Evergrey – A Heartless Portrait (The Orphean Testament) (Album Review)

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By all accounts, Swedish metallers Evergrey have been on a roll for the last decade, boasting an absolutely unparalleled winning streak four albums deep. “Hymns for the Broken” was a fiery start to an incredibly emotive trilogy of albums (also encompassing “The Storm Within” and “The Atlantic”), a journey which spanned from late 2014 to early 2019. These five years were the harkening of Evergrey’s modern era, its music rich with bright choruses, and its popularity graced by an explosion of new fans. There was little down time before Evergrey rose again on fiery wings with “Escape of the Phoenix” in 2021. Marked by sensitive ballads, an impressive guest performance by James Labrie, and some of the band’s greatest experimentation since the 2000s, it became clear that Evergrey was stronger than ever more than two decades into their career. 

In fact, here at Sonic Perspectives, we awarded Evergrey with Album of the Year in 2021 and third place in 2019. The band’s extraordinary talent was recognized worldwide by media outlets and fans alike. Between AOTY rankings and ever-increasing placement on national charts, it seemed that Evergrey had entered into another indomitable golden era. “In Search of Truth” may hold a cherished place in the hearts of longtime fans, but the beautiful thunder of hits such as “Weightless” and “Black Undertow” now dominate the stage. 

After an incredible series of successes and a relentless release timeline, it was difficult to conceive Evergrey releasing new music anytime soon. But 2022 was full of surprises: not only did Evergrey release “Before the Aftermath (Live in Gothenburg)” – the band’s first live album since 2004’s stunning “A Night to Remember” – but they announced the upcoming release of their 13th studio album. First came a somewhat cryptic call for fans to submit their shouts of “save us” to the band. Then, piece by piece the band revealed this stunning cover art on their social media pages, finally unveiling a planetary sea of crimson and teal against a blackened backdrop. There is no evidence of a fluke here – it seems Evergrey had indeed conjured up another masterpiece. 

A Heartless Portrait (The Orphean Testament)” is a rare first for the band as it marks the band’s first release with Napalm Records. A new label, a new set of ten songs, but the same beloved Evergrey shines through nonetheless. Packed to the brim with dexterous soloing, unparalleled vocal control, and verses that haunt the listener for days, this is undoubtedly Evergrey at its greatest. This band has crafted the soundtrack for some of life’s darkest and greatest moments, clinging to its audience with fervent abandon. Once Evergrey has found its way into your heart, there is no turning away, and this album is certainly no exception. 

How can one review an artist that has been a light in their darkest days, or the welcome embrace of a friend in solitude? How is it possible to view such formative music objectively? To look at Evergrey as an outsider, after being welcomed heart and soul into their tender caress, is a challenge. But there is one thing Evergrey has always excelled at: evoking emotion with incredible technical proficiency. “A Heartless Portrait” is no exception to this rule, so it is an album that should be approached with an open mind and attentive listening. 

Perhaps most notable of all is the incredible amount of fan involvement in this album, a decision all but unheard of in modern music production. The chorus of opening salvo “Save Us” is powered by the voices of hundreds and thousands of fans, chants recorded on phones across the world, then emailed from around the globe for final production. Power and conviction dominate this magnanimous opener, bound by a sense of togetherness that is palpable with each breath. Following track “Midwinter Calls” also finds its verses uplifted by fans’ voices, this time taken from live audience recordings at three different concerts. The swelling choir carries this song to incredible heights and gives brilliant contrast to the stark isolation of vocalist Tom Englund in the pre-chorus. Vocal variety makes these two opening tracks instant favorites and create a surge of momentum to welcome the rest of the album in with open arms. 

Although Evergrey released its first studio album “The Dark Discovery” in 1998, much of its fanbase comes from the last decade. “A Heartless Portrait” has everything that Evergrey started building in “Hymns for the Broken” and more, with a particular focus on breathtaking solos, elating choruses, and a heavy blanket of synth-driven tones. Keyboardist Rikard Zander continues to paint his masterpieces with profound skill, particularly in the brilliantly expansive “Ominous.” One of the album’s most enthralling pieces, “Ominous” features incredible vocal control from Englund, heart-stopping bass tones from Johan Niemann, and howling guitar solos. Synth-dominated interludes bleed into breathtaking guitar in a poignant display of musicianship, and the variety in both tempo and intensity make it one of the most technically proficient pieces of “A Heartless Portrait.” 

A haunting touch of synth ushers in “Call Out the Dark,” a wintery lullaby soon torn apart by an explosion of sound. Beautiful chemistry between bandmates allow this track to balance delicate synths against Jonas Ekdahl’s precise drumming. Here Evergrey has expanded upon one of their most alluring traits: they capture the beauty of delicate sunbeams that split through yawning shadows with unique grace. And as time has passed, this quintet has continued to hone their skills to make compositions that illuminate each other’s talents while uplifting each song’s particular atmosphere.

Title track “The Orphean Testament” is absolutely classic Evergrey. Spanning nearly seven minutes long, it is chock full of headbanging potential, vocal hooks, and rage-tainted appeal. This is the sound that Evergrey began to develop with intent in “Hymns for the Broken,” and one that gives this album an unmistakably firm sense of identity. Closing out the album is another testament to Evergrey’s continued sonic footprint in the form of “Wildfires.” This tender closing track, though much more brief than the other songs on the album, is reminiscent of the floating melodies that marked other brilliant closers like “The Aftermath.” A soft chance to breathe and reflect against the backdrop of Englund‘s voice, “Wildfires” is the perfect capstone to an unbroken album. 

There are hooks abound in “A Heartless Portrait,” not least of which opens stunning track “The Great Unwashed.” One of the three tracks on the album that surpass the six-minute mark, this is one opportunity to bask in the beauty of progressive composition while heartfelt lyrics seep directly into your soul. And when it comes to infectious choruses that will certainly dominate the live stage, one need look no further than “Blindfolded.” 

While this is a listening experience like no other, one would be remiss not to mention the impressive artistry of the music video trilogy which precedes the album’s release. Released in reverse chronological order, these music videos not only gave the world a small taste of the brilliance to come, but presented a cinematic journey overflowing with well-executed ambition. 

A Heartless Portrait” is a work of art from start to finish. Compositional prowess, musicianship that exceeds notions of talent and enters the realm of godliness, and pure soul make for an album that strikes right to the heart. Without an ounce of filler, the expansive skies of “A Heartless Portrait” are stained with colorful melodies and the romantic beauty of melancholy. Most of all, Englund’s voice guides the listener on this emotive journey with tremendous grace and heartfelt delivery. 

The lyricism, musicianship, and pure artistry of “A Heartless Portrait” stand to place this opus in the annals of metal history. An instant classic for longtime Evergrey fans and newcomers alike, there is little question that this album is a crown jewel among 2022 releases. It has more than enough proof that old dogs can learn new tricks, ones which keep Evergrey sounding fresh two and a half decades into their storied career. These dark melodic masters have made one thing clear: Evergrey is stronger than ever, and they’re here to stay. 

For even more on “A Heartless Portrait” from the creator himself, check out a particularly star-struck interviewer’s chat with Tom Englund at this location.

Released By:  Napalm Records
Release Date: May 20th, 2022
Genre: Progressive Metal

Musicians:

  • Tom Englund / Vocals, Guitar
  • Henrik Danhage / Guitar
  • Johan Niemann / Bass
  • Rikard Zander / Keyboards
  • Jonah Ekdahl / Drums 

“A Heartless Portrait (The Orphean Testament)” track listing

  1. Save Us
  2. Midwinter Calls
  3. Ominous
  4. Call Out the Dark 
  5. The Orphean Testament
  6. Reawakening
  7. The Great Unwashed
  8. Heartless
  9. Blindfolded
  10. Wildfires

9.5 Excellent

A brilliant display of artistic ambition and talented musicianship, "A Heartless Portrait" is Evergrey at their very best. From heart-stopping guitar solos to breathtaking synth, this is an emotional journey brought to life by metal's melancholic masters.

  • Songwriting 9.5
  • Musicianship 9.5
  • Originality 9.5
  • Production 9.5
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