Sad Serenity’s The Grand Enigma is another in a long line of Covid lock-down projects that we have seen over the past year. Hatched by multi-instrumentalist Marcell Kaemmerer, this is the first project from the German-born former school teacher (music and English) who now works as a freelance guitar/piano teacher. Along for the ride is Greek vocalist George Margaritopoulos (Wardrum) and several other guest musicians. Unlike so many other albums recorded during the same time period, The Grand Enigma does not dwell on the horrors of the pandemic, at least not directly. The lyrics leave plenty of room for interpretation, which is wise because the music itself does plenty of the talking.
Kaemmerer’s cinematic leanings are on full display with opening track Vivid Dreams. Eerie keyboard atmospheres are darkened by sinister guitar chords. Evocative and emotional, the interplay between the synth and guitar gives this instrumental tune both tension and energy. A strong sense of vitality and strength is packed into a mesmerising three minutes. Kaemmerer pulls off a similar beauty a few tracks later with another short and moody piece. Treacherous Calm, as its title suggests, opens with the sounds of rain and thunder which are eroded by malevolent synths and a simple guitar pattern which highlights the creep factor. Someone sign this guy up to provide the soundtrack to a huge horror movie franchise!
There are more tricks up this guy’s sleeve, and First Awakening sets out to prove it, but falls a bit short of the mark. The soundtrack feel continues briefly as synths replicate cello and violin parts beautifully. Programmed drums always sound a bit too artificial if you listen too closely, but listen to how carefully arranged they are. Margaritopoulos’ vocals take a bit of time to catch up with the emotional intensity of the music, and Andrew Huskey’s cookie-monster growls, like much of the rhythm guitar, seem a bit too formulaic. Because the songs are so tightly constructed, though, the music overrides any quibbles I might have with falling prey to prog-metal arrangement tropes.
The first of three eleven-minute epics, Clinging, shows what Kaemmerer is capable of. The song enters with guitar/bass/drum odd-meter stabs before the guitars take total control. There’s an Ayreon feel about this one, especially in the organ underpinning the heavier guitar parts. Three minutes in, the song gives way to atmospheric synths which pave the way for the vocal section. Here the harmonised vocals rise to the occasion and dominate. The vocals stay crisp and clear, allowing for the guitars to do the dirty work, machine-gunning in sync with the drums. Varied tempos and moods keep the song interesting. Margaritopoulos alters his vocal delivery to complement the changing moods and add a panoply of dimensions to the song. The synth leads in the final minutes are almost percussive and add another delightful angle to this impressive epic.
Dukkha takes another page from the Ayreon playbook. The guitar and drum assault that opens the track sets the stage for a high energy romp that only relents when the vocals enter. The respite, however, is short-lived as the stop/start instrumental interplay forces the vocals into more aggressive territory. The guitar/organ duet is incredibly tight, nearly to the point of being unable to distinguish which is which. Eventually this gives way to a very symphonic keyboard part over which the near-hysterical (in a good way) vocal re-enters. A short but thrilling double guitar lead takes the song to its conclusion.
Bird songs herald a sweet guitar piece which quickly turns menacing when joined by the bass and drums on He Who Floats Thy Boat. The lyrics reflect the mood of the music (“Vain/Staring to the mirror, asking why/Those questions unexplained I cannot push aside/Who am I – Lord of the Flies?”), as does the return of Huskey’s growled vocals. The song comes full circle with the guitar intro returning to end the song. With Kaemmerer’s suggestive style of writing, I would have liked to hear him avoid some of the more characteristic metal cliches; it’s obvious he has it in him, and I expect we will see the evidence in future endeavors.
Kaemmerer really stretches out on the third and final eleven-minute track, Boomerang. The synths do the riffing in a vaguely Mike Oldfield Tubular Bells manner while the guitars take the melodic ideas. There are, unsurprisingly, some nice changes, again emphasising the artist’s songwriting prowess. Not every change is smooth though. Sometimes it feels like he just has to fit in a certain measure regardless of what comes before or after. Even so, I prefer someone who takes the chance and fails over artists who fear venturing out of their comfort zone. Regarding chances, a fine case in point is the staccato piano riff at seven-and-a-half minutes. It is unlike anything else on the album, especially when doubled with what sounds like a Mellotron (so hard to know for sure these days). The bombast of the last minute or so of the song would have been mind-blowing if performed by a real orchestra.
Sombre piano chords and synths establish the final song, Second Awakening. The vocals emulate the musical sorrow until both the music and vocals are pushed into second gear in a rush of intensity. Everything returns to earth for a great guitar solo by Richard Henshall of Haken, a masterclass in covering all the bases. The finale of the song hears Margaritopoulos singing “Endure simplicity, embrace reality” while the music goes through some convoluted time changes. A nice juxtaposition and an apt and clever end to a fine debut.
Sad Serenity shows a lot of promise for future outings. Marcell Kaemmerer has found a tremendous foil in the voice of George Margaritopoulos. With their widescreen approach to progressive metal, the possibilities are intriguing. I’ll be following to see where they take it next.
01. Vivid Dreams (3:07)
02. First Awakening (8:54)
03. Clinging (11:44)
04. Treacherous Calm (1:49)
05. Dukkha (7:49)
06. He Who Floats Thy Boat (11:05)
07. Boomerang (11:12)
08. Second Awakening (6:21)
Total Time – 62:01
Marcell Kaemmerer – Guitars, Keyboards, Bass, Drum Programming
George Margaritopoulos – Vocals
Richard Henshall – Guitar Solo (track 8)
Andrew Huskey – Growls
Ellen Mross – Accordion
Aranka Stimec – Transverse Flute
Lathika Vithanage – Violin
Record Label: Hey!bleu Records
Country of Origin: Germany
Date of Release: 17th March 2023