The flute has often been a pivotal instrument within prog rock – Jethro Tull have much to answer for, but other bands like Focus and Tempest were never shy of making the instrument a core part of their arrangements – but its gentle sounds aren’t always associated with metal. In that regard, flautist Ember Belladonna’s debut album fills an important gap in the market. Its eight songs dart between different styles – from flawless new age sounds, to deep gothic grooves, to riff driven jigs – but Ember’s deft playing holds everything together with ease, and presents a classic tone that would be just as home on more of a classical oriented outing.

By opening with a short instrumental, Ember breaks her audience in rather gently, but in many ways, ‘Tenalach’ is the perfect introduction. Atop a synth drone, the flute lays down an almost mystical sounding melody. It’s fluid tones draw heavily from new age moods, but the strong melodies almost appear to have an oriental flavour. Slipping seamlessly into ‘Heart of The Grove’, the mood remains sedate when her flute adds a great countermelody against a fingerpicked acoustic guitar. On this musical tale of a place “where the spirits dwell”, it’s possible to find strong links with the quieter moments of twenty first century symphonic metal but, if anything, the strong folk undertones makes the performance feel much closer to a cut from the Renaissance catalogue, or perhaps an uncharacteristically simple tune from the world of Mike Oldfield. The lead vocal – supplied by special guest The Darkeyed Musician – takes a light operatic approach but is deftly delivered, and once a heavier riff arrives, is able to more than hold its place centre stage. Although everything ends up somewhere (somewhat predictably) within the softer end of the symphonic metal scale and the flute takes more of a back seat, those vocals really shine.

Another instrumental piece, ‘The Wild Heart’ shares multi-tracked flutes against a marching drum and various Celtic melodies. Although this straddles a fine line between something cinematic and the melodic prog rock sphere, some listeners might find themselves cast back to some of Gary Moore’s Irish themed work like ‘Dunluce’ and ‘Johnny Boy’. As with the intro track, Ember Belladonna’s grasp of a core melody is very strong, and with the flute augmented by folk oriented whistles, there’s very much a timeless feel to the piece, melodically speaking. Moving back towards heavier sounds, the brilliant ‘Ruination’ supplies a tight metal jig, where dirty riffs pull influence from bands like Delain but infuse them with more of a gothic edge. The end result sounds great, with a chunky rhythm joined by clean, soaring lead guitar and one of the album’s biggest drum sounds. The bulk of the number centres around a superb flute riff that sounds as if Ember has been exploring a late 70s Tull album, but avoids becoming predictable by morphing into a bigger, groove laden slab of trad metal along the way, where a guesting James Delbridge (on loan from Lyanthro) supplies a few massive vocal wails. His style occasionally feels a little out of step with the moods previously laid down by Ember Belladonna, but given a little time to adjust, this more metallic approach certainly adds to this album’s varied feel.

The album’s title cut falls in line with ‘Tenelach’ by making the flute the main draw, but by placing dream-like, new age melodies against a tinkling harp, it feels substantially different – very much like a traditional melody reworked, with its blanket of synthesised strings and harpsichord-ish sounds fleshing out a really smart tune – before everything explodes once more, when ‘Spirit Woman’ opts for something much heavier. Here, a slow groove unfolds, with chugging riffs and wordless vocals latching on to a melody that appears to cross something vaguely Native American with otherworldly desert rock. A heavy sound is made even heavier thanks to a down tuned bass, dominant throughout with a deep nu-metal inspired rattle, and a guest vocal from The Inferno Doll. Laura Inferno’s voice is superb; she takes the heavy melody by the scruff of its neck and shakes it further by adding a really intense death metal rasp. In doing so, a dark riff becomes absolutely sinister, and a later, an even more haunting passage introduces whispered voices against a mournful flute melody. There are moments here where the more abrasive elements feel out of step with the rest of the record, but when approached as a stand alone track, this is absolutely superb. Finally, a return to a more accessible melody on ‘The Unnamed’ puts the flute squarely in the spotlight once more. Belladonna’s buoyant melodies dance against another heavy-ish riff, and their vaguely South American flourishes crossed with a folky jig create another musical highlight for an already enjoyable release. Bend your ears past the main feature and you’ll discover extra musical interest from another deep rattling bass and a blanket of keys that’s effortlessly helping an already huge sound appear even bigger.

Those who like goth-ish metal and dark, yet melodic fare should find plenty to enjoy here. The production values are occasionally a little muddy, giving away the fact that this is a smaller budget work, but in terms of pure melody and her approach to a crossover style, Ember Belladonna has a strong talent and a lot to offer the world of DIY metal. ‘The Grove’ may not be perfect, but it more than makes good on the promise of a couple of earlier digital singles. If you’re looking for a cult alternative to the many Nightwish clones that fill the universe of gothic and symphonic heaviness, this is definitely an album that should certainly be on your ever-growing list of things to check out.

February 2024