Netherlands

Devin Dissection: Transcendence

Location: Vancouver, Canada
Genre: Progressive Metal
Released: September 9, 2016
Format Reviewed: FLAC

By: Kris Kotlarik

“I really wanted to knock (Transcendence) out of the park in terms of, this is what I’m trying to do with DTP. It may not be as vital as Ocean Machine, because that’s not where my mind is at, but all those things that make it what it is are in place now. I was able, through a real conscious decision, to exercise and go do a bunch of things that are outside of my comfort zone. I was able to really get some great material, emotionally, to draw from. And the whole record, Transcendence, is about getting over it and moving past it. It’s still there. It’s great. But dude, what are you going to write about next? I’ve exhausted the whole alien-coffee-drinking-puppet angle.”

-Devin Townsend in an interview with Greg Hasbrouck, found in the ProgPower USA XVII festival magazine.

First of all, let me begin this review by saying that if you live in the US and did not see the greatness and/or hilarity that was Devin’s performance at ProgPower with Anneke van Giersbergen, you missed out. But you can look at some behind the scenes shenanigans thanks to the tour’s daily mini-documentaries.

I’ve been out of the album review scene for a few months while working on other stuff (read: actual work, unfortunately), but reviewing Devin’s music as an unabashed yet objective fanboy is something that I can always get out of bed for. I’ve been listening to the album in some capacity or another frequently for the last two weeks, and now that I have officially received the CD and put it in FLAC (and listened to it another six times), I think it’s time to break this thing down properly.

The super-short version of this review would be to say that Transcendence is an amalgamation of Epicloud and Sky Blue that results in a marked upgrade over both albums. The former has this bombastic element to it but occasionally fizzles out (like on Divine, for example), while the latter is a solid effort with a melancholic atmosphere that hasn’t held up over dozens of listens as well as other Devin albums have. I think Transcendence has the right blend of bombast and dreamscape atmosphere to go along with a master-craft production across the board.

That blend is exemplified on “Stormbending,” a track that I haven’t been able to go more than a few hours without listening to since I first got it. With the winding instrumental that carries the girth of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the delightful and soothing tones of Devin’s vocals on the verses, and his operatic vocals put on full display in the outro, I can say with full confidence that this would make the top twenty list of best Devin Townsend’s songs if it were drawn up today, an achievement that should not be taken lightly.

Not far behind that beautiful track in terms of quality is “Higher.” Clocking in at nearly 10 minutes, it essentially starts off as “Grace” before turning into Devin’s proggiest track since the release of Deconstruction. A walking, talking highlight reel in its entirety, some of the best parts include:

  • The screamed “I, the destroyer!” section at about 4:15, as well as the directly contrasting “change direction” section starting at 4:55.
  • The breakdown starting at 6:05 that leaves the entire track hanging in suspense before Devin comes in with a lyrical callback to “Fallout.”
  • The instrumental section that comes in at 7:27 that sounds a bit like the end of the intro to “Love” by Strapping Young Lad. Am I the only person who hears it? Regardless, I love that sound.

And then there’s the chorus, where the drums and guitar get heavier with each progression. “Higher” is truly a stellar track for anyone that has the patience to invest ten minutes into a song (dozens of times).

The title track took a while to grow on me; it begins with a march beat and takes quite a while to build up with a male choir before Devin asks that poignant question: Who transcends this? Sung in an operatic voice slightly lower than the ending of “Stormbending,” the chorus is great, but that’s not what makes this song stand out; it’s the ending over the final 1:15 that is relentless and makes the prolonged buildup much more meaningful to me.

Anneke van Giersbergen is used much more sparingly in this album than she was on any of her previous three appearances with the Devin Townsend Project, as she is mostly relegated, albeit with great effect, to providing vocal fills and ambiance in songs like “Secret Sciences” and the ending to “Stars.” But she does get one song on lead vocals; “Offer Your Light” is the “Silent Militia” of the main disc. That could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you feel about cheese; whereas Silent Militia was kind a revamping of “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” by Dead Or Alive, Offer Your Light is more of a power metal number that, like Silent Militia, is extremely difficult to get out of my head. Anneke sounds excellent here, even with rather simplistic lyrics, but the production around her blends marvelously with her voice.

The final two tracks could be where the album falters for some people; they combine to take up 16:50 in length and nine of those minutes are ambient sections that close out each song. To top it off, one song is a cover and the other is essentially an 80’s ballad that borrows its structure from a Hindi meditation track by Krishna Das. And yet, both tracks still have some solid moments; the chorus and outro to “From The Heart” is sung in Hindi with a beautiful vocal line that is inescapable. What follows the prolonged final chorus is a luscious ambient jam that was apparently done in one take and is worth a few listens.

“Transdermal Celebration” is easily the least interesting track on the album, this in spite of the fact that I am quite partial to Ween. It’s a fun way to close off the main disc, but otherwise doesn’t do all that much for me. The best part of this track is the ambiance that comes after it, with Devin adding some soothing vocals and a small section of spoken words on top of it. Other tracks I’m not overly fond of include “Secret Sciences,” mainly because it takes too long to build up with only a modest payoff, and “Stars,” the ToonTrack demo that is gloriously poppy and is starting to grow on me, but has a limited ceiling. The distinction between “least interesting” and “most terrible” is important, as there are no bad tracks on this album, and many other fans have liked the aforementioned tracks. Tomato, potato, gazebo, am I right?

Much has been made about Devin’s decision to re-record Truth from Infinity and open Transcendence with it. While I would never have changed a thing from the original recording, the new version makes a lot of sense in the context of the album. The unrelenting grandeur of the “Hallelujah” section was replaced with more subtlety, but the overall production is airtight, and that new ending induces goosebumps. It was the first of several such moments, an effect that only a select few artists can achieve on me. Devin does it over and over again.

OVERALL: Perhaps the best DTP album to date in close competition with Addicted, as well as the best production from a Devin Townsend album since Ghost (or Casualties of Cool depending on whether you count the collaborative project with Che’ Aimee Dorval, who makes an appearance on the second disc, as a traditional Devin Townsend release).

Rating: 4.0*

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Who transcends this? The Devin Townsend Project, that’s who. The digipak and booklet were signed by all five members of the DTP at ProgPower USA in Atlanta on September 10, 2016. The show was the first to have Anneke van Giersbergen join the band on stage in the United States and, despite some technological hiccups, the set was a great way to cap off a stacked four-day lineup featuring Haken, Green Carnation, The Gentle Storm, Blind Guardian, Spock’s Beard, and Stream of Passion, among numerous other great acts.

Coming soon: a review of Holding Patterns, the second disc of this album.
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Buy the album at this link.
Listen to Stormbending, Failure, and Secret Sciences on YouTube courtesy of InsideOut Music
Featured image accessed via blabbermouth.net

 

 

Review: The Gathering – Souvenirs

Location: Nijmegen, The Netherlands
Genre: Alternative rock, trip-hop
Released: February 24, 2003
Format Reviewed: FLAC

By: Kris Kotlarik

Allen Enigma of Metalbite: Obviously the sound of The Gathering has changed greatly since it even began, before you joined and after. What where some of the influences of The Gathering circa 1995 and “Mandylion,” and what influences The Gathering of present day?

Anneke van Giersbergen: Music-wise, we are very much influenced by this new dark pop music. You might call it like Radiohead, Massive Attack, and bands like that. They really influence us because we like the catchiness of this music but also the dark side of this music. But other than that, there is an infinite choice of inspiration. You can find inspiration in just about anything, books and movies and friends, and just leading your life, you know? I think that’s a big change from what we did in 95-96, because then the world was just a little bit more black and white because you’re younger then. But now this whole gray area seems to be an influence on our music these days.

As I had mentioned in my review of their previous album, If_Then_Else, I was already a big fan of The Gathering’s early work, especially Mandylion and How To Measure A Planet? The contrast between those two albums is stark; the former leaned on its doom metal aspects with vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen soaring above it all, while Planet marked their excursion into more electronic-laced alternative rock.

For a while, I thought I wouldn’t like their later albums. But then I gave If_Then_Else several spins and really liked it for its variety. Souvenirs may not have as many different styles on display as that album, but I think it’s actually better. I would go so far as to say that it’s right up there with Planet for their second-best album.

What it lacks in variety, it more than makes up for in coherence and a far more clear sound. Opener “These Good People” has a simple yet chilling bass line that builds up over the first 50 seconds before Anneke’s vocals kick in. That intro is symbolic of this album; it’s not afraid to be led by electronics and enhances the material. Speaking of Anneke, her work on this album shows a vastly improved sense of control over her vocals; whereas Mandylion was a display of her raw power, Souvenirs showcases her range, often in the form of high-low harmonies that are haunting and beautiful at the same time.

Much of the album carries on in this fashion: Various electronic effects that add to Anneke’s vocals. These effects are scattered all over the place, from the breakdown towards the end of “Even The Spirits Are Afraid;” to the distorted intro and outro of “Broken Glass;” and just about all of “We Just Stopped Breathing,” especially its choppy, trumpet-laden instrumental outro that stretches over several minutes. Under most circumstances, I would consider such an extensive usage of these elements to be a copout, but this is the kind of art that should be embraced with this instrumentation.

Souvenirs has two tracks that I would consider to be closer to the traditional “rock” structure: The title track, and “Monsters.” The former features some of Anneke’s best vocals on the album, reminding me somewhat of an evolved Adele at times during the middle of the track. “Monsters” is catchy, looping together a crawling bassline with lyrics that portray a person who is frustrated with life’s shortcomings and just wants to be left alone.

Much like how “Analog Park” served as the “climax” of If_Then_Else, “Monsters” is the heaviest point of Souvenirs. And like its predecessor, the final songs here drag on a little bit too long. While still good, the pacing is too slow, further brought down by the four-minute gap of silence between “Jelena” and closer “A Life All Mine,” a surprisingly interesting track that features Trickster G (Ulver, Arcturus, Borknagar) as a duet counterpart. It’s a highly experimental track with all-electronic instrumentation, and is the kind of track I would expect to sneak onto local alternative rock radio stations if the intro is shortened for the edit.

My pick for the best songs here are “These Good People” and “You Learn About It,” the latter mostly because Anneke’s voice teters on the edge of angelic as she is singing. This is true across the album, but there’s something special about Anneke’s high-end vocals, even when they’re not being belted at full lung capacity.

Out of all of The Gathering’s albums, this is the one I have been listening to the most recently. It’s not their best album, but what it does for me is become the soundtrack to my day; I can take this album and listen to it anywhere. Mandylion doesn’t hold that distinction, as amazing as it is.

Maelstrom: You don’t play with your hi-hat open on the new record. The result is that it’s a lot quieter.

Hans Rutten: It is. It’s all to achieve a crystal clear sound. The bombast is gone. At first we had massive guitars. Those are gone. With an open hi-hat, you fill the entire high spectrum. I come from a doom metal band: Always, our first record, has doom oriented drums. There’s more in life than doom metal. I still love doom metal, but you want to grow and do new things.

Overall: Souvenirs has that perfect balance of being experimental and accessible at the same time.

Rating: 4.0*

Buy physical CDs from The Gathering here. Digital albums can be purchased here.

Review: Ayreon – The Theory of Everything

Location: Waalwijk, The Netherlands
Genre: Progressive Rock/Metal
Released: October 28, 2013
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Traveler In Time

By: Kris Kotlarik

In the review for The Gentle Storm’s The Diary, I made a funny about how The Theory of Everything (the movie) ripped off the plot from the Ayreon album of the same name. Honestly, I don’t think that is much of an exaggeration. The story revolves around a genius prodigy with a mental impairment and features a smart but neglectful and self-centered father, a caring mother, a love interest, an asshole of a rival who eventually works with the prodigy, and a teacher who guides the prodigy through the toughest of life’s problems. It has all the cliches for a blockbuster movie, right? The rival drops some especially cornballish lines that only someone like Arjen Lucassen could/would pull off. And yet, at least for the most part, it works.

Depending on how you feel about occasionally cheesy lyrics, there are two other possible weaknesses that could detract from your enjoyment of this album. The first is the over-the-top nature of the vocals; there are so many high-pitched climax-sounding notes that it’s often hard to tell where you are in the story. The second is that this album is long. About an hour and half long, spread out over 42 “tracks.” These tracks are more like segments of a significantly longer track, of which there are officially four. The continuous flow makes this feel overwhelming; even now, I still have a hard time listening to this in its entirety. Part of that stems from the expositional nature of the first disk, which takes its time in establishing the characters and the plot.

Like most Ayreon albums, a singer is cast as a singular character. There isn’t all that much star power here, at least in comparison to previous albums; Tommy Karevik (Kamelot, Seventh Wonder) does a sensational job in the prodigy role, while Marco Hietala (Nightwish, Tarot) goes toe to toe with him as the rival. Sara Squadrani (Ancient Bards) and Christina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil) play the girl/love interest and mother, respectively, but sound too similar to each other and often have to be deciphered based on their lyrics instead of their sound. Scabbia, however, is a star on the second disc, especially in the closing tracks. She also belts one for the ages at the end of “The Argument 2.” Yes, there are two “arguments.” But the first argument, which is on the first disc, isn’t that much if an argument. Maybe that’s exactly what Arjen was going for; the second disc has much more intensity than the first.

Since there are so many tracks to listen to, if you’re short on time and want to just listen to one song, I would pick “Collision.” It’s basically a vocal dual between the prodigy and the rival with strong energy to it. There’s also “Progressive Waves,” an instrumental that I am fairly certain was included only to showcase the godly synth talents of Keith Emerson (Emerson, Lake & Palmer), who plays the most ELP-esque solo ever recorded, as well as Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater). Also making a cameo appearance is Rick Wakemen (Yes) on “Surface Tension” and guitarist Steve Hackett (Genesis) on “The Parting.”

Those who know what Ayreon is all about already know what they are in for: A lot of classic prog melodies in the form of a rock opera. That said, this feels different from albums such as 01011001 in part because of the realistic nature of the story. There aren’t any space aliens here; no crazy extraterrestrial trials or tribulations that the main characters must face like Into The Electric Castle; and no time traveling using a dream sequencer from which you drink the fluid from the left terminal. We may not all be scientists (I sure as hell am not), but Arjen poses what could have been an impossibly complex story into something that most people can connect to. This may take several listens to get into, but it’s worth the wait if you give it time.

Overall: In the higher end of Ayreon’s albums and one of the best from 2013.

Rating: 4.0*

Review: Melechesh – Enki

Location: Amsterdam, Netherlands
Genre: Black Metal with Middle Eastern Influences
Released: February 27, 2015
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

Melechesh, formerly of Israel, took a genre in black metal that had become relatively bland and decided to do something new with it by incorporating Middle Eastern themes in their instrumentation, melodies, and lyrics. As it stands, they are easily among my favorite bands of the genre, as evidenced by my declaration of Emissaries as an all-time favorite.

Enki, their first album in nearly five years, continues the band’s Middle Eastern themes of mythology. It also sees the return (at least for the studio) of Lord Curse, their original drummer. Ashmedi, who serves as the group’s frontman and has been known to play the guitar with a drumstick on occasion, explains the concept of Enki in this quirky interview.

Melechesh, at least in my opinion, is one of the best bands in metal when it comes to opening tracks. They showed it on Sphynx with “Of Mercury and Mercury,” and again on Emissaries with one of their signature tracks, “Rebirth of the Nemesis.” Amazingly, “Tempest Temper Enlil Enraged” might top both of those tracks. It takes little time (43 seconds, to be exact) to build up before activating rampage mode, subjecting the listener to a barrage of aggression spread out over a wide array of unique melodies. Just when you think the track is about to ride into anarchy, it slows down without losing its punch, throwing even more interesting melodies at you. The more I listen to it, the more I consider it a contender for my all-time favorite tracks by the band.

Of course, the problem with putting such impressive material at the beginning is the fact that the bar is set from there, and it’s hard to keep the material that strong for the rest of the album. The rest of the tracks are generally good, but don’t really come close to the opener. “Lost Tribes” features a cameo appearance from Max Cavalera (Soulfly, Killer Be Killed, Sepultura, Cavalera Conspiracy). My reaction to Cavalera’s vocals usually ranges from indifference to “oh hell, not this guy again.” But his contribution here is quite strong. Sakis Tolis (Rotting Christ) also makes an appearance on “Multiple Truths,” and although I like him and his music much more than Max’s, Sakis doesn’t stand out nearly as well in his part.

All told, my complaints with this album are relatively minor. “Metatron and Man” starts with almost the same riff as “Grand Gathas of Baal Sin,” which would have to pick a bone about if not for the fact that I love that song. “Metatron” is also one of the better tracks, especially after the midtempo tracks that preceded it. “Doorways to Irkala” continues the Melechesh tradition of putting a (long) folk instrumental somewhere other than the end of the album. This is the kind of thing that makes Strapping Young Lad look good for putting “Info Dump” at the end of Alien. This is a pleasing, mellow instrumental, but the album would have survived just fine without it. On the opposite end of the spectrum, “The Outsiders” closes the album at a lengthy 12:48, and while I can see how people think this might be too long, I can’t see anything that needs to be cut from here. It only gets better (and heavier) as it progresses.

The biggest concern here might be overcompression in the mix, which takes away some of the magick. As a whole, however, this is another solid album from one of metal’s more unique bands. It may not be their best, but it is damn good. Or, as Ashmedi might say, “Sonic Magick.”

Overall: A 3.5 rating might seem low, but I would rank this below both Sphynx and The Epigenesis, both of which would likely earn 4.0’s.

Rating: 3.5*