VANDEN PLAS – The Empyrean Equation of Long Lost Things

When it comes to prog metal, there are few bands as consistent as Vanden Plas. Like many of their peers, the band are able to deliver the expected heaviness and complexity, but marking them out from others on the scene, these German musicians often display a strong sense of melody. That doesn’t necessarily make their work entirely accessible or commercial – prog metal is always a marginal subgenre on that front – but an on form VP feels so much more streamlined than most. Even when approaching massive concept works like ‘Chronicles of The Immortals’ or the excellent ‘Ghost Xperiment’, their decision to split these epic works into separate volumes made their bombastic traits far more digestible. The likes of the ego driven Dream Theater would’ve likely released each one as a double CD and added more material to create one of their preferred full three hour borefests each time.

That said, “streamlined” is something that doesn’t always apply to their 2024 offering. A six track affair, ‘The Empyrean Equation of Long Lost Things’ relies on both concept elements and a few very extended arrangements to entertain, making it a little more hard going for the casual listener. It’s even the kind of record that, in places, expects fans to put in a little more work before those bigger musical rewards are shared – but it’s fair to say that, after a few plays, long time fans will love it.

The title track kicks things off not so much with an immediate bang, but a slow atmospheric build up. Creating a very melodic, almost theatrical intro, new man Alessandro Del Vecchio – seemingly now in his hundredth band – offers a sweeping piano melody that would just as well suit an AOR power ballad from the Meat Loaf canon, against which, the always impressive Stephan Lill adds a sweeping counter melody from the guitar for extra epicness. The arrival of synthesized strings signifies something bigger over the horizon, and – bam! – Vanden Plas hit their fans with the first massive riff. In time honoured tradition, this comes with the kind of crunch that is inter changable with many others from the band – and looking more broadly, the prog metal genre itself – but it isn’t long before something more distinctive rears up. A slight shift to a heavier, yet somehow more melodic, crunch that blends prog and groove metal influences is a superb move. Lill’s heavy tones are assured, and once things slip into a more predictable prog metal riff, joined by a wall of keys, the arrangement continues to impress. Although Lill’s speed driven soloing and Del Vecchio’s frantic playing are very much in the forefront here, the chugging groove holds firm, but there’s far more here than pure heaviness. Slipping into a passage of jazz, Del Vecchio clearly isn’t lurking in the shadows as the band’s “new boy” and his interplay with drummer Andreas Lill is superb. Andreas’s nods to jazz fusion are just as on point, and when the time comes to return to heavier things, he’s able to slip back into something more forceful very naturally.

By opening the album with a genre shifting instrumental, it gives the feeling that nothing on this album ever thinks small, and ‘My Icarian Flight’ continues with another sizeable workout, only this time, the arrangement peppers a typical prog metal chug-fest with some massive melodic elements that are far more indebted to classic, melodic metal than most prog metal bands would dare to explore. This is a great move, since it not only allows Stephan plenty of room to throw out twin lead sounds between the heavier parts – occasionally making Vanden Plas sound more like a heavier Harem Scarem or even one of the many Swedish metal bands signed to Frontiers Records at the time of release – but also gives Andy Kuntz a great backdrop for a soaring vocal that, again, is far more tuneful than so many prog metallers could muster. For the first half of the number, this strikes the perfect balance between heaviness and melody; it’s certainly easy to hear why this was chosen as a digital single ahead of the full release. Moving on, the band clearly aren’t about to abandon their very technical past, and the number descends into some very mechanical sounding riffs, which combine the technical brilliance of early Threshold with a very old school vibe. Again, Del Vecchio is very high in the overall mix, dropping some very Don Airey like organ sounds into the invigorating noise, before Stephan steps forth with a flawless solo that – in keeping with the bulk of the number – tips the hat to a lot of older melodic metal. His tones share flecks of Glenn Tipton and Dave Murray within his own style, and by the time the track’s climax is reached and he uses some strong 80s influences to battle against heavy keys, it’s fair to say that this is very much peak Vanden Plas for 2014 and one of the album’s standout tunes.

Another number that comes armed with huge intents but is, ultimately, balanced out by a very melodic heart, ‘The Sacrilegious Mind Machine’ is peak Vanden Plas. It boasts an intro which suggests fairly bog standard prog metal with an array of pneumatic riffs, but from there, it stretches into a world of melodic metal that takes in many of the band’s strongest musical traits. There is a brief concession to trad metal via a twin guitar sound that’s perfectly executed; a verse that blends a soaring vocal with a fine balance of metal and pomp; even bridge sections that fuse the prog with groove metal. Most importantly, the various moods are brought together seamlessly with the help of a massive chorus in the melodic metal mould. For its main hook, Kuntz finds a huge voice that shares a classic sound, but a nod towards AOR definitely elevates the band above their closest peers. For those looking for something extra, a step away from the heavier moments allows for a spacious melody, over which a semi-bluesy lead guitar weaves a near perfect solo. The solo doesn’t really fit with the bulk of the track, but that doesn’t really matter; for several bars, fans can experience Stephan losing himself within the moment, and his playing is just gorgeous. The band wisely chose this as another pre-release single, and although it isn’t the kind of song that’d be vying for chart success, it’s easy to see why. It’s an eight minute showcase of everything that’s great about VP; an exercise in how to approach prog metal with genuine style. As part of the album experience, it sounds even better.

‘They Call Me God’, by comparison, isn’t anywhere near as enjoyable. The album’s big ballad, it fills the better part of six minutes with harmonic guitar lines and sweeping piano work, over which the vocal draws from influences that are very theatrical. Naturally, there’s something here that a broader audience might enjoy, but the combo of pure pomp and outright cheese plays too much like a reminder of Dream Theater’s woeful attempts at a similar style. It’s all a bit “Disney musical for proggy beards”, but luckily, it isn’t too long before this album serves another great arrangement, and in addition to the (mostly) enjoyable numbers, you’ll find two genuine epics which really push the boundaries of the Vanden Plas sound. ‘Sanctimonarium’ begins with a clean guitar, tribal drums and a blanket of keys, before veering off into a world of off kilter riffs that sound like Threshold colliding with Iron Maiden. Once the heavier edge subsides, the marriage of voice and piano creates a huge melody and Andy’s voice actually sounds even better than before. A closer ear will tune into a superb bass groove from Torsten Reichert. He shares something with a fine balance of punchiness and melody, and this brings warmth to moments that don’t rely quite as much on a standard prog metal chug. A heavy musical hook used as one of the main elements provides a definite balance and allows for a huge guitar sound and a blanket of keys to lay down a confident bombast, and even if this doesn’t play too far outside of the Vanden Plas comfort zone, there’s no doubt that it’s extremely well arranged and well played. Closing the album, the fifteen minute ‘March of The Saints’ plays like the culmination of everything so far. With its mix of huge chorus – blending bombast with melody and drawing more from huge prog sounds than metal – and AOR keys adding colour to a very tuneful verse, the core of the number comes with a grandiosity that suits the band without smothering any obvious melodies. A later shift into a strong blend of piano and voice – once again – hints at the most accessible Threshold material, and goes a long way towards ensuring the extended playing time never drags. Then, with the climax revisiting the busy sounds of the intro – all militaristic drums and flashy guitar – and delivering the main hook once more, this complex number definitely feels like a complete piece as opposed to a bunch of great ideas stitched together. There are a lot of prog metallers who could learn a thing or three from Vanden Plas when it comes to creating work with a natural flow…

This is big. Actually, it’s huge. The best riffs rival many of the band’s past works, whilst the vocals – often aiming for epic – are, for the most part, perfectly suited to the music. Granted, there are a few moments when the hugeness of it all threatens to consume everything else, but with the chorus driven ‘My Icharian Flight’ the very melodic ‘Sacrilegious Mind Machine’, and superb guitar playing during ‘March of The Saints’ on hand to balance out any excess, there’s plenty here to enjoy. Also, with the jazzier elements within the piano work seemingly breaking new ground, there’s a sense of a veteran band still pushing forward. There’s no doubt, though, for all of its potential excess, ‘…Long Lost Things’ is another jewel in the Vanden Plas catalogue. As prog metal albums go, it’s a must hear.

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April 2024