Haggard is more than just a band, it's an ensemble of right now twenty-two musicians that mostly have a classic music background and play instruments such as a harpsichord, a piccolo or a timpani but also more common instruments such as cellos, contrabasses and diverse flutes. The whole group is kept together by mastermind Asis Nasseri who is of Afghan and German descent and who plays guitars and some percussions and who also does some growls. He was the main force behind the new record that is not influenced by historical contents as it was the case before. The band leader created the fictional world of Ithiria and even wrote a book about its fantastic tales. The record focusses a lot on the narrative parts and includes five interludes. The lyrics are performed in English, German, Italian, Latin and Spanish and some songs include several of these languages.
Musically, the band focusses more and more on the classical elements. The classic instruments as well as the different female and male vocalists in soprano and tenor probably get more space to express themselves than ever before. The death or heavy metal parts have therefor decreased. Some decent riffs, doublebass and blastbeat passages as well as growls are still present but are more and more pushed into the background. The whole band is probably only comparable to the concept of Therion with the difference that Haggard have a more folk and also opera orientated feeling instead of a strong classic and symphonic side in Therion. Personally, Haggard don't sound as diversified, majestic and perfectly arranged as Therion do but they are surealy worth a try for any fan of symphonic metal.
The record has a couple of positive but also negative facts. Let's start with the bad stuff first. The strange breathless and inhaled sounding growls are definitely a big letdown and don't fit to the well arranged instruments and mostly highly skilled other vocalists. The mastermind sounds as if he would suffer from lung cancer or if he entered the studio after having smoked dozens of cigarettes before. On the other side, I know no vocalist that growls like him and one must admit that his style is quite unique. But unique doesn't always mean original and the band should definitely ask a better death metal vocalist to help them for the next record.
Another little complaint goes to the female vocalist that performs on the well known Spanish "Hijo De La Luna" that feels a little bit out of context on this album. I don't really speak Spanish but I have been a couple of times in Spain and I have also met people from Latin America to have the impression that her pronounciation sounds quite weird. The original pop verson of Mecano is definitely better but the song still overall remains a good one in Haggard's version, especially from the instrumental point of view. The track sounds of course heavier than the original but not too much to harm the original's magic feeling.
Otherwise, the guitars definitely need more space on this record that is dominated by classic instruments and all the different vocalists. Too many cooks may spoil the broth but I would have liked to hear some energizing guitar solos. Apart of piano solos and some violin or flute parts we don't get any true solo on this record. Other folk or symphonic metal bands have shown how great flute or pipe solos could sound and Haggard should try this out, too.
The album is divided into narrative introductions and five main chapters that are the actual songs plus the Mecano cover song. The band needed almost four years to come around with this record and only about half an hour of actual music is not very much in the end. Another negative fact is that there is always a break between the narrative parts and the songs that belong to them. Often, the introductions build up an epic atmosphere as if they were written for a score but then we always have a fade-out and short break before the next song slowly pulls off. We only talk about three to five seconds and some people might say that my judgement is a little bit harsh but these few seconds are enough to destroy the well developed atmosphere and derange the lsitening experience. Next time, the band should put introductions and main songs into one song or at least create fluid transitions.
Now, this all sounds quite negative but we are talking about details. The classic instruments sound great and have different skills to offer. Male and female vocalist work very professionalt, no matter if they perform solos or are combined in epic choirs. There are many calm and folk orientated passages that are very important and help this record to not sound overloaded. This album really has a soul and is well thought out. One can easily follow the main story and feel the slowly changing atmospheres on this record. The short introduction are all surprisngly well elaborated and don't sound boring or forced to fit the concept at all as it is teh case for many other bands when they try to create conceptual records and mostly fail.
The weakest song is sadly the title track "Tales Of Ithiria" that is a little bit too slow and sounds quite bulky for an opening epic. Some passages don't seem to fit together at all, the transitions aren't fluid and the song is definitely a few minutes too long.
The other epic songs are all better and even great. The charming medieval folk sounds in the calm "Upon Fallen Autumn Leaves" slowly fade into a well elaborated operatic track. The string parts are very catchy and even the weird growls sound rather good on this one. Only the dumb drumming that includes some blastbeats is a definite flaw. "La Terra Santa" also has a calm folk atmosphere that is kept throughout the slowest of the five epics. "The Sleeping Child" is a dynamical piece of symphonic metal with great violin melodies, chilling church choirs and loads of well elaborated changes between fast and slow passages. Once again, the weird growls work surprisingly good in some parts. The final "The Hidden Sign" is a very good mix of soft folk sounds and symphonic metal with some heavy and especially death metal parts. The folk parts remind of Elvenking or even Rondo Veneziano while the metal orientated parts make me think of Eternal Tears Of Sorrow or Therion. It's a very good song to finish a quite good record.
In the end, "Tales Of Ithiria" is a great offering for fans of classic, operatic or symphonic metal. The concept is not amongst the most original ones but quite well elaborated in the epic narrative parts as well as in the diversified main tracks. There are some flaws here and there and some improvements to do for the next release but overall, this record is a great listening experience and an atmospheric grower that doesn't fail to bring many images alive in your mind.