What is ‘Sehr Kosmisch, Ganz Progisch’? Roughly translating to ‘Very Cosmic, Entirely Proggy’, this debut album from Weserbergland is…well, exactly what its title claims. It’s a classically progressive take on Krautrock, masterminded by White Willow’s Ketil Vestrum Einarsen. Comprising four extended instrumental compositions, the album is layered, moody, musical, and intricate. The arrangements alternate between playful and austere as Einarsen and band dance around the motorik beat. ‘Sehr Kosmisch, Ganz Progisch’ is immediately enjoyable but reveals its true depth gradually over many listens, making it somewhat difficult to review, if easy to recommend. Let’s take it track by track.
Tanzen Und Springen: This album opener features tight drumming that moves around quite a bit such that the motorik never approaches monotony. There’s quite a bit of textured flute here w/punctuating fuzz bass and angular lead guitar. The overall impact is not unlike that of an extended modal jazz composition. Five minutes in the track switches gears for a dark interlude buoyed by that dependable motorik and coloured by a bit of synth prancing.
Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde: The album’s longest track, this composition executes a minimalist opening with the illusion of off-beat drumming and down-tuned synth before a more aggressive beat takes over. Over the course of the track’s more than 15 minutes, the drums say rock, the synths suggest ambient, the bass and guitar reference fusion, and the flute leads invoke world & new agey jazz. In the second half of the track, the arrangement seems to agree that, whatever else you might hear stylistically, bombastic prog is the underlying theme. The track’s closing minutes explore experimental territory somewhere between the opening moments of Close to the Edge and the sound of a cassette tape being eaten in the player. In other words, very cosmic, entirely proggy.
Die Kunst Der Fuge: Is this the soundtrack to a tropical sunrise? There’s a relaxed quietness to the beginning of this composition that again evolves gradually over its length. Despite sometimes frenetic guitar work, the mood remains laid-back in a groove featuring lyrical synths, flirty woodwinds, and the rare appearance of (programmed?) vocals. The band show incredible restraint as the track builds and builds, paradoxically sounding both jam-packed and minimalist at the same time, always taking two rounded left turns just when the proceedings seem about to arrive somewhere. It’s a lovely exercise in patience and the self-rewarding activity of virtuosity. Am I speaking in euphemisms for ‘noodly’? No, I don’t think I am.
Tristrant: Utilizing some tight reverbs and programming that would make Fripp-era Peter Gabriel turn his head, this track sounds the most mechanical and spacey of the album’s four movements. It also features more sustained, ecstatic energy, encapsulated in the almost combative dual soloing of flute and clarinet in the last few minutes. In this manner, the album closes on a more traditional jazz styling, albeit one outlasted by that motorik right to the end.
Unless (and even if) your record collection consists entirely of Can, ‘Sehr Kosmisch, Ganz Progisch’ will occupy a unique space on your shelf and in your headphones. A successful tribute to Krautrock, Weserbergland’s debut will also be accessible and attractively mysterious for fans of prog, ambient, electronica, and moody jazz. Don’t pass by this gem because you didn’t know to be looking.
On their 2nd LP, ‘Gargoyles,’ the Glasgow-based Big Hogg mine a rich vein of post-‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ sounds, including psychedelia, Canterbury folk/jazz/proto-prog, and the background music for those dance interludes that showed up in every 60’s movie regardless of whether the film was a musical. It’s a weird and wonderful ride.
While the music encompasses a range of influences, the songs do not come across as genre-bending or as mash-ups; rather, the album comprises myriad variations on the sounds of 1967-1969 that nonetheless cohere as a unique and idiomatic Big Hogg approach. The opening three tracks well establish this programme. Solitary Way blends folky acoustic lines, male and female vocals, and flute as a musical bed over which the drums, bass, brass, and electric guitar alternately lay down their own grooves. Vegan Mother’s Day takes a funkier guitar-solos-and-horn-showcases-galore approach, while Augogo begins with jazz arpeggios to delight the clientele of any smoky underground cafe before launching into a flirtatious mod bit seemingly intended for Bob Fosse. Each mood and tempo gives way to another at exactly the right time; the changes come across as perfectly choreographed movements rather than the butting in of a new dance partner.
Like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, ‘Gargoyles’ is a fun and thrilling ride, though it’s not quite safe as milk. The mood is ⅔ mellow trip and ⅓ psychotropic provocation as the band incorporates the punch of ‘Chicago Transit Authority’ with the Judy of ‘Dark Side of the Rainbow’. The album is shot through with a smattering of the supernatural (or perhaps simply a pagan approach to the natural?) that occasionally turns menacing, as on the imprecation of The Beast (A witch in the streets/And a woman gone loose…Burn the witch/Go up in flames) or the droning refrain and wailing at the end of Devil’s Egg, which strongly resembles the hypothetical conjoining of Frank Zappa with Drimble Wedge and The Vegetation. And the (mostly) innocuously-titled My Banana contains a rather anthemic and hooky chorus that you won’t want the children singing at school (Fuck off!/And give me peace/I want my life back/And my energy). Still, the sense of mischief is folded into quite a bit of fun and cheeky humour, as exemplified by many of the song’s titles (Vegan Mother’s Day, Drunk On A Boat, Waiting For Luigi, My Banana).
There’s really little to quibble over in this set, as the compositions, arrangements, performances, and production are all quite superb. Both lead vocalists serve their songs well, and the brass, flute, and wurlitzer sound like established members of the family rather than guests seeking accommodation. I will note that a few songs in the back half of the album employ a quick-fadeout that sounds to my ears like the band lacked direction in how to finish the tracks off. But on the whole, everything flows together nicely and the album nearly demands to played on repeat.
Big Hogg have really done it: ‘Gargoyles’ is one of the more unique, fun, and singular releases I’ve heard in awhile. The album fully inhabits that 1967-1969 period without coming off as retro, and it’s at least as upbeat as it is offbeat. Don’t fear the strange and unfamiliar, folks; embrace the weird and the wonderful. There are plenty of sing-along hooks and smile-inducing horn breaks here to carry a new listener through the initiation, and once you’re in, you’ll have twice as much fun as your benighted friends. Recommended for fans of progressive music, jazz, Bob Fosse dance sequences, Peter Cook & Dudley Moore films, boozy halloween parties, and Stonehenge.
The premise for Nerissa Schwarz’s (of Frequency Drift) debut solo album, ‘Playgrounds Lost’, immediately intrigues for two reasons. First, it is an instrumental concept album about innocence lost—perhaps through very sinister means, judging from the album cover and song titles. Second, the songs are performed entirely on mellotron and electric harp. Put the two together and you’ve got something that veers so far to the left of ‘prog’ that it comes back full circle as very progressive indeed.
The album opener, Play, begins with chiming, plucked strings later overlaid with ambling mellotron washes. Soon, a menacing bass note takes over as the chiming, plucked ‘harp riff’ continues. Immediately, the album is off to a very expressive and cinematic start; honestly, it’s quite surprising that this is not the soundtrack to some foreign language film consisting entirely of wordless vignettes. Imagine a secluded playground in a moderately forested area: it’s mid-autumn, some leaves are turning, some green remains, the warm sun and chill breeze play together nicely. We see a lone child on the swing, pumping and pulling at a relaxed pace, eyes fixed straight ahead. The action doesn’t change much from scene to scene; instead, the camera moves around the location—sometimes out of focus—lighting changes, slowly moving toward dusk; we get the sense that something is not right here.
Most of the songs move between pretty, bright uses of the electric harp and mellotron—more like the ‘hippie’ and folky-psychedelic sounds you probably associate with the instrument—and downright frightening brown notes that creep, circle, but never quite obscure the harp. Indeed, Schwarz has come up with some truly inventive uses for an instrument that often occupies a place of nostalgic filigree in many compositions. Here, the sounds range from meadowy to proggy to atmospheric to reminiscent of Taurus bass pedals.
Fireflying is perhaps the most thoroughly pleasant and reassuring track, but the songs tend to vacillate between golden hour, dusk, and menacing cloud cover. The album cover provides an excellent interpretive framework for listening, and I cannot separate images of a lone child in a secluded playground area from the musical experience. Thematically, ‘Playgrounds Lost’ is ambiguous but clearly dark. We may be listening to a metaphor for growing up, or possibly an experience far worse, but the closing trio of Something Behind Trees, No More Games, and Playgrounds Lost make it clear that we are dealing with something very serious and terribly unsettling.
And that is the great accomplishment of ‘Playgrounds Lost’: it takes the concept of a concept album, strips it down to bare instrumentation—strips even the instrumentation down to two—and pulls it off with clarity, virtuosity, and precision. It’s a niche album, to be sure. This is a film score without a moving picture. It’s too brooding and menacing for background music. Don’t try it as accompaniment for a workout or a long drive. However, need a bit of meditation, introspection, calibration for a pair of headphones? Love electric harp and/or mellotron and want to hear how far one can go in arranging for those instruments? Nerissa Schwarz has an album for you. And, given the expressiveness of these compositions, here’s hoping she gets the ear of some filmmakers looking for an original score.
Last Flight To Pluto makes a grand entrance onto the prog scene with their debut album, ‘See You At The End’. Their energy is brash, raw, and engaging across six tracks and an hour of music—a deft alchemy of late 70’s Rush and late 90’s Massive Attack in roughly 65-35 ratio. Band leaders Alice Freya (lead vocals, guitar) and Daz Joseph (drums, vocals) put in years on the cover band circuit, while young lead guitarist Jack’o McGinty must have studied ‘A Farewell To Kings’ from birth to channel Alex Lifeson’s riffs and solos so naturally. The result is that this band, while young as a unit, are experienced, confident, and very tight.
The opening track, Heavy Situation, features many of the elements to which the band will return throughout the song sequence: doubled lead vocals, moody grooves w/electronic accents, classic-rock-power-trio athleticism, and programming-heavy dance-hall loops, all of it slightly tinged with the blues. The vocals are of immediate interest; a bit alt-rock and a bit bluesy, Gin Wigmore and Janis Joplin may serve as points of reference but even for a female prog vocalist, Alice Freya is a unique and multifarious singer.
While the album holds together well as a piece, House By A Lake is a clear standout and one of those ‘worth the price of admission alone’ kind of songs. Lyrically, the track centers on a carpe diem sort of theme, but the “She” who will “try to find me, to whisper in my mind” remains unidentified. As with Genesis’ The Lady Lies, this gives an otherwise straightforward metaphor a bit of a mysterious-fantasy feel. Musically, Last Flight To Pluto covers a lot of ground here, as they do throughout the album, but the composition is tighter and the transitions between sections more dynamic. If the verses and interludes are intriguing with their mix of bright piano, acoustic guitar, jazzy bass, and percussive accents, the chorus is absolutely arresting—and it just gets more explosive with every return. The song climaxes with a soul-shaking vocal from Freya and a fiery guitar solo from McGinty that goes beyond mere influence to actually rival Lifeson’s power and technique. I’d love to hear this performed live, to see whether an audience can manage to cheer through their dropped jaws. House By A Lake is the kind of song that the Prog Awards ‘Anthem’ category exists to honour.
Another highlight immediately follows; for those who want their progressive music to progress rather than retread, Red Pill demands attention. There are interesting bits of programming, keys, synths, and loops throughout the album, but this one wears its Massive Attack influence (and a bit of The Gathering, perhaps) on both sleeves. Opening with a bit of wah-wah and strange vocal FX that morph into a big, sticky beat and gang vocals, the track takes a bold left-turn into a middle section featuring a heavily effected and distorted rap. The result is more cool energy than cheese, but those who can’t dig it will surely enjoy the next left turn into a 1975’s Pink Floyd groove and guitar solo, or the left turn after that into stabbing synths and a menacing horror film voice-over.
The second half of ‘See You At The End’ continues in the eclectic direction of the first. On Lots of Swords, the level of cribbing from The Police distracts in places, but Freya’s emotive vocals give the verses a lift, and there’s a splendid interlude with frenetic bass and some trading off between a dualled guitar lead and a synth solo. Seven Mothersbegins with a more acoustic meditation on humans’ disrespect for our Mother Earth, and centers on a truly beautiful lead vocal. The song builds with some organ and soulful guitar lead, returns to the chorus, then switches gears for some upbeat drums & keys programming and another guitar solo. ‘See You At The End’ signs off with Now Boarding, which features big ‘Hemispheres’ guitars and synths, a killer drum solo early in the track, then a more anthemic groove with some stratospheric vocals from Freya and another extended, David Gilmour-esque guitar solo.
While far from perfect—the production is a point of contention, being rather ‘garagey’ and frequently holding Joseph’s stellar drumming too far back in the mix—‘See You At The End’ is an impressive debut that should have received more attention by now. Given the energy and musical prowess on display here, Last Flight To Pluto is clearly a ‘must-see’ live act, and they show a lot of promise as composers. Thankfully, there’s a follow-up album in the works for Spring 2017, so give the debut a good spin now so you can say you were ‘in the know’ before they break big later this year.
Expansive and spiritual in the vein of Tales From Topographic Oceans, this album–like all things Yes these days–has sharply divided the prog world’s opinions. And everyone’s got an opinion on this thing. Well, I’m firmly in the camp that Jon Anderson, Roine Stolt, and Co. have gifted us with a masterpiece. The album is a singular experience, a meditative exercise in four movements. The unrelenting positivity might sound out of place for these dark days, but it’s nonetheless needed. Strong contender for album of the year, for those with ears to hear.
Big Big Train – Folklore
Big Big Train keep adding members, and with each addition they get a little–scrap that, they get A LOT–better. I think they’ve hit on a perfect line-up, because they’ve just released a perfect album. They continue here with themes of the English countryside and fading cultural artifacts, rocking a ‘pastoral prog’ approach that owes a lot to Selling England By The Pound and Wind & Wuthering. Be sure to listen to the extended version as released on vinyl and hi-res download.
Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!”
Donald Glover and Ludwig Göransson deliver the funk with plenty of 70’s heart and…well, y’know. There’s lots of organic percussion, fat synths and keys, deep grooves, and vocal effects to fill out the tracks. Childish Gambino keeps things varied here, but centered on those 70’s funk tropes, and somehow manage to inhabit rather than merely imitate. If Prince had released this album in the last few years, it would have been hailed as a renaissance and return to form.
Ben Craven – Last Chance To Hear
Great & Terrible Potions is quite an album to follow up, but Ben Craven has managed it with Last Chance To Hear. Loosely a concept album about the end of the music industry as we’ve known it, this album features William Shatner, prog-a-billy, a spot-on James Bond theme, and even a lovely piano elegy. It’s also a contender for best album art and packaging, with gorgeous designs by Freyja Dean. Cinematic, progressive, singer-songwriter with lush production.
The Fringe – The Fringe
Nick D’Virgilio, Jonas Reingold, Randy McStine. I was sold on the first two names alone, and I wish I had known about the third sooner. Perhaps the album I’ve listened to the most this year, The Fringe incorporates the more alternative rock side of prog into a garage band ethos with my pick for the best production work of the year. The album is stacked with deep grooves, vocal harmonies, and guitar solos. The Fringe are too good to remain a side-project, so here’s hoping that we hear more, and soon.
Frost* – Falling Satellites
Prog has always been a Populist musical venture, however strange that may sound these days. Why shouldn’t pop be progressive, anyway? The latest from Frost* is the most modern-sounding album of the year; it’s ahead of its time, really. All pop music will sound like this in ten years (we can hope). Hooky, layered, accessible, rich, and emotional–it suits a wide range of musical needs.
Steve Hindalong – The Warbler
Incorporating elements of his work with The Choir, The Lost Dogs, and his previous solo album, Steve Hindalong turns in another batch of so very human songs. His descriptive lyrics are so mundane–that is, they essentially capture the mundanity of everyday life–that they bypass our receptors for aesthetic filigree and hit straight at the heart. It’s not unusual for a song to prompt tears, chuckles, and tears again in the course of a verse and chorus. Essentially a singer-songwriter album, the rich production frames the lyrics while never obscuring them. Don’t let the religious backdrop scare you away; this is less of a ‘Christian’ album than what Neal Morse was writing before he was a Christian, and it captures themes of friendship and everyday existence so very well.
Marillion – F.E.A.R
Wow. Of course I want my Prog to be beautiful, grandiose, immersive, but to get one that’s also so…so important? If I were ranking albums, this would have to be #1, and I’ll happily listen to it twice for every person who’s turned off by the message. Political prog at it’s finest, and Mark Kelly is going to win an award for his keys on this album, right
Muriah Rose – Beneath The Clay
Muriah Rose hits the ground running with this gorgeous debut, comprising folk, country, Americana, and singer-songwriter forms recalling The Carter Family, Julie Miller, and The Byrds. Beneath The Clay is Appalachian music through and through, not only musically but thematically and emotionally. Her husband, Bill Mallonee, holds down the rhythm section and adds textured guitar, but Muriah’s voice and lyrics stand front and center in the spotlight, where they belong.
Devin Townsend Project – Transcendence
Continuing in the vein of Sky Blue but with some Ocean Machine thrown in for good measure, Transcendence finds Devin Townsend working the “emotional mid-tempo rock” thing the DTP have perfected over the last several years, except that here they perfect it even a little more. While I’d love to hear more of Anneke Van Giersbergen’s vocals, the decision to lean on her vocals a little less really brings Dave Young’s guitar and Mike St-Jean’s keys more to the forefront. It’s not just marketing, folks: this album sounds less like a Project and more like a band effort. Nolly’s mixing and production also add some breathing room to Devy’s typically dense arrangements. It’s heavy, proggy, inspirational, and good.
With their new album, ‘Hawaii,” Aisles have released their version of the obligatory conceptual prog double album. As such, it hits many of the prog checklist items: longer tracks, extended instrumental sections, some experimental choices, a loose concept that can be a little hard to follow at times, and gorgeous cover art that tells a story in its own right. However, ‘Hawaii’ never comes across as perfunctory, and the band’s eclectic mix of musical styles–leaning more heavily on jazz-fusion and world rhythms than on ‘classic prog’ or hard rock–brings some fresh air to the project.
The first LP opens with a two part reflection on The Poet whose art and message had gone largely unheard. This pair of tracks serve well as an opener, expressing both the lyrical themes (a warning about the destruction of the earth/loss of uniquely human experiences) and the musical pallette (big band drums and jazzy lead guitar that moves into Welcome to the Machine-esque sinister moodiness, then continues through several stylistic changes). The rest of this first disc continues with premonitions of coming tragedy. Upside Down is a highlight of the album, and one of the more condensed musical and thematic statements here. There are two opposing forces at work in the world–destruction and creation–both with their power to to turn the world upside down in their own ways. “Some only take and some just destroy, and others they create/Some give their hearts and some are so bold/That they can turn any world upside down.”
The second LP focuses more on lament and longing for the good things that have passed away. The album’s many references to sun, rivers, walks, etc. develop the thought that the greatest loss in the earth’s destruction was not cultural or technological–these human inventions seem to have carried on in the settlement of the solar system–but in the destruction of the non-human beauty of the natural world that provides the conditions for fully a human experience. This is expressed in the mournful Terra and on the title track, Club Hawaii, which features a spoken intro explaining that the club’s five floors each contain wonders to tantalize all five senses, every floor more intense than the last. The patron’s question, “what’s on the top floor?” reveals the album’s theme of longing for the deepest, most thorough experience of human sensuality, especially in relation to the beauty of the natural world and humanity’s own natural, physical existence. Thus, we hear the club’s visitor implore “Turn my soul into flesh and soil/And blood, and waves and sand and rocks/And cliffs and sex and dogs/And apes and frogs and dirt and rust/And screams and lava, lava, lava, lava, lava.”
Throughout the album, there are nods to classic progressive music: some of the keys/synths are reminiscent of late 70’s Rush or mid-70’s Pink Floyd, while the jazzier leanings share some commonality with Caravan, but Aisles are clearly not interested in the more nostalgic-leaning approach to prog. The influences are there, but they remain influences rather than templates.
‘Hawaii’ is a cohesive, moody incorporation of emotional rock vocals, jazz fusion instrumental sections, and jazzy world-music accents, especially in the rhythm section. There are a few shorter songs that act as segues (Nostalgia) or postludes to the preceding track (Year Zero, Falling, which is a nice hint at the kind of mournful ballad that Freddie Mercury sang so masterfully), but the narrative tends to be moved forward by longer, sprawling tracks. These avoid the prog-rock epic approach to composition, instead opening with quieter guitars and slowly unfolding. The album is, on the whole, much more about the ‘progressive’ rather than the ‘rock’ as it is usually practiced in the contemporary milieu. That’s not to say the album doesn’t get loud or intense, but the mood suits contemplation more than consternation. This is an album for a late night, sitting alone in low lighting, with a favourite and suitably complex beverage in hand. And have some refills at the ready, because ‘Hawaii’ rewards repeated listens. The composition is too sprawling and the theme too subtle (as a nice counterpoint to some overbearing narrative albums) to be grasped immediately. It requires some commitment from the listener up front, before it will reveal the intricacies of its emotional core. With some careful attention, however, its beauty will shine through.
“There is a darker side of us all…Every one of us, we have a darker side that we should probably just appreciate that it exists…I believe it’s a beautiful darkness…The Shadow Self, it is a creative force in all of us.” –Tarja
Those familiar with Tarja’s solo work, or with the symphonic metal genre, will find much that is familiar in ‘The Shadow Self’. There are plenty of metal/hard rock guitar riffs, lots of low end, a smattering of strings and choirs, and lyrics that mostly sticks to discussing darkness, anger, love, and the natural world. Tarja has been headed in a single artistic direction since 2007’s ‘My Winter Storm’, and her latest album continues on that path. However, while some artists make a familiar-sounding album due to lack of inspiration or personal comfort, Tarja is clearly perfecting her craft, and ‘The Shadow Self ‘makes up the ground between past efforts and the ideal for what a symphonic metal album can be.
Lifted from an Annie Lennox interview, the album title provides a thematic focal point; indeed, ‘The Shadow Self ‘is the most thematically and musically cohesive album of Tarja’s career. Starting from the premise that each of us have a darker side, and that it’s best to face this darkness head on, the songs here move between introspection and explosive expression.
The singles from the album focus in on the positive, creative force of the shadow self. On No Bitter End, Tarja encourages the listener to engage the darkness on its own terms.
“Blackout the sun/Light nowhere/Tell me you don’t need it anymore…”
To say that we each have a darker side is not to say that we are evil, but merely points to the fact that much of our inner life is a mystery, is unknown, is a void even to ourselves. But perhaps it is in this very darkness that we will find hope, strength, love, and freedom.
“Open up your inner eye/Let hope save the day…To be there with all you need/And nothing left to prove…..”
The chorus and bridge sound a bit like the best of the 80’s power ballads, musically emphasizing the ultimately triumphant outcome of this introspective journey.
Similarly, Innocence maintains a cautiously positive tone in the lyrics.
“Inside of me doors will stay open/A thousand lives to live/Waiting like universes do without an end/Love break into my innocence…”
However, the video version makes it clear that the innocence of the title may very well be that which has been lost, and the album version of the song features an alternate, extended instrumental break that suggests much the same. A solo grand piano picks out the melody, gradually builds in intensity, meanders into pounding and resounding bass chords, then calmly returns to the melody before being joined by a full string section and choral vocals.
The effect is unsettling, occasionally jarring, but finally invigorating. Tarja has done this sort of staggering of classical and hard rock within a song before (Anteroom of Death, Victim of Ritual), but the classical component is more adventurous and thematically cohesive here. As album opener, the song also announces that Tarja is breaking new artistic ground whilst perfecting old standbys.
Even if our inner darknesses contain a positive creative force, they surely also possess immense destructive capabilities. On those who have hurt and abused us, the shadow self seeks self-expression of our most violent impulses. The album explores this aspect of the shadow self as well, showing how even these impulses may be channeled in a properly creative direction.
(Picture credit: Jaromir Zajicek)
In Supremacy, a Muse cover and one of the album’s high points, the target is an oppressive institution.
“Policies have risen up and overcome the brave…Embedded spies brainwashing our children to be mean…”
Instead of fear or angry fantasy, the song expresses a resolve for action.
“You don’t have long/I am on to you/The time has come to destroy/Your supremacy…”
The cover doesn’t stray too far from the original in terms of structure, but it does feature truly heavy guitars, cinematic John Barry-esque orchestration, and stratospheric vocals from Tarja to drive the hook home.
Diva relishes the poetic justice awaiting those who try to diminish our sense of self, if we only walk away and leave them to sink in their own rotten ships. The song may also serve as a personal response to Tarja’s dismissal from Nightwish and their subsequent song Bye Bye Baby. Once again the orchestration is cinematic in scope, carnival sounds and spoken vocals add a layer of creepiness, and Tarja’s vocals highlight both her range and her finesse.
Indeed, Tarja’s vocals are, as they should be, the main feature throughout the album. On Too Many, what could have been an extended fadeout instead gradually drops out instruments until only Tarja’s vocals remain. Whereas another artist might have ended the song with a whisper, or cut the song off after the first line once all other instruments were silenced, Tarja continues to sing until she has completed the chorus. The result is powerful, both in its presentation of the lyrics and in its completion of the album’s theme of a personal journey into the darkest corners of one’s own soul.
“Not too many facing their tears/When sunrise outshines the grey/Many too many living their fears/Only few won’t fade away…”
The repetition of this chorus takes the form of a lament, but is transformed by the choice to drop out instruments and leave Tarja’s voice as the final musical statement. In this closing moment, Tarja is expressing neither pity nor regret for others, but rather resolve and defiance on her own behalf–there are many too many living their fears, but she is one of the few who will face their tears and not fade away.
Befitting its thematic cohesion, ‘The Shadow Self’ also comprises Tarja’s most unified musical statement thus far (in her rock albums, anyway). Tarja has stated that she wanted the album to have more of a band feel, and this does sound more band focused, with fewer orchestral and choral overlays than some of Tarja’s past work. The riffs are little heavier, and Tarja’s lead vocals are kept to the fore, with minimal choral backing on most songs. This makes the ‘classical’ components more powerful when they do become the focus on songs like Living End and Diva.
It also makes room for more musical flourishes and nuances than is typical in the symphonic metal genre. Living End features beautiful acoustic guitar and pipes, while Demons In You begins with a half-minute funky jam before transitioning into a heavy piece spotlighting Alissa-White Gluz’s vocals. Even here, Tarja eschews the generic set of growls in favour of using both growled and melodic vocals from Gluz, allowing these to interplay with Tarja’s own melodic leads.
‘The Shadow Self ‘is unmistakably a Tarja album. It sounds much like other Tarja albums. It’s just a better Tarja album, one that displays a clear artistic vision as well as the skill and confidence to push forward with the arrangements and production.
Oh, and it also includes a bona fide hit song. You’ll know it when you hear it.
Craig E. Bacon is a PhD Candidate in Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. When not actively putting to rest all interpretative questions surrounding Kant’s idea of the highest good, Craig may usually be found at home with his beloved wife and rescue animals, listening to a Prog record with a craft beer in hand. Craig E. Bacon: Music, Philosophy, Beer, etc.