Reviews in this issue:
Kornmo — Svartisen
Kornmo — Vandring
The name Kornmo is new to me and I guess to a lot of our readers as well. "A Norwegian symphonic prog project" is what they call themselves. The project is from Trondheim, Norway, and comprises Odd-Roar Bakken (guitar, keyboards) and Nils Larsen (bass), both from Norwegian prog band Morild (not to be confused with the Danish black metal band of the same name), plus Anton J.R. Larsen (Nils's son) on drums. Bakken also plays in another prog band called Adventure. I don't know about the status of Morild, but Adventure released their fourth album this year. Kornmo released their debut album Svartisen (The Black Ice) in 2017 and sophomore album Vandring (Travelling) this year so I can only guess Adventure and Kornmo co-exist.
When I read "project", I often think of a one-man band with maybe a few guests, but Kornmo have proved to be a steady line-up. I do however suspect that this is not a band that's going to be playing their music live any time soon. While getting to know these albums, I started to realise that "project" is actually a good word for these productions. Maybe they wouldn't work as good live as they do on record, and on record is where they definitely do work.
Unlike Adventure, who are more (hard) rocking, soundwise Kornmo are more of a continuation of Morild (check Bakken's Youtube channel), except that Kornmo are instrumental and therefore have to offer something other melodic ingredients instead of vocals. The music is firmly based in symphonic prog, with touches from different styles and artists.
Melodies are a top priority. Of course you'll be thinking of early Genesis, which is not untrue, but Kornmo draw from a wider range of influences. Some neo-prog is blended in as well, but more in the style of what Comedy Of Errors are currently doing rather than the sound of the 1980s, so more modern than the term might imply. There's also a bit of IQ and a Camel feel here and there. Several times I had the feeling I get when listening to the instrumental sections of Neuschwanstein's album Battlement - the heavy emphasis on multi-layered melodies building the songs rather than long solos.
The compositions take you to different places, fortunately without becoming overly complex. You will hear references to some themes later on in the songs but there is rarely a repetition of sections. A vast array of different keyboard sounds offer different layers and solo sections, tastefully alternated with guitar melodies and riffs.
Maybe it is Norway, but the dark mood that comes from Kornmo's music fits the stereotype. And I like dark music, a mood that reaches much deeper than happy music, at least that's the way it feels to me. And this melody-laden delivery managed to grab my attention real well.
The two albums have separate song titles but almost all segue into the next. It makes the albums a complete listening experience, and when you hear that, the term "project" makes sense. In several cases, I had no idea that the next song had started. I even made a few attempts at watching the music player to see when the next track was played, but I got lost in the music every single time. This is a testament to the musician's ability to create albums that manage to keep your attention all the way through in a single listening experience. It also makes clear that this is what this band, sorry, project is about. Perhaps we should regard these albums as concept albums, single compositions. They deserve to be listened to this way.
Although there is a lot of variety throughout, both albums get a little heavier with a slightly stronger emphasis on the neo-prog elements in their second halves - the first one starting with Fallvind, the second with Kveld. It's rather like carefully composed and structured story-lines.
I found they make good music for travelling, which is when I listened to the albums the most. They are also the ideal soundtrack for a late-night glass of whisky, when the dimmed light and headphones leave almost nothing as distraction. Or listening through headphones at work, with great melodies soothing and no voice distracting from work.
When comparing these two albums, I prefer the second one. It's as if the band has grown, but maybe more in arrangements and production than songwriting. There is a little bit more contrast between the quiet and heavy sections, or there are more heavy sections which my taste seems to prefer. While the keyboards still produce a large variety of sounds, the guitar has more presence than on the first album.
One bit of critique might be that compared to the variety of keyboard sounds, the electric guitar used is mostly the same style or tone. Adding a bit more variety in that department would make the music even better. I am very much looking forward to their next effort but these first two albums will keep me happy for a long time.
Mater Thallium — Mirroring Whirlwinds
Born in 2013, Mater Thallium came into the world in Trondheim in Norway, a country well known for its contributions to the metal scene. Having released two albums and two EPs before this one, they have been a very active band in the last 6 years. In their own words, they formed to celebrate the dark rock of the likes of Candlemass, King Crimson and Black Sabbath.
Opening track of the latest album Mirroring Whirlwinds is an interesting blend of chaotic yet structured prog, soft passages and an overall dark sound. I'd say they have managed to achieve their goal with this track alone.
Having a similar sort of vibe to the likes of Cockroach King by Haken, the album has a catchy, almost playful nature while maintaining the chaotic essence of their brand of modern-old-school prog. It is prog rock as it should be. Very chaotic but very controlled, with a place for everything and everything in its place. To me, it basically sounds like what you would get if you took the Mirrors section of 21st Century Schizoid Man and elongated it.
At the half-way mark, Fading Faces takes the standard place of a ballad on the album. It's a welcome pause from the insanity of the rest of the album, allowing you a minute to breathe before climbing back in.
All in all, Mirroring Whirlwinds is a dark, fun, playful and chaotic album. Like any good prog rock album should be! If you appreciate the old prog legends like King Crimson, ELP, or newer prog like Haken or Opeth's more recent releases, definitely have a listen to these guys.
Eddie Mulder — Victory
Victory is the fifth solo album from Dutch guitarist Eddie Mulder, his fourth of original music, coming a year after the career retrospective of Waves. Like that album, Victory also contains a live solo acoustic performance, this time from the 2018 Atkins Dadi Guitar Festival at Pieve di Soligo, Italy. The live material is sandwiched between seven new studio recordings. Anyone familiar with Mulder's previous work, both solo and within the well-established and highly-regarded prog bands Flamborough Head, Trion and Leap Day, will know just how accomplished a guitarist Mulder is, on both electric and acoustic instruments.
The sheer quality of his playing is highlighted in the live material which, unlike on Waves, are all new compositions. Mellow and contemplative pieces - Strange Beauty, After The Work's Done, The Longing - are mixed with jolly ditties - More Than Enough, Easy Going - and stunning masterclasses of texture and beauty - Get Going, No More Suffering, Demi - that are all flawlessly played.
The studio material includes three more acoustic numbers: Victory, Dark Rose, and Goodbye For Now.... The latter two tracks are solo performances that link nicely with the live material. Goodbye For Now... provides a beautiful summation and closing of the album, while Victory features some lovely double bass courtesy of Oeds Bouwsma. The title track in particular infuses a warm and soothing atmosphere where the bass and guitar complement each other perfectly.
The remaining four tracks all feature keyboard player Edo Spanninga and drummer Albert Schoonbeek who perform with Mulder in two of his other musical endeavours (Flamborough Head and the Pink Floyd tribute band Pink Faces, respectively). Just An Ordinary Day and Mountain View have a Camel-like vibe with a relaxed tempo and excellent production that allows all the instruments to be heard with great clarity. I particularly enjoy the way that the Hammond organ and final guitar solo on Mountain View are pushed back in the mix so that they don't dominate but add texture. Incidentally, this track also features some additional keyboards from Leap Day's Gert van Engelenburg.
Van Engelenburg also appears on Jigsaw which has the proggiest arrangement on the album, ranging from an acoustic 12-string introduction with shades of early Genesis to synth parts that have echoes of Greenslade. The emphasis is on style with considered delivery of the instrumentation. The quality is maintained on Memoir with multiple keyboard layers including some lovely electric piano. Antony Kalugin (Sunchild and Karfagen) provides additional keyboards on this track.
If you'll excuse the pun, the whole album is a victorious mixture of class instrumentals by a composer and guitarist who is at the top of his game.
Sleeping In Traffic — That Which Saves Us
Sleeping In Traffic — That Which Destroys Us
Sleeping In Traffic is an Edmonton, Canada band with punk, prog metal, and death metal influences. I don't know if the band's name is in any way inspired by the two-part (two album) epic by the former Swedish progressive band Beardfish. I can be certain, though, that the band has a strong interest, and perhaps obsession, with science and its promise to cure all problems affecting humankind and our planet, from disease and pollution to global warming.
Sleeping In Traffic present their ideas on these subjects in two simultaneously released EPs, That Which Saves Us and That Which Destroys Us.
That Which Saves Us is the lighter of the two EPs, both musically and lyrically. The sound is generally prog metal with a pop-punk vocal delivery. The 'Saves Us' element of this EP is clear from the opening track, Through Method And Rigor, a paean to the discipline and virtues of science. The track builds nicely from an angular guitar arpeggio into a heavy and singable chorus, promising that "through curious vigour we'll map out the stars and heal all our cancers".
Fungal Symbiosis has some nice musical moments, and there's an endearingness to the celebration of fungi: "Praise be to the beings who dispose of all the dead". As the EP continues, though, any hint of playfulness is gone by False Alternatives, replaced by anger at an unnamed "you" who doesn't share the group's pro-science orthodoxy. Rather than attempt to persuade or inform, the band hurls righteous contempt at "you" with wince-worthy couplets like "Vaccines eradicate so much disease / but you'd rather destroy herd immunities". The last track on That Which Saves Us is six minutes of instrumental filler, which actually comes as a relief after the previous lyrical battering.
The second EP, That Which Destroys Us, is the heavier of the two, dialling up both musical frenzy and lyrical venom. This set explores similar themes to the 'Saves Us' EP, though angrier and more often in a death metal or metal-core style. And while there's a good riff here and there and some interesting rhythmic sections, the tracks on this second EP rarely seem to crystallise into anything memorable or cohesive.
Unsurprisingly, the band's lyrics are not any more appealing when growled or spat. And it's possible that I missed some good instrumental elements on the second EP while rolling my eyes at the crude and one-sided diatribes against humankind and toxic aggression. Or their rant about an irrational mathematical equation that "will bring about our own downfall".
Both EPs get so bogged down with the unrelenting condescension of the lyrics that there is little room left for anything musical to shine through. It's a shame, though possibly the band's intent, and thus I can't recommend either EP to anyone who isn't primarily interested in hearing an angry, repetitious sermon on scientism rather than interesting music.
Wheel — Moving Backwards
Out of nowhere appeared this quartet early in the year and they prove once again what stunning musicianship comes out of Scandinavia. It's a debut and every time I listen to it I have to keep that in mind, because the quality of their material is so incredibly brilliant, some respected, long-time artists pale in comparison to these rookies.
Wheel somehow manage to combine heavy rock, grunge and progressive metal and meld that into a catchy cinematic form. The use of complicated but groovy, Tool-esque drum patterns is one main ingredient of their formula and their melodies and guitar licks and riffs remind a lot of Soen. But unlike said influences, the songs contain incredible dynamics, ranging from rather ambient moments to bursting shout outs.
They never cease to amaze and a broad range of variety between the songs ensures that the album never gets boring and remains unpredictable, so one always wonders what will come next. Indeed, like a roller coaster ride, the listener goes through ambient moments of fragile guitar licks of a very warm, but eerie tone. Great, unconventional vocal melodies and harmonies of advanced music theory add to that, and the songs soon turn into heavy, angry outbursts of rage and anger before calming down again. But even when the moments are heavy as heavy can be, the vocalist always remains human and keeps it melodic, unlike so many others who think it needs screaming or grunting. Wheel prove that this isn't necessary.
But it's their unconventional way of putting the pieces together that makes Wheel so unique. It's the agile way in which the drummer plays a groovy but complicated tapestry under the ambient, mellow guitar arpeggios and melodies. The way in which the guitars add simple but effective leads to the ambient, taking the track to where the thunder breaks loose is in a class of its own. Also, keeping the aggressive shout-outs at a human and sympathetic level, is something metal seemed to have lost. But the most brilliant moments are the arcs with which the outbursts come to an end and the song's mood calms to a rather mild ending in which the anger fades away, making room for the next topic and song.
A couple of years back, progressive metal was considered to be at an end but luckily, again and again, there are fresh bands that find ways to add new spins and directions, so that the genre never becomes dull. Wheel are one such band, reinventing it brilliantly, and I hope that these chaps keep on producing such fresh and energetic, yet cinematic music!