The main sail hoists, the anchor drops, the Jolly Roger flies proudly in the wind… Mighty birds circle overhead as the skipper shouts a hearty “ARRRR!” and the boat sets sail on a voyage across uncharted waters. Anything could lie ahead. Storms and sea monsters – an inglorious trip to Davy Jones’s Locker – or treasures untold, a bounty of legend. It’s not a journey for everyone but those hardened sailors wliling to risk everything, adventure on the high seas awaits!

This is the atmosphere evoked from very first notes of Pirates, the new album by nautical melodic metallers Visions Of Atlantis. It’s an album entirely about long, hard journeys and taking leaps of faith. Yes, ostensibly out on the oceans wearing a battered old tricorne, but it applies to landlubber life too. You can take these pirates either you way you like – as marauders or metaphors.

Metal has always been a genre that attracts outsiders and offers solace in dark times. At its best, it uses heightened imagery – be it the high fantasy of power metal, the morbidity of death metal, the incendiary blasphemy of black metal – to express real, dark and complex emotions that aren’t always easy to talk about. Here, it’s pirates, which may put some listeners off (I know, hard to believe, some people don’t like pirates!?) but honestly, if it does, they’re missing out on some of the most brilliant lyrics, first class songcraft and soaring metal energy of recent years.

While not a concept album, as such, it takes the band down a new lyrical route – indulging their darker, piratical side as a means of exploring the challenges of true emotional change. The pirates here aren’t the rum-swilling, keelhauling loons of Alestorm, they’re freedom seekers – heavy metal rebels who dare to live outside the ‘rules’ of so-called polite society, in search of who they really are, in search of a life worth living. Which is why you don’t need a peg-leg to relate to the lyrics.

Visions Of Atlantis are no strangers to metal, having been on the scene for 22 years and counting, although drummer Thomas Caser is the only founding member still on board. Their latest incarnation brings singers Clémentine Delauney and Michele Guaitoli to the songwriting fore and, for Pirates, they’ve teamed up with producer Felix Heldt (Feuerschwanz) to create a record that takes them to a whole new level. While the previous two albums – The Deep & The Dark and Wanderers – saw them move from “oh, yeah, that nautical band, they’re pretty good” territory to being a serious frontrunner of the melodic/symphonic metal scene, Pirates places them right at the top of it.

Opener Pirates Will Return sets the scene immediately with a soaring, almost shanty-like chorus that’s joyful and triumphant without feeling corny. The evocative arrangement – a mix of orchestral, folk and metal instruments colliding with huge choirs and the towering twin lead vocals of Delauney and Guaitoli – puts you right in the picture and ready for the voyage ahead.

And what a voyage it is. The single Melancholy Angel is a genuinely perfect 4 minutes of gothic-infused metal – all gigantic hooks, high drama and heart-searing harmonies. Master The Hurricane is an early highlight; a stunning, operatic, heavy-as-Hell 7+ minute epic that would make Nightwish cry, wishing they’d written it. Legion of the Seas is a rampaging pirate headbanger of a track with a chorus the size of a cannonball. Wild Elysium goes hard, with all the dark abandon its title suggests.

At their poppiest, Visions of Atlantis can deliver a first-rate ecstatic major-key singalong like Clocks but it’s always tempered with a philosophical melancholy, a heavy riff, or some insane technical drumming. Darkness Inside – with its ABBA-esque arpeggiating piano and wall-of-sound harmonies – shows that they understand not just how to sculpt a catchy chorus but also how to use the instant emotional punch of pop to deliver something truly powerful. The ballads here are as strong as the bludgeoning stompers, with Freedom standing out. A sweeping, almost magical number that sings of “men whose heart is as wild as the storm” and actually gets away with making a cry of “ahoooooy!” sound beautiful, not ridiculous; it’s a real highlight.

I Will Be Gone is a colossal closing track – probably the heaviest song on the album, maybe even the best thing they’ve ever done – that ends the voyage on the most grandiose note possible. A crashing of waves, a last stand against the elements, the enemies and whatever else is thrown at them. It’s cinematic metal at its biggest, delivered with the might of a thunderstorm, all hands on deck and then some.

Symphonic/melodic metal is a genre that’s often maligned and sometimes rightfully when bands deliver samey, unimaginative rehashes of the same old tropes. Pirates honestly takes it to a whole new level. It’s a game-changing entry into the genre and it’s hard to imagine what Visions Of Atlantis could ever do next to top it. Yet somehow? I think they still have the wind in the sails left to go further.

A rare, but fully deserved, 10/10. Avast ye hearties and listen!