26 June 2009

CD/DVD REVIEW: Therion, The Miskolc Experience (2009, Nuclear Blast Records)

Ever since seeing a video for their song “Birth of Venus Illegitama,” I’ve had a soft spot for the band Therion…so much so that over time I have purchased just about every release in their catalogue. From traditional death metal through their more recent symphonic metal releases, there has been a constant thread of progression…not only in style but in the actual compositions, many of which are filled with interesting changes and arrangements. I’m not sure that I’d necessarily label the band progressive metal, but there’s enough prog in them to whet my appetite.

Sadly, the release of Gothic Kaballah really disappointed me for some reason, and I fell a little behind with them. I skipped that release after hearing it, as well as their live follow up release Live Gothic. So when I saw The Miskolc Experience boxed set sitting on a vendor table, I was a bit taken aback, as I’d not known it was coming out.

I knew about what it contained, of course…I remember reading about their performance at the International Opera Festival in Miskolc Hungary in 2007. I remember hoping beyond hope that such a performance would be documented, with the associated worry that it’d not be professionally filed or recorded…or even worse, that it would be and the recordings would not pass muster. In the interim, an audience recording slipped into my hands, and disappointed me with its lack of audio fidelity. Sadly, I passed each day with the memories of what must have been a memorable performance slipping away, the disappointment in not only being unable to attend due to distance and cost but in knowing in my heart of hearts that I’d not ever get to hear or see the performance fading away…until I saw the boxed set.

So what is on The Miskolc Experience?

Well, the boxed set contains 2 CDs and 1 DVD. The performance and material concert-wise is the same on both types of media. The first 40% or so of the concert is Therion with orchestra, choir and soloists, performing a selection of classical and opera pieces subtly rearranged. Opening with a soloist and orchestra only arrangement of Therion’s “Clavicula Nox,” from the 1998 album Vovin, we quickly shift through Dvorak, Mozart, Verdi, Saint-Saens, and Wagner. The section from Dvorak’s 9th symphony, From the New World, is appropriate, and almost headbang-worthy in itself. “Dies Irae,” from Mozart’s Requiem mass, is another wonderfully appropriate selection. Much of the Requiem I think could be nicely transposed for metal band, and the “Dies Irae” is perhaps the obvious choice for such an arrangement.

And as for Wagner, well…can one deny that in its own way Wagner’s operas were perhaps the metal of their day? Bombastic, pounding, screaming vocals and intense musical workouts of passion and fire. Thankfully Therion and their conductor Markus Stollenwerk have veered away for the most part from adapting material from the Ring saga…it’d be expected to hear material from Die Walküre, yet the only selection from the operatic epic comes from Siegfried. Instead we have a healthy selection of pieces from an earlier opera, Rienzi. As I am incredibly unfamiliar with this work (it’s rarely performed due to length and style), these pieces were enlightening.

Throughout the classical performances, the band and orchestra are joined by a huge choir and 4 wonderful soloists. Lori Lewis and Judit Milnar are expressive sopranos (Lewis had been touring with Therion on their tour for Gothic Kaballah and also sings for the band Aesma Daeva), while Andras Molnar and Gergely Boncser are both powerful tenors with fairly dynamic range (I’d probably come closer to describing them as baritones or bari-tenors than straight tenor vocalists).

CD 2 sees band, orchestra/choir and vocalists (including long time Therion singer Mats Levin) in full on metal mode, playing through a ‘brief’ set of Therion classics. Material is taken from throughout the band’s more symphonic releases, with special emphasis on Vovin, Deggial, and Sirius B/Lemuria. The two disparate musical entities merge pretty well across these 9 tracks; I know it’s become a bit of a cliché in the music industry for bands to do orchestral recordings, but in most cases it becomes more of a rock band playing with some orchestral backing to sweeten the pot. There’s been a bit more care taken here; Therion’s music often seems to call for just this kind of experiment, and it works out well, with the band sitting back when not needed, giving the orchestra and choir space to sing, coming in when appropriate. The same can be said in reverse, really; just as in a traditional orchestra, there are times when a certain instrument is not needed, and thus it remains silent. In this way, Therion actually seems more a part of the orchestra than separate from it, and the music and arrangements benefit.

As mentioned. The Miskolc Experience also includes a DVD of the performance. Video quality is good, albeit a bit dark for my tastes, and it lacks a bit of definition in my eyes. Sound quality is excellent however, and meets that of the CDs. The mix is only in stereo; quality is good as mentioned, but I might have enjoyed hearing this material with a surround mix. Bonus features are interesting if a bit light; part of a performance from Bucharest featuring the music of Therion performed entirely by orchestra is included (16 minutes), while a 20 minute documentary goes into the actual production of the show, from setting up the stage through the beginning and end of the show. Rehearsals are shown, and one gets a feel from these and brief interviews with the band how the concert came about. I watched the documentary before starting in on the main programme (I have this problem with wanting to watch special features before the actual meat of the content), and in some ways it ended up casting a pall over the concert for me. I had this image in my mind of this concert happening in a grande opera hall, yet it seems to have been held in a gymnasium (in many of the concert shots you can see the scoreboard above the band). It doesn’t detract from the songs or performance at all, but…I can’t help but think that such music should be experienced in a more appropriate setting.

Everything (the 2 CDs and the DVD, each packed in a separate digipak) is enclosed in a nice hard box with cool and Therion-esque cover art…a wasteland with violin, horn and woodwind partially buried amidst piles of earth and skulls. A booklet enclosed with the DVD features extensive notes from band founder member Christoffer Johnsson, discussing some of his philosophies behind the performance; why he wanted to do it, how the pieces were selected, et cetera. The credits list is longer than almost any album in my collection (though it may nit rival the number of musicians who have played with Magma over the years ;-) ), and the booklet is completed with several photos from the event.

Therion may be developing a bit of a reputation of market saturation (2 studio albums followed by a 4 DVD/2 CD set, followed by a 2 CD studio release and another 2 CD/1 DVD live set), but The Miskolc Experience is something entirely different, documenting one incredibly special evening in Hungary that will likely never be repeated. If you like your rock to mix in a healthy dose of the classical…or wish your classical let you bang your head a little more, then this release is definitely for you.

(NB: unless things change drastically, this will be the final Therion release to feature the ‘classic’ core band featuring Johan and Kristian Neimann, both of whom have left Therion for their own projects. I do believe Mats Levin has moved on as well.)

Part 1 - Classical Adventures: (44 min.)

01. Clavicula Nox

02. Dvorak: Excerpt from Symphony no. 9

03. Verdi: Vedi! le fosche notturne spotigle from Il Trovatore

04. Mozart: "Dies Irae" from Reqiuem

05. Saint-Saens: Excerpt from Symphony No. 3

06. Wagner: "Notung! Notung! Niedliches Schwert!" from The Ring

07. Wagner: Excerpt from the Overture from Rienzi

08. Wagner: Second part of "Der Tag ist da" from Rienzi

09. Wagner: First part of "Herbei! Herbei!" from Rienzi

Part 2 - Therion Songs: (66 min.)

01. Blood Of Kingu

02. Sirius B

03. Lemuria

04. Eternal Return

05. Draconian Trilogy

06. Schwartsalbenheim

07. Via Nocturna

08. The Rise Of Sodom And Gomorrah

09. Grand Finale

Bonus Features (DVD only):

01. Documentary (20 min.)

02. Therion Goes Classic – Bucharest (16 min.)


Christoffer Johnsson: guitars

Kristian Niemann: bass guitar

Johan Neimann: guitars

Pieter Karlsson: drums


Lori Lewis (toured with Therion)

Mats Levin (toured with Therion)

Judit Molnar

Andras Molnar

Gergely Boncser

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