June 23, 2024

Symphonic metal is so mainstream now that, as well as the big names that everyone knows, there are a host of smaller groups that do competent jobs but without an iota of originality. Coming across this album by an Italian group I’d never heard of before, I fully expected to hear fifty minutes of symphonic-metal-by-numbers. Instead, Gehenna turned out to be a remarkably varied and interesting album, cleverly mixing symphonic, metal and more traditional Italian influences and with a frontwoman, Ilaria Hela Bernardini, of real quality.

The song titles are a mix of Italian and English, even if Bernardini never sings in English. It’s a brave choice. On one hand, singing in English would give greater appeal to the world market. On the other hand, Bernadini’s frequent use of operatic vocals just sounds so naturally correct in Italian (after all, the Italians invented opera and dominated it for three centuries). If the lyrics were about boy-meets-girl then I doubt anyone would care but there is a thoughtful common theme in this album which is sadly lost without being able to follow the lyrics. That theme, the band have described as torment and passion, underlined by the use of the female figure as a symbol of passion.   

Of the tracks that are clearly symphonic metal, the two that stand out are the opener Gehenna and Pasionaria (Frida). The former is almost at power metal pace but still lush and symphonic. Bernardini sings in normal and operatic vocals, sometimes both at the same time as she layers multiple vocal tracks. It’s very much in the same vein as recent Xandria material. Instead, the more metal-based Pasionaria (Frida), is closer to Delain especially in its very catchy chorus.

Bernardini’s voice can handle the metal material but she’s also capable of pure and soulful operatic vocals in the two slow-paced ballads. La Rosa D’Inverno is a fairly typical ballad that builds up in intensity but without the music overshadowing the star of the show, which is Bernadini’s crystalline voice. Her vocals are even more stunning in the closing The Dying Mermaid where over symphonic strings she weaves multiple vocal lines in mesmerising fashion. It’s a fine way to wind down the album. Bernardini also stands out on Magdalena, a song with a lovely weaving melody, perhaps closer to Italian pop music than metal.

Two left-field tracks add some more spice to the mix. Valhalla could be mistaken for being a composition by a dark Nordic folk band thanks to the tribal drumming and chanting.  In contrast, Duet With Satan is almost impossible to categorise, and in a genre that thrives on punchy songs around the four- or five-minute mark, its eleven-minute duration stands out like a sore thumb. Not surprisingly, there are multiple sections, but at its heart is a glorious metal riff that unexpectedly bursts in just before the two-minute mark. There’s also a remarkable section around half-way where a Baroque harpsicord pops out of nowhere! Somehow the whole song holds together, and it is probably the highlight of the album. It’s certainly the most unique piece.

It must be frustrating for Rossometile that Italy is not a fertile market for metal. Interest in metal is weak in the North of Italy, and then wanes going southwards to almost zero by the time you reach Rome. Rossometile are from Salerno, a further couple of hundred miles further south from Rome, so their only hope of fame and fortune is the international market, and that makes their decision to stick to singing in Italian a bit dubious. One can only hope that Rossometile get the backing of an international record label, and Bernardini switches to singing in English. If so, the sky is the limit.