Symphonic metal has become exceptionally popular and plentiful over the last thirty years; therefore, it can be tough for a new band to stand out amongst the legions of already established acts dominating the style. While that struggle might deject a lot of fledgling artists, it’s only intensified Philadelphian quintet Empress’ desire to etch out a special place for themselves amongst the pack.
Case in point: their debut LP, Fateweaver. An enormously confident and sundry sequence, its graceful melodies, impeccable production, ascending vocals, and magnificently explosive arrangements pack everything devotees could want from the subgenre. Thus, it’s an enticingly authentic and refreshing introduction to one of symphonic metal’s most worthwhile newcomers.
The group started in 2018 and consists of drummer Mark Stainthorpe, bassist Nick Bonsanto, singer Barbara Blackthorne, and guitarists Joseph Muir and Vlad Khavin (who also produced and engineered it). In addition, keyboardist Vikram Shankar (Redemption, Silent Skies) assisted with the production, while multitalented veteran Dan Swanö (Evergrey, Opeth, Bloodbath) mixed and mastered it. Obviously, Empress owe a debt to artists such as Symphony X, Kamelot, Rhapsody of Fire, and Nightwish; yet, there's easily enough originality, variety, and drive within Fateweaver to demonstrate commendable characteristics all their own.
First and foremost, Blackthorne's operatic range and purity are remarkable, allowing her to stand toe to toe with influences and forerunners such as Floor Jansen, Michael Kiske, Tarja Turunen, and Tommy Karevik. The multiple compelling melodies of opener "Legion" showcase this well, as her voice ebbs and flows around the intensive instrumentation with rich self-assurance and adaptability. Similarly, "The Fall of Kingdoms" highlights her knack for theatrical falsettos and soothing harmonies, whereas "Beyond the Sleep" transitions from elegant tranquility to towering evilness via multilayered growling. It's extraordinary.
Fortunately, the music that surrounds Blackthorne is just as poised and dynamic. Going back to "Legion," it's typically fast-paced and, well, symphonic, with orchestral strings, percussion, chants, and the like encasing the group's hyperactively malleable rhythms and riffs. (Its double-tracked guitar solo is perfectly fitting, too.) It—alongside comparable compositions such as "Black Arcana," "Immortelle," and "Beyond the Sleep" (which cleverly builds upon the initial piano motif of "Legion")—would be highly captivating as an instrumental.
That said, the quintet truly reveal their distinctiveness when they incorporate a wider range of techniques. Aside from its mix of rapturous and guttural vocals, the LP frequently stretches its stylistic limbs in resourceful ways. For instance, the Eastern-tinged "Chimera" ventures into brooding cinematic territory through its use of woodwinds, choral layers, rustic percussion, strings, and other synthesized timbres. Later, "Into the Grey" sort of mixes a stately piano ballad with the dramatic eccentricities of Ayreon and the feisty drive of classic Iron Maiden. Then, closer "Eventide" peppers its euphorically bittersweet finality with lovely acoustic guitarwork.
Empress may be a burgeoning band, but with Fateweaver, they prove themselves capable of rivaling the best of their genre peers and progenitors. Khavin, Muir, Stainthorpe, and Bonsanto are undoubtedly masters of their craft who never prioritize self-congratulatory showmanship over the cumulative needs of the music. Instead, they compose and perform with a unified vision that—led by Blackthorne's dignified dexterity—should immediately take them to the forefront of the modern symphonic metal movement.