THERION — Secret of the Runes (review)

THERION — Secret of the Runes album cover Album · 2001 · Symphonic Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
lukretion
Just one year after releasing a solid but somewhat lacklustre album like Deggial, Therion are back with what many consider the high point of their whole discography: Secret of the Runes. A concept album centred around the nine worlds of Norse mythology, Runes is a massive step-up relative to the band’s previous releases, which improves and expands their blend of symphonic metal in multiple directions. There are a number of reasons for this advancement.

First, Therion are now a proper band rather than a solo project by Christofer Johnsson. Brothers Johan and Kristian Niemann (bass and guitar, respectively) and drummer Sami Karppinen had joined Johnsson already for the recording of Deggial in 2000. Although on Runes Johnsson retains control of most of the songwriting and arrangements, there are contributions from the other band members too (Kristian Niemann is credited as co-writer of the opening track “Ginnungagap”) and, more generally, one gets the feeling that the ensemble now sounds more like a band, with more nuanced and personalized arrangements for the rock instruments and more freedom in terms of performances (more guitar solos, more drum fills). In short, there is more depth to the band’s performance than on the preceding couple of albums (Vovin, Deggial), which were instead largely a Christofer Johnsson solo affair.

Second, the sound production has also improved on this album. This may sound strange since, for the recording of Runes, Therion actually transitioned from the famous Woodhouse Studios, where they had worked with renowned engineer and producer Siggi Bemm, to their very own, newly built Modern Art Studios, where they instead relied on in-house engineering (Karppinen, K. Niemann, Johnsson) and production. Mixing and mastering duties were instead assigned to Mikko Karmila and Mika Jussila (Amorphis, Childreon of Bodom, Nightwish, among many others). The album sounds much better than Vovin or Deggial, which were both recorded and produced at Woodhouse Studios. One difference between these albums is that on Runes the drum sound is lighter and drier and the drums are placed further back in the mix, so that they are less “in-your-face”. This is great because Therion’s songs often rely on simple grooves, which can make the music feel sluggish and undynamic when the drums dominate the mix. The arrangements are also airier and more spacious, which contributes to make Runes an easier and more immediately likeable album than the dark and oppressive Deggial or the occasionally rigid Vovin.

Ultimately, though, the superiority of Runes comes down to better, more inspired songwriting. The songs are varied and dynamic, moving between different sections and moods. This is a major improvement over previous albums, where often the same riffs were repeated over and over, making the songs feel monolithic and static. The vocal arrangements are also more varied. In some songs, Johnsson wrote counterpoint and multipart vocals melodies (“Jotunheim”; “Nifelheim”), and in general I get the feeling that more attention has been paid to the alternation between male and female vocals that in many occasions engage in playful duets (“Asgard”). Most importantly, the signers are finally given vocal melodies that are catchy and memorable. This is a huge difference relative to many of the songs that were recorded for Deggial, where the vocal parts were particularly lacklustre. Songs like “Ginnugagap”, “Midgard” and “Asgard” feature some of the best melodies that Johnsson has written up to this point in his career. Some may miss the fact that on Runes Johnsson ended the tradition of writing songs with metal vocals mixed with the opera singing (the whole of Theli was built this way, as well as “The Wild Hunt” and “Flesh of the Gods” on Vovin and Deggial). Personally, I do not find this to be a problem, especially when the operatic vocals are given such quality melodies to sing.

There are many other aspects of the music and concept that contribute to make Runes a special album. The Norse mythology that inspired the concept of the album also influenced the songwriting, which features subtle but decisive folk influences on several tracks. The whole album has almost a Viking metal feel to it, with its icy atmospheres and at time raw choirs (“Nifelheim”). The use of different languages, including Johnsson’s native Swedish, also contributes to the Nordic folk atmosphere of the album. Somewhat incongruently with the album’s theme, Runes also contain two covers as bonus tracks, “Crying Days” by Scorpions and “Summernight City” by Abba. These tracks were recorded in 1999 with former Therion’s drummer and singer Piotr Wawrzeniuk on vocals alongside the opera singers. Some people are disturbed by the fact that the inclusion of the two covers disrupts the concept of the album. I can see where they are coming from, but the two songs are objectively so good that I cannot help but be grateful for their inclusion on the album.

Despite all the great things one can hear on Runes, the album is not perfect. Its middle part tends to plod a little, with songs like “Schwarzalbenheim” and “Ljusalfheim” coming across as a tad too repetitive and uninventive. Part of the problem is that most songs on the album remain firmly in mid-tempo territory, which amplifies the sluggish feeling one has as soon as the quality drops a little. Sometimes I wish Johnsson would make more use of different tempos on his albums, to inject some dynamics and a sense of moving forward to the music which is sometimes lacking on Therion’s records. However, despite the somewhat weaker mid-section, the album is quick to recover, with tracks like “Muspelheim”, “Nifelheim” and “Helheim” providing stunning highlights, together with the opening trio of songs (“Ginnugagap”, “Midgard” and “Asgard”).

In conclusion, Secret of the Runes is one of the best albums in Therion’s catalogue. If you are new to this band, this could be a great place to start (together with the breakthrough album Theli, of course). By the time this album was released, Christofer Johnsson had time to refine and perfect his skills at arranging songs that combine metal, classical music and operatic singing, and this clearly shows on the album. The vocal parts are catchy and memorable. The orchestral arrangements are merged seamlessly with the metal parts. The metal parts themselves are more dynamic than on previous albums, with richer and more accomplished performances by guitar, drums and keyboards. Add a touch of Nordic folk, and you have a nearly perfect album indeed!
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siLLy puPPy wrote:
36 days ago
To my ears this is THerion at its peak. I could put this on autoplay forever and be happy :)

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