Review Summary: Masters of polyphony. THE consummate symphonic metal album.
While it is by no means difficult to encounter a band that dabbles in symphony, it's far harder to find one that can actually make it sound seamless and congruous rather than just a string ensemble lazily layered on a guitar riff as most such bands sound. Not Shade Empire.
Which happens to be quite an awesome band name. Bands with such awesome names tend to induce high expectations for the music itself, and when those fall short all that's left is disgust. Suicide Silence is admittedly a pretty badass name, for example, but what music they play we all know. Luckily Shade Empire absolutely don't have to worry about that, the awesomeness of their name is appropriately backed up by the awesomeness of their music.
While I haven't heard any of their previous albums (which is soon to change) and cannot compare "Omega Arcane" to any of them, I can compare it to other bands, though this will not be easy. Genre-wise, Shade Empire are labelled as symphonic melodeath/black, and while this does give you the gist, it sounds rather underwhelming compared to what this band really sounds like. It borrows quite copiously from black metal and melodeath, yet doesn't sound exactly like either. If a direct comparison had to be made, I suppose you could say that this band is an alternative to Dimmu Borgir of their "PEM"/"DCA" era. They could also be compared to the lesser known Keep of Kalessin, in that they all get called black metal, but you don't really see it in the riffs. But this album is much, much better than anything those two bands could ever hope to achieve.
"Omega Arcane" is an exquisite exercise in polyphony, a collection of breathtaking soundscapes filled with palpable emotion and vividity. Obviously, the members of this band are amazing songwriters and arrangement composers, being able to layer multiple orchestral instruments in a manner where everything complements itself and nothing sticks out in a bad way so that you want to add nothing, remove nothing and change nothing. Just like Nicholas Cage said in "Next" when he was talking about what true beauty was. In this regard the album is aided further by its absolutely stellar production which not only gives each and every instrument used at the time full exposition and makes sure not one of them overpowers all others, but also greatly contributes towards making the songs as seamless and congruous as the most sturdily reinforced LEGO model. And there is plenty of stuff to hold together apart from all the traditional metal instruments: acoustic guitars, pianos, string ensembles, choral chants, electronic leads and pads, harps and brass instruments - everything used just when it is needed and not anywhere else and sounds as though these guys had access to the best instruments available. Even richer and more successful bands such as aforementioned Dimmu Borgir and well known Nightwish wish (no pun intended) that their symphony sounded that good.
As far as technicalities are concerned: the riffing patterns are reminescent more of power metal influenced melodeath such as Norther than of classic, open note reliant melodeath or venomous black metal; the soft, fleeting compositions bring to mind Omnium Gatherum; the vividity and sophistication of symphonic portions matches or even surpasses that of Nightwish; the smart use of electronics is similar to but compares favorably with Mors Principium Est, while the tastefulness and artfulness coupled with seamless dynamics and transitions are not at all unlike Opeth. At the same time the band manages to preserve the emotional poignancy expected of melodeath while completely avoiding the painful predictability of textbook melodeath bands such as Be'lakor.
The heaviness is varied - while blast beats and Slayer beats do appear, it is overall at a level comfortable enough to make this album accessible even to entry-level metal listeners. Unlike many other bands of similar heaviness, however, with Shade Empire it doesn't come at any cost - while the symphonic soundscapes take away most of the focus from the heaviness which makes this album listen more like a Hollywood movie score than a death metal album, there is never a sensation of the band being so eclipsed by the symphony that it looks as though they have nothing to play - a frequent complaint with contemporary Dimmu.
The music is light, fleeting and extremely easy and pleasant to listen to. Unlike most melodeath, the songs aren't structured in a simple way nor can they be called catchy in the popular sense of the word. Instead the album delivers subtle nuances that require repeated listens to fully absorb and appreciate with the promise of a later reward, which coupled with top-notch songwriting makes the listening experience more akin to progressive metal than straight-up melodeath. Incidentally, if you're like me, you should be compelled to immediately listen again after the first spin and do so several times in a row afterwads.
The beauty of "Omega Arcane" dwells in the fact that it offers so many different sensations, just like an A-movie soundtrack. At times it is uplifting and at times depessing. At times eerie and ominous and at times mellow and contemplative - yet always artful. Overall, I can say with confidence that this is the best symphonic metal album that I have heard so far, beating even "Portal of I" by Ne Obliviscaris and "Time I" by Wintersun. Words can't really do this album justice, so what's left to do is to listen to this album and know for oneself.
Album rating: 4.3