We typically use this space to discuss the comings, goings and debuts of heavy metal, but let’s step back a second and ask a metaphysical question: What makes great music? We can all voice our opinions about why we love music to our very cores, and in a debate rarity, we’re all correct. The point is, no matter what our personal reasons are, they are all permutations of the same umbrella concept; like any non-visual medium, we appreciate that music gives us a mental image, or inspiration or a journey. Simply stated, no matter our stripes, music takes us someplace.
Lonewolf’s “The Fourth and Final Horseman” takes us places. The album, while raw, has a true gallop and does more with less, inserting us in visuals of riding through mountains and blasting across plains of the mind’s eye. There’s so much atmosphere crammed into this package that it’s difficult to think of a parallel comparison, either recent or distant.
Lonewolf combines the conventions of modern power metal as we’ve seen demonstrated by acts like Powerwolf (an association that is more than mere name similarity,) with the adventuresome spirit of Cirith Ungol and the high fantasy of heavy metal’s dawn. “The Fourth and Final Horseman” is a series of instances that must have been somewhat like watching Frank Frazetta paint in time lapse. The album shines best in the opening strains of “Hellride” and “Dragonriders” (I’m sensing a theme) which lead listeners on a sojourn through the whimsy and power of this type of heavy metal. If nothing else, Lonewolf proves that fantasy metal still has viability in the modern cynical, jaded marketplace.
The album’s success is a product of pacing and story arc, laying out the set pieces of the title track, “Another Star Means Death” and other songs with skill and aplomb. Albumcraft, particularly in non-concept scenarios like this, is very much a lost art, and the secrets are only being kept alive and burning by Lonewolf and the select few bands like them. Even if some of the tracks like “The Poison of Mankind” aren’t individually excellent, they work as a critical piece of a larger puzzle.
On balance though, “The Fourth and Final Horseman” as an album is a tale of the highest highs and lowest lows. So what went wrong?
In a word, vocals. Jens Borner’s performance is just not up to the caliber of the rest of the album. He’s a vocalist caught between worlds; not harsh enough to be affecting, not gruff enough to be charming and not tuneful enough to be supportive of the music. He is the only part of Lonewolf that sounds amateur, and distractingly so at that. Which sounds strange in light of metal not exactly being a genre known for accomplished singers (the few notable exceptions in essence proving the rule,) but Borner is almost comically off, like a Muppets parody of heavy metal would be. So many songs like “Throne of Skulls” could have been more, or would be more if separated from the vocal track.
I want so badly to unilaterally recommend “The Fourth and Final Horseman” because it is so sublime in isolated moments and musical theory and execution. I love everything these musicians have put together as far as notes and riffs and cadence are concerned. Still, I have to hold back because one of the fundamental pieces isn’t up to par. I get the feeling like after more time with the record, my ear will learn to focus on the excellence of Lonewolf, but that’s a long term goal. In the short term, spin this record as a rental with the option to buy, accompanied by the knowledge that you may be both incredibly surprised and remarkably underwhelmed. The album does indeed take your mind places and provide abundant imagery, so it is an unbridled accomplishment on that level, but it can be awfully clumsy in doing so.