Although they’ve been around for only about a decade, Sweden’s HÄLLAS have perfected their craft. Indeed, they absolutely nail their self-described “evocative, feel-good blend of nostalgic 70’s hard rock, proto-metal, folk and psychedelic influences.” (Elsewhere, they claim to be the “originators of the ‘Adventure Rock’ genre, devoting themselves to the aforementioned sonic fusion and eccentric imagery inspired by rock greats of yore with a fantastical twist.”) Newcomer Isle of Wisdom is as good a testament to that as predecessors Excerpts from a Future Past (2017) and Conundrum (2020), if not an even stronger display of HÄLLAS’ extraordinarily sophisticated, imaginative, and compelling creativity.
The record wastes no time welcoming listeners with its spacey savagery, as the aptly named “Birth/Into Darkness” ensnares with celestial coatings before exploding into an irresistible instrumental jam. In a sense, it’s like the ideal fusion of Yes, Eloy, The Vintage Caravan, Blue Öyster Cult, Iron Maiden, and Wobbler. Vocalist/bassist Tommy Alexandersson sings heartily about colorful folklore (“The sun was here forgotten / In twilight, it was left / The wizard’s lonely rivals / At dawn, they laid to rest”); meanwhile, the rest of the quintet decorate his robust declarations with alluringly gothic yet vibrant arrangements—crunchy guitar riffs, dominant rhythms, swirling keyboards, etc.—that are playfully malleable without ever deviating too far from the core set-up. A few instances of narration add cinematic/literary weight as well, cementing the track as an awesome display of HÄLLAS’ refined wizardry.
It segues exhilaratingly into the considerably heavy and hectic (but markedly more playful and relaxing) “Advent of Dawn.” Essentially, it upholds the prior tune’s ferocity overall while also allowing for calmer moments that evoke the best of classic Canterbury acts such as Camel, Gong, Soft Machine, and Caravan. Near the end, organist Nicklas Malmqvist steals the show with his theatrical crescendos, too. Later, “Elusion’s Gate” and “Stygian Depths” emphasize the band’s hard rock/heavy prog foundation just as engagingly, resulting in compositions that have as much in common with early Genesis and Nektar as they do Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Dio.
Of course, Isle of Wisdom also makes room for gentler and/or zanier passages along the way, especially on the superbly regal and heartfelt “Earl’s Theme.” There’s are slight blues and funk tinges to it, and its triumphant synths and stately murmurs enhance the overarching sense of grave importance and communal vigor. Once again, the melodies and medieval fantasy storytelling are lovely, too, with sing-along verses and choruses complementing extremely vivid descriptions (“When the night turns to dawn / They march towards the sun / In resplendent golden armor / One man to wield all the power”). As usual, it’s quite easy to visualize the tale being told here.
Things get even more beautifully bucolic on follow-up “The Inner Chamber,” a reflective ballad decorated by timbres both galactic and pastoral. It’s arguably the most multifaceted piece of the bunch as well, as it goes through several phases—some feistier than others—with mesmerizing gracefulness and determination. In a way, it’s a mini-epic unto itself, as are the highly temperamental “Gallivants (of Space)” and closer “The Wind Carries the World.” Both songs have their aggressive moments, yet they also offer some of the most elegantly soothing and resourceful sections in the band’s entire catalog.
Isle of Wisdom is equal to—if not better than— HÄLLAS’ past works, which is truly saying something. They continue to cultivate an extremely precise and rewarding fusion of retro throwbacks and original techniques, so while it’s clearly very easy to compare certain moments to other acts, that doesn’t mean that HÄLLAS are unoriginal. On the contrary (and particularly with Isle of Wisdom), the quintet do a miraculous job of channeling their inspirations and peers amidst fostering their own virtually matchless piece of the puzzle. Like Excerpts from a Future Past and Conundrum before it, Isle of Wisdom provides an incredible journey.