Issue 2007-055: Ritual - The Hemulic Voluntary Band - Round Table Review
Tracklist: The Hemulic Voluntary Band (4:53), In The Wild (5:53), Late In November (4:56), The Groke (6:05), Waiting By The Bridge (4:36), A Dangerous Journey (26:33)
Chris Meeker's Review
When Ritual’s last release Think Like A Mountain was released I knew next to nothing about the band. All I knew was that Patrik Lundström, their lead singer was also lending his talent in the then newly reformed Kaipa (and I had liked what I’d heard from him in that context). Think Like A Mountain was enough to set Ritual squarely in my sites as a band that warranted further investigation, and I soon acquired the re-master of their self titled debut album, which has become one of my favourite progressive albums of the modern era (post 1990). So when Ritual announced a forthcoming new release I was naturally curious to see what this band of shifting styles would offer this time around. I checked out their MySpace page to get some idea of the new CD, and there it was: The Hemulic Voluntary Band… huh? I looked at the cover art, listened to the samples, and was hooked! Yes indeed, The Hemulic Voluntary Band! I ordered it immediately.
This album appeals to me on so many levels. From the artwork (done by Javier Herbozo-some of my favourite album artwork ever!), to the music, to the lyrics and concept, I have remarked to some that this is the album I have been waiting for, for a long time, but had no idea I had been waiting (ironically, Ritual asked in the last release What Are You Waiting For?). On this new album, as on the others, Ritual’s unabashed ecosophy (look it up on wikipedia!), wild imagination, and apparent reverence for the natural world is once again pervasive throughout, which (in this world of fast food, wholesale religious extremism, overzealous politicians, and pollution run rampant) endears them to me greatly. However, the presentation of the material on this release is pretty dramatically different form previous efforts. Here, the band has set down music which feels so intimate, even when it rocks, due (I think) mostly to the fact that there seems to be very little in the way of padding. You can almost always distinguish the four members playing their individual instruments without any heavy overdubbing, synth washing, crazy digital effects or fancy engineering (which they did on Think Like A Mountain… very very well I may add!!). Instead you get beautifully arranged textural ensemble based arrangements that range from the dense to the spare, acoustic and folksy to anthemic electric prog rock, from heavily contrapuntal (ala Gentle Giant) to transparent and serene, every moment of which could conceivably be reproduced faithfully in a live setting.
Keyboardists’ choice of gear so often has so much to do with the definition of a band’s sound, especially in prog, and Jon Gamble’s certainly does here. He restricts himself on the album to clavinet, harmonium, piano, and Rhodes, with playing that at times is reminiscent of Kerry Minnear’s work. His style is textural and lyrical, subtle at times and funky at others. Frederik Lindqvist contributes an arsenal of eclectic instrumentation to the album, including Irish bouzouki, dulcimer, recorders & whistles and, oh yeah, bass-and may I say that his bass playing is extremely exciting on this release (if your head isn’t bobbing to his bass line during Waiting By The Bridge I suggest that you check your pulse to make sure you’re still alive)! The drumming on THVB is not about flash or how many notes can possibly fit in a measure, but is instead all about groove and feel. Johan Nordgren offers up some of his tastiest stick work to date and also contributes some beautiful work on the nyckelharpa, a kind of keyed fiddle. And of course there is the singular voice of Patrik Lundström, who also displays his formidable skills on acoustic and electric guitar. As on previous recordings, the wild intensity of Patrik’s voice is still evident, but he seems to have less of an edge on this record, with a warmth, restraint, and range of emotion that is quite stunning and inspired (his falsetto will send shivers up and down your spine!). And collectively the band offer up some incredible vocal harmonies. I should also give mention to special guest Lovisa Hallstedt who offers moving violin work on the epic The Dangerous Journey.
The Hemulic Voluntary Band, while not strictly a concept album, does have a thematic thread that ties it all together. The band have used the works of Tove Jansson as a springboard for the majority of the text and stories here, all except for In The Wild, which still fits right in with the overall vibe of the album. The use of language is great and the lyrics are extremely well done. To read more in depth about the premise of the album and of each piece, the band have provided extensive descriptions on their website. For these weary ears, this album is a breath of fresh air, a musical triumph and an artistic one, which takes the listener on a fantastical journey through a world where everything is possible and where imagination and ecology rule the day. It reminds us that worlds of wonder are always available to us if we can just remember see the natural world and each precious moment of creation through the eyes of the eternal child. Highest praise for The Hemulic Voluntary Band!
Geoff Feakes' Review
With the release of The Hemulic Voluntary Band, Ritual maintain their consistency of producing a new studio album every four years. Forming in 1993, the debut Ritual appeared two years later, followed by Superb Birth (1999) and Think Like A Mountain (2003). Umm… four albums released by a four-man lineup at four-yearly intervals, do I detect a trend here? The pattern was broken momentarily for last year’s Live, their only non-studio recording to date. A quick check of the Reviews Index will confirm that so far the band’s ‘DPRP Recommended’ success rate is 100%. That achievement could be attributed to the stability of the line-up, which remains unchanged since their inception. They are Patrik Lundström (lead vocals, acoustic and electric guitars), Jon Gamble (keyboards and backing vocals), Fredrik Lindqvist (bass, mandolin, recorders and backing vocals) and Johan Nordgren (drums, percussion and backing vocals). Earlier this year, as on three previous occasions, Patrik could be heard moonlighting with Swedish proggers Kaipa on their latest Angling Feelings, a personnel favourite of this reviewer.
The band has long held a fixation for the ‘Moomin’ characters created by Finnish children's writer and illustrator Tove Jansson. This manifested itself in songs like Seasong For The Moominpappa from the first album and here forms the basis for the entire concept. The songs reference characters and incidents from her books and the final extended piece takes its title from The Dangerous Journey, a picture book published in 1977. With Ritual portrayed as The Hemulic Voluntary Band on the album cover memories of The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band are evoked but musically the title track has its roots in the 70’s. With a bright and upbeat feel it has a tricky urgency that Gentle Giant would be proud of. It took me several albums to fully come to terms with Lundström’s stark vocal delivery but here, as on the last Kaipa album he sounds in top form. His guitar playing is almost as distinctive with a spiky style blending perfectly with Gamble’s keys and the busy drums and bass work of Nordgren and Lindqvist. In addition to GG, Jethro Tull at their proggiest circa A Passion Play also comes to mind.
In The Wild is for me one of the most compelling tracks largely due to a monumental Led Zeppelin style riff, driven not by guitar, as you would expect but piano. This is offset by a melodic vocal section and a beautiful piano solo. To keep the listener on their toes the mood is broken by a discordant guitar break that echoes Robert Fripp before developing into a heavy blues workout. In complete contrast is Late In November, a gorgeous folky lament with acoustic guitar, nyckelharpa (a keyed fiddle) and recorders. Lundström’s vocal sounds like Freddie Mercury at his most plaintive supported by breathtaking a cappella harmonies that in turn bring Queen to mind. Like In The Wild, The Groke also benefits from a bombastic keys driven riff joined by the deep and moody tones of a harmonium. The atmosphere is darker this time relating the sad tale of one of Jansson’s most bizarre creatures. Waiting By The Bridge is the kind of song that only Ritual could produce. It’s an incongruous mix with a slightly off kilter guitar rhythm, tricky time signature and sing-along chorus. For me the least satisfying track on the album.
Lundström has described this release as the band’s most progressive to date and if I hadn’t been convinced at this juncture, the final track A Dangerous Journey put it beyond doubt. With epic length tracks being more common place now than ever before, this is one of the most absorbing and cohesive I’ve heard for sometime. It flows beautifully with a coherent narrative that can be followed in the lyrics. A pastoral acoustic opening section takes up one third of its playing time, as the story’s scene is set. I was reminded of Gryphon, Ant Phillips and the intro to Genesis’ Suppers Ready as Lundström and co weave their magic incorporating amongst others bouzouki, harmonium, mandolin and lush harmonies. A lively vocal mid-section includes some fast and furious playing from all concerned that has the hallmarks of Neal Morse era Spock’s Beard. The majestic final section is again mostly acoustic with a kind of Transatlantic meets Iona feel and suitably uplifting vocals.
With all the comparisons made above you may be forgiven for thinking that I’m suggesting there is nothing original about Ritual’s music. Nothing could be further from the truth. They take the diverse styles of prog, fusion, folk and hard rock and shape them into a sound that’s refreshingly unique. And what a glorious sound it is. Not only is this their most progressive album thus far I would also suggest that it’s their best. Followers of the aforementioned bands would do well to check this out and discover what existing fans already know and that is Ritual are producing some of the finest music around at the moment. With impressive releases from Ritual, Kaipa, A.C.T, Carptree and The Flower Kings, this is turning into quite a year for Swedish progressive rock.
Jeffrey Terwilliger's Review
As a new initiate to this band, I had no expectations other than my familiarity with Patrik Lundström’s voice from Kaipa, however I was pleasantly surprised by the strength of this band, opening with a very Gentle Giant-esque title track. Spock's Beard used to do their one Gentle Giant inspired track per album, mainly focusing on syncopated vocal rounds, but The Hemulic Voluntary Band pretty much has the classic Minnear/Shulman/Green/Weathers instrument ensemble nailed. An excellent tribute - Patrik's voice, with its quintessential Nordic tone, is the only give-away. He sounds nothing like Derek Shulman, who has a quintessential Saxon tone. But somehow either one fits right in.
More surprises await - this is not a band limited to one style. In The Wild, though just under six minutes long, is constructed like a longer epic as it moves through several evolving sections. The main riff is quite memorable and weaves in and out to maintain the track's character but is never pounded to death - this is what a great riff should do in progressive rock and Ritual understand this. Patrik plays a really emotional guitar solo at the track's peak, laden with all manner of creative dissonances and tweezed wahs. This might be Ritual's signature track of the album.
Late In November is a well-placed quieter "folk" piece. Attractive vocal melodies are supported by traditional acoustic instruments including guitar, harmonium, whistles, bouzouki, and nyckelharpa. (This according to the credits, to these Western ears it sounds like guitars, recorder and violin.) Then with Track 4, The Groke, the mood changes to one of eerie menace. A deep, brooding piano/bass line plods over shuffling drums, creating a heavy sound without metal fuzz. Following this track is a light, almost funky Waiting By The Bridge featuring layered vocals in harmony. The Flower Kings' Chicken Farmer Song came to my mind in comparison, with its syncopated interlocking keys and guitar.
Each of these five tracks is quite a different style, with their own individual flavour and polish. And then, to close the album, the band put it all together with an epic. A Dangerous Journey is a dangerous track. On the surface it is a good concept, but unfortunately it doesn't sound quite completely baked. The vocal lines are a bit too simple (this could be a good thing if you've had enough Jon Anderson or Peter Nichols!). And a few un-artful punches don't help the cause. The musical themes are really good, but I detect a forced quality underpinning this track. The performance is flawless but a little more musical refinement would have helped tie it all together more effectively. Although this is just as good as your average Gabriel-era Genesis epic, perhaps I've just been spoiled by Neal Morse's unrivalled extravaganzas.
Edwin Roosjen's Review
Ritual started as a folk/rock band and released some fine albums that for the progressive rock public might be a bit to poppy or folky. The members have stayed the same over the years and also the choice for acoustic instrument stayed, yet this new album features a completely reinvented Ritual. Kaipa latest release Angling Feelings immediately comes to mind. This album shows the same complex melody structure but Ritual's sound is more friendly and accessible. The oldest habit in progressive music was chosen, a concept album preferably inspired by a fantasy book. In this case the Moomin books written by Finnish novelist Tove Jansson. The album is split in two parts. Chapter 1 contains 5 songs based on different characters and phenomena and chapter two is a 26 minute epic about, and named after, the book The Dangerous Journey.
The Hemulic Voluntary Band introduces the band as Hemulens, not so intelligent characters that easily become fanatic. Fanatical indeed, but the not so intelligent part is far from true. Vocal lines and melodies are complex and even experienced prog listeners will be surprised as the song marches on like a fanfare and remains a very pleasant song.
In The Wild is a more straight forward song. According to the booklet it's not directly linked to a book by Tove Jansson but it fits perfectly. Heavy piano rhythm carries the song through the lyrical part, whilst a gentle piano piece followed by a frantic guitar solo completes the song - a very good, compact song.
Late In November is a beautiful sensitive ballad and not much more than vocals, acoustic guitar and flutes appear in this song. This is a very pleasant fragile song with outstanding lyrics and beautiful vocal lines.
The Groke freezes everything where it stands and is the equivalent of a winter depression. The song exactly embodies this creature, slow dragging dark sounds and fearful lyrics, lasting six minutes whilst strolling in the same rhythm. The song balances on the edge of becoming boring but it's like watching a horror movie, once the suspense grabs you can't let go.
Waiting By The Bridge is an uplifting funky song with a chorus that sticks in your head. Halfway through this short song all the lyrics have been sung and the band show their craftsmanship with a funky intermezzo. One more time the very pleasant chorus is played and then it's time for the main course.
A Dangerous Journey is Ritual's first epic song and the band succeeds in a most glorious way as for the whole twenty six minutes the song remains interesting. The opening Cats & Glasses starts in a narrating way with very friendly acoustic guitar playing, campfire music. Still mainly acoustic guitar, The Swamp becomes more threatening whilst Meeting shows first signs of "electricity", but it's not until Volcano that the drums kick in. This is the centrepiece of the epic with great lively vocals and stunning complex rhythms. Cold is a melancholic piece that flows into the jazzy Onion Soup. Monster is an apocalyptic minute of heavy guitars. Balloon and a Party Outdoors make a gentle end to this great epic song.
Ritual took a giant leap and created a true masterpiece. The combination of lyrics and music makes the Moomin world come alive. The music is foremost acoustic but they got rid of the poppy and folky sound. The compositions are very complex and require several spins. To summon the feeling I would like to quote some lyrics from the title track:
"Stomping the tempo furiously. Yes, we take music seriously.
It's fun past remedy, rehearse insanity.
Well it is madness what we do, really."