April 11, 2024

The Empyrean Equation of the Long Lost Things maintains the Vanden Plas tradition of producing epic and melodic progressive metal albums.  If anything, they’ve improved by hitting the sweet spot between their ability to write catchy melodies and their ambition to write lengthy prog metal masterpieces.

Some things don’t change: it rains during an English summer; trains never run on time; and Tottenham Hotspur never win the Premier League. And in the progressive metal world, the five veteran German musicians that form Vanden Plas have been together as a band for nearly forty years and you can rely on their Teutonic diligence to continue producing solid albums. Well, that was until the recent shock departure of keyboard player Günter Werno and the rapid announcement of Alessandro Del Vecchio as his replacement. Del Vecchio is of course one of the mainstays of the Frontiers label and has his fingers in so many pies that he could do with some extra hands. Quite how he impacts Vanden Plas in the long term will be interesting to see but, given the timing of his arrival, one has to assume he contributed mainly as a musician rather than a writer for this release.

The career of many bands begin with ambitious aims and gradually settle into a safer predictable groove, but oddly with Vanden Plas the reverse seems to hold true. Their 1994 debut, Colour Temple, owed as much to ‘80s AOR as it did to metal but over time the group have become more of a progressive metal outfit with songs in general getting longer and more complex, and with big lyrical ideas emerging – the last two big concepts each required two separate album releases to tell their tale. This time around we have just a single standalone album, but as if to make up for it, they’ve given us their most grandiose title to date! I’ve no idea what it means but it appears to be a fictional concept created by the band.

The album contains just six numbers, opening with the title track which after a short atmospheric keyboard intro bursts into life with the main riff which sounds very close to one from Kansas’ Carry On Wayward Son. It’s a brilliant eight-minute demonstration of the band’s technical ability although the structure of this song seems a little odd to me. For example, Lill pulls a blinding solo out of his hat that sounds like it ought to be at the climax of the song but it actually arrives less than three minutes in. The short vocal section seems like a chorus lacking a verse but it does reappear at the end of the album so it may be that the title track represents something of an overture.  My Icarus Flight follows and it is a more straight-forward piece that is strong melodically with a soaring chorus. It is the one song where you sense Del Vecchio might have had an influence. It’s not dissimilar to the melodic metal you hear on Del Vecchio’s Edge Of Forever project, for example.  

The middle two tracks are to these ears the highlight of the album. At around ten minutes each they demonstrate the band’s innate ability to write dense and intense prog metal epics. The first of these, Sanctimonarium (no, I don’t know what that means either!), has a brilliant groovy riff and an equally memorable chorus. The piece has a very lush sound thanks to Del Vecchio’s organ work. There’s time for a strong solo from Lill and some fine interchanges between him and Del Vecchio as the song surges forward to a final version of the chorus with the proverbial kitchen sink thrown in. The Sacrilegious Mind Machine is a marvellous mix of the metal and melodic sides of the band. There are jagged prog metal guitars, a graceful guitar refrain, a big fat chorus, and even some mournful bluesy guitar from Lill during one reflective moment.  The song climaxes on the repeated questioning phrase ‘where are we now?’ as the graceful guitar refrain returns gloriously.

After the intensity of those two tracks, the quiet piano and voice of They Call Me God is very welcome. Of course, this is Vanden Plas, and twee ballads are not their thing, so at the half-way mark it verges into guitar shredding before Del Vecchio takes over with lush Kashmir-type riffing on the keyboards. By the final chorus this is anything but a quiet interlude!

The fifteen-minute March Of The Saints promises to close the album in style and starts off well with an irresistible monster riff. Every time that riff returned it grabbed my attention but, like the opening title track, the song itself seems a little fragmented. The return of the vocal section from the title track is impressive, as is the solo that follows it, so in the end it is a good track even if I sense that it would have been more impactful as a sub-ten-minute piece.

In summary, fans of the band don’t need to worry about the first line-up change in forty years. The Empyrean Equation of the Long Lost Things maintains the Vanden Plas tradition of producing epic and melodic progressive metal albums.  If anything, they’ve improved by hitting the sweet spot between their ability to write catchy melodies and their ambition to write lengthy prog metal masterpieces.