Haken

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.
_____________________________________

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

 

 

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Review: Haken – Restoration (EP)

Location: London, England
Genre: Progressive Metal
Released: October 27, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

Normally, I don’t bother with EPs (I have only reviewed one to this point), but for this one, I will make an exception for several reasons:

-Most of the other stuff I have been getting recently has been the kind of black metal that just does nothing for me.
-Despite containing just three songs, this clocks in at almost 34 minutes. Strapping Young Lad’s City is just five and a half minutes longer and I considered that to be a masterpiece.
-This is fucking Haken. Their 2013 album The Mountain was easily among that year’s best (and certainly among the most unique) releases and it will get enshrined into the All-Time Favorites in due time.

How do they follow up that gem of an album? By deciding to rework some of their older material and putting it onto an EP. Usually, this ends in disaster and/or disappointment, but not for Haken.

Frankly, I was a little concerned during the opener, “Darkest Light,” as a result of its djenty intro and uninteresting, somewhat bland composition during the verses, which still contain nice, clean vocals. But at around the 2:45 mark, the instrumentation becomes much heavier and is driven by an organ that becomes the lead part in a lengthy instrumental. The outro, starting at around 5:30, shouts the sound of Tool from the rooftops, and it is a great, if probably unintentional, homage.

“Earthlings” is a dreamscape type of track that takes an incredibly long time to build up, but the payoff is rewarding. The lyrics are what get my attention most from this track; it’s basically a “humanity has lost its humanity” anthem. There’s also the section between 5:30 and 6:10 in which the vocalist takes on a monotonous, droning style that grabs your attention.

Then there’s the closer, “Crystallised,” a 19-minute cacophony of music. I feel like this track could have been cut into three separate pieces, if for no other reason than to make my job easier, so I am going to do it for them:

“Part 1: Echoes of a Childhood Memory”
The first nine minutes of the full song contain some of the best music from any release I have heard this year. It’s mostly upbeat with a symphonic element to it, captivating verses, instrumental sexiness, a blistering guitar solo, a Dream Theater-esque synth solo (the comparisons linking Haken and Dream Theater are total nonsense. Haken is better), a heavy prog section that reminds me of Cynic, and a chorus that has a dual vocal line that works very well. I don’t know what else I can say about this; it’s just great.

“Part 2: “Crystallizing In My Mind”
How you feel about this seven-minute section largely depends on how you feel about “Cockroach King” off of The Mountain, as it starts with a very similar rendition of that song’s a cappella melody. There’s also another section of vocals in which the singer says “la la la” and “woah” as if it was actually supposed to contribute in any way to this track, which otherwise had a lot going for it lyrically. But the instrumental work here is interesting, ranging from a folky section to a jam in 7/4 time. There’s also a nice bass line at around the 13:55 section. If you’re familiar with Devin Townsend’s “The Mighty Masturbator,” this part can be summarized as a less-extreme version of the part where Devin Townsend sings “I want you to follow me into the stars.” And it’s masturbatory!

“Part 3: Embracing The Future”
The character has triumphed in their journey through life’s struggles by basically saying “I know the past was really difficult, but I can escape it by embracing the future!” I’m sure CinemaSins would have fun breaking this down as some sort of cliche if this were a movie.

Nonetheless, we get another shot at the fantastic chorus, and it has a memorable, grandiose ending. Also, former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy apparently got a guest credit for this gong hit. I played in a concert band ensemble for seven years; can I get a guest appearance, too?

There is little doubt that Haken is one of the best progressive metal bands going today. The word is getting out that they are working on a new album set to be released sometime in 2015, and I’ll be waiting here with open arms for it. Whatever they decide to call it, I’m already calling it an album of the year contender. They already won 2013’s title for song of the year with “Falling Back To Earth.” Everything they do now is icing on top of the mountain…er, cake.

Overall: While not perfect, there’s some remarkable music here. 

Rating: 4.0*

Review: Dreamgrave – Presentiment

Location: Szeged, Hungary
Genre: Progressive Metal
Released: December 9, 2014
Format Reviewed: mp3 (approximately 256 kbps)
Feature: Global Conquest – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

Being compared to the likes of Haken and Anathema, among others, on your debut album is a tall order, but here we are. I will give them this: They do have their Haken-esque moments of self-indulgence; this is especially evident on the jazz-influenced “False Sense Of Confidence.” Their female singer, who has a tendency to go over the top with her soprano vocals to the point of being on Epica’s level of siren singing, lays down a scat vocal line that is among the more memorable moments here. The rest of the track bounces around from their death metal influences to an airy sequence of instrumentals and vocals to close it off. The other all-around standout track is “The Last Drop Falls,” another diverse track that features a clean section of male/female duet vocals that sounds fantastic. It made me want more of that kind of style, but it appears only in limited fashion the rest of the way.

The rest of the tracks have sections that I like in bits and pieces. Some people will see the aforementioned Epica comparison as positive, but I do not like them all that much, as that vocal style is too pompous for its own good. “Black Spiral” and the first part of the title track would become instant gems if those soprano vocals are changed to a duet or a lower tune. On a compositional level, there is a lot to offer. From the jamming, uptempo organ solo in “Memento Mori” to the latter-day Anathema-sounding “It’s Ubiquitous,” there should be more than enough to keep prog metal fans entertained here over several listens.

What I would really like to see from Dreamgrave in the future is more experimenting with the male/female duet dynamic. Anathema has proven time and time again that these sections can be emotionally moving when done the right way, The vocalists here may not be as skilled as Anathema’s, but I believe they have the songwriting ability to compensate for this. As it stands, this is a band that has a lot of potential to span a number of subgenres in the metal multiverse.

On an unrelated note, this cover art looks suspiciously like a mix of Fleshgod Apocalypse’s Labyrinth and Star One‘s Victims Of The Modern Age. I’m not sure what this maze has to do with presentiment, but it’s a nice cover nonetheless.

Overall: A solid debut album, with dynamic writing being its biggest strength.

Rating: 3.5*

Review: The Contortionist – Language

Location: Indianapolis, Indiana
Genre: Progressive Metal with deathcore elements
Released: September 16, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: National Uprising – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

What do you get when you cross Cynic riffs with Haken clean vocals, then add occasional Born of Osiris death growls? Some fantastic music with a few moments that stick out like a sore thumb.

Their first lineup following a series of lineup changes, Language starts off in an almost meditative state. “The Source” is a piano-driven intro with some soothing vocals that are frequent throughout this album. “The Language I: Intuition” carries that mood with a great riff. There are some subtle growls that add to the overall vibe of the track; this also occurs in “Primordial Sound.” Both tracks are great.

“The Language II: Conspire” is easily the heaviest track and contains some “chugga” riffs (and a vibraslap). “Integration” is a solid track that is more in the spirit of “The Language I,” but contains some completely out-of-place growls two-thirds of the way through. On the other side of the spectrum, the growls in “Arise” actually make sense as it matches the overall feel of the track.

In addition to “The Language 1,” the best tracks are “Thrive” and “Primordial Sound,” with the closing two tracks close behind. The production on this record is crisp, but what really stands out is the cohesiveness of the instruments in the mix. No single instrument overpowers the others at any given time, although that vibraslap took a couple of listens to pick up. I’m not sure why that was thrown in there, but I know I heard it. Unlike the lyrics in Iron Reagan’s The Tyranny Of Will, they stand out here. They are easily understood for the most of the part, and take on the spiritual and self-inspiring lyrical themes of Cynic and Haken, among other prog metal bands.

Overall: Aside from those out-of-place growls, this is a surprising nominee for this year’s top 30 albums.

Rating: 4.0*

Review: Edge Of Haze – Illumine

Location: Espoo, Finland
Genre: Progressive/Symphonic Doom Metal
Release: August 21, 2014
Format: MP3 (192 kbps)
Feature: Global Conquest – Upcoming Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

I know I’m not alone in saying that there are albums that start out deceptively strong and have some innovative qualities to them, but then come away disappointed in the final outcome. Unfortunately, Edge Of Haze’s second album fits that description, but with a couple of caveats. 

“Drawn” opens off Illumine on a fantastic note; there are signs of progressive instrumentation, much in the vein of Haken. The vocals sound like they could have been delivered from Soen’s front man, which I consider to be a high compliment. It takes a while to build into it, but the payoff is quite rewarding. There’s also a section of this track that almost takes on a lounge feel to it, further pointing the needle towards Haken and their over-the-top instrumental breaks. So far, we’re off to a promising start.

Most of the tracks that follow, however, sound way too much like their fellow countryman Insomnium, who I already wrote a mixed review of earlier this year. With that said, there are some nice touches of synth, especially in “Unlearn,” and the intro to “Into The Red Sun” sounds like A Natural Disaster-era Anathema, which was a nice change of pace. 

The final two tracks return to the vibe that “Drawn” started. They don’t sound similar by a long shot; in fact, one could hear some djent or -core influences put in. It’s done in a tasteful way that makes a unique contribution to this album’s sound. The ending to “Newfound Horizon” is another unexpectedly pleasant twist.

Illumine is based loosely off of the plot from Escape From Camp 14. Those who have read the book may appreciate the lyrical content, which is already good by this genre’s generally standards, more. 

Overall: Very uneven. There’s parts of this that make me want to come back for more, while other parts are merely just tagging along for the ride.

Rating: 3.0*

 

Review: False Coda – Closer To The Edge

Location: Athens, Greece
Genre: Progressive Metal
Released: April 25, 2014
Format Reviewed: PCM (1411 kbps)
Feature: Global Conquest – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

There are a lot of different facets to this album that can be dissected; the use of synthesizers is prevalent to say the least, political samples are frequent, and there’s even hints of jazz fusion in here. Fans of Dream Theater and Bad Salad should like this album. There’s several parts of this album that feel like it will go completely over the top, into Haken territory, but it doesn’t quite reach that point.

Vocals take over five minutes to kick in; I was beginning to think this would be an all-instrumental album. Alas, if I had to pick two weak points, the vocals would be one of them; it’s not that they’re particularly bad, but it clashes with the rest of the album’s sound. The other weak point is a rather spotty mixing in which one of the guitarists sounds like they are about a step behind the rest of the band.

I will say that Closer To The Edge gets better as it goes along, starting from the title track which is sandwiched right in the middle of this seven-track album. “Room Of Pain” and “Respect” are both all-around solid tracks. There are no “bad” tracks, but none of the other ones stand out, either.

Overall: Stylistically diverse, but the execution could use some tweaking.

Rating: 3.0*