When I was first introduced to Hällas years ago, just prior to the release of their debut, they were explained to me as traditional heavy metal with a nice classic edge to it. There was a then-recent resurgence of bands of that style at the time and, working diligently through them, I threw Hällas into the stack to be arrived at sometime in the future between all the other millionfold records we music lovers and critics all have waiting in the wings for our eventual interest. However, had I known what I do now, that this band is not traditional heavy metal but instead rayguns-and-enchanted swords progressive rock of ideal vintage, I would have hastened to their works rather than waiting the several years before finally diving in. As such, discussing this record serves as much to make up for lost time as it does to elaborate on thoughts around the new disc by the European band.
The group often sounds here like a hybrid of Gentle Giant and Rainbow, with flecks of the Yes-derivative band Starcastle and maybe a pinch of Deep Purple to boot. A translation of this for those less initiated in the sacred rites of progressive rock: organs aplenty, buffeted by triumphant horn-like synths, while the instruments play a combination of fantastical and evocative adventurous rock music with a good chunk of boogie for good measure. This type of progressive rock is rooted as much in the subtle complexities of certain ’70s rock bands as it is in outright bombast. Imagine the organ-driven heavy rock of Uriah Heep, which technically fell within progressive rocks hallowed halls but largely eschewed 10-plus-minute opuses and lengthy instrumental passages for things more evocative of a quality airbrushed wizard on the side of a van. This is perhaps the greatest tie of this music to heavy metal, especially traditional heavy metal. Both takes on their respective greater genres are driven around summoning up the full grandeur of the lush and lurid painted paperback covers of science fiction and fantasy literature of the ’50s through the ’70s, with great robed and airy bearded wizards, hateful mysterious scowl, walking among the turning stones of asteroid fields and mist-cloaked black holes at the center of the psychoverse. True to form, Isle of Wisdom is itself a continuation of Hallas’ own murky tale of wizards in their overarching concept suite.
However, the focus here is on songs over technicality, of hooks over flash. They wield the layers and shifting song forms of prog much the way that Queen did, making sure to never lose sight of the immensity of the hook or the body-moving sense of boogie to it all. Queen was so successful at this wielding of anthemic melodies and heavy metal hooks within their progressive rock that they are rarely perceived as prog at all; Hallas does not seemed destined to be quite so lucky, still resolutely sounding the part of the genre, but definitely veers much more to that greater group’s tighter song-oriented methodology (especially reminiscent of their records Queen II and Flash Gordon, specifically). This in turn, for those fluent in prog groups, is what I meant with the comparison to Gentle Giant. These pieces are great bold and dashing adventures, the upturned tip of the shoe at the end of an outstretched leg as the wily rogue evades at last the raygun’s vicious blast, but they are tightly bound. The longest track is just over seven minutes while the average length sits much closer to five. Even that seven-minute long piece feels like how certain other groups’ 20-minute epics might, filling a universe in minutes rather than the absolutely ginormous scales typically associated with the genre.
The result is a driving and deeply melodic set of harder edged progressive rock. This is the type of record that will satisfy people interested either in image-driven fantasy rock, a more science-fiction tinted take on the kind of retro metal that Uncle Acid pursue, as well as those who prefer their prog to be anthemic and triumphant above all else. This is an album that truthfully feels developed in a lab to appeal directly to me, fusing a wide wheel of my deepest-held loves; this record has been a constant companion both for reading and writing over the weeks, spurring me back toward the ice caves and gaunt tombs of the subterranean world that fantasy at its peak seek to offer us. Put on “Earl’s Theme” and just try not to saunter about your home with a blanket over your head pretending to be a scowling mystic wizardly force; I dare you.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.