SONNE HAGAL – Ockerwasser (2014)

Review by: Roland Bruynesteyn
Album assigned by: Eden Hunter

The Shapes of Things to Come, a great title for the first song on an album by an artist I never even heard of. Very ‘droney’, with rather monotonous singing, but very impressively creating an atmosphere of loss or depression. Apart from the synthesizers (I guess) there is some acoustic guitar strumming and it’s very light on percussion, simply a great song.

The next song, Morpheus starts with what sounds like a flute synthesizer, and it evokes a somewhat similar feeling of desperation. It sounds beautiful. Some weird noises and again an acoustic guitar enter the scene, shortly before the singer, who is now joined by a female voice, making it a little lighter. A choir and an electric guitar join in, not interfering with the main melody, such as it is. Not necessarily innovative, but very pleasing to the ear. Some pre-recorded conversation enters as well, sounding somewhat ominous. This could be the music accompanying the end credits of a very sad movie.

I absolutely love it! A bit like the Besnard Lakes (on a quiet day), or the Antlers: depressing music, but very well performed.

Third song in, Of Dissembling Words, has a similar descending melody. Acoustic guitar, female voice (first in, this time), male voice, some distorted electric guitar, almost Frippian in tone, and some (electric?) piano, and again some choir-like voices. The song sounds a bit like someone explaining to you why he or she is disappointed in you: you made him or her very sad.

But I’m starting to wonder a little: should I understand the title of the first song as a warning that all songs on the album sound absolutely the same? On to the fourth song: After the Rain. A little bit more up tempo, a violin, and almost happy. The percussion is a little more intrusive as well, but it still sounds like it was recorded in the next room (or the next building, or the next city). Still a great song on its own.

Next we have Black Spring: a little bit more (droney) violin, but I’m really getting worried:
  • How did the first song go anyway?
  • Is the album really one 50 minute song?
  • Is it a concept album?
  • Where did the third song differ from the fourth?
  • How does this album fit into their career?

So I find myself getting somewhat sceptical, rather than curious, about song # 6, called Thyme. They knew it!!! Totally synthetic 80’s style percussion to start with, and only then do we get the droney descending melody with the depressing voice! Funny thing is, as I slowly start to lose interest, the songs seem to be getting better (although the first two still stand out as well). How can this be? Did I lower my expectations? Did they suck me into their sound? What’s going on?

Song number 7, Silence, starts with a gong, there’s silence for you. Then some treated acoustic guitar and what sounds like some accordion, with the synthesised flute. Somewhat menacing, I’d never think that of flute and acoustic guitar as being menacing…

Gold starts with acoustic guitar and then some bass that is reminiscent of the Child in time bass line. Some vibes (I guess) add some color, but do not enough to differentiate the song. Female voices do add something though.

Next song Devon is more of a duet, and sounds a bit like Magna carta, or Kings of Inconvenience, folkie acoustic pop with added atmosphere and production tricks (windy noises, some shrieks, etc.). So far, this is the most folkish sounding song on the album.

Mediocrity in Love Rejected (love that title…) is a speeded up clone of Devon (which is probably why it’s a little shorter), or am I getting confused? Final song, Assassins, starts with a monologue, warning about the dangers of man as the source of all evil. Luckily, we soon get to familiar territory: acoustic guitar, male voice with very limited range, some production effects (whip lashes?), vibes and generally sadness.

What to make of it? I think you could call it prog-folk: the seriousness and general virtuosity of prog without the tricky time signatures, plus the instruments of folk, but generally without their ‘classic’ or ‘old fashioned’ melodies.

I absolutely love every song on the album, but that’s at least partly due to the fact that they do all sound the same way too much for my taste. In a comprehensive album collection, you (may) need an album by this group: they DO create some very small (one song?) niche of their own that sounds very accomplished and complete. I may buy it one day, but I’d be listening repeatedly to other albums before I ever buy a second album by them. They do not only show promise; on one CD they show promise, success, fulfilment and completion, a complete career!
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TANGLED THOUGHTS OF LEAVING – Yield to Despair (2015)

Review by: Eden Hunter
Album assigned by: Ed Luo

From start to finish, listening to Yield to Despair feels like it’s balancing on a constantly mobile precipice between life and death. The instrumentation bounces between a two different moods: slightly groovy doom metal, and somber gothic jazz. Both seem like pretty awkward stylistic coincidences, but they both work remarkably well. These two fundamentals are also helped by chaotic noise squalls, martial drumming, Drudkh-esque tremolo trances, and a wide variety of other sonic tools.

Luckily, the album’s 5 lengthy compositions are robust enough that all these disparate features get a chance to breathe, and Yield to Despair isn’t just balancing on the precipice between life and death, it’s clinging to it. There’s a very slim window for ‘instrumental doomjazz’ to succeed as comprehensively as Yield to Despair does, but in taking that risk, Tangled Thoughts of Leaving have created an absolutely brilliant album. Every moment the precipice is getting thinner, but every moment clinging on we inch ever closer to transcendence.

9/10

STARS OF THE LID – The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid (2001)

Review by: Andreas Georgi
Album assigned by: Eden Hunter

This is an album of ambient drones, and as such it’s difficult to say much about it. The music is very sparce, consisting of long tones made by sonically treated guitars or pianos, with occasional brief appearances of other instruments, sounds or spoken word, which fade in and out. Evidently there’s a bit of a Tarkovsky movie on one track, but it didn’t grab my attention. The various tracks feature different sonic “textures”, but the mood throughout is what I might call “meditative”. This is not music that you actively listen to, because not a heck of a lot is “happening”, and it is 2 hours long! The way to listen to this is to go about your day and let it soak in. I can see myself playing this on headphones trying to zone out on a long airplane flight, but this is not something I would sit down and listen to.
 
Normally I give an album 3 listens before reviewing, but for this one I settled for 1-1/2 (fell asleep reading the second time). I cannot say anything bad about it. The sound textures and moods are pleasant enough, and there is variety from piece to piece, but it’s pointless to try to give a track by track summary. Fans of ambient drone would probably like this, but honestly there isn’t much to draw me in, except, as mentioned, as a music to zone out to.

CROSS RECORD – Be Good (2013)

Review by: Eden Hunter
Album assigned by: Dinar Khayrutdinov

Be Good, the first full-length release from confused indie rockers Cross Record, opens with three minutes of tenuous bass mumblings. It sounds both inescapably fragile and powerfully creepy, and that’s a feeling that carries itself through the album’s whole runtime. Even in the most dramatic, grandiose moments, there’s a constant sense that this is all some kind of pose, as if everything could fall apart if you pressed the wrong buttons.

Cross Record are masters of atmosphere, and, in addition to the fragility they summon, there’s also a palpable cloud of grimness passing over the whole album. The instrumentation constantly retains a sense of hazy ambiguity. It’s assisted by the lyrics, which always feel masterfully curated to summon both visceral emotion and atmosphere. There’s a moment in Cups in the Sink where everything slows down and the lyrics repeat the words, “Let me go/Please just let me go.” Emily Cross’ vocals fall somewhere in between Joanna Newsom and Chelsea Wolfe, and when she’s putting forth indictments as searing and brutal as that, another truth comes to mind; Be Good is absolutely terrifying music.

This terror is perhaps captured most powerfully on late-album highlight Dirt Nap. It builds up through an increasingly punishing pattern of monastic drumming, before exploding into a series of harrowing sonic revelations. The track is only four minutes long, but more than anything else on Be Good, it feels like a comprehensive statement.

Dirt Nap’s strengths, however, highlight a whole lot of the album’s fundamental weaknesses. At around four-and-a-half minutes, it’s the longest track on Be Good, and it’s the only one that really gets the chance to thematically resolve. There’s a whole lot of really interesting stuff happening on the album, but it feels like Cross Record aren’t really working towards anything. The end result is more like a haunted house than an existential revelation – a superficially harrowing atmosphere hiding what is ultimately fundamentally contentless art.

65/100

FATES WARNING – Awaken the Guardian (1986)

Review by: Tristan Peterson
Album assigned by: Eden Hunter

FFO: Dream Theater, Savatage, Symphony X

Well, you can certainly tell where a lot of 90s prog metal bands go their sound!

Fates Warning is a progressive metal band from Connecticut, formed in 1982.  Awaken the Guardian is their third album.  Funnily, for a third album, they sound remarkably mature as a group.  Of course, there is still the pretension that is coupled with the genre, but the album still maintains a remarkable amount of humanity to it.

Being a Dream Theater freak in my younger years, I can very much hear the influence Fates Warning had on them, as well as contemporaries Savatage and Symphony X.  In fact, if I remember rightly, John Arch auditioned for Dream Theater after Charlie Dominici left the band!

Now to get to the music.  The album, on a technical level, is very skillful.  This obviously isn’t Fates Warning’s first rodeo, and they make rather impressive instrumentals.  The guitar work is enjoyable most of the time, and the drums and bass compliment the guitar quite nicely.  The most noticeable, and arguably rememberable part of the album, is the voice of John Arch.  He has a voice which inspired many (again, citing Dream Theater, as their first album sounds terrifyingly similar to this one) and is astoundingly unique.  Although slightly grating on the ears when it doesn’t fit the music, for the most part Arch’s voice blends incredibly well with the rest of Fates Warning.  Side note: Awaken The Guardian also has rather interesting lyrics.

The main problem with the album though, is that, even with all of the plusses it has, it is generic.  I maintain the viewpoint that you are still generic even if you are the artist who started the trend.  So while the instrumentation and lyrics are good, and the vocals are equally good if also grating at times, I can’t really get behind it.  Some of the songs feel as if they go on for too long, and in those longer songs, the good moments are few and far between.  Although I said it’s surprisingly mature and human for a progressive metal album, it still feels incredibly pretentious.  The lyrics as well, while good, end up feeling repetitive, and complex only for the sake of complexity.  That being said, I still do respect the album and musicianship.

Overall, if you REALLY like progressive metal, or are interested in its history, then check it out, because it provides an interesting glimpse into the building blocks of a genre.  Otherwise, there isn’t much there that you haven’t already heard.  Which, sadly, for all it was built up to for me, made it fall flat and fall hard.

4.4/10

FAVORITE TRACK: Fata Morgana
LEAST FAVORITE TRACKS: Prelude To Ruin, Guardian