Shade Empire - Sunholy

Angry Metal Guy 30

Listening to Shade Empire’s discography is as perplexing as it is enlightening. The early albums (Sinthetic, Intoxicate O.S. and Zero Nexus) demonstrated a band finding its feet and establishing an epic, symphonic black metal sound that charmed as much as it impressed. Yes, it was grandiose, but Shade Empire managed to—just—avoid the overblown silliness that afflicts too many contemporaries (ahem, Wintersun, ahem). They arguably reached their apotheosis with 2013’s Omega Arcane, which received Madam X’s coveted Record o’ the Year stamp. Sadly, in 2017, lead singer Juha Harju departed and was replaced by Henry Hämäläinen. This resulted in Shade Empire’s sound veering into overblown prog territory and the result was Poetry of the Ill-Minded, the album in which the band nuked the fridge. Messy, bloated, and featuring bizarre instrumental choices (trumpets?), it was rightly viewed as a disappointment by many. Now the band is back, with an album featuring a somewhat cringey portmanteau as a title, and lyrics based on the Jonestown murder-suicide tragedy. I think we know where this is going…

Although ostensibly a black metal band, Shade Empire’s sound has changed so radically from its earlier days that it’s now more symphonic prog. But really, Sunholy is an absolute dog’s breakfast of different styles. Depending on where what part of the album you’re on, there’s everything from djenty hooks, metalcore breakdowns, power metal symphonics, raspy ballads, gentle soprano chorals, and everything (and I mean, everything) in between. If it sounds bewildering, that’s because it is. This collection is absolutely all over the map, and the lack of commitment to any particular sound or aesthetic makes for a whiplash of a listening experience.

The vocal choices here are emblematic of Shade Empire’s smorgasbord approach. There are at least six different styles (clean male, croon male, growl male, rasp male, clean female, group choral) and they combine with all the elegance of a drunken ape.1 One moment, you’ll have a track building some nice momentum with funky synths (“This Coffin an Island”) only for everything to stop and random, smoky, feminine vocals to take over. I love me some switch-ups in metal, but this comes out of nowhere, is accompanied by a goddamn saxophone, and just sucks you out immediately. Elsewhere, on “Maroon,” a slow choral movement is interrupted by a rasping growl which is then layered atop the previous choral voices. It’s disjointed and weird. The whole album consists of odd vocal choices like this.

These vocal choices, however, belie a deeper problem. There is so much going on here to distract the listener from a simple truth: the songs are… a bit of a mess. Not terrible, but ill-disciplined. There are some intermittent great ideas (the opening synths of “This Coffin an Island,” the black metal roars of “Profane Radiance”), but they’re not linked in an even remotely coherent manner. To hide this, Shade Empire variously dangles synths! Jazz! Random instruments! Odd time-changes! Weird vocals! All to distract the listener from the underlying discordance within the songs. It’s a bit like a parent using something new and shiny to distract an infant while they feed them unappetizing slop. Shade Empire are better than this, but the random use of wildly different elements feels desperate and gimmicky rather than bold and experimental.

Overall, Sunholy is a weird mess. Its message of the dangers of cults and cult thinking is timely, but the music is the problem. It’s the sound of a band that made the decision to leave their old ways behind but have no idea which new direction to pursue. So they pursued them all, albeit unconvincingly. There are glimmers here and there of the fun, epic band we all loved, but these are snuffed out by the ungainly, Frankensteinian monster that’s replaced it. Sadly, Poetry of the Ill-Minded was not a blip, but a portent of things to come. I don’t know where Shade Empire go from here, but Sunholy is a dead-end.

Rating: 1.5/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Candlelight Records
Website: |
Releases Worldwide: September 15th, 2023

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Tue Sep 19 10:41:43 GMT 2023