14th August, 2008

visitorConcept albums can be nothing short of disastrous (Styx’s Kilroy was Here???). Or they can be mind-blowing, timeless classics (Pink Floyd’s The Wall immediately springs to mind). Water’s focused on loneliness. Here, Arena hone in on pain, death, redemption, humankind’s purpose, and the nature of knowledge all with a religious slant, and are assisted by The Visitor, a metaphysical concept, or spirit being, travelling through time. So, a suitably epic idea from a consistent neo-progressive band; a recipe for another timeless classic. And the result?

As far as concept albums go, this one falls somewhere right of centre. On paper it overflows with potential, but tiny flaws hold it back from reaching total greatness.

Neo-prog gets slated for its more than intimate associations with Gabriel-era Genesis. Just one listen to this record and the references to Tony Bank’s keyboard style are unavoidable and sometimes become irritating, especially on ‘Pins and Needles’ and ‘Blink of an Eye’. Secondly, Paul Wrightson’s vocals might not appeal to everyone. His accent is very middle-class English, and he tends to emphasise some words in a way that doesn’t fit the song’s rhythm. His tone also makes lines which are meant to sound aggressive, sound almost sarcastic and comical, most noticeable on ‘(Don’t Forget To) Breathe’. Also, some tracks here are quite noticeably weaker than others, namely ‘Enemy Without’.

There may be a few problems, but for the majority of the time, they get in the way like a Stop sign gets in the way of a Panzer. If you want to be niggardly then fine, but here is a wealth of incredible material here. If you’re a Genesis fan you won’t care, and the issues with the vocals could be pedantry gone mad. With a concept album, album structure is thrown into the mix; relatively easy if the concept involves a story, but this is more of a musical essay. Across the fourteen tracks, pain, death and their friends are stylishly intertwined, expressed both musically and lyrically. ‘Serenity’ and ‘Elea’ break up the album but are by no means fillers, both being highly-charged guitar leads. ‘Running from Damascus’ ties everything up, paving the way for one of the best guitar solos I have ever heard; don’t play ‘The Visitor’ from 03:15 onwards near any glaciers. They will shatter in seconds. A grand ending to match the grand opening of ‘A Crack in the Ice’.

Song structure is equally impressive (‘Double Vision’ boasts time signature changes from through 5/4, 6/8 and 7/8, and what’s more, it works), and tracks such as ‘The Hanging Tree’ have been put together with an almost motherly care; quaint minor arpeggios, crushing suspended chords, rousing choruses and powerful guitar solos create a track not epic in length, but in sound. Most of the songs here are not the usual six plus minutes you would expect from a progressive rock band, but that is more due to the organisation of the album along the lines of “everything must work together”, rather than a lack of musical creativity, or longevity for the sake of longevity.

Aside from being a sophisticated and effective musical discussion of humanity’s darker aspects, one of the album’s greatest achievements is its ability to hide its flaws. Unless you’re naturally pedantic, or are reviewing the thing (or both), this is an hour long marvel.

10/10

Published on sputnikmusic, August 2008 http://www.sputnikmusic.com/album.php?albumid=20975

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15th June, 2008

circus_maximusCircus Maximus have the technical side of progressive metal covered, having spent their earlier days covering Dream Theater and Symphony X material. It’s just a shame they didn’t pick up a few more songwriting tips…

This is by no means a bad effort from five undoubtedly talented Norwegians. Taking the positives first, ‘Abyss’ is clearly the standout track, with a rousing chorus and an insane guitar solo with freaky but useful harmonic minor scales. Whilst Espen Store’s keyboards sound as though he is desperately trying not to sound like Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess but failing dismally (not a bad thing, but it does seem to be an issue he is confronting throughout the album), ‘Abyss’ needs to be in any fan of progressive metal’s collection. The intro to ‘A Darkened Mind’ is immaculately eerie, building to an uplifting chorus and pounding guitar/drum riffing. Throughout the album the band display that they are musically tighter than an Olympic photo-finish, with plenty of ideas and a feel for melody.

Mouth of Madness’ needs its 12 minutes to showcase the band’s creativity, apparent in ‘A Darkened Mind’ and ‘Abyss’. Tempo and mood changes a-plenty and with a strong storyline, it’s quite a journey which doesn’t reach the heights of Isolate’s first two tracks, but is a good composition nonetheless. Sane No More’ is an angular instrumental packed with time-signature changes and ear-splitting solos, and lasting only three minutes, it avoids dragging itself into the realms of artistic egotism and listener boredom. Maybe it was designed to demonstrate just how good Mats Haugen (guitarist) is, but this is by no means a bad thing.

Now the negatives. Firstly, there is a lack of consistency. ‘Zero’ and ‘Wither’, whilst both being good arrangements (especially ‘Zero’s emotional singing and beautiful piano arpeggios) don’t seem to reach the heights of aforementioned songs. Of course every album has stand-outs, but the gap between seems to be bigger than usual. ‘Wither’ presents the second weakness; a need for the band to develop their lyrics (as does ‘Arrival of Love’; I can’t stand this track, but that is probably because I have a contempt for love-songs in general).

This is definitely a band worth watching. Whilst Isolate is a far from being a progressive metal classic, Circus Maximus have a mine of talent that should be producing many fine jewels for many years to come.

Published on sputnikmusic, June 2008

10/10

25th April, 2008

Per, Opeth's keyboardist

Per, Opeth

OPETH TOOK a while to get going. They didn’t tour until their second album, Morningrise. But now, thirteen years on, they are signed to Roadrunner records, headlining Metal Hammer Defenders of the Faith tour with Arch Enemy, and are on the bill for Bloodstock 2008. Has Roadrunner affected the band’s fifteen minute songs?

‘No’ replies Per Wiberg, Opeth’s keyboardist. ‘Not at all’. ‘Don’t edit the songs…that would go for every record company in the world for Opeth’. The message is clear. No one will stop Opeth from experimenting, and making some of the most inaccessible but highly rewarding music in the metal industry.

Per joined the band in 2005, but was a fan from the release of Orchid in 1995. ‘It was a fresh take on more extreme metal’ says Per, but it was 1998’s My Arms Your Hearse that really blew him away. ‘I was recording with Spiritual Beggars that year (Per’s stoner rock band), and actually the guy who owned the studio double booked it because Opeth was there to record My Arms Your Hearse’. Per’s move to Opeth wasn’t as much of a change as I expected: ‘a lot of the influences are the same bands…especially from late sixties psychedelic stuff’.

And there are a lot of those influences on Opeth’s new album, Watershed. ‘Every Opeth album sounds a little bit different’, says Per, but with Watershed, ‘this one is a little bit more raw sounding, a little bit dirtier’, ‘a few more twists and turns in the songs’. And Opeth are known for their twists and turns. The new single, Porcelain Heart seamlessly combines brutal death metal with mellow, acoustic sections and almost angelic singing.

Opeth may not have toured for their first few albums, but for Watershed they are embarking on a twenty month world tour. Does this tour-length affect the band’s performance? ‘Travelling can get to you’, ‘and it affects your everyday mood’ admits Per, ‘and everyone hates security’. ‘But as soon as you’re up onstage everything is good again. All you have to do is play the right notes’. Once you’ve done your stretches. ‘Stretch’, says Per. ‘The back and the neck. It would be impossible to play a gig if you didn’t do that’.

Roadrunner records might not have had an affect on Opeth, but mp3s and downloading certainly have. It’s an issue that is beginning to hit all bands says Per: ‘record labels don’t know how to sell records’. ‘Bands have to look elsewhere to finance the touring’. Illegal or cheap downloads seem to be the way of the future, and Per fears that ‘no one has figured out what to do about it. It’s become an attitude towards music’. And in many ways, he’s right; music is now so easy to get hold of that the thrill of saving up for and buying a CD has gone. People’s unwillingness to pay for their favourite band’s music might soon mean that they don’t get to see them live. In the end, ‘people get the music they deserve’.

Towards the end of the interview Mikael Åkerfeldt, the band’s songwriter, wanders in. He wants his laptop bag back, but it turns out he has a few minutes to spare, and so joins us. He starts talking about the motivation behind releasing Damnation and Deliverance at the same time, when someone brings in a large fan, and starts unpacking it. The fan then becomes the center of conversation for several minutes. ‘It’s a beautiful fan’, remarks Per. ‘It was experiment’, continues Mikael, getting back to the albums, ‘but a bad experience’. ‘The band almost imploded, we recorded them at the same time’. And no, for all you Porcupine Tree fans, no news of a collaboration with Steven Wilson any time soon.

Instead, stories of someone falling asleep during gig, things being thrown at the band whilst on stage. ‘He got a shoe in his head; that seems to be an Australian way to have fun’ says Per, pointing at Mikael. Milwaukee gig goers apparently throw cookies. ‘Getting panties thrown on stage isn’t that common’ for Opeth, but Per remembers a bra. ‘I like the bra. It was huge as well, I don’t know why someone would throw a bra…’.

Finally, an attempt to explain Scandinavia’s link to metal music, from Norway’s black metal scene to metal bands charting in Finland. ‘Finland differs a lot from Sweden’, states Per. ‘They are bigger on metal as a mainstream type of music. Norway recognise metal bands a lot better than in Sweden’; ‘they have something similar to the Grammies’. But ‘Scandinavia has always had a good heavy rock tradition, and NWOBHM was huge’. Which would explain why underground bands like Reverend Bizzare and their 15 minute doom-metal epics chart there. And also, why I’m moving to Finland.

http://www.student-direct.co.uk/2008/09/interview-opeth