Review: MystrasCastles Conquered and Reclaimed

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More black metal rebellion? Yep.

Mystras is one of those projects which completely took me by surprise and, in my humble experience, that bodes well for my enjoyment of the material at hand. I first discovered them while listening to the Cosmic Collective: A Choir For the Dispossessed compilation by Red Nebula in summer 2019, where they provided “Castles Conquered and Reclaimed”. I was enamored with this perfect blend of raw black metal and folksy melodies, which by no means is a new formula, but I rarely have heard it done so well as they did it. Now that the debut album with the same name is here, let’s see if it lives up to my personal hype.

Named after the capitol of the medieval Byzantine Despotate of the Morea, near ancient Sparta, and the brain child of none other than Greek musician Ayloss (who you might have heard of from projects such as Spectral Lore or Divine Element), Mystras was conceived in 2019 as an outlet for rawer medieval black metal—from a “purely anti-fascist and anti-nationalist perspective”, as Ayloss made clear when he announced the project.

“Scorned, ignored and vilified for generations
Same story in different times and realms
These scythes will not crop grain any more”
from “Castles Conquered and Reclaimed”

Thematically, Castles Conquered and Reclaimed deals with insurrection against old empires and the oppression of aristocracy. After providing a forceful exposition of what is to come in “Castles Conquered and Reclaimed”, Mystras then tells stories from 1381 English peasants’ revolt in “The Murder of Wat Tyler”, the end of the Byzantine empire in “Storm the Walls of Mystras” and a period of civic self-governance after an uprising in medieval Thessalonica in “The Zealots of Thessaloniki”. Oftentimes, these uprisings are highly disorganized and purely driven by ardor and as such, the music here is too. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not disorganized in an arrangement sense, but through deliberate application of low fidelity recording and effects, the music becomes a steady, albeit jumbled current that puts you into a trance, until fervent screams, grandiose chants and splendid melodies pull you out again. Really, those melodies are such a quality of this album that they can’t be understated. They provide a perfect contrast and are what makes this album special.

Speaking of contrast, the decision to intersperse the 5 black metal tracks with 4 acoustic folk tracks, performed by a whole slew of talented guest musicians, might seem odd at first and even a hindrance for general album flow, but after listening I came to a quite different conclusion. Not only do the acoustic interludes provide a much needed reprieve from the auditory onslaught, they also represent the normal life in the never-ending cycle of rebellion and normalcy, as described in “Wrath and Glory”.

“From the Jacquerie to the Spanish Irmandades
From Flanders to the Swabian highlands to Kinai
The fight against injustice is eternal
And eternal we shall become”
from “Wrath and Glory”

Castles Conquered and Reclaimed is a journey into centuries past and an ovation to peasants and other serfs, who—against all odds—decided to take up arms against their oppressors, and then draws a line back to current times, where the same principles of oppressor and oppressed still apply. It is grand and shamelessly laudatory, it is chaotic and visceral. A love letter to those people, who laid down their lives  hoping to forge a better tomorrow for everyone, and to those who are putting their lives on the line for those same reasons right now. It is not for everyone due to its intentionally low fidelity production and it certainly took some time to click for me, even after falling in love with the title track months back, but when it clicks, it provides one of the most powerful and emotional listening experiences this year.

4/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell

Castles Conquered and Reclaimed was released on July 17, 2020 on I, Voidhanger Records. You can buy it through Spectral Lore’s Bandcamp or through the label.

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