Amon Sethis — Part 0: The Queen With Golden Hair
With a band name like Amon Sethis, a passion for early Egyptian history, and a distinct middle eastern flavour to their music, you may assume this is a band from an Arabic region, but the band all hail from France. Amon Sethis have been around since 2007 in various line-ups, but the constant throughout their history has been the presence of singer Julien Tournoud and guitarist Oliver Billoint. They have released two previous albums which are all based on the legend of The Seventh Dynasty. I will not even try to summarise this story, as it takes place over many decades, and involves as many twists and turns as a Shakespearian epic.
Part 0: The Queen With Golden Hair, is part of a trilogy, but in a twist taken from Star Wars, the third release turns out to be the prequel. Rest assured you do not have to have heard the previous two albums to enjoy what Part 0 has to offer. If anything, as Amon Sethis have developed, their production skills have improved, so this latest offering is the best produced album of the trilogy. This is not to say that the previous two albums are not worth a listen, in fact Part 0 impressed me enough that I ended buying the whole trilogy, and have enjoyed the story progression, along with the music.
So, to the music. Amon Sethis manage to keep the middle eastern vibe throughout the album, without it dominating the end product. The album is, without any apology, out-and-out progressive metal, and as such, is a very good example. Due to the middle eastern sounds, the obvious comparisons to Orphaned Land can be heard. Add to this the classic riffing of Iron Maiden, laced with a liberal dose of the melody of Symphony X, and the drama of early Queensryche, which will hopefully provide you with an idea of what awaits the listener.
But take heed. Do not try and listen to this album as something casual or as background music. The listener is required to fully immerse themselves into the music and the story, in order to achieve maximum enjoyment. The album, at nearly 80 minutes is a challenge, but the result of being fully absorbed in the story is worthwhile.
The use of guest vocalists to portray some of the characters helps in breaking-up the experience. This is not to say Julien, who takes the majority of the singing, is not good. Far from it, he has a voice which is able to portray many emotions, adding to the drama of the record.
Credit needs to be paid to “invisible” sixth member of the band, Elliott Tordo, who is credited as being responsible for the mixing and mastering, and the orchestral and vocal arrangements. Without Elliott's contribution, The Queen With The Golden Hair would not be as good an album as it is. Just listen to the glorious and bombastic album intro, The Legacy From The Past, with its operatic vocals and classical drama which transported me to the past, and reminded me of the panoramic scenes of the original Ben-Hur movie. Elliott's involvement can be heard throughout the album, and it must have been a labour of love, as the result is astonishing.
For those who are enticed by novelty items to add to your music collection, Amon Sethis are also releasing all the trilogy albums, as well as an additional album of rarities and remixes, housed in a purpose-made pyramid. This makes an unusual item to sit with your CDs; something to become a talking point for any visitors. This is limited to 60 units, so make haste to grab one if you are interested.
This is an album which deserves to be heard. If you devote the effort to become absorbed by the concept, you will be rewarded with an epic story, told with equally epic music.
Evergrey — Escape Of The Phoenix
Sweden's Evergrey have been pouring out their brand of dark, powerful progressive metal since the mid nineties. One of the most consistent bands in the scene, Enter The Phoenix is their twelfth studio album, and the third in a trilogy of albums that began with 2016's, The Storm Within. The band's line-up has remained the same since 2014, with Jonas Ekdahl on drums, Rikard Zander on keyboards, Johan Niemann on bass, Henrik Danhage on guitars, and the man-mountain himself, Tom S. Englund on guitars and vocals. Tom being the band's only-remaining original member.
If you're already familiar with Evergrey, and you damn well should be, you'll know exactly what to expect from this record. Huge, heavy riffs, emotional, melodic vocals, atmospheric keyboards and soundscapes, and a driving, powerful rhythm section, all the while never forgetting to write mid-length, catchy metal songs with massive guitar solos. Add to this some of the best production you're likely to hear from any band in the genre, and you have one hell of a recipe for success. Evergrey are absolute masters of their art, they always have been, and this is exactly the kind of album you'd expect them to throw out.
Escape Of The Phoenix is filled with the kind of headbanging anthems we've come to expect from Evergrey. The level of song writing and articulation here is easily on a par with any of their previous works. Evergrey's back catalogue is hotly debated among their fans. I'm not certain I could pick a favourite either. They all seem to fall into the category of either good, or absolutely excellent, and this is no different.
There is barely a dull moment throughout this album's almost 60-minute running time, and there are some songs that are easily going to become live favourites, such as the insanely catchy single, Eternal Nocturnal, or the similarly punchy, Where August Mourns.
There are also some slightly more laid-back tracks that have a hidden beauty that initially doesn't reveal itself. Only after repeated listens do you notice the little touches that make the songs stand out. Leaden Saints is a good example of this with its stunning chorus and haunting atmosphere.
One of the things that does make this album stand out is its ridiculously brilliant production. Evergrey have always had the budget and the know-how to make their records sound good, but this is their best yet. Every single instrument, vocal line and sample is able to be heard clearly, even during the album's most complex moments. Tom's vocals are not too high in the mix, which is a common problem that modern metal bands seem to be plagued by, instead they sit almost within the guitars, perfectly showcasing Tom's unique voice with maximum effect.
The keyboards are subtle yet always present, occasionally flurrying into a Dream Theater-style solo, but mostly they serve as a layered back-up to each song, adding melodies and atmosphere to the chugging guitars. The drums and bass are both satisfyingly chunky. The bass is particularly prominent, especially if you're using headphones. This is how you do modern prog metal production, along with Threshold, I would say Evergrey are possibly the best-sounding band in the world right now.
All this would be a waste of energy if Everygrey were rubbish at writing songs, wouldn't it? But no, Everygrey are far from rubbish at writing songs, in fact, it's one of their strong points. I actually find it hard to fathom how one band can write so many consistently good songs album after album. If there was ever a band who literally have no "bad" songs, it's Evergrey.
They've never quite written a masterpiece either though, and you won't find one here. What you will find, is 58 minutes of very, very good heavy metal songs, smothered in beautiful melodies, huge riffs, blistering guitar solo's and dark, haunting lyrics.
There are many highlights, Forever Outsider gets things going, and while it's not quite as strong of an opener as A Silent Arc was, from their previous album, it still sets the scene perfectly.
Stories opens as if to suggest a ballad approaching, but it soon erupts into a brutally beautiful chorus, the down-tuned guitars roar like truck engines and Tom's melancholic voice washes over everything like a waterfall of melody. The Beholder features guest vocals from Canadian crooner James LaBrie, from some band who are apparently well known. He does a fine job of adding a new dimension to this nicely mid-paced track. As previously mentioned, Eternal Nocturnal is the album's centrepiece and lead single, and it's one of the best sing-along metal anthems the band have ever written. The chorus is simply magnificent. The strings do a great job of backing up the melodies and the song is carried by a powerful, driving guitar riff that never lets up.
I would say that this is more than just "another Evergrey album". This one took a little time to grow on me. At first it was just another record by 'that' band, but it's become one of my favourite albums of the year so far, and the more I hear it, the more I find to like about it.
There are two tracks in particular that I didn't really pay much attention to at first, that have become two of my favourites. Firstly, and as also previously mentioned, Leaden Saints is an absolute beast of a song, it crept up on me over the course of many listens, but once it sinks in, it's easily one of the best tracks here. The guitars are at their most melodic, the chorus just flows into the song almost from out of nowhere, and the haunting piano parts are just blissful.
Next is the album closer, Run, and I couldn't think of a more fitting track to complete this album. This song is just wonderful in every way imaginable. The chorus is one of the strongest of the whole record. The way it slows down in tempo is almost perfection, and the vocals and guitars are at their most delicate here. This is the most emotional song on the album. I absolutely love it.
What can I say? Everygrey have done it again. Is this their best album? Probably not, but it's another brilliant collection of almost flawless Everygrey songs that will almost certainly delight fans. As a starting point I'd probably recommend 2019's The Atlantic over this, but this might just be the stronger album overall. Where Everygrey go from here is definitely going to be interesting. I'd love to see them experiment a bit, maybe go into a more progressive style, longer tracks, but maybe that's just not their thing. If they continue to release albums as good as this though, I'll have few complaints.
Lucas Lee — Síndrome de Estocolmo
Two years ago Lucas Lee (guitar, bass, keys) released Lower Expectations, a strangely-appealing but 'not easy to swallow' album, which after several indoctrinations slowly-started to release its underlying beauty. Meanwhile shimmering humour in both the music and the artwork answered Frank Zappa's ever present question (Does humour belong in music?) with a wacky, affirmative answer.
Lee's newest endeavour, Síndrome de Estocolmo (Stockholm Syndrome) sees a continuation of instrumental (prog/metal) rock fusion extraordinaire, that once again sees the formidable talent of Marco Minneman (The Aristocrats, McStine & Minneman) tying together the complex melodies through his groovy, rhythmic virtuosity that adds a spontaneous feel of dense vibrancy.
The previous satirical aspect, that included the remarkable title Please Do Not Squat On The Toilet Seat, is replaced by frighteningly-outspoken seriousness. Dead serious if one takes into account the ambiguous song titles and the artwork that successfully reflects the psychedelic tendency of a hostage to bond/connect/sympathise with his/her captor on many wavelengths.
Lee proves to be a master at subconsciously implementing/provoking thoughts through complex melodies, hiding subtleties underneath the surface of his multi-layered compositions. It is music that grabs hold and slowly reveals its inner beauty as it reels you in. Or is it the other way around, as it slowly invades ones system, penetrating ever deeper into a comfortable mindset? Either way, the end result is hauntingly impressive.
The cinematic opening track The Final Insurgence immediately sets the scene, as it creates a psychedelic tension which can be cut with a knife; making The Shining feel like child's play. With fuzzy bass once again bringing delightful similarity to Max Webster, the energetic seventies fusion-rock brings elements of King Crimson and Zappa, while the unsettling piano accents, crowing birds and alienating vocals add mysteriousness amidst the rhythmic challenges before swing jazz, steamy rock and a delicious synth-solo slowly descend into a deserted, ambient atmosphere.
In Power Trip Career Aspirations expressive psychedelics and cumbrous doom structures slowly gain intensity leading to a heavy prog passage with rhythmic eruptions, riff accelerations, forceful bass and thriving percussion. The fusion rock, surrounded by Zappa enlightenments and formidable guitars ends with subcutaneous brainwashing signals that once again emphasise the enigmatic nature of Lee's compositions.
Graciously Talking Points steps down the complexity ladder and feels ever so delicately light in comparison, where mild fusion and lovely conversations on guitar and synth bring vibrant comfortability. A wondrous memory arises of Max Webster's Sun Voices through its delicious keyboard solo.
Lee's eclectic soundscapes require labour to fully fathom, if one achieves success at all. The quiet cheerfulness of Hollowing Defeat initially brings reflection that gradually builds into experimental psychedelics which unlock an infinite musical variety of mind corridors. Likewise Inevitable Union of Contentious Factions shows slight experimentalism with dynamical diversity, strangely uplifting melodies and rugged carpets of intense build-ups.
Finally it's Stockholm Syndrome Symptoms that brings fuzzy Battlescar bass (Max Webster), frightening melodies and superb fusion rock surrounded by tantalising synth escapades. Once peeled-free from the wallpaper-thick sophisticated melodies, it's the serene, dark atmosphere and rainy loneliness that brings ease and relief.
The clarity in sound and balance from the production brings a clear spatial dimension to the music that gives it depth and brings out the technically sublime individual instrumentations.
After his previous attempt, my expectations weren't low to begin with and Lee, in alliance with Minneman, has raised them even higher with this wonderfully-paradoxical album. It's a very enjoyable piece of work and I'll gladly volunteer for his next venture. Good folks who enjoy intriguing instrumental prog/metal/fusion with a twist, should certainly give this album a try.