To non-metal crowds, it’s a stand in for essentially any style of metal, a catch-all phrase that evokes the spandexed and corpse-painted alike. But for those with more of a connection to heavy music understand that it evokes a specific style and era. It’s the sound that began with Sabbath and reached critical mass with Judas Priest and Iron Maiden — the domain of meaty riffs, classic rock hooks, and generally speaking, some long, flowing locks of swingable (bangable?) hair. There’s metal that’s heavier, but it’s probably not heavy metal.
In Solitude play heavy metal. On their 2008 self-titled debut and the even better follow-up, The World. The Flesh. The Devil., the Swedish group evoked the theatrical heavy metal style pioneered by Mercyful Fate, albeit with more muted histrionics than King Diamond engaged in. In Solitude vocalist Pelle Åhman is certainly a dramatic singer, though within a narrower range. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — the kind of falsetto acrobatics that King Diamond made famous aren’t easy to pull off, and when blended with the heroic guitar work of Niklas Lindström and Henrik Palm, Åhman holds his own, a golden-throated captain guiding a darkly bombastic heavy metal ship.
On new album Sister, it’s the “dark” part of In Solitude’s stylistic makeup that they pursue most fervently, maintaining a more ominous tone with a heavy gothic rock influence. This is still a heavy metal album, but it’s nowhere near a traditional one, its ornate gloom sounding like Iron Maiden taking a stab at the Sisters of Mercy canon (note the title). For those who don’t take kindly to peanut butter being glopped into their chocolate, this might not be a promising development — until you realize, what was Mercyful Fate, if not (to some degree) gothic?
In contrast to The World, Sister begins not with explosive riffs, but with a muted, low-key acoustic strum that most closely resembles Black Rebel Motorcycle’s “Love Burns,” of all things. But “He Comes,” while a curious entry into the big ideas and sounds of Sisters, subtly builds up tension and intrigue. It’s chilling rather than outright dazzling, but that tension breaks magnificently with the door-busting crash of “Death Knows Where.” While some of the acoustic guitar sounds of the prior track remain, it’s the soaring chorus and blazing electric fretwork that leave the biggest impression.
The intricate shades of goth loom large over much of Sister without overwhelming the record as a whole. The eerie riffs played high on the neck and spoken-word interlude make an interesting counterpoint to the doom boogie in “Horses In the Ground,” while the opening riff and breathtakingly melancholic tones in “Pallid Hands” add up to one of the band’s best songs — maybe the best. The slow-burning “Inmost Nigredo” closes the album, halting some of the momentum built up over the prior seven tracks, but nonetheless putting a cap on an interesting document of growth for one of heavy metal’s best bands. And there are definitely enough new heavy metal bands to make that an interesting conversation, though In Solitude bests recent efforts by Ghost B.C. and Holy Grail by being neither overtly goofy or heavily glam influenced. Sister is heavy metal that’s rooted in darkness, and a particularly romantic style of darkness at that.