take us to arguably to the most interesting part of the song. An ancient-sounding tribal choir accompanies this change, creating a very thrilling atmosphere: the exact opposite of the preceding interlude.
I fell in love with Arctic Plant's use of synthesizers. Most bands overuse them or do not worry about the tone too much. In contrast, Nine Kings' "second chorus" shows us that they have a deeper understanding of how synthesizers can be used to assist and lead the music. This chorus sounds very much like a blend of ELP and Dream Theater. The lead melody is very dense with notes, and the drums match with this intensity using a double kick beat. Then, it all suddenly stops with an classical guitar interlude, reminiscent of modern day Opeth, then continues into a beautiful guitar solo. Listen to Opeth's Eternal Rains Will Come, and you will probably hear very similar elements to the backing of this solo. Honestly, at first, it was hard to count the 15/16 time signature here. It sounds very similar to 4/4, and until you realize something is wrong (or very right), the solo takes your focus away and eases the song back into 4/4. Beautifully composed and well integrated!
The solo fading out signals that I have survived my first encounter with the Nazgûl; I can finally take a well-needed deep breath.
3. Fallen Into Darkness (16:12)
Fallen into Darkness really deepens the concept of the album: the tale of the Black Riders being enslaved to the will of Sauron and falling into the corruption caused by the rings is portrayed via the continuous and changing melody in this 16 minute song.
The first three minutes of the song set up a melancholic tone with the harmony of the guitar and keyboard, up until the entrance of a heavy guitar riff and the beat of the drums. You can’t help but move along to the 4/4 rhythm of the drums: it’s like the fall starts with the riff and the drums, and you are following the riders down.
When the guitar starts to pick up the pace by the end of the third minute, the vocals start to build up softly in the background and then they slowly fade away with the guitar. These vocals, though very soft, greatly contribute to the transcendent tone of the song. The combination of the electric guitar, drums and the faint vocals in the background, which all fit together perfectly, creates a build-up and prepares the ground for monologue to come.
The melody around the monologue creates a different, calmer ambiance with the sounds from the synthesizer. In the later part of this interlude, a short monologue tells us about the famous Rings of Power from Tolkien’s Legendarium: specifically about how the rings were distributed among elves, dwarf-lords and men. The nine rings gifted to men are known to corrupt him and turn him into Nazgûl, introduced as Black Riders, which is a direct reference to the album’s title and the whole story behind it. The electric guitar appears right after the monologue with another great solo (which does not interrupt the development of the ambiance in any way, as it's so well-performed). The song than slowly fades into the orchestral interlude, which resembles melodies that come after the climax in movie scenes because of its cathartic sound. The inspiration from ambient and classical music can definitely be heard here.
At the end of the 10th minute, the song switches back to the same riffs and 4/4 drum rhythm that took hold of us in the beginning, the voices reappear, the keyboard alongside the other instruments start to pick up the pace: this reappearing and continuum of sounds symbolize the never-ending slavery and the reappearance of the Riders.
The song creates this dark and deep ambiance which continues to transform, but never end when you expect it. It’s definitely not easy to depict such a surreal and metaphysical tale with music, but Arctic Plant tackles this challenge skillfully. The contrast between calm, softer parts and the rhythmic, dynamic parts fits this song and the concept perfectly. The length of each part is just right: the listener follows the whole fall in the 16 minutes. Even if you were not interested in the whole story behind the concept of this album, the monologue and the emotions conveyed via the song itself (and all the other songs in the album) leaves you wondering about the whole story behind the Black Riders.
4. Between Life and Death (16:21)
The major ability of Rexilius as a songwriter is the way he creates the proper atmosphere of the song using many different layering techniques, atmospherical sound effects, and especially the best chord progressions that can be associated with the certain feeling he wants to maintain throughout the song. He doesn't disappoint the listeners with this song either, starting off with majestic synth sounds layered with some noises that are probably a reference to (or at least an influence from) the Part I of Pink Floyd's Shine On You Crazy Diamond suite.
Throughout the album, there were many parts and compositional elements that we can establish a connection of influence with the way that Pink Floyd executed their magnum opuses. However, while being more complex, inventive, and orchestral than Pink Floyd has ever been (except Atom Heart Mother); the song can't escape to maintains its roots of 70s Pink Floyd. The whole wind and ear-shattering noises foreshadow the forthcoming part, along with the clean guitar arpeggio that illustrates the next chord progression.
The whole atmospheric-style is reminiscent of the song "Echoes" by Pink Floyd, combined with many different influences that highly vary from many different genres and styles - as mentioned in the reviews before. After the backing track was set for the right tone - with the distorted double-tracked guitars, Rexilius starts to deliver the rest of the story: Between Life and Death.
As most of the story being told within this passage of narrative (comparing it to the other voices); the voice that Rexilius has presented and delivered with a dark tone has been crucial to both the way he expressed and surfaced feelings behind the voice, and also to the whole fear-awakening and unsettling atmosphere of the piece. No wonder why this is the personal favorite of the album's composer. At this specific moment, the progression gets even darker-while Rexilius uses so many modal interchanges and different chord-voicings.
After the narrating part ends, the tom groove finally resolves to a stable 4/4 beat; while it is impossible not to hear the juicy bass playing of Rexilius's sister, Lisa, as she goes up an octave and does her thing with all the jamming licks and chord expansions. While the narration continues, the distorted guitars play a rhythmic role with them accompanying the marching band rhythm of the drums with palm mute technique - very much Tool-like.
The song begs to let go of the tension that has been building up from the beginning; and finally, the heavily distorted breakdown comes within that minute you realize that the song never refrains to surprise its listener with different directions that it discovers: We finally get goosebumps as the guitars play medieval-sounding riffs, dueting with horns and some synth sounds that one can only guess how they were actually created. After a very 70's metal and rock reminding ethereal guitar solo, the song again settles down with the same chord progression that we've heard at the beginning of the song; while the narrative kicks back in to tell the way that The Black Riders are stuck "Between Life and Death". They are not able to die because their souls are cursed with an ability that only souls can possibly have: the awareness of non-living in a reality that is conquered by the mortals.
After calming the song down with some old-school piano action, the tom groove hits the listener again; but now with some dissonant distorted guitars and harmonic soloing from Rexilius (his signature style of soloing) over orchestral sounds and layered guitar riffs.
Fading out to the fearful feelings that The Black Riders have filled the mortals with, the song becomes a piece that one cannot consume at once-yet still can't forget a second of it.
5. Immortal Slaves Kings (04:40)
Much like the "Overture", the closing track of the album starts off with an orchestral arrangement. This time, a woodwind instrument, sounds like a clarinet, plays a variation of the main theme, that sounds much calmer in this context. With the horn section's support at the end of each bar, this becomes, as Rexilius puts it, "a mellow opening theme representing the growing of the shadow, moving in the dark"; and as this supporting instruments increase in number with the addition of strings instruments, you can start to feel something lurking behind you, waiting for the right moment to attack. As the strings section spirals out of control with the horns blowing right into your ears, you encounter them: the Black Riders. The use of tension in the buildup with the climactic resolution does remind the listener of Richard Wagner's work and like Rexilius himself, this intro can be our favorite orchestration in the album too.
The climax is of course the encounter with the Black Riders and the exalted drumming in this section, which is also very fun to air drum I should add, greatly augments the awe and dread we experience towards the Riders. The guitar that follows has a very stinging tone that feels like the Riders are chasing you, and when another guitar, similar in tone, is added through panning, we suspect that this was what Rexilius was going for himself. Perhaps, this feeling of being chased could be amplified in the mixing with sound effects or more percussive elements or even some odd time signatures to address the supernatural side of the Riders.
The final guitar solo of the song reminded us of Camel's "Lady Fantasy" (of course, it was a lot milder). The variations on the main theme play a huge role on making the album sound different throughout and it's nice to see that Rexilius acknowledges it too. And with a modal interchange and orchestral effects, Arctic Plant reminds us once more that the Black Riders are still there and ready to catch you off guard for one last time.