Author: Kira L. Schlechter
Even though we live in a time where sea travel is relatively rare, it’s an endless source of fascination. The quest for the unknown that’s just over the horizon, facing dangers that could leave you thrillingly alive or marooned on a desert island, often serves as a metaphor for finding oneself, or even for life itself.
Seven Spires explored some of those themes earlier this year with ‘Emerald Seas’ and now Minneapolis’ AfterTime presents ‘The Farthest Shore‘, due September 25. The band is singer Sarah Wolf, guitarists Chris Radke and Brad Sturgis and drummer AJ Blakesley, along with the 16-piece choir MPLS (imPulse) and orchestration by Lukas Knoebl.
‘The Farthest Shore‘ is the follow-up to 2017’s ‘World We’ve Lost‘ EP (‘The Fall Of Light‘ EP was their 2016 debut). It too uses the sea in both a literal sense and as metaphor and is a fully realized, well thought-out effort, presenting a story with plenty to mull over and a satisfying amount of ambiguity.
We begin with ‘Battle Of The Sea‘ — with rushing waves, with stirring orchestration (including majestic horns) that hints at imminent peril, with punchy guitars and with that glorious 6/8 seafaring rhythm. With the orchestration and the choir accompaniment, it’s clear Nightwish is a main influence, but AfterTime is less esoteric and more straightforward thematically. The arrangement here keeps that same driving punch throughout, from the start to the orchestration — it’s long, but it’s really listenable. It’s an introduction, after all, not just thematically but musically, so you have to know everything you’re going to get from the get-go.
The chorus is brief but stirring, the set piece that a chorus should be, putting forth the objective of the action in not only the song itself, but in the album as a whole (“The road to infinity / Is led by all the spirits lost / The war of the century / Is won by the battle of the sea”). The battle is against nature, against the sea’s volatility — and the travelers know that they must fight it and win to reach their goal. Sarah’s voice is airy and her vibrato is on point — as the action darkens in the second verse, a pleasing grit develops. At the close, she acts a siren, with her haunting, eerie, calls, foreshadowing trouble ahead. One last chorus and she reaches up into her higher register, and that powerful initial chord progression wraps everything up.
‘Edge Of The Earth‘ is so cinematic with its sweeping, huge sound. It’s shorter than the first track, more immediate, with terse drumming behind the verses. Sarah’s solo take on the chorus at the end, when it’s only her and piano, builds up to her flat-out mid-register wail. She has a good command of all the elements of her voice and explores them freely — she dips her toe into the operatic, but the music takes care of most of the classical elements. It’s a tribute to wanderlust, to seeing what hasn’t been seen. Here too we meet an observer to the great adventure that is setting forth (“A new dawn breaks for the daring argonauts”), a storyteller “writing by the shore” who longs to travel too (Will he ever venture far from home?). They return to him, now grown old, in the last verse (“But still the writer is standing by the shore”) and make him ambiguous (“Does he ever wish he’d lived his story? / Did he wander?”). He remains as such, as we’ll see.
‘World We’ve Lost‘ uses the choir as a Greek chorus, as commentary, to introduce the setting. AJ’s wickedly crafty drumming gives it urgency as the orchestra sails above in a majestic melody. Sarah really works her high end here, and the chorus has a careful hope, like it will be hard but we’ll do our best (“A trail of shattered pieces / Will guide our journey”). This could be a point in the journey, if we are taking this as somewhat of a concept album, where a reflection is taking place (“The world we’re after / Is waiting for us in its doom / No hope behind us / There’s no evasion / If we revive our home / We must claim it”). We see too that this might be a returning to perhaps an ancestral home (“When eternity ends / We’ll crawl up from the depths / Reclaim our rightful cause / Into the world we lost”).
‘Nìmata Moìrais‘ (‘fateful threads’ in Greek, and perhaps a reference to the Fates) is tense and fraught courtesy of the orchestration and striking riff. The pairing of Brad’s harsh vocals in the chorus and in one section (he seems to act as the soldier) fleshes out the characterization; singer Angel Wolf-Black also contributes. This reads like a Helen of Troy scenario in some ways (“History tells of a tragic tale / Of a war with land divided / Love separated”), where the soldier reluctantly enters the fray. The chorus hints at what might happen to him (“Though fates might demand / A sacrifice in the end”, and of course, they do), but he finds peace in the end in the Elysian Fields where warriors go. Their succinct storytelling is praiseworthy — nothing is dragged out, there’s just enough detail to get the point.
The middle tracks of the album are truly stellar, each better than the last, beginning with ‘Planetary Eyes‘. The initial reflective piano melody carries into the orchestral one, and even with the guitars layered on top and echoing it, you can still hear it plainly. Later, the guitar picks up the chorus melody, then takes it on a lovely tangent, with that same piano melody still leading the way. Sarah’s voice is big and open and full-throated, with a slightly grittier feel; the groove is chugging and propulsive. The chorus is brilliant, melodic and flowing, and when it modulates, it raises the hair on your arms, as all good symphonic metal does. You can feel the sea wind in your hair just listening to it — that’s just the kind of auditory atmosphere you want to achieve. It’s sort of about that initial urge to see new places and acquire new perspectives (“Searching the world with brand new eyes / We’ll break the walls / That engage our minds”). It’s a compelling, strong track that encapsulates what the album is all about.
‘Sanctuary‘ has a definite Greek or Eastern feel to it, with the violin and percussion and Sarah’s airy vocal. The emotion is just stunning here — this is a glorious ballad, dreamy and filled with hope and optimism, texture and immense beauty. When Sarah sings, with her near-perfect diction and phrasing, “A land of solace at the edge of the world”, and the music takes off, it’s heartbreaking (and when it modulates, it’s even more heavenly). Likely because AJ had a hand in writing it, the drumming is exceptional, especially the tom and what sounds like bongos — that same feel acts as the fadeout too as the orchestra gently drifts away and lets AJ shine, and shine he does. This is a scenario you’d imagine at night, as the ship sits anchored, perhaps, and the voyagers think about the idyllic land that awaits them (“Arcane oasis rise from the waves”) — you sense their hope, their excitement. It also hints at our storyteller from ‘Edge Of The Earth‘ too, with the line, “A vagrant lost in the scene / Bearing witness to the sight”.
‘Dare To Roam‘ (all Brad’s writing; he pairs with Sarah on many of the other tracks) sounds like we’re under way again after the interlude of ‘Sanctuary‘ — it has that flying feel to it, that rolling, twisting rhythm in the verses. The bridge too has a complex, barreling feel that twists and turns, and here as throughout, they use the choir judiciously and prudently. It’s self-explanatory — dare to travel, to find the unknown, to “embrace the freedom” and in doing so, to become immortal (“Eternity will be waiting for those / Who dare to roam”). Sarah’s voice is equally stirring, encouraging and potent.
Yet another standout is ‘A Journey Itself‘ (this one written by Chris — the equitable division of creative duty here is admirable). The orchestra takes up the lilting groove begun by the acoustic guitar (and there’s a bit of pipe or whistle in there, too), and when that 6/8 tempo gets all big and buoyant (helped out by AJ’s tasteful, elegant drumming), it’s irresistible. Sarah’s voice is dainty and bouncing until the chorus, when it powers up and sends it all home. A decidedly Celtic instrumentation highlights the bridge, with whistle and what sounds like bodhran, and the quiet, restrained ending hearkens back to the acoustic start.
The perspective here could also be our storyteller, observing what’s been happening and wondering if he made the right decision to come along (“A goal without a process / My destination far”). In the second verse, his doubts really surface — “Deep among the brambles (love that) / My direction’s gone astray / Losing ambition, just one thing is clear / To home I know the way / Folly are those darkened thoughts / I must not be dissuaded”. But all along, he was ”longing for the destination far and grand” and ultimately concludes that ”sometimes finding your way is a journey itself”. Indeed it is.
‘Survive The Storm‘ (another mostly Chris song, with Brad contributing) starts urgently and darkly — the sense of danger is clear and that carries on with the music throughout, with both the orchestra and the drumming providing that sense of impending doom. This is definitely a centerpiece in the action — there’s been a bad storm and the survivor is filled with despair. Brad’s harsh vocals are used as that voice, as the survivor’s inner feelings of doubt, while Sarah strives for strength and defiance. In the bridge, the choir acts as sirens, luring her to her doom (“You already know you’re failing” and “Your attempt is unavailing” and “We will make you lose your way”), while she says, “I can’t waver” and “I won’t falter” until she at last bursts through alone in the final chorus, “The storm will subside / I know that surviving will bring me / The light of day”.
‘The Aftermath‘ is exactly that — our survivor is shipwrecked but has resolved to persevere (“From this trial I am wiser / I have grown”, she sings). It’s quiet and hushed at times, like at the start, but it is courageous in the chorus, a fist raised to the sky. The bridge section is impassioned, with the pulsating guitar and horn-laden orchestration, and leads nicely to the final chorus. Guest vocalist Melissa Ferlaak (ex-Visions Of Atlantis and current singer for Plague Of Stars) provides an earthy, darker vocal counterpoint to Sarah and adds to that defiant quality. The last run-through the first verse at the end is poignant — “Falling are the ashes / Of memories / In a field of glowing embers” — it serves as one last moment of mourning what was lost.
‘No Turning Back‘ is the final track before the album culminates, and it’s an interesting twist. It could have a dual meaning: either the survivor has made this new place home (“All my choices have brought me here” and the repetition of the phrase, ”Manifest destiny”), or he has vowed to return somehow (“There’s an ocean between me and my home”), but it’s ambiguous (“My choice is made / And now my outlook brings a far brighter view / The clouds are gone”).
The three-part finale, ‘The Farthest Shore‘, all written by Brad, brings resolution.
‘A New Haven‘ starts with a lone melody, possibly on French horn, with very light strings and bits of drums before the full orchestra builds into a crescendo to introduce the lyric. Back and forth it goes, from hushed piano parts to sections with the full band and orchestra. The chorus is doggedly optimistic, as the voyage — the wanderlust — begins again, whether it’s back home or to new lands, it’s not completely clear, it’s just the need to go.
“Red skies at night, sailor’s delight”, as it’s said, and part II, the quieter ‘Crimson Sky‘, serves as a transition as the new voyage gets under way. Sarah’s voice is especially ethereal with the blending of her high and mid register.
And the wrap-up, ‘Theater Of Earth‘, throbbing and full, is more pure power metal and less symphonic, although the orchestra is there. Brad’s harsh vocals are perhaps our storyteller again (“A legend that’s told through a chronicler’s word”). The end reprises the chorus from ‘A New Haven‘ and does it seamlessly; the ending riffs on it with just a few lines sung in a more legato way (“Aeons in the sun / Endless ocean / Set a course for the farthest shore”). And at last it ends with the waves crashing, as before — it’s as well-crafted an ending as the first track was a beginning.
By its end, ‘The Farthest Shore‘ has sent you on a journey, not just a literal one, but an emotional one as well, exploring themes of self-discovery, resilience, and hope in the face of despair. It’s exactly what you expect of the best of the subgenre and it achieves its aims brilliantly.