Secret of the Runes (Nuclear Blast)

Therion 

Secret of the Runes (Nuclear Blast)

Rock operas often contain neither real rock nor opera; instead, less-than-Met-ready tenors bellow pompous concept-driven lyrics while bloated guitar pop swells in the background. Such is the fate of many attempts to combine heavy music and high art -- see Metallica's disappointing symphony collaboration or any overinflated "Stairway to Heaven" rip-off. But the transfusion of blue blood into metal's bulging veins isn't always botched, especially overseas, where bands such as Sweden's Therion treat classical music with respect instead of using it to decorate incongruous compositions or co-opting it for gimmicky crossover stunts. Singer and guitarist Christofer Johnsson incorporates strings, woodwinds, brass and, most impressively, a full-range choir into his arrangements. In Therion's fully merged world, shredding solos intertwine with soprano vocal leads, subtle horn melodies float over rhythm-section surges and ominous chants replace choruses.

Like many progressive-leaning songwriters, Johnsson is a creature of Hobbit; his lyrics read like a Tolkien glossary. Norse Gods, ice worlds and even a "totem-beast" populate this fantasy realm, and while something might occasionally get lost in the translation (You fly away and lose your hug, the choir sings during one cautionary tale about unpredictable elves; The tree will burst into leaf! predicts another inscrutable epic), the vocalists' dignified delivery keeps such lines from seeming silly. And lest anyone think Therion pictures itself in an enchanted parallel universe, the group breaks the spell with two covers that are even more miraculous than its orchestral originals. Johnsson gives a majestic, cultured quality to the Scorpions' "Crying Days," then turns ABBA's "Summernight City" into a baroque power ballad, like what "Close Your Eyes Forever" might have sounded like had Ozzy Osbourne chosen an opera diva as his duet partner rather than Lita Ford. Perhaps no genre lies out of Therion's redemptive reach, though salvaging anything rap-metal-related might be a waste of its energies.

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