Some bands are content to release what feels like the same album, over and over again. Some pride themselves on steady output, churning out a collection of workmanlike new riffs every year. Germany’s legendary doom/neofolk outfit Empyrium stands on the far opposite end of the spectrum. With their new release, Über Den Sternen, marking just their sixth full length in twenty-five years, the deliberateness of Empyrium’s unhurried creative process is rivaled only by their obsessive—even pathological—pursuit of musical growth and evolution.
This new release arrives seven years after The Turn of the Tides, which in turn came twelve years after Weiland. Given the band's tendency to completely change their sound in between albums and the question marks surrounding when, if ever, the next installment in their amazing but unpredictable career might come, Empyrium fans experience a special kind of anxiety waiting to hear what the band has in store for them on a new album.
Empyrium fans: you may rest easy. Über Den Sternen was worth the wait. Not only is it arguably Empyrium’s most metal album since 1997’s Songs of Moors and Misty Fields, it is also the most complete articulation of who the band—multi-instrumentalists Markus Stock and Thomas Helm—are as composers, artists, arrangers, and performers.
If there is one constant that has marked Empyrium’s sound as they evolved from folk and doom metal to acoustic neofolk, it is their evocative musical aesthetic. Wintery forests, mossy rocks, foggy moors, decaying earth, and crumbling ruins—Empyrium’s music always calls to mind the slow, sad, beautiful march of nature. Empyrium’s core aesthetic remains as powerful as ever on Über Den Sternen. Like all of Empyrium's best work, the album's melancholy, introspective compositions provide the perfect soundtrack for gazing through a window on a snowy day or taking a solemn walk through the woods.
What makes Über Den Sternen stand out from Empyrium’s already remarkable discography is how the band has managed to so fluidly integrate the various sounds they have explored over the years into one cohesive album. This is not the first time Empyrium has attempted this. 2014’s The Turn of the Tides sought to fuse the metal and acoustic neofolk elements of Empyrium’s different eras. While the album was enjoyable, the songs with metal parts always struck me as a bit disjointed. Many of the metal parts felt forced as if they were tacked on at the end in order to make the song metal.
Not so on Über Den Sternen. Every part feels perfectly placed. The acoustic and metal elements have been seamlessly fused into meticulously conceived and structured compositions that lead the listener deeper and deeper into the album’s bleak forests, valleys, and ruins. Agalloch fans would find much to enjoy here. The songs themselves may well be the best that Empyrium has released. No one would accuse Über Den Sternen of having a conventionally accessible sound, but there are certain confidence and directness to the melodies that make them more immediate than Empyrium’s past work. All of this leads to an album that is oxymoronically both Empyrium’s most polished and most primal.
On the topic of polish, the performances and production of Über Den Sternen are beautiful. Of course, every Empyrium album will have gorgeously performed and rendered acoustic guitars and epic operatic vocals. But Über Den Sternen also has crushing walls of doom metal guitar, baritone black metal rasps, and achingly beautiful performances by guest musicians Nadine Stock (flute), Aline Deinert (violin, viola), and Robina Huy (cello), whose frequent classical voicings lend an especially elegiac aura to the proceedings here. Also meriting special mention is Markus Stock’s drum performance. Although his playing on this album is by no means a technical tour de force—that would be out of place and distracting here—he consistently pounds the crap out of the drums, playing with power, volume, and conviction. This gutsy playing—combined with perfect, organic production of the drum sounds—keeps things feeling metal even when the instrumentation is all acoustic.
There’s not much to criticize here. I suppose one could argue that the individual songs could be more memorable, but that has never really been Empyrium’s primary objective. This album, like most of their outings, stays with you long after your listening session is over. But it does so because of the powerful emotional connection the music has rather than because there’s a riff or hook stuck in your head.
If you haven’t liked Empyrium’s past efforts, this new album is not likely to win you over. But for fans of the band’s work, Über Den Sternen marks the most complete album they have released to date. For new listeners, it marks a great place to start.
As for whether Über Den Sternen is better than the band’s legendary masterpieces from the late 1990s, even approaching two dozen listens I am not ready to make that call. The density of the emotional content on this album will require many more listens to fully process. But by seriously contending alongside Songs of Moors and Misty Fields or Where at Night the Wood Grouse Plays for the title of "Best Empyrium Album Ever," Über Den Sternen has already accomplished an extraordinary feat. Consider the score below a provisional one. It may go up with time!