Category Archives: Prog Rock

Cosmograf – The Hay-Man Dreams – Album Review

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Artist: Cosmograf

Album Title: The Hay-Man Dreams

Label: Cosmograf Music

Date Of Release: 14 July 2017

When I reviewed ‘The Unreasonable Silence’, the fifth album from Robin Armstrong under the Cosmograf moniker, it was my first real exposure of this project. I really enjoyed that record and still listen to it on a relatively regular basis. And so I just had to get involved again when, just a year later, I heard noises from Armstrong on social media regarding a follow-up. And here we are, with my considered thoughts on album number six, entitled ‘The Hay-Man Dreams’.

Ostensibly a one-man project, one of the strengths of Cosmograf is that Robin is always open to allowing others into the fold. Perhaps it has something to do with an acceptance of his limitations where certain instruments are concerned. Or perhaps, just as likely, it is because Robin is an intelligent chap and he understands the fact that his compositions can benefit from the inclusion of others.

This time around, the cast of guest musicians is different but no less mouth-watering, featuring Kyle Fenton on drums, Big Big Train violinist Rachel Hall, former BBC voiceover artist David Allan as the narrator, The Fierce And The Dead guitarist Matt Stevens and the returning vocalist Rachael Hawnt. Robin himself handles all the songwriting and production duties as well as being the primary vocalist, guitarist, keyboardist and bassist.

Thematically, I’d venture to say that ‘The Hay-Man Dreams’ is darker and more poignant, at least on a human level than previous releases, as far as I am concerned at any rate. The concept resonates with me greatly as this record tells the story of the untimely death of a farm labourer and the loving family that is left behind. At the centre of the tale is the scarecrow or ‘hay man’, as depicted on the beautifully moody album cover artwork.

And over time, I have well and truly fallen for the veritable charms of ‘The Hay-Man Dreams’. What I love most about it, is its richness and vibrancy. This is a lush album sonically, with real depth and an atmosphere that envelops the listener from beginning to end. A lot of this has to do with the production of the record but there’s more to it than that I feel.

For one, I like the fact that ‘The Hay-Man Dreams’ is a slightly more guitar-driven record than others in the catalogue. As someone who prefers their music on the heavier end of the spectrum for much of the time, an increase in oomph with the guitars will always be welcome. Importantly though, Robin has not sacrificed the subtlety of his music as a result; indeed, ‘The Hay-Man Dreams’ remains as varied, nuanced and cinematic as you’d hope and expect from a seasoned progressive rock artist.

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Take the opening track for instance. ‘Tethered And Bound’ features some gorgeously strong riffs made all the sweeter by the chosen tones, forcing a raising of an eyebrow in appreciation. However, the song offers much more besides, opening up with some theatrical narration from David Allan atop a dark and foreboding synth-led soundscape and later delving into more minimalist territory where we’re treated to some classic prog keyboard effects. Naturally, given the album’s subject matter, the lyrics are not a ray of sunshine and they are delivered very honestly and with passion by Robin himself.

Acoustic guitars feature prominently alongside the piano and synths as well as some hushed vocals to create an intro to ‘Trouble In The Forest’ that is ethereal in tone and bathed in rich atmosphere. Robin’s vocals are really captivating when they eventually arrive at around the three-minute mark, echoing the sense of sadness that the track conveys so well with its evocative melodies. The bass work is prominent and offers a sombre flamboyance, whilst the guitar solo courtesy of the highly talented Matt Stevens in the latter stages is a thing of beauty, like an eruption of raw feeling as if from nowhere.

‘The Motorway’ offers a change of pace somewhat and is welcome because of it. Again it is introduced by acoustic guitars but they are quicker and more urgent in tone, not dissimilar in some ways to the likes of latter-day Anathema. As the intro gives way to the heart of the song, there’s an overt and instantly demonstrable 70s prog rock vibe to what is ultimately a slightly brighter and breezier number. Robin’s voice impressively reaches new heights and there’s a cheekiness to some of the melodies and numerous embellishments. This isn’t to say that there’s not a dark underbelly to the song, because there certainly is, and as the song reaches the half-way mark, I am surprised by the classic rock vibe that is introduced as well. It is unexpected, but it fits the song really well, as does the energetic and expressive extended guitar solo that sees the song to its conclusion.

Without doubt, my favourite track on ‘The Hay-Man Dreams’ has to be ‘Cut The Corn’. If the previous three tracks were dark and sombre, this song takes things to a new level. Slow-paced and led by a simple but effective piano melody, there is a melancholy fragility to the song, enhanced by Robin’s vocals that come across as very heartfelt, vaguely reminiscent of Marillion’s Steve Hogarth at times. The song builds gently in intensity as more layers of synths and a simple beat are introduced. The acoustic guitar solo that then enters the fray is stunning, heartbreaking, poignant and melodious in equal part.

‘Melancholy Death of a Gamekeeper’ does little to lift the mood, but its neo-prog overtones are beautifully lush and inviting, helping to soften the sober edges just a little. Rachael Hawnt then takes centre stage as the six-track album draws to a close via the 12-minute epic title track. It begins quietly with plenty of acoustic guitars and Hawnt’s delicate vocals before taking a pronounced cinematic turn thanks to more narration and atmospheric sound effects that are both sombre and quite thought-provoking in tone. Rachel Hall’s distinctive violin playing lends a folk edge but not before the song has flirted with some of the heaviest material I have heard from Robin. Churning riffs swirl around us as well as some excellent lead guitar shredding and I’m thoroughly engaged and edified by the marked change of pace and intensity. At the flip of a switch though, the folk-esque violin melody acts as a stark juxtaposition and alongside the sounds of nature within the closing pastoral soundscape, it is undeniably reminiscent of Hall’s main employer Big Big Train and the perfect way to end this record.

I truly hope that my preceding waffle has sufficiently captured how much I like this record. If not, I have failed miserably because I have genuinely taken ‘The Hay-Man Dreams’ to my heart. It is, for me, right up there with the very best that the progressive rock world has to offer right now. Confident, assured, intelligent and beautiful; that’s Cosmograf and that’s ‘The Hay-Man Dreams’.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9

If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:

2015 reviews
2016 reviews

Orden Ogan – Gunmen
Iced Earth – Incorruptible
Anathema – The Optimist
Solstafir – Berdreyminn
Dream Evil – Six
Avatarium – Hurricanes And Halos
Ayreon – The Source
Until Rain – Inure
MindMaze – Resolve
God Dethroned – The World Ablaze
Bjorn Riis – Forever Comes To An End
Voyager – Ghost Mile
Big Big Train – Grimspound
Lonely Robot – The Big Dream
Firespawn – The Reprobate
Ancient Ascendant
Pyramaze – Contingent
Shores Of Null – Black Drapes For Tomorrow
Asira – Efference
Hologram Earth – Black Cell Program
Damnations Day – A World Awakens
Memoriam – For The Fallen
Pallbearer – Heartless
Sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius
Vangough – Warpaint
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day

Anathema – The Optimist – Album Review

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Artist: Anathema

Album Title: The Optimist

Label: Kscope

Date of Release: 9 June 2017

Anathema is one of my top 5 bands of all time. As such, their new full-length release, ‘The Optimist’ is easily my most highly anticipated album release of 2017.

Put simply, Anathema are a band that speaks to me. They are a band that seem to know instinctively how to press my buttons and touch me whatever my mood. From euphoric and uplifting, to fragile and poignant, they cover the gamut of emotions, leaving me exhilarated one minute and sombre the next, frequently with tears as my constant and ubiquitous silent companion.

I have always liked Anathema, discovering the Liverpudlians via the magnificent ‘Eternity’, back in 1996 as a teenager. However, it was with 2010’s ‘We’re Here Because We’re Here’ and 2012’s ‘Weather Systems’ that my admiration grew into a full-blown love affair, further cemented by ‘Distant Satellites’ in 2014.

To some extent, timing was everything. ‘We’re Here Because We’re Here’ was born less than two years after the heartbreaking passing of my younger brother. And so, when the song ‘Presence’ delivers the spoken word lines of ‘Life is not the opposite of death. Death is the opposite of birth. Life is eternal’ atop a gorgeously ethereal soundscape, I was floored. I know it sounds nonsensical but I felt like Anathema knew me and had put this into the album just for me to help ease my own inner turmoil.

‘Weather Systems’ was released just two years later. Stronger human beings might have moved on from personal tragedy better than I but truth be told, I was still struggling. As such, when I heard ‘Internal Landscapes’ with another powerful spoken word intro delivered by a man who had suffered a near-death experience, I was hit once again. Was this written for me? Of course not, but the conflicting emotions that it stirred in me made me think so. From despair at my loss to the comfort of gaining a little insight into what my brother might have felt as he slipped from us, this masterpiece within Anathema’s undeniable tour-de-force continues to have a huge and lasting impact.

And then, if that wasn’t enough, along came ‘Distant Satellites’ in 2014. I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Daniel and Vincent prior to its release. The guys graciously listened to my babblings as I tried to ineloquently describe the importance of their music to me. To my eternal gratitude, the brothers then gave me the gift of a whole new perspective on ‘The Lost Song, Part 2’. Already an achingly gorgeous song, their words made this composition even more important, further cementing the bond between Anathema, my brother and me.

Given all this history, it is very difficult for me to remain entirely objective where Anathema is concerned. And naturally my expectations will be massive ahead of the release of any new material.

And, to begin with, I struggled with ‘The Optimist’, the eleventh album of the Liverpudlian’s career. Never ones to shy away from experimentation, ‘The Optimist’ is yet another shift in Anathema’s own personal evolution. Whilst the core ingredients of atmosphere, emotional depth and lyrical eloquence are present and correct here, the output framed loosely by alternative/prog rock, has a much darker feel to it in general. There is also a more pronounced use of loops, electronic sounds and percussion that were hinted at within the title track on ‘Distant Satellites’. If I’m honest, whilst I love that specific track, I had my doubts and concerns should Anathema venture further down this musical avenue.

The fact that they have done just that perhaps explains why my initial thoughts on ‘The Optimist’ were not overly favourable. The selfish side of me wanted ten more close variations of ‘The Lost Song Part 2’ or ‘Internal Landscapes’ and I felt disappointed that together, Vincent Cavanagh (vocals, guitars, keys), Daniel Cavanagh (guitars, keys, vocals), John Douglas (acoustic/electronic percussion), Lee Douglas (vocals), Jamie Cavanagh (bass) and Daniel Cardoso (drums/keyboards) hadn’t indulged me.

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Credit: Caroline Traitler – http://www.carolinetraitler.net

With the benefit of time and perseverance though, I can now admit that it is not the music on ‘The Optimist’ that was at fault, but my own issues, my own limitations and my selfishness. ‘The Optimist’ is not an instant fix, an immediate score of your favourite musical drug. What it is instead, is a multi-layered, multi-faceted record that demands time and effort on behalf of the listener to unlock its true potential. And when it unlocks…wow!

Interestingly the band have married this latest step forward sonically with a thematic step backwards. In 2001, Anathema released an album called ‘A Fine Day To Exit’ which told the story of a man who wanted to escape his life and the modern world. ‘The Optimist’ reprises this story and in so doing, provides closure to a story that was left unfinished. In typical Anathema style however, the conclusion remains deliberately ambiguous, inviting personal interpretation by the listener.

This thematic decision explains the somewhat strange title of the opening track on ‘The Optimist’, namely ’32.63N 117.14W’. These are in fact the co-ordinates for the beach in San Diego where ‘A Fine Day to Exit’ concludes and which, I assume, adorns the cover of that album, a cover that becomes quite emotional with closer scrutiny. I’ll admit that this is in no way my favourite album in the Anathema back catalogue but I had often thought about that cover and the family photo that sits on the dashboard of the empty car wondering how this story ultimately played out. And now I can.

This opener very much has the feel of a concept album introduction. The sound of waves lapping on the shore, footsteps crunching on the beach, a car engine starting and then station-hopping on the car radio. It is more a scene-setter than a piece of music per se but it then segues rather seamlessly into ‘Leaving It Behind’ and we’re off. And we’re off at some pace, because this is a massively up-tempo, loud and abrasive piece of rock music. The electronic aspect is present from the beginning but with a bit of listening, it really enhances the track, adding an interesting slant to the composition, particularly in the brief atmospheric mid-song break down. As the song develops, the intensity increases as guitars begin to build up into walls of jangly sound whilst the drumming from Cardoso is relentless, ably assisted by bassist Jamie Cavanagh. To my mind, it is the perfect way to introduce an album that has deliberately and consciously been recorded ‘live’ in the studio, because the resulting energy is palpable and thoroughly infectious, pulling the listener along for the heady ride immediately.

As ‘Endless Ways’ begins quietly with just a lone piano and plaintive melody, I’m still catching my breath a little. But as Lee Douglas enters the fray for the first time, accented by some lush orchestration, my attention is well and truly undivided. The melodies and angelic vocals are more reminiscent of the last couple of albums, even if Douglas has parked the vibrato which characterised previous performances. Here, as the song majestically builds from humble beginnings into a powerful and heartfelt outpouring of emotions, Lee demonstrates that she is one of the shining lights in rock music today, whilst Anathema demonstrate that they haven’t lost their mercurial spark, whatever I might have first thought. And yes, you guessed it, the tears flow as I find myself being emotionally nourished by the incredibly important rock in my life that is Anathema.

“Hold on, hold on for dear life
And run, and run all night
For you are loved in endless ways
Stay with me, please believe
I can be your memory

My world will never be the same
And my heart is never going to regret
For you are loved in endless ways
Are loved in endless ways”

This wasn’t written for me, just as previous lyrics weren’t. But they could have been. These words resound with me, they touch me and they comfort me.

More piano introduces the title track, but it is Vincent that initially joins in vocally, joined by Lee at times but only fleetingly. Delicate melodies that are pure Anathema begin to work their charm after a few listens and further orchestration embellishments help to propel the song to a new level of sophistication. The track ebbs and flows, toying with the listener’s moods, but as with its predecessor, there is a subtle build-up towards a crescendo where there’s a hint of a wailing guitar in the vein of songs like ‘Anathema’.

‘San Francisco’ is a bit of an odd one. It is an instrumental that is dominated by a rather repetitive yet strangely beguiling melody, a reprise of sorts of ‘Endless Ways’ if I’m not mistaken. It is then accented by atmospheric synths and electronic sounds which help to set a completely different tone, one that I warm to more and more as time goes by.

In keeping with the concept vibe, the sounds of a train in full flight acts as a pause before ‘Springfield’ is introduced, almost shyly and reluctantly via a quiet and delicate guitar melody which is quickly taken up by the piano. Electronic sounds make a subtle return but it is the insistent rhythmic beat that makes the biggest impression in the early stages, driving the song towards what ultimately becomes an imposing wall of post rock-inspired sound led by urgent guitars and topped off by Lee’s serene voice almost pleading to the heavens. The track then falls away to conclude in a minimalist manner accompanied by the sounds of waves, distant sirens and the whispers of a male voice.

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Credit: Caroline Traitler – http://www.carolinetraitler.net

‘Ghosts’ then offers one of the most poignant and immediate melodies on the album which is enhanced by a beautiful string arrangement and a beat that together suggests something reminiscent of a film soundtrack. By contrast, ‘Can’t Let Go’ ups the pace and features arguably Vincent’s strongest performance on the entire record. Once again, drummer Cardoso provides the drive to a track that begins in bold fashion but which builds sublimely through a clever injection of rich and vibrant aural textures.

We return to another snippet of action from the central character before we delve into the murky world of ‘Close Your Eyes’, which evokes images in my mind of a dark and smoky backstreet jazz club. I can appreciate the composition and I don’t dislike it but it is by far and away my least favourite track on the album. The fact that a trumpet plays a significant role no doubt feeds my apathy as I continue to fail to warm to brass of any kind in my music.

Any lingering misgivings are short-lived however as ‘The Optimist’ ends in genuinely commanding fashion courtesy of ‘Wildfires’ and the fittingly-titled epic closer, ‘Back To The Start’.

The former has a dark, eerie tone created by the haunting, echoed vocals of Vincent atop the ubiquitous piano which for large portions of the track delivers something monotone, incessant and deliberately uncomfortable. But it works, as does the controlled explosion of sound before another swift descent into a minimalist, thought-provoking abyss.

The album is then brought to a close by the near 12-minute ‘Back To The Start’ and it is nothing short of magical, the perfect way to round out this impressive body of work. The sound of waves gently lapping onto the beach ushers in an aching and gorgeous melody that, when coupled by some devastatingly honest lyrics, threatens to reduce this grown man to tears yet again. I’m not normally someone who likes choral vocals, especially when they have a vague gospel ‘happy’ feel to them, but here, it just sounds right. Perfect in fact. The combination of voices, orchestration and lyrics as the song builds and ultimately reaches its climax is truly epic and a feeling of barely contained euphoria washes over me, bathing me in a warm glow. It’s all too much, so when the final act of the central character follows, I get tingles, chills and all manner of conflicting emotions.

Once again, Anathema have delivered an album that is more to me than just a collection of beautifully and lovingly-crafted songs. It is an album that lives and breathes. It has a vibrancy, an intense raw honesty and a human depth that many strive to deliver but that very few succeed in achieving. Whether or not it ultimately surpasses the last couple of records in terms of my overall enjoyment, only time will tell. For now though, I am content to lose myself in ‘The Optimist’ via its aural magnificence and the emotional succour that it provides to this fragile and damaged soul.

The Score of Much Metal: 9.5

If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:

2015 reviews
2016 reviews

Solstafir – Berdreyminn
Dream Evil – Six
Avatarium – Hurricanes And Halos
Ayreon – The Source
Until Rain – Inure
MindMaze – Resolve
God Dethroned – The World Ablaze
Bjorn Riis – Forever Comes To An End
Voyager – Ghost Mile
Big Big Train – Grimspound
Lonely Robot – The Big Dream
Firespawn – The Reprobate
Ancient Ascendant
Pyramaze – Contingent
Shores Of Null – Black Drapes For Tomorrow
Asira – Efference
Hologram Earth – Black Cell Program
Damnations Day – A World Awakens
Memoriam – For The Fallen
Pallbearer – Heartless
Sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius
Vangough – Warpaint
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day

Ayreon – The Source – Album Review

 

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Artist: Ayreon

Album Title: The Source

Label: Mascot Label Group/Music Theories Recordings

Date Of Release: 28 April 2017

My relationship with the music of Arjen Anthony Lucassen is a complex one. I would definitely class myself as a fan, but not one without reservation, as the back catalogue contains both the sublime and the slightly less impressive as far as I’m concerned. For example, I love the ‘Space Metal’ and ‘Victims of the Modern Age’ albums under the Star One moniker, whereas I have a hard time with early Ayreon records up to and including ‘Into The Electric Castle’. For many, this latter revelation will be akin to blasphemy, but that’s my opinion and I stand by it.

Nevertheless, latter Ayreon releases have made a much more positive impact with ‘01011001’ and ‘The Theory of Everything’ both capturing my imagination to the point where I was really excited to hear Lucassen’s ninth instalment of this particular franchise, ‘The Source’.

It has been a while in the making, some four years since the release of ‘The Theory of Everything’. Mind you, projects as ambitious as ‘The Source’ take some time and organisation to pull off, even for a workaholic like Lucassen. Additionally, the intervening period has also seen him working with Anneke van Giersbergen on the debut The Gentle Storm album, ‘The Diary’.

‘The Source’ is, as you might expect, a full-on science-fiction concept album, set 6 billion years in the past, that seeks to tell the story of an alien race’s attempts to save themselves and their planet from crisis. It is comprised of 17 individual tracks of progressive rock and in keeping with these huge Ayreon rock operas, it features no fewer than twelve guest vocalists, some which are new to the Ayreon family and others that are returning for another stint. As such, you get to hear the talents of James LaBrie (Dream Theater), Tommy Giles Rogers (Between the Buried and Me), Simone Simons (Epica), Mike Mills (Toehider), Floor Jansen (Nightwish), Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian), Michael Eriksen (Circus Maximus), Tobias Sammet (Edguy, Avantasia), Nils K. Rue (Pagan’s Mind), Zaher Zorgati (Myrath), Tommy Karevik (Seventh Wonder, Kamelot) and Russell Allen (Symphony X).

If that wasn’t enough, Lucassen, the multi-instrumentalist recluse is joined by a select group of musicians including drummer Ed Warby (Gorefest, Elegy), guitarists Paul Gilbert (Mr. Big), Guthrie Govan (The Aristocrats, Asia, Steven Wilson), Marcel Coenen and keyboard player Mark Kelly (Marillion). There’s even room for guest appearances from regulars like cellist Maaike Peterse, flautist Jeroen Goossens and violinist Ben Mathot.

Regardless of your thoughts on the music of Arjen Lucassen, one cannot deny his ambition to pull this project together, however seasoned a pro he might be. And on that note, let’s venture into the music itself. After all, that’s why you’re reading this review isn’t it?

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Cutting swiftly to the chase, it is fair to say that long term fans will be left feeling very happy with the results, wrapped safely in the comforting arms of the familiar. The die has been cast on previous Ayreon albums and by-and-large, there are no major deviations from the norm on ‘The Source’. It is over-the-top, pompous and at times, a little silly. Pick your cheese of choice and you’ll find a morsel or two of it here without question. My toes occasionally curl and I wince at certain points. The Celtic, folky ‘All That Was’ for example, does not fare well in my estimations, neither does the operatic injection within ‘Deathcry of a Race’ which is simply too much and a little ‘nails down a blackboard’ for me. As a result, ‘The Source’ is not the perfect, blemish-free release.

And yet, there is no escaping the fact that ‘The Source’ is a hugely enjoyable album for the most part, with plenty of stand-out moments where my imagination is fully captured and my enthusiasm ignited. And it must be said that much of my enjoyment comes from listening to the various vocalists who guest on this record. There are still those out there who dismiss heavy metal as just noise, overlaid by shouty blokes who can’t sing. Well, if there was ever a record to expose this ignorant view as the huge falsity that it is, it’s this one. The talent from across the gender divide is just off the scale and as absurd as the concept is in places, the vocalists breathe life into it, giving it a genuine credibility in the process.

In fittingly bombastic style, the record begins with a 12-plus minute epic that introduces just about every singer that features on the album. I’m not the biggest James LaBrie fan but even he sounds great, floating through an eerie and post-apocalyptic, dystopian soundscape at the outset. The song twists and turns throughout, never settling, as the groundwork for the concept is laid. Tommy Karevik is the early show-stealer thanks to an incredibly passionate and powerful performance, but the surprisingly heavy chugging riff pushes him close. Lucassen himself refers to this record as more guitar driven and heavier, a point that is underlined here right from the outset.

But the undoubted star of the opening act, surrounded by the likes of Nils K. Rue, Tobi Sammet and Hansi Kursch has to be Mike Mills. It’s a cliché as old as time to say that you could listen to certain vocalists singing the phonebook. But in the case of Mills, he manages to send shivers down my spine by singing something as dull as the binary code atop some moody, futuristic synths. ‘Zero, one, zero’ etc. has never sounded so utterly captivating and emotive, believe me.

I’m not such a fan of the funky, bluesy sequence that follows, although ‘Sir’ Russell Allen lends it a certain undeniable panache and swagger. There’s even time right at the death for Floor Jansen to lend her impressively huge vocal chords to see this opener out in rousing style. Had the entire record remained at this level, we’d have been staring down the barrel of a near-perfect score, it’s that good. In fact, I’d venture to suggest that it is one of Lucassen’s best under any of his various monikers.

Elsewhere, I’m a huge fan of ‘The Dream Dissolves’ with its killer lead guitar solo and the extended keyboard flamboyance. Aside from the aforementioned operatic section within ‘Deathcry of a Race’, it is a brilliant song thanks to its Middle Eastern melodies, heavy riffing and Zorgati’s distinctive vocals. And ‘Into The Ocean’ is a storming up-tempo rocker with overt 70s overtones created by the chosen keyboard sounds.

More heavy riffs and forceful drumming feature within the immediate and insanely catchy ‘Planet Y Is Alive!’ which evolves into something far more soundtrack-like and preposterously fun in the mid-section.

There are plenty more positives within this lengthy endeavour but for the sake of brevity, allow me to conclude with my joint-favourite piece, ‘Star Of Sirrah’. Heavy, melodic, over-the-top, this is Ayreon on top form. The song opens in moody but melodic and dramatic fashion with an acoustic guitar and bold synths before another huge, killer riff sweeps everything aside. It chugs and growls with real intent, complimenting all of the various vocalists who take a turn at delivering this part of the concept. If I had to nail my colours to the mast, I’d have to say that Nils K Rue offers the most compelling performance, closely followed by Tobi Sammet. It’s not a simple song by any means but it shows how superb Lucassen can be as a songwriter when he dials down the crazy and pens something a little more straightforward and rocking. Because boy does this track rock.

One of the nicest artists I’ve ever crossed path with is also one of the most openly insecure musicians in the business. Self-doubt riddles the psyche of Arjen Lucassen, something with which I can most definitely identify. The guy has an army of fans though and he always manages to attract great musicians to assist him with his music, so he must be doing something right. And there’s ‘The Source’ to further underline this conclusion. It might be a flawed record in places but regardless, ‘The Source’ is a triumph of which Lucassen should be rightly proud.

The Score Of Much Metal: 8.25

If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:

2015 reviews
2016 reviews

Until Rain – Inure
MindMaze – Resolve
God Dethroned – The World Ablaze
Bjorn Riis – Forever Comes To An End
Voyager – Ghost Mile
Big Big Train – Grimspound
Lonely Robot – The Big Dream
Firespawn – The Reprobate
Ancient Ascendant
Pyramaze – Contingent
Shores Of Null – Black Drapes For Tomorrow
Asira – Efference
Hologram Earth – Black Cell Program
Damnations Day – A World Awakens
Memoriam – For The Fallen
Pallbearer – Heartless
Sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius
Vangough – Warpaint
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day

Bjørn Riis – Forever Comes To An End – Album Review

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Artist: Bjørn Riis

Album Title: Forever Comes To An End

Label: Karisma Records

Date of Release: 19 May 2017

I’ve made no secret of my ardour towards the music of Airbag on this very blog. The Norwegian progressive rock band is a powerful entity with a knack of penning emotional and deeply engaging music, which comes across as smooth, rich and effortless. Nowhere was this evidenced more strongly than with their most recent studio recording, ‘Disconnected’, released mid-2016. It was magnificent.

Naturally then, how could I resist checking out the latest solo effort from Airbag’s principal song writer, Bjørn Riis? I completely missed his debut solo album, ‘Lullabies In A Car Crash’ because I was unaware of its existence. However, I wasn’t prepared to make the same mistake again. And I haven’t. I have spent the last few days getting to know ‘Forever Comes To An End’ quite intimately and it was a very wise decision to say the least.

It is fair to say that there definite and demonstrable similarities between the music on this record and the general output of Airbag. That’s hardly surprising really, because melodious and serene progressive rock is clearly in the genetics of Riis. Additionally, the album features the talents of Airbag’s drummer Henrik Fossum and programmer Asle Tostrup, who, alongside pianist Simen Valldal Johannessen (Oak) and Norwegian singer, Sichelle Mcmeo Aksum, both bring their own familiar approach to the table.

But, to refer to ‘Forever Comes To An End’ as a complete Airbag clone would be unfair and a little inaccurate. For a start, I would venture to say that Riis’ solo work features heavier passages of music than Airbag, certainly for more prolonged periods of time. As such, there are more pronounced peaks and troughs within some of the compositions, thus creating a sense of increased drama.

Take the opening title track as the prime example. It begins in commanding fashion, jam packed with strong riffs and an abrasive, tumultuous feel, something that returns at intervals as the track develops. But in between are the more archetypal soothing passages where Riis is able to put his guitar at the forefront of the composition, allowing it to embellish the composition as only he knows how, via plenty of emotive and soaring leads. It becomes almost a second vocalist at times, such is the eloquence with which it ‘sings’ atop some simple but memorable melodies. It’s no wonder Riis has been compared to the likes of Dave Gilmour throughout his career.

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Photo: Anita Stostad

‘The Waves’ is a beautiful track that further showcases Riis’ ability to build compositions from quiet beginnings to rousing crescendos and back again, all built around resonant melodies that linger long in the memory. By contrast, ‘Getaway’ is pulled along brilliantly by a driving beat that’s entirely infectious, delivering something tangibly 80s in tone, although I can’t quite place why I get this feeling. No matter, it’s a cracking track, worthy of the entrance price alone.

Another key difference between airbag and Riis’ solo work is the increase of music on ‘Forever Comes To An End’ that is clearly inspired by film scores and the cinema.

This is an aspect of this album that I have embraced wholeheartedly and which makes it so powerful in my opinion. The seeds are sown on the bleak and moody ‘Absence’, a track that brings the striking cover artwork (Kjetil Karlsen) to life. As the composition builds, so does the drama, enhanced by the wonderful aural textures created by Johannessen’s piano and Tostrup’s all-encompassing electronics.

The cinematic seeds then grow via the stunning instrumental ‘Calm’ only to thrive and ultimately bloom within ‘Winter’. It is the longest track on the album, thus allowing a culmination of all of the various elements of the record to come together, from controlled bombast, to post-rock minimalism, to progressive and cinematic and everything in between. The ethereal vocals of Sichelle Mcmeo Aksum are a striking addition here too.

Given that the album’s lyrics have been inspired by ‘broken relationships and loss and the emotional duality between resentment and forgiving’, it will come as no surprise that ‘Forever Comes To An End’ has dark and poignant overtones. If you’re looking for music to party to, this isn’t for you, put it that way. For me though, the lyrics fit the aural soundscapes perfectly, offering a strong and demonstrable human angle. Closer ‘Where Are You Now’ underlines just what fragile things human emotions can be, in the process ending the album in impressive, near tear-jerking fashion.

Whether or not ‘Forever Comes To An End’ will eventually eclipse Riis’ work with Airbag remains to be seen. If I had a criticism, it would be that I wish it was longer. At just seven tracks, it feels just a touch on the short side. Regardless of this minor quibble, this is a hugely impressive body of work in its own right and deserves to be enjoyed as such. ‘Forever Comes To An End’ is a no-brainer for anyone who enjoys expertly written and professionally executed progressive rock where textures and emotions are as important as the complexity of the music.

The Score of Much Metal: 8.75

If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:

2015 reviews
2016 reviews

Voyager – Ghost Mile
Big Big Train – Grimspound
Lonely Robot – The Big Dream
Firespawn – The Reprobate
Ancient Ascendant
Pyramaze – Contingent
Shores Of Null – Black Drapes For Tomorrow
Asira – Efference
Hologram Earth – Black Cell Program
Damnations Day – A World Awakens
Memoriam – For The Fallen
Pallbearer – Heartless
Sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius
Vangough – Warpaint
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day

Big Big Train – Grimspound – Album Review

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Artist: Big Big Train

Album Title: Grimspound

Label: English Electric Recordings

Date Of Release: 28 April 2017

Is there a nicer feeling than when you discover that one of your favourite bands is to return with new material much sooner than predicted and somewhat unexpectedly? There aren’t many better moments that’s for sure and Big Big Train are the architects of this great piece of news, offering us their tenth album ‘Grimspound’ less than 12 months on from the release of the utterly sensational ‘Folklore’.

Long term readers will perhaps be familiar with that review, where I was quoted as saying that “‘Folklore’ is another amazing addition to the Big Big Train discography and is something all lovers of quality progressive rock should cherish and take to their hearts. I know that I have.”

However, the feelings of levity and excitement about such a speedy a follow-up are, for me, tempered ever so slightly by a few more cautious thoughts. ‘Is it too early for more material?’, ‘has this album been hurried?’, ‘will the quality take a hit?’ You can see where I’m going with this. I worry that speed doesn’t always yield positive results and therefore, whilst I’m like a child at Christmas following this news, I have a few nerves as well. ‘Folklore’ remains on heavy rotation at the Mansion of Much Metal (and Progressive Rock), providing the same levels of magic as it did at the time of its release. The bar has been set and I desperately want ‘Grimspound’ to follow suit.

So, does it?

The answer, after a slightly slow start is ‘yes, very much so’. At the outset though, I wasn’t convinced if I’m honest. I was looking for similar heart-stopping moments to those that featured within the likes of ‘Brooklands’ or ‘Winkie’ and I couldn’t find them initially. But that says more about my levels of patience than it does about the music on offer within ‘Grimspound’ because, with time, those moments of genius are there to be found and to be heard. In fact, this entire record borders on genius as far as I’m concerned now. How else can you explain the fact that these eight musicians have returned so quickly and effortlessly with another eight superb, intricate and captivating progressive rock compositions?

I understand that the band came up with an awful lot of material during the ‘Folklore’ writing sessions and some of what we hear on ‘Grimspound’ was given birth back then. But regardless, the achievement here beggars belief, it really does. Take a bow, Messrs Spawton (bass), Poole (guitars/keyboards), Longdon (vocals/flute), D’Virgilio (drums), Gregory (guitars), Manners (keyboards), Hall (violin) and Sjöblom (guitars/keyboards). You deserve it.

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Photo credit: Simon Hogg

Big Big Train have always followed a path of progressive rock that veers down the pastoral route and they probably always will – it’s in their blood. But this is not a group of musicians to stagnate either. So, whilst the music here is recognisable as Big Big Train, there are some differences to be heard between ‘Grimspound’ and previous albums.

Some of this is down to the fact that newer members, Rikard and Rachel along with Danny have become more active in the song writing process, bringing their own unique view points to the table. And it is testament to the open-mindedness of the other members that this has been allowed to happen. Mind you, I think ‘welcomed with open arms’ would be a more appropriate description.

One of the first things that I notice is that ‘Grimspound’ features very little brass. As someone who genuinely intensely dislikes brass within rock or metal music, I must confess that I am ever so slightly torn by this turn of events. For some reason, I never had a problem with the brass element of Big Big Train and so, once you realise how little of it is evident, it does give the music a slightly different flavour overall.

As the band readily admits in the accompanying press release, ‘Grimspound’ also sees Big Big Train experimenting with longer passages of instrumental expression. So it comes as no surprise to learn that ‘On The racing Line’ for example is a five-minute instrumental piece, whilst other compositions have plenty of space for some indulgent instrumental flamboyance. Normally, I would baulk at the notion but where Big Big Train are concerned, they pull it off with style and elegance. Their music has always had the ability to tell a story and this is true whether or not there are lyrics being sung over the music; the dynamics and ideas at play here within the instrumental passages are such that the stories are able to continue very eloquently.

Another interesting addition this time around is with the inclusion of a guest vocalist on the song ‘The Ivy Gate’. Judy Dyble offers her voice within this quite a dark and powerful composition that concerns “the reported sightings of a ghostly apparition beside the cemetery gates in a quiet English village.” It is an intriguing composition that begins with a folky, bluegrass banjo-led melody that initially I railed against. In the context of the song however, it makes a lot of sense and is a wonderful addition to the band’s armoury. Moreover, it is an ingredient that I have grown to rather like and enjoy.

The violin playing of Rachel Hall is beautiful and I embrace the sadness and atmosphere that is conjured within this track. But even more, I love the way in which the song builds and opens up at the 4:30 mark to deliver a sumptuous melody that is made even more powerful by the duet of Longdon and Dyble that joins it, before the track deconstructs to end with some impressive and emotional vocals and the soothing sound of rain falling.

It seems like I am uncontrollably waxing lyrical about this album, but that can’t be helped I’m afraid, with every positive word being well earned and justified. And it must continue I’m afraid.

The opening few moments of ‘Brave Captain’ and indeed the album as a whole, create a very subtle, ambient soundscape, very introspective and thought-provoking at the same time. After a minute or so, the entire band enters the fray in what becomes a rousing and dynamic piece of music. This is arguably the most immediate track on the album but in true Big Big Train fashion, it ebbs and flows throughout its substantial 12 minute life creating a sense of drama upon which they tell the powerful story of a World War One pilot named Captain Albert Ball who gave his life for his country.

Naturally, given the subject matter, there are moments that convey the sobriety of the story, like the almost Dire Straits-esque piano and bluesy guitar section. But equally, there are also times where the musicians open up their wings and take flight, just like the central character in the song. When they do so, it is quite a heady experience and it is easy to get caught up in the music that swells all around you.

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Photo credit: Simon Hogg

Another favourite is the quite stunning ‘Experimental Gentlemen’, a tale of Captain Cook on his first journey of discovery. Incorporating a vast array of intricate ideas within a remarkably cohesive whole, it moves from gentle, dreamy and wistful to up-beat and bouncy. You can feel an increase in intensity as the song slowly and inexorably moves through the gears to eventually deliver a dramatic sequence complete with an emotional and delicate lead guitar solo. That’s not the end though as there’s time for an extended atmospheric outro that has a subtle yet moving feel to it.

Arguably the biggest exponent of those aforementioned extended instrumental passages is the longest track on the album, the hugely impressive ‘A Mead Hall In Winter’. The melodies are just so strong that they draw me in for repeated listens in spite of its length, rivalling anything that appeared on ‘Folklore’. But it is the experimentation and the ambition that is the most impressive aspect, including a plethora of bold and striking keyboard sounds as well as plenty of lead flamboyance all round. It all helps to create genuinely rich and engaging textures not to mention a multi-faceted, multi-layered soundscape. This sort of music only works when it is handled with care and attention to detail. And Big Big Train are fast becoming the safest pair of hands that I know, turning everything to gold with their unique Midas touch. My mind never wanders, my attention is never diverted away and as this epic composition draws to a close via a reprise of the early sumptuous melodies, I am filled with nothing but admiration for what has been achieved here.

By contrast, ‘Meadowland’ is a much shorter proposition that benefits from a truly gorgeous lead violin and acoustic guitar intro, full of sensitivity and elegance. The wistful vocal delivery of Longdon adds a compelling embellishment to a piece of music that straddles the divide between folk and progressive rock, that I wish was twice as long.

The title track begins in strange fashion with an oddly creepy and discordant introduction, quickly replaced by more acoustic guitars. Another serious grower, I’m currently of the opinion that it contains my very favourite melody on the entire album, accompanied by the words:

“Out on the Heathland,
Look up to the night sky.
See the second brightest star?
Adjust to the dark light.”

The vocals and music together combine in magical fashion to stop me dead in my tracks. But I also enjoy the way in which the track subtly moves away from its starting point, to finish with more instrumental prowess in a much different and more up-tempo vein. The closing vocal passage is inspired too.

Seeing as I’ve mentioned all the others, it seems churlish to overlook the closing composition, ‘As The Crow Flies’. It ends ‘Grimspound’ in fine fashion, fittingly oozing warmth and richness. It begins in delicate fashion, featuring more female vocals and some really welcome flute from Longdon. At the mid-point, the composition explodes in typically controlled but epic fashion, delivering a briefly rousing and heartfelt melody, led by hungry guitar notes that retreat all-too-quickly, allowing the song to ease to a gentle and introspective conclusion.

Just when you thought that Big Big Train couldn’t possibly get any better, they do. ‘Grimspound’ is without doubt the best progressive rock album I’ve heard since…well, since ‘Folklore’ to be exact. Big Big Train have become an integral part of my musical life, to the point where I cannot imagine what my life was like before I discovered them. Right now, I can’t think of any bigger compliment that I can pay or one that is more justified and thoroughly deserved. Without question, Big Big Train are my favourite progressive rock band on this planet, bar none.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.8

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:

2015 reviews
2016 reviews

Lonely Robot – The Big Dream
Firespawn – The Reprobate
Ancient Ascendant
Pyramaze – Contingent
Shores Of Null – Black Drapes For Tomorrow
Asira – Efference
Hologram Earth – Black Cell Program
Damnations Day – A World Awakens
Memoriam – For The Fallen
Pallbearer – Heartless
Sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius
Vangough – Warpaint
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day

Lonely Robot – The Big Dream – Album Review

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Artist: Lonely Robot

Album Title: The Big Dream

Label: InsideOut Music

Date Of Release: 28 April 2017

Those who know me and my style of writing will know that I never shy away from bringing personal experiences into my reviews, particularly if it helps to contextualise or explain my feelings towards an album. And this review is to be no different.

Not many people will know this about me but when I was very young, I struggled with the subject of death. I used to lie awake at night, snuggled up in my Garfield or Paddington Bear duvet and think. I’d think about dying and the fact that after I die, there will be nothing. Forever. Just as there was nothing for millions of years before I was born. For a small boy, these were deep thoughts and were thoughts that I struggled to get my head around. They would send me into a nauseous spin and it got to the stage that I even had some counselling about it.

It’s a part of my life that I’ve tried to put firmly behind me but occasionally my mind will wander and I’ll have a flash of panic, usually in the dead of night when I should be asleep. So when an aged and learned-sounding Englishman begins talking after 46 seconds of the opening track of ‘The Big Dream’ entitled ‘Prologue (Deep Sleep)’, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and my heart skips a beat.

“I have often puzzled and puzzled about what it must be like to go to sleep and never wake up. To be simply not there, forever and ever. After all, one has some inclination of this by the interval that separates going to sleep from waking. When we don’t have any dreams but go to sleep and then suddenly we’re there again and in the interim, there is nothing. And if there was never any end to that interval, if the waking up didn’t happen, that’s such a curious thought.”

It is like someone is voicing aloud my darkest fears. And the voice returns at points within the album, to make me think further and more deeply. Depending on my mood, the music on ‘The Big Dream’ is powerful enough to move me to tears. At others, I just allow myself to be enveloped in the rich tapestry of sounds, textures and moods that Lonely Robot seems able to effortlessly create, all wrapped up in a cosy progressive rock blanket.

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‘The Big Dream’, which reintroduces the central astronaut character from the debut, certainly touches a raw nerve but it is also comforting to think that I am not alone in these thoughts. It makes the whole experience bittersweet to a certain extent. But ultimately, I am blown away by this album, regardless of the meaningful threads that clearly run through it.

I am a big fan of the Lonely Robot debut, ‘Please Come Home’. But if anything, I think ‘The Big Dream’ is even better. Much of this has to do with the aforementioned themes that run through this record, giving me that intensely personal attachment. But more than that, I just feel that the music itself is just that little bit stronger. It is definitely more consistent, simply because there isn’t a wasted moment, a weaker track or a let-up in the quality on offer. It takes its time to work its magic though, so if you feel uneasy or underwhelmed after a first spin, listen again. And then again, several times more. The payoff is well worth it.

In a departure from the debut, Lonely Robot is no longer Mitchell surrounded by a team of guest musicians. Instead, whilst the studio entity is very much just Mitchell with Craig Blundell (Frost*) on drums, there’s more of a ‘band’ feel this time around for the live arena. The bass is handled by Steve Vantsis (Fish) and the keys by Liam Holmes. If ever there was a case for using the word ‘underrated’ or even ‘unappreciated’, it’s here. Not only is John Mitchell involved with Arena, It Bites and Frost*, he has now crafted two excellent albums where he is driving creative force, in charge of just about everything. He needs to have a lot more coming his way in terms of praise and plaudits, because he thoroughly deserves it.

The music on ‘The Big Dream’ will be immediately recognisable as a John Mitchell product for anyone who follows his career. However, this feels a lot darker and more introspective than much of his other work. Undoubtedly prog rock at its heart, there is a much more dreamy and almost dark feel to this album, whilst the melodies feel more refined and take longer to make their mark. ‘The Big Dream’ is arguably less cinematic than its predecessor as well, but the synths remain an integral ingredient, bathing each and every composition with a sophisticated, multi-layered glow, without which the whole offering would be fatally undermined.

The precise and bold drumming of Blundell should not go unnoticed, as he acts as the perfect heartbeat for the album, whilst allowing himself a little in the way of flamboyance when the compositions allow or demand it. The very best thing about ‘The Big Dream’ however, is Mitchell’s guitar work. I know that I say this every time I review an album that features Mitchell, but it can’t be helped. The guy is a genius with the instrument, he really is. The way in which he makes the guitar sing is impeccable. But more than that, he is able to convey such emotion in his solos with a touch and feel that I find difficult to express in words. Just listen to the myriad of solos that litter ‘The Big Dream’ and tell me I’m wrong. But in particular, ‘Awakenings’ and the title track feature some of his best work to date.

It feels a little redundant to refer to individual songs such is the consistency and smooth flow that is evident here. However, ‘Sigma’ features one of Mitchell’s best ever vocal performances in my opinion, especially the urgency and power he displays in the rousing chorus. Then there’s the gorgeously bittersweet ‘In Floral Green’, featuring female vocals alongside Mitchell or the more instantly powerful and impactful ‘Everglow’. I also have to mention ‘False Lights’ because it contains what is currently my favourite chorus on the album as well as some excellent bass work in the quieter sections. And I love the reprise from ‘Please Come Home’ nestled within the poignant near-instrumental title track.

‘The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.’ These are the words that bring ‘Symbolic’ to a close and they are profound in the extreme. But, similar could be said for this record. Set aside the better part of an hour, settle down and allow yourself to get swept up in ‘The Big Dream’. Live it, experience it and fall in love with it.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.25

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:

2015 reviews
2016 reviews

Firespawn – The Reprobate
Ancient Ascendant
Pyramaze – Contingent
Shores Of Null – Black Drapes For Tomorrow
Asira – Efference
Hologram Earth – Black Cell Program
Damnations Day – A World Awakens
Memoriam – For The Fallen
Pallbearer – Heartless
Sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius
Vangough – Warpaint
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day

Asira – Efference – Album Review

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Artist: Asira

Album Title: Efference

Label: Independent Release

Date Of Release: 7 April 2017

As little as a week ago, I had never heard of the band Asira. I did not know that they were a new band. I didn’t know that they hailed from Reading on these very shores in the UK. I didn’t know that they were a quintet comprised of vocalist Jack Reynolds, guitarists Martin Williams and Ethan Bishop, bassist Chris Kendell and drummer Sam Greenland. I didn’t know that on 7th April they were to release their debut full-length album entitled ‘Efference’. And, most crucially of all, I didn’t know that the music on this debut album would be so beautiful.

I know all of these things now and my life is much the richer for it.

The musical output of Asira is undeniably quite complex. It is complex in the fact that it draws upon a number of styles and influences across the eight tracks that comprise ‘Efference’. In essence, it is a thorough and fascinating multi-layered and multi-faceted exploration of the subgenre loosely termed as ‘blackgaze’, where savagery and uncompromising black metal sounds are blended with the subtle and evocative beauty of ambient and shoegaze music.

And yet, the skill of Asira has meant that the final product sounds so effortless and so simple. The warm ambient and atmospheric sections sooth and embrace you, whilst the melodies catch your ear almost immediately. And then, even when these passages are replaced by the naked aggression of cold and icy black metal, sometime abruptly, the juxtaposition doesn’t feel forced or clunky in any way. The compositions are ambitious and grand in scope, but they also feel homogenous and eloquent.

I have no qualms in admitting that I am a huge fan of this kind of music and Asira are yet another strong and exciting example of why this is. I regard the likes of Alcest and Les Discrets as the genre leaders and whilst the differences between them are marked, I have no problems in referencing all three in the same breath. I am much less of a fan of Opeth and Steven Wilson and yet even when there are nods in these directions, as evidenced within the short piece entitled ‘Of Dawn’, I’m not left disappointed or underwhelmed. Yes, ‘Efference’ is that good.

Scott Chalmers photography

Scott Chalmers Photography

The opening to the album, ‘Sanguine’ contains some of the most moving sounds this side of modern-day Anathema. It begins with a very simple ambient melody before exploding in a blaze of euphoric warmth and beauty. The sombre tinkling of the ivories as the all-too-brief composition closes is simply gorgeous. It is already at this point that I am hooked and realise that I’m almost certainly about to listen to something special.

And then, with no warning, in comes ‘Crucible Of Light’ with full-on black metal malevolence and spite. Blast beats and fast-picked riffing bombard the senses from the outset but even at this point, melody and sophistication is never far away. In come the blackened screams to add to the intensity but just as quickly, they are replaced by a soothing clean croon and all of a sudden the uncompromising black metal assault is replaced by something more ethereal and majestic, full of melody and atmosphere. A groovy mid-section takes over with a vaguely progressive feel to it before the track reverts back to black metal brutality and then ends with a reprise of the central melody to glorious effect.

There is a much calmer, more introspective opening to the title track , as if to allow the listener to take stock of what went before. The melodies are once again poignant and arresting, capturing my full attention. The blend of clean guitars, synths and almost angelic vocals is inspired. The pace is then lifted although clean, jangling guitars remain at the heart of the bittersweet-sounding composition. After another section of decadent ambience, I’m pulled from my reverie by a fabulous lead guitar solo, whilst it is only the final minute or so that touches on anything remotely connected to extreme metal.

The nods to Opeth are again evident within the opening stages to ‘This Hollow Affliction’ but the show-stopper for me is the expressive and soulful lead guitar work that enters the fray wonderfully. It is one of the longest tracks on ‘Efference’ but its double-figure length is used to good effect, offering plenty of variety along the way. It’s one of the worst clichés in metal journalism but it really does take the listener on a journey through emotional highs and lows. What jumps out at me is the much more pronounced Riverside –esque lead guitar work that rears its head at various points as well as the sublime serenity and remarkable depth of the piece at around the 7:30 mark. It is soon replaced by bludgeoning black metal but the melody and the angelic vocals remain as a thread to the very end.

‘Phosphorous’ delivers more of a punchy and harsh battery of classic symphonic black metal underpinned by a softer shoegaze element to smooth the rough edges, whereas ‘Whispers Of The Moon’, as its name suggests, it a completely different beast, sprawling across seven minutes in languid fashion, offering more melodic bliss within the context of an ambient-meets-progressive rock framework. It slowly builds to a resounding finale that is full of energy, vitality and beauty.

In what feels like the blink of an eye, ‘The Mortal Tide’ arrives to see ‘Efference’ out and, in keeping with the rest of the album, it does so in style. In fact, if anything, there’s more of a prog metal feel to the overall composition as well as the guitars on this track. But fear not as this is never at the expense of the ubiquitous atmospheres, ambience and more extreme elements that Asira execute so well. The vocal melodies that enter around the half-way mark are stunning, only adding to the impact of another brilliantly devised and executed composition.

On the basis of ‘Efference’, I can only predict big things for Asira. If their debut album can be so ambitious, cohesive and assured, what on earth will their second, third and fourth albums sound like. We can only wait and see. However, for now, content yourself with the fact that there’s a new band in existence that has so much potential and simply immerse yourself in ‘Efference’. As blackgaze goes, this is one of the best I’ve heard in a long, long time.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:

2015 reviews
2016 reviews

Hologram Earth – Black Cell Program
Damnations Day – A World Awakens
Memoriam – For The Fallen
Pallbearer – Heartless
Sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius
Vangough – Warpaint
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day