Welcome to the first post in a brand new series called ‘new sounds to wrap your ears around’
The idea of these posts is simple. Every week, I am inundated with requests and/or updates from bands that are either well-known, deep in the underground, or brand new. Often, these requests or updates seek to get me to feature a new song on my website. Up until now, I’ve had to say ‘thanks, but I only have time to feature albums and EPs’.
I hate saying ‘no’ to anyone in a musical context, so I have come up with something that I hope will please everyone: a regular round-up of some of the new sounds that are out there that you may have missed, or you simply weren’t even aware existed. More often than not, the music featured here will then translate into an album or EP review in due course, but it doesn’t have to. This is a new platform to shine the spotlight in any direction and on any subgenre. The only criteria is that I have to like it.
I’m happy to tweak the format dependng on suggestions or feedback, but let’s get started with this first instalment…
— MoMM —
Artist: Hyper Planet
Song Title: “To Live With Wisdom”
Album info: N/A
Hyper Planet are a progressive metal band from Tehran, Iran. I was contacted recently and asked if I would feature their new song on my website. In fact, this was the catalyst for this whole new feature, as I wanted to give the song a bit of a plug. Incorporating traditional instrumentation and lyrics that talk of the struggles of being an Iranian metal band, it immediately interested me. Plus, as you’ll hear, the song itself is a great slab of prog metal that successfully blends melody and complexity together. Check it out:
— MoMM —
Artist: Virtual Symmetry
Song Title: “Come Alive”
Album info: “Virtual Symmetry” – 16 September 2022
Label: Sensory Records
Swiss progressive metal band Virtual Symmetry may be a more widely-known band, but they are featured here for two important reasons. Firstly, they are one of the support acts for Evergrey’s European tour which kicks off on the same day as this self-titled album, their fourth, is released. And secondly, I really like the song. But then, as it’s a realy nice mix of prog metal and Euro power metal, with bucket loads of melody, it’s hardly surprising that I like it, is it?!
— MoMM —
Artist: Demon Hunter
Song: “Silence The World” (feat. Tom Englund)
Album info: “Exile” –9 September 2022
Label: Weapons FMG
Were it not for a loyal reader tipping me off about this song, I might have missed it altogether. So I had to spread the word just in case it had slipped past anyone else’s radar too. Featuring the peerless Tom Englund as a guest vocalist, it immediately piqued my interest and the ensuing moody and atmospheric composition has really grown on me over repeated listens. Unbelievably, the upcoming album, ‘Exile’, is Demon Hunter’s eleventh full-length release. And until a few days ago, I’d never heard of them. I will do all I can to bring you a review in due course. In the mantime, enjoy ‘Silence The World’:
— MoMM —
Album info: “Pagans Rising” – 30 September 2022
Label: ViciSolum Productions
This is a song that caught me by surprise, because I wasn’t expecting anything much when I checked it out recently. I’m not the biggest fan of symphonic metal at the best of times, but this is a little different because it rocks hard, it’s sufficiently heavy, and the melodies are strong. I also like the mix of clean female vocals and growls which normally are a little cliched, but given the attitude and grit within Tina Gunnarsson’s performance, it’s hard not to like the final product. This definitely has potential…
Hailing from Baltimore, Maryland, Greylotus are a relatively new and emerging name in the technical death metal arena. They released an EP in 2018 entitled ‘Savior’, and toured in the US with Abiotic, Cognitive, and God Of Nothing in 2019. Just last weekend, they came to the shores of Blighty to play on the UK Tech Fest bill alongside the likes of Scar Symmetry, The Ocean Collective, and God Is An Astronaut. And now, in 2022, they are on the cusp of releasing their debut album.
Entitled ‘Downfall’, this first full-length record feels like a massive smack in the face in a number of ways. Firstly, the nine tracks spread across nearly three-quarters of an hour contain some pretty hefty and aggressive sounds, with blast beats and rabid riffs in plentiful supply. Then there’s the complexity of the music too, which is impressive in itself, but when coupled with a myriad of different styles, influences, and genres, it becomes quite an intense and daunting prospect. The jewel in the crown though, is the way in which the quintet manages to pull everything together thanks to an inspired and liberal use of melody. I’ve listened to a lot of technical and extreme death metal these past few months, and not all of them succeed because the balance is not quite right as far as I’m concerned. Greylotus don’t suffer from this however, which means that I have become quite smitten with ‘Downfall’.
Admittedly, the album is not perfect; there are some rough edges that will, in time, likely be ironed out. On occasion, for my tastes, the music does veer a little too far into metalcore territory, and a few of the transitions from idea to idea come across as a little clunky or contrived. Plus, at times, the sheer breadth of experimentation on offer does call into question the exact identity of the band. However, that’s where the criticism ends because the rest is pure positivity as far as I’m concerned.
To quote the band directly, “‘Downfall’ explores the self-doubt that accompanies the realization that healing is a non-linear process. It wanders through the pits of self-judgment and confronts what follows when an individual accepts that the best version of themselves is not constrained by perfection.” No wonder then that the music is so varied, given the subject matter, which is a deep and interesting topic for sure.
Given the paucity of information about the band on the press release and across the Internet, you’ll have to forgive me if I am mistaken, but I understand the quintet to be comprised of guitarists Ben Towles and Sanjay Kumar, drummer Matt Tillett, bassist Drewsif Reynolds, and vocalist Lee Mintz. They waste no time in laying waste to our ears either as ‘Rectilinear Motion’ explodes from the speakers in a breathless, extreme attack of ferocious drumming, lightning fast almost neo-classical-style riffs and leads, and savage, possessed screams. The whole thing is laced with a grandiose feel though, thanks to layers of synths, and after a minute or two, an incredibly elegant melody that cuts through the extremity like a knife through butter. It is gone in a flash, but it leaves a lasting impression throughout the next section of the track which offers real cut and thrust thanks to more complex musicianship. A moment of quiet near ambience takes over, the signal for yet more melodic interplay, albeit this time accented by more of a progressive gown. And with that, after one more furious blast of extremity, it’s gone.
With head still reeling, I willingly dive straight into the rest of the album, to uncover what’s in store. The immediate answer is ‘Shadow Archetype’, an initially uncompromising slab of death metal that features deeper vocal growls overall, as well as a greater use of bold and more modern electronic sounds, culminating in a full-on electronic section for a few moments. I’m not sure the song required the ensuing breakdown, as I much prefer the breezier, more melodic closing flourish, capped off by some insanely good lead guitar playing.
The intro to ‘Currents’ is pure melodic death metal nectar, full of precision and elegant, almost epic melody. The remainder of the track isn’t bad either, featuring the first use of clean vocals in a layered, choral manner to only reinforce my ‘epic’ description. And yet, as the song develops, we’re suddenly taken into some twisted death metal-meets-grindcore aural nightmare that then segues into the fastest drumming I’ve heard in a while. Melody is never far away though, as this track borders ‘catchy’ territory which I lap up gleefully. The addition of the string orchestral sounds towards the end is the icing on an already delicious cake.
‘Chiaroscuro’ features spoken-word sections set to an ambient soundscape, the voice gentle and soothing with an English accent (bonus points there gentlemen!), whilst much of the remainder of the song feels like a barely contained, violent stream of consciousness, where the instruments go wherever they please, molten, fluid, and organic. The ending minute or two of ‘Capgras Delusion’ is stunning too, as the pace slows and quickens at will, but retains a wonderful sense of melodic intent. I could have done without the shouted spoken-word part that feels a little unnecessary and slightly ham-fisted, but that aside, the second half of the song is just about flawless.
I could go on with the same level of detail, but instead I’ll mention the sonic destruction created by the classic death metal muscle and pinched harmonics within the opening half of ‘Syzygy’ which I love (the second half suffers from delving too deeply into cliched metalcore realms) as well as the delicate beauty of the introduction to ‘Hoarfrost’. And what about the latter stages of the title track? After a blitz of uncompromising progressive death metal, we’re suddenly met with clean vocals that soar, alongside equally vibrant guitars, a dancing bass, and wondrous, uplifting melodies.
It seems almost fitting that the final track, ‘Azure Rain’ is arguably the most stunning song of them all. There are bursts of breakneck speed, heaviness, and complexity, but the song is built around exquisite melody, ambient textures, deep atmospherics, and in so doing, ends the album in near-perfect fashion. It features a smattering of just about every style of music heard in the preceding eight tracks, from metalcore to electronic, but it just works and gives me a few chills in the process. Yes, there are a couple of minor things I’d change, but that in itself is in keeping with the album as a whole.
And what an album ‘Downfall’ is. Warts and all, I have taken it to my heart, and I feel so grateful to have heard it. As I’ve said many times before, there’s no better feeling than being blindsided by a new band, and Greylotus is that band on this occasion. Every single established technical death metal band needs to watch out, because with more time and experience, Greylotus could become the new force to be reckoned with in the genre. Some will find the melodic sensibilities not to their taste or feel that it dilutes some of the intensity. But I’m not one of those, and as such, cannot recommend Greylotus’ debut, ‘Downfall’ more highly.
I have closely followed the career of Pete Morten ever since I discovered him whilst plying his trade with UK progressive metal band Threshold. Being involved in some of my favourite and most enduring records by one of the best bands within the genre will certainly help with the spotlight. However, in 2017, after a decade in which he played the guitar on both ‘March Of Progress’ (2012) and ‘For The Journey’ (2014), Pete decided that he wanted to focus solely on his own music, and own band, My Soliloquy.
Until now, Pete Morten has released two albums under the My Soliloquy moniker, ‘The Interpreter’ in 2013, followed by ‘Engines Of Gravity’ four years later. And now, in 2022, Pete and My Soliloquy bring us the third instalment, ‘Fu3ion’, this time under his own steam, through his label, Rare Artist Music.
In the spirit of transparency, I do have to declare at this point that I have a friendship with Pete. As I have written in the past, it makes for a difficult review process because I have to constantly question myself and ensure that I am remaining objective with my findings – I do not want to compromise on my integrity, so however much I like the person/people behind the music, I have to remain absolutely honest. If their music stinks, then that’s what I have to report. Fortunately, with a completely clear conscience, I can attest to the complete opposite reality here.
With a noticeable improvement from the debut to the second release, I lavished a score of 9.25 on ‘Engines Of Gravity’. I stand by that score even now. But I am going to have to go even higher here with ‘Fu3ion’ because I am thoroughly impressed with it; it is easily Morten’s best solo material that he has written and performed to date, and that is certainly saying something.
The very first thing that hit me right from the start with ‘Fu3ion’ is that it contains some of the most immediate material that Morten has ever penned. The melodies are big, and when I say ‘big’, I actually mean ‘huge’. There are hooks littered about this record like no-one’s business, something that pleases me greatly. However, if you are a fan of music that’s more progressive and less melodic, you might not end up with the same concluding thoughts as I. That’s not to say that ‘Fu3ion’ is a straight-up melodic metal album, because it isn’t. There is still plenty of prog complexity to be heard, as well as lots of variety. Some of the complexity is very subtle, some of it quite deceptive, but like some of my favourites in the genre, Kingcrow for example, just because it doesn’t sound complicated doesn’t mean that it isn’t.
As I understand it, this more immediate approach to the music on this album was completely deliberate from Pete Morten. And if that was his end game, then he has well and truly succeeded with ‘Fu3ion’. The multi-instrumentalist who handled all guitars, bass, keys, and vocals, not to mention the artwork and production alongside Rob Aubrey (Transatlantic, IQ, Big Big Train, Spock’s Beard) is joined on this venture by his ex-colleague, Threshold’s Johanne James on the drums. It makes for a winning partnership here and reinforces the occasional hint of Threshold within the music on this album. For the avoidance of doubt, this is not a bad thing at all.
‘Fu3ion’ opens with ‘Triunion’, an introductory piece that is ushered in by bold synth sounds and a slow-paced but resolute drumbeat from James. The sounds intensify with a dramatic, cinematic feel, overlaid by the unmistakeable voice of Pete Morten meting out the minimal lyrics in mantra-like style. In terms of building the tension, it’s an excellent way to begin the record.
For me, as interesting as the first track is, it’s in the follow-up, ‘Kingship’ when the magic hits. And it hits me incredibly hard, with the gloriously melodic and powerful chorus hitting a sweet spot with me and resonating so strongly that I get chills and goosebumps almost every time it kicks in. And a lot of this has to do with the soaring, emotional vocals of Morten that sound brilliant here. But the remainder of the song isn’t bad either to put it bluntly. The bass playing is a particularly ear-catching aspect of the song for a start, standing out within a high-tempo energetic intro that also features melodic keys and chunky guitars to create something of a power metal/prog fusion.
You have to back up a great opening song with further high quality though, and that’s exactly what happens here, with track after track delivering something beguiling and thoroughly engaging to listen to. The intro to ‘Mind Storms’ is the kind of output that gets my blood pumping, as it is an epic, melodic affair, with thunderous drumming from James and muscular guitar tones to underline the properly metallic credentials of My Soliloquy. The ensuing verse takes things down a notch but in so doing creates great dynamics, as it’s an atmospheric-led section that deliberately builds to unleash a reprise of the intro as the captivating chorus, so majestic in its sprawling glory. With Pete Morten at the helm, expect some technically adept but engaging lead solos too, with this being one of the most striking to my ears.
I can’t possibly continue to describe each of the ten tracks (twelve if you include the bonus songs that feature as part of the limited-edition version) because if I did, it’d take longer to read than it would to listen to the entire record. As such, allow me to give you more of a flavour of what you can expect as you delve further into ‘Fu3ion’, starting with the shorter, punchier, and slightly heavier ‘The Great Polarity’ which is no less catchy, thanks to a stomping pace and incisive chorus, laced with some great lead guitar flamboyance.
‘Here In The House Of I’ by contrast, is immediately one of the most progressive sounding songs on the album, dominated in the early stages by some arresting synth embellishments and a really nice insistent riff. But once again, I’m floored by the chorus, another thing of impressive beauty, that materialises almost unexpectedly out of nowhere, from within a much more robust, slightly darker and heavy framework, full of drama and intrigue.
It can’t get better, though, can it? Well that depends on your point of view, but ‘Office Of Imaginings’, a near nine-minute monster certainly tries its best. After a more atmospheric and foreboding intro, I’m covered from head to toe in goosebumps once again as Morten hits us with yet another wondrous chorus where vocals and lead guitar lines combine in scintillating fashion not for the first time. I love the way that the song takes its time to get right under the skin, the dense atmospheres and palpable emotion gradually seeping into the listener almost insidiously until the point that you realise just how invested you are with the song as a whole. If that wasn’t enough, Johanne James also adds a little of his rapping talents, but don’t worry, Fred Durst this is not, thankfully, far from it.
‘Interlocuter’ is a lovely change of pace; a shorter track that’s predominantly acoustic guitars, and vocals, with some orchestral style synths and sparce drumming for added depth. That is, until the halfway mark, when a full-on symphonic metal ballad is unleashed in handsome fashion. And then there’s ‘Bury Your Dead’ which, as the title may suggest, is arguably the heaviest song on the album, full of beefy, no-nonsense riffs at its heart, but with some incredibly bold synths in places too, as well as some cracking twists and turns in true prog fashion.
According to the artist himself, the album has been inspired by a best-selling trilogy of books. I have my theories, but I shall keep them to myself so that when you listen, because listen you will, you can form your own theories. But whether I am right or wrong, it doesn’t matter one iota because the music alone is enough to satisfy all my progressive and melodic cravings. ‘Fu3ion’ is an absolute must-have for all like-minded prog fans because it sees the talented, humble, and genuinely lovely Pete Morten at the very top of his game in all respects. I know that the music world is often fickle and unfair, but for once I hope that fairness prevails because if it does, it will mean that Pete Morten and My Soliloquy will achieve the recognition that they so fully deserve. ‘Fu3ion’ is utterly brilliant, simple as.
We’re halfway through 2022 already. How on Earth did that happen? It’s true what they say, that the older you get, the faster time seems to fly by.
However, the good news is that it gives me an excuse to bring you a round-up post of my favourite albums that have been released in the second quarter of the year, between April and June.
In the same way as my post for the first three months of the year (click here to read that), I have listed the releases chronologically. The task of ordering them will come at the end of the year with my mammoth ‘Album Of The Year’ countdown.
On that note, here goes…
Atomic Fire Records
“…you hopefully get the idea just how varied and dynamic this record truly is, and why I like it more than any other Meshuggah record in their now nine-deep discography. It may be a little too long but that’s literally the only gripe I have. In every other way, it’s Meshuggah. But more than that, it’s Meshuggah at their glorious best. And that means that with ‘Immutable’, we’re in the presence of heavy metal greatness.”
“It’ll be interesting to see what others come up with over the next few months but, as it currently stands, ‘The Endgame’ is far and away the best melodic hard rock album of 2022 so far. And it’ll take an awful lot for it to be beaten, that’s for sure.”
“I’m so glad I was introduced to Soledad, because the French quartet have impressed me immensely with their ambitious, bold, eclectic, and slightly eccentric musical vision…listen to ‘XIII’ and, I hope, prepare to be entertained and captivated like I have been. This is easily one of the best progressive records of 2022 so far.”
“…the album takes me back in time and fills me with an infectious nostalgia, and for all the right reasons. This album reminds me in glorious technicolour exactly why I fell for this kind of music in the first place. And it does this because it is lovingly crafted and is of an incredibly high standard throughout.”
“‘A Heartless Portrait (The Orphean Testament)’ is anything but Evergrey’s unlucky thirteenth record. Instead, it only helps to further underline their utter dominance and superiority in my mind, and hopefully in the minds of other fans too. A companion of mine for the last few months, the music on this album has given me strength, support, and the knowledge that I am not alone on this tumultuous journey called ‘life’.”
“…the six songs are chock full of exemplary musicianship from guitar, bass, drums, and vocals alike, just as we would all hope and expect from a band with the reputation that they historically have. To be honest, I’m just delighted that Zero Hour are back. The fact that they bring with them such an enjoyable feast for the ears is just the icing on the cake. Welcome back gents…”
“As extreme metal albums go, ‘Cancer Culture’ has to be up there with the very best that 2022 has had to offer so far. Everything from the slightly disturbing cover artwork to the performances, and from the production to the songs themselves, Decapitated have returned with one hell of a bang. But crucially, the bang is not only thunderous, but it is intelligent, varied, and completely engaging from start to finish.”
“It may have taken 14 years to see the light of day but as far as I’m concerned, it has been more than worth the wait. I absolutely love this album and, if quality black metal is a favourite of yours, then you will too. Without doubt, with ‘Rapture’, Lord Belial have released my favourite out-and-out black metal record of the year so far.”
“It really is hard to fault ‘Hate Über Alles’ when all is said and done, because Kreator have well and truly delivered the goods once again. Power, aggression, venom, and spite collide superbly with expert songwriting, memorable melody, and irresistible catchiness to produce easily one of my favourite thrash records of the past couple of years.”
“Ultimately, I’m just delighted that Seventh Wonder continue to write new music. The fact that they have created another excellent body of music is the icing on the cake…it is so refreshing to hear Tommy Karevik once again unshackled and able to put his own unique talent to full use. When he is in full flow, there are few better vocalists out there…But alongside him are four more supremely talented individuals…As a result, ‘The Testament’ is, quite simply, a joy to listen to from start to finish.”
“With ‘Liminal Rite’, American quartet Kardashev have pulled the rug out from under me and sent me reeling. I said earlier that I feel like this record is a game changer for me, and I truly mean it. I love heavy music and I also adore strong melody; Kardashev have managed to combine the two in a way that I’ve never really heard before and I am left stunned and in awe of this album.”
“I had a feeling that ‘Tiktaalika’ would be good, but I wasn’t banking on it being quite this good if I’m being brutally honest. There is much to enjoy about Charlie Griffith’s debut solo effort, and I keep discovering new things with each passing listen too. No doubt it’ll appeal first and foremost to lovers of the guitar and the almighty riff, but given the diversity of the material and the quality of the songs themselves, I’m certain that the appeal of ‘Tiktaalika’ will be much wider, and rightly so.”
“Add to the package some seriously cool cover artwork, and a production that is crystal clear without detracting from the sheer power and technicality of the music, and you’re staring at one hell of an album. I love the way that bands like Exocrine have managed to open my mind fully to the magnificence of technical and progressive extreme metal, because it is a genuine thrill ride when you get to listen to music that’s this intense, this intricate, and this memorable.”
“…I am delighted to be able to say that ‘Inhuman Spirits’ shows that this quintet have lost none of their ability, hunger, or bite. All that remains is my now heightened ambition to see the Swedes on a stage as I’ve never had the pleasure to date. In the meantime, won’t you all please stop what you are doing and wrap your ears around ‘Inhuman Spirits’, as Darkane are well and truly back.”
For all of my new-found love of some more extreme styles of metal, I will always gravitate back to the progressive metal scene, because it is one of my favourite, and most enduring styles of music, particularly the more ‘classic’ melodic end of the spectrum. It feels, though, as if the pool is getting ever smaller, with less and less new music coming through. This may be an illusion, but that’s how it seems to me. But today, I’m pleased to be able to bring a review of a debut album by a new band that has tapped into the style that I like so much.
The band’s name is Philosophobia, and they first materialised back in 2007 when Andreas Ballnus (Paul Dianno) and Alex Landenburg (Kamelot, Cyrha, Mekong Delta), who had been friends for some time, met up to write and record some new music to accompany a concept that Andreas had written, a prog metal concept to be more precise. Unfortunately, as the press release informs us, existing priorities for the duo meant that this project would have to be put on hold for the intervening years. After a coincidental meeting with Kristoffer Gildenlöw some years later, and his subsequently joining the band, Philosophobia was back in action with added impetus. Rounded out by keyboardist Tobias Weißgerber and Wastefall vocalist Domenik Papaemmanouil, the line-up was finally complete, and the band could bring their music to fruition.
I’ll be honest from the outset and say that this self-titled debut was not love at first listen. But then, neither were many of my favourite albums within this genre, to be fair. It has been a slow burn, but with each passing listen, I have found myself enjoying more and more about this record. In fact, I really like ‘Philosophobia’ now.
Before I get to all of the positives, I must mention that the production. It’s clear, and it isn’t bad per se, it’s just that for my tastes, I’d have preferred it if the music had a little bit more grunt to it. I feel like the guitars, in particular, are robbed just a touch of the impact and muscle that they could have had if the bottom end had been favoured a little more than it has. I also have to query whether a little more judicious editing might have been in order here. I understand that no fewer than six of the songs on this record are the originals from the 2007 writing sessions, and so this might be a factor, with the band very protective over the music that has been sitting patiently in the wings for a decade and a half. But ‘Philosophobia’ feels just a little bloated at times; for a prog metal album, 54 minutes or so isn’t that long, but it feels a bit longer than it is if truth be told.
However (and it’s a big however), all of this fades into the background once you get to grips with this album. It begins in strong fashion with ‘Thorn In Your Pride’, a nine-minute affair that opens with a cinematic intro, dramatic in tone, with a vaguely Middle Eastern voice singing with increasing passion until receding to be replaced by a powerful, catchy, and groovy prog riff, accented by an equally powerful and crisp rhythm section. I wish the riffs bit more, but they remain impactful, as do the synths. From there, the composition takes a number of twists and turns, but they are all as memorable as each other. The voice of Domenik Papaemmanouil doesn’t enter until the end of the fourth minute, when the heaviness recedes in place of some gentle, but rich and welcoming melodies. As you might expect from a prog composition, there is plenty of instrumental prowess, but it’s also mixed with some aggressive semi-growls which lend a more modern twist. The section at around the seven-and-a-half-minute mark is where you’ll find my favourite part of the song, such is the beauty of the melody and the accompanying soaring vocals.
It’s a brave move to open up a debut album with two songs that together account for eighteen minutes of the album, but ‘I Am’ follows the opener and is nearly as long, albeit with a different vibe to it. The riff that introduces it is a classic prog stomper, that’s muscular but also littered with great technique and embellishments that make it impossible for me to describe succinctly. But the energy that feeds through the music is palpable. The change of direction is all the starker because it’s a detour into quiet, lush melodic territory, led by a lovely lead guitar line and complimented by tinkling pianos. There’s even a brief foray into more of a heavy power/speed metal direction where drums and bass gallop off. I detect a Threshold/Damian Wilson vibe in some of the vocals within one of the biggest ‘growers’ on the album.
‘Time To Breathe’ is an interesting track, with plenty of light and shade, going from quiet and introspective, to pronounced explosions of emotion and power. This is one of those tracks that would have benefitted from that beefier sound I referred to earlier, but it’s still an enjoyable affair. ‘Between The Pines’ is a sensational track to follow though. Dominated by keys and vocals, it’s a brooding and emotional ballad like track with poignant melodies throughout topped off superbly by an evocative lead guitar solo.
‘As Light Ceased To Exist’ benefits from some of the most immediate melodies on offer throughout ‘Philosophobia’ as well as a stunning intro where keyboardist Tobias Weißgerber adds depth and gravitas via some lovely orchestration alongside the piano. Dare I suggest a slight Shadow Gallery vibe to the song? Yes, I think I do, even though these vibes are fleeting and oblique to say the least, but most heard within the extended instrumental workout at the heart of the song.
Realising that I’m in danger of turning this into a song-by-song, blow-by-blow review, I’ll just mention one of the final three compositions. And that song is entitled ‘Voices Unheard’. The other two tracks have plenty to offer, which you will be able to discover if this review has sufficiently piqued your interest. However, ‘Voices Unheard’ is my undoubted favourite of the closing trio. From the opening aggression created by a forceful riff that has hints of latter-day Symphony X to it, to easily the most insidiously catchy chorus on the album, this is a belting composition. Sitting here now, it’s bizarre to think that I didn’t rate it much to begin with, but isn’t that the beauty of prog sometimes? The best bit of the song though, is undoubtedly the quieter passage at its heart where you get to hear some stunning keys, bass, and guitar, before the song builds again and we’re slapped around the chops by a glorious lead guitar solo. The spoken-word samples that emerge at the death are the icing on the cake.
There you have it. Yes, it could have had a production better suited to my personal taste, but if we remove that from the equation, you’re left with a really rather wonderful collection of progressive metal songs. The music may not resonate fully with you right from the start, but I guarantee that if you give it some time and proper attention, there’s too much quality here for it not to have an impact upon you. Philosophobia have, with their debut album, positioned themselves in a very strong position to quickly become one of the most talked about new bands within the progressive metal sphere. And rightly so, too. If you like prog, checking this out is a genuine no-brainer.
My love and admiration for the progressive metal band Haken is something with which regular readers of manofmuchmetal.com will be all too familiar. Hell, I even wrote a piece suggesting that Haken might be the best band from the UK currently plying their trade. That thought may resonate, or it might seem like misguided hyperbole but either way, it demonstrates the strength of feeling I have for a band that I have steadfastly followed since the beginning. It was something of a no-brainer then, when I was presented with the opportunity to check out the debut solo album, ‘Tiktaalika’ by Haken guitarist Charlie Griffiths.
Handling the guitars, bass, keyboards, as well as writing the material and even singing lead vocals on a song, Griffiths demonstrates just how annoyingly talented he is as a musician on ‘Tiktaalika’. He is then joined throughout the album by drummer Darby Todd (Frost*, Devin Townsend), as well as a number of guest musicians including Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess, and saxophonist Rob Townsend (Steve Hackett). The list of guest vocalists is also eye-watering, as it includes Tommy Rogers (Between The Buried And Me), Danïel De Jongh (Textures), Vladimir Lalić (Organized Chaos), and Neil Purdy (Luna’s Call).
In anyone’s language, this is a hefty cast of musicians, so undoubtedly, expectations in various quarters were very high. But all of the star names in the world cannot save an album that suffers from poor songwriting, so it is imperative that this is not a stumbling block right at the outset. Thank goodness that Charlie Griffiths is a talented guy and a consummate professional, because almost immediately, I was able to relax and absorb the music on ‘Tiktaalika’ with a smile on my face.
As a side note, whilst there might be some slight play on words with a certain Bay Area thrash band, the bulk of the title of this album is inspired by the ‘Tiktaalik’, an extinct species that was present on Earth some 375 million years ago, a special creature that helped us to better understand the evolution of dinosaurs, fish, and land mammals. I’d never heard of it, so props to Mr Griffiths for making another day a school day. Love that!
My oblique reference to Metallica makes sense from the very get go of ‘Tiktaalika’, because the opening track, ‘Prehistoric Prelude’ begins in a manner that immediately reminds me of the wonderful opening of the classic track, ‘Battery’. When you hear the tone of the acoustic guitar and the chosen melody, you’ll understand. From there, the heaviness cranks up, eventually opening up into a full-on, speedy thrash metal work out complete with energetic riffs, thunderous drumming, and exuberant lead guitar soloing.
One of the big selling points with ‘Tiktaalika’ is Griffith’s return to a six-string guitar with the man himself remarking just how easily the riffs started to come to him. And this album is a proper riff heavy affair that leaves the listener in no doubt about the truth of this statement. ‘Arctic Cemetery’, featuring Tommy Rogers is a microcosm of everything that Charlie Griffiths is clearly striving for with this record; it is subtle, nuanced, heavy, and memorable. But most of all, it is varied, keeping the listener on their toes. It helps that Rogers delivers both his quiet, clean tones as well as his more aggressive style, because it creates another layer of variation. But between the chunky, groovy riffs, delicate melodies, and whimsical, atmospheric chorus, not to mention the numerous peaks and troughs, the song never sits still, with creativity seemingly oozing from every pore.
From there, we’re confronted with further experimentation, seemingly at every turn. ‘Luminous Beings’ is far more progressive in tone, with a stronger jazzy, fusion feel to large portions of it. The vocals of Danïel De Jongh are really excellent, completely in keeping with the soundtrack upon which he sings. The quieter moments allow Griffiths’ not inconsiderable bass talents to come more to the fore too, as he delves deeper into out-and-out prog before pulling us back from the brink with a satisfyingly bruising riff alongside a typically non-standard time signature.
As my favourite track of them all begins, you’re left in no doubt about the quality of the production, handled by Nolly Getgood. It is superb, bringing all of the songs to life. However, ‘In Alluvium’, one of three songs that extends beyond eight minutes, is a stand-out affair. The synth-heavy opening is melodious and enticing with the ensuing mid-paced groove utterly compelling, enhanced by Vladimir Lalić’s singing. The drumming from Darby Todd is marvellous too as the song slowly increases the intensity, dishing out killer riff after killer riff. The one-take keyboard solo courtesy of Jordan Rudess is impressive, but so is the whole song which again acts as a smorgasbord of different styles and inspirations, all wrapped up in some catchy as hell melodies.
I wasn’t originally as much of a fan of ‘Dead In The Water’ given my general dislike of the saxophone but I have been won over for the most part thanks to Griffiths’ songwriting prowess. Once again, the disparate has been forged into something surprisingly cohesive, dominated again by some instantly memorable and muscular progressive metal riffing and a hint of ‘The Mountain’ era Haken. Then there’s the epic-sounding segment that emerges after a brief foray into more extreme metal territory. Neil Purdy’s clean vocals join what feels like an outpouring of melodic emotion, before there’s a clever return to the motif from ‘In Alluvium’ at the death.
On ‘Digging Deeper’, an overall more delicate song, Charlie sings. It’s more of a hushed, delicate and tentative delivery, often strongly effect-laden, but it is a great vehicle to explore another different soundscape. With an echo of ‘Affinity’-era Haken thanks to the chosen samples and electronic effects, it further demonstrates Charlie Griffiths’ desire to keep experimenting.
The title track is an instrumental piece that is positively brimming with exuberance, instant feel-good melody and yes, you’ve guessed it, a ton of riffs. It feels very much as if this was the chance for Griffiths to go all-out and tell the world what an incredible guitarist he is – and he succeeds in the strongest of ways. Blazing solos, clever time signatures, light and shade, and groove by the truck full, it has everything you could want if you’re a lover of the six-string.
And finally, ‘Crawl Walk Run’ rounds things out in tandem with ‘Under Polaris’. The former reminds me a little of bands like latter-day Symphony X thanks to the high tempo and intricate riffs, despite some savage growls from Danïel De Jongh. The latter sees the album come full circle with a return of some impossibly fast guitar work that’s part prog, part thrash akin to the opener. But led by the vocals of Tommy Rogers, it also sees a reprise of several of the melodies seen throughout the album. I love this sort of thing, and it means that, as far as I’m concerned, ‘Tiktaalika’ ends in the strongest and most captivating way possible. The return of the acoustic guitar at the death in particular sends a shiver down my spine.
I had a feeling that ‘Tiktaalika’ would be good, but I wasn’t banking on it being quite this good if I’m being brutally honest. There is much to enjoy about Charlie Griffith’s debut solo effort, and I keep discovering new things with each passing listen too. No doubt it’ll appeal first and foremost to lovers of the guitar and the almighty riff, but given the diversity of the material and the quality of the songs themselves, I’m certain that the appeal of ‘Tiktaalika’ will be much wider, and rightly so. The only problem for Charlie Griffiths now, is how does he go about topping this on his sophomore release? Tune in 375 million years from now to find out!
Just when 2022 was beginning to feel disappointing when it came to progressive metal, the balance has begun to be redressed. In the last month or so, we’ve had new albums from Zero Hour and Spheric Universe Experience, whilst others have been announced and will see the light of day over the coming months. And there’s this, the latest release from one of the very best still plying their trade. I am, of course, referring to Seventh Wonder, the Swedish powerhouse of technical and melodic progressive metal. We had to wait eight long years for their sixth album, ‘Tiara’, but mercifully, the wait for ‘The Testament’, the seventh full-length album, has been a comparatively short four years. Hurrah to that, I say.
Ever since vocalist Tommy Karevik joined the Kamelot ranks, I have lived in some fear that it would spell the end for Seventh Wonder. And, if truth be told, the thought upset me more than I thought it would, especially given that Kamelot only seems to let this sensational vocalist unleash about 60% of his full potential, preferring he become something of a Khan clone rather than truly himself. But Seventh Wonder are far more than just a vehicle for Karevik; the quintet are supremely talented musicians across the board, with jaw-dropping technical ability, and a songwriting prowess that ensures their compositions are not just exercises in impressive complexity. No, Seventh Wonder write songs, songs that contain hooks, melodies, storylines, thus possessing a longevity that makes us fans want to come back for repeated listens. ‘The Testament’ is no different on that score, meaning that it is yet another incredibly strong addition to their catalogue.
At this juncture, I will be the first to admit that I perhaps got a little carried away with my review of ‘Tiara’. I still maintain that it is a great record, but over the last few years, I’ve not returned to it as much as I thought I would back then. With this in mind, I have tried to be a little more cautious and circumspect this time around when reviewing ‘The Testament’. The only problem is, it is seriously ticking all of my favourite boxes at the moment, and I cannot conceive of a future reality where this ceases to be the case.
The magic begins right off the bat with the opening track, ‘Warriors’, which begins with some serious crunch thanks to a cracking opening riff. The guitar tone of Johan Liefvendahl is heavy and authoritative, eventually joined by the rumbling bass of Andreas Blomqvist, Stefan Norgren’s energetic drumming, and swathes of synths courtesy of Andreas Söderin. As the song hits its straps, the progressive riff is engulfed by a groovy swagger, where the keys become a little more dominant increasing both the atmosphere and the melodic strength of the track. And from the moment that Karevik opens his mouth, you can hear that he is a different singer with Seventh Wonder; his delivery is full of emotion, and his performance just feels more dynamic and engaging as a result. It also helps that ‘Warriors’ is blessed with an immediate chorus that soars, pleasing my battered ears immensely. Solos, chops, and instrumental dexterity are all present, but they fit within the context of the song rather than the other way around, meaning that it never feels too pretentious or complex.
In many ways the scene for ‘The Testament’ has been set, in that this album is one that will please those who enjoy Seventh Wonder at their most melodic. There is only one song that reaches the eight-minute mark, as the focus here seems to be on creating a collection of songs that have immediacy as well as allowing the musicians to flex their creative muscles just enough. And, after all, compositions don’t have to be long to be progressive as the Swedes ably demonstrate here.
‘The Light’ is a brilliant composition with a delightfully catchy, almost AOR or pop-like chorus at its heart, but the verses are brisk affairs with plenty of clever dexterity present if you care to listen out for it. As good as all of the performances are within this song, my ears are drawn to the bass of Andreas Blomqvist, especially when the track quietens to allow him to deliver a dancing solo, followed up by one from keyboardist Andreas Söderin for good measure. The song drips with emotion too, especially in the latter stages, recalling the perfect ‘Mercy Falls’ output.
If it’s possible by this stage, ‘I Carry The Blame’ goes one further than the opening duo in my estimations. It has more of a ballad feel to it and so is not as ‘blood and thunder’ as the previous songs, but Karevik is utterly magnetic with his performance, whilst the chorus sends a shiver down my spine. By contrast, ‘Reflections’ is an instrumental piece that allows the technicality to come much more to the fore. As a result, you get solos and flamboyance aplenty throughout from all corners, but still within a song framework with melody and structure. I’ll be honest though and admit to it not being my favourite track overall, as it doesn’t wow me in the way others do.
Things return to their brilliant best though quickly with ‘The Red River’, a slightly darker, more dramatic composition that nevertheless features plenty of light and shade, as well as another sprawling but arresting chorus. I also love the pinched harmonics that Johan Liefvendahl delivers in true Seventh Wonder style.
Both ‘Mindkiller’ and ‘Under A Clear Blue Sky’ dazzle as the album nears its twilight. The former is a vibrant composition, albeit in a crunchy, heavy way, with more of a muscular intent. The melodies are definite growers, but they are no less impactful, whilst the guitar and keys trade solos in a way that only prog bands can get away with. The latter is the longest piece on ‘The Testament’ and it opens quietly, tentatively, but with greater assertiveness as it gradually flowers into a driving composition that plays around with plenty of ideas, all of which come together to create a fully satisfying end product. If anything, this is the track where the keys of Andreas Söderin come into their own with bold sounds and extended virtuosic solos making quite an impact at various stages.
However, the album’s finale, ‘Elegy’, takes us back to the days of ‘Mercy Falls’ at its most poignant and emotional. It is a richly orchestrated song that sees Tommy Karevik take the spotlight, alongside acoustic guitars and beautiful symphonics, to test our resolve fully. The lyrics tell a melancholy tale, brought to life by the talented vocalist who leaves nothing behind to create maximum impact. It is enhanced by the bittersweet folk-tinged melodies that can’t fail to touch me every time I listen, bringing me close to tears once or twice.
Ultimately, I’m just delighted that Seventh Wonder continue to write new music. The fact that they have created another excellent body of music is the icing on the cake. I wish no ill towards Kamelot because they are a great band in their own right, but it is so refreshing to hear Tommy Karevik once again unshackled and able to put his own unique talent to full use. When he is in full flow, there are few better vocalists out there in the progressive metal sphere, as ‘The Testament’ underlines time and time again. But alongside him are four more supremely talented individuals who have come together one more time to write and perform some superb melodic progressive metal as only they can. As a result, ‘The Testament’ is, quite simply, a joy to listen to from start to finish.
When I received the email alerting me to this album, the content of the press release had me salivating like a starving lion in the Serengeti. Featuring a fantastic line-up comprised of multi-instrumentalist Markus Sigfridsson (Darkwater, Harmony), drummer Leo Margarit (Pain Of Salvation), vocalist Erik Tordsson (End Of September), and bassist Raphael Dafras (Edu Falaschi, Almah), the email then went on to tell me that this was an album for fans of Evergrey, Soen, Pain Of Salvation, and Darkwater.
Imagine my levels of excitement at the very prospect of this all being true. Now imagine the levels of disappointment on discovering that ‘Shadow Way’ does not live up to the grandstand billing that it has received. I should have known, because press releases are more often than not full of nonsense, aimed at deliberately pulling us in to get us to review the latest release on the record label’s roster. But even so, I have to say that this record has been one of the biggest disappointments of the year so far.
I must be careful to be transparent at this point though. My disappointment is not because the music is of a poor quality, or because the performances or the production let it down. That’s not the case at all. My disappointment comes from the fact that I had such lofty expectations given the clientele involved, and because of the promise that this would appeal to fans of the aforementioned bands. As you’re all fully aware, I adore Evergrey, but on ‘Shadow Way’, I hear almost nothing that would warrant the reference. And the same goes for Pain Of Salvation and Darkwater; just because the band features members of these bands, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the output will sound similar. The closest reference point would be Soen I would suggest, although this is pushing things a little.
To my ears, vocalist Erik Tordsson gives the music more of a power metal sheen, as his delivery is generally within a higher register and he can wail with impressive power when the music demands it. All Things Fallen are definitely progressive, but the chosen synth sounds lend it much more of a classic, almost 70s vibe at times. Each of the musicians brings their undoubted skills to the party too, with the drumming of Leo Margarit and bassist Raphael Dafras together making the biggest impact upon me. If I’m honest, Tordsson is an acquired taste that I do warm to, whilst I feel more than a little disappointed by the chosen guitar tones and delivery. His solos are out of the top drawer and I am in no way criticising his technical ability, but I just wish that the riffs of Markus Sigfridsson were given more crunch, more power, and more menace. I also wish they were sometimes more front and centre, as they can get lost within the mix at times. On songs like ‘Desert Of The Real’, they make much more of an impact and if you were to listen to this track in isolation, you’d think my previous comments to be misguided or way off the mark. But it’s not always the case throughout ‘Shadow Way’ unfortunately.
The biggest failing of the music, however, is a real lack of a ‘wow’ factor. For all of the top-quality musicianship, I can’t help but feel that the songs themselves fail to stack up. Whether it’s the chosen melodies, or a number of other small things, such as the unnecessary bloated lengths of some of the tracks, I don’t warm to as much of the material as I want to, or think that I should. It’s frustrating and maddening in equal measure. I find myself listening again, certain that I must have missed something because ‘surely a line-up this talented won’t create something that I find disappointing?’ Unfortunately, I am still to have that epiphany – that’s the reason why this review comes after the release, as I wanted to give it as long as possible before writing anything about it. But the time has come.
One of the more engaging songs is first up in the form of ‘The Sentinel’. The bass immediately catches my ear, rumbling with real authority. I like the stomping groove that is carried throughout the song too, as well as a cracking lead guitar solo, and the key change that crops up in the second half of the song. But as with my comments above, I want the guitar riffs to be more prominent than they are, and I also find that the bold keys detract just a little from my overall enjoyment.
By far and away, the best two songs on ‘Shadow Way’ are ‘Pandemonium’ and ‘Desert Of The Real’ and if more of the material was on a par with these tracks, then we’d be staring at a very different review right now. In the case of the former, it features some gorgeous violins courtesy of guest Maria Grigoryeva, but it is easily the strongest in terms of melody and memorable songwriting. The chorus is hook-filled, the swagger is infectious, and the guitars seem more integral to this song than others – when I listen to this track, I really smile, but I also silently bemoan a case of what could have been. I also like the funky guitar-led section somewhere at the heart of the song which injects a little variety into proceedings.
‘Desert Of The Real’ is the enigma is that it features prominent keys that I don’t always like elsewhere, and is the longest at over eight minutes. Nevertheless, the vague Middle Eastern flavour is a nice touch, whilst the song also features some stunning, yet subtle melodies that grow with every passing listen, to the point where I actually want to listen to the song on multiple occasions, sometimes even back-to-back.
I could try to dissect more of this album but, to be honest, I know when I’m beaten. I am absolutely certain that many of you will find much more enjoyment than I do with ‘Shadow Way’ because as I’ve said before, the music is far from being poor. If you’re one of those then I am genuinely pleased for you. For me though, aside from a couple of really good tracks, I will probably be shelving the record and not adding All Things Fallen to my ever-expanding CD collection I’m afraid.
This is my first experience of IATT, and I’m listening to ‘Magnum Opus’, their third album, having read some positive reviews elsewhere of previous records. I’m also taking the plunge because the band find themselves on Black Lion Records, a label that has released some very good albums in the last couple of years. Billed as simply ‘extreme metal’ in the press release, but it doesn’t take long to realise that this is a gross over-simplification. Within the music found on ‘Magnum Opus’ you can hear elements of black, death, and progressive metal, as well as plenty more besides. It is quite a daunting listen initially, as there’s a lot to get your head around, but once you get to grips with it, ‘Magnum Opus’ is definitely very rewarding. Except for one element, that is, that threatens to ruin the entire thing for me personally.
The Philadelphia-based quartet is comprised of vocalist/bassist Jay Briscoe, guitarists Joe Cantamessa and Alec Pezzano (who also handles the orchestrations), and drummer Paul Cole. Based on the content of this album, they are undoubtedly a talented bunch of musicians. However, on this ‘Magnum Opus’, they have enlisted the talents of a number of notable guest artists to further expand and flesh out their musical vision. These guests include Ben Karas of Windfaerer and Thank You Scientists fame who adds his violin to a handful of songs, Jake Superchi of Uada, who adds vocals to one song, and a guitar solo from Daryl Baker. So far so good.
And then it all goes a bit wrong. Jorgen Munkeby (Shining, Emperor) and Burial In The Sky’s Zach Strouse are enlisted as guest saxophonists on no less than three songs. And they are not small guest appearances either, as the sax is used extensively in each, either as an extended solo, or as frequent embellishments. No. No, and thrice no. I will readily admit that they are both highly talented individuals, and their contributions reflect this. And I also concede that it is purely my own taste that means I have a problem with the inclusion of the saxophone. But to me, the songs are made worse by their inclusion. I have tried, I really have. But I just don’t want to hear that instrument in the heavy metal. The odd song, I can stomach, but not three, and not this widespread and potent, I’m sorry. Yes, it’s my issue, but I have to be honest. I also want to be fair, so I will award two scores below – one for me, and one for everyone else.
It’s a real shame too, because I like an awful lot of the music on this record, and I hate the fact that the overall experience is compromised by the choices made. But if I’m reviewing an album, I can’t just ignore large swathes of it and pretend they don’t exist.
‘Magnum Opus’ begins in fine fashion too, with ‘Servitude, Subjugate’ exploding into life after an interesting violin-led intro. Throughout the course of the five minutes, we’re hit with savage blackened death metal led by fast-paced drumming, staccato riffs, and dry, rasping growls. But this is cleverly interspersed with moments of quieter reflection, or with out-and-out progressive experimentation, complete with strange sounds and textures woven into the sonic tapestry.
‘Ouroboros’ begins promisingly too, with a noticeable increase in the melodic offering. The vocals flit between the higher-pitched rasps and something deeper. But as we near the two-minute mark, in comes the saxophone of Jorgen Munkeby and I just lose all interest. Delivering both melodic passages as well as deliberately off-kilter sounds, it is present without pause for over a minute and then returns later. Not even the quiet, clean-guitar-led atmospheric section, which is beautiful by the way, can appease me, I’m that disappointed.
‘Prima Materia’ does its best to pull me back to the fold, and to some extent, it succeeds. The overtly Gothic synths that give the song a vague Cradle Of Filth feel are a nice touch, but not overdone, whilst the guitar riffs and blastbeat drumming push the track into greater black metal territory than anything else. What I didn’t expect was the mid-song shift into beautiful but dark melodic opulence that has me grinning from ear to ear. And then, for the love of God, more blasted sax, this time courtesy of Jach Strouse. Seriously? The only saving grace is that it is well played, but isn’t present for too long. And when the guest solo from guitarist Daryl Baker hits, it just emphasises how much better this instrument fits the music than the saxophone.
Tracks such as ‘Elixir Of Immortality’ and ‘Demiurgos (Architect Of Disaster)’ are well-crafted affairs that bring much positivity to proceedings. The former is a slower, more atmospheric track for much of the time, but isn’t shy of mixing up the pace at points, as well as increasing the intricacy when required. The latter is much more aggressive, and faster in tempo, as well as a touch more avant-garde with an odd but satisfying mid-section that features an incredibly bold synth solo amongst other things.
One of my favourite tracks however, has to be the delightful ‘Exculpate, Exonerate’ which features a wonderful cameo from violinist Ben Karas, but which is also one of the most immediate compositions on ‘Magnum Opus’ thanks to arguably the strongest and most overt melodic sensibilities on the entire record. Even when it veers into more progressive climes, the melody remains, which I find very impressive.
‘Planes Of Our Existence’ would be another great composition if it wasn’t for…well you know the rest. At the half-way mark, there’s a marked increase in atmospheric, epic melody which catches my ear only for my excitement to be deflated by another couple of minutes of intermittent saxophone embellishment. ‘Seven Wandering Stars’ by contrast is awash with dextrous, wonderful lead guitar work that only makes me wish that more of the solos could have been guitar-led.
By now, you are no doubt bored of me and my personal soapbox, so I will conclude this review by saying that if certain instruments don’t put you off, you will find a great deal on this latest album from IATT to entertain and intrigue you. Blending a multitude of ideas together as they do is not easy, but by and large IATT are successful with their endeavours. I just wish they’d not made a couple of the choices that they have here. Oh well, I’ll just have to wait until the next album to see what IATT come up with next.
The Score of Much Metal: 68% (85% for everyone else)
I’m a little late to the party with this record, but I have my reasons. The album in question is ‘Mercurial’, the third full-length album from Virginia-based US progressive metal band and one of the main reasons I’m lagging behind is because the trio never make it easy for me. I’m in no way suggesting that they should make their music easy for reviewers, but every one of Iris Divine’s records that I have reviewed have been tricky to write. Yet again with ‘Mercurial’, I have had to take some serious time to get my thoughts in order and decide what I really think about this record. But I believe I’m finally there, and happy to commit my opinion to writing.
Comprised of the core trio of Navid Rashid (vocals, guitar, programming), Brian Dobbs (bass), and nw drummer Scott Manley, Iris Divine have chosen to explore the subject of human emotions on ‘Mercurial’, delving into quite deep ideas such as how our emotions may limit our perceptions, or change our individual or collective outlook on life. It’s definitely an album to get you thinking, so if you relish lyrics and subject matter that go beyond the basic, then ‘Mercurial’ immediately puts a tick in the box.
What’s so great about this album, is the way I which the music echoes the intelligence of the subject matter. I can now say this with some confidence having been a little on the fence early on in this listening journey. In my defence, I’ve never been the biggest fan of alternative rock and grunge, so when these genres present a significant element to Iris Divine’s music, it takes a bit of getting used to, and I needed some time to warm to it all. But then, with compositions that are equally as influenced by the likes of Rush and Kings X, alongside a flavour all of their own, it was probably only a matter of time before the prog lover in me started to feel the pull of the music and erase any doubts I had at the outset.
In fact, as I sit here now typing this review, I’m not entirely sure how I didn’t enjoy it as much to begin with. There is so much going on within the music that it feels like it should be longer than 39 minutes; the three musicians certainly like to cover a lot of ground within their compositions as the eight tracks here ably demonstrate.
Perhaps the initial reticence was caused by the first song here, ‘Bitter Bride’, because of them all, it is arguably one of the spikiest and confrontational songs I’ve heard from Iris Divine. Kicking off with a jangly sounding riff, powerful rhythms and soundbites of spoken word, it’s something of an intense opening, verging on a cacophonous wall of competing sounds. When it settles into its true rhythm, it becomes much more of a driving, up-tempo piece that introduces a grower of a melody or two in combination with Rashid’s first vocal lines. That said, the clashing sounds return alongside some caustic vocals at points to keep the listener on their toes, and under no illusion that the trio are angry and in confrontational mood. With time though, the energy of the song, as well as the great musicianship overtake all else to ultimately win me over. It will never be my favourite track on ‘Mercurial’, but it’s a grower that I now enjoy.
It doesn’t help either when the opening moments of follow-up track, ‘Silver Tongued Lie’ feature brass embellishments in the form of what I believe are trumpets, giving the song an immediate ska edge. Urgh. However, all is forgiven when I’m hit first with some muscular riffs, and then with some irresistible hooks and melodies within the song’s stunning chorus. I cannot get enough of it, it’s that good, and it acted as the catalyst to force the necessary repeat plays to get to this point. I owe it a debt of gratitude for sure.
The full force of Iris Divine’s progressive tendencies emerge in spades within ‘Thirteen’, a longer track that uses its time wisely to explore a number of different soundscapes within what feels like a darker, more brooding cloak overall. The funky bass playing, incisive but meaty riffs, and dextrous drumming within the extended mid-song instrumental passages all underline the technical credentials of the musicians, whilst the inclusion of numerous shifts in tempo, and bold keys add depth, drama, and intrigue to the song. It’s another composition that has grown on me to the point that I now really like it, and look forward to when it arrives in the running order.
Two songs that were much more instantaneous appear in the form of ‘Sapphire’ and ‘Death By Consensus’ respectively. The former skips along with a really upbeat swagger that’s infectious, as are the melodies that weave in and out of the track. The vocal effects are interesting too, as are the subtle ethnic melodies in the latter stages, both of which add further ingredients to the mix.
‘Death By Consensus’ is an instrumental track, but it’s full of energy from the very first note, seemingly unwilling to pause for breath. Happily though, this is an instrumental that grabs the attention of the listener pretty swiftly thanks to the electric performances from all three members. There are plenty of complex ideas swirling around, but at it’s heart is a slightly more simplistic melodic hard rock vibe that veers into AOR territory thanks to some delicious, warm melodies that put a smile on my face every time I listen. Of course, there are moments of gratuitous soloing by bass, drums, and guitar alike, as well as the odd foray into discordant jazz territory, but it’s never overdone, and it doesn’t get in the way of the song’s overall vibe.
The alternative rock/metal influences come to the fore with gusto within ‘Negative Seed’, albeit tempered by overt proggy vibes that are liberally sewn throughout the song. However, the angry spoken lyrics and attitude of the track nearly put me off until the bruising, groovy melodies thundered through the speakers in the second half of the song, pulling me round to their way of thinking yet again.
And that’s the story with the entirety of ‘Mercurial’ too, because, despite some early misgivings about the strength of the alternative and grungy elements, I have been won over. And not just a little bit – I’ve been won over comprehensively. There’s clearly a hugely positive chemistry within the band that shines through a lot of the material and, when coupled with the intelligent song writing, there is an awful lot to enjoy on this record. If you were a fan before, you’ll not be disappointed. And if you weren’t a fan previously, but you like high quality progressive music that’s just a little bit different, I urge you to put this high up on your list to check out. I’m not a betting man, but if I was, I’d be laying down good money that Iris Divine will be gathering a glut of new fans with ‘Mercurial’, and rightly so.