Van Canto have always challenged the classification of "metal." For those not familiar with them, Van Canto are a (mostly) a cappella ensemble who mimick all the instrumentation through their voices, with the only non-vocal component being a drummer (because beatboxing would sound ridiculous, frankly). The Germans break from their usual formula on their newest album, Voices of Fire.
On prior albums, Van Canto included several cover songs, which metal fans found divisive, some considering them interesting takes on classics, while others called the band heretics. That’s not an issue here, as Van Canto present a story-driven concept album, not unlike countrymates Blind Guardian.
The album opens with a three-minute narrative by actor John Rhys-Davies, setting up the story for the album. Mr. Rhys-Davies pops in and out between tracks providing further narrative, and when comparing to other narrators throughout metal history (Orson Welles, Sir Christopher Lee, Brian Blessed, etc.), he succeeds. I do wish, however, they had isolated the spoken bits to separate tracks, but that’s more of a nitpick on my part if I put individual tracks into playlists later.
I’ve complained in the past that due to both the lack of typical instruments and lesser production, Van Canto had a "thinner" sound when compared to traditional bands. Voices of Fire addresses this by layering the choral group Metro Voices (frequent Nightwish contributors) behind the band. This adds an extra richness not present in prior albums. The only drawback, however, is the rakkatakka section feeling a bit muted as a result, not unlike when regular symphonic bands have the keyboards too high in the mix.
Beyond that, this is Van Canto showing off what they do best, namely outstanding vocal performances. Sly and Inga play off each other throughout the album’s duration, conveying both intensity and emotion where they’re needed.
The songwriting is surprisingly varied here, from the bombastic opener, Clashings on Armour Plates, to the folk overtones on The Bardcall, and culminating on the epic-feeling To Catharsis. These are some of their most ambitious compositions to date.
Regardless of how you feel about the "metalness" of Van Canto, the vocal talent is undeniable. If you’ve only heard their covers and were put off by the reinterpretation, give Voices of Fire a listen. The vocal acrobatics shine on the original material, and you won’t have any prior expectations on the sound influencing your opinion. If you were already a fan of Van Canto, then you’ll be happy as well.