Review Summary: Traverse into forests and wastelands vast, and ask the oracle of the future past
Some bands have an underlying concept, a very precise idea before starting any musical sketch. Others just create lore from their music, and, in some cases, said lore is worthy of a Netflix adaptation. It's upon hearing the main riff of opening track "The Astral Seer" that Hällas' idea about an all-knowing astrological seer who can control the stars starts to shape up. The creature's immeasurable power turns into a curse as he becomes trapped between dimensions after being sentenced to death by the always-right society. Chased by knights, one of them being the main protagonist Hällas, we listeners are invited to witness a story that goes beyond our simple conceptions of space and time.
If there was one period in time during which rock bands massively tackled sci-fi and fantasy tropes, it's got to be the early-to-mid 70s. If mega-stars Led Zeppelin often constitute the epoch's most conspicuous influence, Hällas feed above all on Wishbone Ash and Hawkwind, but also on Uriah Heep (and even some Deep Purple). Here, progressive rock collides with psychedelic music, proto-heavy (without being that heavy), and synthpop - not the Carly type though - with an obvious focus on melody and catchiness. The whole project testifies to their love of the era, as Hällas did not hesitate to get their hands on vintage gear to recapture the ol' generation's sound. Fortunately for all 70s progcheese haters, the genre's pitfalls are - mostly - avoided. The two guitars are devoid of any kind of wankery, rather focusing on intertwining their endemic notes into one cohesive set, sometimes in harmony, and sometimes in counterpoint. These guitars are reinforced by an imperturbable drum and bass duo, and are enriched by synthesizers, which at times step out of their supporting role to rise to prominence, like during LSD-driven "Shadow of the Templar".
These synths work wonders with the at-first-cheesy-but-then-apt vocals. Truth be told, vocalist Tommy Alexandersson has got to have the most appropriate voice for such a band. His baritone voice is far from perfect, but he gives in enough soul that his troubadour-like performance fittingly complements the folky touches. Still, his performance is not rooted on earth, as slight vocal effects grant him an airy poise. Indeed, as the story borrows from both fantasy and sci-fi folklores, the music at play also displays duality by confronting a folkish vibe with the synthesizers' spacey touch.
Sure, 70s veterans might find some sections to be nothing more than nice reenactments of a dead sound, but there's one tune that completely oozes originality. Before moving to the album’s highlight, let's take a closer look at the band’s origins. Hailing from Sweden, Hällas represents the country in all its different musical aspects. The country is known by the general public for being a pop machine thanks to timeless bands like ABBA, but also for its contributions to different subgenres of metal. The final crossover is created on uber-hit "Star Rider". Carried by an immediately gratifying riff, "Star Rider" proves that Hällas are also capable of writing a tune that contains the same elements as a pop song. The 4/4 beat and verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure differ from all the other tracks, but it’s so effortlessly catchy that "Star Rider" promptly established itself as the band's absolute banger, the one song that could please all types of crowds.
The record's only noticeable fault lies in its concluding pace. Despite its short runtime (forty-two minutes ain't a mighty long time), the album sees its two longest tracks conclude the journey by being placed back-to-back. The main problem is that the penultimate track already feels like a proper conclusion, which renders the last tune extraneous. It would have been more judicious to place this final piece elsewhere, as its meandering nature induces a final couple of minutes to ever so slightly drag. In a way, it's fitting that the final piece closes in limbo, as the story ends with the knight Hällas struggling in the underworld's shadows, only to be stabbed by an unknown shadow.
Our hero lies on the ground, left all alone in the darkness. Will he fall into the endless pits of nihility, or will he be saved by an unknown and bizarrely just-in-time deus ex machina? To be continued in the next episode: Conundrum