After years of silence, Sweden’s criminally under the radar symphonic power metal heads Dragonland have returned with a vengeance. Despite the universal acclaim of the band’s previous masterpiece Astronomy, which I would have staked my life on being their breakthrough release, the band has never quite pushed through the cult status barrier. Their newest release Under the Grey Banner returns the band to it’s roots, to the final part of the epic Dragonland Chronicles trilogy that began way back in 2001 with Battle for the Ivory Plains and its successor Holy War. Was the wait was worth it? That would be an understatement to say the least. Dragonland have crafted an immense opus of titanic proportions, and fans of grandiose, epic metal need look no further.

Beginning with the traditional bombastic instrumental piece commonly found in this genre, there is  a small narration (which carries a tune first heard on their debut that long time fans will dig) that segues into “Shadow of the Mythril Mountains,” and we are treated to an explosion of all of the band’s signature elements including the astounding vocals of Jonas Heidgert. Right away it is clear the band has abandoned the direction taken on their previous release in favor of a complete return to their earlier work. While I consider Astronomy to be an incomparable masterpiece, that direction would have been inappropriate on this record. This is a true continuation of the original saga. “The Tempest” Shows off some powerful mid tempo riffing and gorgeous sustained vocal melodies. “A Thousand Towers White” is a speedy, yet crushing piece that sports frenetic lead guitar and one of the catchiest choruses on the album.

“Fire and Brimstone” really takes the theatrical aspect of the release to new heights, with triumphant keyboards, well timed percussion and distinctive guest vocals that sound eerily like Christopher Lee (I’d love to see that collaboration!). “The Black Mare” is another heavy, thunderous charge of speedy power metal, with some tastefully used syth work and choirs. This is a definite sing along song, and I can imagine a crowd of hundreds really getting behind it. Another high note is the splendid guitar/keyboard battle at the half way point, one I relish since the band is generally not known for flashiness for the sake of it. “Lady of Goldenwood” is an interesting little track, with heavy folk influences and acoustic guitars abound. The contrast of violin, female vocals, and more technical percussion creates a sound scape very different from the rest of the album, and I really do feel like I am meeting a mysterious stranger in the depths of a darkened forest. Extra points for atmosphere on this one.

“Durnir’s Forge” serves as sort of epic ballad (bottom line, Dwarves don‘t care about man), with a very slow tempo throughout save for a well conceived keyboard solo towards the end. Overall the lowest point on the release, which is amusing considering the staggering awesomeness of the follow up. “The Trials Of Mount Farnor” is just ridiculous. It’s impossible to describe just how massive this song is, with blisteringly fast drum work, dark, edgy vocal lines and a slow buildup to an immensely satisfying climax. Our Christopher Lee doppelganger returns again to narrate a beautiful rendition of the chorus heard on “Shadow,” before transitioning smoothly into the closing track, which happens to be the best song on the album. With a militant, warlike precision, Dragonland takes us through to the end of this tale of ancient battle, with grand, sweeping narration, and even a few vicious yet tasteful growls thrown in for good measure. This song really captures the essence of the story, and by the end the combination of the effective, well written story and larger than life orchestration becomes almost too much to bear. Well done Dragonland!

Not content with the bombastic conclusion, the final track “Ivory Shores” is a magical, emotionally charged tale that brings the album full circle with majestic female vocals and musical references to the original albums that provide the source of this stunning album. Production wise, this is some immense, loud, gutsy stuff. The nature of the material calls for intense low end, and crystal clear vocals. As usual, the bass guitar gets lost in the mix, but given just how much is going on in the album, it’s a wonder it all stays together as well as it does. All in all, while this album is objectively a step back from their previous release, in many ways it is meant to be that way, and to see the conclusion to this epic I began over ten years ago is a bitter sweet and truly beautiful experience.