Just as 2019 began, legendary Swedish vocalist Mats Leven announced a solo project under the name Skyblood, and the eponymous debut is set for release Friday, November 22nd through Napalm Records.
Looking back, Leven may have parted ways with Candlemass in the last throes of 2018, but his announcement of Skyblood proves that he is actually more busy than ever. Apart from his well-known stint with Candlemass (which grew out of ork with parallel project Abstrakt Algebra), Leven had previously lent his talent to Therion, Krux, Yngwie Malmsteen, and At Vance, and to date still regularly tours with holiday legends Trans-Siberian Orchestra. That said, after passing the thirty-year mark for his career, a solo album seemed the natural choice.
Most of the instruments are helmed by Leven himself, but as expected, it is his voice that is the forefront; his low, almost tortured verses merely serve to buttress his scorchingly high choruses. His interplay between vocal styles is jarring at times; the well-titled “The Voice” keeps the real Mats Leven hidden until the high-pitched chorus approaching the two-minute mark. In the meantime, a tortured goblin—still likely Leven, of course—has his run of the microphone. “The Not Forgotten” flows next, and keeps roughly the same pace. Then there is symphonic ice breaker “Skyblood Manifesto,” a largely instrumental track, save for some choral rumblings and creepy chirps from children.
Moving right along, Skyblood will please Progressive Metal fans, particularly those who enjoyed the peak era of Queensrÿche. Additionally, smatterings of Septicflesh, and Hellenic bands in general, permeate the album, as do the more aggressive and progressive elements of the various Devin Townsend projects. After an opening peppered with harpsichord and pipes, “Wake Up to the Truth” is much more guitar and bass-driven, and one of the more complete’ songs on the album. Leven is at his best here, screaming with force and feeling without hitting a register that distracts from the melody.
This while “Once Invisible” has a sweeping feel reminiscent of his work with Trans-Siberian Orchestra; the vocals are almost spoken while retaining Mats’ distinct flair. Though the duration clicks past five minutes, the song never quite seems to ‘arrive,’ but instead it spends its time teasing a proper crescendo, ultimately disappointing after a strong promise. On the other hand, “One Eye for an Eye,” begins a separate journey, one that pulls from Glam Metal and Progressive Metal, and bits of the familiar landscape of Doom Metal.
A proper closing track is presented with “Le Venimeux,” supported at first by the creepy persona of Leven backed by a light combination of piano, wind, and acoustic guitar, before proper drums pull the album into a proper electric finish. Ten minutes pass from start to finish, with Leven offering lush vocal chorus work, anthemic guitar solos, subtle piano interludes, and a gruff spoken ‘Thank you’ to close the proceedings with a flourish.
Leven describes Skyblood as “pride, empathy, and rage” and, at the height of the project’s eponymous debut, those elements come together in equal amounts. The rage does tend to overreach at points, leaving epic tracks such as “Once Invisible” and “Out of the Hollow” with less structure than might be necessary, and one like “For or Against” seem to lack all three, though the lyrics do save the track a bit. However, the closer, “Le Venimeux,” is a strong insight into the mind of Leven as it wanders through the fresh challenge of a true solo album. Overall, there are enough connections to keep the album durable and worthwhile. As such, Cryptic Rock gives Skyblood 3.5 of 5 stars.