Issue 2021-010: Metal Monday
Entheogen — Other World
An entheogen is a psychoactive substance that induces alterations to perception, mood, cognition or behaviour for spiritual and sacred contexts (according to Wikipedia). In their own words, the musical Entheogen want you to drift-off and catch a glimpse of another world with this EP. Describing themselves as chaotic, progressive and soothing, it sounds like this album just may do that. So let's find out.
Entering The Other World is a short intro of ethereal atmospherics that leads you into the melodic and “big” sound of Fade In. It opens with a blistering solo before sliding into a mix of confusion-inducing spoken word moments over softer music, and the screaming (literally) of the almost elegant heavy sections.
Disintegration holds out a hand with a darker feel, that evolves into a crushing set of chugging riffs before a mellow, but no less “heavy” bridge of harmonics and whispered words. This song for me stands out for the fantastic drumming. The assault of the double bass and frantic and chaotic, yet perfectly controlled, fills add a lot to the song.
Following this, Of Remembrance falls into place so perfectly I didn't even realise it had changed tracks. This song brings in some groove to the album, being both heavy, almost playful, while still being metal and melodic throughout.
The final track comes in as Mountainous Waves with a tapping riff very reminiscent of Gojira's Global Warming (one of my top 3 favourite tracks ever). Then it brings in some Opeth-sounding clean vocals before the melodic distortion comes in with some epic and melancholic leads.
The EP certainly did transport me away from the global situations. Fantastic songwriting, wonderful riffs, both heavy and graceful drums and riffs to create a fairly esoteric sound. If you're a fan of the more melodic side of Gojira or the musings of Insomnium and disjointed and controlled feels of Tool or Opeth, then have a listen.
Need — Norchestrion: A Song For The End
In their 15-year existence, Greek band Need has proved themselves to be one of the most consistent of the ever-dwindling number of bands still purveying the classic style of progressive metal. You know the score: complex arrangements, top-notch musicianship that blends guitars and keyboards, a singer able to perfect numerous styles, and long-form compositions that never weary or wary of breaking the six-minute mark.
After finding their feet with The Wisdom Machine (2006) and Siamese God (2009), it was with Orvam : A Song For Home (2014) that they really perfected their own sound and started to build a reputation outside their home country. That reputation was enhanced by the critically-acclaimed Hegaiamas: A Song For Freedom. The touring cycle for Hegaiamas resulted in an impressive 72 shows worldwide, including a 24-date run across north America, and then a 22-date European run; both with Sweden's Evergrey.
Norchestrion: A Song For The End is their long-awaited fifth album. It will no doubt cement their place in the hearts of fans who also enjoy Dream Theater, Pain of Salvation, Wastefall and especially Fates Warning.
There is no change in the line-up, which is always a good sign. We have Jon Voyager (vocals), George Ravaya (guitar, vocals) and Anthony Hadjee (keyboards, vocals), with Stelios Paschalis on drums and finally bassist Viktor Kouloubis.
All the ingredients are there in the sound and performances, but for some reason Need has always been a band where I love some tracks, but as a whole, their albums fail to whole-heartedly connect with me. Norchestrion continues the pattern.
I decided to give this a go after reading several gushing early reviews that heralded this as "a big step upwards" and "their best-ever" album. The three pre-release singles also gave me confidence that this was "the one".
We open with Avia, where the guitar and vocal patterns, and the shifts in dynamic owe a big nod of gratitude towards Fates Warning. Beckethead introduces some modern djent stylings (think Leprous or Haken) around the vocal patterns of modern-day Pain of Salvation. Both songs possess some killer solos from George Ravaya.
Nemmortal is a lovely blending of modern-day and early-period Pain of Salvation. The dynamic shifts across this track are brilliantly handled (the tribal/celtic section which acts as a bridge is very clever). Jon Voyager showcase the third, fourth and fifth different styles from his vocal repertoire.
We shift again for the full-blast metal opening to Bloodlux. This song reminds me of Evergrey's In Search Of Truth mixed with Beyond Twilight's brilliant Section X. The ending riff is over-played and the song is not as good as the first three, but I am still engaged at this point. It's one of those albums where you never quite know where it's going to turn next.
Then things take a turn for the worst.
From out of nowhere V.a.d.i.s. consists of two voice-actors having a philosophical discussion about their existence over an electronic sci-fi ambience. Has someone erroneously slotted a track from a Hibernal story-album into the middle of my digital promo? Apparently it's supposed to be there, but it has the sole function of being unforgivably annoying, whilst castrating the flow of the album.
The title track tries to (re)build up to something, but that something is a horrible death growl chorus that again seems totally out of place. I don't connect with the melodies or the soloing on this song at all. The alt-rock styling and semi-rap, shouty vocals of Corcadian also leave me cold.
At just short of 20 minutes Ananke has lots of phases but lacks a sense of purpose that ties them all together in a way that has ever held my attention for a third of an hour. Fans of modern-day Dream Theater will probably love it.
We end with a tribal chant which has the dubious honour of sounding even more misplaced than V.a.d.i.s. The album title and these two "tracks" hint that there may be some sort of concept to give them purpose. But devoid of a lyric sheet and with no mention with the promo of this being a concept album, I can only be baffled by the rationale for including them.
So having lived with this new effort for some while, my summary has to be that Norchestrion offers some glorious moments that are overshadowed by moments of indifference and pure bafflement.
I am sure that existing fans will find much to savour. Those who have tried Need before and not connected, should approach this with caution. Newcomers who enjoy any of the bands mentioned above, will hopefully connect with Norchestrion; finding my negatives, as positives and loving this to bits. That's the joy of art.
Vanden Plas — The Ghost Xperiment - Illumination
Vanden Plas don't waste any time getting into things on their latest album, The Ghost Xperiment - Illumination. This album leans into the heavier side of the band's musical tastes, although there are still symphonic sections. Much like their past albums, I instantly found melodies and choruses that popped out at me, but on repeated and focused listens I have found more and more to appreciate.
Vanden Plas' music has staying-power for multiple reasons. The most obvious is the exceptional musicianship. These guys can play as well as anyone else in prog metal, but sadly they are severely underrated, especially in America, where I live. Andy Kuntz's vocals are another high point for the band. When you combine those two things, with the excellent songwriting and storytelling, you get complex records that deliver something new; no matter how many times you listen to them.
The story of this album picks up where their 2019 release, The Ghost Xperiment - Awakening, left off. Interestingly the band decided to repeat the pattern they started in 2014-2015 when they wrote the two Chronicles Of The Immortals albums. Their 2019 album ended with the protagonist meeting the ghosts that have been haunting him his whole life. This second album gives us the conclusion to that story.
In the hands of a lesser songwriter, this story could have ended up being incredibly corny. Andy Kuntz is an excellent lyricist though, and the depth of the lyrics keeps them interesting. The music also makes it clear that they're taking the story very seriously.
With all that said, I'll admit I usually have no idea what's going on in Vanden Plas albums unless I read about it. Their albums are usually concept albums in the sense that they're telling a story, but their albums are more like rock operas. Obviously there's an overlap, but I think there is a subtle difference between a concept album and a rock opera. Interestingly Vanden Plas seem to operate in a space between concept album and rock opera, because while they're telling a story, it's usually from a protagonist's perspective, rather than multiple characters (like an Ayreon album would have).
The first track has a very short but ominous orchestral build-up, before pounding into pure heavy metal. It's a fantastic opener to the album, and it begs to be played loudly. The bass and guitar interplay on the instrumental passage is brilliant. The drums are beautifully heavy, and the whole thing makes for a real headbanger.
Under The Horizons starts off with quiet piano and vocals from Kuntz, but that is quickly replaced by a blasting drum beat and crunching guitars. The chorus soars in a way that is peak Vanden Plas. It's this sort of thing that has become a hallmark of the band's music. They do it so well. There are some really cool, whispered, distorted backing vocals in parts of the verses sung behind Kuntz's lead vocals, and it adds a bit of a creepy effect that fits the story perfectly.
While much of the album will be musically familiar to long-time Vanden Plas fans, I did notice a few new sounds here and there. The synth sound at the beginning of Fatal Arcadia sounds like something the band had not used before. Also the addition of other vocalists in some parts of the album sounded new to me. They used a female vocalist on Chronicles Of The Immortals, but here we get lead vocals in German on the final track from Alea of the German medieval metal group Saltatio Mortis. This song, Krieg Kent Keine Sieger, is a cover of a Saltatio Mortis song. It's interesting to hear a cover of another band, with both Kuntz and that band's singer, especially with Kuntz singing the verses in English (the original is all in German), while Alea sings the chorus in German. The fun part of this is that I had never heard of Saltatio Mortis before, so I looked them up and discovered that I really like their music.
There is also a brief distorted vocal line on Fatal Arcadia, as well as the repeated whispered vocals we got earlier on the record. There are a couple other guest vocalists who provide backing vocals, but Andy Kuntz is still the star of the vocal show. The additions provide a fuller sound that struck me as being an interesting difference from some of their past albums.
The Ouroboros is a fascinating track in how it sounds familiar to the band's past output in some passages, yet it sounds entirely new in others. It's a long track, and it uses that time judiciously to build and morph into different sounds. It starts quiet and symphonic in a way that will be instantly familiar to fans, but it builds into a heavy, pounding riff. The guitar solo about two-thirds of the way through sounded very different from a typical Stephan Lill solo. It's a clean solo played in a very up-tempo and bright way. It reminded me a little bit of Dream Theater, especially with the abrupt ending to it, as Kuntz begins singing again. The solo comes back in for a little bit, before bouncing in and out of a really heavy riff. It's a different sound for them, and it works really well when they bring in their heavier side.
This is an album meant to be listened to loudly. That can't be said of all prog, but it sure can be said of Vanden Plas. The louder it is, the more you'll be able to pick up in the layers. This album is the better of the two Ghost XPeriment albums and a more than worthy addition to the band's excellent catalogue.