This is not about an album, it is more than that. This is primarily about an old place and its medieval stories that inspired the creation of a black metal concept album. And it is so because first and foremost Μυστρᾶς (Mystras) was a fortified medieval town and focal point of the Despotate of the Morea during the last days of the failing Byzantine Empire, a shadow of its old self and in troubled times when past glory and flourishing arts were just not enough for the hungry masses of the much reduced dominion to be held at bay. I am certain that one can find much more of what happened six centuries ago in that part of the world, if the listener is keen to get the full proposition offered by this album. I can only advise that you do.
Castles conquered and reclaimed is the first complete attempt (that I am aware of) by one-man-black-metal and multi-instrumentalist wizard Ayloss to create a thematic album without the successful banner of SPECTRAL LORE and the musical riches he has created over the years with his various projects. My guess is that the themes explored in this album do not fit under the more abstract notions used in his spectacular main project or the cosmic scales involved in the collaborations with MARE COGNITUM.
With MYSTRAS he draws inspiration from medieval revolts to put forward his case for a no-masters-no-slaves ideal of social justice. But make no mistake, this is not a politically red album. It is a medieval black metal record against Empire and Aristocracy, against any elite for that matter. Musically, it is a thunderous avalanche of raw black metal with medieval melodies and interludes woven and embedded in riffs and with a sound that feels both underground and unpolished, but it is not. In addition, it is as unforgiving as any rebellion is.
What Ayloss is after becomes evident with the very first track that also is the title of the album; it makes its case with the revolt of peasants marching against the castle of Mystras to take down their noble masters and reclaim it. What I mean is opening lyrics like “through the deep starry night they march / common people turned into brethren of war / unmounted and armorless / with bleeding feet and aching hands” do not leave much room for error, do they? And they also provide the necessary context for much of this album.
In a similar but also different fashion, “The murder of Wat Tyler” is about the treachery and assassination of the leader of the peasants’ revolt in England by King Richard II (1381). Again, more history can be unearthed but in its twelve plus minutes of duration, this track is as majestic as it can get for any black metal track. Here riffs become even more complex. What it might seem as lacking aggression in some of its parts it compensates with epic bleakness and rebellious chants of the common folk. It is an explosive revolution, spanning from raw to atmospheric black metal and back.
My personal favourite and secret gem of the album should be the “The zealots of Thessaloniki” although in the first spins/streams it seemed to lack impact. The same goes for the rest of the tracks and the album ends with the magnificent “Wrath and glory” as “the fight against injustice is eternal / and Eternal shall we become” brings natural closure to the very essence of revolts throughout the ages.
But there is more in this album. While Castles conquered and reclaimed unfolds the menace intended in all its black metal fury, the creator uses exquisite medieval folk music pieces as stepping stones, but also acting as glue, between the unyielding rebellion stories. To bring these tracks to life Ayloss has collaborated with top musicians for violin, flute, tin whistle, frame drum and other instruments. In their short-lived respective lengths pieces like “The cutty wren”, “Contre dolour” or “O tzakitzis” seem to have sprung out of medieval folk records, but all of them fit perfectly with the full MYSTRAS conception.
As said at the beginning this is a concept album and it should be judged as such by the listener and to its entirety, not track by track; it should flow unrestricted. And while Ayloss needs no introduction to the underground black metal heathen tribes, still his creations are always departing a bit from the norms of black metal, sometimes they seem to defy them (I mean, can anyone really corpse paint listening to the marvel called Gnosis?) but staying always true to the darkness. In MYSTRAS he goes a bit further, not in the musical sense but certainly in the way this beautifully menacing creation requires end to end attention by the privileged audiance.
As closing remark, this album has already made its mark and it is in my personal top list for 2020. In case you see Castles conquered and reclaimed as my 2020 choice in a year that seems to be quite excellent for black metal releases, please do not be surprised. Nonetheless, this is a very personal comment as MYSTRAS resonates in me for reasons that go beyond any extreme metal genre. Needless to say, as vinyl fanatic I managed to get both available variants and they are in heavy rotation for quite some time.
Notable extract, publicly available: