Album Reviews

Issue 2022-075

Arkness — Tales From The In Between

Arkness - Tales From The In Between
Aquarius (4:11), Six Steps Of Madness (6:02), The Witch From Below (5:04), Paradoxe (7:36), Hope In The Universe (5:29), Five Years In The Sky (4:28), Eternity And Brimstone (4:33), Circus Dazzling Lights (4:01), The Discovery Of Arkness (6:37)
Gerald Wandio

I requested this album for review based on two statements from the band's promotional materials. First of all, the band is not actually described as a band but as a “French prog-metal collective”. And what a collective! Sixteen musicians are credited as playing on the album, including six guitarists and four bassists. I'm also pleased that the lyricist, Daniel Pierce, is given a separate credit. Second, I liked the description of the group's intentions: “Arkness mixes progressive rock, cinematic music, electronica and metal in an experimental fusion that takes you on a journey into the strange.” Strange, here I come!

As it turns out, though, the sound of this album is more familiar than strange. I suppose it's my own fault for letting that description of the band's sound raise my expectations, but Tales From The In Between is mostly progressive metal with, it's true, some very interesting embellishments no doubt courtesy of the many players.

I had expected more variety than is actually on display here. Most of the songs start quietly with one or another instrument, but they all eventually (most of them sooner rather than later) unleash the crunching, shredding guitars. Now, I'm all for crunching, shredding guitars, but there's too little of the promised “cinematic music” and “electronica” to make this album truly unusual.

That's the bad news. The good news is that each song is pretty enjoyable. I can well imagine that a listener who came to the album with no expectations would enjoy it more than I do, because it's really very pleasant to listen to. Despite the eventual crunching guitars on every song, the band goes to some trouble with dynamics, perhaps most obviously on the lovely opening cut Aquarius. The lead vocals, performed by Matthieu Vergez and Raphael Vallaury, are strong if not especially melodic, but they suit most of the songs quite well.

And then there are the many, many musicians! Now, I'm a big fan of bass guitar, but I can't quite imagine why an album needs four bassists. And as for the six guitarists, isn't that just overkill? I suppose each musician brings his or her own perspective to the performance, but the collective is perhaps more diffuse than it needed to be to be truly effective.

I ought to recommend a few songs that seem to me most interesting. I've already mentioned opener Aquarius. I'll add Six Steps Of Madness, the middle section of which has an interesting loping rhythm. Eternity And Brimstone flirts with a pleasing exchange between piano and guitar (although the singing here is, to my ears, among the weakest on the album). Then the closing track, The Discovery Of Arkness, with its lyrical beginning; although even this song eventually admits those guitars. I guess if you have six guitarists on an album, you have to give them something to do!

While I can't quite recommend this album, I'll repeat what I said earlier that I may have been biased by my expectations based on the band's own description of its lofty intentions. It may not be an album that I will often play, but your taste may differ. As I also said, the songs are individually pleasant to listen to, with the caveats I've provided.

Dim Gray — Firmament

Dim Gray - Firmament
Mare (3:59), Ashes (3:13), Undertow (2:48), Avalon | The Tide (4:11), 52~ (4:19), Abalus | In Time (3:54), Long Ago (4:07), My Barren Road (3:17), Cannons (3:42), Iron Henry (3:20), Firmament (2:45), Meridian (4:56)
Martin Burns

To be honest, on my first listen to Dim Gray's second album Firmament I was less than impressed, and any sort of knee-jerk review based on that would have had a completely different flavour from this one. On the first listen it seemed samey, underpowered and bland. Knowing that musicians pour their hearts into the creation of music, I have a rule to listen many more times before coming to any kind of conclusion and with this release I'm glad that's what I did. It is a definite grower.

What emerges from further listens of Firmament is an impressive album of art-rock that has Beatles-like melodies that edge towards the emotional power of Anathema. These are compact gems of atmospheric pop-prog that share a musical DNA with diverse artists like Keane, Sigur Rós, Steven Wilson and Tears For Fears but with Dim Gray's own stamp on them.

Dim Gray are a trio consisting of Håkon Høiberg on acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, and vocals, Oskar Holldorff on lead vocals for most tracks and keyboards, and Tom Ian Klungland on drums, acoustic and electronic percussion and vocals. They are joined by Halvor Rollag on bass to make their core sound. A sound that is detailed in its arrangements of its lavish melodies that are balanced between the guitars, keyboards and vocals.

There is a restraint to the playing, with next to no solos. They rely on emotional crescendos and understatement to flesh out these beautiful songs. There is a theme to the album, in that the songs explore the area created by God, the firmament, that separated the heavens and the primal ocean to allow land to form. "Songs Of The Sea And Air" could have been a subtitle for Firmament.

Dim Gray, promo photo by Emil Vestre

Keyboard and guitar atmospherics are used to explore a spiritual and emotional melancholy, underpinned by a less-is-more approach without sacrificing anything to these fabulously arranged melodies. With all three band members being great singers, the vocal harmonies are perfect. The main vocal from Oskar Holldorff has strong echoes of Ah-ha's Morten Harket.

Throughout Firmament you get a variety of sounds and styles, from the indie-folk of Long Ago, all the way to the two last tracks. The title track channels musical theatre, and then Meridian's evocations of the sea reflect The Enid when That Joe Payne was fronting them.

The songs on Firmament are all strong but a few things deserve a mention. The earworm melodies of Avalon | The Tide and Abalus | In Time stealthily reveal themselves, and then when they have, they reappear in your head during the quiet moments of the day. The cello and violin-driven chamber-pop of Undertow, the mandolin-led folk of Cannons and the spooky theremin and saw (yes, a saw!), along with piano and cello on the cinematic Iron Henry.

Dim Gray's Firmament is not however flawless, as I found the mix to be rather treble-oriented and lacking in bass punch, which I initially put down to the files sent for review. But when the well packaged CD came, it had to me the same issue, requiring a boost to the bass settings on my hi-fi. Problem sort-of-sorted as it did not spoil my enjoyment of this enthralling songwriting.

As I found on my initial listens, Dim Gray's Firmament requires more than a casual listen. The band obviously trust the listener to meet them half-way and don't feel the need to shout: "Look at this!" Come along and participate in Dim Gray's musical process.

This one flies under the radar until you can no longer ignore it. Dim Gray's Firmament is a quiet triumph of emotional art-rock and pop-prog.

Hämärä — Ivory Tower

Hämärä - Ivory Tower
Across the Hills of Emyn Muil (1:15), Holy War (3:08), Hardly Awake (4:12), Isolation (3:31), Under the Sun (4:41), Retribution (4:38), Withering Away (4:38), The Fallen (4:10), Ivory Tower (4:41)
Edwin Roosjen

Hämärä is a symphonic metal band from the USA. The members of Hämärä are interested in a variety of musical genres but their main influence is Scandinavian metal, so this could be on the heavy side for DPRP readers. In 2015 the band released an EP called Broken and now seven years later Ivory Tower is released.

A band that come to mind is Children Of Bodom. I also hear a bit of a crossover between Linkin Park together with Scandinavian band Dimmu Borgir. Especially the use of grunting alternated with a clean singing voice reminds me of Linkin Park.

The music style is very heavy with a lot of grunting and heavy vocals. At times, I do like that music and it is always nice to hear a new independent release. Amongst those releases there can hide a nice gem, but I doubt whether Ivory Tower is one of them.

The production of the album and the skills of the musicians are of a high quality. If you want to teach people what heavy metal music with grunting vocals should sound like, then this album is a nice example. However, after many spins there is still no song, melody or solo that sticks. The music of Hämärä has a lot of familiar influences from numerous heavy bands, but to me it seems Hämärä needs to find their way away from those other bands. If a song from this album would appear in a random playlist, many listeners would like it, but will probably name a different band when asked who was playing.

Hämärä is a band with good musicians and the music on Ivory Tower sounds very good. They sure can play, so I'll wait and see where their influences are taking the next album.

Ryo Okumoto — The Myth Of The Mostrophus

Ryo Okumoto - The Myth Of The Mostrophus
Mirror Mirror (9:27), Turning Point (6:53), The Watchmaker (Time On His Side) (6:25), Maximum Velocity (8:11), Chrysalis (7:35), The Myth Of The Mostrophus (22:14)
Greg Cummins

There's no denying that Ryo Ukomoto is one of the better keyboard players around and has a style that totally suits the band that he has contributed to since 1994. And that band of course is Spock's Beard. They have been a band that I have really enjoyed for decades, even after the departure of Neal Morse in 2002.

Prior to determining who to assist with this new effort, Ryo had heard a band called I am The Manic Whale and was so impressed with their singer/bass player, Michael Whiteman, he asked if he would be interested in being a "collabo-writer". After agreeing to participate in the project, Ryo sent Michael a series of 30 ideas that he had accumulated over many years of composing. Soon after, the demos were being returned at a fast enough pace to ensure this project was headed for a definite release. Wanting to pay homage to the band that he has been involved with for so long, it was not long before Nick, Dave, Alan, and Ted were also on board to play at least on one song. So with the foundation of Spock's Beard in place and ready to party hard, things were looking good.

As if those members' inclusion was not enough to ensure a quality album, Ryo managed to secure the valuable services of Steve Hackett, Lyle Workman, Mike Kenneally, Marc Bonilla, Doug Whimbish, Randy McStine and Michael Sadler, whose vocals would add that extra treat.

For this outing, which I find to be much stronger than some of his previous albums, Ryo has delivered six very creative but engaging songs that are right up there with his best work; whether with the Beard or as a solo effort. The songwriting is sharp and features some excellent synth runs which blaze their way throughout many of the tracks. I am slightly reminded of the sounds produced by Manfred Mann and Jan Hammer who are no no slouches on the keys either. Credit must be directed towards the great articulation Ryo has managed to extract from his instruments of choice.

To add credit to those involved with this project, special mention must also be directed to the members for the tight structure that has been maintained throughout the album. There is simply no sloppiness or wasted space on any of the songs. Every note, phrasing and chord structure has been so carefully constructed to ensure regular stability and direction are maintained. There are many high points on the album, and thankfully there are no real low points, or sections where the band loses their way, or you might wander-off looking for something else to occupy your mind. I was fully absorbed with the album from start to finish.

Although the album features plenty of excellent keyboard mayhem, Ryo has given more than enough opportunity and liberty to ensure his guests have adequate room to really deliver their own efforts. In particular, the vocals are exceptional, the guitars sublime, the drumming very convincing (if not overly flashy or flamboyant), but it is the occasional sax work that really gives the songs on which they are featured, some extra appeal.

Of particular note is the song, The Watchmaker (Time On His Side) which sounds very Styx-like and then the 22-minute closing epic; a track that you can really sink your teeth into for many repeated spins. It really is a great track but then again, so are all the other songs on the album, despite their shorter lengths.

This is definitely an album that I found really enjoyable from the first spin but repeated plays reinforce how much more you can derive from the music, once its magic has worked its way into your brain. A really great effort and one which I highly recommend.

Album Reviews