It isn’t too common to find a power/folk metal hybrid anymore, but one country that has proven reliable for this style in recent years is Italy. Obviously, the leaders in that field are Elvenking, but over the past few years, up and coming band Vexillum have proven themselves to be quite the force as well. They emerged in 2004 under the name Shadow Vexillum, but never really took off until 2011, when they released their debut The Wandering Notes, which showed a ton of promise. The follow up album The Bivouac increased the folk metal elements quite a bit, and the release was a noticeable improvement in all areas. With their third release Unum, they have finally turned into an all out power/folk band, as opposed to a power metal band with folk elements as they were before, and this move has paid off for the band, resulting in easily their best work to date.
One thing that’s obvious about Vexillum right from the start of this album is how similar they are to Elvenking at times, especially that band’s debut Heathenreel and their most recent album The Pagan Manifesto. The blend of guitar riffs along with violins and bagpipes results in a very epic sound, and when you add the huge choir vocals to that, it only gets better. Musically, this album is a much more seamless blend of styles than their first two albums were, in that every song shifts between speedy power metal portions, and calmer sections where the folk elements dominate, and there are many times where the songs go from being very quiet to being much heavier. One of Vexillum’s biggest strengths has always been the energy of the music coming from all members of the band, and that is certainly true on Unum as well, as even the wilder and less predictable parts of the album work better than they should, just because there’s so much energy in the music and in the vocals. I will say, though, my one complaint is that the production is a bit weak at times, particular the guitar sound, though that’s understandable considering how much is going in the background throughout every track.
I’ve always had mixed feelings towards singer Dario Vallesi. His voice can be a bit irritating at times, and he always borders on being pitchy, and yet he delivers his lines with so much passion and excitement, that most of the time I can’t help but like him anyway. Two additional factors really help with the vocals on Unum: First off, this album has some of the best, and most unique vocal melodies I’ve heard on a power metal album in a long time. Just when you think they’ve pulled their final trick, they always find ways to surprise you with just how epic and how fresh sounding their vocal melodies can be. The other factor (or factors, I should say) comes from the guest vocals: Unum is actually a concept album, with Dario playing the main character, while the other characters are played by four guests, including Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian), Chris Bay (Freedom Call), Maxi Nil (ex-Visions of Atlantis) and Mark Boals (Ring of Fire). That is quite the impressive group of guests, and all of them are used very effectively, with each having a track built around them, while the last main album track “The True Beginning: Standing As One” features brief appearances from all four.
Songwriting is an area where Vexillum has improved greatly over the years, and Unum has some of their best songs to date. The opening track “The Departure: Blow Away the Ashes” begins with an extended instrumental section highlighted by the folk instruments, and the song plods along throughout the verses, but about halfway through the tempo picks up and the song becomes an instant winner. The last two tracks are also excellent, with “The Way Back: The Clash Within” being the fastest song to not feature any guests, and it has some awesome choir vocals during the chorus, along with some really cool chanting at the end, while the closing track “The True Beginning: Standing As One” is a fittingly epic end to the concept portion of the album, and it’s nice to hear all the guests back again.
Speaking of which, the real meat of the album is the middle part, with tracks 2-5 all being duets between Dario and a guest. First up is “The Jester: Over the Clouds”, a fun and upbeat track featuring Chris Bay (and I’m sure his fans will agree that this is the perfect role for him.) The song itself feels like a more folk driven version of his band, as it’s a very fast and very cheerful tune with an insanely epic chorus. Next is “The Sentenced: Fire and Blood”, which features Hansi Kursch. It’s here when Vexillum start to show their versatility, as well as their ability to the play to strengths of their guests, as this track is by far the heaviest on the album and it actually sounds like a Nightfall era Blind Guardian track, except with even stronger folk elements. Hansi sounds right at home, and he and Dario sound great together. I didn’t know what to expect from “Lady Thief: What We Are” as I’ve always found Maxi Nil to be competent, but not particularly memorable. Thankfully, the band managed to deliver again, as this track is more of a light and playful track with very strong folk elements, and it features very strong interplay between the two vocalists. And yes, Maxi certainly is memorable this time around. Last, but not least, we have “The Hermit: Through the Mirror”, a predictably weird but delightful track, which starts out with an extended acoustic section, and probably is the least heavy track on the album, with a bit of a folk rock feel to it, but it also features some truly amazing vocal melodies, especially towards the end.
After the concept portion of the album, we have two cover tracks (“ Spunta la Luna dal Monte” by Tazenda and “Run Runaway” by Slade.) I don’t know either original version so I can’t comment much, but while they do stand out from the rest of the album, it seems like Vexillum has put their own spin on both tracks, and they are both a lot of fun to listen to.
Aside from some minor production flaws and a very brief running time (38 minutes over 7 tracks if you remove the two covers) Unum is an excellent power/folk metal metal hybrid, which shows Vexillum continuing to be influenced by fellow countrymen Elvenking, while mixing in their own sounds and spicing things up with some excellent guest vocals. They keep getting better with each album, so I definitely look forward to hearing more from them in the future.
(originally written for myglobalmind: http://myglobalmind.com/2015/03/23/vexillum-unum-review/)