Review – Amarok – Hope

Polish progressive rock outfit Amarok were founded in 1999 by Michał Wojtas, taking on various forms over the course of the next twenty-five years. Their early works had strong influences from the likes of Mike Oldfield (the name of the band was taken from the title of one of his albums) and Pink Floyd. Later, the sound began to evolve with a more ambient nature, along with elements of folk – and it was then that the original, unique character of the band began to take shape. For many years the band’s core was Michał along with Marta Wojtas but, since 2020, it has been a four piece with Konrad Zieliński (drums) and Kornel Popławski (bass and violin). 2024 sees the release of the this, band’s seventh album, ‘Hope‘, after a three year hiatus. It contains ten ambitious, high-level compositions, developed over two decades and it will not disappoint fans, new or old!

I’ve been a big fan of this band for quite a few years now and this new album just cements Amarok as one of the seminal Polish progressive rock bands out there, up there with Riverside at the top of the pile in my opinion. Their musical style fluctuates throughout their discography and throughout this album but the core and the centrepiece that holds everything together is Michał’s stunning guitar playing. His amazing guitar bleeds emotion and sounds like it is almost talking to you, all the while surrounded by the dense, complex and primeval wall of of sound created by the epic rhythm section of Konrad and Kornel.

There is still more than a hint of Pink Floyd and Mike Oldfield to the band’s sound but they now have a sophisticated and mature sound that is unique to them, fans of the band will instantly recognise that this is an Amarok release from the first few notes of opening track Hope Is, an almost technical and industrial vibe coming from the bass and distorted guitars. Marta’s dominant spoken word piece demanding attention in a truly hypnotic way and the keyboards washing over you majestically. Michał’s compelling guitar solo is the icing on the cake, vibrant and awe inspiring. Stay Human takes a more wistful and nostalgic path, the music and vocals pared back and withdrawn in delivery. The delicately plucked guitar adding suitable pathos to the calm atmosphere before the track opens up into something much more dynamic and impulsive, an intelligently created piece of music that echoes in your mind long after it has gone. One of my favourite pieces on the album, Insomnia is Amarok at their very best, the guitar playing inspired by Gilmour at his height but the growing anxiety akin to insomnia itself. This is a sonic salve for the mind and for the soul, it makes you think while you also admire its sheer elegance and beauty, something that this superb band have become very adept at. The vocals are perfectly judged and, once again, a dazzling guitar solo crowns it perfectly. Trail takes us off into trance and electronica, and quite magnificently too! Imagine Mike Oldfield teaming up with Faithless and you wouldn’t be far wrong, the urgency instilled by the keyboards is palpable in nature and the guitars perfectly match the vocals, it’s just brilliant and time almost stands still as you revel in the music.

Welcome and Queen are the works of Konrad Zieliński and Kornel Popławski respectively. Let’s head back in time with the former as it moves into Depeche Mode territory and their ‘Violator’ album. Zieliński provides vocals on this leviathan of a track, a sound that is hewn from granite emanating from the speakers as it draws you in with its monumental distorted guitars and powerful drums. A totally different listening experience but one with its roots firmly in the Amarok universe. Queen is as leftfield as it gets for Amarok fans, trip-hop, shoe-gaze, call it what you like, it is low key and almost sinister in its delivery. It’s throbbing, animated groove leaves you feeling a little off-kilter and Popławski’s vocals are as direct as they get. How refreshing to see the band exploring new territory and just check out Kornel’s violin solos too, sinuous almost alive, they are deliciously dark and machiavellian. Perfect Run is a fast paced, electronic thrill ride of potent keyboards, aggressive drums and crunching guitars, an instrumental of epic proportions that holds nothing back and is another highlight of the album.

Wistful, moving and a simply gorgeous eclectic ballad, Don’t Surrender was written a few years ago and nearly didn’t make the album but I’m ever so glad it did. It tells the story of taking on every challenge regardless of the obstacles that stand in the way, using the metaphor of water that is at once gentle and elemental and it flows perfectly. The vocals are sublime and the music simply elegant with a spectacular, dazzling guitar solo, Amarok at their ethereal, lavish best. Simple Pleasures is possibly the most elemental track on the whole album, laid back, calm and collected, it still shines brightly as another fantastic piece of music. Thoughtful, dreamlike and, at times, nostalgic, it leaves you in a relaxed and contemplative mood, the stylish, uber-cool guitar a wonderful high point. Things come to a close with the simplistic brilliance of Dolina, the only Polish language track on the album. It is like listening to someone baring their soul and literally brought tears to my eyes, the raw emotion of the vocals and lack of any frills or glamour is perfect and is a wake-up call for dormant sensibilities.

An utterly stunning collection of songs that bears Amarok’s impressive hallmarks throughout, ‘Hope’ is one of those albums that hits you at a base level in a totally emotive way. It is music for the mind and the soul and in a world collapsing around our very feet, we all need some of that, don’t we?

Released 5th April, 2024.

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